On “Adlestrop”

Sandy Solomon

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Sandy Solomon

When I’m in England—as I am during at least a few months each year—I’m frequently on trains. It may be hard for Americans to appreciate how often the British will hop a train to go shopping or to visit a friend in a town two or three hours away; the British will hop a train to go for a Sunday afternoon hike, to visit the seaside or to tour a historic house for the day, or to see a play one evening. I sling a good book into my bag and I’m off, leaning against a window as the countryside rolls past.

Since the advent of the railways, especially in a small country like England, people have organized their lives this way. In early twentieth-century Britain, therefore, many people deeply knew the rhythms of rail travel—the body memory of looking up from a book as the train slowed into a station and stopped; the body memory of feeling the train pull slowly out and pick up speed, the whole routine repeating and repeating just below the level of consciousness throughout a journey. And people knew the related sounds: metal against metal as the wheels negotiated the tracks; the conductor moving through the carriage (“Any fares? Any fares, please?”); train travelers harbored a bank of related sensory experiences, as well—smells and sounds, sights and feelings—acquired in the course of many different journeys.

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Edward Thomas, 1912

I had cause to think about trains recently as I sat down with Edward Thomas’ poem, “Adlestrop,” to puzzle out how this poem, which I love, works so beautifully, and then to consider why a poem so well-loved in Britain, is less well known in America. Coming up with answers required first acknowledging this different context: America’s relationship with trains has diminished since the advent of the passenger plane and the post-World War II highway-building binge. I don’t know that any data exist on the number of Americans who’ve ever taken a train, but I suspect that today few people who live outside the Northeast Corridor and the California Coast have done so with any frequency.

Train travel isn’t the only fact of modern life that some American readers might have relative difficulty recognizing in “Adlestrop.” Another fact of life derives from England’s particular history and the way that history has entered the country’s cultural assumptions. I suspect that even today, more people in England feel a connection with the trauma of World War I than people in America do. The United States not only joined the war late, but we lost a much, much smaller percentage of our population in that terrible conflict. An analogous American trauma might be the Civil War, which casts a long shadow in ways the Great War often does in Britain—a whole generation was slaughtered, wounded, hopelessly damaged, a conflict that left few families untouched.

Good poems will transcend their context, of course, and I think “Adlestrop” does so. But one could argue that the feeling in this poem would be more accessible to people for whom its assumptions are clear. In any case, as we have celebrated the centenary of the Great War, we have had an excuse to look again at the poems from that period. The centenary has prompted a number of articles on, and readings featuring the work of, poets of that war, among them, Thomas, who was killed in action in the Battle of Arras on Easter, April 9, 1917.

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Company Hut 35: Edward Thomas is in the second row, second from the left.

Edward Thomas was not at first considered a war poet— primarily, I suspect, because he did not set his poems at the front. He had come to poetry late—out of an established career as a freelance writer in which he scavenged whatever paid assignments he could find to support his wife and children. And yet, inspired by his friend, Robert Frost, he had come to think of himself as a poet by the time of the war. And here was the road taken: Thomas had chosen not only to enlist, but also to volunteer for a front line posting, an assignment from which, by virtue of his relatively advanced age and his three children, he would otherwise have been exempt. In his final poems, the war looms as a presence, even as Thomas turns his attentions to the pressures of industrialization on the rural countryside, even as he writes poems about his family (farewells before he goes off to the front). War is a fact in Thomas’ poems, just over the horizon—sometimes heard at the edge of sound as the guns echo on the other side of the Channel, sometimes as a point of comparison as the speaker considers his own comfort in England against hardships faced by soldiers at the front, sometimes in the incongruous shape of a soldier home on leave.

The war also haunts what remains Thomas’ best known poem, “Adlestrop,” written after the start of conflict and published in the New Statesman three weeks after Thomas’ death, a poem that takes its inspiration from a trip Thomas and his wife, Helen, took in June 1914, just months before Europe descended into mass slaughter. War is just over the horizon of time here, and both the writer and his readers know it. So Adlestrop’s” immediate appeal may have been as a poem which, though written in a time of war, takes place during that last, long, beautiful Edwardian summer. The speaker is describing a prewar train journey in full consciousness of the disruption that is soon to follow.

From its publication, the poem attracted admirers. Ivor Gurney—who, like Edward Thomas, is among the 16 poets of the Great War memorialized in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey—wrote that he found “Adlestrop” “nebulously, intangibly beautiful.” To account for the poem’s immediate appeal is not to account for its longevity, however. Even today, it frequently appears in Britain on lists of favorite poems.

Speculation about the poem’s themes—the natural world, memory, a sense of place, industrialization and its effects—has distracted many a reader of this poem; at least one writer finds it to be a poem about death. Of course, the question, “What’s this poem about?” has no correct answer. Instead, I want to follow the example of Henry Rago, onetime editor of Poetry magazine, who, when I was his student years ago, would recite a poem and then ask, “How about that? Listen to that!” Then he’d recite the relevant lines again and repeat, “How about that?” In this way, he’d invite us listeners to admire and consider aspects of the poem that would escape rational explanation and exegesis.

Adlestropresponds well to a brand of unadorned admiration. The part of the poem that takes my breath away comes at its close, occurs in the way the poem moves:

Adlestrop

Yes, I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

But to arrive at a full appreciation of those closing lines, the reader must first traverse the poem and imaginatively join the poet on the train.

For the experience that gave rise to the poem we can consult Thomas’ journal. As Edna Longley notes in her fine edition of the Collected Poems, Thomas jotted down his impressions of the day he and Helen set out to visit Robert and Elinor Frost in Ledbury:

24 [June 1914] a glorious day from 4:20 am and at 10 tiers above tiers of white cloud with dirtied grey bars above the sea of slate and dull brick by Battersea Park—then at Oxford tiers of pure white with loose large masses above and gaps of dark clear blue above haymaking and elms.

Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12:45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.

Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willowherb and meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel—looking out on grey dry stones between metals and the shining metals and over it all the elms willows and long grass—one man clears his throat—greater than rustic silence. No house in view. Stop only for a minute till signal is up.

Another stop like this outside Colwell on 27th with thrush singing on hillside above on road.

I admire the way in which Thomas later—in early June 1915, around three months after Frost had sailed for America—combined elements of that journey into one incident and evoked through that incident a whole world of experience beyond it.

We might consider the ways in which “Adlestrop” invites readers to imagine that experience. Clive Scott in his book, Literary Translation and the Rediscovery of Reading, notes several: “an unexpected jolt out of functional, impatient, purposeful time, epitomized by the train” into elastic time, the time of experience itself. Or a movement from self-containment into self-evaporation. Or an investigation of the way in which a word may carry meaning beyond itself.

However, writers and careful readers of poetry know that the way the poem works on the reader has less to do with what the poem means than how it proceeds. T.S. Eliot observed that meaning in a poem is like the bone the burglar tosses the dog to gain access to the house.  The poem engages the reader’s mind in order by other means to enter and alter the reader’s feelings.

The chief use of the “meaning” of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be…to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog.

The ways in which the writing in a poem engenders feeling in a reader are many and subtle, and, as Eliot observes, the reader may not consciously recognize their effects. One reads sound by sound, word by word, line by line, sentence by sentence, stanza by stanza, so I intend to write about some of the constituent parts of Adlestropthat way.

I’m also going to try to remain alert to pattern and variation. Patterns make us comfortable as readers, as poet Michael Ryan has noted; we think we know what’s coming next; but then variations surprise and move us, turn us around. In thinking about pattern and variation, I’m also going to try to be aware of the subtleties of stress in English and the ways in which word stress plays against sentence stress and against what one might call contextual stress and how this play of meter contrasts with the metrical expectations the poem has created in the reader.

A quick note about omissions here. Two words seem to me to hide in plain sight in “Adlestrop:” first, “stop,” the word nowhere used, but inherent in the rhyme with the place name. Where Thomas might have used “stop,” he wisely chooses instead “drew up,” the rhyme slant, in this instance, and inside the line.   The second word is “sign,” since that is how from a train one sees a place name. The word “Adlestrop” in a sense becomes the sign for the sign itself. We see the sign through the name, as it were, and then the poem lets us see past the sign to the countryside behind it and the sky above it, and then, because the poem has already linked sound to what we see, we hear beyond the moment into depths of sound, and concurrently, we imagine seeing beyond that particular view into the depths of countryside beyond.   The poem links those two senses for us in the place and then stamps the sensation on the reader as surely as the name stamps itself on the train traveler’s mind.  The poem seems to me to be a small miracle, and I’ve always been curious about how it works its magic.

So let’s start at the beginning: “Adlestrop,” the title announces. That word would scan, luu, a dactyl when it stands alone, with the second unstressed syllable slightly stronger than the second. But as we move into the poem and the iambic takes over, that second unstressed syllable will seem stronger, almost a stress, the more so when we unconsciously hear the echoes of “Adlestrop” throughout the poem, where, as Scott notices, groups of words combine to form phrases, units of meaning, that follow the same rhythmic pattern: look particularly at the amphimacers (lul) in “afternoon” and “no one left” and “no one came” and “what I saw” and “afternoon,” and “willow-herb” and “meadow sweet” and “haycocks dry” and “lonely fair” and “blackbird sang” and “all the birds” and “Oxfordshire” and “Gloucestershire.” Even “drew up there” and “someone cleared” and “what I saw” fit the song. Here’s one underlying pattern against which Thomas is working. The pattern itself, I’d contend, pins that name in our mind and attaches it to the depth of sound in the countryside.

Adlestrop

Yes, I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

So we read the title, “Adlestrop,” and then the first word, “yes,” which if I were scanning for the iambic into which the poem settles in the second line, I might read as unstressed, but the sentence stress, that comma after the single word, brings up the level of stress and stops us, stops us before we understand the train will stop. We get the sound of sense—to evoke Frost—in which we hear the moment of recognition in the speaker. “Adelstrop. Yes.” And then the phrase “I remember Adlestrop,” in which the sentence stress pushes forward the “I,” gives us a sense initially of a falling rhythm. But only for a moment. In the next line we chug along in iambic until “express train drew” and then we’re stuttering to a halt. Note in the first stanza the way the phrases marked by the caesuras expand: “yes” (one syllable), “the name” (two iambic syllables), “unwontedly” (four iambic syllables). Those caesuras near the start of a line echo later in the poem. I’m most interested in “close by” in the final stanza, but I’ll talk about that in a bit.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

As we enter the second stanza, “The steam hissed” seems to be part of this pattern of short phrases before a stop. But that “someone” is disruptive. We hear echoes of those three strong stresses in “express train drew” (“steam hissed some”). But because “someone” follows a full stop, we hear falling rhythm again (“someone cleared his throat” lulul). “Yes” in stanza one becomes “hissed” in stanza two. We’ve stopped almost in the space between the first and second stanzas. And we hear that stop in the sentence stress of “late June,” an iamb that tends towards a spondee.

After the stop, the steam train’s brakes make that exhaling sound that younger people today may not have heard outside of old films. And we hear the hiss. Then silence. What Thomas calls in his notes, “the extraordinary silence.” (Thanks again for this observation to Edna Longley, whose great service to Thomas as a poet is evident in every page of her edition.) Again, like “stop” and “sign,” the word “silence” is omitted here, but we know about it because we’re in the presence of enough silence to hear some unseen person clear his throat. (People clear their throat often before they speak, but the sound, in this case, will be coming from the natural world.)

adelstrop-stationSo sound, the hiss. Then lack of sound in which a small human sound can register. But after Thomas gives us a presence, he immediately moves to absence; except now we will remember that that absence is inhabited. We learn what the speaker sees: “no one.” Remember we’re hearing the echoes of “Adelstrop” here, and we’re hearing the echoes against the meaning of the words: absence, an abundance of absence, absence twice over: “no one left” and “no one came,” in the particular logic of a train in which passengers leave the train before passengers enter the train. And then, in the following line, absence three times over in the meaning of “bare platform.” That line turns our imagined gaze to the scene of the absence. And then the turn in the sound echo “What I saw” and again, “Adlestrop” —those similar rhythms as if the rhythm is an underlying presence. And then a pause in that dash after “Adlestrop” as if the mind is considering and concluding not much was there. “Only the name”—the falling rhythm of “only” reminding us of “I remember” and “Someone cleared” before it resolves into the iamb of “the name.”

The first half of this poem gives us the scene in which the train stops and the speaker looks around: short sentences, choppy lines that mark disruption in the “express” journey. The word “unwontedly,” which Longley tells us Thomas got after trying “unexpectedly” and “against its custom,” stresses the extraordinary occasion. And then what the speaker sees moves us into the poem: “only the name” releases to us the poem’s lyric transformation. To see how the poem enacts the change in its second half, let me note the poem’s overall construction: three full sentences in the first stanza. Three sentences and the start of a fourth in the second stanza—watch that fourth sentence as it sweeps us into the third stanza, which in its entirety completes one sentence, the sentence that begins “what I saw.” Finally, the fourth stanza is one sentence.

So we’re a bit off balance at the end of the second stanza—we’re mid-thought in a scene in which we see “name”—before the sentence moves us on to the willows and other surrounding flora. And yet in another way, we’ve paused at “name” through the meter and through the word’s position at the end of the line. The poem says “only,” as in “not much,” but the reader is about to feel “much.” From the last iambic foot of the second stanza, we launch into two lines of pure iambic meter: The poem is singing to us as it shows us the scene behind the sign, trees and fields, with all those echoes of “Adlestrop”: “willow herb,” “meadowsweet,” “haycocks dry” with no articles, no particularity, just the living world with slight implication of scent/taste in “sweet” and touch in “dry.” The enumeration itself gives us a sense of abundance.

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

Those “ands” help convey that sense of the abundance—four in the third stanza and three in the fourth. And this and this and this, the poem tells us. More and more. A flood of detail about the environment. Furthermore, the “ands” take us from the populated absence to which the poem has linked “the name,” the sign for the thing itself, and then associates “the name” with a list from the sensory world—tangible presences in the world. And this transformation again occurs in the gap between the stanzas. Now the poem associates “the name” itself with sensory overload.

However, though the fourth “and” in the third stanza may seem to be some sort of accretion, it is, in fact, associated with “no less:” no less still and no less lonely fair —a double negative that means the positive; therefore, moving, populated, and beautiful.

We have a slight interruption to the iambic in “whit less still.” I read “less” with slightly stronger sentence stress than the iambic pattern would allow. I hear a slight echo of “the steam hissed,” and, given the patterns of the poem, I’m ready for another caesura, but it doesn’t come. In fact, the syntax of that “less still” is sweeping the reader toward “than” in the last line of the third stanza. That “no” attaches itself not just to “whit,” but also to “less” (in “no less” the unconscious mind hears “more”) and “no less” to “still,” “lonely,” and “fair” (no less still, no less lonely, no less fair). Moreover, I think we unconsciously hear that “still” for information about sound, although “still” refers to movement in the sentence itself. And that information— “less still” —prepares us for sound. Then we move on the back of the iambic rhythm into “lonely fair” with its echo of “Adelstrop,” and we move through the long sentence’s more complicated syntax: “no less still than” to the cloudlets in the sky, additional evidence that the day is fair.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Note those “ands” continuing. But here we have a case of pattern and variation: “and,” “and,” “all,” we read. So the “all” comes out of the series of “ands.” But the meaning of “all” is tricky. Of course, the speaker can’t hear “all the birds,” but he knows they’re there, and so great is the sense of abundance that they might as well all be there for him. We come across one more “and” to link Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, to take us even further into the distance.

edward with merfyn 1900
Edward and Merfyn Thomas, 1900

In the first line of that fourth stanza, I hear sentence stress against the rising metrical stress. You might read this line as having two iambs, one anapest, and one iamb, ululuulul, except that the meaning of the line gives us a pause after “for that minute.” We literally hear that minute’s pause in the two unstressed syllables separated by a slight hesitation: “and for that minute, a blackbird sang.” We may hear the poem even more strongly if we’re reading sentence stress in “for that minute, a blackbird sang” – ulluulul, two stronger stresses preceding two weak ones. Then we hear the “Adlestrop” echo in “blackbird sang” and then in the second line we stop over “close by,” that early caesura, a rhythm is pretty nearly a spondee, ll. We ought to be in iambic territory, but we’re not. A metrical reading might be spondee, iamb, iamb and pyrrhic foot, but the sentence stress I’m hearing is falling: “round him” and “mistier.” The sound of sense in this line is trochee, dactyl. You hear it again in “farther” and “farther.” We are falling into the sound.

At this point in the poem I am moving from the close-by single song to layers upon layers of individual bird songs, songs diminishing into the far distance. We get that meaning from all the birds and then the names of the two counties, and we get the sound of that meaning in the echoes of “Adlestrop.” And so we enter imaginatively those farther and farther counties, an idea Thomas had articulated in his essay “England” (quoted by Edna Longley in her notes on this poem):

I believe…that England is a system of vast circumferences circling round the minute neighbouring points of home.

All of Thomas’ work earlier in the poem has set up these lines — the contrast between sentence stress and metrical stress, between rising and falling rhythm, the contrast between the hesitations and the go-aheads, the presences and the absences, the silences and the sounds. We’ve been on an express train that stops, but the stop is the signal for the imagination to move quickly up and out and into the countryside. What is still and what is moving? What is still and what is noisy? What is uninhabited/empty and what is inhabited/full of life and sensory detail? The poem is setting us those problems in its very fabric and attaching our feeling to those problems as we read. A small miracle, in fact.

Writing Prompt

Write a poem in which you establish a metric or linguistic pattern and then break that pattern at crucial points in the poem in order to create in your reader a feeling of change more deeply affecting than any change conveyed through meaning. Among those patterns against which to write variation: patterns based on meter (as in the case of Thomas’ amphimacers here), or based on sentence structure, or based on linear structure—for example, rhythmic disruptions such as those caused by the placement of caesuras.

Photo credits: Edward Thomas, 1912, photo from E.O. Hoppe/Corbis / E.O. Hoppe/Corbis, taken from The Guardian.


Sandy Solomon

Sandy Solomon is the author of Pears, Lake, Sun (University of Pittsburgh Press). Her poems have appeared in such journals as The New Yorker, New Republic, Partisan Review, Threepenny Review, Gettysburg Review, and Ploughshares. Poems are forthcoming in Plume and Vox Populi. She teaches in Vanderbilt University’s Creative Writing Program. Her website, terribly out of date, is www.sandysolomon.com.