Week 500: The Sun Used To Shine, by Edward Thomas

Well, I seem to have made it to week 500: my thanks to all those who have encouraged and assisted me on the way. Having just turned seventy-eight I can’t absolutely guarantee that I’ll make it through the next ten years to week 1000 but I’ll do my best.For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,/Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green’.

I started in week one with the poet I love best, Edward Thomas, so it seems fitting to mark this optimistically putative halfway point with another of his. This one, written in the spring of 1916, is a deeply wistful recollection of the evening walks he took with Robert Frost in the fields around Dymock during the great summer of their friendship, 1914, and shows him becoming the master of a relaxed, conversational style, able to take in its stride enjambements and potentially awkward rhymes. It also shows that equilibrium I like so much in his work: how, although a very self-orientated poet concerned, reasonably enough, with his own moods and desires, he always has time too for the otherness of the world. That ‘yellow flavorous coat/Of an apple wasps had undermined’, for example – I suppose it might be possible to devise some symbolic role for this in the poem, but I think it is there simply because he took a quiet pleasure in such things for their own sake and liked to give them their due, just as he does to the betony, a common enough wild flower with its stiff reddish spike, renowned in herbal medicine but up to that point little celebrated in verse. But best of all in this poem I like the closing lines, with their aching sense of the transience of all things, even memory, balanced by the consoling thought that for others at least friendship, love and the beauty of the earth will go on.

The Sun Used to Shine

The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted

Each night. We never disagreed
Which gate to rest on. The to be
And the late past we gave small heed.
We turned from men or poetry

To rumours of the war remote
Only till both stood disinclined
For aught but the yellow flavorous coat
Of an apple wasps had undermined;

Or a sentry of dark betonies,
The stateliest of small flowers on earth,
At the forest verge; or crocuses
Pale purple as if they had their birth

In sunless Hades fields. The war
Came back to mind with the moonrise
Which soldiers in the east afar
Beheld then. Nevertheless, our eyes

Could as well imagine the Crusades
Or Caesar’s battles. Everything
To faintness like those rumours fades –
Like the brook’s water glittering

Under the moonlight – like those walks
Now – like us two that took them, and
The fallen apples, all the talks
And silences – like memory’s sand

When the tide covers it late or soon,
And other men through other flowers
In those fields under the same moon
Go talking and have easy hours.

Edward Thomas 

Week 454: Old Man, by Edward Thomas

One of Edward Thomas’s best and best-loved poems, characterised by his brooding, wistful intelligence, that always seems to be trying to bring into focus something half-glimpsed at the corner of the eye, that would give him a completeness he felt he lacked.

The child in the poem is Myfanwy, Thomas’s younger daughter. Born in 1910, Myfanwy survived into her nineties, dying in 2005. In 2000 I was asked by the Edward Thomas Fellowship to write a poem for her ninetieth birthday. Normally I don’t, or can’t, write to order, but as luck would have it I had a little earlier that year happened to call in at the Hampshire village of Steep, Edward’s onetime home, on the way back from a day out with my wife and daughter, and a poem on the subject had begun to form in my mind. The request gave me the jolt to finish and send it off, and in due course I received a letter from Myfanwy herself, expressing her appreciation. I remain moved to have had that living link with the poet I love most, one whom Ted Hughes called ‘the father of us all’, and I hope I may be indulged if I append my own poem as a sort of follow-on to Edward’s.

Old Man

Old Man, or Lad’s-love, – in the name there’s nothing
To one that knows not Lad’s-love, or Old Man,
The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with rosemary and lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.

The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as some day the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last on to the path, perhaps
Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, though it is as old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I can only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door,
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.

As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.

I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember:
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

Edward Thomas

At Steep (for Myfanwy Thomas on her 90th birthday)

Driving home through Hampshire with my daughter
I see a sign that beckons like a legend
Though on plain earth, and so it is we come
In April twilight, clearing after rain,
Like pilgrim ghosts your childhood might have seen
Out of its unimaginable future,
Up Stoner Hill and round by Cockshott Lane,
To find, through trees and down a root-stepped path,
Your father’s boulder, set there on the slope.

My daughter runs ahead of me, downhill
Past dim white cherries, cowslips, violets,
Mildly curious, but wanting tea.

‘Who was Edward Thomas anyway?’
I say ‘A poet.’ ‘Oh.’ My daughter’s twelve,
Likes judo, dancing, being with her friends.
Poems are the things that daft Dads write
Light-years away from coolness.
                                                            ‘Was he good?’
So short a question. And so long an answer
If truth were served: as long, say, as long years
Of looking, loving, waiting.
                                                           ‘He was good.’

I take her photograph beside the stone.
‘Can we go back now?’ Yes, my love, we can.
To keep the covenant was all I wanted.
You see, this is our obscure faith, our trust,
Whether we live or die too soon, unknowing,
That somewhere in the private rooms of time
Others will read for love alone the words
We wrote for love, alone.
                                                        And deeper still
There is another covenant we keep:
Let our words be forgotten, let our lives
Fade utterly, but not these: let there be
Always an April evening, woods, a thrush
Singing and a child, always a child,
A daughter, maybe, finding violets
Or standing in the twilight by a path,
Plucking a bush, with one to see her there
Apart, in all a child’s grave otherness,
And love her.
                           ‘Can we get chips?’ We get chips.

David Sutton

Note: ‘Your father’s boulder…’ On the hillside above Steep called Mutton Hill there is set in memory of Edward a sarsen boulder bearing a simple plaque, the best of poet’s memorials, and here you can stand looking out over fields and coppices whose names he would have known, hearing as he once heard the wind in the trees and watching the sunlight come and go on the rim of the downs.

Week 414: If I Should Ever by Chance, by Edward Thomas

I find this poem a pure delight. For one thing it is, uncharacteristically for Edward Thomas, an essentially happy poem, even if the happiness is tinged with wistfulness: ‘If I should ever by chance grow rich’ – Thomas knew quite well that he was never going to grow rich, certainly not rich enough to own a tract of English countryside, having chosen the penurious life of a literary hack.

Then there are the field names: Codham, Roses, Pyrgo. Thomas loved to pore over maps finding these curious old appellations, so expressive of our ancient, many-layered, parcelled-out countryside, and letting them conjure up for him memories and visions of the landscape he was so intimate with. And there is the playful relationship in the poem with his small daughter Bronwen, the only one who could lighten his black moods, the one he would take on his spring walks, competing with her to find the first flowers of the year. So it is a light rent that he imagines asking of her first, and then really no rent at all, since it would be quite difficult not to find a blossom on furze at any time of year: hence the country saying ‘When gorse is out of bloom, kissing’s out of season’.

Happy, I called it, if  a little wistful. Yet I suspect that for the Thomas family, after Edward’s death in France in 1917, there must have been a sadness beyond wistfulness about this particular poem, having to stand as it did for all the things a father might have wished to give to a daughter whose growing up he was never to see.

If I Should Ever by Chance

If I should ever by chance grow rich
I’ll buy Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater,
And let them all to my elder daughter.
The rent I shall ask of her will be only
Each year’s first violets, white and lonely,
The first primroses and orchises –
She must find them before I do, that is.
But if she finds a blossom on furze
Without rent they shall all for ever be hers,
Whenever I am sufficiently rich:
Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo and Lapwater, –
I shall give them all to my elder daughter.

Edward Thomas

Week 395: Tall Nettles, by Edward Thomas

I imagine that those brought up to think that a poem must always mean something beyond itself may find this little piece, together with why I find it so satisfying, somewhat puzzling. ‘Yes, but what do the nettles represent?’, they may ask. Nothing, so far as I know: they are just nettles in their own right, a humble and easily overlooked part of the creation, but this time they have been seen, and the poetry is in the seeing. It is as Thomas himself observed of his hero Richard Jefferies: ‘To see… as clearly as he saw the sun-painted yellowhammer in Stewart’s Mash is an office of the imagination’. And when it results in observation as affectionately meticulous as that in the last three lines of this poem, it is no mean office either.

Tall Nettles

Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.

This corner of the farmyard I like most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.

Edward Thomas

Week 367: The Long Small Room, by Edward Thomas

Remembrance Sunday comes round again, and this week’s piece, though not in itself a war poem, does confront us, indirectly but powerfully, with one truth about the Great War which we are understandably reluctant now to recognise, but which goes some way towards explaining the enthusiasm with which the war was initially greeted: namely, that enlistment gave to many the chance of escape from an unhappy and unfulfilled working life. And one such was the poet Edward Thomas, who as a mature married man had no need to volunteer, but did so anyway in 1915, going on to be killed at Arras in 1917. This poem looks back on the years of badly paid literary hackwork that had been his lot in the years leading up to the war, and it is hard not to speculate on what might have happened had he not been caught up in the great events of his time. Would the dam that was holding in all that pent-up rare original poetry of his own never have broken? Would he have simply carried on with the drudgery he so despised, his hand continuing to crawl on towards age, until the last of those hundred leaves fell from the willow?

The Long Small Room

The long small room that showed willows in the west
Narrowed up to the end the fireplace filled,
Although not wide. I liked it. No one guessed
What need or accident made them so build.

Only the moon, the mouse and the sparrow peeped
In from the ivy round the casement thick.
Of all they saw and heard there they shall keep
The tale for the old ivy and older brick.

When I look back I am like moon, sparrow, and mouse
That witnessed what they could never understand
Or alter or prevent in the dark house.
One thing remains the same – this my right hand

Crawling crab-like over the clean white page,
Resting awhile each morning on the pillow,
Then once more starting to crawl on towards age.
The hundred last leaves stream upon the willow.

Edward Thomas

Week 331: Women He Liked, by Edward Thomas

Another of those Edward Thomas poems that may seem to be about nothing much – a clump of nettles in a corner of a farmyard, a bundle of faggots, or in this case a lost path under trees – but which root themselves in the mind because they themselves are rooted in a world half-forgotten yet still obscurely important to us.

I am not sure about the gnomic line ‘To name a thing beloved man sometimes fails’. It’s a good line, but is it actually true? It seems to me that naming a thing is an essential part of the love act, and what we don’t name we don’t notice, let alone love. But if one is moved now and then to query a poet’s assertion, that is merely another way of engaging in that ongoing dialogue between the living and the dead that we call reading.

Stormcock is another name for the missel-thrush.

Women He Liked

Women he liked, did shovel-bearded Bob,
Old Farmer Hayward of the Heath, but he
Love horses. He himself was like a cob,
And leather-coloured. Also he loved a tree.

For the life in them he loved most living things,
But a tree chiefly. All along the lane
He planted elms where now the stormcock sings
That travellers hear from the slow-climbing train.

Till then the track had never had a name
For all its thicket and the nightingales
That should have earned it. No one was to blame.
To name a thing beloved man sometimes fails.

Many years since, Bob Hayward died, and now
None passes there because the mist and rain
Out of the elms have turned the lane to slough
And gloom, the name alone survives, Bob’s Lane.

Edward Thomas


Week 283: The Owl, by Edward Thomas

I guess we all have our poetic touchstones, poems that we measure other poems against, talismans against the tritely sentimental, the strained or strident, the artily pretentious. This week’s poem is one of my touchstones. Not a lot happens in it – a man comes to an inn after a long day’s walk, looking forward to rest and refreshment, and as he goes in hears an owl calling from the hill. Yet somehow, like a clearing sky at twilight, it opens up whole vistas of time and imagination. A lot turns on that ‘salted’ in the last stanza. No easy sentiment here – the poet is honest enough to admit that the thought of others less fortunate than himself adds relish to his situation. And yet, after all, what clinches the poem is the compassion of its last two lines.

The Owl

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

Edward Thomas

Week 232: The Sign-Post, by Edward Thomas

This Sunday, April 9th 1917, marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Edward Thomas, on the first day of the Battle of Arras. I will celebrate it with the first Edward Thomas poem that I ever came across, around the end of the nineteen-fifties. At that time Thomas was still far from having the iconic status among general poetry readers that he now enjoys, and he certainly hadn’t figured in my English teacher’s rather conservative version of the school curriculum, which stopped with that daring modernist Wordsworth (and let us never forget that Wordsworth was a daring modernist). But I fell in love at once with Thomas’s combination of close observation, natural speech rhythms and rueful self-examination.

The Sign-Post

The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.

One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what ’twould by
To be sixty by this same post. ‘You shall see,’
He laughed – and I had to join his laughter –
‘You shall see; but either before or after,
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
’Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth, –
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, –
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?

Edward Thomas

Week 211: The Long Small Room, by Edward Thomas

The beautiful particularity of this poem should not blind us to the fact that its closing stanzas are bleak as anything Edward Thomas ever wrote. Thomas’s long-running battle with literary hackwork and depression is well-chronicled, and probably the reaction of many will be ‘Join the club, mate’ – after all, most of us, unless we are unusually lucky in our vocation, are doomed to spend the best part of our lives in a place we don’t particularly want to be doing things we don’t particularly want to do. But Thomas, through a combination of temperament and domestic circumstances, did perhaps genuinely suffer more than most. The poem makes an interesting comparison with Philip Larkin’s famous anti-work diatribe ‘Toads’, but set beside Thomas’s existential angst Larkin’s seems no more than a cheery grumble: as a librarian he was after all doing something he clearly took some pride in and which presumably offered a measure of financial security, and by all accounts he seems to have got on rather well with his secretaries. Thomas worked alone for a pittance, and knew himself wasted.

The Long Small Room

The long small room that showed willows in the west
Narrowed up to the end the fireplace filled,
Although not wide. I liked it. No one guessed
What need or accident made them so build.

Only the moon, the mouse and the sparrow peeped
In from the ivy round the casement thick.
Of all they saw and heard there they shall keep
The tale for the old ivy and older brick.

When I look back I am like moon, sparrow, and mouse
That witnessed what they could never understand
Or alter or prevent in the dark house.
One thing remains the same – this my right hand

Crawling crab-like over the clean white page,
Resting awhile each morning on the pillow,
Then once more starting to crawl on towards age.
The hundred last leaves stream upon the willow.

Edward Thomas

Week 55: Aspens, by Edward Thomas

I have been reading Matthew Hollis’s fine account of Edward Thomas’s last four years, ‘Now All Roads Lead To France’, and this seems a good time to feature another piece by the man who is perhaps not the greatest of twentieth-century English poets, but is certainly now among the most loved. Which might have surprised him: the biography paints a picture of a difficult, overburdened man whose capacity to inspire love was sometimes greater than his capacity to return it. I think that what we respond to is the core of absolute integrity in his life and work, that finally found its expression in poems like this that combine hauntingly precise observation of the natural world with wry self-analysis.

All day and all night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy, and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.

Out of the blacksmith’s cavern comes the ringing
Of hammer, shoe, and anvil; out of the inn
The clink, the hum, the roar, the random singing –
The sounds that for these fifty years have been.

The whisper of the aspens is not drowned,
And over lightless pane and footless road,
Empty as sky, with every other sound
Not ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,

A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom,
In tempest or the night of nightingales,
To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.

And it would be the same were no house near.
Over all sorts of weather, men, and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.

Whatever wind blows while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree.

Edward Thomas