I completed reading Edward Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring yesterday, the book about a bicycle tour across southern England published just before his transition from a self-described hack writer to a much loved English poet. I’ve already noted some surprises in a reply to a comment earlier, but now that I’ve finished I have more to say.
I at first thought the journey was more than a month long, as I read a quote from the book mentioning finding May at the end of his journey—but that was poetic license on Thomas’ part, his bicycle trip from London to the Bristol Channel took only a few days, it was only the vicissitudes of English climate that he was expressing. So, my supposition that the time on his bicycle on a country trip helped break the cycle of hack writing is likely wrong. And more than the time-span says this. The book internally shows evidence of work for hire. Parts of it are uninspired writing—prolix and tangled writing at that—which is doubly surprising given that Thomas’ poems are usually so sharp and short, where every word tells. The book contains digressions which may or may not have been conventional in English travel books of the time, but they vary in quality and subject. At one point he simply begins to tell a folk tale about two sisters for no reason I can discern. Some of the digressions geek-out on detail. There’s a monolog on clay pipes that I quite enjoyed, which might still pass today as a post on a hipster blog. His shorter discussion of “waterproofs” (rain gear) for bicycling would gather likes in a post today too.
“I have discovered that sellers of waterproofs are among the worst of liars, and they communicate their vices with their goods.” Even today, many all-weather bicyclists would agree with Thomas.
Thomas’ hack work included literary reviews, and there are mini-essays on several English poets thrown in amidst the travelogue. The only living poet this 1913 book dealt with at any length is Hardy (Thomas approves of him) but the strange case he recounts of the 18th Century rural poet Stephen Duck lead me to look for more about him. Thomas was reviewing the contemporary early 20th Century Modernists at this time, and no doubt absorbing some of their tactics, but he does not speak of them in the book.
Over the course of the book he spends an inordinate amount of time in village churches and their graveyards, often cataloging the ordinary names of those buried there—not just the plaques enshrining local now-forgotten notables—and he recounts many epitaphs he finds. This seemed padded and tiresome to me at first, but as the book continued I just grew to accept it. Was this a conventional part of travel book writing then? Are the family names or ordinary people particularly redolent of a region in England? I don’t know. But as this practice continued at every town, I recalled again, this is less than two years before WWI changed England and four years before Thomas met his own Eastertide death in that war. Prophetically intended or not, the book’s catalog of graves does begin to tell.
Another Thomas tic, carried over somewhat into the poetry, is his naturalists-level knowledge of plants and birdsong. At one point early in the book he’s riding off in the morning and identifies a great number of the birds calling by their song, and he never seems to pass a plant without knowing it’s common name. When I think of his much beloved “Adlestrop,” a poem I much admire, written only a bit more than a year later. I wonder if he had to restrain himself from cataloging for several stanzas the species that make up “all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.”
When Robert Frost saw the poetry in In Pursuit of Spring, he performed a task of greater perception than I expected, even though there are lovely phrases, a keen intellect that pops in and out, and an odd charm to the whole thing. Have you run across the current craze for creating poetry by redacting the greater part of large blocks of text so that found poetry emerges? Frost must have mentally done something like that.
How much of Thomas’ mode of prose expression was warped by the pay-by-the-word and deadlines/assigned topics of hack work I can’t say, but the poet Edward Thomas is all the more remarkable to me after reading this.
No new music today, but since I mentioned “Adlestrop,” it would be good to remind newcomers that they can hear it. The player is below.