Sunday, June 30, 2013

Back to Steep, Yew Tree Cottage and the garden.

'Old Man' or Southernwood.

After Adlestrop, 'Old Man' is probably Thomas's best-known poem. It  almost existed in prose form three weeks before the poem, in  mid-November 1914,  prose which is close to poetry, the poetry 'trying to get out' as  it did on 6th December.
An extract from the novel:

'Myfanwy was watching him from the porch. She reached out to break off a sprig from the top of the grey-green shrub called Old Man or Lad’s Love growing there and sniffed at it absent-mindedly.

‘Baba – how many times must I tell you not to do that!’  Myfanwy looked gravely at him and ran off, through the gate into the Dodds’ next door. The two gardens formed the boundary of her world; he wondered what she would remember of it. He had thought so intensely in recent years about his own childhood, but he found that these thoughts would only take him so far. Some memories were too elusive for thought. This shrub, the scent of it, tantalised him with the mystery of what it was, what memory it was, that was eluding him.

The shrub was still only half the height of Myfanwy because of her habit of picking a stalk and sniffing it whenever she went in or out of the house. He’d written about it only a few weeks before in his notebook – he would look it up once the pear was pruned. The enigma of those contradictory names pleased him, but it was the elusiveness of memories that was the compelling interest of the subject for him. He had almost visionary memories of certain gardens he’d known as a child, when with your back to the house the garden path stretched on for ever. He would mould those thoughts and notes into a poem, a long poem without too clear a structure, just as the scent led him to ‘Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.’ '
Old Man, or Lads-Love, - in the name there's nothing
To one that knows not Lads-Love, or Old Man,
The hoar green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with rosemary and lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.            

The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as someday the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last on to the path,
Thinking perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, 'though it is as old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I ca only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.
As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember;
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad's-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

On 'Digging-( Today I think/Only with scents') and 'Sowing' - what can I say? Poems that many readers of Thomas like best, and understandably. 'Digging' is the more complex of the two - 'thinking with scents' is surely addressing the 'mind/body division' -  while 'Sowing' delights in the day and the activity. Edna Longley says, "in this 'perfect' lyric about perfection, physical and psychic ease seem one." I love it and use the last lines as the title of Helen's memoir in the novel.
To-day I think
Only with scents, - scents dead  leaves yield,
And bracken, and wild carrot's seed,
And the square mustard field;

Odours that rise
When the spade wounds the root of tree,
Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed,
Rhubarb or celery;

The smoke's smell, too,
Flowing from where a bonfire burns                            
The dead, the waste, the dangerous,
And all to sweetness turns.

It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth,
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth. 

 IT was a perfect day
As sweet and dry was the ground
As tobacco-dust.

I tasted deep the hour
Between the far                                                 
Owl's chuckling first soft cry
And the first star.

A long stretched hour it was;              
Nothing undone
Remained; the early seeds
All safely sown.

And now, hark at the rain,
Windless and light,
Half a kiss, half a tear,
Saying goodnight.


Last July's allotment - the point of it all.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Settings:Arras, Beaurains and Agny, Northern France

These uninspiring pictures show Beaurains as it is today, with the road to Arras, just a few kilometres. I had always wanted to see it as well as Agny where I went some years ago. It is where Thomas was billeted and spent most of his time.

Le Transloy

While driving through northern France we took in Beaurains and also visited a village very near it - Le Transloy, because we have always had in the family a shell-case, engraved with a deer, presumably by a bored or wounded soldier, and the name Le Transloy. It's a German shell. So I photographed the memorial and a near -by cemetery.
Back to 1916-7, in Arras.

Arras town square with a band playing.  The ruined houses are as Edward Thomas described them in his war diary, the notebook he kept during the ten weeks he had in France.
The diary was discovered by the late Edward Cawston Thomas among his father, Merfyn's papers and painstakingly transcribed. It was very hard for Edward to transcribe, being written in small handwriting in a pocket-sized notebook, but you can try too, as it can be seen on the First World War digitalised Archive, University of Oxford. Professor George Thomas worked from a magnified version and I read it from his Collected Poems Annex..

The note-book was exhibited at the Imperial War Museum, in 2004 I think, all creased by the shell-blast that killed Edward Thomas.

Here he is on Arras: 'Afternoon to Arras.-Town Hall like Carreg Cennin. Beautiful small white square empty. Top story of high house ruined cloth armchair and a garment across it left as fly shell arrived. ... To Arras and began showing sectors and arcs on 1/10000 maps.  ...Place Victor Hugo white houses ans shutters and sharpened fuller and dome in middle. Beautiful.'

Much of Thomas's time was spent with his battalion in the village of Beaurains, or what was left of it. It was absolutely devastated by the war. Here is a picture from 1916

To write the First World War scenes I relied almost entirely on Thomas's War Diary, though the Imperial War Museum artefacts and 'trenches' lent detail and atmosphere. I did not  try to convey the broader reality of the War,which has been done so well by so many - I stayed with Thomas's recording of what he saw.
It's impossible not to believe that he would, as he always did, have used his notes for poems to be written:
Enemy plane like pale moth beautiful among shrapnel bursts.

A still starry night with only machine guns and rifles.

Sods on dug-out fledged with fine fronds of yarrow.

                                                     Hare, partridges and wild duck in field S.E. of guns.  The shelling must have slaughtered many jackdaws

but has made homes for many more.

           Blackbirds sing at battery.

Agny, in a small cemetery, is where he is buried.

Edward Thomas wrote no poems in France as far as we know. Just three lines which reflect an earlier poem, 'Roads'.

'Where any turn may lead to Heaven
Or any corner may hide Hell
Roads shining like river up hill after rain.'


While away from home I'll do a very informal blog occasionally on our village, Trausse Minervois. See

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Steep and around: Edward Thomas country -  Churches.

Re-run as on holiday.

Prior's Dean Church and yew tree. (From Petersfield Post - Tom Muckley)

There is a good case for putting two poems at the centre of this post.
 'The Manor Farm' was one of two poems of his own which Edward included in his anthology, 'This England', a pocket-sized book intended to be taken by soldiers to the front. The other was 'Haymaking', set in Dymock and in summer. Edna Longley writes:
'Like the anthology itself, they seem designed to suggest 'some of the echoes called up by the name of England' and to counter wartime rhetoric that took England's name in vain. Thomas's Summer and Winter scenes, set in long perspectives, aim at a deeper form of cultural resistance.'

 Here is an extract from the novel:

 On Christmas Eve he began to write about walking in the first February sunshine down towards the glowing rose-coloured old bricks of Prior’s Dean manor house. It was a modest seventeenth century house, three stories high, with diamond-paned windows. Its thatched farm buildings stood alongside. The winter sun brightened the mossy tiles and the windows sparkled; white doves perched on the roof enjoying the new warmth. The only sound was the gentle swish of tails from three carthorses leaning over a gate. As it was Sunday they were at rest.

 The church was small, smaller than a barn, but beside it stood a great ancient yew tree, its complex trunk sculpted and hollowed into deep red caverns. The harmony of house, farm, church and tree, the lives of animals in that Sunday silence – the timelessness, the renewing of it all by the thaw – .....'

 And the poem, written from notes of: 'the end of the first warm day in February Prior's Dean, where the Elizabethan house looks across at the primitive little Norman church and its aged yew.' (Whiteman). 

The Manor Farm
The rock-like mud unfroze a little and rills
Ran and sparkled down each side of the road
Under the catkins wagging in the hedge.
But earth would have her sleep out, spite of the sun;
Nor did I value that thin gilding beam
More than a pretty February thing
Till I came down to the old Manor Farm,
And church and yew-tree opposite, in age
Its equals and in size. The church and yew
And farmhouse  slept in a Sunday silentness.
The air raised not a straw. The steep farm roof,
With tiles duskily glowing, entertained
The mid-day sun; and up and down the roof
White pigeons nestled. There was no sound but one.
Three cart-horses were looking over a gate
Drowsily through their forelocks, swishing their tails
Against a fly, a solitary fly.
 The Winter's cheek flushed as if he had drained
Spring, Summer, and Autumn at a draught
And smiled quietly. But 'twas not Winter—
Rather a season of bliss unchangeable
Awakened from farm and church where it had lain
Safe under tile and thatch for ages since
This England, Old already, was called Merry.
Steep church itself  is part- Norman with a rather odd-looking Victorian belfry. Every year near to March 3rd(Thomas's birthday) the Edward Thomas Fellowship meets in Steep for a walk and ends the day with its annual meeting in the church with readings and music..


On the south wall are(or were) two small memorial windows, commissioned from Lawrence Whistler in 1978, the anniversary of Thomas's birth.

The left represents a contended Thomas, walker, gardener. The right is the depressive but perceptive Thomas on moving house, into the New House at Wick Green  where the wind and mist added to very troubled years, and the window leads down to Arras.
More sadness - that window was smashed in 2010 but may be replaced.

'A MEMORIAL window inside All Saints’ Church in Steep has been smashed by vandals.

Intruders broke into the church sometime overnight between Tuesday, September 28 and Wednesday, September 29 by hurling a piece of masonry from the churchyard through a lancet window in the south wall.
The window, designed and engraved by Laurence Whistler, commemorated the famous Steep war poet Edward Thomas.
Police are investigating the crime, but in the meantime the vicar of Steep, the Rev John Owen, and fellow members of his parochial church council are finding out if the window can be repaired.
Churchgoer David Dobson said: “It was smashed into smithereens, but the pieces have been carefully collected and the original design of the window still exists. They are deciding whether to commission a copy, or whether to consider a different window altogether. Whatever they decide, there is a clear need for greater protection for the windows.”   ' Petersfield Post

The New House

NOW first, as I shut the door,
I was alone
In the new house; and the wind
Began to moan.

Old at once was the house,
And I was old;
My ears were teased with the dread
Of what was foretold,

Nights of storm, days of mist, without end;
Sad days when the sun
Shone in vain: old griefs and griefs
Not yet begun.

All was foretold me; naught
Could I foresee;
But I learnt how the wind would sound
After these things should be.
Publishing news: Streetbooks publisher Frank Egerton has entered A Conscious Englishman for the Costa prize.
My fellow student on the University of Oxford Creative Writing Diploma, Elisabeth Gifford, has her first novel, The Secrets of The Sea House, being published on 1st August. We have seen it shaping  into a lovely novel, in a setting of Scottish islands  which Liz knows well - it will be a  very rewarding read.
I'll do a very informal blog on our village in France, Trausse Minervois, while away:

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

28, 2013

Steep, Robert Frost visits, and three local pubs


The plaque on the memorial stone, erected on Shoulder of Mutton hill, Steep, in 1935. After his name and dates is written  "And I rose up and knew I was tired and I continued my journey."

 I believe it's from 'In Pursuit of Spring' but not sure  - ( Guy, forgive me!) A comment would be welcome.

A very  important pub - or inn as Thomas would have called it - is the  Pub-with-no-name at Froxfield, a comfortable walk from Steep: it is the subject of  his first known poem, Up in the Wind.(3rd December 1914).

The Pub with no name - the inn sign frame remains blank. ( Its name is The White Horse)

In November 1914  he drafted a piece in his exercise book about the inn and the 'wild girl' who worked there, "a daughter of the house, fresh from a long absence in service in London, a bright  active wildish slattern with a cockney accent and her hair half down."  He begins:

"Tall beeches overhang the inn, dwarfing and half hiding it, for it lies back a field’s breadth from the by road. The field is divided from the road by a hedge and only a path from one corner and a cart track from the other which meet under the beeches connect the inn with the road. But for a signboard or rather the post and empty iron frame of a signboard close to the road behind the hedge a traveller could not guess at an inn. The low dirty white building looks like a farmhouse, with a lean-to, a rick and a shed of black boarding at one side . . . "

As Edna Longley writes, "Up in the Wind is Thomas's closest approximation to the Robert Frost "eclogue" in which rural speakers tell or act out their story." Her annotation to the poem adds so much to the reading of it.

Another inn that appears in the novel is at the village of Hawkley, a walk away down the 'other' side of the hill, through Oakshott with the watercress stream. This is part of the Hanger's Way walk (beech hangers are wooded slopes.)This extract concerns the imminent move of Edward from Steep - really the beginning of the end:

After a morning’s work he decided that instead of going back to Yew Tree he would go to the inn at Hawkley; it was hardly a greater distance, but in the other direction. From Old Litten Lane he followed the north-side hanger, passing the great excavations of badgers whose destruction someone had overlooked. Tiny chips of white snail shell glinted in the russet-brown earth.

Beyond the cropped flinty sheep-fields lay the lushness of Oakshott stream valley.

Its green bowl was surrounded by high hills, with Cheesecombe Farm lying comfortably at the base. Watercress grew all along the stream and under the plank bridge. It hadn’t been gathered this year. He thought that the old man, who he always thought of as Jack Noman, must be dead; ‘Jack’ had last appeared with watercress on a lovely May day more than two years before. Edward reached down and dipping his hand into a cluster of the streaming leaves, he snapped off some stalks, bringing them up to his face. The water cooled him and the tang of the cress filled him with memories.

Crossing Oakshott Rill

With bread, cheese, cress and ale he sat facing the sun outside Hawkley Inn. He was suddenly sad. At the cottage he had only been fretful at the disruption and nuisance of moving, but now, after this walk, he felt what Steep and Hampshire meant to him and what it was to leave. It was a landscape which had often made his life bearable, had helped him to find something of himself, just by walking, feeling the earth under his feet or his whole body when he lay down to rest. He had come near to wanting to root there, to do no more roaming.

The climb back up to Wheatham Hill from the valley bottom was strenuous, a steep path through the woods. Down its centre was a cleft, a miniature canyon of creamy chalk where rain formed a stream-bed in wet weather. Once at the top, he went a little lower down the Shoulder of Mutton to where the trees were thinner and he could see over six English counties at a glance. His eyes followed the long white road away towards the downs and the distant estuaries of the south coast.

He sensed that there was some knowledge that he was not quite allowing himself; that this was more, perhaps, than leaving Steep. Was it because of what they meant to him, those counties – his Hampshire, and Wiltshire, Berkshire and the rest, that he must leave them? He believed that for him, now, all roads must lead to France.

His view from the hill was blurred with tears. The thought of parting from everything he knew brought for a moment a sense of dread. It was this loss, rather than what he was going towards, that he felt and feared.

He had after all, found a home, and it was at Steep.


The third pub brings us back to Steep, or at least its outer borders, almost in the village of Sheet. It is the lovely little Harrow Inn - a tiny bar which is surely much as it was in 1915 when I have Robert visiting Edward just before he leaves with his family and Merfyn Thomas for America.

The Harrow, Steep.
From my 'Helen' memoir :
 'Robert did come to Steep after all. The Frost family had all had such a busy time, hurrying down to London to see certain officials, one concerning Merfyn, but Robert was kind: he sent a telegram and arrived from the station almost at the same time. Edwy was so pleased. With Robert’s help he could reach the old Harrow Inn. He was so keen that Robert should see it – its tiny room no bigger than our living room and Mr Coffin the landlord with his droll ways. So Edwy sat on his Humber and half scooted with his good ankle for the mile past the church, with Robert pushing on the saddle, both of them laughing like children. They stayed there most of the day until it was time for the train.

 It was all arranged – Merfyn and I would come to Dymock by train on the fifteenth, meet them there, then take a train to Liverpool. And then I would have to come home without my son.

Edwy and Robert stood at our gate in the twilight, still talking. They stopped for a moment to marvel at our blackbird, still singing his heart out. Then they embraced and Robert was gone. The talk was all of how soon Edward would be following them to America. He limped back into the cottage with his eyes shining. I turned away so that he would not see my face and be angry with me for spoiling his mood.'


From 'Up in the Wind:'

Two roads cross, and not a house in sight
Except " The White Horse " in this clump of beeches.
It hides from either road, a field's breadth back ;
And it's the trees you see, and not the house,
Both near and far, when the clump's the highest thing
And homely, too, upon a far horizon
To one that knows there is an inn within.

" 'Twould have been different," the wild girl shrieked, " suppose
That widow had married another blacksmith and
Kept on the business. This parlour was the smithy.
If she had done, there might never have been an inn ;
And I, in that case, might never have been born.
Years ago, when this was all a wood
And the smith had charcoal-burners for company,
A man from a beech-country in the shires
Came with an engine and a little boy
(To feed the engine) to cut up timber here.
It all happened years ago. The smith
Had died, his widow had set up an alehouse —
I could wring the old thing's neck for thinking of it.
Well, I suppose they fell in love, the widow
And my great-uncle that sawed up the timber :
Leastways they married. The little boy stayed on.
He was my father." She thought she'd scrub again —
" I draw the ale and he grows fat," she muttered —
But only studied the hollows in the bricks
And chose among her thoughts in stirring silence.
The clock ticked, and the big saucepan lid
Heaved as the cabbage bubbled, and the girl
Questioned the fire and spoke : " My father, he
Took to the land. A mile of it is worth
A guinea ; for by the time all trees
Except these few about the house were gone :
That's all that's left of the forest unless you count
The bottoms of the charcoal-burners' fires —
We ploughed one up at times. Did you ever see
Our signboard ? " No. The post and empty frame
I knew. Without them I should not have guessed
The low grey house and its one stack under trees
Was a public house and not a hermitage.
" But can that empty frame be any use ?
Now I should like to see a good white horse
Swing there, a really beautiful white horse,
Galloping one side, being painted on the other."
" But would you like to hear it swing all night
And all day ? All I ever had to thank
The wind for was for blowing the sign down.
Time after time it blew down and I could sleep.
At last they fixed it, and it took a thief
To move it, and we've never had another :
It's lying at the bottom of the pond.
But no one's moved the wood from off the hill
There at the back, although it makes a noise
When the wind blows ; as if a train were running
The other side, a train that never stops
Or ends. And the linen crackles on the line
Like a wood fire rising." " But if you had the sign
You might draw company. What about Kennington ? "
She bent down to her scrubbing with " Not me :
Not back to Kennington. Here I was born,
And I've a notion on these windy nights
Here I shall die. Perhaps I want to die here.
I reckon I shall stay. But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off.
Or once now and then quite still, though when I die
I'd have it blowing that I might go with it
Somewhere distant, where there are trees no more
And I could wake and not know where I was
Nor even wonder if they would roar again.
Look at those calves."

Between the open door
And the trees two calves were wading in the pond,
Grazing the water here and there and thinking,
Sipping and thinking, both happily, neither long.
The water wrinkled, but they sipped and thought,
As careless of the wind as it of us.
" Look at those calves. Hark at the trees again."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Read Edward Thomas's poems, then read this if you are studying Thomas: that was the message in this review from the Oxonian! I was delighted to open my emails after several days travelling to the South of France to find the link to the review, below, sent from Frank Egerton, publisher of the novel.

It is such a perceptive and well-informed review, and I wouldn't quibble with its criticisms.
Here it is in full:

10 June, 2013Issue 22.4BiographyFictionLiteraturePoetryWriters
Email This Article Print This Article

the Oxonian Review

10 June, 2013
Calum Mechie and Simon Morley

Neutralising Orwell

The prize which bears George Orwell's name pays no homage to the polemical principles which charged his work.

Gabriel Roberts

The Creations of Edward Thomas

Despite problems of retrospect, this novel about the making of the poet is a valuable contribution as interest in Thomas grows.

The Creations of Edward Thomas

Gabriel Roberts
A Conscious EnglishmanMargaret Keeping
A Conscious Englishman
StreetBooks, 2013
290 pages
ISBN 978-0956424235
In 1914 Edward Thomas began writing poetry. He was 36 and a well-regarded writer of prose, including biographies, an enormous corpus of literary criticism, and several books on walking in Britain. Before his death in 1917, he wrote 142 poems, most of which are short, brooding meditations on nature and man’s place within it. The final years of Thomas’s life, in which he transformed himself into a poet, have captivated the interest of writers. Following Eleanor Farjeon’s memoir Edward Thomas: the Last Four Years (1958), the subject has been treated biographically in Matthew Hollis’s Now All Roads Lead to France (2011), dramatically in Nick Dear’s The Dark Earth and the Light Sky (2012), and in a chapter of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways (2012). These works are now joined by a novel in Margaret Keeping’s A Conscious Englishman (2013).
The story begins in 1914 with Thomas and his family on holiday with the poet Robert Frost in Gloucestershire. With Frost’s encouragement Thomas begins thinking about poetry, but with the outbreak of the War he is also drawn to enlist, to prove that his love of the British landscape amounts to more than mere aestheticism. In dwelling on these twin vocations he neglects his children and Helen, his devoted wife, from whose anguished perspective much of the novel is written. He succeeds in writing poetry, but enlists in the Artists’ Rifles in July 1915 (voluntarily, as he was above the age for conscription), setting in motion the events which will lead to his death. The later sections of the novel describe Helen’s sense of betrayal as Thomas pursues his destructive desire for military heroism and his self-becoming as a poet. The novel ends with his death near Arras in the Easter offensive of 1917.
On the face of it, the novel bears clear similarities to Pat Barker’s Regeneration (1991) and to its sequels The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995). The novels share a common subject in the psychological troubles of poets in the First World War and a matter-of-fact frankness in their prose. But there are also important differences. A Conscious Englishman is more squarely historical than Barker’s novels, which contain fictional as well as historical characters, and is concerned more directly with poetry. Edward and Helen, and even the War itself, are in some ways tangential, as the central event in the novel is the creation of Thomas’s poems. The reader’s attention is directed towards Thomas’s achievement, rather than towards Keeping’s own, and in this there is a pleasing modesty.
But there are also problems. To a reader with some familiarity with Thomas’s poems, the narrative of their composition is likely to seem preconceived. Regarding the poem ‘Old Man’, for instance, in which Thomas reflects on the herb Artemisia abrotanum, Keeping writes (here in the voice of Helen):
By the front door the grey-green bush of Old Man grew, and the other herbs we bought from cuttings whenever we moved house, lavender and rosemary.
This is apt to seem rather too knowing, like a furtive authorial wink. The problem deepens, however, when Thomas composes the poem while watching his daughter at play:
Some memories were too illusive for thought. This shrub, the scent of it, tantilised him with the mystery of what it was, what memory it was, that was eluding him.
The shrub was still only half the height of Myfanwy because of her habit of picking a stalk and sniffing it whenever she went in or out of the house. He’d written about it only a few weeks before in his notebook […] He would mould those thoughts and notes into a poem, a long poem without too clear a structure, just as the scent led him to Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
There is a sense of teleology here which is false to the creative process. To a reader who knows the poem, Thomas’s thoughts will seem to gravitate to their target, rather than finding their way through trial and error. The creation of the poem must surely have been less certain and unerring. The problem is not unique to Keeping, as any retelling of an artistic creation will struggle to convey its newness. But it weighs heavily in a novel in which such moments of creation are important.
A further consequence of this narrative investment in the poems is that each composition is an achievement, a step which moves Thomas towards his goal of becoming a poet. This gives the novel direction and impetus, but at the risk of misreading the poems. One of their most characteristic features is their tendency to end on a note of existential menace, an unseated unhappiness and a sense of life’s fleeting beauties. The second stanza of ‘February Afternoon’ is a good example:
Time swims before me, making as a day
A thousand years, while the broad ploughland oak
Roars mill-like, and men strike and bear the stroke
Of war as ever, audacious or resigned,
And God still sits aloft in the array
That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone-blind.
This dark side of Thomas is absent from Keeping’s novel. Though there are many scenes in which he feels miserable and in which Helen feels excluded and misprized, these emotions have identifiable objects and reasonable grounds. Thomas worries about becoming a poet and whether he should enlist in the army; Helen worries about their children, about failing to become pregnant, and about the attention which Thomas receives from other women. All this, when handled by Keeping’s steady prose, seems fair enough. But the moods of Thomas’s poems are diffuse and stormy, overcasting his thoughts and deeds.
As an historical novel, the work is a mixed success. Keeping has certainly done her research and is familiar with the landscapes which she describes. She sustains her attention to the facts through a complex narrative and helpfully indicates when she is quoting from original documents. But there is also a penumbra of anachronism. The repeated references to Thomas’s unhappiness as ‘depression’ and to sex with his wife as ‘lovemaking’ (neither of which terms were in common use in the 1910s) are cases in point. The choice of issues, events, and people to include also accords rather too closely with modern perceptions of their historical importance. There are allusions to racial segregation in America and allegations of German atrocities, to the suffragettes and the sinking of the Lusitania, and to Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Owen, and Ezra Pound. There is little opportunity here for historical encounter. In political terms, moreover, Thomas and wife are with the angels, disapproving of racial and sexual inequality, sympathizing with the German people while at war with them, and disdaining the class-bound nature of English society. These were, of course, their attitudes, but for Keeping to describe them in recognizably modern terms, and to present so little that jars with modern liberal values, daubs the novel with historical cliché.
But all this may sound too negative. A Conscious Englishman holds its own against other versions of the same story and provides an easier route than academic studies into the contexts of Thomas’s writing. Anyone with a burgeoning interest in Thomas should begin by reading the poems, but A Conscious Englishman is a worthy addition to the expanding secondary literature. It is curious, however, that Thomas is so much in the ascendant. The effect of eco-criticism in the last two decades, which has dislocated Thomas from previous classifications as a war-poet and a nature-writer, may explain the growing interest of academics. But his wider popularity, including settings of his poetry to music and an ‘Edward Thomas Fellowship’ promoting his work, is harder to explain. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that Thomas’s works depict the vanishing rural beauties of the British landscape, but with a wariness of sentimentality. This balance may be especially important now, when the degradation of the natural world continues, but when longing for pastoral idylls seems jejune.
Gabriel Roberts is reading for a D.Phil. in English at Worcester College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.


Saturday, June 8, 2013

This will be my last blog for a week or so as I'm camping - back when I have established a link somewhere in France.

2.  Robert Frost and Edward Thomas  settings - Ryton and around.

Letter from Robert Frost, December 1917.

The Frosts moved  from Little Iddens to  a cottage near Ryton called The Gallows - it no longer exists. Half of it was thatched, something Elinor Frost had always wanted. Frost's moodiness was intense there, the wind in the elm trees at The Gallows troubled him and they had a difficult decision to make - whether to return to America.
 There were quarrels, reflected in the poem 'The Thatch.'  Robert said he sometimes felt the trees had more to say than he had. But the decision to go home and the restless mood led to this:

 'The Sound of Trees':

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;                                                       
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.    RF.                                                 (Out of copyright-  I do like that poem.)
Edward visited in November and it was then, as they walked in Lord Beauchamp's woods, that they were accused by a belligerent gun-wielding gamekeeper of trespassing. Robert reacted angrily while Edward was for backing off and trying to calm the situation; Robert even insisted on challenging the man in his own cottage at which the gamekeeper pointed his gun at Edward. (Ruins of the cottage are still visible at the edge of the wood - again I'm so sad to say I have lost irretrievably the photos I took there as well as the Ledbury ones but you can see a drawing on the map above.)
So much has been made of the incident since, even a claim that this was the over-whelming reason why Edward, having been seen as cowardly by Robert, volunteered and was ultimately killed.

Edward did refer to the matter occasionally but it's my belief that it was a very small element in his volunteering. His real motive was sheer patriotism.

Ryton to Redmarley path

More  Dymock

The Beauchamp Arms, Dymock

In the novel, and in real life, Edward and Robert drank  local cider here - Robert was not a great drinker, but Edward liked to find an inn and drink ale or cider. It is a fascinating historic pub and that rare thing, community owned. Here in the words of the Friends of the Beauchamp Arms:

The Beauchamp Arms is what you expect of a classic, English, village pub. There is a fireplace in the bar, polished furniture, brasses, and other ornaments: all adding to the homely welcome you will receive. The pub always has a good selection of real ales and other drinks. Pub food is served in the bar and the restaurant at lunch-time and in the evening.

Dymock is famous for its wild daffodils. There are many walks in the area: one starts from St Mary's church and ends at the Beauchamp Arms ( see here for directions).

Dymock is well-kown for the Dymock Poets (Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie, Robert Frost, and John Drinkwater) who lived in Dymock during the First World War.

The Beauchamp Arms is said to date from the late 16th century, and was a stop on the coach road from Ledbury to Newent and Gloucester.

The Beauchamp Arms is owned by the community; it was bought by the Parish Council in 1997. The pub is at the focal point of the village being adjacent to the Parish Hall, St Mary's church, and the village green (Wintours Green). The pub is actively supported by the Friends of the Beauchamp Arms (aka FoBA).

I have Robert speculating about the Lord Beaufort of the Beauchamp Arms, and the landowning aristocracy and class divisions which displeased him so much. In the event it was the same Lord Beauchamp who got him out of trouble after the gamekeeper episode in Ryton Firs.

William Rothenstein - The artist's farmhouse, Gloucestershire.

 On their way home from Dymock an epiphany, perhaps the real cause of Edward enlisting, took place. Here is an extract:

'The road stretched pale and empty when they did start out for home in the dusk. A low pink-washed farmhouse crouching at the foot of a great elm tree gleamed palely, lamplight yellow in one window. Edward stood looking, then spoke quietly.

‘When we were here in June they’d almost finished hay-making, do you remember? The scent of it on the road. The wagon nearly fully laden, standing in the shade of that yew, and the men taking a rest, leaning on their rakes; they and the horses utterly silent and still. It was as if they’d been there since the beginning of time and would be always the same, older than everything, even older than the farmhouse. Utterly timeless. Immortal.’

‘You’re full of good memories today, Edward.’

‘ I know I’ll never forget this place, this summer. The way the sun has shone on us, on our walks and talks. It’s made some ideas clearer to me, and I believe that’s true for you too. You have a great gift for talking about poetry as well as for writing it, Robert. That’s why I think you should write that book. And as for me, you’ve given me a sense of something – of possibilities ¾ that I haven’t had before. Ambition even.’

‘That’s what I want to hear. Ambition is good – I have it aplenty myself and it beats me how a man can live without it. Only I tell you again, the place to be ambitious is in America. Progress and adventure, not always looking back. That's why I’m pretty near ready to go home and I’m damned if you’re not going to come with me!’

‘We’ll see. Robert, you know how I waver. I do want to, believe me, but the truth is I have to depend on uncertain things. But look, it’s getting late, we’d better hurry on.’

‘No hurry, it’s great to walk in the dark. All the time there is,’ Robert drawled.

This is such a human landscape, Edward thought; every quarter of a mile or so another cottage or farmhouse. And always the high elms and the Lombardy poplars, reaching up into the darkening sky and sheltering each house. They passed a cottage in the dusk, seeing a faint light from the small square window and a thin line of blue smoke against the leaves of its sheltering elms. No-one could see that cottage and not long for his own home, or dream that this cottage was his home, he thought.

The silver sliver of a new moon rose near the horizon.

 Suddenly Edward stopped. He thought of France, of the soldiers there. He wondered how many of them would be seeing the same moon – or would they be too blinded to notice it? Blinded by smoke, excitement, pain, or terror? Vividly he pictured them, their eyes briefly glancing at the same moon that he was seeing from a safe and silent lane.

His mind was flooded with a new and overwhelming emotion. He stood still, gazing at the moon, while Robert walked ahead.  Something essential was missing, he realised, in all his love and admiration for English landscapes, these cottages, farms and trees, the country life. It seemed to him that he loved England in a foolish superficial way, only in terms of charm and aesthetics. As though he were just a detached observer. It was as if he hadn’t acknowledged it as his country.

To acknowledge it, perhaps – did not that mean he should be willing to die for his country? To do something, at least.

 ‘What’s halting you, Ed?’ Robert called. Edward didn’t hear him.

Would something have to be done, he thought, before he even had the right to look again with appreciation and composure at English landscape? At the elms and poplars around the houses, at the white campion flowers in the verges each side of the lane, the verges known as ‘No Man’s Garden’.

Edward wrote about this moment in his journal article, This England, the more subjective of three  accounts of the mood of people as the war got underway. Perhaps the poem closest to it in mood is this:

The Owl

      Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

     Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

     Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

     And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

Monday, June 3, 2013

A former post with new map and images.

Prose and place - the novel's four settings.

1. Leddington and Dymock, in summer and autumn.

Maps, so important to Edward throughout his life and indeed right through his military training to his death in France. Place was all-important too, and there is a great revival of interest and study in the cultural geography and indeed 'psychogeography' of his work.
My purpose in visiting: observing, absorbing and imagining the places he knew and trying to recreate them in the reader's mind.

Part One of A Conscious Englishman is set in Leddington(now spelt Leadington), near Ledbury, with excursions to Dymock, May Hill near Gloucester and the Malvern Hills. I paid four visits to the area, two of them with Friends of The Dymock poets, two separately. It is farming or market gardening country with orchards and copses still surviving alongside some over-large arable fields with the most startling red soil. In Dymock especially, half-timbered white-rendered   houses stand, while most cottages and farm-houses are of mellowed brick clearly reflecting the red-rust of the area's clay. 
Thomas family rented a room in a farm called Oldfields which still exists but is greatly altered and enlarged. I'm so sorry to say I did photograph it years ago but all those photos are lost- probably I hadn't even heard of blogs then. But there is a good picture available of the Frosts' rented cottage, Little Iddens. I walked the few hundred yards across a field between the two houses several times, thinking of how often the two families, and especially Edward and Robert, walked that way. Eleanor Farjeon stayed for a few days at a farm called Glyn Iddens, just across the lane.

Dymock daffodils
Dymock daffodils
The area between May Hill and the Malvern Hills is most famous for its wild daffodils, which once grew everywhere in the meadows and woods. There are still many places where wild daffodils can be seen in late March and early April and Dymock is one 

There are two marked footpaths, the Poet's Paths, which start at the church, Dymock.


  The first heads east of Dymock in an 8-mile figure of eight that passes Abercrombie’s cottage,the Gallows, which features in the autumn chapters as the Frosts had moved there. The second is north of Dymock in a figure of eight that passes near Frost’s, Thomas’s and Gibson’s cottages.
St Mary's Dymock. The lych gate allows Edward and Robert a place to rest:
"They went on into Dymock. Robert admired the half-timbered houses, very like Little Iddens, lining
 the street. Beauchamp Green, with its row of lime trees leading up from the road to the lych gate, invited them to rest. They sat for a while under the silvered oak of the lych, looking down the valley. ‘You should have seen it  early last April,’ Robert said. ‘A torrent of little yellow daffodils tumbling down to the brook. Beautiful.’  

Two gypsies came up to them, a young woman smoking a clay pipe, with a baby in her brown shawl, and a thin young man with a concertina. The woman asked for money for the baby, but they’d scarcely any money and what they had was for cider at the Beauchamp Arms. Seeing Edward with his pipe she asked if he could spare half a pipe of tobacco. He looked long at her and smiled. Her brown fingers dipped delicately into the leather pouch he held out to her as she gazed back at him. Then she laughed, waved and went away, gracefully swaying across the green with the baby on her hip. "

The Malverns
British Camp in the Malvern Hills - Edward and Robert took a phenomenal walk from Leddington to this hill and as they were returning saw the moon effect that Robert wrote of in 'Iris by Night' -  his 'Elected Friends' poem.

The Old Nailshop, once home of Wilfrid Gibson
The Old Nail Shop, Wilfrid Gibson's cottage, scene of a 'backstory'episode. I believe Oldfields Farm looked quite like this .

 May Hill
This strange isolated hill was always visible from the cottages and drew the two poets to explore. After Robert had returned to America Edward visited it again, and there composed 'Words.'   It is surely a poetic manifesto. It was a good image , I thought, for my novel's cover.


Out of us all
That make rhymes
Will you choose
Sometimes -
As the winds use
A crack in a wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through -
Choose me,
You English words?

I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak:
Sweet as our birds
To the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Of Midsummer:
Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet
And familiar,
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew, -
As our hills are, old, -
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.

Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales
Whose nightingales
Have no wings, -
From Wiltshire and Kent
And Herefordshire, -
And the villages there, -
From the names, and the things
No less.
Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.