Adlestrop

As unscheduled stops go, this is surely one of the most famous in English literature. To judge from the poem of the same name, Edward Thomas was expecting his train on June 23rd 1914  to steam straight through such backwater stations in rural Gloucestershire on its way to Worcester and the Welsh border.

 For some reason this one came to a halt. “Unwontedly” was the poet’s choice of word. The engine hissed and waited in the heat of the afternoon. Nobody was coming or going. Somewhere a man cleared his throat. Thomas’s sharp country eye took in the trees and grasses; also the strange, almost comical word on the platform’s nameplate. A blackbird piped up, and then all the birds of the county and their Oxfordshire neighbours seemed to be joining in.

 Adlestrop Station
(© Copyright Ben Brooksbank and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

 It’s a peace poem if ever there was one, the more so since the train journey was made so close to the time when its author was to be recruited to the ranks of war poetry by the conflict of the age. On this particular day he was travelling up to join his fellow members of the Dymock Group of poets in Herefordshire.  Four days later Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was  assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. In a matter of weeks Britain had, in the later words of Prime Minister Lloyd George, “stumbled and staggered into war”. 

 Thomas himself was to join the army as a volunteer, his pacificist inclinations overcome by the rightness of the cause and the depth of his devotion to the English countryside. He would die on the first day of the Battle of Arras on April 9th 1917, three weeks before the poem’s publication in the New Statesman.

  One hundred years after his glimpse of Adlestrop, the sixteen-line composition bearing the station’s name had become so famous that a special centenary train repeated the journey, complete with halt, and hundreds of enthusiasts gathered to hear the actor Robert Hardy recite its four verses.  

 For various reasons the piece has become a member of that strange and unpredictable genre, the celebrity poem. It is among the most anthologised and learned-by-heart in the English language. It has so transcended its point of origin that eastbound motorists on the A436 from Stow-on-the-Wold can sense an unexpected familiarity as the name flashes by on a signpost. 

Motorists can sense an unexpected familiarity as the name flashes by on a signpost. 

  Mention of the place quickens the appetite for nostalgia, as if some essential past Englishness has been lodged in its quaintly robust syllables. And while it may call back to view a vanished time, its observations are sensuous and specific enough to let readers feel it is their own eyes and ears which are discovering the scene and reporting their findings. In this respect, Thomas’s skill was, and remains, that of touching ephemera with permanence. 

 Impossible not to dwell on the war. That afternoon, as the train passed through the heart of England on what is now called the Cotswold Line, no-one knew quite how horrific the destruction and death toll would be over the next four years; how countryside such as this would become empty of young men, its villages full of their gravestones.

 Armed with this knowledge, we cannot help but see that moment as something made even more precious by its imminent passing; a thing as fragile an eyeball. Retrospective prescience may be a suspect skill, but it adds a heavy freight to Thomas’ recording of the view from that unexpected station. This becomes a world in suspension, a process temporarily stalled, like his train. Like his own life too, as he contemplated the change of profession from critic to soldier. Both as the title of a poem and the name of a place, the sound of Adlestrop is made precious by the knowledge of what happened next.

Adlestrop seems a place both larger and less tangible than the streets and houses.

 Visitors to the village acknowledge that they are coming to a place composed of something larger and less tangible than the streets and houses, the Post Office and the church; a mood, a sense, perhaps a condition. Mrs. Jinnie Holt, a longstanding village resident, agrees that you can detect something of that mission from the look of the people who have come because of the poem. She makes them sound a little like pilgrims, hushed and reverend, but dogged too.

 Thomas would have recognised the description since he had been a self-styled literary pilgrim, travelling the length and breadth of England to evaluate the nation’s great poets in their respective habitats: Blake in London, Hardy in Wessex, Wordsworth in the North, and so on. 

 When I first went there in the late 1990s, I had no idea what I might find. Like others before and since, I supposed I might see the remnants of the station itself, elegantly decomposing into its rural setting; the kind of place which the famous railway lover John Betjeman loved to haunt and eulogise. It was no such thing. In fact it was nothing at all. Just a vista of smooth straight rail with a distant curve, midway between the still-functioning stations of Kingham to the south and Moreton-in-Marsh to the north.

 Tantalisingly, Station House is still there today, although the GWR sign which once stood at the mouth of the drive is long gone. The place is now home to Larkswold, which describes itself as a crafting destination. Its aim: “to bring the sense of rejuvenation that comes from being in a beautiful, natural environment with warm, genuine people.” 

Adlestrop Station today
The station at Adlestrop and platforms are completely gone.

 As for the old station’s platforms, they were removed many years ago because of the Thomas tourists who had been gathering there, dangerously close to the diesels flying by at modern speeds. Today there is no public access to the trackside ground on which the station stood.

 This knowledge I got from Ralph Price, a lifelong resident of Adlestrop. Both his father and grandfather worked at the station, and he remains bemused by British Rail’s apparent indifference to the feelings of the villagers when the buildings were demolished. It was, he says, as if they didn’t want there to be any memory of the place. 

 In the field of railway nostalgia the word Beeching is hardly less potent than Adlestrop. It was he, Dr. Richard Beeching who, as chairman of British Rail in the 1960s, had produced a report advocating the removal of 4,000 miles of track, about a quarter of the network’s total. One third of the 7,000 stations were earmarked for closure. Adlestrop was among the condemned. A little later the renowned music duo Flanders and Swann came up with a lyric of gentle outrage, composed almost entirely of the names of the fallen.

Writer Alan Franks with photographer Ruth Gledhill in the bus stop at Adlestrop, where one of the surviving station signs can still be seen.

 At least one of the station signs did survive and can now be seen in the village bus shelter. Its presence there is both incongruous and strangely reassuring. As to the other sign, its disappearance remained a source of controversy for years. One version of its fate was that it had been sent to an Oxfordshire museum, and then destroyed. There have also been rumours of sightings closer to the village, rather as if it is a revenant seeking out its old location. None of these has been confirmed. 

 In the 1999 book Adlestrop Revisited, its compilerAnne Harvey devotes a small section to “The Search for the Other Nameboard”, which leans towards the conclusion that in the summer of 1970 or 1971 caretakers working at an Oxford college had cleared and burned a pile of supposed junk, including the sign.

 As the author Sean Street wrote in the same volume, there is no evidence that Thomas wanted to go back and explore the place behind the name. “Nevertheless,” says Street, “ his poem has changed the village’s relationship with the world. Poems of place are events in themselves, and the fact of their existence, of our knowing them, means that we are changed in our view of their subject, whatever it may be. The image of the place is filtered through the perception that originally caught the essence in words.”

 An irony of the poet’s association with Adlestrop is that he never set foot there. Nor did the village form part of his view from the train window, being almost a mile from the station. As he says, what he saw was “only the name.”

The beautiful church of St. Mary Magdalene

 Although this is Cotswold country, Adlestrop inhabits a different England, a different world, from that of the so-called Chipping Norton set of influential media, political and show-business figures. It has a population of just seventy-two. There is no pub. The beautiful church of St. Mary Magdalene, with its thirteenth century chancel arch, has congregations often numbered in the low teens. Much of the family shopping is done in the town of Stow, four miles away. Unlike some of its neighbouring villages this is not a place of London weekenders, barn conversions and recording studios.  

with its thirteenth century chancel arch.

 However, there is a beautifully restored post office and village shop which has largely reinvented itself during the pandemic to become a thriving arts-and-crafts outlet. One of the books on sale here is Jane Austen and Adlestrop, an absorbing and exhaustively researched account by Victoria Huxley of the novelist’s connections with the village.

 In 1801, she writes, a few years after Austen’s first visit, a census showed the population to be 225, more than three times its present size. What brought her here on at least three occasions was the presence of the aristocratic Leigh family, of which her mother Cassandra was a scion. Jane kept in touch  by letter with her cousins at the magnificent Adlestrop House, across the way from the church. Almost certainly, says Huxley, this home was at least partially the model for such fictional residences as Thornton Lacey in Mansfield Park. Equally, Austen’s observations of rural husbandry and estate management in her cousins’ community were to influence the portrayals of such as her Mr. Knightley in Emma or her Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

 Thomas’ connection with the place, though tangential, was explicit. It was also part of a momentous personal journey, involving the most influential of his fellow members of the Dymock group, the American poet Robert Frost. Without him, Adlestrop and the other 150-odd poems of Thomas’s final two years would never have come to be written. 

 For all his talent and industry, his life was in a dark place. He was bound on a wheel of what he considered hack literary work. This was a harsh and mistaken judgement, but he held it with his usual intensity. He was struggling with the state of marriage, fatherhood, overwork, and bore all the signs of what would today be identified as acute depression.

 He had reviewed Frost’s poetry favourably. The American was in turn impressed by Thomas’s literary skill and told him that he was writing poetry already. This was as perceptive as it was radical. Thomas, he said, was producing prose which, without knowing it, had qualities of lyricism, rhythm and imagery normally found in poetry. The essence of Frost’s advice was blunt: chop the lines up.

 Of course there was more to it than that, but if you look at the earliest poems in his immensely creative last years, you find that he has followed Frost’s advice so closely that you could almost make the writing revert to prose by removing the line-breaks.

 Although the same cannot be said for Adlestrop, with its quietly rigorous crafting, its origins are prosaic. “Then we stopped at Adlestrop,” he had written of the train journey in his field notebook “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.”

 Such has been the fascination of the poem that enthusiasts have long debated the details of the journey. Was it really an express? The only timetabled express that June day in 1914 would have left London too late to reach Adlestrop at that time. In the view of his biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Thomas probably converted a scheduled halt on a stopping train to the unexpected one on an imagined express.

 As the critic John Carey has noted: “Thomas’s voice is not only distinctive, it is elusive, like a persistent regretful note heard at the edge of hearing.” The poet’s cadences are “the sound of a mind communing with itself”.

 When communing with Frost on their long and frequent country walks, Thomas had no idea that his dilemma about enlisting would inspire the American’s own best-known poem, The Road Not Taken. 

 For Matthew Hollis, author of Now All Roads Lead to France about the last years of the poet’s life, it is not the pinpointing of any particular episode or event that stirs Adlestrop to life. Rather, it is “something about the wordlessness of thought and memory, the power of recall, the notion that the senses are capable of remembrance, and that the mind can overcome things lost or misplaced to travel across space or time.”

 For years after his death at Arras, the received version was that Second Lieutenant Thomas of the Royal Garrison Artillery had been killed by the concussive blast of a shell passing inches from him as he stood to light his pipe. This image, homely and heroic, the body undamaged, may have been some solace to his distraught widow Helen. 

Candles at Adlestrop – the notion that the senses are capable of remembrance.

 The truth was less poetic, less marbled, and Thomas himself would probably have seen the official line as an unwarranted manipulation of memory. After the (second) war a letter from his commanding officer Franklin Lushington, written in 1936, was found in an American archive. Thomas’s death, it said, was the result of having been “shot clean through the chest”. 

 While the inscription on Westminster Abbey’s commemorative stone to sixteen war poets is of Wilfred Owen’s declaration that “the Poetry is in the Pity,” Thomas continues to assert through his work that the poetry is also in the place. None more entrenched than Adlestrop.

Adlestrop
Edward Thomas - 1878-1917




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.

                                          

Waiting Room

I wouldn’t be saying this if you were here;
You’d probably talk again about the sight
Of terns alighting and assembling there
Out on the point, compare your imminent flight
To their long navigation of the night;
Had you not finally lived yourself to a standstill,
Did we not now gather at the white,
The hilarious, scribbled white of your coffin, and mill
Like gulls arriving hungry at the landfill.

For a year or so, I suppose, soon after your lungs
And liver had found themselves on the calling-round
Of the cancer, and your legs had just begun
Their own campaign against the gaining ground
Of gravity, you raged and railed and found
A fallen forest branch from which you pared
That staff, became a mad Moses bound
For the mountain’s shrouded summit, where
You’d cut a deal the rest of us could share.

Failing to scale the heights required to trade
At such a level, you turned your eyes from the peak,
Then cussed your way to us back down the unmade
Road. No more prophet vowing to break
The timbers in the door of divinity and leak
The contents to the waiting room below;
Instead, a softer strategy to sneak
Round into that other place through the slow
Decomposition of the self from stern to bow.

And so we watched – there was no other choice –
And waited while you acted the tactic out:
The rough whisper took residence in your voice,
Making a confidence from an intended shout.
Your once big bones now found themselves without
The swagger of their cladding, ribbing the air
Like the beams of a sand-locked hulk about
To dissappear below the land. And there,
In your expanded eyes, the knowing stare

Of plain audacity. We reminisced
About your battle thirty years before,
And how it was you very nearly pissed
Your whole life down the wall, and how the war
With alcohol went twenty years or more;
It took you with its flame-hands by the neck,
This strange alliance of flood and fire which poured
Only to parch, and floated only to wreck,
And laid you out on your own self’s lowest deck.						 							 		
Rising back from that, you seemed to say,
Made any other after-lives a breeze.
On the Sunday, towards the middle of the day,
You muttered something about the need to seize
The fire, the one which eradicates all these
Stains of coloured glass from the white radiance.
We listened hard but missed the rest; the trees
Leaned over towards us in a chance
Gust of wind that caused the leaves to dance

Briefly against the glass, and freeze. Eventually,
We heard a breath go looping in but then
Stopping, like a pulled thread snagging. We
Waited for the motion to start again
In just the way it always had done when
Nudged along by your large insistent heart.
We all exhaled but you. I heard Amen.
I think I felt impressed by the sheer art
Of bringing off your most demanding part.

Here we stand in what you called this squalid
Squatted property, this illusory state
Of stone and scalding tears and too un-solid
Flesh while you, presumably, went straight
Into the proper light of your real estate,
And are even now regaling Jung
With evidence of his rightness, and your great
Role in the triumph of Spiritus Contra Spiritum,
Your staring out the blaze to kingdom come.

Off into the heat your body goes,
Flowers and all. The motored curtain draws.
Silence again, like just before your shows.
And then this sound, the first smacks of applause.
It grows and swells and spreads and turns to roars.
Believe me, this was wholly unrehearsed.
And next the calls for more, and now encores,			
While you, so bashful now, have gone head-first			
To the fire for which you really had such thirst.

What were we crying for, in the absence
Of one last, positively final bow?
Were we expecting you to recondense
Your form from dust to demonstrate how
It’s done, and smile, and say “That’s all for now.” ?		
Or were we calling for the more we find,
Or hope to find, beyond the immediate brow,
Along the interior way that has still to wind?
Or did we just wail at being left behind?

I might be back in the room from which you passed,
Sheet-anchored to the bed, proudly foundering.
Summer leaves eavesdrop against the glass,
Taking inventory of the various things
Piled here by memory: plastic-armoured kings,
High-hung velvet drapes of mauve and mange,
Magic, self-surrender, shadows, wings.
The sound of the neighbouring room comes into range.
We hear the noise of nothing, and find it strange.

Common Ground

COMMON GROUND

by Alan Franks

When you see the spinneys and the rides
And deer descended from King Charles’ own,
And London’s towers so near such countryside,
You might detect some bounty from the throne.
 
You’d not be wholly wrong; Charles loved the chase,
Hence the presence of this timeless herd.
He also promised access to the place,
And though he lost his head he kept his word.

Charles loved the chase, Hence the presence of this timeless herd.
Yet this is England, whose contested ground
Inflates men’s heads with rage until they burst.
In scraps between the common and the crowned
We tend to owe the second less than the first.
 
In seventeen fifty-eight it happened here.
John Lewis was a brewer from Petersham,
Defying King George’s daughter Amelia
Who closed the gates to all except her chums.
 
Lewis – unheard of – took the Crown to court
And based his case on existing rights of way.
Since the justice harboured similar thoughts,
Lewis it was who carried the public day. 
‘And based his case on existing rights of way.’ The extraordinary beauty of the willows at Beverley Brook, at the start of the Tamsin Trail near Roehampton Gate.
For all we know, he visits Henry’s mound,
Or Pembroke Lodge’s terrace, for a tea,
Reflecting on the claims of common ground
And staring fondly at infinity.
 
Let’s praise this warden of our free estate,
Who lost his wealth but saved this jewel for you.
Let’s hope that Peter, manning the final gate,
Recognised the brewer and let him through.
Landscape in Richmond Park near Roehmampton Gate
‘Yet this is England, whose contested ground Inflates men’s heads with rage until they burst.’

(Common Ground was runner-up in Poems in the Park competition, 2011. Judges: Dame Jacqueline Wilson and Sir Trevor McDonald.)

Water

Water, by Alan Franks

Winner of the Southport International Poetry Competition

I wonder when the plain taste of this water

Will pass for the last time, not to repeat itself,

And the glass tumbler will finally leave

My lips unparted by its heavy rim.

 

Forty years since he went without a word,

Collapsing in a startled stranger’s arms,

The appearance of comedy played out on a platform

Of the station in a northern conference town.

 

I wonder when I will fold away the letter,

The one he must have sent that autumn morning

And which arrived the day after I heard

From the modern but still inadequate headmaster.

 

Forty days of shock, said my mother’s doctor,

Take a couple of these last thing at night.

I wonder when the plain taste of this water

Will pass for the last time, not to repeat itself.

 

Drinking and drying have their own convergence,

Making current shapes which shed their forms.

At every drought the spires of rubble show

From the small town which the reservoir overran.

 

I wonder when the uncovering of sadness

Will break its habit of bringing into range

A shallow dish of something slurping sideways

And the clunk of cutlery on refectory wood.

 

Time out of town still wears its blameless face

As sheep sharpen the crescent blade of the hill

And headwaters muster underneath the ground

And streams shift slowly into stone.

 

In the pavement puddle almost as thin

As the skin on a cup of tea the petrol rainbow

Is standing at my shoulder while the wobbly

Moonface waits and waits to recompose.

 

Salt and woodgrain, rain again and guttering,

Trees divesting, drain leaf litanies.

I wonder when the plain taste of this water

Will pass for the last time, not to repeat itself.

 

The Manor

The Manor by Alan Franks

Winner of the Wilfred Owen Association Poetry Competition, 2014

It’s said the old manor was tinder-dry that summer,
With heat holding the corners of the air
So hard above the overgrown parterre
And tangled banks, it skewed the view with simmering.
Through the long, prone afternoons the clicking
Of expanding pans and pails was heard.
The silence, through exhaustion, of the birds
Amplified the timbers’ death-watch ticking.

Down the long perspectives of the passages
High-born souls nursed half-remembered grievances,
Strained to scan the lie of old allegiances
Forged in the fierce madness of intermarriage.
By the har-har, past the kitchen garden,
A single pistol shot, the day destroyed.
Fired by some strange disaffected boy
Through the heart of the unsuspecting warden.

The echo cracked the ceiling of the sky,
Which set a-shiver the chambered air indoors
And sent a draught down to the service corridors
Where restless household staff were standing by.
The Dowager, having dreamed herself to royalty,
Was authorising death-writs by the dozen,
Signing off some dim and distant cousins
Whose in-laws allegedly faltered in their loyalty.

Students of the subsequent disaster –
Themselves at odds through public vanity –
Unite in this belief; a vast insanity
Must have underlain such wanton slaughter.
Some pinned the blame on homo aristocratus,
That classy villain known for his receding
Chin worn down by centuries of inbreeding
To make him look deceptively innocuous.

This much is known; the building blazed and blazed
Until the walls were air and air was flame
And only the foundation shapes remained
As groundplan templates when successors raised
Their fresh construction. In the briefly binding
Calm that came, the estate’s refurbished sky
Grew great with chastened migrant birds so high
You couldn’t see them dropping their fresh kindling.



The Engaging of Professionals

The Engaging of Professionals by Alan Franks

Winner of the 2006 Plough Poetry Prize; judge, Ian McMillan

Right from our early, amateur rounds,
Back before we’d even drawn
Each other’s blood, let alone gone down

And taken a count, even then we swung
Ourselves around this very ring
Like heavy bags set loose for slanging,

All uncultured shoulder shots,
Elbow half-blocked grazing knocks,
Eventually learning how to spot

Some opening in the free-for-all,
Then haul up and release free-fall
The barely padded wrecking ball

Of us. As for the referee,
We took one look and saw that he
Had recognised in you and me

A pair who had no time for laws.
He ducked out through the ropes. The scores,
He said, were level, and what’s more,

Would always be. He left us to
The roars of ringside relatives who
Then bawled for me or bawled for you

And flung the chairs about whenever
One of us was taking heavy
Blows, and winced to see the leathering

Of once familiar faces. One
Well-meaning aunt declared the fun
Was over, time to cut and run.

We told them to go hang themselves
And carried on so that the welts
And weals and bruises from the belts,

Which only we two had the skill,
The dedication and the will
To trade, grew even greater till

We’d lost each other’s eyes behind
The swollen brows which still confine
Them deep as love and twice as blind.

The Lift

The Lift by Alan Franks

Winner of the Wigtown Poetry Prize 2006. Judge, Don Paterson

And so once again I’m in the ancient lift
That still succeeds in rising by force of habit
Here up the shaft in the heart of the mansion block.
Easy to think it had died in the intervening time
By lodging lethally in its throat of masonry,
Or else simply expired with the futility of failed missions
And all the later ascents into unachieved memories.
Because of the carpeting, always so fat with underuse,
And the solid, unhurried architecture,
The world beyond remains unaware of just
How loud the trellis splashes back
And falls into itself like a pile of metal mattresses,
Also just how great the gap can be 
Between the button being pressed
And the clunk with which the cage begins its upward shunt.
In this gap, before the flux, on days like this,
With such a distance still to rise to you
And the deferred eternity of your kisses,
The universe breathes in and out a dozen times,
Expanding its boundaries, then vanishing in its core.
The current groans like a shocked heart
And down in the base of the well are gathering
The ghost-worms of Edwardian electricity.
Up it goes, slow mechanical mercury rising in its capillary.
A muffled call comes from a town church bell
And a sharper little chime from the first floor flat.
On the second a phone is ringing untended
In the empty import-export premises.
A dog is yapping through the ceiling, above which
The French tutor, Madame Gourcuff, is shouting at her lover,
Above which the widowed diplomat dictates his memoirs,
Above which above which above which
Until the storeys end and I am once again
Aware of the thinning air, the diminishing roofs,
The broadening view, the beginnings of fields,
The curvature of the horizon, the banging of my heart
At the bars of its free hanging cage.

The Old Tunes

 

 

The Old Tunes by Alan Franks

Winner of the Petra Kenney Award, 2003. Judge, Andrew Motion

I left the east coast waves stacked up behind
The running line of dunes.
My great, or triple-great grandfathers’ tunes
Came reaching and breaching into my mind.
The sea lay long and deep over the dead
Settlements and the spent high-water marks.
To the inland side of this shallow bank
Of sand and marram-grass the pathway led
Beside enormous fields, beneath the lark-
Hung sky - or were they just some humdrum shanks  -
 
Towards the town. The air was high with heat,
The slack-pools on the warren
Floor and scrabbling plants gave out a foreign
Smell. The farms rehearsing for defeat
Were littered with the decomposing Fords
Of every generation, all the way
To 60s models with Farina fins,
Sans everything, and so completely gnawed
By rust and salty wind, their bodies lay
In flaky-thin and brown, untouchable skin,
 
And near them, in a scatter by the byre,
The differential gears
And teeth and body parts of earlier years,
Beyond all scavenging. Snagged on telephone wire
While rising on a sudden upward gust,
A piece of black and shining polythene
Was flapping like an outraged crow. Towards
The centre of the town the summer dust
Dispersed, a fairground shimmered on the Queens
Parade. The station’s destination board
 
Displayed a row of names that gradually lost
The endings of the right
Side of the map. The carriage, to my slight
Surprise, had filled with old boys from the coast
And round about, the greats and triple-greats,
With fiddle cases and melodeons,
And black-gapped mouths with pipe tobacco breath,
Hot suits of tweed in less than Sunday states.
The stud-holed belt that let the window down
Was like the ones that held them at the girth.
 
Back and back they went, beyond the time
I’d any thoughts about -
Not exactly carbons fainting out
But more a run of ever-loosening rhymes
So that the furthest one had hardly any
Echoes of the nearest; faces freed
By distance. Someone bowed a simple line
And in a blink his sound was one of many
As the rest surrounded him, the reeds,
The button-keyed accordion, the fine-
 
Tuned dulcimer, the pipe-and-tabor, all
Taking up the strain
And passing round the notes again, again
Until they wore it, sea-like, to a ball.
They played a Schottisch and a Waltz Vienna.
One of them, a father of mine for sure,
Could perfect-pitch his fretless mandolin.
Beyond this sound I heard a drop and then a
Drone of perished bellows, and once more
Could sense the early players’ presence in
 
The backroom of a period. The sound
Went dim, and as the land
Passed flatly by - the cuts, the levels and
The drains - and as the elongated mounds
Came up to meet the track or else flew out
Across the ground, they could have been the beds
Of severed lines, or earth-made river walls
Without much purpose in this almost drought,
Or causeways going where a trade road led,
Or Roman agger-banks, or else the small
 
Remaining strides of marching boundary dyke
For kingdoms lost below
The counties. Here the train began to slow
And climb into another country. Clouds like
Coals were gathering on a rim of hills.
The plain behind us silvered into dream.
A city simmered close. A fairground scene
Of railtracks in the sky was soon distilled
To chemical plant which piped and wound and steamed
As if that other state had never been. 

Matthew Arnold and ‘On Dover Beach’

In the room of his honeymoon hotel in Dover, Matthew Arnold beckons his young wife to come to the window and share the view. In doing so, he is also summoning the reader to look out across the Straits and share a prospect that is both alluring and daunting. Though we may see, flickeringly, the French coast for which they will soon be heading, the thought is compromised by the sound of the sea’s broken waves pulling down on the shingle.

To his keen but apprehensive ear, this is not just the routine noise of an outgoing tide but also the ebbing of a sea of faith. He says as much. The year was 1851, and Arnold was twenty-eight. Although Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species would not be published until the end of the decade, and although the term “agnosticism” had yet to be coined by Thomas Huxley, the foundations of conventional belief were coming under fierce scrutiny.

Strauss argued that the reported miracles of Christ were no more than myths.

The young German philosopher David Strauss had already published an incendiary book, Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Christ), putting forward the then heretical notion that the Jesus of The Bible was not a true and historical presentation, but rather a person transformed by the religious consciousness of Christians. His reported miracles, Strauss argued, were no more than myths; this at a time of scholarly controversy over how the miraculous, even supernatural, events of the New Testament were to be reconciled with the rationalism of Enlightenment thought.

In 1846, when Strauss’s book was translated into English by Marian Evans, better known as the novelist George Eliot, the Earl of Shaftesbury damned it as “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell”. For its adherents, such publicity was heaven-sent.

Young men of Arnold’s generation and background now found themselves with the dilemma of rejecting what they saw as creationist dogma, or paying lip service to it in order to safeguard their own professional prospects. This was a moral and intellectual challenge which would influence the composition of his best-known prose work, Culture and Anarchy nearly twenty years later.

The world was turning, aspirations were changing.

 The world was turning modern at an alarming rate, and alongside it were evolving the aspirations and anxieties of the still-young. Some critics have chosen to call On Dover Beach the first modern poem on account of its strikingly post-Romantic voice and its early articulation of what came to be known as Victorian Pessimism. 

Seven years before the Arnolds came here, the train lines had already reached Dover when the South Eastern Railway Company built a track from London via Folkestone. By the time the poem was published, seven years after the couple’s visit, the London, Chatham and Dover Railway Company was running direct trains from the capital to link with their own steamers. With more than ten thousand inhabitants, the town was already a quarter of its present size.  

The Roman lighthouse still stands atop the cliff in Dover.

It happens that in the very year of the honeymoon, the engineers of the Submarine Telegraph Company, based a few hundred yards away, were laying their pioneering Dover-to-Calais cable, three centimetres wide and plated in armour. As the author of a poem which dwells upon security and the fear of its loss, Arnold and his contemporaries were pondering hard, two centuries before the Brexit Epoch, on the pros and cons of ever closer union with Europe.

The appearance of the place in the intervening 170 years has of course changed dramatically, never mind the continued presence of the castle on its high promontory to the east of the town this past millennium, and the lighthouse built by the occupying Romans in AD43. As to the harbour itself when the newly-wed Arnolds were here, there was no Eastern Arm or Southern Breakwater, and the Admiralty Pier was a fraction of its later length. 

The daily coming and going of ferries.

It is hard to imagine what he and his contemporaries would make of the endless stream of lorries converging on the harbour in the twenty-first century– ten thousand of them each day; two million cars a year, ten million passengers; seventy-five thousand coaches, never mind the trains that shoot through the tunnels two hundred and fifty feet below. With the daily coming and going of sixty huge ferries, the view is in a permanent state of shift, like a ground-level sky full of countermarching clouds.

Back in the eighteenth century there had aleady been talk of building a tunnel, until the idea was abandoned for fear of invasion. Proximity, whether marital or geographical, carried a caution.

In Arnold’s day, the pier was a fraction of the length it is today.

The final lines of Arnold’s poem, with their ignorant armies clashing by night, bear a grim ring of prescience as it was just two years later that Britain would become embroiled in the Crimean war. This is widely acknowledged as the first modern military conflict on account of the industrial scale of its weapons manufacture. It was also notorious for the eventual obscurity of its causes.

Three years earlier, in a passage of prose whose imagery prefigures the poem, he had written of “a wave of more than American vulgarity, moral, intellectual and social, preparing to break over us.”

Seen in such a light, this bottom right-hand corner of an island kingdom becomes a vivid location of two-way traffic, while remaining as much a redoubt for those who want to stay as a jumping-off point for those who want to leave.

The tunnels in the chalk beneath the castle were at the heart of the Allied evacuation in 1940.

Not for nothing is that formidably placed castle known as the Key to England. The tunnels in the chalk beneath it, hand-hewn during the Napoleonic wars, were at the heart of Operation Dynamo for the daring evacuation of some 350,000 Allied servicemen from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. The remarkable labyrinth was even extended to become a hospital and triage point for the war’s returning wounded. I believe my own father, a paratrooper, was one such, in transit to the military hospital at Chartham, where one of the nurses was later to become my mother. 

It’s no wonder that such an island nation should often attract fortress imagery. This can be heard today in the often bitter debates over how to respond to the increasing numbers – some say “invasions” – of  would-be migrants making the perilous channel crossing in ill-suited craft. In 2020 this  reached a total of 8,000, the highest yet, some of them paying as much as 4,000 pounds for the passage. Rather than trying to land in Dover itself, many are diverted to the less populated flatlands of the Dungeness headland, thirty miles down the coast. 

Arnold had a vision of ‘ignorant armies’ that clash by night.

It has been, to say the least, a hot potato for years, and shows no sign of cooling, with police struggling to avert clashes between radical demonstrators from both ends of the political spectrum. Too closely for comfort, these scenes can come to resemble Arnold’s bleak vision of ignorant armies clashing by night. 

The place has been embattled for millennia. Long before the arrival of the Normans in 1066, German tribes were crossing the North Sea to settle in Dofras, as it was then called, one of the main settlements in the new Kingdom of Kent. Just the other day (in 1992), a 3,000-year-old Bronze Age boat was unearthed by construction workers on the A20 road link between Dover and Folkestone.  

Dover: still a place today to spend time with and remember friends.

Arnold’s verse was invariably crafted with formal skill and heartfelt persuasiveness, but when it came to comparisons between himself and his older contemporaries Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, he tended to be ranked third among equals. A regular criticism was that, though more than adept, he lacked the vigorous humanity of which the other two were capable. Yet if you read his Thyrsis, admittedly published several years after On Dover Beach, you find a voice equal to theirs in the articulation of grief and loss. 

It is a long elegy on the death of his close friend and contemporary, the poet Arthur Hugh Clough, and it has an intensity and desolation comparable to parts of Tennyson’s colossal In Memoriam, which was also written to mourn and celebrate a dear companion and poet, Arthur Henry Hallam. This was published in 1850, the year before the Arnolds’ wedding.    

Matthew’s courtship of Frances Lucy had been passionate, but also anxious. Although he had just embarked on what would be a long career as a schools inspector, he was fretting over whether he would be able to meet the financial demands of married life. In particular he feared he would not live up to the expectations of his baronet father-in-law Sir William Wightman, Justice of the Queen’s Bench.

Matthew Arnold feared he would not live up to the baronial expectations of his father-in-law.

The poem’s expressions of  anxiety at what he hears and sees, the appearance of “the naked shingles of the world,” have outlasted the moment of their utterance with dramatic immediacy, just as Sophocles’s had done. Arnold’s response  is gloriously plain against a backdrop of such turbulence: “Ah, love, let us be true to one another.”  

Being Matthew Arnold carried its burdens. He was after all the eldest son of a great Rugby headmaster whose ideals of moral ardour,  Christian faith and classical scholarship were influencing  public schools and hence reforming the production of young English gentlemen in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Moreover, Matthew had been a pupil at the school; as was Thomas Hughes, who went on to write the technically fictitious but highly documentary Tom Brown’s Schooldays, published in 1867, in which Dr. Thomas Arnold appears, by name, the omnipotent ruler in a world of his own creation. As Lytton Strachey later wrote in Eminent Victorians, the head had founded a theocracy and treated the Rugby boys as Jehovah had treated the Chosen People.

An alternative view from the beach at dusk at Dover. Did Arnold have wilder landscapes in mind?

When he died suddenly on the eve of his forty-seventh birthday, Matthew was twenty, his brother Tom a year younger, and William fourteen. Family expectations were undiminished, and eventually fulfilled, with Tom and William becoming respectively a professor of literature and a colonial administrator. Matthew taught for a short while at Rugby, already aware that his true calling was poetry. 

One of his biographers, Parc Hoonan, suggests that when the poet hears “the eternal note of sadness” from the beach, he might have had the wilder landscapes of the north in his eye and ear. Matthew had recently been in the Lake District, where the family had a house, Fox How, near Ambleside. They knew the Wordsworths, and Matthew was a great admirer of William’s work. 

He had been struck by the grandeur of the hills, and the lakes which they cradled. “Vast edges drear,” says Hoonan, might well have been a form of words conjured in him by the dramatic screes running almost sheer into Wastwater, and then applied to the sloping shingle here at the country’s bottom edge.

Houses, many of them hotels, at the foot of the iconic white cliffs. Vast edges drear?

Those undertones, indeed undertows, of emptying-out and recession become as active within the poet as they are in the observable world. The sea may have been calm on the evening when Matthew called his wife to the window, but it could turn rough in an instant. Worse, it could assume the role of a highway bearing would-be conquerors, just as it had done so many times before. You had no choice but to look out.

Azure-calm, the sea at Dover can turn rough in an instant.

Much later in his career Arnold was, as he still is, praised for  Culture and Anarchy, in which he argued that the first of these two words denoted knowledge of “the best which has been thought and said in the world”. An irony of its success was that it made its author more eminent for his social and political analysis than for his verse. 

Metrical consistency: the scriptorium at Dover Castle.

 This particular poem is made all the more striking by his apparent willingness to flout certain conventions of the time. English conventions, that is. Here is an opening verse of fourteen lines, a second of six, a third of eight, a fourth of nine. Here too appears to be a bracing disregard for metrical consistency, and a rhyme scheme which is quite possibly making itself up as it goes along. Classicists have countered that it is doing no such things, but rather following patterns of Greek verse, and doing so with care. 

Certainly he is taking liberties with stress and meter. This is no criticism. In fact it is the opposite since he is doing so with the knowledge of the rules he is bending. It hardly matters. The words manage to spill as they will, with the random consistency of breaking waves. In this respect it is a perfect fit with the long drama of the southern English shoreline.

Gibbous moon on Dover Beach
‘The tide is full, the moon lies fair upon the straits.’

                                    

On Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

(Essay by Alan Franks.  Photos by Ruth Gledhill)

Distantly

Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire,
Doesn’t dwell, and never did, in Devon
But Derbyshire, while the Duke of Gloucester lives
In Kensington and seldom sees the Severn.
Edinburgh, as we know, was based in Buckingham
Palace, and, from my limited line of knowledge, there
The Duke of Norfolk has lived for several centuries
In Arundel, West Sussex, rather than Norwich.
Which probably goes to show a lot of things
About the nature of the English toff,
But mainly, when you think you’ve got them placed,
You’re actually a very long way off.