Thursday, July 24, 2014

Trees in Edward Thomas.

' {Only}    a silent place that once rang loud,
And trees and us - imperfect friends, we men
And trees since time began; and nevertheless
Between us still we breed a mystery.'
(The Chalk-Pit) 

   'their cloudy forms linked to earth by stately stems' (South Country')


There is enough material for a PhD or at least a Master's on this subject of Thomas and trees, I think! Any students out there?
Just looking at  trees which are significant not simply a part of the scene -  in the earlier, pre-enlistment poems only,

After Rain: The Hollow Wood: Beauty: First Known When Lost:  House and Man: Home(Often had I gone):Fifty Faggots: The Chalk-Pit: Under the Woods

And in prose works there is so much.
From 'The South Country':

'I like trees for the cool evening voices of their many
leaves, for their cloudy forms linked to earth by stately
stems — for the pale lifting of the sycamore leaves in
breezes and also their drooping, hushed and massed
repose, for the myriad division of the light ash leaves — for
their straight pillars and for the twisted branch work,
for their still shade and their rippling or calm shimmering
or dimly glowing light, for the quicksilver drip of dawn,
for their solemnity and their dancing, for all their sounds
and motions — their slow-heaved sighs, their nocturnal
murmurs, their fitful fingerings at thunder time, their
swishing and tossing and hissing in violent rain, the roar
of their congregations before the south-west wind when
it seems that they must lift up the land and fly away
with it, for their rustlings of welcome in harvest heat
— for their kindliness and their serene remoteness and
inhumanity, and especially the massiest of the trees that
have also the glory of motion, the sycamores, which are
the chief tree of Cornwall, as the beeches and yews are
of the Downs, the oaks of the Weald, the elms of the
Wiltshire vales. '
own picture
And from Horae Solitariae
I cannot walk under trees without a vague powerful
 feeling of reverence. Calmly persuasive, they
ask me to bow my head to the unknown
god. In the evening, especially, when the
main vocation of sight is to suggest what
eyes cannot see, the spacious and fragrant
shadow of oak or pine is a temple which
seems to contain the very power for whose
worship it is spread.

Those qualities in the South Country extract - their kindliness,  and their serene remoteness and inhumanity - can be found in the poems.
Hobbeman - National Gallery

Interval - a roaring wind,

But the woodman's cot
By the ivied trees
Awakens not
To light or breeze.

It smokes aloft
It hunches soft
Under storm's wing.   

And in Beauty, that angry poem that is soothed as it is written.

But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening when it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through a window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale;
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unanswering to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there    

Kindness, of course is implied in the Cherry Trees(though  sadly) and the many apple trees.

Perhaps there is 'serene remoteness'  about the trees in these famous lines

I should use, as the trees and birds did,
A language not to be betrayed;
And what was hid should still be hid
Excepting from  those like me made
Who answer when such whispers bid.

But inhumanity? Aspens is one of Thomas's most 'autobiographical ' poems, Aspens, with its analogies between a tree structure and the structure of poetry. In it he sees himself, flawed and 'unable to love' perhaps, but accepting himself. Separating himself from 'those who like a different tree.' An important poem.

All day and night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.

Out of the blacksmith's cavern comes the ringing
Of hammer, shoe and anvil; out of the inn
The clink, the hum, the roar, the random singing -
The sounds that for these fifty years have been.

The whisper of the aspens is not drowned,
And over lightless pane and footless road,
Empty as sky, with every other sound
No ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,

A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom,
In the tempest or the night of nightingales,
To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.

And it would be the same were no house near.
Over all sorts of weather, men, and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.

Whatever wind blows, while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree.

Monet's poplars.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Here's something different -
Some poems set to music which may be of interest.

This is a version of 'Words', rather Leonard Cohen -like. Suddenly I can see ET in that role if he were alive today. What do you think?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Edward Thomas and Trees

I am borrowing from Robert MacFarlane the idea that trees have a symbolic meaning for Thomas, that of stability and rootedness, as against birds which use them but have motion and freedom. These themes were echoed in his own life, as he would be violently restless against home, long to get away, then once away would need to come home.

 I think that trees often stand for people too - as the aspens and pollarded willows and the extraordinarily damaged trees in 'The Hollow Wood'.
Aspens - Populus Tremula

collective commons

Then there is the different concept of forest, which I'll look at next time.

Here is a very rooted tree indeed, from 'In Pursuit of Spring: the hawthorn tree reputed to have sprung from Joseph of Arimethia's staff ( Not vandalised as of course it was quite recently.)


.'............Joseph of Arimathea's thorn, and how it blossomed at Christmas. "Did you ever see it blossoming at Christmas?" I asked. "Once," she said, and she told me how the first winter she spent in Glastonbury was a very mild one, and she went out with her brothers for a walk on Christmas day in the afternoon. She remembered that they wore no coats. And they saw blossom on the holy thorn. After all, I did go through the turnstile to see the abbey. The high pointed arches were magnificent, the turf under them perfect. The elms stood among the ruins like noble savages among Greeks. The orchards hard by made me wish that they were blossoming. But excavations had been going on; clay was piled up and cracking in the sun, and there were tin sheds and scaffolding. I am not an archaeologist, and I left it. As I was approaching the turnstile an old hawthorn within a few yards of it, against a south wall, drew my attention. For it was covered with young green leaves and with bright crimson berries almost as numerous. Going up to look more closely, I saw what was more wonderful -- Blossom. Not one flower, nor one spray only, but several sprays. I had not up till now seen even blackthorn flowers, though towards the end of February I had heard of hawthorn flowering near Bradford. As this had not been picked, I conceitedly drew the conclusion that it had not been observed. Perhaps its conspicuousness had saved it. It was Lady Day. I had found the Spring in that bush of green, white, and crimson. So warm and bright was the sun, and so blue the sky, and so white the clouds, that not for a moment did the possibility of Winter returning cross my mind. '

  Also from In Pursuit:
The pollard willows fringing the green, which in the sunlight resemble mops, were now very much like a procession of men, strange primeval beings, pausing to meditate in the darkness.”

In the novel I have many references to specific trees:
The orchards at Leddington where the novel begins, the foliage so green that it colours their rooms at Oldfields.
The seven elm trees at the Gallows which distress Robert during his last winter in England and which were blown down in March 1916.
The abandoned tree where Edward watches the ploughman in 'As the team's headbrass' -  implying destructiveness in its fall but more so in the absence of men to remove it out of the plough's way.

The mix of black yew and bright whitebeam he sees every day from his study window.

'Wind-beat whitebeam'. Hopkins

The destroyed, splintered trees in France and these, in his memory:
'He walked back heavily, hearing the wind howling in the empty rooms of the great house when he went in. He sat at the broken window, watching a dozen black crumpled sycamore leaves swirl round and round on the terrace.

Their occasional rustling whispers brought a memory to his mind: the very different lively chatter of aspens at the crossroads in Steep when a breeze blew, a breeze that often meant rain. A Sunday and the village street utterly quiet, the public house closed and the smithy silent. Only the group of aspens had seemed alive on the earth at that moment, talking together, their alignment suggesting an empty room, a room of ghosts. He had had a strange sense of premonition that day: whether for the country life he had known and loved, or for more than that, he could not tell, but as he sat in that ruined landscape he thought of it.'
Here is the ultimate 'restless, walking Tom, get away from home' poem,
The Lofty Sky

To-day I want the sky,
The tops of the high hills,
Above the last man's house,
His hedges, and his cows,
Where, if I will, I look
Down even on sheep and rook,
And of all things that move
See buzzards only above:-
Past all trees, past furze
And thorn, where nought deters
The desire of the eye
For sky, nothing but sky.
I sicken of the woods
And all the multitudes
Of hedge-trees. They are no more
Than weeds upon this floor
Of the river of air
Leagues deep, leagues wide, where
I am like a fish that lives
In weeds and mud and gives
What's above him no thought.
I might be a tench for aught
That I can do to-day
Down on the wealden clay.
Even the tench has days
When he floats up and plays
Among the lily leaves
And sees the sky, or grieves
Not if he nothing sees:
While I, I know that trees
Under that lofty sky
Are weeds, fields mud, and I
Would arise and go far
To where the lilies are.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Plants  in Edward Thomas.
Wild Flowers.

lesser celandine (wiki)

Edward Thomas learned to identify and value wild flowers early in life. His grandparents were Welsh but had moved to Swindon for railway employment. He visited and stayed there frequently, without his parents; presumably this was in part because his mother had five more children after him.
There he met the country people, the Uzzells, who lived near  Coate, Richard  Jefferies' home.
'Dad' Uzzell taught Edward about animals, birds, trees and flowers. Jefferies's example taught him, perhaps, to write about them.

 He must surely have read 'Bevis, the Story of  a Boy', a book which my son Will, in the seventies,  liked a lot and rather influenced him I think, in that he is a highly valued carpenter and joiner and knows everything about wood.  (Shameless plug:

Thomas's 'The Woodland Life', published when he was only nineteen, reflects these early influences. He had left school, determined to be a writer; influenced by his future father-in-law James Noble, he  took one of his long, note-taking journeys on foot. The notes, unlike the formal prose passages, read almost like poems.
I stole this from Google Books - rather like it as a way of presenting or representing a book.

In 1910 he published the strange stories ' Rest and Unrest': in this he is about to encounter a mysterious woman picking flowers:
I had been there a score of times without making anything like a full survey and inventory of my kingdom. It was becoming part of me, a kingdom rather of the spirit than of the earth, and I was content to see what I had seen on my first visit. In the neighbouring woods I had sought for orchises but after finding half a dozen kinds here at that time I had not looked for more. The other flowers were the usual flowers of the woods, the minute green moschatel, the stars of stitchwort and later woodruff, the bluebell and a few more, such as I was glad to greet for the twentieth time with more familiarity than ceremony.. ......(seeing her flowers)
Though I am not a botanist I see most of the flowers in my path and I know the names of most; but I recognized none of these. They were bells and cups and stars clustered or single, in spires and bunches, that I had never seen growing wild before.

"There are many here in this wood," she said in answer to my questions. "Yes, only here."

"Can you tell me their names?" I asked.

"No. They have never been christened that I know of," she replied.

Seeing some orchises among them I said:

"But you know these?"

"Yes, they are fly-hawkins and butterflies' nests," she said, perverting the names of the fly-orchis and bird's nest and butterfly orchises. She smiled, I did not know why; but it was a smile as fitting to her childlike mouth and complexion, her quick-silver eye, her briskness, and her hop to one side. I asked her the name of the wood. "The Maiden's Wood," -- she said, "It has always been called the Maiden's Wood . . . I do not know the meaning of the name." And she went on picking flowers. I now saw that these unfamiliar kinds were to be found everywhere in the little wood.

Twice again I saw her in the wood, and I liked to see her alone and undisturbed, at ease and at home there like a bird questing among the dead leaves when it has no fears of being observed. 


Words from 'The Woodland Life'

Marsh Marigold, first  I've seen on Iffley Meadows.

I watched the appearance, later than usual, of the fritillaries in Iffley Meadows along the Thames. The official count took place on 30th April and reported a surprising 67000 plants.

April 24th

May 1st

                                                                                                      Fritillary watchers

'Fritillaria meleagris is a species of flowering plant in the family Liliaceae. Its common names include snake's head fritillary, snake's head (the original English name), chess flower, frog-cup, guinea-hen flower, leper lily (because its shape resembled the bell once carried by lepers), Lazarus bell, checkered lily or, in northern Europe, simply fritillary.'(Wiki)

I was sure Edward Thomas would mention these very special flowers in his book 'Oxford', probably in writing about Magdalen College or even about rowing, as they were prolific in his time at Oxford. But I couldn't find them with a fairly cursory look - maybe they are there.
A lovely picture - mistletoe too:


We know from Eleanor Farjeon that Edward's daughter Bronwen shared his enthusiasm and knowledge and that she was shocked at the Londoner Eleanor's lack of it. Bronwen set out to teach and test her on her learning, picking and teaching her a hundred flowers, then next day sitting her down  to her examination 'with the numbered specimens laid out in precise order on the table.'  Edward found her struggling over ' agrimony, mouse-eared hawk weed, birdfoot trefoil, and went off laughing to dig potatoes till my hour was up.'
Eleanor Farjeon, The Last Four Years. Sentinel.


Poem - the legacy poem to Bronwen.

Ownership of property was an abomination to Thomas so the rents are absurd. The gorse or furze is in flower all year of course. The conditions he imposes, unlike the near-impossible conditions of fairy-tales, are easy.
The place-names come from the area around Hare Hall Camp, Essex.
If I should ever by chance grow rich

IF I should ever by chance grow rich

I'll buy Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater,
And let them all to my elder daughter.
The rent I shall ask of her will be only
Each year's first violets, white and lonely,
The first primroses and orchises—
She must find them before I do, that is.
But if she finds a blossom on furze
Without rent they shall all for ever be hers,
Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo and Lapwater,—
I shall give them all to my elder daughter.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas

 Helen is the woman  who matters most : her devotion and loyalty to Edward Thomas must move all but the stoniest heart.

I think the letters from Edward, like the one in my previous post,  counteract the view that the marriage became dead for him in later years. He signed every letter 

All and always Yours,  Edwy.

Radio 4 on Sunday at 4 30pm 'And You , Helen'- a programme about her.

Helen's Story

Helen Noble, the daughter of the journalist, James Ashcroft Noble, was born in Liverpool on 11th July 1877. Noble, who found work writing for The Spectator, moved the family to London in 1880. 

After an education at Wintersdorf School in Southport, she became a nursery governess in Rotherfield. She was quite 'bohemian' in dress and in the circles she moved in.

She met Edward through her father who encouraged his writing and their getting to know each other.

Helen became pregnant with Merfyn while Edward was an undergraduate at Oxford .( See my blogs on Oxford.) In 1896, they married and times were very hard financially. Bronwen was born and became quite ill with their poor living conditions, as Edward struggled to make a living by his writing.

Helen taught kindergarden children at Beadles, a progressive co-educational boarding school in Steep where they had moved. They had a third child, Myfanwy, who became a writer.
After the war Helen wrote about her relationship with Edward  in  1926 and 1931. The two volumes, 'As it Was '  and 'World without End' were republished with the  perfect title 'Under Storm's Wing' (from  the poem 'Interval').  Her daughter, Myfanwy, claims the books were written as a form of therapy to lift the depression which settled over her after the death of her husband. Helen  died in 1967.
It was a way of keeping Edward alive for her, and it is an intelligent, passionate work; in it Helen often belittles her intellect and wisdom, sadly, something she had probably evolved under Edward's frequent unkindness.

I depended heavily on 'Under Storm's Wing' and decided to have Helen in the first person - the voice  I give her is not that of Helen in her book - it needs to have that sense of happening in the present which Jude Morgan refers to in his 'Shakespeare'. But  I chose to have her write a memoir, 'Half a Kiss, Half a Tear' and to open and close it with scenes and phrases  taken very closely from Under Storm's Wing. Here is an extract: it is almost Christmas, 1916.         

'My dearest, my draft leave will include Christmas after all!’

I knew I must live in the present, that we could at least be together like doomed lovers, doubting that they would have a future and making the most of their time. So I told the children and we danced all around the house, singing,

‘He’s coming home for Christmas’ to the tune of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow.’ And in the same post came a cheque for twenty pounds, a gift from a private fund for writers. Twenty pounds – so much money! I hurried up to London and bought the best Jaeger sleeping bag, thick gloves and a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets for Edward, more presents for the children and a red dress for myself – Edward loved to see me in red. And I bought fruit, sweets, and other luxuries, even some wine.

The children collected fir, ivy and holly from the forest. We dug up a little Christmas tree from the garden and made it dance with sparkling decorations and candles ready to light.

Our Christmas Day was perfect. We woke to hear the children, Baba especially, exclaiming over presents in the lumpy stockings. Edward had crept in as usual and filled them while they slept. We always put exciting little things in them; bigger presents waited until later. Edward went down to make tea, his army greatcoat over his pyjamas, and then we all five squeezed into our big bed. Merfyn did still have a stocking, but we acknowledged his grown-up status with shaving soap, cigarettes and a new mouth-organ, and Bronwen’s with the grown-up things she liked, scent, ribbons and a lacy handkerchief, as well as a new sketch-book and crayons. Merfyn played, ‘It’s a long long trail’ on the mouth-organ while Edward wound up a grey clockwork mouse I’d bought Baba. It scuttled over the floorboards and to please her Bronwen and I duly screamed in the way women must.

As usual, Eleanor was too generous, with a great parcel of presents, each one gorgeously wrapped. Edward was happy to have the sumptuous warm Jaeger sleeping bag from me and straight away marked the name tape – P.E. Thomas.

The day passed happily. As soon as tea was over I went out and lit the coloured candles on the Christmas tree, then Edward carried it in from where Merfyn had hidden it in the woodshed. Myfanwy was entranced. She’d never seen a Christmas tree before.

After tea we sat near the fire, eating nuts and talking or reading our new books. Then Edward took Baba on his knee and sang Welsh songs and some rousing army ones.

It was just before her bedtime that I watched the two of them, Baba on a chair by the window, looking out at the snow and Edward behind her looking out too. They were hoping to see deer.

‘Shall we see any? Are they out there?’ she asked. I remember that she wondered if they were cold and frightened, out in the dark, not like her, safe in the cosy sitting room, with the lamp lit and her father’s hand on her shoulder. That was when I wept.
 The poem- of course:
And You, Helen
And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose. I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine,
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me. If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.