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)


Nikki Hardin said...

I think I discovered "Adelstrop" through your blog and recently came across the reading by Richard Burton. I included it in my own weekly newsletter, hoping it might touch at least one person as deeply as it did me. Thank you.

Nikki Hardin said...

Ugh, I think I misspelled Adlestrop in my comment. I hate when I make a mistake like that!

Thomas Parker said...

One phrase from "Adlestrop" contains the essence of any poem worth reading: "And for that minute." I sometimes think that the true difference between the worthy and the unworthy (or good and evil, even, forgive the grandiosity) is that one permits us to have that irreplaceable minute for ourselves and the other demands that we yield it to them for their own purposes.

Unknown said...

Hello, Stephen. Just writing to share my joy in today's post. Addlestrop is fore er with me. Your tboughts have renewed my enthusiasm for this small miracle. How many gems are in this poem? "For that minute," As you say, it so treasures the present moment. The beautiful list of wild flowers and trees seems to go on forever. The same with mistier, farther and farther :not just is included Oxfordshire, but all of the world. Thank you so much for all of your marvellous posts and paintings. I am in Glasgow, and love to see some Scottish artists occasionaeincluded. This post waa particularly welcome as it seemed long time in thd coming. Best wishes, Arthur

Bovey Belle said...

Thank you for feeding my soul tonight Mr Pentz. It was fed this hot afternoon by a visit to a forgotten hayfield which is now a nature reserve, and an unexpected discovery of a famous soul seeing out the ends of time beneath the turf of the churchyard equally forgotten.

I once drove past the turning to Adlestrop- as I have probably mentioned before. I was unable to stop then, but perhaps that is best - I cannot capture the past, any more than Edward Thomas could capture and destroy the demons that haunted him. Perhaps it is best to know it only as he did.

I agree with you that so much deconstructing of what caused Edward Thomas' depression and melancholy that we miss the simple beauty of his work. In Adlestrop and in Bright Clouds he captures a moment when . . nothing happens, and writes about it so that it haunts our memories too. Words are so powerful - I have only to see the swoop of a Swallow to remember Hardy's lines from "Overlooking the River Stour" - 'The Swallows flew in the curves of an eight, Above the river-gleam, In the wet June's last beam, Like little crossbows animate, The Swallows flew in the curves of an eight, Above the river-gleam.' Then I am back at Sturminster Mill, watching them . . .

It is a time of Willowherb and Meadowsweet here, and the world and his wife are making hay - Thomas would have appreciated that.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Hardin: Yes, "Adlestrop" is a poem you immediately feel like sharing once you discover it, isn't it? I can still remember my excitement at finding it, and wanting to share it with someone. Of course, back in those ancient days, one didn't have blogs or emails, so it was not a simple matter to share it. A telephone call over a land line, a meeting with a friend, writing a letter. Imagine that. That wasn't such a bad life, after all. (By the way, no need to fret about the misspelling: easily done.)

Thank you for sharing Richard Burton's reading of the poem, which I wasn't aware of. I received an added bonus tracking it down: a recording of Helen Thomas at the age of 90 (in 1967), recalling her first meeting with Edward, and their first walks together in the then-countryside around London. Quite touching to hear her voice, and to hear her talk about him.

As always, thank you very much for visiting. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: I completely agree with your thought about "And for that minute," and how it applies to poetry, and to life in general. Speaking for myself, I think one's appreciation of "that irreplaceable minute" (to use your fine phrase) is something that deepens and becomes more and more important the older one gets. Time seems to move faster and faster, and the awareness of that quickening gives us a shake to the shoulders: "Pay attention to what is right in front of you before it is too late." This is what a good poem does.

Which does not mean that one is not prey to distraction, of course. The "vast noise" that R. S. Thomas refers to. And you are quite right about the demands of that which is "unworthy" and "evil." Best to let it all go. A daily struggle.

As ever, it's good to hear from you. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Arthur: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post and the blog. I agree with you entirely: "Adlestrop" is indeed "forever." It's wonderful to consider how this quiet moment of beauty has had an impact upon so many people for over a hundred years now. It certainly puts things in perspective, doesn't it? It's nice that both you and Mr. Parker focus upon "And for that minute." It was that aspect of the poem that prompted the thoughts that led to the post.

I'm pleased you like the paintings by Scottish artists that have appeared here. James McIntosh Patrick comes immediately to mind, but there have been numerous others as well, which I'm pleased you have noticed. And don't forget the Scottish poets: Norman MacCaig and George Mackay Brown, for instance. I've been hankering to return to them lately. (And I shouldn't forget Edwin Muir.)

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and for visiting again. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: It's very nice to hear from you again. Thank you for your kind words about the post. Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy have brought us together often over the years, haven't they? I'm delighted that you are still visiting, and that we are still sharing our love for the two of them.

It's lovely how you have brought them together in your comment. (And just when I've been visiting Edward Thomas, you've now got me thinking that I owe T. H. a visit as well!) Thank you for reminding me of "Overlooking the River Stour," with its repeating couplets in each stanza. (And a nice coincidence as well: a moorhen makes an appearance in Hardy's poem, just as it does in "Bright Clouds.") You are right: their poems create their own memories and associations, don't they? One needn't be in Adlestrop or by the River Stour to have the poems return to us with new depths. This is one of the wonderful things about poetry, and about so many of Thomas' and Hardy's poems.

Again, thank you for your presence here over the years. I hope that all is well with you and your loved ones. Take care.

Anonymous said...

I've written before about "Adlestrop", which my mother shared with me, probably when I was around ten years old. It's been important to me ever since, and is indeed a perfect poem to revisit at this noisy time. I don't know whether I also wrote you that I was finally able to see and hear a blackbird, when I was visiting my son and his family in Prague in 2018. That happier time seems distant now, but not the thrill I felt encountering a blackbird.
"Bright Clouds" is not in my book, "The Poems of Edward Thomas". The title makes me think of Samuel Palmer.
I was, however, able to find "Overlooking the River Stour" in my fathers "Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy". As you have said, what a pleasure it is to discover a new poem of Hardy's, and how many of them there are to discover. That one is a particular pleasure. Don't tell me ET hadn't read it!
No flower-strewn meadows for me here in NYC, but I did see one today in a picture my son sent from an excursion with their wonderful dog Timmy outside Prague. I'm happy for their good fortune in being there now.
Very Best Wishes Susan

Anonymous said...

"Civilization has always been preserved by a handful of the quiet, patient, and devoted."
Thank you for the encouragement. Julia

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I apologize for the inexcusable delay in posting, and responding to, your comment. As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you, but other matters have intervened, so I am catching up both in responding to comments and in making a new post.

Yes, it is indeed a "noisy time," isn't it? But I suppose all times are noisy, aren't they? Unfortunately, we are now beset with technology which amplifies and spreads the noise 24 hours a day. Refuge is necessary. And, as you say, a poem such as "Adlestrop" offers refuge (and truth and beauty where they are otherwise absent).

Your anecdote about seeing and hearing the blackbird is lovely. (I remember the red-winged blackbirds along the edges of swamps and lakes from my childhood in Minnesota, but that's another bird altogether, isn't it?) I am reminded of Wallace Stevens' "Autumn Refrain" (which I'm sure you know), in which he writes about Keats' nightingale: ". . . not a bird for me/But the name of a bird and the name of a nameless air/I have never -- shall never hear."

I hadn't thought of the connection between "Bright Clouds" and Samuel Palmer: he has two similar paintings along those lines, doesn't he: "The Bright Cloud" and "The White Cloud," as I recall. Both of them lovely.

Yes, as we have discussed, Hardy is inexhaustible, isn't he? As for Thomas and Hardy: he wrote several perceptive (and generally favorable) reviews of Hardy's poetry collections. I have never forgotten one of Thomas' comments about Time's Laughingstocks and Other Poems (I have pulled the book in which the review appears from my shelf in order to make sure I get the text correct): "The book contains ninety-nine reasons for not living. Yet it is not a book of despair." I always smile when I think of that. Thomas indeed knew his Hardy. And he certainly knew from personal experience about "ninety-nine reasons for not living," sad to say.

Again, I apologize for the delay in posting, and replying to, your comment. It sounds like all is well with you, which is good to hear. As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. Take care.

Stephen Pentz said...

Julia: First, please accept my apologies for the delay in posting, and responding to, your comment. Second, thank you very much for your kind words. I think many of us need "encouragement" these days, given the state of the world. I know that I do, which is why I try to keep things in perspective. As Susan said in her comment, we live in a "noisy time," and it falls to some of us to try to preserve what is ultimately important, regardless of the senseless clamor.

Again, thank you very much for your thoughts, and my apologies for the delay.