The poem Adlestrop by Edward Thomas is often included in lists and anthologies of favourite poems written in English. Part of the poem’s popularity might lie in its appeal to those nostalgic for a lost England of steam trains on branch lines. Where the lines still in place and operable, such a stop might now result in a backdrop of cell phone conversation and overspill from headphones and laptops rather than birdsong and a hiss of steam. This ‘lost’ England was also a place in which, lest we forget, there was no universal suffrage, child mortality was high and many lived lives of unrelenting hardship.
Thomas’s poem, now over a hundred years old, is easy on the eye and ear. It’s rhymes and rhythms are subtle and supple, its charm is enigmatic, its construction apparently effortless. And in contrast to many of Thomas’s other poems, there is a lack of the darkness and intimations of mortality that shadow much of his work.
The critic Adam Philips suggests that Thomas has remained popular partly because he offers ‘an alternative, more accessible tradition of English poetry to the more ‘difficult’ cosmopolitan Modernist poets.’ However the man behind the poem was himself ‘difficult’, complex and conflicted, and a sense of this complexity imbues even his most apparently simple work.
Aldous Huxley, R.S Thomas, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, among others, considered Thomas to be one of England’s most important poets. Andrew Motion says that Thomas occupies “a crucial place in the development of twentieth-century poetry”. Thomas does occasionally use the archaic diction of his Victorian and Georgian contemporaries. However, it is what John Lehmann described as the ‘intensity of his vision’ and his personalized voice that gives his poetry what Motion calls ‘a modern sensibility.’
This ‘modern sensibility’ may be also be in part due to the profound sense of solitude that arises from Thomas’s work. With regard to Adlestrop, we know that Thomas was accompanied on the journey that gave rise to the poem by his wife Helen. Yet the only human presence acknowledged in the poem is that of the invisible person who clears his throat. Solitude has been identified by the critic J.P Ward, as one of the principal themes in Thomas’s poetry. Ward suggests that Thomas might be described as an early existentialist. Regardless of whether one might consider this label to be accurate, it is probably true to say that the sense of an awareness of individual isolation in Thomas’s poetry is a factor in its enduring appeal.
Thomas had a long apprenticeship, not as a poet, but as a writer of literary criticism, descriptive prose, stories, biographies, and an autobiographical novel. Some ten years before he wrote his first successful poems, he was ruminating on poetics and writing comments such as these, published in the Daily Chronical.
‘The best lyrics seem to be the poet’s natural speech’ and, this from 1904;
‘About matters of the spirit, men are all engaged in colloquies with themselves. Some of them are overheard, and they are great poets.’
Thomas began to concentrate on writing poetry when he was thirty-six by which time his experience gave him something to write from. A year or so earlier, his low self-esteem and depressive illness (Thomas apparently considered committing suicide more than once) had led Thomas to seek medical help. Matthew Hollis suggests that the resulting period of early psychoanalysis as a trial patient encouraged Thomas ‘in a method of self-inspection that would prove essential in his development as a writer’.
In his essay Feminine Influence on the Poets, from 1910, Thomas writes ‘The Chief influences of our lives are unconscious, just as the best of our best work is.’
Though Freud’s psychoanalytic theory was relatively new, Thomas would have been receptive to the idea of accessing the unconscious mind, perhaps via his study of and admiration for Coleridge, who had been interested in the emerging German philosophy of his own time and is credited with introducing the term ‘unconscious’ into the English language.
Also vital to Thomas’s technical skill as a poet was the extensive knowledge of literature in general (and specifically poetry) gained during his work as a literary critic. In addition, he had the vocabulary of the expert in the natural and rural landscape at his disposal, as well as his experience of immersion in that landscape during his many long walks and cycle rides, some of which are recorded in his recently republished travelogue In Pursuit of Spring.
In 1913 he wrote
‘For the last hundred years, ideas and the material of ideas have come to the reading classes mainly through books and bookish conversation. Their ideas are in advance of their experience, their vocabulary in advance of their ideas.’ When he eventually began to write his own poems, Thomas was able to draw on the great trinity of ideas, life experience and specific vocabulary. However, it was a combination of self-belief (engendered by the poet Robert Frost) and hard work that finally enabled Thomas to combine these attributes and produce an extraordinary number of poems between 1914 and his death at the age of 39 in the spring of 1917.
‘Spell’ seems to be a good word to use when considering the poem. While maintaining an enigmatic quality, the poem is not obscure but ‘spells out’ an experience in clear, plain, mostly ‘everyday’ language. Concentrating on sound, sight, and sensation, it evokes a spell or brief period. The time span in question is not only the stop between stations in midsummer 1914, but is also a symbolic pause between peace and the outbreak of world war one, approximately a month later. It is a pause in which there is nothing much happening, although the war that will mean disaster for millions, including the poet Edward Thomas, is on the horizon. The narrator is suspended between places and through his description the reader is invited to pause too; to be still for a short spell; to fall beneath the same spell that Thomas fell under. There is a sense of consciousness; of a mind at rest but receptive, unengaged in thought but open to the sensations of the moment. The poem might be described as a series of moments where the reader is able to share what in modern parlance might be described as a state of ‘mindfulness’. I think the poem’s greatness lies beyond nostalgia and sentiment, although these elements certainly help; instead it lies in the capture of moments of ‘being’.
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 is happening in these sixteen lines?
The title is a good place to start. Adlestrop is a memorable and interesting name. Scholars, biographers and readers, fascinated by the poem and keen to examine its origins, have poured over period timetables and debated the reason for the train’s apparently unscheduled halt. Much of this conversation and debate over the journey has been inspired by the word ‘unwontedly’ in the poem. Setting this aside for a moment, lets return to the title. Try this – ‘Yes, I remember Campden’. Is this as striking as the awkward to say (and therefore perhaps more memorable) Adlestrop? I don’t think it is. Whatever the facts of Thomas’s journey (and many people regard the poem as verbatim reportage,) he decided to use the name ‘Adlestrop’ in his poem three times; once as the title, and twice more in the body of the poem. What factors might have influenced this choice? Maybe it is because there is an echo or suggestion of the word ‘stop’ in ‘strop.’ Consider, also the ‘o’s’ which run through the poem from title to end. These are pronounced both ‘o’ as in ‘throat’ and ‘o’ as in ‘Gloucestershire’. Some contribute their rounded sound of the poem when read aloud, and others to its ‘knitting together’ when viewed on the page. In order of appearance these ‘o’ words are;
Adelstrop, one, afternoon, unwontedly, someone, throat, no one, no one, on, platform, Adlestrop, only, willows, willow-herb, meadowsweet, haycocks, no, lonely, couldlets, for, close, round, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire.
These constitute approximately a quarter of the words in the poem and I feel they contribute to a ‘slowing down’ in pace, since both pronunciations have ‘long’ sounds when read aloud.
The poem begins with a one word sentence. ‘Yes.’ Some versions have a coma after ‘Yes,’ but my copy of Edward Thomas Selected poems, edited by Matthew Hollis, has a stop after ‘Yes.’ And this is certainly, an arresting start, being not only a start but also a stop. A stop at the beginning to reflect the content of the poem.
It is as if the reader is allowed to listen in on a conversation that the poet is having with himself. By means of that opening ‘Yes’, we have the sense that a recollection is being shared, but not necessarily with ‘ us’ . The line ‘I Wandered Lonely as a cloud’ tells the reader what ‘I’ was up to. ‘Yes’, on the other hand, removes the self-conscious separation that comes with that opening ‘I’. In Wordsworth’s poem (and Thomas was a great student and admirer of Wordsworth) their is a sense of being told something rather than of discovering or entering into it. The ‘Yes’ at the beginning of Adlestrop seems to me to crucially alter the relationship between reader and writer, allowing an intimacy that would not occur if the poem simply begun ‘I remember Adlestrop’.
The next line is ‘The name’. Thomas doesn’t write ‘I remember Adlestrop, or at least, the name.’ He is remembering ‘the name’ and later ‘only the name’ (reiterated like ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’.) Thomas doesn’t want to hammer the point home, so he reinforces, in a subtle, conversational tone the image of the stilled train and its sign. The poem continues
‘…because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.’
After the tentative opening that suggests a recollection in progress, the ‘reporting’ element begins here and continues at pace. Note also, the word order; it would be more usual to write ‘one hot afternoon’ or ‘in the heat of afternoon’ but instead we have ‘one afternoon / of heat’. This word order is not only more interesting, concise and unusual; it also seems to make the heat more tangible – to allow us to experience it more vividly.
The line breaks serve to speed things along. Thomas doesn’t opt for the possible ‘one afternoon of heat’ (new line). Instead, he uses the more dynamic ‘one afternoon/ of heat the express-train drew up there’ . A languid feeling is conveyed by the words, but the fluidity and rapidity of the poem’s movement and our processing of it is dictated by that line break.
Here are Thomas’s original notes, written on a train journey on 24th June, 1914 and kept in the Berg collection in New York Public Library.
A glorious day from 4.20 am & at 10 tiers above tiers of white cloud
with dirtiest grey bars above the sea of slate and dull brick by Battersea
Park- then at Oxford tiers of pure white with loose longer masses above
and gaps of dark clear blue 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 & no man seen, only a hiss
of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass
willow herb and meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between two periods of travel –
looking out on grey dry stones between metals and shiny metals and
over it all the elms willows and long grass- one man clears
his throat-and a greater rustic silence. No house in view. Stop
only for a minute till signal is up.
Here, indisputably, is the genesis of the poem. Once the belief that he too could write poems, nurtured and encouraged by Frost, Thomas often returned to prose writings to ‘find’ a poem. Notebook entries would often be rewritten as prose, and then converted into drafts of poems. Later, Thomas missed out the intermittent phase of writing up his notes into prose, and utilised his notebooks directly to shape their detail in his poems.
This notebook entry is typical of Thomas, with its precise language and close attention to detail such as cloud shapes and colour, flora, fauna and birdsong. The notes also contain a feeling of distance, travel and of time passing, and it seems an increasing sense of wonder and immersion in the landscape as the train leaves the city behind and Thomas experiences his moment ‘between two periods of travel’ . There is also that clearing of the throat that is so clearly audible above the ‘extraordinary silence’.
The Campden Thomas refers to is the station at Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds, which together with Adlestrop station, was closed in 1966 as a result of Dr Beeching’s controversial reconfiguration of the British railway network. Returning to the poem, we find the word ‘Unwontedly’. Thomas’s use of this word has been much examined and debated. In an early draft of the poem, Thomas uses ‘Unexpectedly’. Perhaps the word ‘unwonted’ is an unexpected word. It is an unusual choice, and perhaps was rarely used, even a hundred years ago. It certainly does the job of stopping the poem in its tracks, appearing quite awkwardly at the beginning of a line . ‘..the express train drew up there/ Unwontedly.’
It is possible that Thomas chose ‘unwontedly’ over ‘unexpectedly’ partly for its sound (see ‘o’ sounds above). I suspect that the two ‘ex’ s in ‘Express’ and ‘Unexpectedly’, his original choice, make for a lot of ‘s’ sounds that alter the pace and mood of the poem and make it perhaps more impenetrable to both eye and ear. They seem to me to act together to give the poem a ‘shiny surface,’ that might cause the eye and ear to skate over them. ‘Unwontedly’ forces a pause. It is not only a more interesting and unusual word, but also allows Thomas to avoid the problem of the double sibilant ‘ex’ sounds, whose louder acoustic energy occurs at a higher frequency and perhaps would act against the idea of a brief peaceful idyll that Thomas is trying to evoke.
There has been much speculation (some of it bordering on the obsession) over the reason for the train stop. Some argue that it may have been to do with schedules not listing every stop, others suggest that signals at crossings or the need for a steam train to take on water may have been the reason. Ultimately, I don’t think the reason for the stop affects our enjoyment of the poem.
The fact the stop is ‘unwonted’ certainly brings a little mystery. Perhaps if Thomas had expected the stop he may have paid less attention to its elements. And the stop placed Thomas in his favourite time-setting, one which he explored in his poems again and again, namely, the period of transition.
As Michael Schmidt points out in his book ‘Lives of the poets’, Thomas poems are often set at the point of change; ‘ twilight, the point of change between seasons, or the present rendered vivid as the point between past and future, one felt as history, the other as potential.’ Schmidt continues ‘The poems mark transitions between emotions as well- the almost dark and almost light, the almost lost and almost found.’
Returning to the draft versions of Adlestrop, it is interesting to see that Thomas discards ‘T’was June’ from his first draft, instead opting for the modern ‘It was late June.’
In the third stanza we have this marvellous list. The ‘and’s’ between herb and grass and meadowsweet and haycocks perhaps serve to isolate and extenuate each item in the list, drawing attention to them in a way that separation by comas would not.
‘..willows, willow herb, and grass,/ And medowsweet, and haycocks dry’
Willow herb beside a train track
Farm labourers beside a haycock, early 20th century.
Thomas had been making prose notes of his observations of countryside for many years.
This, from The Woodland Life (1897) reveals that Thomas precise attention to the English landscape made him aware of its state of constant flux.
June 5 The first wild rose of the summer.
Several nightingales have ceased to sing.
At one time sand-martins built at the very edge of Swin-
don old town in ‘ the Quarries’ ; but frequent blastings and
the invasion of starlings and sparrows have exiled them.
Thomas was not a pastoral sentimentalist, but a highly knowledgeable realist with an appreciation of human interaction and its impact upon nature. It might be argued that his writing has more in common with contemporary ecological concerns than with most of the work written during his own time and perhaps in the intervening period. In his book ‘In Pursuit of Spring’ Thomas writes of his admiration for the way a Coleridge poem ‘ unites richness and delicacy, sweetness and freshness, sensuousness and wildness, spirit and sense.’
In the third stanza of Adlestrop
The haycocks are
‘No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky. ‘
These two lines are the most self-consciously ‘poetic’ and perhaps ‘Victorian’ or ‘Georgian’ in the poem, and perhaps stand out a little in contrast to the more modern conversational language and cadence surrounding them. An earlier draft of the poem has ‘were not’ in place of ‘no whit’. ‘No whit’ sounds concise and bright to my ear; a little more sprightly than ‘were not’, which is perhaps a little dull and static. ‘No whit’ is a phrase now replaced in English speech and writing by ‘no less’ or ‘not at all’. I suspect Thomas’s reasons for using it were partly to do with the way it chimes with the ‘I’ of ‘still’ and partly because it looks a bit like ‘white’, which of course readies the mind for the ‘cloudlets’. It is also possible that in using ‘whit’ Thomas is planting another association in the readers head; namely the ‘whitter’ of birds. If ‘No whit’ seems a little archaic now, it is worth remembering that the poem was written only
sixty years after Matthew Arnold began a poem with ‘Others abide our question. Thou art free.’ Interestingly, when I was looking for examples of archaic language to contrast with Thomas’s ‘modern’ verse, I notice another of Arnold’s poems ‘To Marguerite’ begins ‘Yes!’ A much more definite affirmation than Thomas’s opening ‘Yes,’ but a ‘yes’ nevertheless.
The poem concludes
And for a minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and father, all the birds
of Oxfordshire and Gloustershire.
After ‘Close by’ there is a broadening out, an expansion of the poem’s scope. The distant birdsong brings an awareness of the landscape beyond the small frame of the carriage window. Effectively, the perspective is widened from close up to panorama. This expansion allows the reader to gently enter or re-enter a wider reality, to leave the stopped train and its spell just as a film might end with a gradually ascending aerial shot or slow wide-angle sweep.
According to biographer Matthew Hollis, ‘The length of time from notebook to typewriter could be a few days or many months’, so it is quite possible that Thomas drafted the poem after his enrolment in the British army. ‘Adlestrop’ was published in the New Statesman three weeks after the poet was killed by a shell blast at Arras. Prior to his enlisting, Thomas had suffered from a well documented internal battle as to what his course of action should be. An awareness that the poem is set rural England on the brink of war undoubtedly adds to its impact. The context or subtext for all Thomas’s poetry is war. Unlike Rosenberg, Owen, Sassoon and so many others, Thomas didn’t write about the trenches or the front. Instead he wrote poetry of the ‘Home Front’; poems that connect obliquely to the war and with concerns about the nature of ‘home’ of those left behind and their profound sense of a world altered by absence. Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXIV (1914 written in Roman numerals such as might be carved on a memorial) is in many respects a sequel to Thomas’s Adelstrop:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The title poem of Larkin’s 1964 collection ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ which includes the poem can also be said to owe much to Thomas’s own ‘train’ poem. Larkin’s ‘three-quarters-empty train’ pulls out, ‘All windows down, all cushions hot’.
Another facet of Adelstrop’s appeal lies in its subtlety. Thomas wrote of Rupert Brooke, before his untimely death, that he was a ‘ rhetorician, dressing things up better than they needed’, and criticised his 1914 sonnets as an ‘attempt to connect with himself the very widespread idea that self-sacrifice is the highest self-indulgence’.
Thomas was older and more worldly than his friend or acquaintance Brooke, and certainly less susceptible to connecting with prevailing idealism and notions of heroism. He had his own (typically complex) reasons for enlisting, and in his essay ‘This England’ he says: ‘Something, I felt, had to be done before I could again look composedly at English landscape’. Thomas’s interest in developing poems that arose out of ‘natural speech’ combined with ability to evoke his experience of the countryside made his own work the opposite of the rhetorical style of many of his contemporaries. Adlestrop seduces and overtakes the reader in a way that seems almost covert.
The lack of ostentation and quiet understatement of ‘Adlestrop’ as well as its ‘heart of England’ landscape mark it out as a quintessentially English poem, although of course, both of Thomas’s parents were Welsh. Ivor Gurney perhaps described the poem most accurately and concisely when he called it ‘nebulously, intangibly beautiful’.
Anyone interested in Thomas and his work should certainly read ‘Now All Roads Lead To France’ by Matthew Hollis. Hollis concentrates on the final five years of Thomas’s life, in particular
his relationship with Robert Frost.
Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s 2015 biography From Adlestrop to Arras sheds further light on the man and his troubled life and difficult relationships. In the course of her research Moorcroft Wilson uncovered a letter from Thomas’s commanding officer revealing that the poet had died after being ‘shot clean through the chest’ . Up until the publication of the biography it was generally believed that Thomas had been killed when a shell exploded nearby and the blast left him without a mark on his body.
The Annotated Collected Poems perhaps provides the greatest sense of the poet and of his motivations and is essential reading for anyone interested in Thomas. It is Edited by Edna Longley and expertly reviewed here. You can also read Longley’s excellent article on Thomas’s ecological relevance here.
‘Under the same Moon: Edward Thomas and the English Lyric’ by Edna Longley is now available from Enitharmon Press.