Thursday, 13 October 2011

Another thought on Adlestrop

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.


looby said...

I'm glad you've raised the unEnglishness of the station/poem's name. The last syllable, especially, does not come naturally to this native Englishman's mouth. I'm aware of moving my mouth and my tongue to the same muscular degree of foreignness as I do in my second language (French).

I think one could also substitute "life" where you have written "death". Of course this depends on turning a blinkered eye to his demise which requires no inconsiderable some effort of will. But what I get from Adelstrop is that sense of feeling flooding in, almost overwhelmignly, when there's some sort of rupture (hate that word - can't avoid thinking of groin injuries) in the flow of time or expected events.

Thanks for the link to the biography. It looks very good. I wonder how long it will take for Iain Sinclair to retrace Thomas's ramblings?

Tim Love said...

The train stops unexpectedly. Senses are heightened - what's happening? What's wrong? When the danger's passed, the narrator's heightened awareness falls on the few things that there are to see. With nothing to focus on except the station sign, the resulting sense of significance is hard to explain, mysterious.

It's a common enough sensation. After passing a gang on a dark night, or coming out of a doctor's surgery, the sudden release of tension and focussed attention frees the senses and makes the moment more memorable. It's tempting to seek a reason for this sensation, attributing the effect to whatever happens to be around. If the surroundings have some intrinsic aesthetic value, the effect's intensified.

So until the final stanza the piece could be read as a psychological observation, a show-not-tell poem about how a moment acquires significance. I don't think Englishness is the main point. I think the stillness matters more - de Chirico's timeless empty piazzas are easy haunts for significance too. However, the final stanza describes a less common phenomenon in my experience. A feeling of significance can disperse if it fails to find an embodiment, often going cosmic (a sunset leading to thoughts of mortality, say). Here the narrator's sensations spread out from the closely observed and identified to something that's regional rather than cosmic, the naming no longer an indication of acute observation.

George S said...

The death part is in the 'gap' for me, Looby. Everything around it is life, as you say. The death isn't what we know of Thomas's fate, it is the formlessness and lack of meaning we fear but are sometimes forced to face. It is the loss of all our senses at once. It is a kind of metaphysical / ontological death rather than a purely physical one.

Tim, thats very well put in your first paragraph. You're dead right. However, I still think there might have been no poem if the station had had a more familiar name.

The Englishness, as I try to suggest, resides chiefly in the status of the poem rather than the poem itself. Though I do bear in mind Thomas's poem 'Words' where he draws particular attention to specifically English words.

Out of us all
That make rhymes,
Will you choose
As the winds use
A crack in the wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through--
Choose me,
You English words?

'English Words' is the title of a relatively early poem of mine that sprang from a reading of Thomas's 'Words'.

panther said...

And, of course, we are not just aware of Thomas's death when we read "Adlestrop",we are aware (because we simply cannot be UNaware) of all the carnage and loss of the First World War itself, a trauma that touched all communities.

This gets me to wondering when Thomas actually wrote "Adlestrop". Just before the war ? or once the war had started ? Does he already know, when writing, that this particular England has already gone ? Not the landscape, not the birds, but the innocence. (What feels, at least, like innocence.)

James Hamilton said...

To take on what Panther's saying, Edwardian England as actually lived was a far more rebarbative and disjointed place than hindsight permits - there were many ("swimmers into cleanness leaping") who saw the coming of war as a solution, a means to clear up the mess. The mess of smokey, commercial, shallow, loutish England..

If Thomas experienced preWar England in this way (and the new biography hints at a rocky, insecure, argumentative existence)then the wistfulness people have perceived in the poem could indeed be hindsight.

I found this post headclearing, George - I'd wondered before at the discontinuity between what I knew about Thomas and what I thought I saw in the poem. I didn't think it impossible that a man like Thomas would come up with what I thought Adlestrop was - a Betjeman poem, if you like. But it did feel unlikely.

All of which would slot into a view which sees the "Edwardian Golden Age" as something unconsciously constructed after 1914-18 as a means to make sense of war experiences, to explain British victory and to give people some kind of story to rebuild around. Adlestrop the poem gets caught up in that, and some of its possible readings get sheared off in the process.

Gwil W said...

Amazing. I'm struck by the curious similarity to my poem Runcorn East which features a stopped train and a deceased blackbird.

George S said...

Is it s good as Adlestrop, Gwilym?

Gwil W said...

A tongue-in-cheek pastiche, it was well received by small press critics including Gerald England (New Hope International) and Alan Morrison (The Recusant):

Runcorn East can still be read at:

The original Adlestrop with a comment is on my PiR blog together with a poem by Frost. Enter Adlestrop in my blog search box.

Romantic poems about trains - hey, that's your next book George! Has anyone been on more lines? I dare say you'll soon be in the Guinness Book.

panther said...

James Hamilton, good points. Yes, we tend to see Edwardian England through a lens highly distorted by the First World War. WW1 was a terrible trauma AND it swept away stuff that probably needed to be swept away (the rigid lives of many women, a widespread and unexamined trust of authority, whether monarchical, political, ecclesiastical, or something else, and so on.

Getting off the train at Adlestrop in late June might not have been warm and wistful at the time ; I daresay such a gentle "event" might well have come to seem so to the enlisted or about-to-enlist Thomas.

When WAS this poem written, George ? Do we know ? I must google.

James Hamilton said...

Panther, the notes here fill in some of the chronological details - Thomas's notes are extraordinarily textspeakesque! Nothing there to shift George's interpretation: I must admit to wanting to see the rest of the working notebook that this is taken from..