Three Wessex Poets
‘It was in the chapters of ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’… that I first ventured to adopt the word ‘Wessex’ from the pages of early English history, and give it a fictitious significance as the existing name of the district once included in that extinct kingdom. The series of novels I projected being mainly of the kind called local, they seemed to require a territorial definition of some sort to lend unity to their scene. Finding that the area of a single county did not afford a canvas large enough for this purpose, and that there were objections to an invented name, I disinterred the old one… Since then the appellation which I had thought to reserve to the horizons and landscapes of a partly real, partly dream-country, has become more and more popular as a practical provincial definition; and the dream-country has, by degrees, solidified into a utilitarian region which people can go to, take a house in, and write to the papers from. But I ask all good and idealistic readers to forget this, and to refuse steadfastly to believe that there are any inhabitants of a Victorian Wessex outside these volumes in which their lives and conversations were detailed… Moreover, the village called Weatherbury, wherein the scenes of the present story of the series are for the most part laid, would perhaps be hardly discernable by the explorer, without help, in any existing place nowadays.’
(Preface: Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy)
‘It is precisely because the landscape makes its impact upon me and produces feelings in me, because it reaches me in my uniquely individual being, because it is my own view of the landscape, that I enjoy possession of the landscape itself… The world is the field of our experience… I am a field, an experience… Inside and outside are inseparable. The world is wholly inside and I am wholly outside myself… I touch myself only by escaping from myself.’
(The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty)
The lead on the kettle was too short to reach the plug socket, in the cramped room, with a bed as a floor and a window as a headboard: the same dimensions as the hostel in Budva – visions of which flooded back, soon we were climbing up to the fort above Kotor. It was necessary to leave immediately. Not before spotting a drawing on the wall. New College, Oxford, the plain castle like tower and central lawn. She must be somewhere there now. A sad painting of the sea with donkeys in the foreground hung by the hastily shut door, glimpsing as it slammed the stars and stripes, fluttering beyond the window pane. It got me thinking of the American poet Robert Frost again and his friendship with Edward. With his encouragement, Edward had written poem after poem – taking only a day to compose many of them. The experiences distilled down occurred on his many poetic pursuits, not just the one in pursuit of spring. He trawled back through published topographical work and the abused notebooks. His varied excursions explored all dimensions of the present, tracing lines in time and space, deterritorializing, re-inscribing and re-inventing place. Frost and Edward began to trace lines in landscape together. Outside, roads spread organically from a single one bridging the Avon. It was pretty simple to navigate around town on foot. Beams of light shone at greenish grey stone: Abbey Mill, the last new cloth mill in Bradford was built by Richard Gane of Trowbridge in 1875 on an earlier mill site and closed in 1902. It was occupied in 1914-1918 by the Royal Cycling Corps and Australian Forces, acquired by Spencer Moulton, then Avon Rubber in 1956 producing springs for road and rail vehicles, later as offices until 1995, and developed as retirement apartments in 1997. A black plaque marked. The Royal Cycling Corps bit was intriguing. Edward was a keen cyclist – painfully obvious when attempting to trace his tyre tracks. A reverie of Edward cycling in to battle arose from the recesses. And I began thinking of war and the decision Edward had to make. Ending up at a walk Edward took just after the outbreak of war; a walk that turned out to be life changing. It was taken with fellow nomad Robert Frost, one fateful afternoon in late November 1914. They were walking in Little Iddens, the village where Frost lived. I had been told the tale many times by the Fellowship. It was repeated recently by Matthew Hollis in a newspaper article. Thomas and Frost were strolling in the woods behind Frost’s cottage when they were intercepted by the local gamekeeper, who challenged their presence and told the men bluntly to clear out. As a resident, Frost believed he was entitled to roam wherever he wished, and he told the keeper as much. The keeper was unimpressed and some sharp words were exchanged, and when the poets emerged on to the road they were challenged once more. Tempers flared and the keeper called Frost, a damned cottager, before raising his shotgun at the two men. Incensed, Frost was on the verge of striking the man, but hesitated when he saw Thomas back off. Heated words continued to be had, with the adversaries goading each other before then finally parting, the poets talking heatedly of the incident as they walked. Thomas said that the keeper’s aggression was unacceptable and that something should be done about it. Frost’s ire peaked as he listened to Thomas: something would indeed be done and done right now, and if Thomas wanted to follow him he could see it being done. The men turned back, Frost angrily, Thomas hesitantly, but the gamekeeper was no longer on the road. His temper wild, Frost insisted on tracking the man down, which they did, to a small cottage at the edge of a coppice. Frost beat on the door, and left the startled keeper in no doubt as to what would befall him were he ever to threaten him again or bar access to the preserve. Frost repeated his warning for good measure, turned on his heels and prepared to leave. What happened next would be a defining moment in Frost and Thomas’s friendship, and would plague Thomas to his dying days. The keeper, recovering his wits, reached above the door for his shotgun and came outside, this time heading straight for Thomas who, until then, had not been his primary target. The gun was raised again; instinctively Thomas backed off once more, and the gamekeeper forced the men off his property and back on to the path, where they retreated under the keeper’s watchful aim. Frost contented himself with the thought that he had given a good account of himself; but not Thomas, who wished that his mettle had not been tested in the presence of his friend. He felt sure that he had shown himself to be cowardly and suspected Frost of thinking the same. Not once but twice had he failed to hold his ground, while his friend had no difficulty standing his. His courage had been found wanting, at a time when friends such as Rupert Brooke had found it in themselves to face genuine danger overseas. Frost said later that it was this event that made Edward go to war. Then there came the poem; The Road Not Taken – the last and pivotal moment in a sequence of events that had brought him to an irreversible decision. Edward read the poem and soon after enlisted. He felt that fighting for English soil, may enable him to look again composedly at the English landscape. He was certain that he had chosen correctly.
Edward was sat on his bed at a farm beyond Trowbridge thinking of three Wessex Poets: Stephen Duck, William Barnes, and Thomas Hardy. He had not yet met Robert Frost of course. Meanwhile in Bradford-on-Avon, a flag and a black plaque had put me in mind of two Dymock Poets. It was not a new occurrence. The friendship between Edward and Robert Frost was something that had bothered for months. It was a pivotal meeting for Edward that is for certain. And for Frost who was a struggling poet before he met the influential critic. And they became good friends almost immediately. I slipped in to memory. A walk was remembered, taken in their footprints – I resolved to go again once the pursuit was over with, if it ever could be: there was a nagging doubt that too much is read in to the friendship, and that more attention could be paid to the poetic pursuits and topographical renderings that shaped his being, his voice. A long haired cool cat was present on the walk with the Friends of the Dymock Poets – it kept me company. Some of the people waiting on the gravel at the base of May Hill looked familiar. Either because the people who attended such events were the same: or because they were actually the same people. The place was easy to reach by car – the m50 separated it from Dymock a few miles off. And as it turned out many of the people were the same – the same old faces from the Edward Thomas Fellowship. Similarly when looping sites with The Richard Jefferies Society, The Thomas Hardy Society, and The Ivor Gurney Society: the same faces popped up. The amount of people walking in such a way is miniscule – following in the traces of old poets and writers. Most people walk with poets without realising. Despite this they get themselves heard. It was odd not to be looping Steep with the disciples. Instead we were mapping a friendship – tracing their route to, around, up, and over the hill – ignoring the fact that Edward died soon after walking this way. The blister of land provided a means of orientation. We walked up a public bridleway initially before beginning the ascent, stopping to talk, like Edward and Frost, at a gate or stile. A Gloucestershire man brought a map of the area and regaled stories – walk-about theatre. While a relation of Lascelles Abercrombie recited a poem. It was mention of Rupert Brooke though which brought about most discussion. The rivalry between Brooke and Edward particularly – it could have been this distant influence that drove him to war. It was only though when I thought back to ascending the hill: there is something significant in scaling a surface – reaching the top and looking out, engendering within some form of ownership over a landscape; all is visible and as such internalised a little. Edward looked out across his home of England and his ancestral Wales – the majestic Severn snaking away between. Two poets looking out into the distance: they began to think of far-off places, to discuss war and the trenches. It was 1914 when Robert Frost and Edward Thomas ascended May Hill. Mountain Interval lay still closed on the table. A drink arrived snapping me back to the dark pub. The second hand book fell open to a familiar page; The Road Not Taken.
Before Edward decided that sleep was better than any book, some bad poetry he was reading had put him in mind of Wessex poet, Stephen Duck. Back in the small bedroom the drawing of New College, Oxford became a drawing of a castle in Christminster – the most north-easterly point of the fictional Wessex, created by Thomas Hardy. Unlike Essex and Sussex, Wessex has become nothing more than a semi-mythical region; a merely realistic dream country – adopted and given a fictitious significance thanks to novels and poetry. Unlike a nonsensical wonderland, or a fantasy middle-earth, there is a delicate mythopoeia at play, which mimics place as it is generally understood, almost entirely – the mapping of the fictional Wessex adding credence to the creation. Writing place and region in this way alters remembrance practices – preserving a semi-mythical region is a step too far even for literary societies. Thomas Hardy did not want to draw up boundaries and have people yearn for a reinvented Wessex – although by bringing an old region back to life he returned it to the collective consciousness once more. Creating your own world which resurrects existing mythology, furbishes the charm of place in a different way to that of most poets. Site-reading, detective-work, and memory-loops, are of an alternate order, as if the poetry and prose are in a parallel universe just but crucially, clearly out of grasp – returning to a Victorian Wessex pre-industrialisation is difficult because it was merely a realistic dream-country: a literary mapping. The Wessex novels differ from most topographical books of the region that the fictional Wessex covers for this reason – see the essays of John Llewelyn Powys about Somerset and Dorset, or Portrait of the Quantocks by Vincent White, Alfoxden Journal by Dorothy Wordsworth, and Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore all from Outer Wessex, Ridgeway Country by H.M. Timperley, The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies and Where The Bright Waters Meet by Harry Plunkett Greene from Mid Wessex, Nature in Downland and Hampshire Days by W.H. Hudson and The South Country by Edward Thomas mainly set in Upper Wessex, Freedom of the Parish by Geoffrey Grigson Off Wessex, or the animal narrative of Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson and A Black Fox Running by Brian Carter and the river narrative of Dart by Alice Oswald placed in Lower Wessex, along with Lifting the Latch by Sheila Stewart and finally most similar in style to the Wessex novels Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson both from North Wessex, all are set in distinct geographical regions, recognisable today. Alongside a mythical world comes a mythical self. And the poet or writer can find a form of truth impossible elsewhere. The region of Wessex returned to the map and the novels of Thomas Hardy, ground-breaking, changed the perception of rape and the rights of women. Edward revisited the semi-mythical south-country for a different reason: storytelling, folklore, tales, and mythology. Turning over, away from the drawing, sleep became better than any book: dream-country.
Preston, September 2011