A couple of years ago you could be forgiven for knowing Edward Thomas only as the poet who wrote ‘Adlestrop’. Recently, however, there’s been a huge Edward Thomas love-in, which has made it hard to avoid learning more about this tragic figure. Thanks to some fantastic literary outpourings from Matthew Hollis, Robert Macfarlane and Nick Dear, chances are that now you know that before ‘Adlestrop’ and the Second World War, Edward Thomas was skint, desperately unhappy, great friends with Robert Frost, perfectly horrid to his wife and wrote masses of prose. (Well you do now, anyway.)
I’ve been intrigued by the thought of Thomas’ prose, now overlooked in favour of his poetry. So I got hold of a copy of The Icknield Way and prepared myself for a treat – here is a book by one of my favourite poets about walking, one of my favourite things. (Incidentally, I am terribly excited about Ramblings on Radio 4 this Thursday at 3pm, which is all about my Walking Book Club – do tune in!!)
Unfortunately, this isn’t quite the mellifluous book of nature writing for which I’d hoped. Edward Thomas wrote The Icknield Way in 1911, when he was ‘mentally and emotionally exhausted’, warns his biographer Matthew Hollis. A contemporary critic scolded, ‘A tired author too soon fatigues his reader.’
Indeed, there are passages which did send me to sleep, usually when Thomas is busy tediously marking out the route. He lists the place names, the milestones, and the turnings. Instead of the trees and flora being as poetic as Nan Shepherd’s spell-like incantations (see here for more on her book The Living Mountain), they are no more than labels and markers, a means for future walkers to find their way:
Just before the second milestone from Princes Risborough, in obedience to my map, I turned to the left and took the right-hand road at a fork. For a quarter mile this was a narrow chalky lane, having at its entrance a sycamore and a thatched cottage, and traveller’s joy all over its low hedge; but crossing a road from Great Missenden it became more important, hard and white, with a green border. I climbed up past the “Red Lion” at Whiteleaf, under Whiteleaf Hill, crossed the Wycombe road, and went down a hedged and rutty lane, laving the spire of Princes Risborough half a mile below on the right.
Here is Thomas, the orienteer, leaving specific instructions and directions to any who choose to follow in his weary footsteps. It’s hardly scintillating reading, in any case.
But while these passages were at best disappointing and at worst a drudge to read, The Icknield Way has its share of beautiful moments, dripping with poetry, thick with Thomas’ struggle to express something strange and mysterious without quite having found his medium.
Edward Thomas might have been exhausted when he wrote the book, but he was evidently still a morning person – far more so than my husband and I, who lie in bed grumbling for more sleep when our phone alarms beep their cacophony of hellish noise. In sharp contrast, it is often the morning passages when poetry is fresh on Thomas’ tongue:
The rooks had been talking in my sleep much too long before I started next day. Their voices and the blazing window-blind described the morning for me before I stirred… The long grasses were dewy cool, the trees lightly rustling and full of shadow, the sky of so soft a greyness that it seemed and impossible palace for a sun so gorgeous.
What a start to the day, full of light and freshness and happy beginning.
Thomas has a surprising knack for describing the people he meets along the way. I loved his encounter with a wild woman at a cottage, where he knocks to ask for water:
Just as I was turning to get water for myself a human being with black hair and wild eyes looked out of an upper window and hailed me with a kind of scream … She was a thin, hawk-faced woman, bare and brown to the breast, and with glittering blue eyes, and in her upper jaw three strong teeth.
They go on to have a bizarre conversation about living in the moon.
Later there is a ‘jaunty’ landlady, with a ‘skittish, falsetto laugh’, ‘anxious to tell me that much as she liked a country life she missed the gas and the bathroom of a London house.’ Often these encounters strain to be cheerful, such as when he offers observations on the jolly life of a country inn, but they are only a passing brightness, and Thomas’s dark mood soon catches up with him.
One of Thomas’s roadside encounters is particularly dark. He writes of meeting his ghostly double:
He was a lean, indefinite man; half his life lay behind him like a corpse, so he said, and half was before him like a ghost … He said that he had been digging all day in a heavy soil, often jarring the fork against immovable flints, lifting more often that not a weight of clay only just short of the limit of his strength. He had thought and thought until his brain could do nothing but remain aware of dull misery and the violent shocks of the hard work … He was stiff and yet unsatisfied with the result of his labour; he felt the dullness of his eyes; and no thing or person in the world or out of it came into his mind with any conscious delight or quickness; yet he still looked along the ridges of the hills from one end to the other, from star to star, without a thought save the sleeping, underlying one that he was growing old.
In moments like this, Thomas’s unhappiness and exhaustion with life become a beautiful means of conjuring something quite mysterious. He writes about darkness falling and the landscape fading and becoming indistinct, ‘slowly the solid world was whittled away’.
These moments in his journey when Edward Thomas confronts his misery and finds something eerie and mystical are very special. Towards the end of the book, there is a startling passage about listening to the fall of rain at night. Again he imagines ‘a ghostly double beside me’, this time muttering:
The all-night rain puts out summer like a torch. In the heavy, black rain falling straight from invisible, dark sky to invisible, dark earth the heat of summer is annihilated, the splendour is dead, the summer is gone. The midnight rain buries it away where it has buried all sound but its own.
Though I’d like to, I can’t quote the whole passage here, as it goes on for a few pages. It is such a troubling passage, a nihilistic meditation on not being part of nature, on surrendering everything to the dark rain. These pages will stay with me as indeed they stayed with Thomas, for he returned to them in his poem ‘Rain’:
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
The poem is a condensation of this troubling passage at the end of The Icknield Way. Indeed the line, ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon’ is lifted straight from it. That line must have haunted Edward Thomas as, perhaps, it haunted F. Scott Fitzgerald, who remembers it near the end of The Great Gatsby as ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain falls on.’
The Icknield Way is a strange struggle of a book. On the one hand Thomas obsesses with documenting the route, naming the towns, and listing the turnings, the birds, trees and wildflowers. But beneath this surface detail, the spirit of the book is deeply mysterious. As he says in his dedication,
I could not find a beginning or an end of the Icknield Way. It is thus a symbol of mortal things with their beginnings and ends always in immortal darkness. I wish the book had a little more of the mystery of the road about it…
I share his wish, for in those moments when the mystery of the road shines from the chalky path, it is a shimmering, remarkable book indeed.