Episode 20

Adlestrop by Edward Thomas 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas.

Poet

Edward Thomas

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

Adlestrop

by Edward Thomas

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.

 


Podcast transcript

To me, this is about as close as you can get to a perfect short poem. It’s like a miniature landscape painting that the more you look at it, the more you find, you can get drawn into it until it feels like the little painting has come to life and you can see the willows and the willow-herb and grass swaying in the breeze, and you can hear the birdsong spreading across the fields.

And on one level you could say its a superficial poem in the best sense, in that it evokes the scene with just a few beautifully judged details, but it also feels like a very subtle and suggestive poem.

It is a poem of stops and starts, and I think these stops and starts are key to the way the poem works. So first of all, there’s that wonderful opening:

Yes. I remember Adlestrop —

It’s as if we’ve just walked in on the middle of a conversation, where someone has mentioned ‘Adlestrop’, the name of a little village in Gloucestershire in England, and someone else – the speaker of the poem – is replying ‘Oh yes, I remember Adlestrop’. Such a beautifully casual, conversational opening line, that plunges us into to the scene right away. It’s as if the speaker is responding to this other person, or maybe interrupting them with his own train of thought (if you’ll excuse the pun) – so right from the first word of the poem we’ve got this sense of stopping something and starting something else.

And what the speaker starts talking about it is the simple fact of a train stopping, at this tiny little village station in the middle of nowhere. And he says the train stops ‘unwontedly’, which is a rather old fashioned, archaic, poetic way of saying that it didn’t normally stop here. So we get the sense he’s slightly surprised to find that the train has stopped.

And there’s a lovely blog post on the UK National Archives website by Bruno Derrick, who has unearthed the Great Western Railways timetable for the 24th of June 1914, which we know from Thomas’s notebook was the day he took this journey. I’ll make sure to link to the blog post in the show notes. And what the timetable shows is that Adlestrop was in fact a scheduled and expected stop on the journey from London Paddington to Kidderminster; it was due to arrive at Adlestrop at 12.48pm. And this timetable coincides with the timings recorded by Thomas in his notebook. So a big hand to Mr Derrick for this research, because as he points out, it makes a big difference to the poem whether the stop was ‘unwonted’, i.e. not habitual, or not.

Because of course, an unexpected stop is much more poetic than an expected one, isn’t it? It gives these few moments at the station the quality of a pause, a hiatus, a lacuna. An in-between space, where the train has stopped and it’s about to start up again, and take us to our destination, and all our commitments and responsibilities and decisions and their consequences will come into play again. But for these few moments we’re outside all of that, it’s held in abeyance.

And it takes a poet to notice this space, or at least to care so much about it that they write it down and try to say something about it. To try to answer the question of what happens in this space.

I can’t help thinking about another famous poem, ‘Leisure’, by the Welsh poet W.H. Davies, who was a contemporary of Edward Thomas, which begins:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

‘Adlestrop’ is a poem about a moment of stopping and staring – and also listening.

And staying with the idea of stopping and starting, we can hear it in the movement of the poem itself. Listen to that opening line again:

Yes. I remember Adlestrop —

We get one word, ‘yes’, one syllable, then a full stop. So the poem stops as soon as it starts! Then we get a dash at the end of the line, after Adlestrop, so that’s another stop.

The next line goes ‘The name’, comma, ‘because one afternoon / Of heat’ – that phrase spills over the end of the line onto the next line, and ends with a comma in the middle of the line. Another tiny little stop.

Then we get ‘the express-train drew up there / Unwontedly.’ Full stop. ‘It was late June.’ Full stop at the end of the line, which is also the end of the stanza.

So obviously I’m exaggerating this for emphasis, but what Thomas is doing very skilfully here is he’s working with and against the formal structure of the poem. So the basic structure, which you can see more easily if you look at the text in the show notes at amouthfulofair.fm, is four stanzas of four lines, with four beats to every line. So it’s very much a four-square grid that he’s working with. And Thomas was a very experienced and influential poetry critic as well as a poet, so we can be confident that he would absolutely be aware of this structure and consciously playing with it.

And what poets do with a grid like this is, sometimes you go with it and you stick to it very rigidly and you get a very regular movement, like ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM. That’s a basic iambic tetrameter, which the mathematicians will recognise as a close cousin of the iambic pentameter. So the pentameter has five beats, ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM, while the tetrameter is slightly shorter with just four beats, ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM. So you get a tighter, snappier, crisper – I nearly said crispier! – rhythm with a tetrameter.

So if you go with the metre and stick to it quite strictly, and you align the end of the phrases neatly with the end of the lines, you get a strong forward motion, which can feel like a regimented marching pace, or sometimes a sweetly flowing stream. You get a line like this one, from the third stanza of ‘Adlestrop’:

No whit less still and lonely fair

Can you hear those four beats? ‘No WHIT less STILL and LONely FAIR’, obviously it sounds a bit mechanical when I exaggerate it, but hopefully that makes the metre nice and clear.

So that’s the basic metrical template Edward Thomas is using, but he doesn’t follow it mechanically. Several lines have an extra syllable here and there, and he allows some of the stresses to shift around, to give the poem a looser, conversational feeling. And as we’ve seen, what he does right from the very first syllable is to interrupt the regular forward motion of the poem, with some phrases ending in the middle of the line and some running over from one line to another. And this stop-start pattern continues into the second stanza:

‘The steam hissed.’ Full stop. ‘Someone cleared his throat.’ Full stop. Then ‘No one left and no one came / On the bare platform.’ Full stop. And let’s just pause to appreciate the wonderful banality of nobody coming or going. Then we get: ‘What I saw / Was Adlestrop —’ and another long dash.

So I think I’ve made my point about all the stopping and starting in these first two stanzas. But why is the poet doing this? Because the movement of the poem is mimetic of the experience he’s describing. It’s a moment when a regular forward motion, the clackety-clack of the train, has been interrupted, and what we’re left with is the motion of the mind, in that in-between time at the platform.

You see, each of these self-contained phrases is a moment of perception, of noticing a single detail: the steam hissing; someone clearing his throat; realising that no one is getting off or on the train; the name on the station sign. And this is is really how the mind works in idle moments, isn’t it? We notice one thing, then another. And as a poet myself I have to say I’m intensely envious of Thomas’s skill here, in conjuring up the whole scene with an almost cinematic clarity and intensity, with just these few finely judged details.

Okay, back to the very end of the second stanza: after ‘Was Adlestrop —’ we get ‘only the name’, which is the end of the line, and also the end of the whole stanza, but – gasp! – there is no full stop! And so, after all those hard stops, it feels like we’ve shot through a barrier and over the cliff edge into space… but instead of crashing to earth, the poem takes flight:

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.

Can you hear that? That’s right! The full stops have stopped! The iambic tetrameter is running free, like a puppy in the fields. And after the everyday details of the steam engine and the platform and the throat-clearing and the station sign, we’ve got trees and herbs and flowers and grasses and little clouds in the sky. It feels like we’ve entered the realm of proper poetry, at least according to traditional tastes. I mean, out of context, I could probably persuade you that that stanza was by Wordsworth, or at a stretch maybe even Shakespeare.

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the language has gone back in time, with the archaic diction and inverted syntax of ‘No whit less still and lonely fair’ – that could be Tennyson writing about the days of King Arthur, couldn’t it?

So what we’ve got is a contrast between the old world and new – the poem starts with the steam engine, the symbol of modernity and progress and the future, and also suggestive of the linear passage of time. And then in this third stanza we enter the Romantic world of poetry with a capital P, with a rhythmic and rhyming evocation of the ancient world of the countryside, of Romance and beauty and timelessness.

And what happens next, in the fourth and final stanza, is quite weird, because Thomas somehow resolves this tension and makes the poem on on the one hand, more down to earth, ending with the place names, ‘Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’, but at the same time, it becomes even more poetic and even more moving:

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Isn’t that just magnificent? And I’ve read this goodness knows how many times and I still don’t know how he gets away with ‘Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’. Because it’s easy to see how an ending like that could have gone horribly wrong. It could be really jarring and banal and bring us down to earth with a bump. Like something by the famously terrible Scottish poet William McGonagall. But somehow it’s beautiful and uplifting and indescribably bittersweet. And I can say a few things about it, but I still think a there’s a bit of a mystery here, which we have to put down to Edward Thomas having a pitch-perfect ear for poetry.

There’s something obviously poetic about the birdsong floating across the landscape, almost like mist. And also the idea of multiplication, you know, ‘farther and farther’, not just one bird but all of them, is if they were part of some vast network that was springing into life. And it’s as if by the act of listening to the birdsong, the speaker is connected to that network – and maybe we are too, by the act of reading the poem. And the overall effect is like the poetic equivalent of a drone shot, that suddenly zooms up so we can see all the fields and the birds spreading out below us.

Another way I think we can come at this ending and get a sense of how it works is by imagining if Edward Thomas had continued in the same vein as the third stanza, by sticking to the time-worn imagery of willows and herbs and grasses and little clouds in the sky. Now I’m sure he could have made a very nice ending out of that, and it would have been a charming poem. But it wouldn’t have been an extraordinary poem, because it’s the ending that makes it extraordinary.

Okay, so I think we’ve reached the same point we got to in Episode 14 where I talked about Thomas Wyatt’s poem ‘They Flee from Me’ – in other words, everything I’ve said so far has been confined to what is contained within the poem itself, but now I’m going to peep outside the poem a little, and say something about the biographical and historical context, and see what, if anything that adds to our appreciation of the poem.

And this is always a live question for me, how much account to take of context when reading a poem. As you may have gathered by now, I’m not a fan of the biographical approach to poetry, where the poem is read primarily in terms of what we know about the poet’s life, because very quickly the poem itself can get forgotten in favour of the gossipy details, or overshadowed by the magnitude of important events. But sometimes context does add to our understanding and appreciation of a poem, and I think this is one of those times, when the stops and starts of history add another dimension to ‘Adlestrop’.

Because if you know anything about Edward Thomas, you will know that he is usually described as a war poet. He was one of a generation of young men that produced a generation of poets who responded in different ways to the experience of the First World War. But Thomas is an unusual war poet because he didn’t write about the war very much. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney are what we could call ‘full frontal war poets’, giving us the blood and guts, ‘This is the reality of war that you folks at home need to know about’, version of war poetry.

But Thomas doesn’t do that. He writes mostly about the English countryside, so you could have a naive reading of his poems – you know, if his poems were discovered in a few hundred years’ time, with no awareness of their historical context, people might think, ‘Oh, what a lovely nature poet’. But the fact is he was writing this stuff in the context of a war that he fought and died in. And there’s a poignancy to that knowledge that opens up layers of meaning in a poem like ‘Adlestrop’.

So with our historical detective glasses on, let’s look at a few relevant facts. As we saw earlier, the journey Thomas writes about in ‘Adlestrop’ took place on 24th of June 1914, which was just a month before the outbreak of World War I – so war was very much in the air, but it hadn’t actually started.

And interestingly, another thing that hadn’t started at that point was Thomas’s career as a poet. He was an experienced prose writer, and he had reviewed a lot of poetry, but he hadn’t written any of it himself. What he had done, thankfully for English poetry, was make some notes about the train stop in his notebook, including the steam and the willow-herbs and meadowsweet and the silence followed by the blackbird singing. So it was clearly a significant experience, that he wanted to preserve, and those notes gave him the raw material for the poem. And he started writing poetry at the end of 1914, and wrote a lot of poems during the war, including ‘Adlestrop’, which was published in the New Statesman magazine in 1917, three weeks after Thomas was killed in action in northern France.

Now, Thomas was actually a volunteer in the army; as a slightly older married man, he qualified for an exemption, so he could have avoided fighting. And he was an anti-nationalist, who hated the jingoistic tone of the war propaganda and said the Germans were not his enemies. So he agonised over the decision, but eventually concluded that the right thing to do was to sign up and play his part.

So it’s heartbreaking to think that in the depths of the war he was writing a poem about a memory of that train stopping at Adlestrop on a summer’s day; it must have felt like a touchstone of lost innocence, a moment before the before the shooting started, before the decision of whether to enlist in the army was forced upon him. And he made something beautiful and haunting out of that memory, and the poem only saw the light of day, just after he was killed. So the poem is bookended by the start of the war and the premature ending of Thomas’s life. So for once, it feels like the Muse of History was in step with the Muses of Poetry.

And looking again at the final line of ‘Adlestrop’, I can’t help thinking that Gloucestershire, and Oxford and Buckinghamshire, were the names of regiments that fought in the First World War, and all over those counties are memorials to men and women who died in the war – which adds another twinge of poignancy to the image of birdsong spreading across the fields of those counties. Especially in the light of a comment Thomas made about patriotism, that his real countrymen were the birds.

So a knowledge of the context means that the war becomes an unspoken and haunting presence in the poem, and maybe makes us look again at the lines, ‘No one left and no one came / On the bare platform’. And it’s one of the things that makes ‘Adlestrop’ a masterpiece of understatement.

 


Adlestrop

by Edward Thomas

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

Edward Thomas portrait photo

Edward Thomas was born in England, to Welsh parents, in 1878 and was killed in action in France in 1917. Between graduating from Oxford and enlisting in the army, he became an experienced prose writer, reviewing books and becoming an influential poetry critic, as well as writing biography, books about the English countryside, and a novel. His literary friendships included the poets W.H. Davies and Robert Frost. He started writing poetry after the outbreak of the First World War, producing a major body of work in a few short years. He is one of 16 war poets commemorated on a stone in Poet’s Corner in  Westminster Abbey.


A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

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