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Poet’s corner

23 June 2017

Malcolm Guite was in a railway carriage on one afternoon of heat

OTHER people’s conversation in railway carriages — you just can’t help overhearing it. Or so I tell myself.

I was on the train from Leicester to Cam­bridge, on a hot June day, listening to the con­versation between three people sitting around the table opposite me, two men talking earnestly to one another about trains. Beside one was a woman, his wife, I think, trying, just occasion­ally, to broaden the conversation.

The men’s talk was both technical and enthu­s­i­astic. Indeed, the more technical it was, the more enthusiastic it became. Details of track-­gauges, name-plates, the maintenance history of certain steam engines, an exact recall of particular engine numbers, and, above all, the specifics, the precise details, of railway time-tables.

I discerned there must be a poetry in this obsession with completing lists of times, dates, and engine numbers; a poetry of detail, com­pletion, and inclusion. But I confess that, as the conversation wore, on the poetry of it began to elude me.

What stopped their flow was that the train itself stopped at the little station at Manea. I had never known a train stop there before. Even our small four-coacher was longer than the bare platform where we idled in the sunlight. No one left and no one came. And then the woman, tak­ing advantage of a pause in the flow of the men’s conversation, changed everything with just one word. She looked around and said, as if into the air: “Adlestrop!”

Suddenly we were all on another train, more than 100 years ago, as the steam hissed at its halt that other June day, in the summer before the Great War, and the poet Edward Thomas, so soon to die in the trenches, looked out at the empty platform and saw the name:

. . . Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

That name, as the woman spoke it now, summoned the whole poem, and somehow we, too, through the clear air of this Cambridge­shire fenland, also heard, as Edward Thomas did:
. . . mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Both men turned to the woman, and I could see that they knew the poem, as I did, and per­haps other people in the carriage did, too. In this particular place and time we suddenly came to a sense of something more, a sense of the whole, just as, for Edward Thomas, one black­bird had somehow summoned all the birds.

Or so I was thinking, when the train jerked into motion again and one of the men leant forward and said excitedly to his friend: “Actually they’ve worked out the timetable for that exact train. Yes, I’ve got the details here: 24 June 1914. I’ve not got the specific engine number yet, but it would have got into Adlestrop at precisely 12.45. . .”

I exchanged a brief glance with the woman as, each in our own way, we settled back to inhabit the different poetries of our common journey.


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