Laurel Books 2002 (first Published 1914)
EDWARD THOMAS’ pilgrimage by bicycle from Clapham Common, London, to the Quantock Hills in 1913 might just as easily be called In Pursuit of Coleridge. He had read Christabel closely alongside Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals and planned his journey to reach the Quantocks at “the same time that ‘the one red leaf the last of its clan,’ that danced on March 7 1798, would have danced itself into the grave”. Any Coleridgean who has visited the Quantocks on a similar mission will recognise a kindred spirit.
But this strange book embraces wider themes than literary adulation alone. A modern equivalent would be W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn—the journey being described is the setting for a string of meditations, and the narrator’s very economy with his personal details abstracts him into a fictional construct. This effect is intensified in Thomas’ case by the addition of a curious döppelganger figure, a person he describes simply as “the Other Man”, who is undertaking the same journey as the narrator, and periodically interacts with him. This is the literary equivalent of Escher’s picture of two hands emerging from a drawing to draw the drawing that portrays them.
This “Other Man” is even allowed the best lines, as a writer who is struggling with the conflict between seeing and recording:
[The Other Man] abused notebooks violently. He said that they blinded him to nearly everything that would not go into the form of notes; or, at any rate, he could never afterwards reproduce the great effects of Nature and fill in the interstices merely—which was all they were good for—from the notes. The notes—often of things which he would otherwise have forgotten—had to fill the whole canvas. Whereas, if he had taken none, then only the important, what he truly cared for, would have survived in his memory, arranged perhaps not as they were in Nature, but at least according to the tendencies of his own spirit.
Apply this idea to Coleridge’s voluminous notebooks and wonder what thoughts they interrupted, rather than what thoughts they recorded. The very thought makes me dizzy.
In 1913 Thomas, although 35 years of age, had not yet started writing poetry, but the poet was not far below the surface when he wrote that “Venus
glared like a madman’s eye”, or wrote of “ivy-covered box tombs lying about […] like unclaimed luggage on a railway platform”. The early instances of Nature-writing in the book did not augur well: minute specific enumerations of flora and fauna such as “I might hope for the chiffchaff, an early martin, some stitchwort blossoms” read too much like a bird-spotter’s check list. (He is a good enough critic, later in the book, to nail this kind of writing with the expression “uninspired accuracy”.) I only found myself truly warming to him when he got on to the less ostensibly ‘poetic’ scenery of Surrey: advertising hoardings, a golf course, rubbish; but perhaps this is just evidence of my diseased sensibility.
Death is soon revealed as his main theme, and the “unclaimed luggage” metaphor quoted above is typical of the way he expressed his doubts as to whether, say, William Lewis, buried in the Churchyard of St Mary and St Nicholas at Leatherhead might be “awaiting the resurrection of the just” in vain. Thomas’ journey could be described as a graveyard crawl; he painstakingly inspected graves and plaques and recorded ironically the confident attributions of spotless sanctity to those memorialised.
Thomas passed through Nether Stowey with barely a glance at the cottage “announced as formerly Coleridge’s by an inscription and a stone wreath of dull reddish brown”. It was beyond Stowey, on the lane to Holford that he reached the “innermost parts of poetry’s holy of holies”.
Honeysuckle ramped on the banks of the deep-worn road in such profusion as I had never before seen. The sky had clouded softly, and the sun-warmed misty woods of the coombs, the noise of slender waters threading them, the exuberant young herbage […] but above all the abounding honeysuckle, produced an effect of wildness and richness, purity and softness, so vivid that the association of Nether Stowey was hardly needed to summon up Coleridge. The mere imagination of what these banks would be like when the honeysuckle was in flower was enough to suggest the poet. I became fantastic, and said to myself that the honeysuckle was worthy to provide the honeydew for nourishing his genius; even that its magic might have touched that genius to life—which is absurd.
This final self-administered coup de grace is characteristic of the way Thomas kept his enthusiasm in check. I have studiously excluded our knowledge that this journey is on the eve of the First World War, which was to bring Thomas’ life to a premature end, in order to emphasise how much, even in its own terms, his “Pursuit of Spring” engendered from him more thoughts about death than resurrection. Thus, when he came to describe the resurrection of Nature that he had been in pursuit of, he portrayed spring as “The Grave of Winter”, a double negative that he went on to personify with gothic relish:
Winter may rise up through mould alive with violets and primroses
and daffodils, but when cowslips and bluebells have grown over his grave he cannot rise again: he is dead and rotten, and from his ashes the blossoms are springing.
This passage could be straight out of a war poem—we smell the corpse as much as the flowers.
The reappearance of an out-of-print classic is a resurrection in itself, and an opportunity to be seized. How often do we kick ourselves when a book whose purchase we hesitated over two years ago, is now no longer available? If Edward Thomas were alive today he would certainly be a Friend of Coleridge; he has trod (or, rather, cycled) the same ground before us, and I shall not be able to raise a glass at the Hood Arms in Kilve this September without saluting Edward Thomas, who drank there on Thursday 27 March 1913.