Words

Edward Thomas wrote this before the start of the First World War.  Ivor Gurney’s view was that it said all that needed to be said about the English language.

Out of us all that make rhymes,

Will you choose sometimes –

As the winds use a crack in a wall or a drain,

Their joy or their pain to whistle through –

Choose me, you English words?

 

I know you: you are light as dreams,

Tough as oak, precious as gold, as poppies and corn

Or as an old cloak: sweet as our birds to the ear,

As the burnet rose in the heat of Midsummer:

Strange as the races of dead and unborn:

Strange and sweet equally, and familiar, to the eye,

As the dearest faces that a man knows,

And as lost homes are: but though older far

Than oldest yew – as our hills are, old –

Worn new again and again, young as our streams after rain:

And as dear as the earth which you prove that we love.

 

Make me content with some sweetness

From Wales whose nightingales have no wings –

From Wiltshire and Kent and Herefordshire,

And the villages there – from the names, and the things

No less. Let me sometimes dance with you,

Or climb or stand perchance in ecstacy,

Fixed and free in a rhyme, as poets do.

February Afternoon

Men heard this roar of parleying starlings, saw,
A thousand years ago even as now,
Black rooks with white gulls following the plough
So that the first are last until a caw
Commands that last are first again, – a law
Which was of old when one, like me, dreamed how
A thousand years might dust lie on his brow
Yet thus would birds do between hedge and shaw.
Time swims before me, making as a day
A thousand years, while the broad ploughland oak
Roars mill-like and men strike and bear the stroke
Of war as ever, audacious or resigned,
And God still sits aloft in the array
That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone-blind.

Edward Thomas wrote this in 1916, and was killed a year later, at Arras.  Thomas came to the village in 1913 during his bicycle ride from London to the Quantocks.  He wrote …

“Under elms near Semington the threshing-machine boomed; its unchanging note mingled with a hiss at the addition of each sheaf.  Otherwise the earth was the rooks’, heaven was the larks’, and I rode easily on along the good level road somewhere between the two”.

Adlestrop

Yes.  I remember Semington –
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 Semington – 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.

If you’re familiar with Edward Thomas’ poems, you’ll know that it wasn’t Semington Halt where his train stopped in 1914, but Adlestrop, near Stow.  What a pity!  How wonderful to live in a village so immortalised in such a poem.  No doubt one of the many semi-fast Paddington to Trowbridge expresses did once stop at Semington on such a summer afternoon, but without a poet on board we shall never know about it.

The station and the trains are long gone, of course, their absence speaking to a progress of sorts.  However, the trace of the line remains and the willows, willow-herb and meadowsweet still abound, although haycocks, whether still or moving, do not.  This is not really a December poem, but reminders of Junes past and those to come are surely welcome when winter calls.

Edward Thomas did in fact know of Semington.  In 1913 he was comissioned by his publisher to take a bicycle ride from London to the Quantocks, and to write a book about it.  The book:  “In Pursuit of Spring” was published in April 1914.  In Chapter VI, after leaving Trowbridge, Thomas passes the “Lion and Fiddle” at Hilperton and then writes:

“Under elms near Semington the threshing-machine boomed, its unchanging note mingled with a hiss at the addition of each sheaf.   Otherwise the earth was the rooks’, heaven was the larks’, and I rode easily on along the good level road somewhere in  between the two”.

December 2010