The Poetry of Edward Thomas
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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.

 

What accounts for the enduring charm of ‘Adlestrop’? ‘Yes. I remember Adlestrop.’ The first word of the first line is crucial in its unexpectedness. Is there another poem in the English language that begins so? Keats’s ‘Ode on Melancholy’: ‘No, no, go not to Lethe.’ A little run of pleading repetition, quite different from Thomas’s monosyllable. ‘Yes’. It is an unattached affirmation. Sealed off by a full-stop. It establishes a dialogue with exemplary economy. It is an answer to a question about memory, and the nature of memory, as much as about place. Without that ‘yes’, the first line would be about place only.

Memory is always a filling vacuum, as we know from Proust – gradually everything comes back. The texture of the bathing towels at Balbec. The noise of a tapper testing the wheels of a train. Here, though, what is coming back is another vacuum, a blank, a non-event, what Seamus Heaney in ‘Sunlight’ calls a ‘sunlit absence’. On the one hand, a name, specific, tinged with mild comedy. On the other hand, a vividly recalled emptiness: ‘No one left and no one came / On the bare platform. What I saw / Was Adlestrop – only the name.’ Then the memory develops like a Polaroid: the station name has a train of micro-attachments. ‘Willows, willow-herb, and grass, / And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry.’ A diminuendo of detailed recollection, followed by a blackbird singing, followed by sounds not actually heard but ‘remembered’: ‘all the birds / Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.’ Hence, on this ‘afternoon / Of heat’ and sun, the key adjective ‘mistier’ to signify the poet’s invention and embellishment.

There are perhaps three finished, fully realised poems of modest perfection by Edward Thomas – ‘Adlestrop’, ‘Tall Nettles’, ‘As the Team’s Head-Brass’. Then there is the naturalist now and then putting us in touch with the earth, with touches of accurate observation, soothing our nostalgia for nature and the beauty of the banal: ‘by the roadside the grass / Long-dead that is greyer now / Than all the Winter it was.’ It isn’t pretty, even when it seems to be. It is content to be authentic: ‘Bluebells hid all the ruts in the copse, / The elm seeds lay in the road like hops.’ He reminds us of chestnut blossom ‘curdled to one sheet’ on the mill-pond. ‘The scum / Of may-blossom’. Ruts. Curdled. Scum. ‘The milkers lace their boots up at the farms.’ ‘The dust on the nettles’, paths dinted with hobnails, a ploughman ‘scraping the share’ before he ‘screwed along the furrow’. ‘An apple wasps had undermined.’ The grasshopper working ‘his sewing-machine’. ‘Odours that rise / When the spade wounds the root of tree.’ Of tree?

‘The Wasp Trap’ ends with a flourish:

 

Nothing on earth,

And in the heavens no star,

For pure brightness is worth

More than that jar.

 

But before this mundane, democratic, counter-intuitive epiphany, we read: ‘This moonlight makes / The lovely lovelier / Than even before lakes / And meadows were.’ The sense isn’t clear. Thomas appears to be saying that things are made lovelier by moonlight than they were almost before creation, before lakes and meadows existed. In fact, Thomas means only that by moonlight lakes and meadows are lovelier than they were before. The line’s sense demands re-ordering: even lovelier than lakes and meadows were before.  Advocates of Thomas’s poetry seldom draw attention to its many obscurities.

Thomas reminds us of what we once knew, the Heimat that is childhood. Here he is on old, abandoned birds’ nests: ‘That leaves and berries fall into: / Once a dormouse dined there on hazel-nuts, / And grass and goose-grass seeds found soil and grew.’ What precedes this ordinary magic, this lore, is poetic incompetence. First, this unexploded dud: ‘low or high in tree, / Or hedge, or single bush, they [the nests] hang like a mark.’ Like a mark. Breath-taking, like the arcane information that nests are to be found in trees, hedges, and bushes. (What about larks’ nests in the grass?) Consider this stanza:

 

Since there’s no need of eyes to see them with

I cannot help a little shame

That I missed most, even at eye’s level, till

The leaves blew off and made the seeing no game.

 

Thomas missed most [of the nests] until the autumn leaves fell. Now you hardly need eyes to see them with. There is a rhythmic problem here. After the rather plodding iambs of the first two lines, the third and fourth lines are unceremoniously derailed. The rhymes wouldn’t look out of place in a local newspaper. We are often asked to admire Thomas’s subtle ear. This is evidence for the prosecution.

(A single exception to the unanimous quiet appreciation of Thomas’s ear: in her notes to ‘Tears’, Edna Longley remarks on the ‘flat opening statement and the clogging monosyllables of line 2 with its awkward double parenthesis’. But this is the only pebble on the beach. There is a multitude to choose from. In reality, it’s Aldeburgh shingle from end to end. For example, ‘This is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong’, Thomas’s meditation on the Kaiser, war and obnoxious patriotism: ‘Dinned / With war and argument I read no more / Than in the storm smoking along the wind / Athwart the wood.’ Eh? It might be Brodsky mangling the English language. Dinned. A dud neologism, an alternative to ‘deafened’. And what does the rest of it mean?)

This is the last stanza of ‘Sunlight’, one of two introductory poems to Seamus Heaney’s North:

 

And here is love

like a tinsmith’s scoop

sunk past its gleam

in the meal-bin

 

There are two, sometimes three, stresses in each short line. Heaney tells us that this quiet description of his aunt Mary baking scones contains love. But it is a modest, occluded emotion which is not on show. Its analogue, the ‘gleam’ on the scoop, is there but hidden. Just as the word ‘meal’ is hidden in the word ‘gleam’. The letters reciprocate. The bravura effect here is more visual than aural, a sort of brilliant dyslexia.  It is an encrypted rhyme.

We all know Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and its rebuke to tyrannical hubris – the ironical imperative, ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’. Fragmentation and destruction. However, the sonnet also contains an aural warning against our own triumphalism, a hint that tyranny isn’t so easily extirpated. A single sound survives and runs continuously through Shelley’s poem. It is the sound of ‘and’: An antique land; vast and trunkless; Stand in; on the sand; And wrinkled lip; And sneer of cold command; The hand that mocked them and the heart; And on the pedestal; Ozymandias; And despair; boundless and bare; the lone and level sands. Seventeen repeats by my count. Undercover, underground, in disguise – survival, continuity. And not end.

It’s a sonnet. On the one hand, full rhymes: land, sand, command. On the other, half-rhymes: stone/frown; appear/despair/bare. So, certainty and uncertainty. No clinching couplet. The pattern subtly undermined, as the central argument is undermined.

We read Edward Thomas for something else – not for virtuoso aural effects, rather for what Matthew Hollis, quoting a line from ‘As the Team’s Head-Brass’, has called ‘skilfully awkward’ monosyllables. The line in question – ‘If we could see all all might seem good’ – seems conversational in rhythm and commonplace in sentiment. The bigger picture, a wider perspective. The syncopated repetition is authentic but unremarkable. Thomas aficionados argue that Thomas’s marriage of speech to the poetic line, of prose fused with metre, owes less to Frost’s experiments and theory than has been supposed. Edna Longley writes: ‘But Thomas was soon to become more than Frost’s apostle.’ I don’t see how it is possible to hold this position when Thomas wrote to Frost as follows (19 May 1914): ‘you really should start doing a book on speech and literature, or you will find me mistaking your ideas for mine & doing it myself. You can’t prevent me making use of them: I do so daily & want to begin over again with them & wring all the necks of my rhetoric – the geese. However, my “Pater” [Walter Pater: A Critical Study, 2013] would show you I had got onto the scent already.’ I think the priority is clear. Frost has the theory for poetry. Thomas merely wishes for something more natural in prose, in literature. To have the scent of a fox doesn’t mean you’ve run it exhausted to earth.

As a poetic theory, Frost’s ‘sound of sense’, the idea of breaking irregular speech cadence over a regular line of verse, is original, as Frost was well aware. Only the sentimental chauvinist would try to give Thomas priority. We aren’t dealing with Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. But Thomas’s champions routinely overstate their case. Remember that Frost had already written ‘The Death of the Hired Man’ in North of Boston, his second book. It was published very shortly after the two poets met for the first time. Frost had worked out his methods and principles and put them into practice. Thomas’s experiments are hesitant. He works, as Frost advised, from prose passages and produces what Larkin accurately called Thomas’s ‘fitful, wandering line’. We are also instructed to value the prose source less than the poetry it became. This is not as obviously axiomatic as we are frequently assured. For example, which is better, the prose of ‘the long, tearing crow of the cocks’? Or the versified elevation of ‘two cocks together crow, / Cleaving the darkness with a silver blow’ [of an axe]?

Which of these is better?

 

Look at the old house,

Outmoded, dignified,

Dark and untenanted,

With grass growing instead

 

Of the footsteps of life,

The friendliness, the strife…

 

The strife, the padding for the rhyme. The footsteps of life! And the prose version: ‘the moss is beginning to encrust the gravel for the soft feet of the ghosts, of the old men and the mothers and the maids and the schoolboys and tottering babes that have trodden it once.’ Not great, but better.

Thomas is often clumsy. Not a problem for F R Leavis whose position seems to be that clumsiness is next to Godliness. This is Leavis on Hardy’s poetry: ‘even if the verse has little intrinsic value, Hardy’s great poetry is a triumph of character… the touch that there may still be about the poem [‘The Voice’] of what would normally have been rustic stiffness serves as a kind of guarantee of integrity.’ As Hardy, so Thomas. The critic acknowledges the ineptitude and translates it as a lack of glibness, a snub to mere facility.

This critical over-ride is a miracle of perversity, a shared communal delusion. Here is Thomas’s ‘Beauty’ with its ‘love’/ ‘dove’ rhyme and its suddenly transfigured testy impatience. Thomas is in a temper: ‘I sit and frame an epitaph – / “Here lies all that no one loved of him /And that loved no one.”’ The Thomas enthusiasts hardly ever mention his obscurity or his awkwardness. The lines of the epitaph need glossing and re-ordering: Here lies all of him that no one loved and who loved no one. The obscure placing of ‘of him’ is a requirement of the rhyme with ‘whim’ in the next line. The last thing you could call this is colloquial speech. It has the authentically crippled quality of amateur poetry. Thomas then changes his mood:

 

Then in a trice that whim

Has wearied. But, though I am like a river

At fall of evening while it seems that never

Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while

Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,

This heart, some fraction of me, happily

Floats through the window even now to a tree

Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,

Not like pewit that returns to wail

For something it has lost, but like a dove

That slants unswerving to its home and love.

 

Edna Longley passes her verdict on this dazed syntax, staggering from rhyme to rhyme, as it expounds the idea that Thomas’s temperament is like a sunless river (‘while it seems that never / Has sun lighted it or warmed it’) until some part of this river becomes a dove, not a pewit… An expository catastrophe, you might think, but acclaimed by Edna Longley: ‘such a battery of resources for understatement, or complex statement, argues a formidable command of syntax and its interplay with metre.’ She is the person wearing her balaclava backwards, having pulled the wool over her own eyes.

No one seems willing to draw attention to Thomas’s ‘mirth’/ ‘earth’ rhyme. He uses it five times. The river (in ‘The Source’) ‘Bellows like a giant bathing in mighty mirth / The triumph of earth.’ Mighty mirth. In ‘Digging’: ‘It is enough / To smell, to crumble the dark earth, / While the robin sings over again /Sad songs of Autumn mirth.’ A paradox, but not enough to rescue ‘mirth’. In the other ‘Digging’: ‘What matter makes my spade for tears or mirth, / Letting down two clay pipes into the earth?’ Why either?  Next up, ‘Liberty’: ‘With what is imperfect, with both tears and mirth, / With things that have an end, with life and earth.’ Finally, ‘The Other’: ‘And with a solemn quiet mirth, / An old inhabitant of earth.’ There is also a ‘scorning’ / ‘morning’ rhyme – but only twice.

Is it the sad, ironic lineaments of Thomas’s biography – the rapid realisation, poetic fulfilment, just before the untoward death – that incline readers to magnify his achievement? Like Violetta in La Traviata singing that life returns to her – at the very moment she dies. Is it the opera in the life that persuades us to go easy on the succession of ineptitudes that makes up the poetic oeuvre? In ‘The Gallows’, Thomas the naturalist describes a gamekeeper’s gallows quasi-balladically without an iota of the vividness we find in Ted Hughes’s ‘November’: ‘There was a weasel lived in the sun / With all his family, / Till a keeper shot him with his gun / And hung him up on a tree…’ With a gun. In the sun. Hughes: ‘The keeper’s gibbet had owls and hawks / By the neck, weasels, a gang of cats, crows: / Some, stiff, weightless, twirled like dry bark bits // In the drilling rain. Some still had their shape, / Had their pride with it; hung, chins on chests, / Patient to outwait these worst days that beat / Their crowns bare and dripped from their feet.’ Beside this, we can put Thomas’s wordy euphemism for ‘killed’: ‘this keeper / Made him one of the things that were.’ My incredulous italics.

It’s no better in ‘That Girl’s Clear Eyes’: ‘Every one of us /This morning at our tasks left nothing said, / In spite of many words.’ Not that we wrote or spoke to no purpose. Rather, in spite of the resources of language. In ‘The Sheiling’, we encounter ‘the travelling air’. Wind to you and me. Thomas is stretched by the simplest forms. So it is no surprise in ‘Out in the Dark’ that we should encounter this exhausted botch, given the requirement to rhyme the same sound five times:

 

And star and I and wind and deer

Are in the dark together, – near,

Yet far, –  and fear

Drums on my ear

In that sage company drear.

 

In that sage company drear. Desperate. Thomas the rapper. But in its way, no worse than ‘The Other’, where we read: ‘but never-foamless shores / Make better friends than those dull boors.’ Here Thomas is making enquiries of pub customers about his Doppelgänger. How is it that generations of English poets and critics have accepted the periphrasis ‘never-foamless’ for ‘stormy’? Often presented as a poet’s poet, Thomas is rather the second-rate poets’ poet, a proxy figure, a superstitious talisman for their own endangered efforts.

 

 

 

 

 


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