Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In Pursuit of Spring-Edward Thomas's way of observing 'every small thing.'

These chapters show Thomas at his most relaxed, enjoying his cycling or walking  and his close observations. They are fairly random in nature - inscriptions on graves, always a source of irony for him, pub names and then overall, of course, signs of Spring.

 I find in these chapters a great deal about Edward Thomas and his process of observing and of writing. He prefers walking to cycling when there is mist - walking lets you 'see every small thing one by one',
 'the pale green larch plantation  where another chiff-chaff was singing, and the tall elm tipped by a linnet pausing and musing a few notes..every primrose and celandine and dandelion on the banks, every silvered gren leaf of honeysuckle up in the hedge, every patch of brightest moss, every luminous drop on a thorn tip.'

Elms - I chose this Wiltshire picture because I think I'm forgetting and some just don't know, how huge elms were and what a loss was suffered when they went.

When he arrived at Trowbridge on a fine Easter Monday he  met a crowd leaving the town to walk in the country nearby. The passage gives us insight into his relation to people: he does not mind  groups from a country town like this, or a gathering at a village event  but he is uneasy and troubled by  the crowds that emerge from trains at Clapham junction:

'perhaps I ought to call my feeling fear: alarm comes first, followed rapidly by dislike. is a disintegrated crowd, rather suspicious and shy perhaps, where few know, or could guess much about, the others. When I find myself among them, I am more confused and uneasy than in any other crowd. I cannot settle down in it to notice the three or four or half dozen types, as I should do at Swindon, or Swansea, or Coventry; nor yet please myself as with the general look of a village mob of forty or fifty,  and a few of the most remarkable individuals.

We easily forget that many of  Thomas's poems concern carefully observed 'remarkable individuals'.

More insights into his sense of himself follow as he cycles:

'It was as easy as riding in a cart, and more satisfying to a restless man. At the same time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be. I was not at all  tired, so far  as I knew. No people or thoughts embarrassed me. I fed through the senses directly, but very temporarily, through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is extricable or seems reasonable.'

The chapter ends with one of the best known passages from In Pursuit:

‘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....
  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....
I felt that I could walk on thus, sipping the evening silence and solitude, endlessly. '

Bradford -on-Avon, sitting in a small public park by the Avon, he meets again the Other Man, 'staring at the chapel on the bridge, and its weather-vane of a gilded perch.'



He was also going to Wells and they agreed to ride to ride together, though Thomas is clearly ambivalent. Did this Other Man exist? Perhaps at this point he does, though soon I begin to doubt again, or to confuse him so much with Thomas that it has crept into my novel unawares.  This man also writes topographical books, is concerned with how much they will pay, and crucially he notes everything in his notebooks.The Other Man 'rambled on and on':
'his  main point was that he did not like writing . He had been attempting the impossible task of reducing undigested notes about all sorts of details to a grammatical, continuous narrative. He abused notebooks violently. He said that they blinded him to everything that would not go into the form of notes; or at any rate, he could never afterwards reproduce the great effects of nature and fill in the interstices merely-which was all they were good for-from the notes.The notes - often of things which he would otherwise have forgotten- had to fill the whole canvas. Wheras, if he had taken none, then only the important, what he truly cared for, would have survived in his memory, arranged perhaps not as they were in Nature, but at least according to the tendencies of his own spirit.'
That last phrase suggests to me a vital element of poetry - something beyond mere description.
I feel fairly  certain  that Thomas himself had the same reservations about his notebook -keeping - maybe my idea came from In Pursuit of Spring.
An extract from the novel: a sprained ankle is confining him to the house. 
'Memory must be his source – his memory and his field notebooks, which he had Helen fetch from the Cockshott Lane study. He had always kept a notebook everywhere he went, and the detail, the thoughts he’d had, the conversations with solitary strangers on the road, fed him with ideas. Sometimes he told himself that if he stopped using notebooks, if he only looked, allowed himself to experience passionately what he encountered, it would be better. It might free him from that sense he often had that he was nothing but a remote observer, a ghost invisible to other people. Perhaps, too, without a notebook he would remember only the poignant, vital aspects of what he encountered instead of risking losing that significance in a mass of detail. But he could not break the habit now – it was part of who he was.'
They ride on but glide down the steep hills to part at the town of Shepton Mallett in the Mendip Hills of Somerset. Edward Thomas mentions the prison:
'The stone prison and all its apertures, like a great wasps' nest, was a punishment to look at in the darkness.' 
In the course of work I've visited this 400 year-old prison - or rather prisoners in it - and have a half-recollection of a prison officer showing me the old gallows there - I had an unpleasant feeling that he was regretting the 'good old days'. there.
HMP Shepton Mallett has actually been  closed down last year, not before time. But what on earth can they do with it? Not sure it would convert to a hotel and art gallery like little Oxford Prison, of which I was rather fond.

But Shepton Mallett town gives Edward a pleasant  evening  and a night's rest at a temperance hotel ( four shillings for supper, bed and breakfast):
'I found a good fire and peace in the company of a man who studied Bradshaw. With the aid of maps I travelled my road again, dwelling chiefly on Tellisford, its white bridge over the Frome, the ruined mill and cottage, the round tower of Vaggs Hill Farm, and the distinct green valley which enclosed them, and after this, the Nettlebridge Valley and the dark house above it.'

 To buy A Conscious Englishman direct from the publisher -
 Laurel Books  for a recent  edition of In Pursuit of Spring

There are several poems that are observations of 'remarkable individuals':
The Gypsy, The Huxter, Man and Dog, Up in the Wind of course, The New Year, A Gentleman and the marvellous Jack Noman in

                           May 23rd

THERE never was a finer day,
And never will be while May is May,--
The third, and not the last of its kind;
But though fair and clear the two behind
Seemed pursued by tempests overpast;
And the morrow with fear that it could not last
Was spoiled. To-day ere the stones were warm
Five minutes of thunderstorm
Dashed it with rain, as if to secure,
By one tear, its beauty the luck to endure.
At mid-day then along the lane
Old Jack Noman appeared again,
Jaunty and old, crooked and tall,
And stopped and grinned at me over the wall,
With a cowslip bunch in his button-hole
And one in his cap. Who could say if his roll
Came from flints in the road, the weather, or ale?
He was welcome as the nightingale.
Not an hour of the sun had been wasted on Jack
"I've got my Indian complexion back"
Said he. He was tanned like a harvester,
Like his short clay pipe, like the leaf and bur
That clung to his coat from last night's bed,
Like the ploughland crumbling red.
Fairer flowers were none on the earth
Than his cowslips wet with the dew of their birth,
Or fresher leaves than the cress in his basket.
"Where did they come from, Jack?" "Don't ask it,
And you'll be told no lies." "Very well:
Then I can't buy." "I don't want to sell.
Take them and these flowers, too, free.
Perhaps you have something to give me?
Wait till next time. The better the day . . .
The Lord couldn't make a better, I say;
If he could, he never has done."
So off went Jack with his roll-walk-run,
Leaving his cresses from Oakshott rill
And his cowslips from Wheatham hill.
'Twas the first day that the midges bit;
But though they bit me, I was glad of it:
Of the dust in my face, too, I was glad.
Spring could do nothing to make me sad.
Bluebells hid all the ruts in the copse.
The elm seeds lay in the road like hops,
That fine day, May the twenty-third,
The day Jack Noman disappeared.

 The new edition of In Pursuit of Spring by Little Toller books (March 2016) has photographs that may have been taken by Edward Thomas.

To follow route with Laurel Books, publisher of In Pursuit of Spring Edition see

To buy A Conscious Englishman direct from the publisher,

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