A short introduction to the poem ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas
The latest in our series of short analyses of short poems takes Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’ as its subject. Before we get to the analysis, then, here is the wonderful sixteen-line poem, which was once ranked Britain’s 20th favourite poem:
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.
The origins of the poem lie in an event that took place on 24 June 1914, while English poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) was on the Oxford to Worcester express train. The train made an unscheduled stop at Adlestrop (formerly Titlestrop) in Gloucestershire, a tiny village in the Cotswolds with a population of just over 100. (Jane Austen visited the former rectory at Adlestrop three times – her mother’s cousin lived there – and Mansfield Park in her novel of that name may have been partly inspired by her visits to Adlestrop House.) Thomas took the opportunity to fill his notebook with his observations of the place – he was a prolific keeper of nature journals – before the train started up again. The poem, then, had its origins in an unexpected event, a chance occurrence, that occurred one summer’s day in 1914.
We say ‘an event’ took place that day, but really the secret of Thomas’s poem lies in the singular uneventfulness of what it describes. As Sherlock Holmes said in the story ‘Silver Blaze’ of ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’, ‘the dog did nothing in the night-time … that was the curious incident’. Part of the reason the poem appeals to readers, we would venture, is its typically British understatedness: it describes the beauty of the English countryside and the flora and fauna there (Thomas, as well as being a poet, was also very good nature-writer) in very matter-of-fact terms. (Note the specificity of the detail: ‘meadowsweet’ is mead wort, a herb that is found in damp meadows.) It’s Wordsworth with all the ‘egotistical sublime’ (to borrow Keats’s phrase) and the tendency to emotional excess removed.
Thomas had taken up poetry relatively late in life, having tried his hand at being a reviewer and critic. It was the American poet Robert Frost who encouraged Thomas to give poetry a go. Frost, who saw something in the largely unknown Thomas, then in his mid-thirties, said wittily that Thomas’s problem was that he ‘was suffering from a life of insubordination to his inferiors.’ Indeed, Edward Thomas was on his way to Robert Frost’s home near Ledbury on that momentous day ‘in late June’ when his train made that unexpected stop at Adlestrop.
One of the other reasons for the poem’s popularity lies in the date on which that unscheduled stop occurred. 24 June 1914 is just six weeks before the outbreak of WWI. After that, as Philip Larkin put it, ‘Never such innocence again.’ Like Rupert Brooke‘s ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, ‘Adlestrop’ describes the England of sunny innocence before August 1914, when the First World War would change everything. The train, symbol of modernity and movement, stops and allows Thomas, too, to stop, pause, contemplate, observe, and admire the surroundings. The increasingly busy and fast-moving world suddenly slows right down to allow a brief moment – ‘that minute’ – to enjoy nature and stillness, peace and beauty. This is, suddenly, a world of stillness and slowness again, not the bustling modern world: ‘No one left and no one came / On the bare platform.’
The War would change poetry, too, with the style and world-view of the Georgian poets (with whom Thomas was associated) soon being challenged by modernists like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Thomas himself would be killed in the War in 1917, before ‘Adlestrop’ was published.
There isn’t a railway station at Adlestrop any more. It was closed in 1966 during the infamous Beeching cuts. In 2014, the year of the centenary of Thomas’s ‘visit’ there, local Adlestrop resident Ralph Price said: ‘We get lots of visitors who want to see the place as Thomas saw it, but, of course, he never did see it.’ He never got off the train, just passing through as he was. ‘And then they want to see the station, but that’s not there any more.’ But we have the poem. It’s inscribed on the bench that occupies the place where the station could be found, all those years ago.
For more poetry analysis, see our posts about Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’, Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’, and Wilfred Owen’s war poem ‘Futility’. More from Thomas can be found in our pick of Edward Thomas’s best poems.
Image: Chelsea Flower Show exhibit at Adlestrop showing the bench and station sign (author: John Mann), Wikimedia Commons.