100 years on: The making of Edward Thomas's Adlestrop

Edward Thomas died on Easter Monday 1917. Here, Matthew Hollis writes about the making of his cherished poem “Adlestrop”.

Edward Thomas.
Edward Thomas circa 1905. Photo: Getty/Hulton Archive.

When Edward Thomas was killed on Easter Monday 1917, in the early hours of the Battle of Arras, he was little known as a poet. But three weeks after his death, the New Statesman published a poem of his that would become one of the most cherished in the English language, about a train journey that Thomas had shared with his wife, Helen, travelling to see his friend Robert Frost.

On the morning of 24 June 1914, Thomas had risen early. The weather was glorious as he crossed London with Helen to Paddington Station in time to catch the 10.20 train to Malvern. At 11.44 the train drew up at Oxford; Thomas recorded the haymakers toiling beneath the hot sun. It was 80° in the shade that day.

Then we stopped at Adlestrop, thro the willows cd be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 & one thrush & no man
seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willow herb & meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel . . . one man clears his throat - and a greater rustic silence. No house in view[.] Stop only for a minute till signal is up.

Thomas was not yet writing poems when he made these notes. But on 8 January the following year, laid up with a sprained ankle, he drew upon his notebook for the easy, wistful tone that would become his celebrated poem - though its opening lines had been anything but effortless.

Yes I remember Adlestrop,
At least the name. One afternoon
The express slowed down there and drew up The express train slowed down there and drew up Quite . . .

He stopped and scored this out with a rapid repeated stroke, and underneath he began again, this time giving the poem its title and changing the class of train.

Yes, I remember Adlestrop,
At least the name. One afternoon
The steam train slowed down and drew up . . .

He tried again.

. . . One afternoon
Of heat The train slowed and drew up
There unexpectedly. 'Twas June.

From there, three further stanzas came rapidly, with just two minor corrections along the way. But he remained unsatisfied with the first verse and made two further attempts at tightening it. The train had to be "express" and not "steam" if it was to pull up "unexpectedly", he reasoned; though about this word, too, he had doubts, and tried "Against its custom", before he hit upon exactly the word he was looking for: "unwontedly".

Matthew Hollis is the author of Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas (Faber, £11.99)