Tag Archives: Edward Thomas

8 May: VE Day, The Cherry Trees.

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

Edward Thomas

This is a war poem. All Edward Thomas’s poems were written with the Great War in the background, here we have loaded words, shedding, dead, followed by the hammer blow, ‘There is none to wed.’ The men were gone to war, as he was going, never to return.

The cherry trees in Thomas’s day would have been like these, with sheep, swine or geese grazing under them. The fruit would have been picked using a wooden ladder, tapering at the top to get between branches, but you could walk between and beneath the trees. The orchard is a fortnight or so before its flowering time, but the ornamental cherry at Saint Mildred’s, Canterbury, was shedding petals this week, strewing the grass.

No weddings this May, due to the corona virus. Edward Thomas could have been writing for us but his wife Helen was an appreciative reader, saying proudly that he found beauty where other people could not see it.

On this VE Day let’s pray for eyes to see the flowers of the field in all their divine glory. Let’s be thankful for all that has been done, these past 75 years, to bring peace to Europe, reconciling former enemies, and over the last 30 years, remedying some of the harm done by the Iron Curtain. Let us pray that peace and understanding will continue growing despite the setbacks of recent times.

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24 April: Two or three days in the year.

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A version of this posting has appeared  on the Will Turnstone blog.

Abel was coming away from the L’Arche Glebe garden when his eye was arrested by the round, tan-coloured husks beneath the hollow yew outside Saint Mildred’s church. They must really be discarded cones, since the yew is a conifer – with no recognisable cone. 

I was half reminded of when Mrs T and I went to see the cowslips near Brogdale, happily growing on the chalk. Another chalk-lover is the beech tree, one I loved to climb as a boy, and a mile or so on from the cowslip field our walk took us through a beech wood. Unlike the above picture from last year, it was a grey day, the path was wet, but we could still appreciate Edward Thomas’s observation in The South Country. By which he meant the South of England; where else could he have recorded this scene?

Then in the early morning the air is still and warm, but so moist that there is a soul of coolness in the heat, and never before were the leaves of the sorrel and wood sanicle and woodruff, and the grey-green foliage and pallid yellow flowers of the large celandine, so fair. The sudden wren’s song is shrewd and sweet and banishes heaviness. The huge chestnut tree is flowering and full of bees. The parsley towers delicately in bloom. The beech boughs are encased in gliding crystal. The nettles, the millions of nettles in a bed, begin to smell of summer. In the calm and sweet air the turtle-doves murmur and the blackbirds sing — as if time were no more — over the mere.

The roads, nearly dry again, are now at their best, cool and yet luminous, and at their edges coloured rosy or golden brown by the sheddings of the beeches, those gloves out of which the leaves have forced their way, pinched and crumpled by the confinement. At the bend of a broad road descending under beeches these parallel lines of ruddy chaff give to two or three days in the year a special and exquisite loveliness, if the weather be alternately wet and bright and the long white roads and virgin beeches are a temptation.

beech husks2

There is never enough traffic on this bridleway to order the husks  into parallel lines, but there they are, colouring the path. The nettles are in evidence ahead; we would discern the white of cow parsley if we were closer, but the pale celandine was not yet in flower here. (The bright, low-growing, lesser celandine is all but finished.)

beech husks1

Close to, the russet husks are indeed cool and luminous. Who would have said that brown could shine?

Thank you Edward Thomas!

And Laudato Si!

(Since this was written, a neighbour told me that the buds were once used for sewing, the points piercing the fabric with relative ease. Some of the husks in the picture still show that point. With a solid bud inside them, the buds would be sharp – for a little while. Poor people always had to work hard and even foraged for sewing needles.)

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Filed under Daily Reflections, Laudato si', Spring, Summer

5 March, Desert VIII: Fear 1

trees-wind-moon

Edward Thomas wrote ‘Out in the dark’ when he knew he was about to leave for the front during the Great War. No wonder fear drummed on his ear. Like Dylan Thomas, who admired him and claimed him as a Welsh poet, he was aware of the creative nature of night, but he was also often downcast.

We have to love the night, the dark, which is safe for the fallow deer, but does not feel safe to Thomas. Always remember that Jesus was afraid that Thursday night in the garden. Feeling fear is no sin or weakness but we must face our fears.

Out in the Dark

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned;

And I and star and wind and deer,
Are in the dark together, — near,
Yet far, — and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

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10 May: Far from home.

daffodils
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
Edward Thomas wrote this poem, IN MEMORIAM (Easter, 1915), before he joined up and went to the front. If Eastertide means what we Christians claim it means, we should read and remember these lines, let them filter down into our hearts, and teach us how we can proclaim the message of the Prince of Peace. Meanwhile, we remember with gratitude those who gave their lives in battle. 
MMB.

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May 4: The Signpost

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THE SIGN-POST by Edward Thomas
THE dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy.
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.
One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what ‘twould be
To be sixty by this same post. “You shall see,”
He laughed—and I had to join his laughter—
“You shall see; but either before or after,
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
‘Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth,—
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring,—
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?
Edward Thomas was another who suffered from depression – At twenty you wished you had never been born. He would walk it off for hours.
Here he has been walking, walking, facing the mouthful of earth that awaits him in death, but now acknowledges the wish to be anywhere talking to … maybe his wife Helen? ‘And with a poor man of any sort, down to a king.’ Whatever Thomas meant by that, the words ‘down to a king’ put me in mind of Philippians which we touched on yesterday. Continuing chapter 2:6-8:
Christ Jesus who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the  form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.
And then there is the story of the walkers to Emmaus being overtaken by one they should have recognised. (Luke  24:13-35) He is there at the crossroads, knowing all too well how each of us has our own cross to bring to the hilltop. And death shall be freely given – Sister Death as Francis put it. Not to be snatched before time! Had Thomas killed himself at twenty, we would have been the poorer without his word painting: The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft. 
Sometimes it is good to stop, stand upright and look around us, even at a falling leaf. After all, Christ himself told us to consider the lilies of the field. And then walk on in his company.

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Filed under Daily Reflections, Easter, Lent, poetry, winter

3 May: Edward Thomas and the swifts.

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HOW AT ONCE

How at once should I know,
When stretched in the harvest blue
I saw the swift’s black bow,
That I would not have that view
Another day
Until next May
Again it is due?

The same year after year—
But with the swift alone.
With other things I but fear
That they will be over and done
Suddenly
And I only see
Them to know them gone.

 

Dear melancholy Edward Thomas had great insight that speaks to our age – a century on from his death. The swifts, those fast-flying birds that truly earn their name, come screaming around our house over the summer, often after a couple of short spring-time visits, broken off when the weather turns too cold for their insect prey to fly.

This terracotta bird flies beside our door; it came from Pieve San Lorenzo, a Tuscan village where brown alpine swifts replaced our black ones, but the ladies who sold it assured me it was their look-alike, the swallow. Now there’s a bird we see less of than we did, and the house martin too. I fear that they will be over and done suddenly, and our children’s children will never have known them, only to know them gone.

I miss the martins that used to live in our street, but my children do not remember their nests. At least we can put up boxes for the sparrows and blue tits and leave the doves and pigeons to nest in peace in our trees. 

And we can watch and pray to discern how we can make our town and country a more welcoming place for these living pest controllers. The first thing is to acknowledge that we are all part of God’s creation, and not throw his gift back at him, but Laudato Si!

 

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April 29: Sussex Folk Through a Poet’s Eyes.

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Edward Thomas, The man that loved this England well,1 wrote about The South Country before he became a poet. Wandering through Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, he recorded what he saw and felt along the way. Here he is in a Sussex village near where the poet Shelley was born; he has just been discussing the romantic poets.

Edward Thomas died this month in 1917, leaving a wife and family.

Note how he values the two villagers, Robert Page and his presumed descendant, as equally worthy of consideration as the poet.

In a churchyard behind I saw the tombstone of one Robert Page, born in the year 1792 here in Sussex, and dead in 1822 — not in the Bay of Spezia1 but in Sussex. He scared the crows, ploughed the clay, fought at Waterloo and lost an arm there, was well pleased with George the Fourth, and hoed the corn until he was dead. That is plain sense, and I wish I could write the life of this exact contemporary of Shelley.

That is quite probably his great granddaughter, black-haired, of ruddy complexion, full lips, large white teeth, black speechless eyes, dressed in a white print dress and stooping in the fresh wind to take clean white linen out of a basket, and then rising straight as a hazel wand, on tiptoe, her head held back and slightly oh one side while she pegs the clothes to the line and praises the weather to a passer-by. She is seventeen, and of such is the kingdom of earth.

And bearing in mind all those saintly women, Agnes, Agatha, Eanswythe, Tydfil, Mildred; we should perhaps affirm that ‘of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ Despite his melancholy, Edward Thomas can lead us to the gate thereof this Eastertide.

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So too could William Blake, who also lived in Sussex. Surely this little engraving shows the cliffs and downs of nearbyBeachy Head?

MMB

1 WH Davies’ description of his friend. The poet Percy Bysse Shelley was born in 1892 and died at the Bay of Spezia in 1822.

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24 December: Edward Thomas at the inn.

A change of voice, a change of pace. Edward Thomas is always worth listening to. This, like all his poetry, was written in the months before his death at the front in 1917. 

THE OWL

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.
Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.”

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9 April: Killed in action.

entering woods.jpg

Edward Thomas died in battle on this day in 1917. He came late to poetry, as did W.H. Davies, who wrote this tribute to his friend. They were great walkers through the countryside, like these friends from L’Arche Kent. May we all walk in peace!

Happy the man whose home is still
In Nature’s green and peaceful ways;
To wake and hear the birds so loud,
That scream for joy to see the sun
Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.

And we have known those days, when we
Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;
When you and I, with thoughtful mind,
Would help a bird to hide her nest,
For fear of other hands less kind.

But thou, my friend, art lying dead:
War, with its hell-born childishness,
Has claimed thy life, with many more:
The man that loved this England well,
And never left it once before.

MMB.

 

 

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8 April: Edward Thomas’ Anniversary

The Cherry Trees

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding,

On the old road where all that passed are dead,

Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding,

This early May morn when there is none to wed. 

The photograph shows an orchard of new cherry trees at Amery Court, Canterbury. They will spend their spring-times protected from ravages of wind, rain, and birds and squirrels by nets rolled out on frames overhead. Few petals will reach the old road, now part of Cycle Route 1 from Dover to Scotland. But the farmer trusts that the expense of planting these trees will be repaid with many a harvest.

Edward Thomas and so many like him trusted that they were putting their lives on the line to help save England and bring about the end of War…

Also tomorrow we remember the Prince of Peace coming into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, not a tank or armoured car. And it is still not too late to pray and strive for Peace, starting by sowing a seed of love and peace in our own hearts.

And may Edward Thomas and all who fell in War, through the mercy of God, rest in Peace. Amen.

MMB

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