Monthly Archives: June 2021

Edward Thomas: Adlestrop – close reading

Edition: The Quince Tree Press. Drawing by Peter Newcombe

This is not quite my favourite Edward Thomas poem, but it’s probably his most famous, and maybe his most “Thomasian”. It shows his gift for counterposing the barest of statements – “It was late June”, “Someone cleared his throat” – with something rather stranger-sounding. Would anyone say “one afternoon / Of heat” rather than “one hot afternoon”? But would anyone argue that “one hot afternoon” is better? If the adjective “hot” rarely packs much of a punch, the noun “heat” still stirs the senses; you can feel it rise off the platform, off the page.

Then we have “Unwontedly”, which plays eye off against ear. For me, it’s homophonous with “unwantedly”, and to the audience at the poetry reading, that makes perfect sense. No one likes it when a train stops for no obvious reason; it’s a thing unwanted. But “unwontedly” – and for all I know Thomas may have made an aural distinction (unwohntedly?) – is a peculiar word, never used now, if it ever was. I suspect that it sounded old even in Thomas’ day. “The train was not wont to stop there” we might still say, but there’s something about “wont” that resists being applied to a machine. This range of timbre is widespread in Thomas’ poetry. He often sustains a fairly neutral tone before lurching back in time with an archaism, as in that flaccidly Georgian line here: “No whit less still and lonely fair”.

There are two other quintessentially Thomasian qualities to this poem. One is the furtiveness of the form. I first read “Adlestrop” in my AS Level English class, and nobody pointed out that it rhymed. I can easily believe that no one noticed. I certainly didn’t, and the reason is because Thomas’ rhythms work against his line breaks. He doesn’t go pounding to the end of a line; he rarely hits the rhyme hard. In the first stanza, “heat” absorbs some of the stress from “afternoon”; later “name” springs straight into “willows”. Thomas lived in an age of poets who wore their forms on their sleeves, like sergeant’s stripes, while the mechanics of his poetry often seem accidental, or better, organic. Thus “Adlestrop” approximates the rhythms – if not the vocabulary – of a real human voice.

But what really defines “Adlestrop” as a Thomas poem is its mystery. You can see the shimmering mirage generated by the “afternoon of heat”. Why has the train stopped there? No one seems to know; the throat-clearing smacks of embarrassment. We picture the terrible awkwardness among passengers when something out of the ordinary occurs: eyes are not met, words are not exchanged, everyone looks stiffly forward or down. If the poem is to be believed, train travel in Thomas’ day was not much more sociable than it is now. Even moving, trains are eerie things. The driver is unseen and almost always unheard. But there’s another mysterious person in the frame, or just out of it: who is the speaker speaking to? Who, and what, is he answering with that ‘Yes’?

The poem is a picture of stillness and tension in a haze of summer heat. And somehow, Thomas conjures that stillness with sharp, precise verbs. Most English writing, at some point or other, falls back on that dreadful, nasally -ing suffix, be they present participles, gerunds or continuous forms. “Adlestrop” doesn’t contain a single -ing. After the initial “I remember”, it has only the past simple: “drew”, “hissed”, “cleared”, “left” “came”, “saw”, “sang”. Sharp verbs, crisp as a winter’s morning; yet soft, apart from the always-sinister “hissed”. They don’t disturb the stillness; they slice straight through it.

What mars it, just a touch, is the last line. “Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire” locate the poem in a way that it didn’t need; gives us a point of reference that checks the bewilderment. The reader isn’t meant to know the name “Adlestrop”; the speaker doesn’t seem to, when the train draws up. It’s like Porlock: one of those places whose fame rests solely on a work of literature, otherwise not quite of this world. Knowing that Adlestrop lies in Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire spoils – ever so slightly – the riddle.

by Harry Cochrane