It is the 140th anniversary of the birth of the English poet Edward Thomas, born on 3rd March 1878, he died on the Western Front at Easter 1917. Once, Edward Thomas’ work caused an argument. Once, an assertion that his poem “Adlestrop” was the most evocative in the English language, brought a swift retort, “says who?” Of course, it was only “says me,” and the argument was lost and admiration for Thomas’ work thereafter became something private and personal. Re-reading “Adlestrop,” a half dozen years after, perhaps it speaks to deep personal thoughts and preferences:
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.
Perhaps the evocation of steam railways is at the heart of the appeal of the poem. There is something deep-rooted in the psyche of many English males with which the thought of a locomotive pulling an express train finds resonance. It is possible to stand on the platform of one of the numerous heritage railways dotteedaround the country and to close one’s eyes and listen to the sound and re-engage with the moment at Adlestrop.
Perhaps the sight of hay meadows and the sound of birdsong speak of an idyll of rural England, a place of farmsteads and village greens, a countryside of winding lanes and unhurried waggons.
Of course, the steam railways were not the polished museum pieces now enjoyed by millions of visitors. They were altogether more prosaic and were abandoned when electric and diesel options became available. Nor did rural England correspond with the idea of an Edwardian golden age, poverty was extensive, depopulation commonplace, countless young men from agricultural communities enlisted in the army in 1914 because it offered them work.
Yet, despite the realities, Edward Thomas’ most famous poem still has the power to speak to the heart. If it is the task of the post to make the truth beautiful and the beautiful true, then “Adlestrop” transfigured an ordinary scene and gave beauty a physical form.