In 1913, Edward Thomas wrote his last prose narrative, an account of a bicycle journey from Guildford to Somerset, In Pursuit of Spring. It describes a landscape on the brink of change, but it is the cradle too of so much of Thomas’s poetry, and an index to the man himself. These poems by Kym Martindale and the accompanying drawings of Caroline Blythe are ‘re/tracings’ – of journeys made by the poet and artist in the wake of Thomas himself. They too are in search of a landscape that is changing physically, economically, and aesthetically.
The Most Insistent Thing
[Looking west from Winchester] I could see the low, half-wooded Downs crossed by the Roman road to Sarum and by hardly any other road. The most insistent thing there was the Farley Tower, perched on a barrow at one of the highest points, to commemorate not the unknown dead but a horse called Beware Chalkpit, who won a race in 1734 after having leaped into a chalkpit in 1733. The eastern scene was lovelier […]
– Edward Thomas, In Pursuit of Spring (1914)
UNDERNEATH LIES BURIED A HORSE, THE PROPERTY OF PAULET ST JOHN ESQ, THAT IN THE MONTH OF SEPTEMBER 1733 LEAPED INTO A CHALK PIT, TWENTYFIVE FEET DEEP, AFOXHUNTING WITH HIS MASTER ON HIS BACK, AND IN OCTOBER 1734 HE WON THE HUNTERS PLATE ON WORTHY DOWNS, AND WAS RODE BY HIS OWNER AND WAS ENTERED IN THE NAME OF ‘BEWARE CHALK PIT’.
– Plaque on the Farley Monument
It has a stillness today that hangs like
Heavy with crickets and
Beyond the haze larks spinning ineffectually.
Names x 2…
To the glory of God / underneath lies buried / men of this parish
Hinting at church porch, but recalling bus shelter in fact,
The monument rises
Mad and sudden,
Sudden as a wound streaked across the fields
And he recoils, briefly to the lovelier east; he knows that
West and north of here
The madness will drill and train as north and west of here
Old invasions ran their spear through as north
And west of here
They drill, train, prepare . . .
The monument scores my notes,
Like a knife scores bark,
Guilty of knowing what happened next.
Names…in honoured memory of those who/a horse the property of ooo . . . his master
His sky was full of rain, mine is airless
But England unfurls
Without shame beneath both,
As seductive as a dream of itself.
He remembers himself, realigns,
And faces west again.
men of this parish who gave their lives / that leapt into a chalk pit
twenty-five feet deep, afoxhunting / lest we forget
He is already scooping up the panorama
Where it clings to his boot;
And always turning west with
England slipping through his fingers.
Why, for what – he was asked.
‘Literally for this’
And England trickles from his
gave / afoxhunting with his master on his back / their lives / literally ooo for this
July 2012: a kestrel insists, and
Four boys wrestle their mountain bikes up to the monument
That is not for the unknown dead.
Thick stripes of mud down their calves,
Their backs, they stand for nothing
In a present that easily allows them.
Names… we forget / for this
Nan Trodd’s Hill
As hills go it isn’t much
So note the black yews on the slope,
The crown, that he noted too and
The gentle rise of arable; and so
To the slighter yew-crowned rise and oaks
Of Hursley Park.
And note, the curving road
Confirms the half-wooded green wall
Of Nan Trodd’s Hill
Climbing like he did
Out of the deep hollow –
And there he glides along the
Silent road twinned with a future
Of freight and speed,
The silent road where his pale shape
Pauses but you can’t pause
Now, on the A3090.
Watch him go, a long-spent
Dusk whispering at his back,
While trucks and BMWs
Roar the present.
Thomas smelt the sea here but I smelt river,
Full and sharp. The landlocked river
Has a musk, as if it sought a mate,
Animal and keen. The Test:
Sluiced at Kimbridge
It was sucked from a deep race
Where it quivered ready to thunder
In the dazzle of its own sleek brilliance.
The Test flexed its muscle and currents,
Skirling at its banks ferocious and randy, to
Run its tongue round roots
Then oddly, it aged,
Its power gone foetid and sly,
Its muscle turned to slab, like a river that
The land-locked river wretched in its coils
Begging for melodrama in its valley,
Made the road bleak.
A wren yammering in alarm leapt
Out of my chest like an expression of horror.
And overhead two goldfinches sat
On a telegraph wire,
Utterly still, some feet apart,
And silent, as if stunned.
Dr Kym Martindale is a senior lecturer at Falmouth University, in English and Writing, combining a love of cycling with an interest in place and poetry. The poetry and artwork here are part of a larger project to record impressions of Thomas’s journey, and the changes in that landscape since.