Second Lieutenant Edward Thomas of the Artists’ Rifles died at Arras 98 years ago today. On Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, a shell passed close by to him. His body was unmarked, but the shock killed him.
Edward Thomas’ poem “Adlestrop” must be one of the most evocative in the English language.
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” captures? The First World War is 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, 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. In his biography, “Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas” he is quoted as saying, 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 fears a world of uniform greyness; no dark moments, but no light moments either. The cost of dismissing sorrow is the loss of the counterbalance of joy. 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”?