Friday, March 29, 2013

In Pursuit of  Spring, 2.

Read Matthew Oates, Guardian EnvironmentBlog for an excellent article on 'In Pursuit of Spring.'

Chapter III    Guildford to Dunbridge, and a riff on clay pipes.

On the Hog's Back he sees gypsies:

'I liked the look of the gypsies camping... If they were not there in fact, they would have to be invented. They are at home there. See them at nightfall, with their caravans drawn up facing the wind, and the men by the half-door at the back smoking, while the hobbled horses are grazing and the children playing near.'

(I owned a 'vardo' like this for some years but moved to a terraced house so it went to a good home.)
On to Farnham for breakfast, and to see:
'A small inn labelled "Cobbett's Birthplace" in letters as big as are usually given to the name of a brewer.'.
No longer:
'The Jolly Farmer burnt down completely in the 1980's - with the post box outside all that remained. We celebrate its resilience by hanging it from one of our rebuilt walls! '.   Hhhhmn.

He travelled on westward to Willey Mill on the Wey, the Surrey/Hampshire border.
cc Wordpress
Continuing on the Pilgrims' Way near Guildford
Just into Hampshire hops were grown then:'Many were the buildings related to hops, whose mellow brick work seemed to have been stained by a hundred harvests.'
In a remarkable passage Thomas describes a hunt, emphasising the scarlet riders and ending:
'Backwards and forwards galloped the riders before the right crossing of the railway was taken. The fox died in obscurity two miles away.'   Restrained dislike, I read into that 'Backwards and forwards...'

After this the chapter diverts from topology into disquisitions on:

 local surnames,
 to a tale of two sisters , Martha and Mary, with the characteristics implied by those names,

and then into clay pipes. Edward Thomas always carried his 'clay' a simple workman's pipe, and he riffs at great length on their different shapes, thickness, thinness and suitability.

found in our roof.
 Surely he is laughing at himself  in his pages of discourse on these pipes, good and bad; it's the way he follows them with by bemusement at the Other Man's obsession with weather vanes and 'stupor' from having to listen to Thomas.
He describes the perfect pipe:

'This perfect clay pipe came from a shop at Oxford. Everywhere else I have looked in vain for them. I have never seen any one else smoking them who had not got them from me.
Tastes differ, but in this matter I cannot believe that anyone capable of distinguishing one clay from another would deny this one's excellence.
The Other Man cared nothing for the matter. He awoke from the stupor to which he had been reduced by listening, and asked,-
"Did you see that weather-vane at Albury in the shape of a pheasant? or the fox-shape one by the ford at Butts green? ......'

The Oxford tobacconist on the High Street still exists:

Poem - Digging, the first poem written after Edward Thomas enlisted. He sweeps through aeons of time.


What matter makes my spade for tears or mirth,
Letting down two clay pipes into the earth?
The one I smoked, the other a soldier
Of Blenheim, Ramillies, and Malplaquet
Perhaps. The dead man's immortality
Lies represented lightly with my own,
A yard or two nearer the living air
Than bones of ancients who, amazed to see
Almighty God erect the mastodon,
Once laughed, or wept, in this same  light of day.
Publishing matters:

30 March 2013 1:07PM       A marvellous review on the Guardian web-site today, Saturday
Timely, Shapely.
2014 sees the 100th anniversary of the First World War; attention will be paid to the writers who remind us. Already the London stage has hosted a play about Edward Thomas, and this Easter the BBC begins readings from his book 'The Pursuit of Spring'. Margaret Keeping's 'A Conscious Englishman' is timely.
Her research is impeccable and she is scrupulous in indicating when she is quoting directly from letters, diaries, poems; where she must imagine, she convinces. Biography can be shapeless, but here the problem is solved by structuring the book around Thomas's search for an answer to the tormenting question - how should he respond to war? This sharp focus excises undigested lumps of research, much to this reader's pleasure. (It could be argued that the relationship with Edna Clarke-Hall is a diversion, but you have only to track her photograph on the internet to understand her allure.)
Helen Thomas has written devotedly of her marriage, and although to a later generation it may lack attraction, Margaret Keeping is wise and generous enough to understand that where both parties have needs which are being met, third-party censoriousness is inappropriate. Her Helen is allowed to speak, and her voice is an engaging one.
Above all, Thomas is a poet of those spots of time - in Margaret Keeping's words, those "moment[s] out of time that could contain something everlasting, a rapturous moment, always remembered." Her gift is to create in prose the landscapes and moods which Thomas captured in his poems. In showing us the genesis of 'The Manor Farm', 'Old Man', 'In Memoriam (Easter 1915)', she sends us straight back to the poetry, and for a writer who loves Thomas's work, what finer service could she render?


Another surprise review on Amazon - I hadn't been checking:

A good read, 24 Mar 2013

This review is from: A Conscious Englishman (Paperback)
This excellent book about the important but often overlooked Anglo-Welsh poet Edward Thomas, can be delightful. We experience the blossom of spring, the smell of apples and perry pears, him pushing his children on the swing in the orchard above the wide Gloucestershire fields. And there are some touching, not to mention passionate, moments with his wife Helen.
Margaret Keeping writes very skilfully, achieving some most economical character studies - 'Edward complained I treated everyone as if they were my children and they did not like that. It was nonsense, I was interested in people and hoped they would like me.' One can just see this bustling, fussing albeit well-meaning person driving everyone mad. But one can also see what an anchor she was to Thomas.
The book is an account of their relationship and the relationship with other literary greats of the day, particularly Robert Frost. It is also, of course, the story of Thomas's heart searching and indecision as he clambered to brief fame as a poet, and as such it deftly portrays selfishness, depression and anger.
Most of the narrative is in the third person, but some sections are given to Helen, which is effective in contrasting the down to earth practical point of view of a mother with that of an artist prepared to give up so much for his art. It points up both aspects and increases the feeling of reality in the story.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in poetry, particularly turn of the century poets, English/Welsh rural life, or just a good read.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

In Pursuit of Spring

(Aries, Gemini and Taurus for the spring season.)

Three programmes on Radio 4 over the Easter Weekend

To mark the centenary of Edward Thomas's bicycle journey from London to the Somerset coast, on which he based In Pursuit of Spring (first published in 1914 by Thomas Nelson), a series of three programmes will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 next Friday, Saturday and Sunday (29th - 31st March at 3.30pm).
In Pursuit of Spring is the most important prose work of Thomas's, as it is nearer to the writing he wanted to do, shows a great deal of himself and was the work that Frost identified as showing that his friend could and should write poetry.

The BBC introduces them:

"Over Easter 2013, naturalist Matthew Oates pursues his own personal homage to Thomas by following in the literacy [sic] cycle tracks of the Edwardian writer one hundred years before. Throughout the series, academic and travel writer Robert MacFarlane, an admirer of Thomas himself, will read passages from Thomas's work which illustrate the man within. Rather than faithfully recreating the earlier journey, Matthew aims to recapture the spirit of self-discovery as he travels through southern England to meet people who can explain Thomas, the man behind the writing."
Matthew Oates, presenter of In Pusuit of Spring
Matthew Oates, the presenter of the series, seen here holding the edition of In Pursuit of Spring published in paperback by Laurel Books at £9.99
End-page of my original edition
Edward Thomas begins with a chapter about the preceding weeks, leading up to Good Friday 1913 on what was also, like ours now, a March Easter. He has a good deal to say about the weather and clearly it was much more variable than our March with its almost unremitting cold.
In many of his prose works he begins with a leaving of London. Thomas's relationship with London is complex. As a small boy he was drawn to the areas most resembling true country, especially Wandsworth Common.
The Long Pond.
Wandsworth Common, towards Bolingbroke Grove.
 It is those areas he regrets when they have been tidied up or built on - in one case made into a football pitch. He regrets the gypsies who would settle, set up a small fair on holidays (it begins on Good Friday) and perhaps stay on or move elsewhere.
But Thomas needed London for work and friendships. He visited editors, stayed with his parents, lunched with Eleanor and others, worked for Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop as a reviewer and of course met Robert Frost there at one of his regular literary gatherings.
In the second chapter, passing through London suburbs towards Epsom,  I noticed most things that are gone - elms, quite prolific and important, often with rookeries. And hot-cross buns on Good Friday only. My daughter just remembers the baker delivering them to the small hamlet where we lived then - mid seventies - but we can't really remember when that changed.
The first day and first chapter travels from Wandsworth to Guildford.
Saxon/Norman Aldbury 'neglected old church ....too much like a shameless unburied corpse.' Maybe he didn't like the 19th cupola that replaced a spire.
Now listed, restored , preserved and protected from all sides.
The Hog's Back near Guildford
Here is an extract from the novel: 

'Robert read out sections concerning the Other Man who reappeared time and again during Edward’s journey from London to the Quantocks. Certainly there was something uncanny, an uneasiness, about the contingency, re-occurring over and over, which might make a poem. Robert’s own poetry, his ‘books of people’, could have accommodated such a character. But had Robert seen further, seen what the Other Man was?

No, Robert was turning on. He read a passage where Edward had almost despaired of finding a bed for the night on Easter day.

‘Listen:  “I found a bed and a place to sit and eat in, and to listen to the rain breaking over gutters and splashing on to stones, and pipes swallowing rain to the best of their ability, and signboards creaking in the wind; and to reflect on the imperfections of  inns and life¾

You see?’

Edward smiled – weather was a prevailing theme for him, like a descant accompanying his life. He remembered the rest of the chapter – his long discourse on clay pipes and the Other Man’s obsession with weather vanes. Unlikely that Robert would find much in them. No, he moved on, commenting on the passage on George Herbert at Bemington.

When he came to the chapter on Somerset he fell silent. Edward could hear the water murmuring below them under the bridge again.

‘What are you reading?’ Edward asked after a time.

‘I guess it’s everywhere, the poetry – just listen.’ He read in his leisurely way, breaking the lines as though he were reading blank verse.

‘I went out into the village at about half-past nine in the dark, quiet evening. A few stars penetrated the soft sky; a few lights shone on earth, from a distant farm seen through a gap in the cottages. Single and in groups, separated by gardens and bits of orchard, the cottages were vaguely discernible; here and there a yellow window square gave out a feeling of home, tranquillity, security. Nearly all were silent. Ordinary speech was not to be heard, but from one house came the sounds of a harmonium being played and a voice singing a hymn, both faintly. A dog barked far off. After an interval a gate fell-to lightly. Nobody was on the road.”

‘And again – these images …see:  The pollard willows fringing the green, which in the sunlight resemble mops, were now very much like a procession of men, strange primeval beings, pausing to meditate in the darkness.”

That’s great. The music and the drama in it, working together. And the way it ends:  I felt that I could walk on thus, sipping the evening silence and solitude, endlessly.” '

Edward looked down from the footbridge into the dark brook; he was both excited and impatient. If Robert would just leave him alone for a while now, he thought. It was for him to evaluate his own work. If there was a possibility of him trying poetry, well, then it was for him to find his sources, his subjects.

‘Robert, I think I have to be getting back to work. But thank you. Next time we meet, though, let’s talk about your poetry.’ '
Laurel Books, £9.99
For another In Pursuit of Spring journey this Easter see too:

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Edward Thomas and Three Women: Helen Thomas

Helen is the one who matters: her devotion and loyalty to Edward Thomas must move all but the stoniest heart.

Helen's Story

Helen Noble, the daughter of the journalist, James Ashcroft Noble, was born in Liverpool on 11th July 1877. Noble, who found work writing for The Spectator, moved the family to London in 1880.

After an education at Wintersdorf School in Southport, she became a nursery governess in Rotherfield. She was quite 'bohemian' in dress and in the circles she moved in.

She met Edward through her father who encouraged his writing and their getting to know each other.

Helen became pregnant with Merfyn while Edward was an undergraduate at Oxford .( See my blogs on Oxford.) In 1896, they married and times were very hard financially. Bronwen was born and became quite ill with their poor living conditions, as Edward struggled to make a living by his writing.

Helen taught kindergarden children at Beadles, a progressive co-educational boarding school in Steep where they had moved. They had a third child, Myfanwy, who became a writer.


Under Storm's Wing.

Helen Thomas - using Helen's words.

The problem with Helen is of course also the bonus - she had written her account of her life with Edward in the moving and still widely read works, As It Was and World Without End, 1926 and 1931 collected as Under Storm's Wing.

(I was interested to read that the major Thomas scholar Edna Longley came to Thomas 's poetry after reading Helen's work.)

 Helen's daughter, Myfanwy, claims the books were written as a form of therapy to lift the depression which settled over her after the death of her husband. Helen was dedicated to keeping Edward's name and work to the fore, but she also developed a wide circle of friends in the arts, especially music and ballet. She recorded and introduced Edward's poems at the age of 88, and  died in 1967.

 'Under Storm's Wing'  was a way of keeping Edward alive for her, and it is an intelligent, passionate work; in it Helen often belittles her intellect and wisdom, sadly, something she had probably evolved under Edward's frequent unkindness.

I depended heavily on 'Under Storm's Wing' and decided to have Helen in the first person - the voice I give her is not that of Helen in her book - it needs to have that sense of happening in the present which Jude Morgan referred  to in his commentary on  'The Secret Life of William Shakespeare'.
But I chose to have her write a memoir, 'Half a Kiss, Half a Tear' and to open and close it with scenes and phrases taken very closely from Under Storm's Wing.  Here is an extract set in Leddington:

We’d been in Leddington for ten days and I’d scarcely talked to Edward alone in all that time. I suggested that we Thomases go out together and leave Mr and Mrs Chandler in peace as they had a great deal to do before he left for his regiment. Edwy was cheerful and seemed happy to be with us that day.

 We passed through the orchard where the tree branches were propped to support the fruit. We gave the bee-hives a wide berth and headed for Ludstock brook where Myfanwy could paddle. Merfyn and Bronnie were simply glad to have us all together.

Sometimes I felt I was no more to Edward than his children’s mother. We were never alone here. At mealtimes the Chandlers and the children were with us, and for so much of the rest Edward and Robert, and sometimes the other two poets who lived nearby, went walking together discussing poetry. Well, I trusted they knew how lucky they were to have the best critic and reviewer in England with them.

I was glad to see Edward happy again, after the horrors of the year before, of course I was. Only —oh, I was disappointed with the holiday, but I didn’t want to show it. Edward could be so cold if I importuned him like that.

My mind was full of–– uncertainties. I could generally accept life and its changes without too much fuss. I’d had to the year before, when Edwy was so wretched and scarcely ever at home. I’d wanted him, longed for him. The loneliness ate my heart away, and yet I’d fear him coming, because I always hoped for too much. I’d have the house gleaming and a lovely meal and the garden free of weeds and so of course expect everything to be happy. And then I would, over and over again, be disappointed and shocked by real life, the real life we were living. By his dark moods. The truth was, he had friends who could work those sorts of wonders for him; their homes were opened to him, beautiful homes, which he described to me in letters, lovely houses by the sea or in the mountains. No wonder it was good for him to get away from me and our plain cottage life.

 Still, in spring he had come home to stay and he was happier, although money was always an anxiety. We had the holiday boarders from Bedales and somehow we managed. We had worked together on the garden, planting things for the future: an apple tree a friend had given him for his birthday, some asparagus crowns.

But now the war and the idea of going to America with the Frosts.Edward saying that there would be no market for his kind of writing in England - we had to talk about it. He would vacillate to and fro about America. I could foresee that – but not the outcome. Could he even be thinking of leaving us behind?

We arrived at the brook, poor panting Rags wading in first and lapping away. We sat on the bank amongst the willow and alder trees and talked. When Edward’s mood was so light and untroubled I was loathe to risk breaking it with my questions, but I had to.

‘This plan about America, Edwy – tell me what you’re thinking.'


Helen's voice: She wrote many hundreds of letters and if I tried to emulate her voice it is the voice of the letters, not because they were contemporary rather than retrospective (after all 'Half a kiss, half a tear' is meant to be a memoir) but because they are less polished, more spontaneous and so more easy to contemporary ears than Helen's prose in Under Storm's Wing. Sometimes it is rather too fulsome and I do try to capture that from time to time. But mostly it is sincere, vivid and moving and I know I can't attempt to equal it . Look at this on their final parting:

Edward Thomas"I sit and stare stupidly at his luggage by the walls. He takes a book out of his pocket. 'You see, your Shakespeare's Sonnets is already where it will always be. Shall I read you some?'; He reads one or two to me. His face is grey and his mouth trembles, but his voice is quiet and steady. And soon I slip to the floor and sit between his knees, and while he reads his hand falls over my shoulder and I hold it with mine.
'Shall I undress you by this lovely fire and carry you upstairs in my khaki overcoat?' So he undoes my things, and I slip out of them; then he takes the pins out of my hair, and we laugh at ourselves for behaving as we often do, like young lovers.

Helen Thomas I hide my face on his knee and all my tears so long kept back come convulsively. I cannot stop crying. My body is torn with terrible sobs. I am engulfed in this despair like a drowning man by the sea. My mind is incapable of thought.
So we lay, all night, sometimes talking of our love and all that had been, and of the children, and what had been amiss and what right. We knew the best was that there had never been untruth between us. We knew all of each other, and it was right. So talking and crying and loving in each other's arms we fell asleep as the cold reflected light of the snow crept through the frost-covered windows."

Here is part of a letter to Robert thanking him for succeeding in getting Edward's poems published in America. It was  written near the time Edward was killed:
High Beech
March 2.
Late at night
Dear Robert
What a bit of luck to get your letter at all. I thought all the mails had gone down in the Laconia, but evidently not. I'm so excited & happy about your splendid news, & I've already written to the dear man & told him, & to John Freeman to find out about those 'insists'. I feel sure it will be all right. I'm not at all sure that Edward Eastaway will consent to be Edward Thomas, but I will add my 'insists' to yours & hope for the best. Also I like the idea of your preface & feel sure he will too. It's all very good news & you sound as pleased & you knew we would be.
By now you will have heard from him. He's at Arras & expecting a hot time presently. I don't suppose I can tell you much about him may I. He's at present at head quarters as adjutant to a ruddy Colonel whose one subject is horse racing & jockeys & such & with whom our man gets on so well that the he's longing to be back at his battery, he's afraid the Colonel has taken a fancy to him & will keep him. It will probably mean promotion, but Edward wants the real thing & wont be happy till he gets it & what is one to do with such a poet. In a pause in the shooting he turns his wonderful field glasses on to a hovering kestrel & sees him descend & pounce & bring up a mouse. Twice he saw that & says "I suppose the mice are travelling now". What a soldier. Oh he's just fine, full of satisfaction in his work, & his letters free from care & responsibility but keen to have a share in the great stage when it begins where he is.
At first after we'd said 'Goodbye' & we knew what suffering was, & what we meant to each other, I did not live really, but just somehow or other did my work, but with my ears strained all the time for his step or his coo-ee in case he came back. But the one can only wait & hope & not let panic take a hold of one, his happy letters & the knowledge that all is so well between us, are making life life again, & the Spring helps too & the feeling that the end is near-must come soon, & that that end will be-if it is at all-a beginning again for us with such knowledge of each other as nothing can ever obliterate, nothing can ever, that is what we know & what makes life possible now.
I must tell you that [the] last evening we were talking of people of ourselves of friends & of his work & all he'd like done. And he said "Outside you& the children & my mother, Robert Frost comes next." And I know he loves you.

She enclosed one of these photographs taken by Merfyn, probably the High Beech.

At Steep 1916
People don't like it because they say he is too much a soldier here, & not at his best. But I send it thinking that you know him so well you'll be able to read him into it, if he is not there to you.....
Edward will be 39 tomorrow March 3rd, & we are hoping our parcels of apples& cake & sweets & such like luxuries will get to him on the day. Our letters take a week to reach him. Yours not much longer I expect.
Two weeks later.
I've kept & kept this letter & just have not had the opportunity to add to it. You've heard by now I expect from Edward & perhaps from Mr. Ingpen too. Eastaway will not be Thomas & thats that he says, but all about the 'insists' you'll have heard from others. Edwards letters are still full of interest & life & satisfaction in his work. He's back on his battery now in the thick of it as he wanted to be, firing 400 rounds a day from his gun, listening to the men talking, & getting on well with his fellow officers.
He's had other times of depression & home sickness. He says "I cannot think of ever being home again, & dare not think of never being there again" & in a letter to Merfyn he says "I want to have six months of it, & then I want to be at home. I wish I knew I was coming back." Oh if only I knew that too!               
Poem: It has to be this, which I think was a valediction to Helen and shows as much love as Edward was capable of showing.

And You Helen.

And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose. I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine,
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me. If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.

Episode 1   Don't forget! I was interviewed as part of this but whether or not  - it will be marvellous. Matthew hugely insightful and Robert MacFarlane reading Thomas's poems.

1/3 Matthew Oates follows in the footsteps of the writer Edward Thomas.

First broadcast: 29 Mar 2013

Image for Episode 1