Friday, July 16, 2021

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Recently, as I walked abroad on a sunny afternoon, it occurred to me that I had not read "Adlestrop" in quite some time.  I have no idea why this thought arose.  Was it because I was walking beneath a canopy of leaves, surrounded by birdsong?  ". . . And for that minute a blackbird sang/Close by, and round him, mistier,/Farther and farther, all the birds/Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire."  Perhaps.

In any case, I resolved to return to "Adlestrop" that evening.  But the truth is that it has never left me, nor have I left it, after having stumbled upon it forty or so years ago, after which I became steeped for a long period of time in the beauty and the melancholy of Edward Thomas' poetry.  Each of us carries these worlds inside of us, don't we?  Having made my resolution, I walked on.  Within a few minutes, this came to me:


It was a time when wise men
Were not silent, but stifled
By vast noise.  They took refuge
In books that were not read.

Two counsellors had the ear
Of the public.  One cried 'Buy'
Day and night, and the other,
More plausibly, 'Sell your repose.'

R. S. Thomas, H'm (Macmillan 1972).

Nearly fifty years have passed since "Period" was published.  Here we are.  It is a good time to sit down and read "Adlestrop."

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "Little Park, Lyme Regis" (1956)

I sometimes feel that the sadness and tragedy of Edward Thomas' life has come to overshadow his poetry.  Which is why we need to read his poems.


Yes.  I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly.  It was late June.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Adlestrop -- only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems (edited by Edna Longley) (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

The origins of the poem can be traced back to an entry in one of Thomas' "field notebooks":

"24th [June 1914] a glorious day from 4.20 a.m. and at 10 tiers above tiers of white cloud with dirtied grey bars above the sea of slate and dull brick by Battersea Park -- then at Oxford tiers of pure white with loose large masses above and gaps of dark clear blue above haymaking and elms.

"Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.

"Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willowherb and meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel -- looking out on grey dry stones between metals and the shining metals and over it all the elms willows and long grass -- one man clears his throat -- a greater than rustic silence.  No house in view  Stop only for a minute till signal is up.

"Another stop like this outside Colwell on 27th with thrush singing on hillside above on road."

Edward Thomas, Ibid, page 176 (punctuation (or lack thereof) as in original text).

A vanished world.  Even then, Thomas knew it was a world that was vanishing.  Thus, the beauty and the melancholy.  (Although the source of both in Thomas' life was a great deal more complicated than that.)

Gilbert Spencer, "The Cottage Window" (c. 1937)

I am wary of reductiveness when discussing a poet's poems. Moreover, long-time (and much appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my two fundamental poetic principles: "Explanation and explication are the death of poetry."  (The second, for those who may be curious, is: "It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.")  Accordingly, I am tempted to leave "Adlestrop" as it is.  In a time when the world appears to be taking leave of its senses (which is always the case), it is enough that it appear here for a few souls to read.  Civilization has always been preserved by a handful of the quiet, patient, and devoted.

Still, I will offer a thought about what lies at the heart of Edward Thomas' poetry, of its beauty and melancholy and truth.  We live evanescent lives amidst the beautiful particulars of a flitting, fleeting World, a World that will outlast us.  A moment is all we have.  We should be attentive and grateful.  Hence, "Adlestrop."  Hence, nearly every poem that Thomas wrote.

     Bright Clouds

Bright clouds of may
Shade half the pond.
All but one bay
Of emerald
Tall reeds
Like criss-cross bayonets
Where a bird once called,
Lies bright as the sun.
No one heeds.
The light wind frets
And drifts the scum
Of may-blossom.
Till the moorhen calls
Naught's to be done
By birds or men.
Still the may falls.

Edward Thomas, Ibid.  The poem was written in June of 1916.  Ibid, page 303.

"No one heeds."  "Still the may falls."  Exactly.  We owe the World our attention and gratitude.

Gilbert Spencer, "Wooded Landscape"

I am drawn once more to a thought that has appeared here on several occasions: "If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present."  (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.4311, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by C. K. Ogden).)  An alternative translation (by David Pears and Brian McGuinness): "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present."

It would seem that we now find ourselves "stifled/By vast noise." There is nothing new about this.  Only the bedlamites making the noise change.  We should never surrender our repose to them.  Which is likely why I felt the need to read "Adlestrop."  Which is why I often return to a waka written more than a thousand years ago:

To a mountain village
   at nightfall on a spring day
      I came and saw this:
blossoms scattering on echoes
   from the vespers bell.

Nōin (988-1050) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 134.

Gilbert Spencer, "From My Studio" (c. 1959)