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.
‘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.
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