Friday, March 1, 2013

'March' and 'Oxford', the book, rerun to complete the Oxford story.

Edward Thomas's 'Oxford', printed in 1903, saved the family from the 'gutter and bankruptcy.'

It was his first major commissioned work and came at a time when they were desperate for money after two years of living mainly from reviewing and single articles.

Words or pictures first? My copy, a rather expensive birthday present, privileged the John Fulleylove paintings above the text., and Edward Thomas was commissioned to accompany them.

Mine is the 'ordinary' edition, priced twenty shillings, and there was a limited Deluxe Edition, each copy numbered and signed by the artist, price two guineas.

There are sixty full-page illustrations, of which eleven are reproduced in Lucy Newlyn's 2005 reprint,Signal Books. (I have used her introduction for most of the information in this blog.)

Lucy writes that Fulleylove was an establishment Victorian painter, his trademark being historically important buildings painted with everyday, homely touches,'with a skilful choice of the unexpected as well as the typical aspects.' Hence a cat in a quad, people on bikes, figures coming round the corners of building.
As Edward Thomas was also drawn to the unpretentious and everday, the two works suited each other, though they are entirely independant.

Over a hundred years later the  peopled pictures look very Edwardian and dated to my eyes. So many chaps in black gowns, a rarer sight these days, and how different from the French painters of the period, at least those we value most.
I prefer the views of Oxford without people - Magdalen tower for example,(actually that is quite Impressionistic), the view from South Hinksey and the little churchyard of St Peter in the East.
Saint Peter in the East

'It is sweet to enter that peacefullest and homeliest of churchyards, St Peter's in the East, overlooked by St Edmund Hall and Queen's College and the old city wall. There is a peace which only the thrush and blackbird break-'

The Text of 'Oxford'.

‘At sunset or dawn the city's place in the world, as a beautiful thing, is clearest. Few cities look other than sad at these hours; many, unless hid in their own smoke, look cheap. Oxford becomes part of the magic of sunset and dawn- is, as it were, gathered into the bosom of the power that is abroad. ‘

Oxford' is a strange book, peopled with semi-fictitious characters, half amalgamations of people he knew, half imaginary, and many reflecting himself as a visitor or undergraduate. It is not everyone's cup of tea, although there is a good deal of humour in it.

It’s a city with human influence of streets and architecture, the natural world everywhere intermingled with the buildings and the way the city 'steals out into the fields.' That is as important to him as well as the culture of books and librairies.

He seems to have enjoyed looking back, but the book is not a personal account at all. Oxford gave him time to read and learn and make some friends, but his was not a typical student life because of the separate, secret life he had with Helen throughout.
If you are interested in Oxford it's worth buying Lucy Newlyn's book.

The poem:   March -

Edna Longley links this with Robert Frost's urging Edward Thomas to turn the prose of In Pursuit of Spring into poetry. 'March blends several March days and Thomas's perennial pursuit of spring into a quintessential symbol' Longley, The Annotated  Collected Poems.                 

Now I know that Spring will come again,
Perhaps to-morrow: however late I've patience
After this night following on such a day.

While still my temples ached from the cold burning
Of hail and wind, and still the primroses
Torn by the hail were covered up in it,
The sun filled earth and heaven with a great light
And a tenderness, almost warmth, where the hail dripped,
As if the mighty sun wept tears of joy.
But 'twas too late for warmth. The sunset piled
Mountains on mountains of snow and ice in the west:
Somewhere among their folds the wind was lost,
And yet 'twas cold, and though I knew that Spring
Would come again, I knew it had not come,
That it was lost too in those mountains chill.

What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet, hail,
Had kept them quiet as the primroses.
They had but an hour to sing. On boughs they sang,
On gates, on ground; they sang while they changed perches
And while they fought, if they remembered to fight:
So earnest were they to pack into that hour
Their unwilling hoard of song before the moon
Grew brighter than the clouds. Then 'twas no time
For singing merely. So they could keep off silence
And night, they cared not what they sang or screamed;
Whether 'twas hoarse or sweet or fierce or soft;
And to me all was sweet: they could do no wrong.
Something they knew--I also, while they sang
And after. Not till night had half its stars
And never a cloud, was I aware of silence
Stained with all that hour's songs, a silence
Saying that Spring returns, perhaps to-morrow.

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