What I saw was Adlestrop--only the name.


In my freshmen honors seminar we have been discussing our tendency to anthropomorphize nature, and in the senior capstone we've been discussing John Lewis Gaddis' Landscape of History, in which he analogizes the study of history to map making. All maps distort the object they represent, Gaddis claims. That is at once their benefit and drawback. A map of Minnesota the size of Minnesota would be useless. Map makers simply have to omit some features and emphasize others just as historians must focus on some historical events and not all of them. Something similar could be said of teaching in general. We map our subjects but inevitably leave other things out. At times it is the language itself that distorts what is there, a notion that always makes me think of Edward Thomas' poem Adlestrop.

A few years ago I got into reading Edwardian and Georgian poets and was especially struck by the work of Thomas. He is sometimes classed as a war poet, although few of his poems are explicitly about WWI. (He just happened to die in it.) Anyway, Adlestrop is his most anthologized poem.

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 Addlestrop -- only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycock dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that moment a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Deceptively slight, the poem depicts the narrator’s momentary awareness of nature from a briefly stopped train. More than that, though, it suggests the movement outward of the his consciousness, as if the moment were expanding -- placing the memory and the moment into the broader context of the landscape.

The first two stanzas suggest a hesitant verbalization of impressionistic sensations: “The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.” The hesitancy here is skillfully accomplished by initial stresses that complicate the meter. There are also forced caesuras after “Yes,” “the name” and “Unwontedly.” But the narrator’s mind moves beyond this fragmentation, turning on the actual word “name." A name, of course, is what has been humanly superimposed upon the natural landscape.

In the last two stanzas the narrator’s awareness begins to move beyond this conventional human-imposed ways of perceiving place and then gently back into convention. In stanza three, the verse becomes more regularly iambic and lyrical: “And willows, and willow-herb, and grass/ And meadowsweet, and haycock dry."

More interesting, though, is the use of bird songs to move the speaker’s focus outward in rapid stages. A single singing blackbird attracts the poet’s attention, which is then transferred to the surrounding birds, and then to still more distant bird songs. This tripartite expansion is accomplished with economy in three short clauses: “close by, and round him, mistier." These three clauses catch in meter and meaning the quiet breathlessness with which the narrator’s perception is widening. And then, in the next line, gently constricting again.

This subtle constriction saves the poem from making any full claims of transcendence, for the last line reintroduces the human place names that the expanded consciousness had sought to efface. Nevertheless, there is a sense that Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire enter the poem here as much for sound (or song) quality as for their locational value. “Mistier” and “Gloucestershire” are by far the softest rhymes in the poem, creating something more of an echo than a rhyme. One does feel, too, that some slight change has taken place within the narrator, a feeling reinforced by the poem’s first word, “Yes," which affirms the significance of the moment in the poet’s mind.

I always associate this poem (and the line “close by, and round him, mistier") with Robert Frost's For once, then, something.

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