Wednesday, 26 March 2014

All the birds of England

It is a still dawn, warm for the time of the year but free from the mist that has been a feature of recent days. From this hilltop, which watches over the deeply wooded valley of my childhood, I can hear the rich songs of a dozen or more blackbirds. This melodic and reverberant chorus reminds me of ‘Aldestrop’, a poem written by Edward Thomas almost a century ago.

The poem centres on a break in a railway journey, made as a train halted at Adlestrop station in Gloucestershire in June 1914. The lines conjure up a moment in time, delivering a strong sense of place and of the landscape within which the station sat. While the poet does not disembark from his train during this brief pause in his journey west, the memory of that stop is captured and retained, to be released some years later when pencil is put to paper. Thomas was late to poetry, his 142 poems coming in a brief two-year period before his death in France.

The final lines of the poem link the station with the English shires and the wider landscape within which it is located, Adlestrop becoming England. The device used to deliver this sense of connection is that of singing blackbirds. Noting the blackbird song that he can hear from the train, Thomas senses that elsewhere across England, extending outwards from this single point, are other singing blackbirds; ‘’all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’, linked to one another in a great and expanding ripple of song.

This poignant poem is a favourite with anthologists and is often used to conjure up the landscape of southern England. Aldestrop station was a victim of Beeching’s cuts and, looking back from this modern, 21st Century world, the poem has an elegiac quality, mourning the passing of a lost England. The chorus of blackbird song continues, however, and if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in the countryside on a spring morning such as this, then you can experience the sense of connectedness that comes from picking out the individual blackbirds who sing at each other from across the landscape. Despite the changes we have made to the landscape, the blackbirds continue to deliver their song.

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