Monday 9 November 2015

Another for Remembrance

Hardy's In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations' led me back to a poem by Edward Thomas - one of his greatest, I think - on a similar theme. A similar theme, but in every other way different: Thomas's is a much more concrete, immediate and local poem, precisely local in time and place (scaled right down to the woodpecker's round hole in the fallen elm), with the author placed firmly inside the scene and participating in it. It is also written in a more relaxed, free and discursive style, in the loose iambic pentameter that comes so naturally to English verse and even, as here, to reported speech (thanks to Shakespeare). Drawing on a long English tradition of pastoral, and playing with 'Georgian' conventions, it twists and subverts them to create something quite new and fitting to its time and place. It is a brilliantly but effortlessly constructed poem, full of so much good stuff that with every rereading, I find, something new catches the light and flashes out...

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
                       The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?”
“When the war’s over.” So the talk began—
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
“Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want
to, perhaps?”
“If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone
From here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”
“And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.” “Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.” Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

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