Matthew Hollis, author of the 2011 Costa Book Award-winning Now All Roads Lead to France, celebrates the centenary of the train ride that inspired Edward Thomas’s famous poem.
Thunder broke over London on 10th June 1914; a torrential downpour followed. The cool nights gave way to hot days, which by the month’s end were rocketing into the eighties. In the roasting heat, the city was enjoying a musical summer like no other. The Grand Russian Season at the Royal Theatre, Drury Lane, was the talk of the town: the self-taught Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin enthralled opera-goers with his performances of Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and Borodin. But it was the Diaghilev Ballet that truly won the capital’s hearts thanks to the performances of its stars, Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina. On the night of 23rd June, Richard Strauss’s The Legend of Joseph had its English première conducted by the composer himself.
Edward and Helen Thomas and their friend Joan Thornycroft squeezed into the packed and stifling auditorium, and heard the audience give the performance an outstanding reception, although the New York Times in a cable dispatch reported the grumbling of the critics. Edward Thomas too was doubtful, and referred to the evening as ‘hot air’, and not only in deference to the unseasonably fierce temperature.
The next morning Thomas rose early at his parents’ house in Balham. The weather was glorious from 4.20 a.m., and by ten o’clock tiers of thin white cloud stepped high into the morning sky. Helen and he hurried to be away, leaving the children with their grandparents, and crossed London to Paddington in time to catch the 10.20 train to Malvern. At 11.44 the train drew up at Oxford; haymakers toiled beneath the hot sun; it was eighty degrees in the shade that day. He recorded in his notebook:
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.
Edward Thomas was travelling to see Robert Frost, who had moved to a cottage near Dymock in Gloucestershire. That summer a profound and mutually inspiring friendship arose as the men walked the fields together, discussing poetry, family, Shakespeare, the landscape; they were sitting together on an orchard stile when word arrived that Britain had declared war on Germany.
With Frost’s encouragement, Thomas began writing poems in the winter of 1914–15, but he had not yet taken his fatal decision to enlist. As it happened, he had just ensured that he would be incapable of any form of physical defence of his country for some time to come. On 2nd January 1915, descending the Shoulder of Mutton hill near his Hampshire home, Thomas sprained his ankle so severely that he would be unable to put any weight on it for several weeks. It was not until 6th January that he was able to make it out of bed and into the deck chair that Helen had brought into the bedroom. The sprain would leave him immobile for the month, and inconvenienced for much longer, and for the time being would kick any thought of enlistment into touch. But for his poetry it would be a tremendous blessing.
Laid up in his bedroom in Yew Tree Cottage, Steep, Thomas began to tell his friends openly for the first time about the poetry he had started writing. ‘I have even begun to write verse,’ he told Jesse Berridge, ‘but don’t tell a soul, as if it is to be published at all it must be anonymously.’
As Thomas read back through his field notebooks those first weeks of January, he came across this entry from his train ride to Dymock on 24th June 1914:
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’, the notebook had continued, and quickly it had suggested to Thomas the easy, wistful tone that would become his most loved and best remembered poem; but its opening lines had been anything but effortless:
Yes I remember Adlestrop,
At least the name. One afternoon
The express ^ slowed down there and drew up
He stopped and scored this out with a rapid repeated stroke, and underneath he started again, this time giving the poem its title and changing the variety of the train:
Yes, I remember Adlestrop,
At least the name. One afternoon
Of heat The
steamtrain slowed downand drew up
There unexpectedly. ’Twas June.
He had reworked the third line and added a fourth, and from there the three remaining stanzas followed rapidly with just two minor corrections along the way. But he remained unsatisfied with the first stanza and made two further attempts at tightening it. Of course the train had to be ‘express’ if it was to pull-up ‘unexpectedly’, he reasoned, though about this word he also had doubts and tried ‘Against its custom’ before he hit upon exactly the word he wanted: ‘unwontedly’.
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.
Of all the poems that Edward Thomas would leave behind, it is these sixteen lines of loose tetrameter that are perhaps hardest to put a finger on. What is it that has gotten so under the skin of readers over the years?
This gently chimed poem, cherished among the nation’s favourites, has none of the expressive rhythm that Thomas so championed in Robert Frost, and none of his friend’s dramatic narrative. Perhaps it is something to do with the lazed, heat-filled atmosphere it evokes of that last summer before the war (its provenance a mere six weeks before the start of the conflict, its drafting less than six months later), or the inscrutable chorus of birdsong into which the poem dissolves.
Most probably, it is not the pinpointing of any particular episode or event that stirs this poem to life, but something about the wordlessness of thought and memory, the power of recall, the notion that the senses are capable of remembrance, and that the mind can overcome things lost or misplaced to travel across space or time; what one of Thomas’s greatest admirers, Ivor Gurney, would call, ‘nebulously intangibly beautiful’. It would be published in the New Statesman in April 1917, three weeks after Edward Thomas’s death at the Battle of Arras.
– adapted from Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, which is available now in paperback and ebook.