Edit: Julie-ann’s collection Letters North is available from July 2008.
by Edward Thomas, first published 1917
‘Adlestrop’ is not what may be thought of as a typical World War One poem, yet it is the one I return to most often. It was published posthumously after Thomas was killed by a shell blast on Easter Monday 1917 and describes a train journey he undertook three years previously between Oxford and Worcester. The journey appears on the surface uneventful, but Thomas conveys his beloved England in this one small moment when the train stops at a Gloucestershire village, an England that is under threat, the stop is ‘unwontedly’–uncustomary, and ‘No one left and no one came/On the bare platform. What I saw/Was Adlestrop – only the name’. Entire villages were recruited into the same regiment and sent off to war, and hence a complete population of young men could be wiped out. The willows, willow-herb, grass, meadowsweet, and haycocks are ‘No whit less still and lonely’.
Thomas was highly knowledgeable about natural history, earning a precarious living as a free-lance writer. He is associated with the Dymock Poets, a group of writers that included Robert Frost, who lived near the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire between 1911 and 1914. They represented a movement away from the traditional, more florid style of the Romantics, seeking a modern sensibility, which included gaining inspiration from their natural surroundings and everyday experiences. Robert Frost was a huge influence on Thomas, encouraging him to take up poetry.
It is notable that Thomas wrote all of his poetry during World War One. In ‘Adlestrop’, as in so much of his work, he celebrates the English countryside he revered, writing about it from somewhere unspeakable. England was ‘not an idea, not even a nation but a very specific place, a place that for the poet is home’.
‘Adlestrop’ is a continuation of the pastoral tradition–with his direct, yet understated style, Thomas reconnects the reader with Wordsworth, as well as standing on the threshold of the ’new’, and preparing the ground for Heaney and Hughes. The opening is so simple and takes us straight to the heart of it–‘Yes I remember Adlestrop –‘ it is as if he is beginning a conversation with us. The poem is in part a reflection of the passage of time, the beauty of England, and what is replete in a blackbird’s song, a typical encompassing English bird–all of England is here, in the sounds of the ‘mistier’ birds too.
I find Adlestrop especially poignant because Thomas had only written a part of what he would surely have contributed to the English pantheon–143 poems–before his untimely death. More has been lost since the writing of the poem, with the closure of the railway station itself, but that’s another story.
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.
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