Edward Thomas was born in London, England in 1878. He attended Lincoln College at Oxford. He met his wife and had a baby by the time he graduated Oxford. He suffered from chronic depression, but he did not let that stop him from thoroughly enjoying his work. He was known to review up to fifteen books per week. Between 1897 and 1917, he published thirty books and edited sixteen anthologies. He loved poetry, and was one of the first to salute the brilliancy of Robert Frost and Ezra Pound. He began writing poems in the autumn of 1914 as a way to deal with the anxiety he felt over whether or not to enlist. Robert Frost offered to help him find work in the United States, but Thomas declined. He ended up enlisting in July of 1915, and was later killed by a shell blast at the Western Front on Easter Monday 1917.
His poetry shows an acute awareness of the natural world. He portrayed the natural world as intensely beautiful and rich, but he was aware that it was all just temporary. His poetry is the perfect combination of beauty and reality. At the time he was writing his poetry WWI had already begun, and he was struggling with the decision to stay home or go and die for his country. He was certain that death was in his future if he chose to enlist, which is where all the hardness in his poems comes into play.
Adlestrop describes an express train ride that Thomas took on June 23, 1914 from Oxford to Worchester. An unexpected stop at the Adlestrop train station allows Thomas to observe a stretch of the countryside that he had previously never paid much attention to.
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
The speaker appears to have been on a routine trip when the train made an unexpected stop at the Adlestrop train station. Adlestrop is not a very big town, in fact, according to the 2001 census; the population was a mere 153. This township’s only other claim to fame (besides Thomas’ poem) is that Jane Austen and her mother used to visit Jane’s uncle, who was the vicar at the Old Rectory in Adlestrop.
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.
The only thing to look at while at the train depot is the surrounding countryside. He captures the beauty of the natural world; there is something so innocent about the way he describes it. It almost seems like he is in a day-dreaming; it’s very picturesque, almost like a postcard. It is one of those rare places that had not been disturbed or destroyed by war.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
The birds’ singing only adds to this countryside’s charm. The blackbird has long been revered as both a sacred and destructive bird. Even though it is black, it is not typically thought of as a symbol for bad luck; however, they are known for their vigilance and they will give a warning cry to alert others of possible danger. I believe that Thomas used the blackbird in this poem as a warning of the danger that will come from enlisting. During this time, Thomas was struggling with the decision of whether or not to enlist, and he had a strong feeling that enlisting would lead to his end.
I’m sure that Thomas had many moments like the one described in this poem, leading up to his enlistment; he could get lost in the beauty around him, but there was always that stark reminder of what was to come.
*Willow-herbs are a flowering plant that grows wild in England.
**Haycocks are small cone-shaped piles of hay that are left in the field until they are dry enough to carry into the barn.
Thomas, Edward. “Adlestrop.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. 8th Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 1956-7.
Census of 2001 for Adlestrop:
“Adlestrop.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Jul. 2010. Web. 6 Jul. 2010.