ADLESTROP: Significant Simplicity

There are some poems that seem initially lightweight, but nonetheless remain in the mind because that hasty impression is wrong.  In fact the first somewhat negative judgment may be just the reflection of a cultural prejudice that a poem must be about something very significant or important.  But perhaps it is simply that our society has an odd and somewhat distorted idea of what is significant and important.  We see that, for example, in the ongoing destruction of our natural environment, carried on in full knowledge of the likely disastrous results.

Imagine a memory — perhaps little more than a minute in its origin — that remains with you for some inexplicable reason.  That is what we find in the poem I discuss today, written by (Philip) Edward Thomas, who lived from 1878 to 1917;  not a great many years, but long enough to give us this poem.

To appreciate it, we must think back to what in some respects was a quieter time — the year 1914, to be precise — but a time in which life nonetheless was changing rapidly from what it had been.  The writer is on a train — a steam train in those days — that made an unaccustomed (“unwonted”) stop, and out the window on one side was the signboard of the station:

ADLESTROP

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 was 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. 

For some reason unexplained, the express train made an unexpected stop at a station in the Cotswolds, the low, rolling hills of Gloucestershire.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one was left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name…

The steam is of course the steam of the train engine.  We are left, for the moment, in what seems to be an interval in time.  A passenger takes advantage of the pause to clear his throat.  Out on the platform no one exits the train, or boards it.  The station is bare.  And the writer, in this interval of emptiness, sees the signboard giving the name of the place — Adlestrop.

But notice how he does not stop even for moment with that image of large letters on the signboard, but adds to it immediately — linking to the next stanza without even a mark of punctuation separating —

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.

He sees willow trees and spires of willow-herb — which we call fireweed in America, but to Thomas it is “willow-herb” because its long, narrow, pointed leaves look like those of willow trees; and he sees meadowsweet, with its tufts of creamy-white flowers that bloom from June onward.  And he sees haycocks in the fields — conical mounds of hay left to dry in the warm sunlight so that when they have lost their moisture, they may be carried in wagons to the barns and stored there as food for the beasts in winter.

Note how Thomas is able to appreciate the beauty of such things, calling them

No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

This stillness of plants and clouds and haycocks reflects that of the bare station platform, but adds to it a warmth and a life that has its own simple beauty, as lovely, yet as beautiful in their loneliness –“no whit less still and lonely fair” — as the scattered small clouds in the blue sky over the fields (“no whit” means “not even the least bit).”

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

In that interval at Adlestrop — that time that seems out of time — the song of  a blackbird is heard nearby, and Thomas hears the sound as the closest of  — he notices it now — a great many, singing birds farther off, yet all around, whose multitudinous songs grow fainter and less distinct as they extend into great distance.  And Thomas realizes he is hearing, behind and around the nearby blackbird,

 …all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. 

This is really a love poem to a moment past, made all the more poignant by our knowing that Edward Thomas died in France on the 9th of April, 1917.

If we were to approach Adlestrop very chronologically, we might say that the emptiness of the station has nothing at all to do with the war and the resulting absence of men — and indeed there is nothing in the poem to say it did.  Thomas noted in his journal a stop at Adlestrop on the 23rd of June, 1914; slightly over a month later, on July 28th, the First World War began.   The poem, however, was not published until 1917, at which time it was very easy to read into it the absence of men gone off to war.   And it seems to have actually been written after the start of the war, in January of 1915.  So this is one of those cases in which it is best to just go with what the poet himself offers — an empty station platform — without assuming reasons for it other than those the poem itself offers:  that it was a hot afternoon; that it was an “unwonted” stop of the train.   But it is inevitable that a reader noting the time of actual writing will see the poem against the background of an England very much at war, very much under great stress, and that makes the peaceful interlude at Adlestrop, with its evocation of the British countryside in its plants and trees and singing birds beneath a blue sky dotted with small clouds all the more meaningful.  To me, Adlestrop is a look through a train window at the peace of pre-war England — England before the great upheaval that took the flower of its youth.

Thomas was born in England, the son of Welsh parents, and the Welsh, as everyone should know, love poetry and song.  The remarkable accomplishment of Thomas, in this verse, is to recognize the significance of what to most would have been an insignificant moment in an insignificant place, a mere unexpected stop on the way to matters of importance.

Thomas preserves for us the signboard, the empty platform, the hissing of the train, the blooming flowers nearby, the haycocks in the field, the little clouds scattered in the blue sky, and the chorus of birds heard from a single blackbird nearby to all the birds of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire.  And he has made, oddly enough, the sound of an anonymous passenger clearing his throat into timeless poetry, with all the rest.

It is not seeing what others see that makes a poet, but rather seeing the significance in  what others see and think of no importance.

Given the “significant simplicity” of Adlestrop, perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that Edward Thomas used to go on long walks with a visitor to England at that time, the poet Robert Frost, and that Frost was a significant factor in Thomas taking up the writing of poetry.

There is a striking line in Stella Gibbons’ otherwise light novel Nightingale Wood that expresses what one feels about the birds heard in Adlestrop:

The country through which they moved was chiefly grazing land with some under wheat and barley, and it had the unconventional charm of Essex landscapes; the little hills with oak coppices climbing them, now in early rose-brown leaf, the loops of a river shining in a wide, tree-hidden valley to which all the roads seem to lead, and the near and distant cries of birds like the country itself singing.

David


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OVER THE SEA TO SKYE

Constantine Cavafy has a poem called simply Ithaka, one of his historical pieces in which advice is given to a traveller setting out on the journey to Ithaka — and the advice is “Hope that the road is long.” The point of the poem is that what is gained from a journey is in the voyaging, not in the arriving — and that when one does arrive as an old man (or woman, we may add) — one may find the goal achieved to be less than what was gained in the traveling to achieve it.

Of course this is a metaphor for the journey of life. You will find the poem here:
http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?id=74&cat=1

In his Verginibus Puerisque, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote,

Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.

Stevenson is the author of a poem of the category I like to call an “old man’s poem,” though of course there are “old woman’s poems” as well. In it he looks back on youth. It is a pleasant poem to read, full of the freshness of youth, and one can almost see and feel the prow of the swift boat breaking the waves into salt spray — glittering drops of sunlight.

The islands mentioned — Skye, Mull, Rum, and Eigg — are all in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland.

OVER THE SEA TO SKYE

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul:
Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.

There is another poem — not by Stevenson — that also has the words “Over the Sea to Skye,” but it is about the escape of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” in Scottish history, and that one is not quite so interesting for my purposes here.

David