5 June 2014 09:30

In June 1914 a train bound from Paddington to Kidderminster stopped at a small station in the Cotswolds. No one was waiting on the platform; no one, by all accounts, alighted; but in the minute that passed before the carriages pulled away one passenger recorded that ‘thro the … extraordinary silence’ he ‘heard a chain of blackbirds songs … by banks of long grass willow herb & meadowsweet.’¹

That passenger was Edward Thomas; that station, Adlestrop; and the sixteen lines that Thomas later teased out of his notes would become one of the best-known poems in the language:

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June….
[Read the full poem here.]

Thomas wasn’t well known as a poet when, three weeks after his death at the Battle of Arras, these lines appeared in the pages of the New Statesman; but through them his name and Adlestrop have found a permanent place in the collective conscience of English verse.

Few poems have been so continually imitated and anthologised; few literary localities so affectionately commemorated. But why? What is it about this poem that still continues to captivate readers a hundred years since?

For us today, the poignancy of Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’ is, perhaps unavoidably, sharpened by the pre-war ambience it evokes. Whether for better or for worse, it’s difficult not to hear in this poem a passing sigh for a nation unknowingly on the brink of irrevocable change.

Yet, the popularity of ‘Adlestrop’ cannot be wholly attributed to its provenance, or to the circumstances surrounding its posthumous publication. Certainly, the history of the poem’s reception suggests that the enduring fame of ‘Adlestrop’ may have less to do with its context per se, than with the spell of associations it evokes.

In wresting from the name of Adlestrop memories of meadowsweet, blackbird songs, and ‘high cloudlets’ above the Cotswolds, Thomas conjures up a scene which, according to many readers, offers a passing glimpse of England’s fanciful green and pleasant land. Similarly, other readers have praised the poem for the way it ‘recalls the deeper pleasures of the country railway station’ – that emblem of the golden age of British steam.²

As such claims attest, the perennial appeal of ‘Adlestrop’ derives not only from the era in which it was penned and printed, but also from the way the poem locates the spirit of a national ideal in the substance of a specific place.

This, at any rate, goes some ways towards explaining why the poem still attracts tourists to Adlestrop each year. For, in reading Thomas’s poem, our perception of Adlestrop is changed forever. No longer merely a small village somewhere along the Cotswold Line, Adlestrop becomes a marker of a bygone era, a place populated by our imaginings of a rural England of another time. These imaginings are merely fantasies, to be sure; but that doesn’t mean that they’re without value.

The village has changed a good bit since Thomas’s day. Perhaps most notably, the railway station’s no longer there. A casualty of the Beeching cuts, it was demolished in the mid ’60s. But tourists still come, as no doubt many will come this summer, to see (as Christopher Rush has expressed it) ‘where the little station would have been’, and to stand ‘listening to silence, imagining meadowsweet and willow-herb in June, the heat and hiss of steam, and the birds, two counties’ worth, churning out birdsong, and the stopped train, and the haycocks, and the grass—and how it was. Exactly how it was.’³

Imagining ‘exactly how it was’: this is, of course, impossible. But, to Rush’s credit, it’s precisely what poems like ‘Adlestrop’ tempt us to do. They tempt us to share in their retrospective glance: to look back, through the keyhole of their words, for glimpses of the lost worlds they recall.

Simply put, they appeal to our sense of nostalgia: that sentimental impulse that, in spite of all efforts to eschew it, remains a vital part of culture and community in this country, especially in this year of remembrance.

And why not? Nostalgia is best tempered with skepticism, true; and it mustn’t delude us into forgetting our ethical obligation to the present. But it does help us, in the present, collectively to cast our gaze into the past, and therein to discover a sense of something shared.

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Footnotes:

¹ Edward Thomas, notebook entry, 24 June 1914; qt. Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), 139.

² John Betjeman, ‘Back to the Railway Carriage’, The Listener (28 March 1940), 622.

³ Christopher Rush, To Travel Hopefully (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2005), 50.

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