I had to look up this poem after reading about it in Ian McEwan’s novel, Sweet Tooth. Adlestrop, a poem by Edward Thomas, comes up in a moment of intimacy between the heroine, Serena Frome, and her lover, Tom Haley, a writer.
When Haley visits her for the first time in London, they go to the National Portrait Gallery and then to a café where he starts talking about poetry. He mentions Adlestrop. “Hardly the stuff of poetic revolutions. But it’s lovely, one of the best-known, best-loved poems in the language.”
It is a short poem, but it has a wistfulness that appeals to poetry lovers. The fact that it is about a little railway station in the countryside perhaps adds to the appeal. I saw several YouTube videos based on the poem. You hear the voice of Richard Burton reading the poem in one of the videos.
Here is the poem.
By Edward Thomas
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.
Just what is it that makes the poem so appealing?
The stillness? The steam-engine-drawn express train making an unscheduled stop at a deserted railway station in the middle of nowhere? The quietude of the countryside suddenly broken by birdsong?
There’s the poet’s personal history too. Edward Thomas, born in 1878, was drawn into the First World War and killed in battle in France in 1917. That adds to the poignancy of the poem. The English have not forgotten their War Poets.
The poem works like a charm between Serena and her new lover, leading to their first kiss.
When she confesses she has read only novels and never even heard of Edward Thomas and Adlestrop, Halley the writer exclaims, “It’s marvellous you don’t know it. You’ve so much ahead of you!” He drags her to a second-hand bookshop, picks up a collection of Thomas’ poems and makes her read Adlestrop.
Serena, who is the narrator in this autobiographical novel, later recalls her first impression of the poem and what followed:
There wasn’t much to take. Four verses of four short lines. A train makes an unscheduled stop at an obscure station, no one gets on or off, someone coughs, a bird sings, it’s hot, there are flowers and trees, hay drying in the fields and lots of other birds. And that was it.
I closed the book and said, ‘Beautiful.’
His head was cocked and he was smiling patiently. ‘You don’t get it.’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Then tell it to me.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Say it back to me, everything in it that you can remember.’
So I told him all I knew, almost line by line, and even remembered the haycocks, cloudlets, willows and meadowsweet, as well as Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. He seemed impressed and he was looking at me oddly, as if he was making a discovery.
He said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with your memory. Now try to remember the feelings.’
We were the only customers downstairs in the shop and there were no windows and only two dim bulbs, without shades. There was a pleasant dusty soporific smell, as though the books had stolen most of the air.
I said, ‘I’m sure there isn’t a single mention of a feeling.’
‘What’s the first word of the poem?’
‘It goes, “Yes, I remember Adlestrop.” ’
He came closer. ‘The memory of a name and nothing else, the stillness, the beauty, the arbitrariness of the stop, birdsong spread out across two counties, the sense of pure existence, of being suspended in space and time, a time before a cataclysmic war.’
I angled my head and his lips brushed mine. I said very quietly, ‘The poem doesn’t mention a war.’
He took the book from my hands as we kissed…
I made my lips go soft.