No apologies for this month’s poem being another by Edward Thomas – he is probably my favourite poet, after all, and one reason why my son is called Tom. A week or so ago I realised that today – 24 June – is the centenary of his journey by train that stopped “unwontedly” at Adlestrop. So that made the choice for me. Cue a hurried bit of typesetting and printing to get it done in time for the anniversary.
Thomas was on his way, with his wife Helen, to stay with Robert and Elinor Frost near Dymock, in Gloucestershire. The train from London via Oxford that day, apparently, was not an express train, as the poem has it, but was indeed scheduled to call at Adlestrop, en route to Leddington. Never mind; a bit of poetic licence helps to give that halt the adventitious air that makes the piece so memorable.
The other thing that makes it such a favourite, of course, is the moment that gave it birth: the last, languid summer of innocence, as the cliché has it, before the cataclysm of the First World War. It’s worth recalling that just four days after the events – or rather, the eventlessness – described in “Adlestrop”, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown, was shot dead in Sarajevo, supplying the empire with the casus belli for declaring war on Serbia and triggering a domino effect that left much of Europe in flames.
Here’s what Thomas wrote in his journal that day: “A glorious day from 4.20 a.m. & at 10 tiers above tiers of white cloud with dirtiest grey bars above the sea of slate and dull brick by Battersea Pk – then at Oxford tiers of pure white with loose longer masses above and gaps of dark clear blue above haymaking and elms. Then we stopped at Adlestrop, thro the willows cd be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 & one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willow herb & meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel – looking out on grey dry stones between metals & the shiny metals & over it all the elms willows & 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.”
It’s easy enough to see which details make it into the poem and which don’t. It’s also clear that the poem’s seeming observational precision is something of a construct – not only was the pause at Adlestrop far from unwonted, it seems that Thomas has conflated what he saw there with what he noted further along the line. But I suppose “Yes. I remember Chipping Campden” wouldn’t have quite the same ring to it.
It’s undoubtedly Thomas’s best-known poem, though not, I think, his best. As my brother Glen notes in his excellent blog for the LRB, lines 11 and 12 verge on the poetastical. High cloudlets in the sky? Well, where the hell else would they be? But one reason why the poem remains such a fixture in classrooms is the dramatic change in diction between the first two stanzas and the third (which provides a handy object lesson in what was then starting to become a distinctively modern poetic register), and then the fourth resolving into something between the two, a kind of tempered lyricism. (Exactly the same arc, incidentally, is traced in Philip Larkin’s “Sad Steps”, although he’s more self-consciously aware of the trick he’s playing.) The contrast, of course, is deliberate, and Thomas’s choice in this case is to reject the modern in favour of the wistful backward glance.
The poets with whom Thomas and Frost were meeting that evening of 24 June 1914 – Lascelles Abercrombie, WW Gibson, Rupert Brooke – came to be identified with the so-called Georgian movement in poetry, which tended to be conservative, backward-looking, preferring sentiment to experiment. The contrast with the approach of the imagists then making waves in London is clear from a story retailed in Matthew Hollis’s biography of Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France. Two days after Thomas arrived in Dymock, Abercrombie showed him a letter from Ezra Pound, challenging Abercrombie to a duel, for reasons that are now unclear. “Imagists laughed,” Hollis writes, “that, hearing of Pound’s skill with a rapier, Abercrombie had cold-called on WB Yeats to ask him to intervene, only to have the front door answered by Pound himself and to flee, terrified, into the London streets. Georgians joked that Abercrombie had the upper hand because he had invoked his right as the challenged party to nominate the weapon of combat, and had wittily picked unsold copies of their respective books.”
Needless to say, no duel ever took place, but the schism between two broad schools of English-language poetry – the modernist and the lyrical – lasts pretty much to our own time. As for Abercrombie and Pound – both survived, in very different ways, the First World War. Thomas, of course, did not. Less than three years later, at a forward observation post for the Royal Garrison Artillery near Arras, he was killed by the blast wave from a stray shell as he stood to light his pipe.