Saturday, 27 August 2011

TS Eliot & East Coker; Edward Thomas & Dymock

I've been following with interest the debate over a proposed housing development between the Somerset town of Yeovil and nearby East Coker, waiting for someone to point out that change is central to TS Eliot's vision in the poem he named after the village. He didn't live there, but his ancestors had done, which made the village the perfect setting for a meditation on time and timelessness. An Anglo-Catholic who would have made a marvellous Zen Buddhist, Eliot was much preoccupied with the subject of time, which he talked about in terms of motion and stillness, squeezing whole histories into a few lines. This is how East Coker begins:

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

And a little further on:

Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

Eliot was less interested in the place itself than in the changes wrought by the passage of time on that place. The village itself he knew towards the end of its 'wind breaking the loosened pane' period. After a century of more or less continuous agricultural depression and urban growth had left villages empty and decaying, the motor car brought new people - artists, writers, commuters, Imperial retirees - to renovate houses, campaign for bypasses and object to new development.

This process continues today, with a flow of people to the semi-rural south and a consequent demand for good quality housing. You're not likely to come across many rustics dancing around midnight bonfires... I can't say whether people should be allowed to fulfill their dream of a life in bucolic Somerset or not, but I don't see that TS Eliot has much to do with the argument.

A more genuinely poetic piece of country, and one that doesn't seem to be threatened by anybody, lies around the Gloucestershire village of Dymock. I first explored the area while researching orchards and cidermaking, discovering in the process that Edward Thomas and Robert Frost had lived and worked there shortly - by which I mean weeks - before the outbreak of World War One. Frost was already gaining a reputation by this point, in good measure thanks to Thomas's reviews of his work, while his friend was still writing and researching the generally tedious but occasionally brilliant books of prose that he finally stopped writing when he joined the army.

Frost inspired Thomas, but the war allowed him to stop writing prose, freeing his mind for his brief, prolific career as a poet. In August 1914, the future was not looking especially rosy for Thomas - it rarely did - but he enjoyed his time with Frost, which the pair spent endlessly roaming around the valleys and wooded hills. Thomas's tendency to agonise over the smallest decision led Frost to write his most famous poem, 'The Road Not Taken', which began life as a personal joke but then took off on its own:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could 
To where it bent in the undergrowth

Anyway, you can still wander miles around Dymock, visiting the straggling villages where the poets lived. There is a Poets Walk, which I took last year, although I'm not sure the local farmers had been told of its significance. From what I remember the first part involved navigating through a field of sweetcorn that grew more than head high. Then there were barbed wire fences to negotiate and finally a bull. I think I turned round at that point.

Wonderful to see the new biography of Thomas getting a lot of attention, as he has been badly neglected. At his best, he can give you the shivers...

As the team's head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.

The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker's round hole,
The ploughman said. 'When will they take it away? '
'When the war's over.' So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
'Have you been out? ' 'No.' 'And don't want to, perhaps? '
'If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn't want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more...Have many gone
From here? ' 'Yes.' 'Many lost? ' 'Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.'
'And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.' 'Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.' Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

'As the Team's Head Brass', 1916


  1. Gloucestershire is famously a county of three parts (Cotswolds, Severn Vale, Forest of Dean) - which misses out the lovely neglected bit around Dymock and Newent. In spring wild daffodils crowd the woods around there and there is indeed still a sense of connection to the time of Thomas and Frost, even if visiting the area occasionally involves tunnelling through sweetcorn. Kempley, with its two marvellous churches (one Norman, one Arts and Crafts) is another special remote place nearby.

    Thank you for quoting my favourite Thomas poem, and for your spot-on characterization of the unevenness, but occasional brilliance, of his prose.

  2. Edward Thomas seems like increasingly important character, and I really do have to get on and read his work. Little Toller Books have just recently republished The South Country, another one on the wish list. What little of his poems I have read seem sparse and quiet in atmosphere, which is a good thing, to me.

    Sounds like you did the right thing by turning round. That made me laugh, and as a sometime fisherman who patrols some of the rivers (and adjacent) fields of England, I can sympathise!

  3. Intersting post; marvelous poem, don't know much about Eliot or Dymock to be honest. I have been reading a new biography of Ivor Gurney by Ealanor Rawling; the connection between his poetry and landscape, the centrality of place to his writing and music. Highly recommended.

  4. Thanks for your comments -

    Philip, I wonder whether Newent and Dymock consider themselves more closely connected to Herefordshire (as part of the Three Counties) - they certainly share a long history of cider and perry making...

    Genius, I would recommend The South Country and In Search of Spring, although be prepared to skip large chunks - he was paid by the word and wasn't afraid to quote huge chunks of other people's writing

    Mark - I'll check out the Ivor Gurney book, sounds interesting

  5. I know what you mean about Newent and Dymock.

    Re Thomas's prose, there are a lot of good bits in The Heart of England. For those with less time, Penguin did a very good selection called One Green Field, which is mostly from The Heart of England and The South Country.

    I too will be checking out the biography of Gurney.

  6. As an Antipodean (sorry!), I'd not come across Edward Thomas before reading your article. His poem gave me pause. And then, as life sometimes does, there he was turning the soil over again, in another very thoughtful piece, this time on Caught by the River.

    Each has enriched the other for me, so thankyou.

    That link: