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.
Philip Edward Thomas was born in Lambeth in 1878 but from a very early age had a love of the countryside which developed into a passion. For this we can probably look to his aunt in Swindon as whenever he visited her for a holiday he by all accounts “babbled” about the green fields and all of its associated pleasures. This was to become a defining characteristic of his short life, that and the melancholy that he inherited from his mother and which runs like a dark stream through much of his poetry.
On leaving Oxford he had high ambitions but ended up scratching a living through journalism of the literary kind, reviewing books and the like. It was poorly paid and work was hard to come by, contributing perhaps to his sense of impatience and the anger and bitterness that would dog him and those who loved him in the defining years of his life.
Whenever his name is mentioned the first word that people tend to come out with is ‘Adlestrop’ and the poem above has become one of the nation’s best loved as it seems to strike a chord with so many people and on so many levels. The poem was triggered by a train journey taken on the 25th of June 1914, at a time when Thomas was going through something of a reinvention, and drafted some months later though by all accounts it was a difficult birth. Striven by indecision over enlistment Thomas was suddenly able to write poems like never before and in November to December 1914 he wrote five poems, one of which was Adlestrop.
He was an extremely gifted literary critic with a particular penchant for reviewing poetry and in October 1913 had met Robert Frost – a defining moment in his life and possibly one that would ultimately lead to his untimely death in April 1917 at the Battle of Arras. Frost encouraged Thomas to try his hand at poetry and if it hadn’t been for his influence this poem may never have been written. Sadly it is now well known that Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ was written for Edward Thomas and may have unwittingly changed his path to one of enlistment, warfare and his ultimate demise on that foreign field. It has been suggested from his notes that Thomas was going to visit Frost on the day of the train ride and it was a particularly beautiful day with blackbirds singing in the willow trees of Adlestrop as the train awaited its departure.
The poem was written in England before Thomas was exposed to the horrors of war and reflects his love of nature and of country which is evident throughout his prose work ‘The Icknield Way’ published only a year before. The small village of Adlestrop is little-changed from how it would have been when the poem was written – obscure and everyone’s typical image of an idyllic country village. When I passed through at the weekend no one left and no one came either and the church there was filled with a poignant silence as I read this memorial to the brave young men who had left this tiny village never to return.
In some ways the poem has a sense of John Clare about it for they both shared a love of the countryside and of nature
The gay convolvulus, wreathing round the thorn,
Agape for honey showers;
And slender kingcup, burnished with the dew
Of morning’s early hours
…but it also reflects the stark reality of what lay ahead for communities such as Adlestrop. Only Thomas himself knows exactly what he meant by the express-train but I fancy it was a reference not to the train he had journeyed on but what lay ahead, when the express-train of war would stop unwontedly at villages like Adlestrop and carry away their young men not to glory but to death and by doing this would change rural England forever.