You’ll sometimes find Edward Thomas filed under “War Poets,” but his best-known poem “Adlestrop” is a unique peace poem that emerged from a journal entry written a few days before war broke out in Europe in 1914. In Thomas’ “Adlestrop”, nothing happens — the sweetest nothing.
This poem is lesser-known in America than it is in Britain, but its achievement deserves to be celebrated more generally. Now, I won’t knock the accomplishments of the World War I “War Poets,” but from the time of Homer it’s been assumed that the heightened events and sorrows of war can make powerful poetry. But to write poems about the day before a war, the minutes of mere inconvenience amid beauty so ordinary we will not burnish it on paper, that’s a rarer thing.
And now, with a new war being waged in Europe, the “Adlestrop” moment may have gained fresh power for us.
The new lyric video.
Adlestrop is, and was in 1914, a tiny English village in the Cotswolds. Edward Thomas did take a train ride a mere four days before Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated tripping off the first world war. He was journaling at the time, a busman’s holiday for a man who made his living freelance writing at a “bills-to-be-paid” rate.* In his journal he noted the heat and the sleepiness of the train station (which was outside of the town’s edge). An avid naturalist, he made exact notes of the plants there, and the birds. Oh, the birds. Thomas’ writing is always full of bird-song.
Here’s what he wrote on June 24th, 1914, the first draft of what would become the poem:
Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.
Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willowherb and meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel — looking out on grey dry stones between metals and the shining metals and over it all the elms willows and long grass — one man clears his throat — a greater than rustic silence. No house in view. Stop only for a minute till signal is up.”
The final poem, the one we know and perform below, was then written after the outbreak of the World War. It transforms that entry’s already poetic detail into that masterful poem of nothing, the sweetest nothing. The poem’s final zoom out to “Farther and farther, all the birds/Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire” seems an invention, a choral work derived from a smaller bird-song ensemble in the journal entry.
The performance features one of my better examples of melodic bottleneck electric guitar playing. You can hear this performance three ways: a player gadget below for some, this highlighted link for others, and a new lyric video that you’ll see the picture/thumbnail/link for above.
One other note: my own accelerated posting schedule for National Poetry Month 2022 is wearing me down a little this April. I have more pieces like “Adlestrop” that I plan to re-release yet, but it’s possible that I may reduce frequency in the second half of the month.
*Thomas wrote around a hundred poems in the just over one year that he worked at writing poetry. His work for hire productivity was prodigious too. One stat that is often noted was that he once reviewed 19 books in one week.