20 March 2016

Edward Thomas

In Pursuit of Spring

At breakfast I notice that the intensity of light has increased. My reclusion guards me from the world, but I cannot ignore the sun.  It is the equinox, officially the first day of Spring.  This is the day when, in 1913, the writer Edward Thomas left London to walk and cycle to the Quantocks, a journey he recorded in In Pursuit of Spring, first published in 1914.

He would have passed very near to where I am staying, as he came down through Guilford, over the Hog's Back, through Chawton, barely nodding at Jane Austen, then Ropley to Old Alresford to Winchester, and thence to Salisbury Plain. He passed through thatched villages, a landscape dotted with long-since disappeared pubs, on by-roads with little traffic. In the garden I think of what it means to be free.  I think of the marvellous glow of the sun.....

I see some flowers, lovely tender things just opening to the morning sun.  In another of his books, The South Country, first published in 1909, Thomas wrote about a spring morning in Hampshire. We shall presently set out and sail into the undiscovered seas and find new islands of the free, the beautiful, the young.  As is the dimly glimmering changeless brook twittering over the pebbles, so is life.  It is but just leaving the fount.  All things are possible in the windings between fount and sea....

I admire the signs of spring, that, after this warmest ever of Februaries, is surely earlier than that of 1913.  Inspired, I set out to trace something of Edward Thomas in the neighbourhood where he and his family lived for some time before he was killed by the blast of a shell at 7.36am on April 9th 1917, at Arras.

In  December 1906 Edward and Helen Thomas moved into Berryfield Cottage, Ashfold, with their son Merfyn and daughter Bronwen.  The cottage was close to All Saints Church, Steep, which is in the grounds of Bedales School, founded by John Badley in 1893. The Thomas children, including Myfanwy (born in 1910), went to the school, and the family all attended services in All Saints.

It is quiet in the church.  The light filters in through stained and plain glass windows.....

And also illuminates two small windows in the south wall, designed and engraved by Laurence Whistler in 1978, and dedicated by R S Thomas in that year to commemorate the centenary of the writer's birth.  It is difficult to photograph the glass against the light, but the left hand window shows a green road across hills, such as Thomas loved to explore, bordered by yew trees and May blossom; his jacket is seen hanging on a branch, with his pipe and stick, as if he is about to return.

On the right hand window is engraved one of Thomas's poems, The New House, which he wrote about the house they lived in above the beech hanger overlooking Steep.

Nights of storm, days of mist, without end;
Sad days when the sun
Shone in vain: old griefs, and griefs
Not yet begun.

All was foretold me; naught
Could I foresee;
But I learnt how the wind would sound
After these things should be.

Below this is depicted a sequence of doors, opening or shut, which end with a scene of the sun rising over a Flanders battlefield.

On the north wall there is a war memorial to the men of the parish who gave their lives, including....

At the age of 38 Thomas had no need to enlist. His wife, Helen, wrote later that his nature was meditative, austere, and reserved. He could have offered his services as a map-reading instructor for example, but he joined the Artists' Rifles and volunteered for the front line.  In November 1916 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the Royal Garrison Artillery.

..... I hate not Germans, nor grow hot
With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.....

But with the best and meanest Englishmen
I am one in crying, God save England, lest
We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed....

Poem 93
The Collected Poems
Edited by R. George Thomas

The family occupied three houses in Steep, though Thomas still spent time in London, as well as travelling extensively around England and Wales. His health was precarious and he suffered from depression from time to time.  In 1913 he was introduced to Robert Frost and in 1914 he began to write poetry. When he died only twenty-seven of his poems had been published, all of them under the pseudonym of Edward Eastaway. In total he wrote one hundred and forty four poems in two and a half years, and the first collection of these was published by his friend Walter de la Mare in 1920.

He loved the area, and wrote in detail about places and people he observed, both in prose and verse. On Shoulder of Mutton hill, high above the village, but below the ridge where he lived in the Red House, a sarsen stone from Glastonbury was placed in his memory in 1937.

The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark.
Its mouth is stopped with bramble, thorn, and briar;
And no one scrambles over the sliding chalk
By beech and yew and perishing juniper
Down the half precipices of its sides, with roots
And rabbit holes for steps.....

The Combe

'..... Then the hills of the horizon - 
That is how I should make hills had I to show
One who would never see them what hills were like.'
'Yes. Sixty miles of South Downs at one glance.....'

Wind and Mist

Running along a bank, a parapet
That saves from the precipitous wood below
The level road, there is a path.  It serves
Children for looking down the long smooth steep,
Between the legs of beech and yew.....

The Path

Lichen, ivy, and moss
Keep evergreen the trees
That stand half-flayed and dying.
And the dead trees on their knees
In dog's-mercury, ivy, and moss:
And the bright twit of the goldfinch drops
Down there as he flits on thistle-tops.

The Hollow Wood

As I explore these walks and ways, the delicate colours of early spring rise out of the leaf litter and the dead grass.  Birdsong, something that Thomas frequently references in his poems, cannot be captured in photographs, so please imagine the liquid fluency of territorial blackbirds, and the evening joy of thrushes....

Three lovely notes he whistled, too soft to be heard
If others sang;

The Unknown Bird

But these things also are Spring's - 
On banks by the roadside the grass
Long-dead that is greyer now
Than all the Winter it was;

The shell of a little snail bleached
In the grass: chip of flint, and mite
Of chalk, and the small birds' dung
In splashes of purest white;

But these things also

Edward Thomas's reputation is associated with the the First World War, inevitably, I suppose, but his poems really bring to life a world of nature.  His close observation and clear diction mark him out as an exceptional writer.  Ted Hughes called him The father of us all.... Robert Frost may have sent The Road Not Taken with a sense of irony when Thomas enlisted, but Thomas himself knew very well the irony of choice:

I read the sign.  Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At Twenty.  Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.....

And if there be a flaw in that heaven
'Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth,
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring,
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?

The Signpost

The day is coming to a close.  I trace the roads that Thomas would have known. The landscape must have changed, with the development of tractors and harvesters that have replaced the horses and the blacksmiths, the ploughmen and the hedgerows.  But, in this small area at least, there is still a landscape, marked by signs that tell their stories.....

I love roads:
The goddesses that dwell
Far along invisible
Are my favourite gods.

Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone.....

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:

Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,

Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
And their brief multitude.


I follow one road in particular to an inn with no sign.  The White Horse, or, as it is known locally, The Pub With No Name, has changed little since Edward Thomas visited (quite frequently, I believe). The sign was, apparently, stolen and never replaced, or so the story goes. In what was once the smithy a niche contains memorabilia of the poet, and displays a mounted copy of his first ever poem, Up in the Wind, which was written about the inn....

Two roads cross, and not a house in sight
Except the 'White Horse' in this clump of beeches.
It hides from either road, a field's breadth back;
And it's the trees you see, and not the house,
Both near and far, when the clump's the highest thing
And homely too upon a far horizon
To one who knows there is an inn within.....

'.... Did you ever see
Our signboard?'  No.  The post and empty frame
I knew. Without them I could not have guessed
The low grey house and its one stack under trees
Was not a hermitage but a public house....

It is remarkable that this remote pub, with neither name nor sign, survives, but fortunately local people, and Thomas enthusiasts alike, appreciate its charm, and corporate intrusion has not (yet) eaten its heart.  It is a fine memorial to the England that Thomas died for.

The Past is a strange land, most strange.
Wind blows not there, nor does rain fall:
If they do, they cannot hurt at all.
Men of all kinds as equals range

The soundless fields and streets of it.
Pleasure and pain there have no sting,
The perished self not suffering
That lacks all blood and nerve and wit,

And is in shadow-land a shade....


I have to go.  I could happily have stayed, immersed in dreams (and I hope one day to return,) but:

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

In Memoriam [Easter 1915]

Ninety-nine years ago Edward Thomas wrote in his diary that it was A beautiful day, sunny with pale cloudless sky and W. wind, but cold in O.P.  Clear nightfall with curled, cinereous cloud and then a cloudless night with pale stains in sky over where Bosh is burning a village or something.....

It has been a lovely spring day, and I return to my lodging grateful that the world that Edward Thomas introduced me to is still a beautiful place....

Edward Thomas's diary was found in his pocket, strangely creased by shell blast.  His last entry read, - the beauty of this silent empty scene of no inhabitants and hid troops, but don't know why I could have cried and didn't.

Inside the diary was a photograph of Helen, his wife, and a slip of paper, on one side of which was pencilled:

Where any turn may lead to Heaven

Or any corner may hide Hell

Roads shining like river up hill after rain.

But greater sorrow from less love has been
That can mistake lack and despair for hope
And knows not tempest and the perfect scope
Of summer, but a frozen  drizzle perpetual
Of drops that from remorse and pity fall
And cannot ever shine in the sun or thaw,
Removed eternally from the sun's law.

Poem 144

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