On the borders of Wicklow and Carlow on a cool autumn evening, we sped towards the church where sheaves of grain in the porch welcomed Friday evening worshippers and the faithful prepared to raise the song of harvest home. In a moment of reverie, the colleague driving us spoke of visiting the church at Adlestrop.
‘Where the express train drew up unwontedly?’
‘Yes, but the station is long gone. I think they might have a sign to mark its former position. Who was that poem by?’
‘Betjeman?’ I thought aloud, he had a love for railways; but, of course not, he was much too late. ‘Auden? Spender?’ I continued.
‘No, they are too well known. It was by someone less famous.’
‘It was the eve of the First World War, wasn’t it? That is why it is so poignant’.
Taking the Blackberry from my pocket, ‘Adlestrop’ was typed into Google. ‘Edward Thomas’, I said.
‘Yes, of course, Edward Thomas’.
‘The poem is extraordinarily atmospheric, it seems to capture something; an end of things’.
We continued in silence.
What was it that ‘Adlestrop’ captured? The eve of the First World War is nigh on a century ago, it is not as though it is evocative of personal memories. Perhaps it is a sense that this rural idyll is a foreshadowing of the earthen hell of the Western Front, perhaps it is read through eyes that know what is to follow. Perhaps there is something more.
Perhaps there is an evocation of memories of railways and the moods they created. Not the prosaic railways where diesel multiple units have replaced carriages hauled by locomotives; not the trains where they have ‘managers’ and where anyone with money enough to travel by rail is assailed by constant announcements regarding stations and facilities; not the trains operated by companies focused upon little other than the bottom line. Instead, the ideal of the railway.
‘Adlestrop’ evokes an ordered world, where the unexpected is worthy of remark. It evokes a place of safety, of security, of predictability. It conjures images of past train travel, the feeling of being carried along to a predetermined destination. It speaks of a lost world of certainty, of a lost world of wide vistas and unlimited possibilities.
How prosaic it must have been for an express train to be pulled up at a halt where neither boarding nor alighting might occur, yet the prose of the moment becomes poetic in Edward Thomas’ words. Perhaps that is the real loss, the ability to translate prose into a poetry that might transform the most mundane of moments.