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by Edward Thomas
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-herbs, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that moment a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Confusion exists over exactly which train Edward and Helen Thomas took on that Midsummer Day (24th June, 1914). If the poem is to be taken literally, there was only one express on the Paddington/Worcester line that day, which may have stopped 'unwontedly' at Adlestrop (in the heart of the Cotswolds) - perhaps due to snapped signal wires - circa 3.18 p.m. Another possibility exists - namely that a stopping train (scheduled to arrive earlier at Adlestrop at 12.46p.m.) may have carried the poet. This version is given credence by Thomas's own 'Field Note Book' which records: 'Then we stopped at Adlestrop, thro the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 & one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam'. Either way, the Thomases were en route to stay for a few days with Robert Frost at Leadington, after going to the ballet in London. The day, emphatically was hot: the local stationmaster's records list it as 80 degrees Fahrenheit -this, last, pre-war summer was long and dry.
Edward Thomas was catapulted into poetry late in his thirties. Although he'd had the benefit of an Oxford University education, his time-consuming work - as a free-lance reviewer and travel-writer - was often insufficient to provide adequately for his wife and their three children. Thomas was drawn to poetry, respected for his reviews on the subject and acquainted with many of 'The Georgians', but he himself felt that he lacked the affinity for that medium. It was largely through the influence of his new friend Robert Frost (whose own work he'd helped to introduce to a wider readership) that he began to find his own poetic 'voice': this, and the fact that as a serving soldier he could at last find the time and financial security to write verse. His whole poetic oeuvre of 144 poems dates from the last two years of his life.
Fairly typically, Thomas went through agonies of indecision before enlisting in the 'Artist's Rifles' in July, 1915. His duties (as a corporal) were initially as a map-reading instructor in Essex and it is probable that, due to his age, he could have remained in this non-combatant role. However, he would (in November, 1916) finally be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 'Royal Garrison Artillery'. Frost later admitted that his own, much-anthologised poem, 'The Road not Taken', was 'a mild satire on the chronic vacillating habits of Edward Thomas'.
'Adlestrop' was composed on 8th January, 1915, when the writer was 'laid up quite immovable' with an ankle badly sprained from a trip on New Year's Day. He was living at this time at Steep in Hampshire. The first stanza went through four versions in two MSS drafts, but otherwise the poem was little altered. 'Express-train' was originally 'steam train', 'unwontedly' was previously 'unexpectedly' and 'cloudlets' were 'cloud tiers'. The poet equivocated with a comma before settling on a full-stop after the first word, 'Yes'. Sadly, Thomas never saw the proofs for the volume in which 'Adlestrop'
was to be published. Poems came out under the sobriquet 'Edward Eastaway' and six months posthumously.
On the 30th January, 1917, Thomas sailed for France, serving with number 244 Siege battery. He died ten weeks later (at the age of 39) when, on the first day of the battle of Arras (April 9th), a German shell exploded close by. His body was unmarked, but the shockwave from the blast stopped his heart and he would have been killed instantly.
Adlestrop station no longer exists. Though the line - part of the old 'Great Western Railway' system- still runs through this same (Gloucestershire) area, the station itself was closed to passengers, in accordance with the 'Beeching cuts', on 3rd January, 1966.
Cooke, W., Edward Thomas: A Critical Biography, Fabers (1970)
Farjeon, E., Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years, Sutton (1997)
Harvey, A., Adlestrop Revisited, Sutton (1999)
Thomas, E., Collected Poems, Fabers (1979)
Kevin Saving © 2009