Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Stranger

On several occasions in his poetry and prose Edward Thomas describes enigmatic meetings with strangers encountered during his walks through the countryside.  I use the word "enigmatic" because, although I take it on faith that the strangers actually existed, one also comes away with the feeling that Thomas has encountered a doppelgänger.  The strangers are not of the Other World, nor are they menacing.  Rather, they carry with them a sense of mystery and melancholy.  Which sounds a great deal like Edward Thomas himself.

In his poem "The Other" Thomas never actually meets the stranger. Instead, Thomas inadvertently discovers, through conversations with innkeepers, that someone resembling him has just passed that way. Thomas soon finds himself dogging the stranger's footsteps. The poem is too lengthy (at 110 lines) to post in full.  But here is the second stanza:

I learnt his road and, ere they were
Sure I was I, left the dark wood
Behind, kestrel and woodpecker,
The inn in the sun, the happy mood
When first I tasted sunlight there.
I travelled fast, in hopes I should
Outrun that other.  What to do
When caught, I planned not.  I pursued
To prove the likeness, and, if true,
To watch until myself I knew.

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

"To watch until myself I knew" is a quintessential piece of studied ambiguity by Thomas.  As is:  "What to do/When caught, I planned not." Is he the pursuer or the pursued?  Or both?  (Ambiguity worthy of Robert Frost.  But more on him later.)

John Nash, "The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall" (c. 1958)

The poem ends with this stanza:

And now I dare not follow after
Too close.  I try to keep in sight,
Dreading his frown and worse his laughter.
I steal out of the wood to light;
I see the swift shoot from the rafter
By the inn door: ere I alight
I wait and hear the starlings wheeze
And nibble like ducks: I wait his flight.
He goes: I follow: no release
Until he ceases.  Then I also shall cease.

I don't wish to overwork the image, but notice the reference to leaving "the dark wood" in the second stanza, as well as "I steal out of the wood to light" in the final stanza.  Dante's selva oscura comes to mind.  But we needn't go that far afield:  dark woods are a recurring element in Thomas's poetry. "Out in the dark over the snow/The fallow fawns invisible go."  ("Out in the Dark.")  "The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark."  ("The Combe.") "The green roads that end in the forest."  ("The Green Roads.")  "Dark is the forest and deep, and overhead/Hang stars like seeds of light/In vain." ("The Dark Forest.")

And, speaking of doppelgängers, dark woods inevitably bring to mind Robert Frost.  "One of my wishes is that those dark trees,/So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,/Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom,/But stretched away unto the edge of doom."  ("Into My Own.")  And, of course:  "The woods are lovely, dark and deep."  ("Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.")  With each year that passes, my appreciation for the continual conversation between Thomas and Frost (a conversation that did not cease with Thomas's death) grows and grows.

John Nash, "The Barn, Wormingford" (1954)

A few days ago I came across one of these strangers in Thomas's The Icknield Way.  It is evening, and Thomas is walking southwest through the downs beyond Dunstable, Bedfordshire.

"The air was now still and the earth growing dark and already very quiet. But the sky was light and its clouds of utmost whiteness were very wildly and even fiercely shaped, so that it seemed the playground of powerful and wanton spirits knowing nothing of earth.  And this dark earth appeared a small though also a kingly and brave place in comparison with the infinite heavens now so joyous and so bright and out of reach.  I was glad to be there, but I fell in with a philosopher who seemed to be equally moved yet could not decide whether his condition was to be described as happiness or melancholy.  He talked about himself.  He was a lean, indefinite man; half his life lay behind him like a corpse, so he said, and half was before him like a ghost.  He told me of just such another evening as this and just such another doubt as to whether it was to be put down to the account of happiness or melancholy."

Edward Thomas, The Icknield Way (1913), page 137.

Thomas then recounts the stranger's story.  He had been "digging all day in a heavy soil."  Then, at evening, he heard "a woman's voice singing alone somewhere away from where he stood.  He forgot who and where he was." The singer "was among the dark trees."  The singing went on for a while, then stopped.  He heard the sound of "a low laugh drawn out very long an instant afterwards."  The woman never appeared.

"He shivered in the cold.  The last dead leaves shook upon the beeches, but the silence out there in that world still remained.  She was walking or she was in her lover's arms, for aught he knew.  No sound came up to him where he stood eager and forlorn until he knew that she must be gone away for ever, like his lyric desires, and he went into his house and it was dark and still and inconceivably empty."

Ibid, pages 142-143.

With that, Thomas concludes the stranger's story.  The next sentence brings his encounter with the stranger to an end:

"As I turned into the inn and left him he was inclined either to put down that evening half to happiness and half to melancholy, or to cross out one or other of those headings as being in his case tautological."

Ibid, page 143.

Again, I take it on faith that this stranger who Thomas "fell in with" on the Icknield Way actually existed.  But I think that he bears more than a passing resemblance to Thomas.  "He was a lean, indefinite man; half his life lay behind him like a corpse, so he said, and half was before him like a ghost."  This is Thomas through and through.  As is:  "he was inclined either to put down that evening half to happiness and half to melancholy, or to cross out one or other of those headings as being in his case tautological."  Thomas was never one to be easy on himself.

John Nash, "The Garden" (1951)

The stranger's story of the elusive, mysterious singing woman finds its parallel in a poem by Thomas.

          The Unknown

She is most fair,
And when they see her pass
The poets' ladies
Look no more in the glass
But after her.

On a bleak moor
Running under the moon
She lures a poet,
Once proud or happy, soon
Far from his door.

Beside a train,
Because they saw her go,
Or failed to see her,
Travellers and watchers know
Another pain.

The simple lack
Of her is more to me
Than others' presence,
Whether life splendid be
Or utter black.

I have not seen,
I have no news of her;
I can tell only
She is not here, but there
She might have been.

She is to be kissed
Only perhaps by me;
She may be seeking
Me and no other: she
May not exist.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems.

This sounds a great deal like the stranger's "lyric desires," doesn't it?  Yet Thomas was, if such a thing exists, a realistic romantic.  To wit:  "this dark earth appeared a small though also a kingly and brave place in comparison with the infinite heavens."

Earlier in The Icknield Way, Thomas engages in a bantering conversation with another stranger about the possibility of living on the moon.  Thomas says: "I should like to try."  The stranger responds: "Would you?"  Thomas replies:  "Yes, provided I were someone different.  For, as for me, this is no doubt the best of all possible worlds."  The Icknield Way, page 115.  Or, as he says in another poem:  "There's nothing like the sun till we are dead." And Frost has something to add here as well:  "Earth's the right place for love:/I don't know where it's likely to go better."  ("Birches.")

John Nash, "Autumn, Berkshire" (1951)


Anonymous said...

Martin Swords has a clever poem about his taking a walk with Robert Frost (see below).

Frost of course is not a doppelganger of Swords, but the poem, whatever its defects, put me in mind of the walks Frost and Thomas used to take, Frost saying once that "The Road Not Taken" was prompted by Thomas, on the walks he took with Frost, never being to make up his mind which fork to take.

Overcast but warm,
The day dry, unusually.
Walking the woods with the dogs
As many times before.
Lucy and Tig, away in the rough dark deep,
Yipping with the scent of deer, excited.
Ruby, river scrambling, biting
At the bogwater, wagging, from the shoulders back

Along the old familiar track, into
The clearing where the roads diverge.
I stopped and stood. Which way to go?
Think of another Poet, and roads not taken.
Yes, I’ve been here before. This way I came.
That way I saw a squirrel once.
And down that way a badger
Straight on, the Mill Pond where ducks dabble.
Behind me then a stag, stares my way, and
Startled, slips into the wood.
I think again of Robert Frost and look a different way.
I stand a while. I turn, retrace my steps, recall, relive,
I’ll write this down, and this will be
The road I’ve taken

Bovey Belle said...

Thank you for this wonderful posting, as you have had me deep in ET's poetry and biographies about him, which is never a hardship.

Whilst I am probably prompted by Edna Longley's thoughts on this topic, and the Freudian overtones of "the other person" psychologically, I do tend to agree with them. I think the "darkness" - especially of woodland -in his poetry, which is a recurring theme, is connected with an inner darkness in himself, where light and hope are both snuffed out.

I think I understand him well enough to sense a degree of self-flagellation of the soul. Nobody hates him as well as he hates himself, which I have doubtless mentioned before. I think he was probably bi-polar as he exhibited some of the symptoms - exhaustion, then manic walking and working, was very self-critical and is forever taking out his faults and analysing them - not that it will ever make any difference for he seems not able to change into the person he would really like to be. "The Other Man" at the beginning of "In Pursuit of Spring" begins by asking Thomas about the books he has written, and then starts to ramble and sounds exactly like Thomas, abusing his notebooks and the fact that he did not LIKE writing, right down to discussing his digestion! Thomas has bemoaned elsewhere being "just a hack writer" . . .

Whilst you could argue that Thomas uses this "doppelganger" as a device in his poetry, and of course in his prose as well - both "In Pursuit of Spring" where it is the backbone of the book and in "The Icknield Way" of course, as you have shown us, - I am still inclined to think that his depression is at the bottom of it. Perhaps that had been influenced both by sheer overwork and by the opiates he had sometimes taken to help himself. There is a passage in "The Icknield Way" where he rambles on ad infinitum about rain until he sounds half-mad . . .

Hmmm - I think I have talked myself into a corner again, but I hope some of what I feel . "Dreading his frown and worse his laughter" - was he ever truly happy I wonder?

Steven Docker said...


I just wanted to say thank you for a wonderful posting. Frost has long been one of my favourite writers, and, through previous articles (by you) and reading Frost I found Thomas who is now also one of my favourite writers. Maybe it's due to my being in the part of my life where "… and half was before him like a ghost"; maybe it's the melancholy nature of the writing; it doesn't really matter.

The line "… and he went into his house and it was dark and still and inconceivably empty." is just magical, so I'm off to read The Icknield Way.

Kind regards,

Steven Docker

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the poem by Martin Swords, who is new to me. I hadn't thought of that option!

You've also prompted me to return to Thomas's lovely poem about the walks he took with Frost: "The sun used to shine while we two walked" -- "The fallen apples, all the talks/And silences."

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: I always appreciate hearing your thoughts on E.T., since you know and love him so well. Yes, I suspect "melancholia" is at the bottom of it all. But, then, who of us isn't acquainted with melancholia to one degree or another? But I realize that E. T.'s was an extreme case. Which may be why so many of us are attracted to him and his work.

I'm glad you mentioned the passage about rain in The Icknield Way: somewhat obsessive, yes, but wonderful. I think that he ultimately got a poem or two out of it, didn't he?

And, speaking of The Icknield Way, I think the part of the book that may be most self-revelatory is the extended story about "A. A. Bishopstone" and his impoverished family (pages 237-247). Harrowing! But I cannot help but see what attracted Thomas to the family's fate. "We are looking for straight oak sticks in a world where it is hazel that grows straight." (Page 244.) Thomas claims to have read this in "Bishopstone's" journal. Hmmm . . .

As always, it is good to hear from you. Thank you very much for your thought-provoking comments.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Docker: Thank you very much for the kind words, and for visiting again. I'm pleased to have helped in part to introduce you to Edward Thomas. His relationship with Frost was a wonderful one, wasn't it? I've always thought some sort of Divine Providence (whoever one's God or gods might be) brought them together in that time and and in that place. It seems so improbable.

I do hope you pick up The Icknield Way. Please note the story about "A. A. Bishopstone" that I mentioned above in my response to Bovey Belle's comment. Thomas's travel writings are very beguiling in that way: he goes from fairly straightforward reportage about his itinerary into sudden diversions of the type that appear in my post. I agree with you about the loveliness of the phrases you quote. And I too can identify with: "and half was before him like a ghost." Although I'm afraid that, realistically, it is less than half for me!

Thank you for stopping by again, and for the kind words, which I greatly appreciate.

Girders said...

I expect that over the past weekend, many of us have been drawn back to reflect on Owen's 'Strange Meeting' -- a melancholy journey of a very different kind. The identity of the 'enemy' is much disputed, but at least one view is that Owen sees himself in his face.

Stephen Pentz said...

Girders: Thank you very much. I hadn't thought of "Strange Meeting" in this context, so I appreciate your bringing it to us. And, as you say, it is an appropriate time to visit the poem in any case.

It is very good to hear from you again.