Thursday, March 24, 2016

In Pursuit of Spring 3.

Further West, and birds.

The Lark Ascending, kind permission of Keith Tilley, Painting on the Edge blog.

So many birds in 'In Pursuit of spring' as in Thomas's poetry.

They represent  a form of language, a clear true language, and freedom. I remember Robert MacFarlane suggesting that, in contrast to, or balance with, the 'staying put' of trees, birds represent the drive to 'move on'. This was a constant tension for Thomas:  to leave home and then to long to be there again.
The movement is of course  especially true of the spring and summer visitors. It is these birds that receive special attention in 'In Pursuit...'

Still in London, rooks and blackbirds dominate. I associate Thomas with blackbirds - he mentions them often and as a Londoner they would have been very familiar in gardens, even more so than now.
British Trust for Ornithology.

The first birds he encounters are Londoners and prisoners - a parrot who 'sings sweet street songs of twenty years before', and the finches and linnets in cages, in a dismal shop. 'Battered ones a shilling, a neater one at eighteenpence.' Poor goldfinches bloodied from flinging themselves at the bars. The odd Other Man buys a finch, in a paper bag, and releases it. Is this Other Man really Thomas himself? I think he may be.

Here are four extracts from the novel in which both birds and trees feature and perhaps balance each other. There were many more.

He looked around. A trickle from a smaller stream entered Preston Brook. White chickens pecked among the roots of an ash tree; they squeezed through the hedge from a farmhouse he could just see through the elms. The hedge was blackthorn skilfully laid, the clean scars of the labourer’s hook still visible.  He listened. The only sounds were of the stream, the birds and the trees – their own pure and individual languages, never straining for effect, never false. He thought about the many languages, man’s one among many. Was it possible that a man’s words could have that kind of truthfulness?


He went for a walk in the misty stillness of evening. Something in the birds’ songs, the single spirit of their singing together, and the calm after London, was like a welcome. He had a sense that he and the birds of Steep were one, that his needs and pleasures were at one with theirs and that he was home. A labourer walked with a slow heavy tread and turned into the thatched wood-shed beside his white cottage. Soon afterward a rhythmic sound of sawing from the man’s shed and the birds had fallen silent. He was home, among country people and thrushes and chaffinches and the oaks and elms that were their homes.


He worked on new verses – a poem on beauty he began in January, another on sedge warblers, and one about a cuckoo. Birds had enormous significance, a kind of holy importance for him. He felt that their place in nature was always as it should be, not like man’s place, so often destructive, or false, or discontented, and that they were users of a language too as he was.


He kept a notebook-cum-diary of course, making observations about the surprises of spring, this spring that manifested itself even under fire. The birds especially seemed determined to sing, to mate, to soar in the sky, in spite of it all. For him and for many of the men, the countrymen among them, they were signs of hope and reminders of home. So too was the emerging landscape, the rounded chalk hills with small clumps of trees on their tops. It was as if he could take a sudden turn into a secret path and find himself in Steep.

In Pursuit of Spring: As he moves from suburbs into the country there are more birds - blackbirds of course, thrushes, jackdaws at Guildford castle, rooks everywhere - and so many larks. To me larks are relatively rare - I know where they can be found reliably, especially on Dorset hills near the sea, but  have to make a special effort to go to see and hear them.

Edward Thomas listens for the chiff-chaff call as a marker that spring is here, and remembers an early arrival when he was nineteen - no doubt recorded in 'The Woodland Life.'  After Bentley in Hampshire, in the park of a large house:
', and at eleven o'clock, I first heard the chiff-chaff saying, "Chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff!"
My guide says:'Their song is heard from early March; birdwatchers listen eagerly for it as a sign of spring.'

As he travels over Salisbury Plain he hears and sees 'pewits' (peewits, lapwings) over a river : they 'wheeled over it with creaking wings and protests against the existence of man.'
Linnets twittered, thrushes sang and larks 'rose and fell unceasingly over Dean Hill.' Then near West Grimstead :
'A thrush and and several larks were singing and through their songs I heard a thin voice that I had not heard for six months, very faint yet unmistakeable, though I could not at first see the bird - a sand-martin. On such a morning one sand-martin seems enough to make a summer, and here were six, flitting in narrow circles like butterflies with birds' voices.'

British Trust for Ornithology- lapwing



The most numerous things on Salisbury plain  'next to the dead' - 'sheep, rooks, pewits and larks. Today they mingle their voices, but the lark is the most constant.'


                For a change  Gerard Manley Hopkins' The Sea and the Skylark
ON ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.
Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend, 5
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skein├Ęd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none ’s to spill nor spend.
How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
How ring right out our sordid turbid time, 10
Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared-for crown,
Have lost that cheer and charm of earth’s past prime:
Our make and making break, are breaking, down
To man’s last dust, drain fast towards man’s first slime.
 A marvellous account of the bird and its song (- the last line perhaps too strong, but for depression he could outdo even Edward Thomas.)

For Thomas's poem, there are several to choose from:The Thrush, The Cuckoo, The Owl, The Unknown Bird(rare for Thomas not to be able to identify), Sedge-Warblers, and Two Pewits.

Friday, March 18, 2016

In Pursuit of  Spring, 2.

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.

He had ridden  into Hampshire  where 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.'    I read restrained dislike,into that 'Backwards and forwards...'

After this the chapter diverts from topology into:-

 local surnames,
  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. He follows them with 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.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

In Pursuit of Spring

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

The new Little Toller edition with photographs renews interest in 'In Pursuit Of Spring.'

 Edward Thomas's bicycle journey from London to the Somerset coast was the basis  for In Pursuit of Spring,( first published in 1914 by Thomas Nelson). It is a rewarding mixture  of idiosyncratic, personal responses to his journey.  
In Pursuit of Spring is my favourite 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.
End-page of my original edition
He  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  March  2013 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 whose loss he regrets when they have been tidied up or built on - in one case made into a football pitch. He regrets the disappearance of the gypsies who would settle, set up a small fair on holidays (beginning 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  Farjeon 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 my novel:  Frost has been urging Edward to write poetry and use 'In Pursuit...' to demonstrate that his friend was a poet in the making:

'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.” '
No more from the novel in subsequent  IPS blogs - just Edward Thomas.