on Edward Thomas
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.