Saturday 28 August 2021

Two Adlestrops

 If, by some deep injustice, Edward Thomas were to end up as one of those poets remembered for one much-anthologised poem, there is no doubting which it would be: this short, beautiful evocation of so much – 

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.

It is a poem that seems to have haunted the English imagination ever since it became widely known (it was not published in Thomas's lifetime). The centenary of the incident that inspired it was celebrated in grand style (in 2014) with a special Cotswold Line train, the Adlestrop Centenary Special, running from Oxford to Moreton-in-Marsh, with a respectful halt at the site of what was once Adlestrop station.  Festivities in the village itself included a reading of the poem by Robert Hardy.
In the 1970s, as I discovered last night, browsing in his Collected Poems, Peter Porter had his own experience of an Adlestrop interlude, one very different from Edward Thomas's. The poem that commemorates it is also very different from Thomas's, which Porter describes as 'Not a great poem, but rich in names And heartaches'. Porter's poem is rich in atmosphere and observed detail – both quite different from Thomas's, as is the season, though the day is hot, 'A sinisterly fine October afternoon'. The air of Porter's death-infused poem is oppressive, where Thomas's is rapt, peaceful, enchanted. But Porter is finally grateful to have had this strange, unexpected moment...

Good Vibes
for Shena Mackay

If you hadn't notice the unprominent sign
We'd have missed Adlestrop, missed the gone
Railway and the bullock raking his back
In the hollow holly-bower. Missed, too, the sky
So intolerably lofty in its beakered blue
And the loping dog which frightened me
(Which is how I know he was friendly) –
Most noticeably missed the station bench
And ADLESTROP, the railway sign, with Edward
Thomas's poem on a plaque for pilgrims.
Not a great poem, but rich in names
And heartache and certainly a focus for
A sinisterly fine October afternoon.
Down one lane adjacent the Home for Children,
(With what impediment we never found),
All the day-labourers of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire
Were about their honey-making masonry
Of Cotswold stone, and the bullocks were nifty
In the meadow by the creek. There were no
Devils in the landscape, exhalations from
Ponds and dogs' breath and graveyards after rain
Could only be imagined in such unexpected sunshine,
But we felt them, felt a new humidity,
Oppressive like the self. This was a short halt
On two pilgrimages, a look-back out of Hades, 
Such as the gods provide for laughter in their
Chronicles. Yet that sound, that risible division,
Strikes mortal earth some otherwise – such as
Gravel flicking from a low-slung bumper,
A trailing jet above, a jostling on the eaves
Of sycamores. It was as if the well-intentioned 
Dead were breathing out and blessing everyone,
Vibrations of the minute, without franchise,
A pointless benediction. Thinking again, I feel
Grateful that you saw through uncleaned windows
A name which meant the same to all half-educated
Persons. To have trod on ground in happiness
Is to be shaken by the true immortals.

The dedicatee of this jokily titled (but deadly serious) poem is the Scottish novelist and short story writer Shena Mackay, whose stories I remember greatly admiring back in the Eighties and Nineties (perhaps I should revisit them). Happily, unlike Porter, she is still with us. 



  1. Is there a particular book by Mackay you'd recommend? I read 'Heligoland' and thought it was rather bad!

    1. The ones I remember particularly are the novel The Orchard on Fire and the short story All the Pubs in Soho...

    2. Thanks Nige, I'll keep an eye out for those!

  2. I may have mentioned this here in the past (if so, I apologize): I recommend Elected Friends: Poems for and about Edward Thomas (Enitharmon Press 1991), an anthology compiled by Anne Harvey. It contains (by my quick count) 77 poems by different poets (with some poets appearing more than once: e.g., Robert Frost, Walter de la Mare, Ivor Gurney, Michael Longley). It's touching to see the impact he has had on people. As one might expect, "Adlestrop" makes an appearance in several of the poems, and Porter's poem is present.

    The title of the anthology comes from Frost's "Iris by Night" (which is about his friendship with Thomas): "And we stood in it softly circled round/From all division time or foe can bring/In a relation of elected friends."

  3. Thanks for the recommendation, Stephen. Funnily enough, I know Anne Harvey and have several of her anthologies, but not that one. I have now ordered it from AbeBooks, and look forward to browsing it.