Thursday, June 21, 2012

"The Aspens At The Cross-Roads Talk Together"

Long-time readers of this blog may have noticed that, when Robert Frost's name comes up, I am likely to think of Edward Thomas.  And vice-versa. Thus, not surprisingly, Frost's "Tree at My Window" (which appeared in my previous post) got me to thinking about one of my favorite poems by Thomas.

Again, the subject is talking trees.  Please note the final stanza and, in particular, the final line, which are pure Thomas and pure Frost.  It is easy to understand why, after Thomas's death, Frost wrote:  "Edward Thomas was the only brother I ever had."  The stanza provides, I think, a great deal of insight into the characters of both men.

                    Edward Bawden, "The Temple of Concord, Audley End"


All day and night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy, and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.

Out of the blacksmith's cavern comes the ringing
Of hammer, shoe, and anvil; out of the inn
The clink, the hum, the roar, the random singing --
The sounds that for these fifty years have been.

The whisper of the aspens is not drowned,
And over lightless pane and footless road,
Empty as sky, with every other sound
Not ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,

A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom,
In tempest or the night of nightingales,
To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.

And it would be the same were no house near.
Over all sorts of weather, men, and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.

Whatever wind blows, while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree.

Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

                                 Edward Bawden, "Craigievar Castle"

Thomas wrote "Aspens" in July of 1915.  It was among a set of poems that he sent to Frost that month.  In a letter to Thomas commenting on the poems, Frost wrote:  "Your last poem 'Aspens' seems the loveliest of all." Selected Letters of Robert Frost (1964), page 185.

Thomas also sent a copy of the poem to Eleanor Farjeon.  After receiving her comments on the poem, Thomas wrote back to her on July 21, 1915:

"About 'Aspens' you missed just the turn that I thought essential.  I was the aspen.  'We' meant the trees and I with my dejected shyness.  Does that clear it up, or do you think in rereading it that I have not emphasized it enough?"

Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (Oxford University Press 1958), pages 152-153.

A final note:  "the night of nightingales" is very risky, but very lovely.

                                 Edward Bawden, "The Bell Inn" (1939)


Bovey Belle said...

Ah, this is an indulgence for a wet Welsh morning. It is a beautiful poem - and I'm not surprised Frost liked it as it has a cadence which is very much present in his own poems.

I'm surprised he had to spell it out to Eleanor though.

Like you, I love "the night of nightingales" - it recalls to me the nightingales singing in our Damson trees when I was small and wanted them to shut up so I could go to sleep . . .

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: thank you for stopping by again, and for your thoughts.

I too wonder about Farjeon's comments. In her book she usually only includes Thomas's letters to her, but not her letters to him, so I don't know what she wrote.

Your mention of Damson trees brought to mind a poem by Leslie Norris (another Welsh poet) about Thomas called "Ransoms." (Different flora, but I guess the similar sounds brought it to mind!) If you are not familiar with the poem, I posted it here on April 18, 2010. (I'm sorry, but I don't know how to provide a link in this format.)

WAS said...

This is poetic mastery that makes one wonder what if – such smooth yet unpredictable cadence, such perfect but unexpected rhymes, the way the “w’s,” “s’s” “v’s” and “r’s” all mingle and repeat in a symphony of consonance. And what of the sense? The aspen grove is both larger than human society and far away – heard but only reluctantly, as a grieving that it apparently is not. I’m struck by the contrast in the aspen’s incessant “s” sound between the call of the poetic, the mystical, the dead, and the fact that aspens (a very deliberately chosen tree!) only exist in the collective. This individual “I”, the separate aspen, is impossible. The contradiction is inherent in the tree, and in us. It is our larger selves calling from the oneness, but it’s outside the grasp of humans in the darkness of our separate lives on the ground. Thomas wisely doesn’t take it beyond this point.

I do love the way you often bid Frost and inevitably raise Thomas, and Thomas is usually the higher card.

Fred said...


Oh yes, that last line-if it had been presented alone without attribution, I would have sworn that it was Frost.

Bovey Belle said...

I shall riffle through the pages of Eleanor's letters tonight, and see if I can find a reference.

Off to check out your other post now.

Bovey Belle said...

Stephen - I can see I shall have to go back through every entry for Edward Thomas as I have just flitted through on my way to 18th April and the Ransoms poem by Leslie Norris (a stranger to me). I have the Keble-Martin book . . . one of the first books on Botany I ever bought in fact. I've always known them as Ramsons though and happy memories of Dorset walks scurry back to me in connection with the flower.

The photographs accompanying the poem are surely taken in the beautiful woodland just above his memorial on Leg of Mutton Hill. We were there only last year, at that time (see entry around 4th/5th May 2011). Thank you for the link.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts. I appreciate your articulation of the many layers of the poem. Although I don't consciously intend to bid Thomas against Frost!

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: thank you for that comment -- I actually had the same thought when I was writing the post! The last line definitely could be Frost, both in the words themselves and in the twist they provide at the end of the stanza. The two of them really were kindred souls.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: thank you for your follow-up comments. I'm pleased that Norris's "Ransoms" has some nice associations for you. In addition to poetry, he also wrote short stories, which I think you might like.

Thank you very much for the reference to your posts on your Edward Thomas walk! The photos are wonderful. I had never seen photos of his name on the World War I monuments in the village and at the church before. And the etched glass by Laurence Whistler is lovely. (By the way, I have posted a couple of poems by him here.)

I hope to make that trip someday!

Thanks again.

archy said...

I wonder if there is a link between Edward Thomas 'becoming' those aspens and Andrew Marvell's projection of his soul into a tree in 'The Garden': 'Casting the body's vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide'. One aspect of Thomas' appeal for me is what I have thought of as his ability to step out of time and picture himself from the outside, as it were, but the Marvell came into my head while I was out walking, and I wondered. Perhaps they both practised this 'exteriorization', consciously or otherwise.

Stephen Pentz said...

archy: thank you very much for visiting again, and for your comments.

I greatly appreciate the reference to Marvell's poem: I hadn't thought of that connection. Given Thomas's deep knowledge of English poetry, I suspect that he was well aware of the poem, and had thought about it at length. I wouldn't be surprised if "The Garden" worked its way into his poem, be it consciously or subconsciously.

Your observation about Thomas picturing himself from outside is insightful and thought-provoking. As intimate as his poetry is (not in the sense of being "confessional," but in the sense of being deeply personal and honest), one does get the feeling that, at the same time, he is looking at things with detachment (although that may not be the right word), or, as you say, from outside (and above). In any event, I see what you are getting at, and I think that you are right on target. This bears more thought on my part!

Again, thank you very much. It is always good to hear from you.