Wednesday, 17 April 2013

All Day It Has Rained by Alun Lewis


All Day It Has Rained

All day it has rained, and we on the edge of the moors
Have sprawled in our bell-tents, moody and dull as boors,
Groundsheets and blankets spread on the muddy ground
And from the first grey wakening we have found
No refuge from the skirmishing fine rain
And the wind that made the canvas heave and flap
And the taut wet guy-ropes ravel out and snap.
All day the rain has glided, wave and mist and dream,
Drenching the gorse and heather, a gossamer stream
Too light to stir the acorns that suddenly
Snatched from their cups by the wild south-westerly
Pattered against the tent and our upturned dreaming faces.
And we stretched out, unbuttoning our braces,
Smoking a Woodbine, darning dirty socks,
Reading the Sunday papers - I saw a fox
And mentioned it in the note I scribbled home; -
And we talked of girls and dropping bombs on Rome,

And thought of the quiet dead and the loud celebrities
Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees;

As of ourselves or those whom we
For years have loved, and will again
Tomorrow maybe love; but now it is the rain
Possesses us entirely, the twilight and the rain.

And I can remember nothing dearer or more to my heart
Than the children I watched in the woods on Saturday
Shaking down burning chestnuts for the schoolyard's merry play,
Or the shaggy patient dog who followed me
By Sheet and Steep and up the wooded scree
To the Shoulder o' Mutton where Edward Thomas brooded long
On death and beauty - till a bullet stopped his song.

Alun Lewis :
I thought of this poem today, as we have had rain since before I got up this morning.   Now it has stopped for a while, and a Blackbird is singing from the apple tree on the lawn.  I thought I would share this with you.

The small river in spate feeds into the Cothi, and marks the ancient border of the Tally Abbey lands (the adjacent cottage is called "Monachdy" - "Monk's House") and there was once a small grange of theirs very close, which was ruinous by mid-Victorian times and eventually used as a stable before being broken up and used for building stone (we have one or two pieces here - our house being on a direct trackway to Monachdy).

Saturday, 13 April 2013


W H Davies was the tramp-turned-poet fellow-Welshman friend of Thomas's and who he often helped out with his rent, even though he and Helen were struggling on the pittance Thomas earned reviewing books and writing them.  Here is his tribute to his friend.


(Edward Thomas)

Happy the man whose home is still
In Nature's green and peaceful ways;
To wake and hear the birds so loud,
That scream for joy to see the sun
Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.

And we have known those days, when we
Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;
When you and I, with thoughtful mind,
Would help a bird to hide her nest,
For fear of other hands less kind.

But thou, my friend, art lying dead:
War, with its hell-born childishness,
Has claimed thy life, with many more:
The man that loved this England well,
And never left it once before.

You may know "supertramp" W H Davies' poem Leisure . . . "What is life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare . . ."  One from my childhood, committed to memory.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

96th Anniversary of tghe death of Edward Thomas, poet

 (Photo to follow later - blogger playing up).

On this day, the 9th April 1917, Edward Thomas was killed by the blast from a shell in the Battle of Arras.  I will turn to Eleanor Farjeon, who loved him as his patient wife Helen did, to explain what happened, in the words of the Sergeant of Edward's company, whom Helen and Eleanor met when he was on leave from the Front:

The Sergeant recollected: "At the end of the day when the battle was over we had the Huns on the run, and the plain was full of our men shouting and singing and dancing.  We thought we had won the war!  Mr Thomas came up from the dug-out behind his gun and leaned in the opening filling his clay pipe.  One of the Huns turned as he was running and shot a stray shot, and Mr Thomas fell.  It was over in an instant.  I went out to the men and called, "Men, we've lost our best officer."  The cry went up, "Not Mr Thomas?" and there was no more shouting that day.

When Edward fell he was still holding his half-filled clay.  It did not break, and came back to Helen with his other things.  She gave it to Merfyn.

This was the story as nearly I remember it in the Sergeant's own words.  But my memory had misled me about the stray shot, it was a stray shell.  When Helen came to know Edward's Captain, Franklin Lushington, he told her that as Edward stood by his dug-out lighting his pipe, all the Germans had retreated, but a last shell they sent over passed so close to him that thhe blast stopped his heart.  'He told me', Helen writes, 'there was no wound and his beloved body was not injured.  This was borne out by the fact that when the contents of his pockets were returned to me - a bundle of letters, a note-book and the Shakespeare sonnets I had given him, they were all strangely creased as though subject to some terrible pressure, most strange to see.  There was no wound or disfigurement at all.  He just died standing there in the early morning after the battle.'  Captain Lushington told Helen that Edward could have had a job 'back and safe, but he chose the dangerous front observation post.'

Edward Thomas: you are not forgotten, nor ever will be.

Monday, 1 April 2013

To Edward Thomas

I have just come across this beautiful poem to Edward Thomas, from the pen of Welsh poet Alun Lewis who died in 1944.  I know I should leave it until the 97th anniversary of his death, on 9th April, but in typical Aries fashion I cannot wait that long to share it with you.  I am beginning to think I should have a separate Edward Thomas blog so that those of you who are already tut-tutting and about to visit elsewhere in blogland will at least have a choice in future!  The picture above shows the band of yew trees amongst the beautiful woodland girdling Shoulder of Mutton hill, where the Edward Thomas memorial stone is.  Yew trees love chalk downland.

 To Edward Thomas
(On visiting the memorial stone above Steep in Hampshire)
On the way up from Sheet I met some children
Filling a pram with brushwood; higher still
Beside Steep church an old man pointed out
A rough white stone upon a flinty spur
Projecting from the high autumnal woods...
I doubt if much has changed since you came here
On your last leave; except the stone; it bears
Your name and trade: 'To Edward Thomas, Poet.'
Climbing the steep path through the copse I knew
My cares weighed heavily as yours, my gift
Much less, my hope
No more than yours.
And like you I felt sensitive and somehow apart,
Lonely and exalted by the friendship of the wind
And the placid afternoon enfolding
The dangerous future and the smile.
I sat and watched the dusky berried ridge
Of yew-trees, deepened by oblique dark shafts,
Throw back the flame of red and gold and russet
That leapt from beech and ash to birch and chestnut
Along the downward arc of the hill's shoulder,
And sunlight with discerning fingers
Softly explore the distant wooded acres,
Touching the farmsteads one by one with lightness
Until it reached the Downs, whose soft green pastures
Went slanting sea- and skywards to the limits
Where sight surrenders and the mind alone
Can find the sheeps' tracks and the grazing.
And for the moment Life appeared
As gentle as the view I gazed upon.
Later, a whole day later, I remembered
This war and yours and your weary
Circle of failure and your striving
To make articulate the groping voices
Of snow and rain and dripping branches
And love that ailing in itself cried out
About the straggling eaves and ringed the candle
With shadows slouching round your buried head;
And in the lonely house there was no ease
For you, or Helen, or those small perplexed
Children of yours who only wished to please.
Divining this, I knew the voice that called you
Was soft and neutral as the sky
Breathing on the grey horizon, stronger
Than night's immediate grasp, the limbs of mercy
Oblivious as the blood; and growing clearer,
More urgent as all else dissolved away,
--Projected books, half-thoughts, the children's birthdays,
And wedding anniversaries as cold
As dates in history--the dream
Emerging from the fact that folds a dream,
The endless rides of stormy-branched dark
Whose fibres are a thread within the hand--
Till suddenly, at Arras*, you possessed that hinted land.
Alun Lewis (1915-1944)

In Pursuit of Spring


The photo of the Germander Speedwells and  Yellow Archangel was taken in the beautiful woodland near Thomas's memorial.

I  apologise for pinching the title of Edward Thomas's book - his last one (published in 1913) before his beautiful prose flowered into stunning and evocative poetry..  Over the Easter weekend, Matthew Oates is on Radio 4 each afternoon, speaking of Edward Thomas's journey from London to Somerset (the Quantocks), a journey of some 130 miles by bicycle.  I was a little disappointed that this programme was only 10 minutes long (and not the half hour I was expecting!) but I am just listening to it again

Delving deeper

I am spending what has been a very wet and windy and thoroughly miserable spring-that-still-feels-like-winter day up in my office, at the computer, looking up various poems of Edward Thomas, and printing them off (for my talk).  It is easier to do this than to photocopy them from the book I have of his annotated poems.  Needless to say, this sends me on a spiralling exploration of links via the internet - what a wonderful invention the search engine is! - and I am now thoroughly drawn into the past.  The First World War Poetry Digital Archive is the most delightful and helpful site and I have been endeavoring to read some of Edward's letters to his son Mervyn, but gosh, his writing was done in haste and takes some working out as a combination of pencilled writing and many words pretty well joined together needs much concentration.  The signature of "Daddy"  brought a pang to my heart.  He speaks of walking 20 miles on a Sunday afternoon with four pals.

I have read some of his letters to Helen, they start "Dearest".  One mentions sending her some more of his verses which "should make up pretty well, with those I put in the oak chest, the set Merfyn has."  This letter shows him concentrating on practical matters.  Saying he has got a good haversack, but if she gets a pipe, to get it at the Stores, a dark red French briar pipe costing no more than 5/- or 6/- (shillings to those younger than me!) . . . He ends it "Goodbye, Edwy".  No mention of love, or missing her or the children but the core of the letter is about getting sets of his poems together for publishing but not to send to Robert Frost until he (Edward) tells her the thing is settled.

Some of these letters are held in the Edward Thomas Collection in Cardiff and I would love to see them if I could.  Several of the notebooks containing the poems he wrote are held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, where I have a reading ticket.  I hesitate to write this next few lines, for fear that I will be thought completely stark raving bonkers, but I would SO love to handle one of those notebooks and see if I could get a sense of the man behind the words, because  I once had the most amazing and inexplicable experience in our local Records Office.  Those of you with long memories must forgive me for having written about this before.

I had ordered up a box of various notebooks, letters and unknown documents for some research I was doing.  The family was a notable Carmarthen one, although they also had land holdings in Scotland.  Amongst the documents I came across scribbled letters from Queen Victoria herself (gosh, but her writing was bad!) as one of the family had been one of her bridesmaids.  I became absorbed by the notebook kept by one of the family's sons (in Victorian times) when his Battalion was sent to the Zulu Wars.  At the time I was looking for mention of how horses were kept etc and there was some interesting stuff which I jotted down.  The son was overawed by the terrific thunderstorms with immense lightening out on the African plains.  He was, it would seem, being kept busy (and safe)  as Staff Officer and well away from the fighting, but he wanted to show his mettle and volunteered to be involved closer to the fray.  Sadly, it was is undoing, for when their small exploratory party came under fire from a Zulu force hiding in  cave, and in bravely offering to lead a small party of men against what was truly an impregnable position, he was mortally wounded.  HERE is a link to tell you more about it. 

Anyway, when I got home, from curiosity, I looked up a website which had photographs of the slain and when I reached Lord C's son's photograph I immediately felt what HE had experienced at the moment of his death.  His blood was up, he was totally unafraid, and completely surprized when he was hit (on his head I believe, from the notes added later in his personal notebook, by his surviving CO).  I scrolled down, and then up again and every time that night I did that, I felt the same thing all over again.  This ended when I had had a bath and presumably his . . . essence . . . or whatever from the notebook was washed from my hands.  I cannot, simply cannot explain it, but I guess it is part of my "feyness".

Oh my gosh - I have just checked, and one of the archivists has written this up in this link  to the journal.  It may take a while to read it though, but it's fascinating stuff.

Anyway, in a childish way, I am rather hoping I might have some sense of Edward Thomas if I handled documents he had written . . .  I shall report back in due course.

McFarlane on Thomas

Extract from original blog posting: 

Possible snow is forecast for tonight.  Deep joy.  Yet it feels very mild out right now and room temps are up to a high of 15 degrees pre heating.  With heating they struggle to make an extra degree, but we have to ration the heating oil and have very little very dry wood - it is still trying to dry out from last summer . . .

I spent several very happy hours reading and note-taking on Edward Thomas's walks and exploits.  Since my husband was busy watching rugby all Saturday afternoon, this was a pleasure even more gratefully taken.  Someone had written that he walked "on the edge of consciousness".  In my work on him, I would say that it was closer to the edge of sanity . . .  The McFarlane book "The Old Roads"  is a joy.   I loved McFarlane's take on Thomas's emotional constipation and how Helen's selfless incorruptable love brought out the worst in him - seemingly tempting him to greater and greater emotional browbeating of her in an attempt to break her love - since the more she loved him, the deeper the guilt he felt.  Having personally seen this in action, I know it for its total negativity. 

After Rain

After Rain

The rain of a night and a day and a night
Stops at the light
Of this pale choked day. The peering sun
Sees what has been done.
The road under the trees has a border new
of purple hue
Inside the border of bright thin grass:
For all that has
Been left by November of leaves is torn
From hazel and thorn
And the greater trees. Throughout the copse
No dead leaf drops
On grey grass, green moss, burnt-orange fern,
At the wind's return:
The leaflets out of the ash-tree shed
Are thinly spread
In the road, like little black fish, inlaid,
As if they played.
What hangs from the myriad branches down there
So hard and bare
Is twelve yellow apples lovely to see
On one crab-tree.
And on each twig of every tree in the dell
Crystals both dark and bright of the the rain
That begins again.

Dymock: Daffodils and Poets

Below, St Mary's Church, Kempley which is on the daffodil trail. Photo taken when we visited for my birthday outing last year. I wish I had a photo of the daffs (which are amazing), but they are on You Tube and you can call up images from Google.

"From Marcle Way,
From Dymock, Kempley, Newent, Bromesberrow,
Redmarley, all the meadowland daffodils seem
Running in golden tide to Ryton Firs,
To make the knot of steep little wooded hills
Their brightest show .........."

This fragment of poetry from Lascelles Abercrombie, one of the "Georgian" poets who became the Dymock poets in 1914 when they had a brief-lived colony in the area, tells you something of the beauty of this area at this time of year. Edward Thomas, of whom I am very fond, was ne of their number for a brief spell.

Here are some notes written by a dear friend of mine (J):

"The daffs used to be picked by local families, including my Granny and all her children, which included my Dad of course. They were sent to Covent Garden to be sold as cut flowers, and earned local families a valuable addition to their income. When they picked the daffs it wasn’t from the woods, but from the fields. The wood daffs, although exactly the same wild variety, tend to have shorter sLinktems, due to environment I suppose, so the longer stemmed field daffs were best for selling. Nearly every field in the whole area was carpeted in them. I remember as a small child seeing them, and Granny still picking them to sell. She used to pick them in bud and have them in the scullery in buckets of cold water ready to go on the milk train to London first thing the following morning.

Thankfully the daffs in the woods have always kept going, but farming practices in the late sixties and for the next few decades, really hit the field daffs. Picking never seemed to bother the daffs, they were abundant every year although the fields were often stripped by pickers – but pesticides, ploughing, spraying verges etc nearly wiped the field ones out, Now they are protected and picking is banned.

Below - we were too late for the daffs in Kempley church yard, but these Cowslips put on a pretty show.

HERE is a link to the BBC iPlayer radio programme about both daffs and Dymock poets.

If you fancy seeing them for yourself, try HERE for details of the Open Day(s).

February Thaw

Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.

Edward Thomas, 'Thaw'

Richard Jefferies,Henry Williamson and Edward Thomas

I collect Henry Williamson's novels.  One turned up at the Car Boot Sale last weekend and I had to have it. Indeed, Williamson's assessment of Jefferies' personality from childhood made me think he could have been describing poet Edward Thomas's personal development . . . Jefferies was Thomas's first literary hero and he happily roamed the countryside which Jefferies knew and loved - that South Country which Thomas was to later write about, and indeed in 1909 he had his own biography of Jefferies published. Apparently Jefferies was a lasting influence on Edward Thomas's wife, then widow, Helen Thomas, which is displayed in her antidote to grief, "As It Was" . . . THIS is an interesting blog post on the subject.

Here is a little taster of Jefferies' observational writing from a chapter entitled The Life of the Fields:

"It was between the may and the June roses. The may bloom had fallen, and among the hawthorn boughs were the little green bunches that would feed the red-wings in autumn. High up the briars had climbed, straight and towering whils there was a thorn or an ash sapling, or a yellow-green willow, to uphold them, and then curving over towards the meadow. The buds were on them, but not yet open; it was between the may and the rose.

As the wind, wandering over the sea, takes from each wave an invisible portion, and brings to those on shore the ethereal essence of ocean, so the air lingering among the woods and hedges - green waves and billows - became full of fine atoms of summer. Swept from notched hawthorn leaves, broad-topped oak-leaves, narrow ash sprays and oval willows; from vast elm cliffs and sharp-taloned brambles under; brushed from the waving grasses and stiffening corn, the dust of the sunshine was borne along and breathed. Steeped in flower and pollen to the music of bees and birds, the stream of the atmosphere became a living thing. It was life to breathe it, for the air itself was life. The strength of the earth went up through the leaves into the wind."

Other people's lives

When you have a lasting friendship with someone, you cannot help but be drawn into their lives. Their history becomes your history, in part. Just as your history sometimes becomes drawn into other people's lives. When I volunteer at the "Big House" I find myself being drawn into its history, as inexorably as ice cream melts in the sun. Without history, the house is just a shell. I try to make it come alive for the people who visit it and know nothing of its past.

Just so are we drawn into the lives of people we read about - probably why there is such a celebrity cult these days - not that that interests me one jot, as I am forever drawn backwards into the past. Read enough about someone's life, and you begin to identify with them, feel that you know them, experience what they did, through their writing, their letters, their emotions.

I am currently a besotted fly on the wall in Edward Thomas's life, reading as much about him, by him, as I can, to try and understand him, for he was a very complex character. The more I read, the closer I feel to his time and place, though not necessarily to his enigmatic character, which was ever clouded by the darkness of his depression.

Thomas Hardy fascinates me, but in a totally different way. I feel distanced from him, as a person, but connected to him through place - areas of Dorset which are very familiar to me. Folk history too, which is drawn through the fabric of his writing like fine lace through a wedding ring.

So it mattered to me to visit Thomas Hardy's childhood home recently (and Stinsford, where his heart, and his family are buried and which will be tomorrow's post), and I am currently on a sort of pilgrimage of places near to me in Wales which Edward Thomas knew and loved and I will share in due course - though I am beginning to think he needs a blog to himself!