Buying Matthew Hollis’ book Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas because of a single poem, ‘Adlestrop,’ there is a pondering of what it is in the poem that prompts the purchase.
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.
The poem is extraordinarily atmospheric, it seems to capture something; but 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, where Edward Thomas would die on Easter Monday 1917, 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, 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; 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. Thomas’ capacity to transform a moment arises from a personality where moments could shift from darkness to light, or, more ominously, from light to darkness.
Suffering depression so deep that he was at the point of suicide on one occasion, Thomas, nevertheless, fears that the loss of the darkness might bring a loss of the light, writing, ‘I wonder whether for a person like myself whose most intense moments were those of depression a cure that destroys the depression may not destroy the intensity’.
Thomas’ perception of depression sounds a familiar experience. Depression is not like a sudden acute moment that can be isolated and identified, it’s more like clouds across the sun: light and shadow. There are moments of brilliant light that are suddenly obscured and dark times that are suddenly illuminated by a piercing light. What the medical world seems to offer is a uniform greyness; no dark moments, but no light moments either.
In the dark moments, it is necessary to persuade oneself that this is not the world as it is. But, if the dark moments are unreal, is there also an air of unreality about the light? Is the cost of dismissing sorrow the loss of the counterbalance of joy? Is the price for saying that the pain does not exist, the dismissal of delight as no more than imaginary?
Would it be possible to have a world without the darkness? Would there still be a place for people like Vincent van Gogh and Edward Thomas? Is the darkness not the price of ‘Adlestrop’?