The English poet Edward Thomas immortalised the now vanished railway station at Adlestrop, where his train halted on 24 June 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. The themes of intransience and nostalgia are present in many of his other poems, which deserve to be better known.
The Gloucestershire village of Adlestrop was served by a railway station from 1853 to 1966 when it was closed following the infamous Beeching Report of 1963. It was on what is now called the Cotswold Line. The station building was demolished and a station seat and name board moved to a bus shelter in the village. Today passengers on trains on the Cotswold Line unknowingly pass the station site, where all evidence of its existence has vanished. The stationmaster’s house is a private residence and the former goods-yard is a vehicle dump.
On his way from London to Worcester, Edward Thomas stopped at Adlestrop Station not by chance as his poem indicates, but according to schedule. His notebook records “thro the willows cd be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 & one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.” It was the silence that inspired the poem:
“Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express train drew up there
Thomas was born of Welsh parents in London, where his father worked as a railway clerk and neglected his family in favour of politics and intellectual pursuits. Temperamentally, Edward’s father was the opposite of his son, and the two disagreed on nearly all matters, including Thomas’s desire for a literary career.
In 1894, while attending St. Paul’s School, Thomas met the successful literary journalist James Ashcroft Noble, who encouraged his ambitions and was instrumental in getting his first book, The Woodland Life, accepted for publication. Shortly afterwards, while still a student at Lincoln College in Oxford, Thomas married Noble’s daughter. Faced with the need to support a growing family, he began accepting assignments of all sorts from London publishers. Much of it was hack-work, but Thomas also wrote steadily on his own account.
Thomas wrote his first poems in 1914, prompted by the American poet Robert Frost, with whom he made friends during Frost’s years in England. Two years later his first book of verse, Six Poems, was published under the pseudonym of Edward Eastaway. They were the only poems he wrote that Thomas ever saw in print.
In 1915 he joined the Artist’s Rifles and while stationed at Hare Hall Camp in Essex wrote many of his finest poems. (Wilfred Owen joined the Artist’s Rifles two months later.) Thomas’s unit reached Flanders in early 1917 and he was killed on Easter Monday, the first day of the Battle of Arras. He is buried in Agny Military Cemetery, France.
Edward Thomas – like John Clare and Thomas Hardy before him – is an authentic voice of the English countryside with the same acute observation as the elder poet, “who used to notice such things”. The poem “Adlestrop” celebrates “willows, willow-herb, and grass” and the sound of birds singing. And the short poem “In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)” laments the absence of those who might otherwise be innocently gathering flowers:
“The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.”
In his Foreword to the Collected Poems (1920) Edward Thomas’s friend Walter de la Mare, himself a writer of distinction, said:
“Thomas has true lovers today; but when the noise of the present is silenced – and the drums and tramplings of the war in which he died – his voice will be heard far more clearly; the words of a heart and mind devoted throughout his life to all that can make the world a decent and natural home for the meek and the lovely, the true, the rare, the patient, the independent and the oppressed.”