Thursday, March 05, 2009

World Book Day

Today is World Book Day in the United Kingdom and Eire. I thought to celebrate by exploring books by Edward Thomas, writer of "almost perfect prose" said T.E. Lawrence. A Londoner, born in 1878, Thomas was intended for the civil service but wrote for a living instead. His books celebrate the lives of authors and their English habitat, they celebrate the habitat itself, and they celebrate the lives of ordinary people as they come and go within it.

The first was The Heart of England, a work of close observation accompanied by handsome illustrations, which begins:
Sunday afternoon had perfected the silence of the suburban street. Everyone had gone into his house to tea; none had yet started for church or promenade; the street was empty, except for a white pigeon that pecked idly in the middle of the road and once leaned upon one wing, raised the other so as to expose her tender side and took the rain deliciously; so calm and unmolested was the hour.

The houses were in unbroken rows and arranged in pairs, of which one had a bay window on the ground floor and one had not. Some had laurels in front; some had names. But they were so much alike that the street resembled a great storehouse where yards of goods, all of one pattern, are exposed, all with that painful lack of character that makes us wish to rescue one and take it away and wear it, and soil it, and humanise it rapidly. ( — more from this book below)
He collaborated with illustrators to produce a series of city portraits including one on Oxford which begins:
Passing rapidly through London, with its roar of causes that have been won, and the suburbs, where they have no causes, and skirting the willowy Thames, —glassy or silver, or with engrailed grey waves —and brown ploughlands, elm-guarded, solitary, I approached Oxford. Nuneham woods made one great shadow on the land, one great shadow on the Thames. According to an old custom, it rained. But rain takes away nothing from Oxford save a few nice foot passengers. It transmutes the Franciscan habit of the city to a more Dominican cast; and if the foil of sky be faintly lighted, the rain becomes a visible beatitude.
A late work called A Literary Pilgrim in England associates authors with their favorite haunts. The one on John Aubrey, to give an example, begins:
JOHN AUBREY was a gossip whose odds and ends about men, things, and places, are now better than most full-dress literature. Those about men were set down at first merely as material for a biographer whom he thought his better, Anthony a Wood, and, as he was inquisitive and precise, there were some strange things amongst them, so that he said they were "not fit to let fly abroad till about thirty years hence, for the author and the persons (like medlars) ought to be first rotten." They were "put in writing tumultuarily," and he fancied himself "all along discoursing" with Wood. The "Brief Lives" will now survive whatever is made out of them. So with his observations of antiquities and natural history. Who but Aubrey would have noticed and entered in a book that in the spring after the Fire of London "all the ruins were overgrown with an herb or two, but especially with a yellow flower, Ericolevis Neapolitana"? Who but he would have included this in a sketched life of Thomas Hobbes? — "Though he left his native county [Wiltshire] at fourteen, and lived so long, yet sometimes one might find a little touch of our pronunciation — old Sir Thomas Malette, one of the judges of the King's Bench, knew Sir Walter Ralegh, and sayd that, notwithstanding his great travells, conversation, learning, etc., yet he spake broad Devonshire to his dying day." [ — more of this below]

{ - from The Icknield Way, by Edward Thomas, illustrated by A. L. Collins (Constable, 1913).}

{ - from Oxford, Painted by John Fulleylove, R.I., by Edward Thomas, illustrated by John Fulleylove (A. & C. Black, 1903).}

{ - from The Heart of England, by Edward Thomas; illustrated by Harry Linley Richardson (Dent, 1906)}

{ - from The Heart of England, by Edward Thomas; illustrated by Harry Linley Richardson (Dent, 1906)}

An extract from The Heart of England:
Decorated Church

Out of the midst of pale wheat lands and tussocky meadow, intersected by streams which butter bur and marigold announce, and soared over by pewit and lark and the first swallows with their delicate laughter, rises the grim, decorated church, of the same colour as the oak trees round about. White and grey headstones, some of great age, bow to it in the churchyard, and seem mutely to crave for the shelter from the north-east wind. There is much room within. All the headstones and those whom they commemorate might find places and not crowd out the little congregation. In one transept a knight and lady are taking their ease in stone, and looking up* at the gaudy arms above them. They came early to the church. From the memorial inscriptions on pavement and walls, it would seem that the church belongs to a later great family, still living near. Soldiers, sailors, landowners, clergymen even, they take possession at their death; from 1623 they have flocked here, and the names of their virtues live after them; tyrants perhaps in their lifetime, they have the air of being idols now, and they outnumber the prophets on the window glass. The service proceeds in the accustomed decent manner, with nasal lesson and humming prayer. Then conies the hymn:
— Through all the changing scenes of life —
One woman's ambitious, shrill treble voice that seems ever about to fall and yet continues to maintain its airy height, leads the congregation to unusual adventures of song. The church is dense with emotion; ordinary gentlemen, shopkeepers, labourers and their wives, men and women of all degrees of endurance, chivalry, good intention, uncertain aims, sentimental virtuousness, hypocrisy not dissevered from hardship, vanity not ignorant of tenderness, hard ambition, the desire to be respected, — men and women throw all kinds of strange meaning, heartfelt and present, imaginative, retrospective, expectant, into the vague words of the hymn. I can see one strong man shouting it with an expression as if he were pole-axing a bull. His neighbour, a frail, tearful woman, sings as if it absolves her from the tears with which she marred not only her own life. One aged woman made it clearly an expression of the nothingness of mankind, a ridicule and blasphemy of life, as if she had repeated the words of the old play: —
Where is now Solomon, in wisdom so excellent ?
Where is now Samson, in battle so strong?
Where is now Absalom, in beauty resplendent?
Where is now good Jonathan, hid so long?
Where is now Caesar, in victory triumphing?
Where is now Dives, in dishes so dainty?
Where is now Tully, in eloquence exceeding?
Where is now Aristotle, learned so deeply?
What emperors, kings, and dukes in times past,
What earls and lords, and captains of war,
What popes and bishops, all at the last
In the twinkling of an eye are fled so far?

How short a feast is this worldly joying?
Even as a shadow it passeth away,
Depriving a man of gifts everlasting,
Leading to darkness and not to day!
O meat of worms, O heap of dust,
O like to dew, climb not too high.
Other faces express complacency, hope, the newness of a solution of this thing life, grim, satisfied despair, even a kind of vanity. All these men and women might agree at a political meeting; here they differ each from the rest, and every one of the gods in all the mythologies must be gladdened or angered at some part of the hymn by the meaning of this or that worshipper; Odin, Apollo, Diana, Astarte, the Cat, the Beetle, and the rest revive, in whatever Tartarus they are thrust, at these strange sounds.

The last of the congregation left, but I could still hear the hymn wandering feebly among the tall arches and up and about, apparently restless, as if it sought to get out and away, but in vain. The high grey stone and those delicate windows made a cage; and the human voices were as those of Seifelmolouk and his memlooks, when the giant king kept them in cages because the sound of their lamentation seemed to him the most melodious music, and he thought them birds. Inexorably, the fancy held me that some gaunt giant, fifty cubits high, kept men and women in this cage because he loved to hear their voices expressing moods he knew nothing of. Not more caged are the five brown bells in the tower, with mute, patient heads like cows, their names being Solitude, Tranquillity, Duty, Harmony, Joy.
— excerpt from The Heart of England

Further extracts from A Literary Pilgrim in England:

Aubrey began early in Wiltshire, as a boy at Easton Pierse, in the parish of Kington St. Michael, at Leigh Delamere, where the Vicar taught him, and at Blandford Grammar School in Dorset. For example, he remembered that "our old Vicar of Kington St. Michael, Mr. Hynd, did sing his sermons rather than read them," and how "when I was a boy, before the late civil wars, the tabor and pipe were commonly used, especially Sundays and Holydays, and at Christenings and Feasts, in the Marches of Wales, Hereford, Gloucestershire, and in all Wales," and "how the water in the ditches below Devizes looks bluish" at the fall of the leaf. When a boy, too, he heard from the old men how "in one of the great fields at Warminster in Wiltshire, in the harvest, at the very time of the fight at Bosworth field, between King Richard III. and Henry VII., there was one of the parish took two sheaves, crying (with some intervals) now for Richard, now for Henry; at last lett fall the sheaf that did represent Richard and cried now for King Henry, Richard is slain."

Coming to write of Sir Philip Sidney, he recalled: "When I was a boy nine years old, I was with my father at one Mr. Singleton's an alderman and woollen-draper in Gloucester, who had in his parlour, over the chimney, the whole description of the funeral, engraved and printed on papers pasted together, and which, at length, was, I believe, the length of the room at least; but he had contrived it to be turned upon two pins, that turning one of them made the figures march all in order. It did make such a strong impression on my young phantasy, that I remember it as if it were but yesterday. I could never see it elsewhere. The house is in the great long street, over against the high steeple; and 'tis likely it remains there still. Tis pity it is not redone." At Blandford he had Walter and Tom Raleigh, grand-nephews of Sir Walter, for schoolfellows — clever boys, proud and quarrelsome, with "excellent tunable voices, and played their parts well on the viol."

Perhaps the memento of Sidney's funeral and the talk of the Raleighs at Blandford turned him to a sense of the living past and dying present. But an old family, with a strong Welsh element, that had already been some generations in North Wiltshire, would of itself have provided much for the taste which we must suppose him born with. His mother's father had been born also at Easton Pierse, his mother in the neighbouring parish of Yatton Keynell. Thomas Danvers, one of his uncles, was at Bemerton when George Herbert was buried there " (according to his own desire) with the singing service for the burial of the dead, by the singing men of Sarum." Thomas Browne, his great-uncle, remembered Sir Philip Sidney, "and said that he was often wont, as he was hunting on our pleasant plains, to take his table book out of his pocket, and write down his notions as they came into his head, when he was writing his Arcadia." When a boy, he says, " he did ever love to converse with old men as living histories," and began to draw, yet never became a painter.

Thus he grew up a lover of the old days, when lords of manors kept good houses and ate at the high tables in the oriels of their "great Gothic halls," such as Draycot, when the halls of justices of the peace were "dreadful to behold, the screens were garnished with corslets and helmets, gaping with open mouth, with coats of mail, lances, pikes, halberts, brown bills, batterdashers, bucklers," and "the meeting of the gentry was not at tippling-houses, but in the fields or forest, with their hawks and hounds, with their bugle horns in silken baldrics."

All about him were old men to furnish him from the past. John Power, for example, an undergraduate of Gloucester Hall in the early seventeenth century, told Aubrey what an old college servant had told him about Thomas Allen the astrologer, that sometimes he met the spirits coming up his stairs "like bees." There was a great-nephew of this Allen, too, at Broad Hinton, on the other side of Wootton Bassett from Easton Pierse. One Jack Sydenham, who used to carry Aubrey in his arms and "sang rarely," had formerly served Thomas Bushell, of Enston in Oxfordshire, and remembered a workman discovering a rock there, "with pendants like icicles as at Wookey Hole (Somerset), which was the occasion of making that delicate grotto and those fine walks." Moreover, this same Jack Sydenham had served a neighbour of the Aubreys, Sir Charles Snell, of Kington St. Michael, who had built a ship, the Angel Gabriel, for Sir Walter Raleigh's Guiana design, and had paid for it with his manor of Yatton Keynell, the farm at Easton Pierse, Thornhill, and the church lease of Bishop's Cannings. . . .

History and tradition flowed naturally to Aubrey. He was only eight when he first saw Stonehenge. How many thousands had seen it at that age and forgotten it, or never said so, just as they must have known once, as well as Aubrey, that "in North Wilts the milkmaids sing as shrill and clear as any swallow sitting on a barn." He quotes Chaucer. The wonders of the living world also were very great. He had seen with his own eyes, or some Jack or Jill had made him see, a whirlwind carry a child, with half the haycock where he had been lying, up over the elm-trees and down safe "in the next ground."


COWPER'S country is easily mapped. That small circle of field and woodland, with Olney at its centre, the Ouse its diameter, Yardley Chase at the circumference, is Cowper's country and nothing else. What it was during the last third of the eighteenth century is made so clear by his poems and letters that it has a slight unreality to-day. Two volumes on it, " The Rural Walks of Cowper" and " Cowper Illustrated by a Series of Views," are already old. "The Town of Olney," by Mr. Thomas Wright of Olney, is new. With their aid anyone can see most of the things that Cowper saw, except those that disappeared in his own time, such as the poplars at Lavendon, and were lamented by him.

Perhaps he might have adapted himself to a different country, and have so pervaded it that he would have been linked with it inseparably, as he is with Olney. But if a place had to be found for him, it would be hard to better Olney in Buckinghamshire. . . .

Cowper had been happy in the country before he came to Olney. He used to stay at Southampton. He walked in the neighbourhood of Lymington. He bathed at Weymouth. Above all, he walked with his cousin, Lady Hesketh, when she was still Harriet Cowper; and he particularly remembered walking to Netley Abbey, and scrambling over hedges in every direction. Years later, when he was past fifty, she reminded him of some incident connected with the fragrance on a certain common near Southampton.

"My nostrils," he wrote from Olney on December 6, 1785, "have hardly been regaled with those wild odours from that day to the present. We have no such here. If there ever were any such in this county, the enclosures have long since destroyed them ; but we have a scent in the fields about Olney that to me is equally agreeable, and which, even after attentive examination, I have never been able to account for. It proceeds, so far as I can find, neither from herb, nor tree, nor shrub : I should suppose, therefore, it is from the soil. It is exactly the scent of amber when it has been rubbed hard, only more potent. I have never observed it except in hot weather, or in places where the sun shines powerfully, and from which the air is excluded. . . ."

He liked the country because it was quiet and because "God made" it. He liked it also for itself. He tells us that he enjoyed the sound of mighty winds in woods, and not only the voices of the singing birds,
But cawing rooks, and kites that swim sublime
In still-repeated circles, screaming loud,
The jay, the pie, and even the boding owl
That hails the rising moon, have charms for me.

SWINBURNE said that the sea and not the earth was his mother. The earliest enjoyment he could remember was being shot naked out of his father's arms, " like a stone from a sling," head foremost into the sea. His nickname was "Seamew" or "Seagull," which explains why he began "To a Seamew" with the lines,
When I had wings, my brother,
Such wings were mine as thine,
and why in "On the Cliffs" he says "we seamews." When he came to write " Thalassius," an autobiographical poem of the same class as Shelley's "Epipsychidion," he depicted a poet, born like himself in April, who was found on the sea-shore and nurtured by an old warrior poet in the lore of Liberty, Love, Hate, Hope, and Fear (i.e., "fear to be worthless the dear love of the wind and sea that bred him fearless "). The whole poem shows us what Swinburne would have wished to be, and to some extent what he thought himself. . . . In his own song as in his life, north and south were mingled. He was born in Belgravia, but spent half of his early years at his grandfather's house at Capheaton in Northumberland, half at East Dene, between Ventnor and Niton in the Isle of Wight. . . . And he preferred to think and call himself "a northern child of earth and sea," like Balen of Northumberland, whose pleasures, remembered at the point of death, were assuredly Swinburne's own:
The joy that lives at heart and home,
The joy to rest, the joy to roam,
The joy of crags and scaurs he clomb,
The rapture of the encountering foam

Embraced and breasted of the boy,
The first good steed his knees bestrode,
The first wild sound of songs that flowed
Through ears that thrilled and heart that glowed,

Fulfilled his death with joy.
. . . But Swinburne was more in the South than in the North. His school was Eton, his University Oxford, his regular abode for about thirty years Putney. His Northern scenes are mostly impassioned idealized memories. " Winter in Northumberland " is not equal to " By the North Sea." The moors, cliffs, and sea, of the North enter again and again into his poems in the form of images, and the dialect Northumbrian pieces are exquisite exercises; but it was to the South that he turned when he took actual scenery for the subject of his poems, as he did after his youth was over.

Some books by Edward Thomas:

The Heart of England, by Edward Thomas; illustrated by Harry Linley Richardson (Dent, 1906).

Oxford, Painted by John Fulleylove, R.I., by Edward Thomas, illustrated by John Fulleylove (A. & C. Black, 1903).

Beautiful Wales, by Edward Thomas, illustrated by Robert Fowler (A. & C. Black, 1905).

A Literary Pilgrim in England, by Edward Thomas (Dodd, Mead, 1917).

The Icknield Way, by Edward Thomas, illustrated by A. L. Collins (Constable, 1913).

George Borrow, the Man and His Books, by Edward Thomas (Chapman & Hall, 1912)

Walter Pater, a Critical Study, by Edward Thomas (M. Kennerley, 1913).

Richard Jefferies, His Life and Work, by Edward Thomas (Little, Brown, 1909).

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