Commenter James Hamilton draws my attention to an article I missed in the New Statesman by Edward Thomas's most recent biographer, Matthew Hollis. (I have been reading Matthew's book among other things I have to read).
It's the remark about the 'easy, wistful tone' in the NS article that intrigues me. I am not sure Matthew H gets that quite right in the NS piece, and thereby hangs a brief tale. First, the well-known poem.
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.
I suspect it is we, the readers, who tend to read Adlestrop in an 'easy and wistful' tone, wistfulness being what we look for in it. It is that reading of the poem, more than the poem itself, that I had in mind in talking about the sense of Englishness. In other words it is less the poem, more the poem's status that conjures the easy wistfulness. The poem in itself goes deeper than nostalgia, wistfulness, or indeed premonition (because, of course, we know about the poet's death and are likely to read premonition into the work). It has existence beside those things.
Reading in hindsight is probably inevitable: maybe that is what reading is most of the time. We read from our particular point in time and culture through the lens of what has been said about the poem before we came to it. We read with expectations. Naked reading is difficult, maybe impossible. And yet the poem doesn't completely yield to our general views of it.
The name, for a start ('only the name') does not sound particularly English. There's something Scandinavian / Germanic about it (try saying Edelströp). In any case, it's an odd name. If the station had been, say, Hayward's Heath, the poem would have struck a different chord. Perhaps there might have been no poem at all. The peculiarity of the name rings us back and, I imagine, rang Thomas back, to the strangeness of all namings. Name disturbs location.
The haunting, apprehended sense of location in the poem is somewhere between the strangeness of the name, the familiarity of the natural landscape, and a gap in time; a gap not only between stanzas but between moments of individual consciousness ('No whit less still and lonely'), moments when everything is momentarily emptied out before the ordinariness of the world slams back in with all those birds, who now seem unnaturally loud ('all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire').
The name Adlestrop doesn't familiarise: it defamiliarises, as does the sudden stop in the train's schedule. In that defamiliarised gap the codes of meaning vanish as into a vacuum and the empty universe pours in.
For us such vacancy is often presented in terms of death and the meaning of death, death being the hole around which we pack the apparently solid meanings of life as interpreted through consciousness, by way of the insecure codes through which consciousness becomes aware of itself as self-consciousness.
So that's where we are in the poem. The Englishness is incidental in that vacant moment. Adlestrop, in this sense, is not in England. That may be why the poem moves me though I am not English by birth and do not have Thomas's 'willows, willow-herb, and grass, / And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry' for my heritage, let alone those birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. That vacancy is like Betjeman's 'ominous, ominous dancing ahead' in his A Subaltern's Love Song, which also moves beyond 'nine-o'clock Camberley, heavy with bells / And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.' The name Adlestrop is not central to the poem's Englishness, the ominous quality is not produced by any factors in the subaltern's social world. Both are off-centre, superfluous hauntings.
The fact is poems need both the location and the dislocation. The location is the recognised or at least imaginable. The dislocated 'death' in Adlestrop inevitably feeds into our unavoidable knowledge (and, to some degree, sentimental knowledge) of Thomas's death but is not what Thomas's poem is about. The death in Adlestrop is all around us, ever present, the moment between one footstep and the next.
Sean O'Brien put it nicely in his Independent review in July:
For all the plainness of his language – it really is heightened speech – Thomas was writing about things at the limit of his understanding, or things that instinct and body – the animal elements of the human species – understood far better than the conscious mind.It is not what we understand but what we don't understand that matters. It is, paradoxically, the awareness of death, a gap in meaning, that gives our works life.