Wednesday, 29 October 2014

SOME NOTES ON EDWARD THOMAS’S ROADS AND RAIN

I felt that last week I brought out  some of the complexity and contradiction in Roads and Rain, but didn’t sufficiently sort out how each poem does fit together.  A problem that happens to me sometimes when I notice something I hadn't seen before and so find myself rethinking what I had thought I would say   So what follows is an attempt to do draw things together a little without, I hope, giving the impression that there are, unambiguous readings of either of these poems.   Edward Thomas, as I've mentioned,  is a poet who doesn’t reveal how difficult he is until you get into a detailed reading.    And his own sense of the final inarticulacy he expresses in the face of being as he experiences it,  is something we need to ‘factor into’ our own readings of him.




ROADS
‘I love roads. . .’ is almost naïve in its simplicity.  And so is ‘are my favourite gods.’    But the thought between is much less simple.   The grammar suddenly becomes strange.   How does a goddess, or anyone else, ‘dwell/far along invisible’.   

Let’s assume that this means ‘far along (a road to the extent that they become) invisible’.  He loves the gods/goddesses of roads and they live invisibly on the roads and are expressed in the distance the roads travel.

That  interpretation leads into the theme of distance in the next stanza.  ‘Roads go on’.     We human beings, contrasted with the roads, ‘forget’.  Forgetting is one way of not ‘going on’.   It is a kind of stopping of consciousness, memory.   One way of reading the next passage would be to say that we humans also ‘are forgotten’.   We, as it were, lose track of the road and the road goes on beyond us.   We are forgotten (by the road) ‘like a star/That shoots and is gone.’   The star is used as an image of the momentary, a shooting star seen in the sky and then gone.   But on balance, I’d prefer to read it differently and to draw attention to the comma/pause after ‘forget’ and say that ‘and are forgotten’ in fact refers to the roads.  It’s the road that ‘shoots and is gone’.  

Taking up the star/sky imagery, in the next stanza (stanza 3) we come back down to ‘earth’.   But then he talks about our having made the roads.   We’ve made roads, but they (like the star image which previously referred to the road not, as I interpreted, ‘us’) fade ‘so soon’.  But at the same time they ‘so long endure’.    ET gets into one of his contradictions:  the road fades quickly on the one hand, but it endures a long time on the other.   I take it he means, ‘according to how you think of it’.   If you are on a road and look into the distance it does ‘fade’, vanishes,  but if you are, as it were’ looking at  it geographically from above, or historically in time,  then it endures.   It’s there all along its (geographical length) and its endured  all its (historical) time since being built.

In this third stanza, ET becomes ‘poetic’ slipping into Georgian ‘tis’ and ‘doth’.   The first line of stanza three sounds like a wise old countryman’s saying.  He’s switched from the ‘unearthly’ star and as it were ‘come down to earth’.   But

The ‘doth’ comes in a half-quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where the folklorish Ariel sings a lament for the supposedly drowned father of Ferdinand

            Full fathom five thy father lies;
            Of his bones are coral made;
            Those are pearls that were his eyes:
            Nothing of him that doth fade
            But doth suffer a sea-change.

It’s a passage about transformation, the dead person’s become a part of the physical world around him.   His fading is a kind of changing.    In Thomas’s terms, the road fades but also suffers a ‘sea-change’ or perhaps a kind of  ‘earth-change’.

In the next stanza he gives an image of the (non tarmac) road which gleams in the sun like a stream;  but it wouldn’t gleam like that, he says, ‘If we trod it not again’.   But this last clauses is ambiguous.   It could mean that our action in treading it makes it gleam like that.  And at the same time, perhaps, it could mean that if we were dead, it wouldn’t have that gleam.  In a sense the road’s beauty depends on our awareness of it, our being alive.  The last idea  seems to lead into the idea of loneliness in the next stanza.  As if the road ‘needs’ us, our awareness of it. 

‘They are lonely
While we sleep’

The road needs the traveller, and while we sleep the traveller is ‘a dream only’ – of the road’s.   

In the next stanza 6,  roads are described as winding ‘into the night’ .    They from dawn to dusk through  the ‘clouds like sheep/On the mountains of sleep.
The road seems, like a person, to travel towards ‘the night’.   And in stanza 7 the winding continues past, possibly, Heaven or Hell.   Not quite.  ET says that the turn may ‘reveal’ Heaven or ‘conceal’ Hell.  It’s not clear if the revelation is what the traveller experiences, or the road itself.  I really think this stanza is unclear!   The road is turned into a kind of ‘road of life’ which the pilgrim may follow.   The references to Heaven and Hell don’t quite seem to fit (to me).
But, in stanza 8 the  viewpoint clarifies and becomes that of Thomas himself.  He never wearies of it, even though it goes on for ever. 

It goes back for ever too.  In stanza 9 Thomas brings in his historical theme, the ’Lob theme’ of the British/Celtic origins of many roads, older than English now.  He evokes the spirit of  Elen in the Mabinogion, and moves into his sense of a god ‘abiding in the trees’.   In the next stanzas he celebrates her ‘laughter’ .  She is a kind of ‘genius’ of the place.  Her laughter is somehow  embedded in the ‘irrelevant’  song of the thrush, and  the chanticleer (cockerel)  who ‘calls back to their own night’  the dead troops.  And they ‘make loneliness/With their light footsteps’ press’.   The, as it were, invoke, induce, loneliness in being dead.  Their steps are now light because they are spirits, as is Helen herself.

So Helen is the presiding goddess of the road (from Roman times), and the road reminds him not just of the ancestral mythological past but of the present ‘troops’ coming back over this same timeless road.

The idea of ‘troops’ is taken up in the next stanza, when he says ‘Now all roads lead to France’, think of the roads now, not as returning, but as leaving.   When they leave the ‘tread of the living’ is heavy’.   And he reminds is that this contrasts with that of the dead who ‘Returning lightly dance’.    ‘Dance’ sounds strangely celebratory, and perhaps recalls the ‘bright irrelevant things’ the thrush sings.

Then he combines the leaving and going themes when he says

‘Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me   (my italics)

The ‘They’ in the in the third line of this stanza seems to refer to the troops.   The idea of loneliness is now change to that of ‘company’.   Somehow the returning spirits of the dead ‘keep my company’.   They do that, he shows in the last climactic stanza, by as it were being inhabitants of earth,  of being part of the substance of the roads, the place, the land itself.   They, like the aspens,  tread lightly and quietly, and yet in a sense ‘dominate’ the place,  are more part of the land than the ‘brief multitude’ of the modern towns.

Perhaps we can read into this a sense of dedication on ET’s part, a sense that he belongs with those ghosts, the soldiers.   They in a sense overcome his solitude even if it is with their death and merging into the land, the roads.


The overall development of the poem, then, looks like this

Roads are presided over by gods
yet are man-made
yet also timeless, (seen from ‘above’)
yet also vanishing (seen from ground level as we walk).

They are lonely for the traveller
who confirms their being.
Yet they wind on out of sight
and reveal Heaven,
and conceal Hell as they pass them

ET is never weary of travelling these roads
hard work as that is,
as they go on for ever.

The ancient god Helen
is  ‘in’  the roadside trees
and beneath the timbers
inhabited by the ancient dead

and her laughter is in the songs
of the decorative thrush
and the crow of the cockerel
whose call is calling back the troops

The troops’ (dead) footsteps
returning from France are light
as Helen’s are

And now (for him) the footsteps lead to France,
and their tread in that outward direction is heavy
as opposed to the light dance of the returning dead

Whatever the road brings him or takes from him
they are still company,
and a deeper presence to him than anything else
in the local hubbub of the modern and the urban.

The poem’s conclusion moves towards a kind of overcoming of the sense of loneliness that seems to plague Thomas, as we see in Rain.   It’s as if his decision to go to France is a way of dealing with that.  He is leaving England in order to belong the more to it.

ET wrote many other poems about roads, and of course he was a great walker of rural roads.  It’s interesting to contemplate the question he raises in the poem as to which is the more ‘real’ the road or the traveller.    And we might re-read Frost’s poem dedicated to ET,  The Road Not Taken, in this light.  



RAIN
The ‘bleak hut’ locates the poem in war, Thomas as a soldier in training.  But he is dealing still with identity as solitude, and ‘me/remembering again that I shall die’.   The presence of the rain suggests its absence to his ears when he’s dead.  He’s imagining his body being rained on and his having no awareness of that.  The rain washes him cleaner than he has ever been (since he’s imagining being dead) since he was born,  but not just that:  it’s ‘this solitude’ he ‘was born into’.    Solitude is what he loses, just as in other ways his awareness was diffused over Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire in Adlestrop,  into the scent of Old Man.   He concludes the first ‘movement’ of this poem by summing up: ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon.’  They are blessed because they can’t feel it.

But second theme of the poem is love.  In line 8 he moves into a kind of sympathy,  thinking of others beyond his own solitude,  but only briefly because those he is thinking about, turn out to be those ‘whom once I loved’  (my italics).   They are now imaged as themselves solitary and lying awake (like ET himself as he writes) listening to the rain.   They may be in pain (and we think of wounded soldiers) or they may be ‘helpless among the living and the dead’ (as on a battlefield)
and then they are compared to broken reeds, ‘like me who have no love’.   He is different from them in that they are lying out there ‘thus in sympathy’.   I’m not at all sure what this phrase means, but it’s possible he means ‘sympathy’ in the sense that they are in the same position as he is and he can understand their brokenness and solitude.

He emphasises the broken reeds,  broken music,  broken vulnerability.  He may also be thinking more generally of his disappointment in,or in his treatment of,  people he once loved since a broken reed is also a term for an unreliable person who lets you down.

He comes back to the theme of love, now very blankly stating that he has ‘no love’,  or at least no love which the rain has not dissolved.  There is love left, and that is love of death, ‘if love it be’.   And he wonders if love for something perfect is possible.  But if it is it a completely reliable kind of love.

Thomas sees himself as incapable of (human) love yet many readers have found his voice as a poet loveable.   Perhaps this is connected by his doubts about who and what he us.  He is neither of nature nor of heaven.    He ends up finding some other dimension where he has lost his self and yet is not dead,  and that is often a loss of self (The other, Lob, Aspens)  can be found in the composition of poetry.    The poetry is unnatural in that it is based upon the relationship between  between language and reality, and the poet spends his time trying to overcome that separation;   or he finds himself by losing himself in the poem.   Talking about loss as perfectly as he can, embodies a kind of loss of loss.   This figure seems common in much of Thomas.

The love of death theme of course echoes Keats’s ‘half in love with easeful death’ in Ode to a Nightingale.   And his sense belonging in death echoes Wordsworth’s description of Lucy after her death Lucy -

          Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
            With rocks, and stones, and trees




Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Edward Thomas Course Journal
21-10-14

Re-reading Lob makes me see all the more how it both parallels and contrasts with The Other.  The Other is a quest for a single person who is unknowable, and frightening.  Lob is a quest, at first, for a single ‘rustic’ who is very knowable and familiar and affable.   But the original query about the man he’d seen gradually widens out until he is any number of possible countrymen, and then he merges into mythological/folkloric people like Hob and Jack the Giant Killer.  They themselves are seen as merging into the very soil of England, as Thomas’s consciousness in Adlestrop merges into the landscape (or is it the air?) of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.   Lob is, like Old Man, about memory and an uncatchable and unnameable memory, which dissolves into England as such.

Lob is in a sense ‘only a name’, but he is also any number of names in English folklore.  The number of names expands like the birdsong in Adlestrop.  And yet Lob is not wholly to be separated from The Other,  in that there is a moment in the middle section of that poem where Thomas does feel a kind of stasis, and then he is ‘an old inhabitant of Earth’ – but not particularly England in that poem.  And his ‘belonging’ there is ambiguous, melancholic.  

In Lob, though, the self seems to be found -  in ‘England’ as Thomas sees it, that is rural Southern England now threatened by the industrial ‘dust’ of the road coming towards it, as well as – in the background – war.    Thomas read a lot of folklore, and poetry influenced by folklore, the best known being that of W B Yeats.   And he was a student of Richard Jeffries the great naturalist who is the model for the Squire’s son who takes up the more mythological narrative towards the end.

I don’t know if there’s a risk of sentimentality towards the end of Lob.   The lovable countrymen are gently mocked for their irrationality in shooting the weathercock,  and the catalogue of names tends also towards fairy stories.    Is he perhaps idealising the countryman?    


In As the Team’s Head Brass we have a different kind of poem.  No mythology here, but a present day naturalistic narrative, a short story of a kind, in which the countryman is real, and the sense of the threat of modernity and war to rural life is related to daily work on the farm.  The dialogue between the relative stranger, a soldier off duty, and the local man,  allows us to understand what’s going on without any intervention of the poet himself, and there’s nothing directly to do with his identity problems.     The poet/narrator casually mentions the lovers going into the wood at the beginning of the poem, and then they come out of the woods at the end.    This establishes a thematic contrast:  war versus love.   And the love is perhaps merging into a love of English traditional country ways and countryside when Thomas adds ‘for the last’ time right at the end of the poem.   

It’s interesting how different in approach this poem is from Lob.   Naturalistic narrative here with close observation of detail, and recollection and thought in Lob.

In This is No Case Thomas shows a different approach again, now much nearer to discussion an argument. 


So three kinds of poem, perhaps:   memory and myth,   contemporary narrative,  discursive.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Course Journal
 on Edward Thomas

Petersfield 14-10-14  

Adlestrop shows Thomas at one of those ‘epiphany’ moments when the express train of life is halted and, as Wordsworth put it, ‘we see into the life of things’

For Thomas this moment has something to do with the namelessness of experience, and losing himself in his loved, ‘nature’.   It is also to do with song, the song of the birds as distinct from anything that might be said.   

In  Old Man we get the same almost mistrust of language, how the ‘thing it is’ doesn’t fit the name, or names however many there might be.  And, as in Adlestrop there’s a loss of self,  this time diffused in scent as opposed to sound.   In Old Man there is more of a quest than in Adlestrop, searching his mind for a meaning that won’t come, and eventually the search goes into that long ‘avenue’ which is, like the search, endless.   What is ‘captured’, if that is the right word, is the poem, the insight, itself.   In Adlestrop the moment is ‘given’ with no search, just by the chance of the train’s stopping.

In Bob’s Lane there’s another kind of ‘quest’, which is to make something, but Bob in fact destroys the lane in his effort to make it, destroys through his love of trees.  So again there’s the idea of  the point of things always being elusive.  But here ‘only the name’ remains indeed.

In Aspens, again, there is the loss of self in the identification Thomas has with the whispering of the aspens, as if their non-verbal sound is equivalent to poetry, the word ‘whispering’, of  course, reminding us of the sound of words rather than their sense, also reminding us of the idea (in  Shelley and others) of inspiration as a kind of wind playing the strings of a harp without human help.   In Aspens Thomas identifies with a persistent ‘voice’ beneath everyday life,  but not heard by many.   In Old Man the irretrievable memory was like a whispering too quiet to hear.

In The Other, we have again a quest now for a person, an other self, a better self, a more popular self -  who again is always elusive, again irretrievable.   Thomas anticipates later twentieth century philosophy (philosophies) in his perception that identity has to be found in what something/someone is not.  Or perhaps physics:  as soon as light falls on a nuclear particle it knocks it away.  Here, too, he distinguishes between his experience of the inn and his solitary walk along the road at night where a kind of harmony comes, between sky and land.  This needs thinking about further.

And in Lob, too, there’s the walk, and again the uncertainty of who a person really is.  The half remembered man becomes, eventually, Wiltshire itself, as the moment of stillness in the train becomes Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, and the landscape becomes ‘everlastingness’.  And again the poem is about a memory which won’t quite come back.    This poem recalls Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken, too,   the impossibility of retracing your steps, and the difference between trying to control things, and striking out into the unknown.   The insight in Lob, as in Adlestrop becomes a dispersion of self in many selves, and then in turn, through them, into their landscape, England.

Thomas often uses the image of the journey or the road.  There’s the train journey in Adlestrop, the ‘avenue’ in Old Man,  the lane in Bob’s Lane,  the road in The Other,  his walk in Lob,  the cross roads, perhaps, in Aspens.  This fits Thomas’s own love of walking, of course,  and also very ancient ideas of the quest as a journey, life itself as a journey.  




Monday, 2 December 2013

EDWARD THOMAS:  A FEW MORE COMMENTS

The poems on this last handout are all in one way or another ‘intimate’,  either addressed to loved ones,  or about private feelings, especially about death. Which is not to say, of course, that quite a few of the previous poems we’ve looked at aren’t intimate also,

Home
touches on his sense of ‘nationality’, but it’s a shared nationality with birds.  It’s about a sense of belonging the peace of the ordinary.    Thomas often shows an affinity, perhaps an empathy, with birds and he does here with the thrushes who aren’t quite sure when the day is done – and we can read other resonances into that.     But he ends with an anonymous labourer who comes home only to start working again with his saw.     But as often with Thomas opposites have a way of blending.   The ‘sound of sawing rounded/All that silence said.’   Perhaps he’s think about how the meaning of things is defined not just by what they are but what they’re not, a point familiar to students of language who are taught that the meaning of the word is how it is NOT all the other words.  
The poem in its fellow feeling for birds and labourer conveys a mixture of Thomas’s sense of solitariness and belonging.

In Memoriam (Easter 1915)
Thomas distinguished himself from the modernist ‘imagists’ led by Ezra Pound, yet some of his short poems have an effect similar to imagist poems.   This poem is one sentence and one sentiment, but powerfully.   The first line is very skilful in its use of ‘thick’ sounds to mime the flowers’ thickness.   And although it seems a very straightforward statement at first sight, is very moving in the way it the the lushness of the flowers left ungathered as an image of what has not been done, a negative, to go with the ‘never again’ at the end.  Their absence even so, he suggests, is a kind of beauty, ungathered, and so unspoilt.

Thaw
Another one sentence image poem, again based on a negative – ‘what we below could not see’.   The winter is passing, and the snow beginning to disperse – an image of hope, no doubt with the ‘winter’ of war in mind too.   The rooks are detached enough to ‘speculate’ (on onomatopoeia too), and like craws associated as death’s black messengers.   They can see more than we can, as the gods can.  But the poem hangs because there is not indicate of what the rooms in fact see.

Celandine
This is intimate in that, as it strikes me (and the poem’s not that easy to interpret) it begins with a memory of a person who has attained a mythical status in the child’s now man’s mind.  Perhaps also she’s the muse.  At first he’s lamenting her loss in the past, his past, and then he realises that she’s till there in the very flowers he associates her with, and so is both lost and found, past and present.   He then celebrates the found person associated with,  embodied in, the celandines.  The idea of her being the muse, poetry itself, is suggested by the phrases ‘nature and name’ which is very like the title of A E Housman’s essay, The Name and Nature of Poetry.   The celandine maiden from ‘February’s before’,  his sense of sorrow in loss is wiped away;  but then he sees his vision as ‘a dream’, ‘the flowers were not true’,  perhaps placing them now in his imagination again,  but he says they were not true Until U stooped to pluck from the grass there/One of five petals ‘.    When he does that, he implies, then they are true.  They are true in the smell of the juice, and it’s this that projects back the sad memory that ‘she was no more’.  He plays with what is and what is not, and the power now of a trace of then.   The imprecision, the name or meaning of the memory is beautifully caught in the last line – ‘Gone like a never perfectly recalled air.’

Myfanwy
Thomas is again playing with contraries.  The gift he will give is nothing!  To be her self is enough.  So his gift is appreciation, love for her as she is -  ‘her spectacled self with hair uncurled/ Wanting a thousand little things/That time without contentment brings.    So he preaches a very old message in our culture, that wanting earthly things is never going to satisfy.  Edward Thomas, I feel, didn’t write enough poems to and indirectly to other people.

Helen
IS a poem address to someone, to his wife, and at the same time is a confession and apology to her.   This is clearest at the end when he offers himself ‘if I could find/Where it lay hidden and it proved kind’.     But he also wants to give her the things he feels he has prevented, fulfilments, and abilities he has done something, perhaps, to stunt.   He would ‘give you back yourself’ as if he has stolen it from her, as her endless patience suggests he had.                
He imagines he has ‘an infinite great stare/Offered me’,   that HE has been offered this store, as it were, to dispense.   The implication, of course, is that he hasn’t got this store.   Another self-criticism comes with his wish to make good
‘all you have lost/Upon the travelling waters tossed,/or given to me’.

The last line takes us back to Thomas’s ‘melancholy, perhaps depression and the unkindness it often expressed, but you also get a sense of his regret about that.  It’s not just a wilful cruelty,  but a loss of something in himself which ‘if I could find. . .’

It rains
He shows his observation here in images like ‘the great diamonds/of rain on the grassblades’   Again he shows this capacity to qualify.  He’s not as happy as possible, but ‘nearly as happy as possibly, which is perhaps as far as he’s likely to get.   And he’s happy to search.  Searching is what matters, not what is found.  And the searching, he says, is, ‘in vain’.   We never quite get the meaning of the scent, the identity of the other.      In the middle of the second stanza he moves into thoughts of ‘two walking’,  perhaps himself an Helen,   ‘forgetting the kisses of the rain’ in their own.   And again there’s the regret about the past,  ‘never again’,  will he walk in the rain happy ‘unless alone’.    Like the muse maiden in Celandine, the parsley flower is seen as a kind of ghost ‘suspended’ both in space and in memory/time,  ‘hovering as it revisits the light’, as if it has come back from somewhere.  We may remember the French word for ghost, ‘revenant’.

I Never Saw that Land Before
This poem again is about what is lost and then found in being lost.   The landscape not visited before sounds like the landscape of early childhood, the one you see for the first time and as new, and this is celebrated.    If we were to try to express this, ‘sing’ it as a poet, it would ‘not even whisper my soul,’ he says.   And in the last stanza he portrays language (poetry) the non-linguistic sounds of nature.   He sees himself as somewhere who can ‘answer’ the whispers of the trees, recalling perhaps the one-one he felt between himself as a poet and the whispers of the aspens.

What will they do?
He sees himself as dispensable.   The world can do without him ‘as the rain/Can do without the flowers and the grass’ which it nourishes.   He has seen ‘them’ in the street and they’ve passed.    He then reverses his image of the rain able to do without the flowers, because he wonders perhaps it’s the rain, in fact, which thirsts ‘for a draught/Which only in the blossom’s chalice lies’.
And then he ends the poem with ‘one’ – one of ‘them’, perhaps’, turning back to laugh lightly, a suitable acknowledgement, perhaps.

Most of these poems are about the past and death, and how these are both in a sense in the present, and that’s what poetry allows us to see.   Often his interweaving of ‘dimensions’ can make Thomas a difficult poet to follow – at least in the detailed ins and outs of his language.   But he brings out a central idea about poetry and how it seeks to mean, that is, the way in which it both strains at the limits of language and yet does this within the limits of language.
The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein talked in way that made me think of Thomas, when he responded to a comment by his friend Engelmann about a poem by Uhland.   Wittgenstein write:


‘And this is how it is: if only you do not try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost.  But the unutterable will be – unutterably – contained in what has been uttered!’  (Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein,         p 151)

Monday, 25 November 2013

EDWARD THOMAS:   SOME THINKING THROUGH

I began by reading some poems which give a view of what sort of a poet Edward Thomas is. 

In the first session we looked at personal poems which showed the way in which Thomas looks at at nature but at the same time into himself,  poems in which looking stopping at Adlestrop and hearing the birds,  or  reflecting on the smell of a plant,  give rise to an epiphany, a moment of insight.   Often these moments move beyond what we can easily capture in an explicit summary, and that’s exactly the idea the poems convey.   Often it seems, also, as if what Thomas perceives is something to do with poetic insight as such.    The Aspens become the poet.

In the second session we looked at some more philosophical poems in which Thomas investigates.  In The Other he begins a quest for who is other self is,  or is it his ‘real’ self, and finds again the other is elusive, as elusive as the ‘meaning’ of the scent of Old Man or the station name, Adlestrop.     In The Other we see a darker side of Thomas,  what he calls his ‘melancholy’ and yet in the central section of The Other when he is out on the road in the dark,  he finds a kind of solace in that melancholy, a harmony also with the natural world around him.   In Lob there is a parallel search, but this time looking outwards and backwards to the ‘Englishness’ he finds around him, and in which his quest for himself is resolved by being dissolved into the landscape and its mythologies themselves.

Then in the third session we looked at some poems which are more directly show Thomas’s thoughts about the war, although of course the war looms in the background of all his poems, and it’s often possible see war anxieties in poems which on the surface having nothing to do with the war.  We can see Adlestrop, for example, as the savouring of English countryside by someone about the risk his life.   In this poems impinging on war, we see a relatively more open structure at least to some of the poems.   This is no Case of Petty Right and Wrong is even polemic, and the narrative shape of As the Team’s Brass ends with an implied sense of the end of an ear, a way of life, with the mechanistic implements of death and the future just across the Channel.   Then with The Rain we get a return to the ‘melancholy’ of The Other but now written from inside an army hut,  and contemplating not only lovelessness, but also death.   

In Bob’s Lane, there’s the sense of the English landscape, and at the same time  a return to a concern with names,  the name being all that’s left to celebrate the man,  and his life shown as in a sense self-destructive, and at the same time loving of women, horses, whatever’s alive.   It’s not difficult to see the wan lane title as a kind of epitaph for Bob not altogether unlike a memorial.   And Tall Nettles is again mysterious in its celebrating of what to many is plant the least obviously worthy of celebrating.    And in No One So Much as You,   there’s again a kind of celebration, a celebration also  of the poet’s sense of  his own unworthiness, or inability to love, coming back to the melancholy of Rain.   

In the fourth session I’ll try to do two things:  first develop the overall view of Thomas by looking at some poems you’ve asked to discuss;  second – and to some extent at the same time -  look at some more of Thomas’s last poems, written when he had enlisted, particularly poems which assert the idea of poetic insight as both beauty and a kind of joy in being, melancholy as that is.   With both these groups of poems I’ll try to bring out Thomas’s concern with a few, to him, ‘basic’ themes.   These are:

Identity, memory, extinction
England and Nature
Poetry, meaninglessness, beauty
Quests,  journeys, paths and ‘roads’

Manor Farm (1914)
We begin with the season, the unfreezing which releases roadside streams, but immediately this is complicated by personification.  The Earth wants to have her ‘sleep out’.   He’s thinking himself into the earth as a sleeper who doesn’t want to be disturbed by the thaw.   The silence of the stream ‘respects’ the sun’s sleep, and is as it were ignored, just as for the poet it is not valued, even though at the same time he’s noticed its ‘gilding beam’, how it catches the light from that very ignoring sun.  It’s a triviality a ‘pretty February thing’.   Or so it is until he reaches the farm, and here is a traditional English village with church and yew-tree (emblematic of death and graveyards).     But these too sleep and the air ‘raised not a straw’.   As in Adlestrop with the clearing of the throat, the idea of stillness is suggested by the lack of a straw being raised, and in a moment the silence itself by the single swishing tails of the horses to send off the fly.  The quiet of the sun is expressed as entertaining the sun as a welcome visitor.   And then just the horses and the ‘solitary fly’

The idea of the quiet is then personified against as if Winter were a contented drinker, who had ‘drained/ Spring, Summer and Autumn at a draught/And smiled quietly.

But now a turn in the flow of ideas.  Everything has so far been consonant with the quiet of the winter sun.   But, in fact, it’s NOT winter, but ‘bliss unchangeable’ .    Previously all had been in suspension.  We were ready for some sort of normal interruption – a dog’s bark, a door opening, a cart coming – but THAT sort of silence is an image of something deeper and older, the SILENCE of the past,

‘the farm and church where it had lain
Safe under file and thatch for ages since
This England, Old already, was called Merry.’

Merry?   Perhaps because that’s the traditional happy word for it, and also echoing back to the quiet content of the ale quaffing Winter just mentioned.
The England has been safe for ages,  old already,  always been there,  a kind of substratum below any actual winter or sun.

The substratum goes on, has no perceivable time, and by implication outlives the temporary present in which he’s looking at it.   The sense of identity he reaches can be compared to his feeling like ‘an old inhabitant on earth’ in The Other.

The village church and farm (not the in, though, except by implication with Winter’s draft) here emphasise the sense of place which is so strong in Lob

The poetry is the way into understanding this,  the beauty which makes up the imagery of the ‘gilding beam’ and so on, are the alerting through the sense of beauty to something permanent

He is walking or cycling and going along the road, and thus he is led to this place, and hence to his epiphany.   He is led also through time, out of time, reminding us of the memory poems such as Lad’s Love where the eternal was much less comforting

Anything about ‘England’ implies a defence, a set of values, for which Thomas is about to enlist.


Beauty (1915?)
The bitterness brings back Thomas’s melancholy, the sense of lack of love and being able to live we saw in Rain and No One but You and perhaps in another way in The Other.   His epitaph is depressing, cynically satisfying to him.  As in The Other the loss of self love becomes a kind of ‘desire of desire’ itself, perhaps the kind of love that comes with his poetry, the love of saying that.    And something of him, unlike the cold river, ‘floats through a window’.  Whatever that is, not his body to be buried, lifts out of him and ‘There I find my rest’, at dusk.  Is ‘at dusk’ significant.   Beauty is ‘there’, not in him when that floating spirit is.  Beauty is someone an extension of him, almost an alter-ego he can, like a spirit, enter into.   Interesting that he rejects the complaining pewit, but thinks of his spirit as a ‘dove’, as in No One So Much as You, where he feels guilty about that kind of refuge taking.

The spirit goes on another quest and finds its satisfaction in nature.   The date of this poem is not certain, but probably it was written just before his enlistment in July 1916


Roads (1916)
He opens with a declaration of his love for roads.  So many of the poems describe roads or journeys.  But he immediately become mythic, and sees roads as presided over by goddesses.   The theme of extinction comes in the second stanza, the idea of memory we’ve seen in Old Man and other poems.   He personifies the roads as being lonely when men sleep, needing the traveller, the traveller through life, of course, but of course now, the soldier for whom ‘All roads lead to France’, a direct reference to the war, the road

                ‘heavy with the tread
                Of the living;  but the dead
                Returning lightly dance’

The roads are ‘company’ for the poet, and outlive the ‘brief’ multitude’ of the towns.   

So in this poem Thomas combines the theme of roads and travel, of extinction, the English and Welsh landscape.



The Green Roads
Still on the theme of roads, now Thomas moves away from direct concern with the war,  and into a mythical landscape in which the green roads lead into the forest where they end, an image of death and/or memory.   At the centre of the forest is the oak, like a castle keep, which is nevertheless dead, having seen the ages pass, the memories – as so often in Thomas – now lost.    But now, as in Beauty there’s a surprising turn.  He remembers.  How?  Well, perhaps not directly, but through his poet’s sense of the brittle poise of time, of now.  Like the birds of Gloucestershire, the sun in Nothing Like the Sun.   Here it’s the thrush who repeats his song.

The Gallows
This grim poem can obviously be seen as refracting the war atrocities.  In fact it was written for his daughter, Myfanwy.  Indeed it has some of the dream horror of fairy tales, and it reflects Thomas’s concern with the silence of death.   The weasel hangs ‘without pleasure, without pain’,  the crow has ‘no more sins to be sinned’,  the beasts in general ‘swing and have endless leisure’.  It’s easy to see this as both a macabre children’s poem, and a macabre anticipation of war.

Lights Out
This poem is a very frank facing of death, again symbolised by the forest, which is unfathomably deep.   He’s very clear about his lack of choice here, and the way death puts things into perspective

Here love ends –
Despair, ambition ends;
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter
Here ends, in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble’

Here is where the will lose his way and himself.

Characteristically Thomas doesn’t mention the war explicitly here.  And the war, of course, reinforces and makes more urgent, concerns he seems always to have had.

The Long Small Room

This poem again makes use of rural myth, a house in the woods.    The poem skilfully builds up a sense of things not know, even though witnessed by the mouse and the sparrow – nature.   In the first stanza no-one knows why such a room might have been build.  In the second we cannot know what the sparrows and mouse saw.  In the third stanza he himself becomes these witnesses who have reported nothing,   he know the writer putting this down with his hack’s right hand.   And in fourth stanza we see only the writer’s hand and the empty white page.  It is only in the last line that the poem ‘turns’.    There is a moment of beauty – as if that’s all that really matters of what has been seen, and still can be.  We come back to the theme of poetry and beauty in spite of our loss of the past and ourselves.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

NOTES ON EDWARD THOMAS   20-11-13

We’ve seen Edward Thomas as lyricist, as in the moment of insight at Adlestrop.  But connected to this is the Edward Thomas of memory – the untraceable scent of Lad’s Love.   In both of these we’ve seen a way of focusing on names, which like the scent are there and yet their meaning is not ‘in’ them.

Connected in turn to this we’ve seen the Edward Thomas of speaking,  the mystical speech of the Aspens implicitly connected to the speech traditionally breathed into the poet by the Muse.

And in all of these, there’s the Edward Thomas of ‘nature’, the English countryside which provides a kind of ‘meaning’ for all the words, though not an easily definable meaning,  a meaning more in the sense of ‘the meaning of life’ than ‘the meaning of the word’.   A meaning always just beyond the words, the senses, the fingertips.

In The Other, the attempt to run down a meaning, in the sense of ‘who am I’, proves ambiguous.   The Other is finally discovered, or rather discovers Thomas, only to reject him, and at the same time confirm Thomas’s dependence on him,  rather as the mind depends upon the brain or the body for its  life.   In this poem Thomas briefly finds a kind of solace in his own solitude, his sense that there is a kind of oneness in nature, in which he can take part, ‘melancholy’ as that is – a mixture of belonging and solitude, which mirrors his relationship to his ‘other’ self.

And then in Lob, he approaches the same theme of belonging of selfhood in a different way, seeing the ‘other’ -  in the form of Lob, who has been left behind and can’t be found again -  as inhabiting earth,   naming the earth, being dissolved in it as he had been in the scent and the endless past in Old Man.
In The Other for a moment he found himself as ‘ an old inhabitant of earth’, now he founds a different kind of alter ego who is an inhabitant of earth too, indeed a part of it,  and a naming of it,  an intuitive even anti-intellectual familiar of the southern English landscape,  a presence with many different names, and who doesn’t exist in ordinary time.    The difference, I see, between The Other and Lob is the relative optimism of the latter.   The Other is lonely, facing the essential solitude of the individual;   Lob is a kind of dispersal of that solitude through a kind of love, what we call ‘love of nature’, and indeed like human love in the same that it involves a loss of the boundaries of ‘I’.

It’s this ‘love’ that Thomas comes to defend in This is no Petty Case of Right and Wrong.   This poem is a departure from what we’ve read before in the sense that it is polemical.   It draws on the feeling for England shown in Lob, Adelstrop, and other poems about landscape and creatures but it focuses on the issue of patriotism,  and what they means to him.  Not flag waving and hatred  of the Kaiser,  and nothing to do with what he sees as empty propaganda which to use might seem ‘tabloid’ in tone.  The arguments anyway don’t mean much more to him that the storm and the wind.   The landscape and history of such as Lob is at risk, perhaps already destroyed and what will rise out of the ashes is unpredictable. 
 ‘I am one crying, God save ~England, lest
We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed.
The ages made her that made us from dust.’

He is in effect defining himself, and himself  within Lob and the birds of Gloucestershire.

Thomas sees the context of this war more thoughtfully in As the Team’s Head-Brass, where he approaches it through narrative and in the dialogue of a farmer and himself agonising as to whether to join the army – which he need not do at the age of 37.   The fallen elm, the shrinking area of crop to be cut, the circling of the  plough and horses,  the anecdote about the dead man, all  suggest ideas of destruction, change, need to make a decision.

This poem is less introspective,  or less directly introspective, than The Other, or Aspens, or Adlestrop, and is a narrative poem in which emotions and thoughts are hinted at rather than explored.  The lovers are there in the poem but without comment.   They may suggest Hardy’s poem about the war, In Times of the Breaking of Nations, where the lovers’ preoccupation are seen as eternal compared to the temporary war.  

And the final line with it’s carefully judge  assonance and consonance may remind us of Seamus Heaney’s poem, Follower, about his relation to his father ploughing.

There’s Nothing Like the Sun and Rain deal with the sense of death.  In Rain , written in an army hut, the focus is on ‘Remembering again that I shall die’,  but  There’s Nothing Like the Sun emphasises both the overall embracing fealty of the sun and at the same time the relative unimportance of human beings, as the list in the third lines shows.  The sun is kind of ‘stones and men and birds and beasts and flies’,   and he goes on to give a sense of the wonder of being alive, the wonder of seeing experience things -  somewhere near Wordsworthian in tone, and yet it homes in on the idea of the finality of death.  He draws on the often express relation between our love of life and awareness of its shortness.

Tall Nettles is a mysterious poem, and in reading it we need to think about its reference to the meaning of the rundown farmyard, which may not be so just because the men have gone off to war.  After all I’s been in this state’ these many springs’.   And Thomas’s love of the nettles ‘as well as any bloom upon a flower’  is connected in his mind with the dust they get covered with, and which the rain removes showing ‘the sweetness of a shower’.
There is perhaps a parallel between his sense of life against death in There’s Nothing Like the Sun, and the way dust on a nettle makes us the more aware of its freshness when washed by rain.




SOME RELATED POEMS


William Shakespeare:  Sonnet 130
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
     As any she belied with false compare.



SEAMUS HEANEY: FOLLOWER


My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horse strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.




            I
ONLY a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

            II
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

            III
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War's annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.



Tuesday, 12 November 2013


on

THE OTHER BY EDWARD THOMAS

This is a poem about the poet’s mind, but not ‘the mind of a poet’.   It traces his realisation that he has an alter-ego, which  appears in the communal sphere, mainly to other people.   The poem has two kinds of setting. 

The first is  the natural one exemplified by the forest,  the empty road, and the night landscape in stanza 7.   This is a solitary space where the poet feels both his customary ‘melancholy’ as he calls it, and at the same time a sense of belonging, ‘an old inhabitant of earth’.  

The second setting is the convivial public one of the inn.  This is where he becomes aware that he has a double, and that the double is in the drinkers’ view, preferable to him.   Here he talks to people but can’t communicate sufficiently to get much information about the double except  ‘ he was like me in general’ but ‘He had pleased them less’.

Once he has come out of the forest and into the inn, from private to public,  and discovered his other,  he begins on a quest for him.   The poem as a whole is a quest.   He calls at other inns and gets very little help from people who seem boorish to him, or children who sense ‘I had a purpose’ and because of that clam up.   Eventually, as always in Edward Thomas, ‘I sought then in solitude’.

The presence of the other frightens him, but he has a compulsion to search for him, and from what the inn people have said, ‘I learnt his road’, Thomas says with some ambiguity.  His search is for himself,  ‘to watch until myself I knew’, and he draws on the doppelgänger myth.  There’s a kind of parallel, for example, between this poem’s narrative and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Conrad’s  The Secret Sharer.   After his first realisation at the first inn he reflects in ways which are difficult to follow.  He is following ‘the unseen moving goal’ of his ‘real’ self,  and finds nothing, ‘but remedies/For all desire’.   What would they be.  Possibly suicide.  It seems that he overcomes the desire for suicide by finding another kind of ‘reason for living’, a ‘Desire of desire’.  The obsessiveness of his quest overcomes his melancholy and his despair, and ‘I quite forgot I could forget’, he says, perhaps meaning that his mind was all the more focussed on the quest (thought this passage, I find very difficult to interpret).

He is not pushed further into despair by his lack of success in finding the Other at the second inn mentioned.   It resolves him to search in solitude.

There are three stanzas – 7, 8 and 9 -   where Thomas describes a semi mystical experience of solitary oneness with the dark, of his sense of existence is ‘an everlasting lease’  -   that is  something somehow lent to him at a price for ever -   and mentions his melancholy (depression).   His melancholy although it is at first sight the opposite of happiness, has its own kind of dark joy, perhaps.

Then there’s a crisis in the story when he comes out of his solitude, and actually encounters the Other in an Inn.   Unexpectedly the Other then approaches him and challenges him for running after him all the time as if he were ‘under a ban’.  Poor Thomas is dumbstruck and ‘slipped away’ and the poem ends with his following his Other at a distance, ‘dreading his frown and worse his laughter’. He waits for him at the edge of the wood, waiting for ‘his flight’, then following him.   And he feels that when the Other ceases, so will he – as in other Dopplegänger  tales.

Thomas, at the end, is waiting where he sees ‘the swift shoot from the rafter/by the inn door, and where he can hear ‘the starlings wheeze/And nibble like ducks’.  That is he is neither in the forest where we began, nor in the inn.  And the poem itself is all about uncertainty –uncertainty as to where Thomas feels he belongs, who he is,  what his quest is.

This can be seen as a delineation of his psychology as such, and also as his sense of where a poet lives.   In Aspens he sees the poet as beneath everything else, there and yet not always heard.   In Adelstrop he seems to be carried out of himself into the landscape by the song of the thrush and the ‘unwonted’ stopping – such as poets do.   In Old Man he is somewhere between the future past of the girl, and his own very uncertain memory.   It was Keats who claimed that a poet is someone capable of ‘being in uncertainties’

Keats wrote, in a letter to Dilke about what he called ‘negative capability’
‘that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ and how ‘with a great poem the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consider, or rather obliterates all consideration’.

The Other, perhaps, represents Thomas’s early finding of himself as a poet, finding himself in being a poet, and coming to realise that the essential ‘him’ is not to be found, and indeed for a poet may be a hindrance to the loss of self required to write poetry.  That is why the Other shuns him.  His desire to write cannot be a desire to pin down things, least of all himself, although it is that question (to find how to be a poet) that occupies him.   Perhaps he desires, that is, to be other.[1]




[1] Worth recalling perhaps that Ted Hughes once said that his interest in animals was to do with their being ‘other’.