“Yes, I remember Adlestrop – the name, because one afternoon of heat the express-train drew up there unwontedly. It was late June. The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat. No one left and no one came on the bare platform. What I saw was Adlestrop – only the name And willows, willow-herb, and grass, and meadowsweet, and haycocks dry, no whit less still and lonely fair than the high cloudlets in the sky. And for that minute a blackbird sang close by, and round him, mistier, farther and farther, all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.” For our learners, can you just set the context and tell us something about the circumstances of the composition?
Yeah, Edward Thomas is one of my absolute favourite writers, suffered from deep depression, was a sort of all around jobbing writer, wrote lots and lots of books, book reviews, but wrote entirely in prose through the Edwardian period. And then he met Robert Frost, and Frost turned him into a poet. They both influenced each other. And just for a few short years between 1914 and 1917, he wrote a small body of wonderful poetry in a very plain conversational kind of voice. Then in 1917, he was killed on the Western Front, cut off in his prime. This is probably his best-known poem, and it comes from a very, simple moment.
He was on the train, steam train, of course,– it’s June 1914, just before the first world war– the express train from Oxford to Worcester. But for some reason, ‘unwontedly’, as he says in the poem, it pulled up and stopped at a little tiny village called Adlestrop which is in the Cotswolds. It’s just down the road from the famous Daylesford organic market.
The train stops, and there’s a moment of silence. Nobody gets on. Nobody gets off. The steam hisses. And of course a steam train travelling along is tremendously noisy. But the moment of silence, the moment of stopping– and I always think Adle-strop. Maybe he thought ‘strop’/stop, and that gave him the idea of stopping. And he then listens. And gradually, he just hears bird song. And the poem has this wonderful opening out until the end, it’s as if he hears all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. So once again, we’ve got a situation of busy life, a train journey, and yet suddenly, the moment of stopping, a reconnection with nature, finding a kind of inner calm.
There is that contention between the steam, so the machine, and stopping and then hearing nature– this sort of contention between industrial life and country life, which is so evocative particularly. That’s absolutely right. I mean, Edward Thomas, one of the few ways in which he was able to cope with his depression was through walking. And the thing about walking is that it is silent, and you can absorb yourself in your surroundings in a way you can’t in the modern world, the world of mass transport, the world of, at that time, steam trains and then, obviously, increasingly, motor cars. But that sense that when you do just stop for a moment, you can reconnect.
In some ways, I think what this poem does is analogous to that form of meditation we call mindfulness.
The idea that – for instance, outside the college where I live and work, there are some traffic lights. And it seems to take ages and ages for the green man to come on it. And it’s very frustrating if you’re hurrying off to a meeting having to wait for the green man. But a mindful approach would say, ‘take this as an opportunity. Stop. Wait for the green man, and look round at the trees, look up at the sky, and that will calm you down’. And in a way, that’s the equivalent of what’s happening in this poem. It’s a very conversational poem. ‘Yes’, and he starts with, ‘yes’. So you feel like you’re just eavesdropping in on a dialogue.
Well, I think Edward Thomas is a really important poet in this regard, because he’s writing at a time when the Romantic movement of the 19th century is sort of petering out and poetry is becoming very highfalutin. And he says, ‘no let’s do something different with poetry. Let’s use ordinary, plain words. Let’s be conversational, treat a poem like a conversation, speak to your reader’. And that then establishes this lovely sense of a relationship. It’s as if, ‘yeah, I remember Adlestrop’. It’s as if you, the reader, are in the railway carriage with him.
And the other thing that I think makes it very conversational is that although it does have a rhyme scheme and a regular rhythm, it’s a nice, easy rhyme scheme where alternating lines rhyme and then unrhyme. We call it ABCB. The first and third lines in each stanza are unrhymed, but the second and fourth are rhymed. But despite having that element of formality, it’s conversational in the sense that there are full stops, little short half-sentences. So the movement of the conversation just slows down the rhythm. So this is not the kind of poem that you could read in an incantatory way like Yeats’s, “Lake Isle of Innisfree”. In that sense, it’s a much more modern poem.
Although it’s formal, it’s getting close to the sort of thing that happens in the free verse that many 20th century poets used. But for you, what is the poem about? For me, what the poem is about is stopping.