Adlestrop

‘Yes I remember Adlestrop.’

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to quote one of the few lines of poetry I can ever remember at a party a few years ago. I’d got chatting to a someone, and when I asked him where he was from, he said he was from a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, which no-one had ever heard of. Try me, I said. It’s called Adlestrop.

Yes, I do remember Adlestrop. I remember reading it at school and thinking it was an incredibly special poem. Not least, for the lovely name of the village, thick with consonants and countryside. But I can never remember much more of the poem, and so for years just that tantalising little phrase has been lurking at the back of my mind, making me wonder what could come next, what was it about that poem that made that first line so resonant.

So I was thrilled to see on the cover of the Guardian’s Review section a few weeks ago a piece by Matthew Hollis about the friendship between Edward Thomas – writer of ‘Adlestrop’ – and Robert Frost. This friendship is the subject of a new book by Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, which looks absolutely brilliant and has had widespread glowing reviews. I long to read it. But, unfortunately, I have so much to read right now, I fear I’ll have to wait for a few weeks.

I hate that feeling of not being able to read something when I want to. Of being stuck on something else, which one first has to finish. It’s a bit like wanting a huge slice of chocolate cake but only being on your smoked salmon starter – you’re enjoying what you’re eating at the moment, but, really, it’s never going to be as good as pudding and there’s a whole main course to get through too. Also, imagine if everyone else were already tucking into their chocolate cake. So not only is the anticipation agony, but you feel somewhat left behind, missing out on this treat on which everyone else is already gorging.

But, in an unusual stroke of luck, the good people at Faber have published a new collection of Edward Thomas’s poems – edited by Matthew Hollis – to tie in with the publication of Now All Roads Lead to France. And, while I might not have time right now to read the biography, one can always find time to read poetry.

Of course, the first poem to which I turned, in this lovely collection, was ‘Adlestrop’. And here the poem is in its entirety. (It’s in verses of four lines, which I can’t seem to get this silly formatting thing to do, sorry.):

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,

Father and father, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

It’s a very beautiful poem. And this weekend was a rather good time for me to read it because on Sunday some friends and I went for a ten-mile walk in the countryside. We might not have been in Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire, so didn’t pass Adlestrop, but we walked around the impossibly pretty Dedham – Constable Country – which was just as green and beautiful.

Towards the end of the walk, when our route led us from Flatford to Manningtree, we walked for a couple of miles through quite astonishing flat wetlands. All around the path were long grasses and, in the background, rolling meadows, complete with ‘haycocks dry’.

I love those lines:

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

The way Thomas lists everything gives the impression of a keen naturalist looking at the landscape, trying to document it, but feeling simultaneously overwhelmed by the beauty of it. There are willows, there willow-herb and grass, oh and look over there at the meadowsweet, and the haycocks! We saw some beautiful willow trees, and incredible poplars, and a long hawthorn hedge. It was the same feeling of – oh look at all of these incredible things! There was a pleasure in being able to recognise them, to tell the different trees and plants apart from each other – and then so much more pleasure at the abundance of it, at how it stretches out on all sides as far as one can see. It is the same feeling Thomas evokes with the birds: there is the beauty of one blackbird and then all the birds, ‘mistier’, stretching out beyond the horizon.

Unluckily, on our way home, our express train drew up unwontedly at Shenfield, a station which lacked the romance of Adlestrop. The air conditioning in our carriage was broken, so it certainly was an afternoon ‘of heat’. We were informed that due to a person who’d been hit by a train near Ilford our train would be terminating at Shenfield. Rather than the magical silence and stillness of Thomas’s Adlestrop, we disembarked on to the very crowded platform, then had to wait for half an hour outside Shenfield Tandoori for a taxi to take us to Upminster, where we could get the tube the rest of the way home. Adlestrop beats Shenfield hands down.

But all the rapturous nature stuff isn’t what got me hooked all those years ago, when I read it in my final year of school. I was definitely moved by the evocation of a perfect pocket of the English countryside, especially as the poem was written during the First World War. This is what we’re fighting for, Thomas seems to say, this peacefulness and harmony of nature, in such sharp contrast to the horrors of the trenches.

But what really got me, and what still gets me, is the feeling of a moment of stillness. It is a very special moment of not moving, of waiting, where everything feels so hyperreal it’s like a dream. And that feeling of being in-between, of coming from one place, about to go somewhere else, but in the meantime – just for a moment – waiting utterly still, is similar to the feeling at the end of school. It’s a time when everyone’s thinking about what will happen next, but nobody’s quite there yet. It’s a moment of realising that the current situation is coming to an end, which makes one all the more aware of it.

Life is full of those moments. Ends of one thing and beginnings of something else and a strangely quiet pause while the transition happens. And that feeling, for me, will always make me think:

Yes. I remember Adlestrop.

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6 Responses to “Adlestrop”

  1. Kinna Says:

    Love this post. Of course, Adlestrop is one of my favorite poems. I first found out about Thomas’ friendship with Frost from another lover of Thomas’ work, the blogger behind First Known When Lost. When I was in my teens, someone gave my mum a recording of Richard Burton reading poems by Donne, Shakeapeare, Dowson etc. It included a reading of Adlestrop, I’ve been enchanted by this poem ever since. It just evokes so much feeling,so much from a seemingly uneventful train stop. Thanks for the post.

  2. emilybooks Says:

    Thanks Kinna for your kind words. I’m very pleased to have found another Adlestrop fan. I bet that recording was wonderful – lucky you! I’ll look forward to reading more of your book blog too. Emily x

  3. James Russell Says:

    I liked your point about stillness and expectation – TS Eliot explored similar moments in ‘The Four Quartets’, which are bit harder going but I think due for a rediscovery.

    Interesting that Faber chose to use Paul Nash’s painting ‘Wood on the Downs’ on the cover of Thomas’s collected poems. The two men met in 1915/16, when they were both training to be army officers. Thomas at the time was unknown outside quite a narrow literary world, while Nash’s career had only just begun. They were commissioned and sent to France at almost the same time, early in 1917, by which time Thomas had written all his poems.

    Early in the summer Nash was injured falling into a trench, and invalided home. An earlier letter, written shortly after Easter, noted that Edward Thomas had been killed – without ever knowing, we might add, of his success as a poet.

  4. emilybooks Says:

    Thanks James – how fascinating about the connection between Edward Thomas and Paul Nash. Hope all’s going well with you! Emily x

  5. Linda, Scotland Says:

    Lovely post, and how wonderful to discover your blog. I am reading ‘Romantic Moderns’ at the moment, and am finding so many fascinating internet connections.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Linda, and what a great blog you have too! I was in Harris this summer, and it’s a real treat to look at your pictures and remind myself of some wonderful Scottish views. Enjoy Romantic Moderns!

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