Title: In Pursuit of Spring
Author: Edward Thomas (with an introduction by Alexandra Harris)
Publisher: Little Toller Books
Year: 1914 (this edition 2016)
Order: Little Toller
What it is: In the words of the author it’s the “record of a journey from London to the Quantock Hills - to Nether Stowey, Kilve, Crowcombe and West Bagborough, to the high point where the Taunton-Bridgewater road tops the hills and shows all Exmoor behind, all the Mendips before, and upon the left the sea, and Wales very far off.”
Strengths: There is the story of the book, a week-long journey by foot and by bicycle, and there are the stories that surround the book, with the two – if you make the effort to join them – combining to produce something rewarding
Weaknesses: Thomas can make you work to get to the good bits, many of his digressions adding little enjoyment
The beautiful Easters I had known came back to me: Easters of five years, twenty years ago; early Easters when the chiffchaff was singing on March 20 in a soft wind; later Easters, when Good Friday brought the swallow, Saturday the cuckoo, Sunday the nightingale.
~ Edward Thomas
Edward Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring is the story of one Easter, the Easter of 1913, when the author set out by bicycle from his parents’ home in Balham on Good Friday and headed in a westward direction, bound for the Quantock Hills, “the native soil of ‘Kubla Khan,’ ‘Christabel,’ and ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ where Coleridge fed on honey-dew and drank the milk of Paradise”, aiming to arrive just as Spring arrived there too.
That’s what the book is about anyway. But In Pursuit of Spring comes with a story that exists outside the book, the story of another Easter, that of 1917, the story of Thomas’s death in the Great War, killed on Easter Monday, the first day of the Battle of Arras.
It also comes with yet another story, the story of another journey, the journey of a man who made a living (in his own words) as a hack writer but was about to step out of the comfort and safety of prose and into the world of poetry.
Since his death in 1917 Thomas has come to be revered and cherished as one of Britain’s war poets. He has also come to be respected for his contribution to poetry, his verse straddling two different eras of poetry, the Georgian world of Sassoon and Graves and the modernist world of Pound and Eliot, and considered influential by poets such as Ted Hughes. At the time of his death in 1917, though, Thomas had yet to publish a collection of poetry under his own name. His first, tentative step had appeared the year before, Six Poems, under the pseudonym of Edward Eastaway and the first collection that would appear under his own name, Poems, wasn’t published until six months after the poet was dead.
Alexandra Harris, in her introduction to this edition of In Pursuit of Spring, notes how the book is read by some today “as a work in progress, the material from which poetry emerged.” It was reading In Pursuit of Spring that made the American poet Robert Frost advise his English friend to turn to poetry, later writing that Thomas then was “writing as good a poetry as anybody alive but in prose form where it didn’t declare itself and gain him recognition.”
There is a poet’s cadence to Thomas’s words. Matthew Hollis, one of Thomas’s army of biographers, points to Thomas writing “A robin sang in one of the broad oaks, whether anyone listened or not” and notes that that is iambic pentameter, or that trochaic pentameter can be found where Thomas writes “Many days in London have no weather.” But the poetry of In Pursuit of Spring is more than just the rhythm of the words, it’s in the words themselves and the way they’re played. Consider this passage, a prelude to the journey, Thomas describing London in the months leading up to Easter, that long, slow, climb from the depths of Winter to the promise of Spring:
“The wind blew from the north-west with such peace and energy together as to call up the image of a good giant striding along with superb gestures – like those of a sower sowing. The wind blew and the sun shone over London. A myriad roofs laughed together in the light. The smoke and the flags, yellow and blue and white, waved tumultuously, straining for joy to leave the chimneys and the flagstaffs, like hounds sighting their quarry. The ranges of cloud bathing their lower slopes in the brown mist of the horizon had the majesty of great hills, the coolness and sweetness and whiteness of the foam on the crests of the crystal fountains, and they were burning with light. The clouds did honour to the city, which they encircled as with heavenly ramparts. The stone towers and spires were soft, and luminous as old porcelain. There was no substance to be seen that was not made precious by the strong wind and the light divine. All was newly built to a great idea. The flags were waving to salute the festal opening of the gates in those white walls to a people that should presently surge in and onward to take possession. Princely was to be the life that had this amphitheatre of clouds and palaces for its display.”
Born in 1878, Thomas was just a couple of weeks past his thirty-fifth birthday when he set off on Good Friday 1913 on his week long journey to the Quantocks. Married and with three children, he saw himself as something of a hack writer, producing words to order. Literary criticism, biographies, fiction, travel books. By 1913, he was writing several books a year, with four appearing in 1913: a critical study of the essayist Walter Pater, a semi-autobiographical novel (The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans), and two travel guides, The Icknield Way and The Country. And this alongside the regular reviews he was writing for the Daily Chronicle and others.
In Pursuit of Spring was written in a two month period, April and May of 1913, sometimes at a rate of 4,000 words a day. It is, in other words, a piece of hack work. Not unlike many of the cycling books published today – the complete book of this, the definitive guide to that – except that where many of those books won’t be remembered even a decade thence, In Pursuit of Spring is still being read a century after its creation. And not just as “a work in progress, the material from which poetry emerged.”
Why? One reason is that it has a certain utilitarian value, a guide book pre-loaded with nostalgia for a golden age, England on the eve of the Great War. You can follow in Thomas’s wheel tracks, seeing how much has changed, marvelling at how much is pretty much the same as it was. Jon Day did it in Cyclogeography, Max Leonard did it for Pannier Journal. Jack Thurston has a ride based on Thomas’s journey in his latest guide book, Lost Lanes West Country. Many, many others have done the journey and blogged about it. Some have even stretched their pursuit of Thomas into book form. For those who can’t be bothered with over-subscribed and unimaginative sportives but still seek a little direction to their touring, recreating Thomas’s journey has something going for it. This latest edition of the book adds something else for the would-be traveller: photographs, allowing the traveller to compare Thomas’s world – dirt-packed roads, few cars, quiet villages – with the world of today.
Can In Pursuit of Spring simply be read as a good book? Yes and no. Edna Longley has described Thomas’s travel books as being a mix of “observation, information, stories, portraits, self-portraits, literary criticism, and reflection.” All of that is present here, particularly the portraits and literary criticism, with Thomas a sort of flâneur on wheels, alive not just to the physical world around him but also to its links with the past, chiefly those of a literary nature. Box Hill sees Thomas thinking and talking of George Meredith, Farnham recalls William Cobbett (“I looked in vain for a statue of Cobbett in Farnham. Long may it be before there is one, for it will probably be be bad and certainly unnecessary.”), Alresford is George Wither (“Wither is one of the poets who we can connect with a district of England and often cannon sunder from it without harm.”). Salisbury is Richard Jefferies in the city and Philip Sidney on the plain. Thomas’s world is alive to the ghosts of the past. It is perhaps no coincidence that he began working on A Literary Pilgrim in England in the Autumn of 1913, though this time at a much slower rate, the finished book not appearing until 1917.
As well as a flâneur, Thomas is also that great literary trope, the unreliable narrator. Never, for instance, does Thomas mention stopping to take photographs, although as this edition of the book shows he did that quite often. Nor does he ever mention that he did not travel alone: through Somerset he travelled with a friend, as shown in the photograph taken of Turner’s Tower. And then there’s the mysterious Other Man, a fellow traveller Thomas’s path keeps crossing, a man most assume to be a version of Thomas himself, the author at that time undergoing psychoanalysis and introducing an element of his therapy into his writing:
“‘I suppose you write books,’ said I. ‘I do,’ said he. ‘What sort of books do you write?’ ‘I wrote one all about this valley of the Frome. . . . But no one knows that it was the Frome I meant. You look surprised. Nevertheless, I got fifty pounds for it.’ ‘That is a lot of money for such a book!’ ‘So my publisher thought.’ ‘And you are lucky to get money for doing what you like.’ ‘What I like!’ he muttered, pushing his bicycle back uphill, past the goats by the ruin, and up the steps between walls that were lovely with humid moneywort, and saxifrage like filigree, and ivy-leaved toadflax. Apparently the effort loosened his tongue. He rambled on and on about himself, his past, his writing, his digestion; his main point being that he did not like writing. He had been attempting the impossible task of reducing undigested notes about all sorts of details to a grammatical, continuous narrative. He 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 not perhaps as they were in Nature, but at least according to the tendencies of his own spirit.”
Thomas is also unreliable because some of what he writes is recycled from previously published work, padding to meet the required word count, such as a four page tragic story about a pair of sisters, Martha and Mary, who lived in the country near Oldhurst, a place that, in the real world, exists on no map. Thomas’s telling of their story is inspired here by a name he sees in a graveyard in Alresford but at least one Thomas scholar thinks the story itself may originally have been inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck:
“When ‘Oldhurst’ appeared [in 1911] Edward was working on his study Maurice Maeterlinck, in which he reviewed Maeterlinck’s play L’Interieur, telling the story of a peasant family ‘in a house standing in an old garden planted with willows.’ where the only characters who are named are a daughter Martha and a granddaughter Mary, in an unfolding tragedy of the death of a child.”
The rattlebag nature of In Pursuit of Spring can be somewhat off-putting. Thomas’s literary tastes are out of fashion while digressions on clay pipes and waterproofs will not be everyone’s cup of dried leaves boiled in water. But it can still be a rewarding read. Few authors soundtrack the countryside quite the way Thomas does:
“Venus, spiky with beams, hung in the pale sky, and Orion stood up before me, above the blue woods of the horizon. All the thrushes of England sang at that hour, and against that background of myriads I heard two or three singing their frank, clear notes in a mad eagerness to have all done before dark; for already the blackbirds were chinking and shifting places along the hedgerows. And presently it was dark, but for a lamp at an open door, and silent, but for a chained dog barking, and a pine tree moaning over the house. When the dog ceased, an owl hooted, and when the owl ceased I could just hear the river Frome roaring steadily over a weir far off.”
Birdsong in particular appears frequently over the course of Thomas’s journey. Chaffinches, linnets, chiffchaffs, starlings, pewits, sparrows, pipits, larks, robins, thrushes, sand martins, doves, rooks, blackbirds, everywhere you turn, there are birds:
“Next to the dead the most numerous things on the Plain are sheep, rooks, pewits, and larks. Today they mingle their voices, but the lark is the most constant. Here, more than elsewhere, he rises up above an earth only less free than the heavens. The pewit is equally characteristic. His Winter and twilight cry expresses for most men both the sadness and the wildness of these solitudes. When his Spring cry breaks every now and then, as it does to-day, through the songs of the larks, when the rooks caw in low flight or perched on their elm tops, and the lambs bleat, and the sun shines, and the couch fires burn well, and the wind blows their smoke about, the Plain is genial, and the unkindly breadth and simplicity of the scene in Winter or in the drought of Summer are forgotten. But let the rain fall and the wind whirl it, or let the sun shine too mightily, the Plain assumes the character by which it is best known, that of a sublime, inhospitable wilderness. It makes us feel the age of the earth, the greatness of Time, Space, and Nature; the littleness of man even in an aeroplane, the fact that the earth does not belong to man, but man to the earth. And this feeling, or some variety of it, for most men is accompanied by melancholy, or is held to be the same thing. This is perhaps particularly so with townsmen, and above all with writers, because melancholy is the mood most easily given an appearance of profundity, and, therefore, most easily impressive.”
Matthew Hollis, who has travelled in Thomas’s tracks for his own biography of the poet, and for a BBC programme on In Pursuit of Spring has said that it “is not a marvellous book, but it is a book of marvels.” This, I think, is a fair description. From the intensity of his description of Winter in London to the calm of the countryside, Thomas’s pursuit of Spring offers marvels that reward those willing to dig them out, while also mapping a route modern travellers may wish to recreate at any time of the year.