By Tori Ochsankehl
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.
Edward Thomas’ tells us, as readers, the story of a time he experienced an unexpected train stop that divulges into a much deeper story of a journey to self-discovery. The vivid scenery described to the reader in his poem, “Adlestrop”, gives more than just a true sense of the beauty of England, it also provides a new outlook on the function of nature and society in a country plagued by World War One. The contrast between society and nature is present, but promotes a positive feeling by immediately replacing the absent society with the ever-present nature. He uses repetition and sense of hearing to emphasize his feelings towards society and nature, associating himself with the latter and dissociating with the former. Though Edward Thomas distances himself from society, he identifies with nature, which eases the reader’s frustration of the nearly non-existent society during the time of World War One with the beauty of nature that can be appreciated amongst the silence. His attention to detail teaches the reader an important lesson to appreciate what may not seem important as he calmly proceeds to tell his story of establishing a sense of self and how the process of this identification resulted in his realization of the co-existence of society and nature in England, rather than his original view of the opposing forces between the two.
The beginning of the poem is direct and concise; he begins it with a simple “yes”. Starting the poem with this word implies that he is answering a question or recalling an event that actually happened, creating a realistic aspect to the poem a mere one word into reading it. That one word also creates a relationship between Thomas and the reader, it is as though he is telling the reader a story or involved in a conversation, part of which may have already taken place. He goes on to describe the setting as being “one afternoon / of heat the express-train drew up there / unwontedly. It was late June” (Lines 2-4), which amplifies the realism of the poem. Describing that the weather was hot adds to the conversational aspect, which reiterates a connection to the reader because everyone, or almost everyone, has experienced “heat” at some point in their lives. Placing the event during a specific time frame, an afternoon in June allows the reader to connect with that certain time and adds to the realistic feel because everyone, or (once again) almost everyone, has experienced the month of June and more specifically an afternoon in the month of June. Interestingly, the poem has a very relaxed tone because of this conversational aspect even though it was written and takes place during world war one, which is not a time that someone normally associates with relaxation. Commonly, when people think of World War One, or war in general, they associate it with violence or killing, not with a calm conversation like the one taking place in Thomas’ poem between him and the reader.
Also within the first stanza, Thomas establishes a sense of society. He says: “the express-train drew up there unwontedly” (Line 3), meaning that the train he was on stopped somewhere that it would not normally stop and also implying that the train has a normal routine. The fact that the train is coming and going, or that there is a train at all, entails the presence of a group of people and therefore ascertains a sense of society. Conversely, the sense of society is also established by its lack of being. The repetition of “no one” in the second stanza (“no one left and no one came” (Line 6)) emphasizes the absence of people, as does his description of the platform being “bare”, meaning there was no one waiting for the train. He describes the platform of the train by saying: “no one left and no one came / on the bare platform. What I saw / was Adlestrop – only the name” (Lines 6-8). The repetition of “no one” associates normality with people coming and going and ascertains the absence of people as abnormal, also emphasized by the fact that the platform was bare. Thomas says that he saw the sign for Adlestrop and that all that was present on the sign was the name, “only the name”, and nothing else. The word “only” implies that he expected something more and the absence of anything else adds to the emptiness of society as well as his loneliness in it.
The denial of the presence of a societal dimension enhances not only the blankness of the society, but also the silence that accompanies such. The silence that surrounds Thomas could serve as a representation of the war. The reader knows that the poem was written during World War One, which started in August of 1914 and ended in November of 1918 (both years recognized as dates Thomas worked on this poem), and Thomas describes that the area is practically void of human existence, allowing the reader to connect the two points to show that the area is deserted because everyone that would commonly be present is off at war. Thomas starts the second stanza with: “The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat” (Line 5), which alludes to the silence he encounters because he is able to hear the steam hissing and hear a single person clear their throat, sounds that may normally be muddled on a populated train. This sense of silence is also accentuated by Thomas’ association of the person clearing their throat as “his”, he is able to recognize that it is a man clearing his throat, which would also be difficult on a confined train. The language he uses associates a negative perspective with the two sounds that he hears and therefore produces a negative perspective of society. A person generally clears their throat when they are annoyed and people who hear the person doing such are generally annoyed by the sound (at least I know I am). Similarly, “hissing” is often a noise something makes when it’s angry, like a cat. Both sounds represent negative emotions, which create a negative association with society since these two sounds are the only representation that society still exists.
The fact that Thomas gives quite a vivid description of his location and emphasizes the deserted quality of the area a multitude of times, yet does not give any sort of description of the man who clears his throat, which shows a dissociation of Thomas with society. He distances himself from society by representing it as one, blank-faced man, a man who he is unable to identify and does not give a description of, even though the reader knows there is “no one” in the area and therefore Thomas most likely was able to see the man in question. Therefore, by representing the entire society as just “someone”, a nameless, faceless being whose only tie to reality is his annoying throat clearing, and giving no further identification, Thomas shows that he is distant from society, that he doesn’t have a connection with society as a whole.
The tension the reader feels from the absence of society is immediately eased with the coming of the third stanza. Thomas describes the nature that he sees from the train in his conversation with the reader as “willows, willow-herb, and grass, / and meadowsweet, and haycocks dry” (Lines 9-10). He gives a very specific description of the nature that he sees. He is able to identify each natural element, which shows that he has a connection with nature and that he identifies with nature whereas he is distant from society. The multiplicity of the nature he sees gives a sense that nature is plentiful, and his repetition of “and” adds to that idea as well. This idea that nature is bountiful and the proof that he connects with nature eases the frustration previously felt with the dissociation to society by creating a positive tone. He goes on to talk about “the high cloudlets in the sky” (Line 12), clouds alluding to a feeling of freedom and vastness that add to this sense of joy the reader associates with the plethora of nature and that Thomas associates with his identification to nature. The immediate replacement of the empty, lonely society with the plentiful, joyful nature keeps the conversation between Thomas and the reader, as well as the tone of the poem, positive.
The final stanza uses the sense of hearing once again, but this time instead of emphasizing the absence of society, it emphasizes the presence of nature. Thomas says: “and for that minute a blackbird sang / close by, and round him, mistier, / farther and farther, all the birds” (Lines 13-15), implying that there are multiple birds singing, which once again shows that nature is in joyful plenty. In the previous stanza describing the sounds he heard on the train he used language that was negative, describing the steam sound emanating from the train as a “hissing” and the noise of the only “someone” on the train to be the annoyance that is throat-clearing, and therefore created a negative perspective with the train and with society, but in this final stanza he speaks of how the bird “sang”. Singing is commonly correlated to happiness or celebration, both of which as positive emotions, so therefore since he uses positive language associated with nature, nature is seen from a positive perspective.
Thomas then creates a tie between nature and society, not only are multiple birds singing to highlight his identification with nature, but “all the birds / of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire” (Lines 15-16) are singing. Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire are two cities, cities allude to groups of people, which serves to produce a new representation of society, and by associating them with the singing birds, which he connects positively with; he realigns himself with society. The birds represent nature, which Thomas identifies with, and now the birds represent these two cities, which represent society. Therefore, Thomas now identifies with society as opposed to distancing himself from it as he did previously. Society and nature have evolved from contrasting one another to combining with one another so that Thomas is able to define himself in the world as a whole, as opposed to identifying with one of the two entities of the world as he had before. The birds serve as the metaphorical glue, as they serve to represent both nature and society, and therefore hold the two entities together. Since the birds are partaking in an action described as positive, both nature and society are viewed as positive and as a whole. As the poem evolves, it serves to define Thomas as part of the world; the reader witnesses his process of identification as they read the poem from beginning to end, as they engage in this conversation with Thomas.
Thomas also paints a bright picture of England and is able to capture the essence of England throughout the poem. Since the poem takes place in World War One, it is understandable that certain areas may be less populated than others and that the hardships of the war may have caused people to distance themselves from others, and from society in general. The poem captures the loneliness that was most likely felt by many of the people in the war and many of the family members and friends of such soldiers through the loneliness that Thomas feels in the beginning of the poem at the train station. The poem also captures the beauty of England’s natural elements that Thomas was able to connect with amid the silence of society and the torment of the war. He describes a stunning natural aspect to England during that time period that was possibly overlooked by many, but that he was able to admire and that he felt should be shared in conversation as a means to preserve such beauty. The blackbird is often associated with England, and the positive feeling the poem associates with the multitude of birds and their joyful song aligns England with that positive feeling as well. Thomas uses the connection between the birds and the cities in England to associate the country’s society with the gorgeous natural elements that it has to offer, as if his conversation with the reader is an encouragement to appreciate what England has to offer. The specificities of the natural elements serve as a means to encourage the readers not only to appreciate the nature of England, but also to appreciate the little things, to appreciate the things that they may not always think are important, but are in fact beautiful and worthwhile.
The journey to self-discovery is prominent in Edward Thomas’ vivid conversation with the reader in his poem “Adlestrop”. He uses repetition to emphasize certain instances throughout this real experience of an unexpected train stop that changed his outlook on nature, society, and life during the dark times of World War One. The repetition is evident in the second stanza (“no one left and no one came”) to imply the absence of society and in the third stanza (“and”) to imply the plentitude of nature. He does not give a description of the man that represents society within the second stanza (“someone cleared his throat”) in order to establish a sense of distance between himself and society at that time, while he intricately describes the nature that he sees (“and willows, willow-herb, and grass, and meadowsweet, and haycocks dry”) to connect himself with his natural surroundings. In the fourth stanza he creates a connection between nature and society (“all the birds / of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire”) to symbolize that he has figured out who he is and has created his identification with the idea that nature and society co-exit harmoniously as one entity, rather than two halves of a whole. Thomas also uses elements throughout the poem that are representative of England, whether it is cities or birds, to associate his positive identification with nature and society with England. He is able to capture the beauty of England and the country’s ability to exemplify the harmonious combination of nature and society. The specificities given in the poem (such as Thomas’ notification of the “high cloudlets in the sky”, the multiple types of nature he can identify, the song of the blackbird being “close by, and round him, mistier, farther and farther”, and the fact that he recognizes the birds are flocking from other cities “all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire”) show Thomas’ appreciation for the little things and his recounting of them to the reader suggests that he is encouraging the reader to appreciate the things they may sometimes overlook as well. Edward Thomas’ journey to identification in the world doesn’t just provide the reader with a realistic experience on a hot, June afternoon, but also with a new outlook on the co-existence of nature and society, England, and appreciation for the beauty that people may often take for granted.