National Poetry Day this week saw the publication of an anthology of poems about trains, Train Songs, edited by Sean O’Brien and Don Paterson. The poems cover a wide field, representing American Blues and the troop trains of two world wars among childhood favourites such as Auden’s Night Train.
The descriptions of the anthology refer to the celebration of carriages, platforms, waiting rooms, and ‘the poetry of departures and brief encounters’. I have explored these ideas in previous posts (search for Railway Romantics in the search box at the top of this page) and it’s great to see more about the impact of train travel on the national collective consciousness and imaginative sensibility.
One of the poems included in the collection was voted third favourite by listeners of BBC Radio Four’s Poetry Please, Adlestrop by Edward Thomas. I first came across it in an O Level anthology and thought it was both thankfully easy to understand and a bit tame.
Both those views could still apply but there is something about the structure, tone and mood that lingers and haunts the memory in a different way from the more clamorous voices of other WW1 poets. although it’s not exactly a war poem as it was written in 1914, just before the outbreak of war. In Ian MacEwan’s novel Sweet Tooth, Serena’s lover makes her read Adlestrop, and she points out it doesn’t mention war. But the word that isn’t spoken resonates through the poem.
Nothing happens in the poem. A train makes an unexpected stop at a small Gloucestershire station. That’s it. There is the hiss of steam. Someone clears his throat. Birds sing. There are fields and trees and clouds in the sky.
It’s the lack of movement and action that is at the poem’s heart. The incident is a memory, as the first line tells us: ‘Yes, I remember Adlestrop.’
He remembers a moment suspended in time, and every aspect of it is held in an evocative whole, the stillness, the quiet, the sky and the fields. It has the same contained, pure intensity as Dennis Potter’s observation as he neared death that ‘The blossom is the blossemest blossom that there could ever be.’
The quiet is broken by a blackbird singing and that song is taken up and the sky filled with the songs of all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. The moment of distilled joy reminds us that not only the peace of the English countryside will be shattered by the war that is to come.
Another reason I love the poem is the word ‘unwontedly’:
“…the express train drew up there
Such an elegant word. Its very sound seems to suggest slight surprise at the event.