The news that Matthew Hollis is apparently now favourite for the Costa Book Award for his biography of the poet Edward Thomas is good news for poetry. It sent me back to an article Hollis wrote about the writing of ‘Adlestrop’, which is now one of the best known poems in English.
Most of Thomas’ poems were written in a furious rush in the last few years before he was killed in France in 1917, with the encouragement of the great American poet Robert Frost, who had become a firm friend. And most of them drew on his notebooks, which were full of short vivid sketches of things he’d seen.
‘Adlestrop’ was published a few weeks after his death, but the trip it was based on took place three years earlier, when he went by train with his wife to visit Frost, then staying in England. The notebook, wrote Hollis, contains this passage about the train’s halt at Adlestrop:
Then we stopped at Adlestrop, 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. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willow herb & meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel . . . one man clears his throat – and a greater rustic silence. No house in view[.] Stop only for a minute till signal is up.
Most of the poem came quickly to him, but he struggled with the first verse. This is the published version:
Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
It took him several drafts to settle on the class of train. It started as an express, then became a steam train, then just a train. By the final version, wrestling with the fact that the train had made its unscheduled stop, he’d gone back to ‘express’. As Hollis explains:
The train had to be “express” and not “steam” if it was to pull up “unexpectedly”, he reasoned; though about this word, too, he had doubts, and tried “Against its custom”, before he hit upon exactly the word he was looking for: “unwontedly”.
Unwontedly. It’s one of those words which even native English speakers have problems with. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it in this way:
“In a strange, unwonted, or unusual manner; unusually; uncommonly”
So the manner of the stopping draws attention to the other uncommonnesses in the poem, such as the absence of people on the station (“No one left and no one came”), which reminds us that Thomas wrote only indirectly about the Great War, but it is often present through absences. “His real subjects”, wrote Robert MacFarlane in a review of Hollis’ book, “were disconnection, discrepancy and unsettledness.”
The station itself was closed in the 1960s, after Beeching’s axe destroyed chunks of the British rail network. But perhaps that doesn’t matter, for as Edward Thomas said later in the poem, he saw ‘only the name’.
The picture of Adlestrop Station at the top of this post was taken in 1961. It is from Wikipedia Commons. The copyright on this image is owned by Ben Brooksbank and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence. Richard Burton cn be heard reading the poem on Youtube.