Poet's Pick April 15
Edward Thomas: "Adlestrop"
Selected by Peter Filkins
National Poetry Month 2013

Letter from the Editors

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Peter Filkins's Poetry Month Pick, April 15, 2013

"Adlestrop"
by Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

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.

 

* Peter Filkins Comments:
We have all experienced a moment like this, I suspect. Sitting in a train, or perhaps a taxi, maybe at an airport, or a café looking out onto a busy street or square. It need not be a pastoral setting, but rather simply a place where place and moment fuse, where time stops, is held and experienced, and the mind expands. The fact that it’s a train ride, however, does help: the steady sway and rush of the great machine across the open countryside, and then the sudden, yet slightly prolonged stop at an unknown station, hardly anyone getting on, the moments drawing out amid the expectant hush of machine, station, and waiting train car.

How carefully and unsuspectingly the poem arrives at its moment of perception. “Yes, I remember Adlestrop,” that “Yes” immediately bringing us into a conversation, as if someone were telling us a story on a train. And then that it is “the name” that is remembered, no meaning or significance actually given to it, its own oddity and anonymity granting it a further curiousness. Rather than someone saying, “Yes, I remember Paris” of “Yes, I remember Baghdad,” places that would immediately conjure images that we would likely find confirmed in the story to follow, “Adlestrop” has no such attachments. Rather, the only causal link to the memory is “because one afternoon/ of heat the express-train drew up there/ Unwontedly.”

That adverb is our ticket to the poem. “Yes,” “because” and “express” having set us in motion, the puddle of sound and wayward intent that comes together in “Unwontedly” immediately slows us down, stopping the poem in its tracks, the simple declaration that “It was late June” confirming that memory has been engaged, the traveler’s story is about to begin.

Except there isn’t one. Those short declaratives – “The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat” – only set the scene for a place where “No one left and no one came,” ourselves arriving where we already are, simply in Adlestrop, wherever that may be, but simply at “the name.”

And yet what lies in that name. From here the poem opens up, the succession of “ands” – nine of them in the last eight lines – reticulating the moment and its perception like a pocket telescope. And that the fourth stanza contains the slightly quaint inversions of “haycocks dry” and “lonely fair,” along with the nineteenth-century feel of “No whit” and “cloudlets,” this also contributes to the feeling of a moment experienced that is somehow older, somehow more in the past than the present, and thus somehow more cherished because still alive in memory and the poem.

And like the poem, it all happens in a “minute.” In less than three years, at age 39, Edward Thomas would die in France, a casualty of World War I, a cataclysm set off with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, four days after Thomas’ train stopped in Adlestrop on June 24, 1914, while he was on his way to visit his fellow poets Robert Frost, Rupert Brooke, Lascelles Abercrombie, and Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, “Adlestrop” first being published three weeks after Thomas’ death in 1917 (See Matthew Hollis’ 2011 biography of Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France).

A life, like all lives, unwittingly set in motion, the terminus unknown. A moment seen, felt, and held in passing. A modest, lovely poem realized “as a blackbird sang.”


About Peter Filkins:
Peter Filkins has published four collections of poetry: What She Knew (1998), After Homer (2002), Augustine’s Vision (2010), and The View We’re Granted (2012). A Recipient of the Stover Award for Poetry and a Berlin Prize, he is also the translator of Ingeborg Bachmann’s collected poems, Darkness Spoken, and the novels of H.G. Adler. A lifelong resident of western Massachusetts, he teaches writing and literature at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.


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