Updated: May 11, 2021
Unless it was that day I never knew
Ambition. After a night of frost, before
The March sun brightened and the South-west blew,
Jackdaws began to shout and float and soar
Already, and one was racing straight and high
Alone, shouting like a black warrior
Challenges and menaces to the wide sky.
With loud long laughter then a woodpecker
Ridiculed the sadness of the owl's last cry
And through the valley where all the folk astir
Made only plumes of pearly smoke to tower
Over dark trees and white meadows happier
Than was Elysium in that happy hour,
A train that roared along raised after it
And carried with it a motionless white bower
Of purest cloud, from end to end close-knit,
So fair it touched the roar with silence. Time
Was powerless while it lasted. I could sit
And think I had made the loveliness of prime,
Breathed its life into it and were its lord,
And no mind lived save this 'twixt clouds and rime.
Omnipotent I was, nor even deplored
That I did nothing. But the end fell like a bell:
The bower was scattered; far off the train roared.
But if this was ambition, I cannot tell.
What 'twas ambition for I know not well.
Ambition was written towards the end of January 1915 when Edward Thomas was still laid up at home with a sprained ankle. He based it on a number of memories including from earlier prose writings in the South Country and The Heart of England. He also drew on his field note books from March the previous year and from the autumn of 1913, where many elements of the poem can be found.
When at Steep ET regularly described what he observed on his daily journey between his new house there and at his study at the top of the hangers in the garden of the Red House where they had lived previously.
From the evidence of the FNBs, Ambition was either written with the view from his study in mind or of the similar view further along Ashford Hangers from the heights of Shoulder of Mutton hill, looking out toward the valley of the Rother to the Downs. ET never tired of this view - the trees and meadows of the vale (as he often described it) and the flanks and tops of the South Downs and the wide sky. Ambition is focused on the valley rather than the imposing hills behind - his own Elysian Fields.
Clearly the memory of the steam train crossing the valley "with its bower of pure smoke" was one that stood out for ET among his many other observations of the vale, as one especially fitting for a poem. On March 6th 1914 he wrote of a morning of mixed weather in the valley with a bright start, then silent showers filling the vale with grey smoke though the Downs are clear and above them manes of white cloud against which heavier clouds sail over. At 12.50 "smoke of train in vale....is bright white vertebrae". He had written in similar terms before, though more often he noted the noise of the train below:- on 16th October 1913 there's the "rumbling train below"; a few days later "trains rumble as if very near'. On 24th October at 5.20 the "vale all but gone - owls bubbling hoot - loud peaceful roar of train". From the top of the hanger in different conditions the train sounded from below - c 3 or 4 miles at its nearest point - close, far, muted, loud - depending on the wind and other weather conditions. The poet took the "loud peaceful roar" and combining with the bower of purest smoke from the engine, produced the evocative "so fair it touched the roar with silence." ET used such oxymorons on a number of occasions in his early poems, notably in Interval with "stormy rest" and "roaring peace".
In ET's day there would have been two train lines operating in the valley - the London to Portsmouth line and the Midhurst to Petersfield, both stopping services operated by London & South West Railways. Both were in view of the Ashford Hangers though the Midhurst to Petersfield line, having a much longer line of sight from the hangers, would have been the very likely candidate, probably with the train steaming away from his viewing point en route to Midhurst along the Rother valley. The Midhurst to Petersfield line closed in 1953, white the London to Portsmouth line has become a commuter mainline - from the hangers you can see their electric blue and red/white and blue drift past regularly in a brief gap in the high ground between Sheet and Steep.
The early setting the scene of the day was typical of ET's jottings in his FNBs - what the previous night had been like, whether a frost or not, sunny or cloudy, the wind direction and strength, bird activity and flora spotting. As Edna Longley points out in the notes to Ambition in her annotated poems, the morning was a special time for ET. He wrote three poems about early morning aspirations - Ambition, The Glory and Health - and "the gap between aspiration or desire and its realisation, between the speaker's capacity and high possibilities symbolised by early morning, early Spring or both."
Of the bird life the jackdaws are especially active in the poem - and in his FNBs. They were one of his favourite birds. In his prose (eg January sunshine in Heart of England) and his FNBs he mentioned them regularly. A poacher in Beautiful Wales is quoted as stating there was "a bit of God" in that bird and speaks of their individuality approvingly. From the top of the hangers ET would have had a good view of their flight. On 20th September 1913 from his study he saw "high clacking jackdaws" - "clacking" was a favourite description of his for their call, but he described the calls of this gregarious bird in many ways, for instance "clicking", "interrogating & ejaculating"; a cry 'as sharp as stone bouncing on ice" or simply "jackdaws jack". On 3rd April 1911 he wrote from his house at the top of the hangers "Jackdaws soaring in bands and clacking - whatever I do or feel or think I am sure to hear a jackdaw laugh". For the drafting of Ambition he may have recalled this entry from 21st September 1913 "50 daws clack almost together in a lone volley wh(ich) tails off like crackers until (in a minute) there are but one or two challengers". (In this context "daws" probably described both jackdaws and rooks.)
The woodpecker also featured in a FNB entry for Easter Day 1914. It was a glorious clear cloudless morning with "the white frost dazzling from the almost unlookatable (sic) sun in its whiteness in the SE & woodpecker laughs continually." As Bronwen, his elder daughter and a budding naturalist (especially good at spotting the early flowers), woke, she said "The woodpecker always has something to laugh at". Later in the morning ET noted - "daws!' and their "clear shadow across rd".
In many entries in his field note books ET described the sky and cloud scapes. He has many different ways of describing the different iterations as they pass over the vale and elsewhere and he developed a wide vocabulary including the plumes, pearl and smoke he uses in the poem. On 19th October 1913 at 5.20 "the vale becomes practically one with the sky, uniform pale pearl that mists earth & sky upwards fr(om) just below slant of Hangers". Two days later first thing there was "a cold white sky plumed with cygnets' down". Going back to 1910 his entry on his 32nd birthday on 3rd March included many elements of the poem: "jackdaws soar & float....green woodpeckers shout long + loud, how lovely at 8 the white fields -dark woods - little houses sending thr(ough) mist of pearly smoke slowly.....all looks new born and fair".
Two other phrases in the poem stand out - the bower of smoke and the loveliness of prime. A bower is an inner chamber. ET in his description of cloudscapes and landscapes would differentiate between far clouds and nearer ones, smoke and mist and the sky beyond, describing and contrasting their different shapes in the form of earth-bound similes. So his observation of the train's smoke forming an inner chamber is precise in relation to the other bigger plumes and clouds that towered above and beyond it as the train went down the valley. Its perfection in shape and colour would have contrasted with the surrounding dirtier, shapeless emanations - whether cloud, mist or smoke - and given the viewer the feeling of not only witnessing but also being part of the impulse of creation.
The loveliness of prime drew on both the Christian liturgy where it is the second hour around sunrise and the linked meanings of the beginning of a period, be it Spring, an age or adulthood, when greatest perfection or the best part is achieved. Loveliness was a word that ET used sparingly, as his hero Richard Jefferies did, when describing something close to perfection.
From ET's solitary eyrie in his study or on the top of Shoulder of Mutton hill, Ambition described how an observer can feel he is the creative impulse of the view - a godlike conductor controlling the natural elements and breathing life into them. The zen-like state that the poet fell into created a sense of being apart and time suspended, even avoiding the characteristic guilt ET would feel when doing nothing ("nor even deplored/that I did nothing"). So inevitably after these lofty aspirations/this ambition, hubris followed with the scattering of the bower and "the end fell like a bell" as in Keats's Ode to a Nightingale.
It's likely that ET used many of the observations from his study at the top of Ashford Hangers for Ambition. However a good alternative viewpoint, and one of ET's favourite spots, can be found on the top of Shoulder of Mutton hill further along the hangers. A walk down the hill extends and deepens the views of the valley between hangers and Downs. "When First" is also famously connected to Shoulder of Mutton hill, and when this poem is covered in a future post, the appropriate walk will be up the slope as the poem describes an upward momentum.
In contrast Ambition requires an immersion in the view which can best be achieved by descending the slope. As one descends and the view opens up dramatically, there is also a sense that one is being projected out into the valley on a stage, becoming a protagonist, a reinforcement of that feeling of the observer becoming the creator, and of the poet's "ambition".
The Shoulder of Mutton hill was one of ET's favourite hills and he wrote about it at all seasons. In March, the month of Ambition, there are still relatively few flowers though primroses and violets proliferate, with lords and ladies and spurge showing through. In the woods of yew, beech and remaining ash, swathes of wild garlic and dog's mercury are marking out their territory. Blackthorn (sloe) blossom is beginning to appear.
Birds are less numerous than in ET's day but there are still woodpeckers busy tapping on a March morning in the beeches high on the hill, occasionally exclaiming/laughing much as he and Bronwen would have heard. The owls of Ashford Hangers are still quite common especially in Lutcombe Bottom and it is not unusual to hear their calls during the day as they hunt along the hangers, as well as at dusk, after dark and early in the morning.
Jackdaws also appear regularly in the hangers. There is something rather wonderful in watching jackdaws, rooks, pigeons etc launch from lower down the hanger into midair. It gives one a greater appreciation of their flight - not only the upward trajectory of the jackdaws' "challenges and menaces" to the sky but also their floating and soaring which can be observed to greater advantage from the side or above. The drama is heightened by the stage on which the birds are performing - with the vale below and the Downs as backdrop. The rooks would have been quite a warm act in the foreground as the steam train made its way down (or up) the Rother valley!
Nowadays you're more likely to see jackdaws and/or other members of the Corvid family challenge the buzzards flying high above the base of the hangers, a more common sight than in ET's day. (He hardly ever mentioned seeing buzzards or indeed any other predators in his FNBs probably because they were so closely controlled by gamekeepers.)
The walk can start where Litten lane and Old Cockshott Lane meet. If you follow Cockshott Lane east along the ridge of Ashford Hangers it takes you past two of the outstanding viewpoints of Southern England before heading off Wheatham hill down to the chalk pit on the lane at the bottom in under a mile. The first of these views on the top of Shoulder of Mutton, which is featured in Simon Jenkins' 100 Best Views, can be found if you turn right at the Hangers Way sign. (The second outstanding view is a few minutes along the ridge to the left at the top of Wheatham hill which is mentioned in "May 23rd" and will also be covered in the post on "The Glory".) The viewpoint at the top of Shoulder of Mutton is straight ahead. Framed by beech trees it provides a perfect picture of vale and downs, with the bulk of Ashford Chace in the foreground at the bottom if the hill with Berryfield Cottage to its right with its yew hedges, where the Thomases lived when they first moved to Steep (before the Chace was built). Beyond on Steep ridge is Bedales school and then beyond Petersfield, the distinctive top of West Harting Down.
As you descend towards the Poet's stone (which commemorates the hillside to ET's memory), the view opens up in a series of further magnificent panels, first of Butser Hill and the downland ridge to the west, framed by the curve of Stoner Hill. Then another encompassing a field with shepherd's hut, Little Langley's on its outcrop, Steep Farm, to the left, and then Sheet beyond and its distinctive church spire and on the South Downs ridge behind, South Harting Down and Beacon Hill. Eventually on the path, that crosses the hill below the Poet's stone there's a view to the east that can stretch beyond Chanctonbury Ring as far as the hills above Lewes, some 40 miles away.
The valley which is the focus of Ambition (as opposed to the hills of "When First") still looks like ET's Elysian Fields, especially on a bright frosty Spring morning. Beyond Ashford Chace, a landmark that stands out is the distinct white tower of Steephurst, the girl's boarding house at Bedales to the front and left of the main school block - Lupton Hall - both of which would have been seen by ET. There is nowadays in addition the bulk of the new art school to the left of the tower. Further to the left on the same ridge, almost hidden by trees is the little bell tower of Steep church.
Was the view of Bedales school especially in his mind when he wrote "Ambition"? He talks in the poem of "And through the valley where all the folk astir". At the end of December 1914, the month before he drafted this poem, he had written a letter to his old friend, Gordon Bottomley, declaiming "I don't like Bedales folk. All I like is the hills & my study...." ET had never found Bedales teachers congenial, and vice versa, unlike his wife Helen, who taught there. Steephurst tower had been built in 1908 when the girls' boarding house was extended - it would have been a prominent landmark from Shoulder of Mutton as it is today, and ET referred to it on an early April evening in 1911 as a "tower of stone or whitened brick (that) gleams white in the clear plain" . Is Ambition's "to tower/Over dark trees..." a glancing reference? Probably too far-fetched...
Further out is the spread of Petersfield, now much increased in all directions since ET's day though still mainly concealed from this section of the hangers. Beyond the land rises towards the Downs and the downland farms nestling at their base.
Down the hill at the path that crosses below the Poet's stone, the full stretch of the Midhurst to Petersfield line, looking South East towards the Cocking gap in the Downs, can be seen. It is not hard to imagine the train, the line of smoke - in a bower or vertebrae - and how "pure" and "closeknit" this would have been compared to the wisps and plumes of mist and cloud - and the poet glorying in its creation.
The walk can be extended by following this central path either left or right and following the contour round. Then at the next fork take a left or right up the hanger to get back to the viewpoint at the top of the hill.
The right hand path takes you under and over yews arriving at a main path heading down to Lutcombe Bottom, where you take a right and follow back up the hill. Spectacular views to the east unfold across Adhurst and Rake common towards Black Down above Haslemere and Older Hill and Woolbeding Common above Midhurst. To the South East the view extends along the Downs from the chalky patch above Cocking along to the fields above Duncton close to Petworth, and beyond Amberley to Chanctonbury Ring and towards Ditchling Beacon in the far distance.
The left hand path takes you to a gap in the trees looking out to South Harting Down over a ride full of dog's mercury. Beyond are many old badger setts. A bench commemorates the life of Ellen McCutcheon, the renowned landlady of the Harrow at Steep whose family continues to run that exemplary unique pub. Turning up the hill it's a steep initial climb to the top.
A full loop on these paths can be made but would need to be repeated to gain the full experience of walking up and down the top end of Shoulder of Mutton Hill.
Maps, coordinates, useful links
OS Map - Explorer OL33 Haslemere and Petersfield
Top of Ashford Hangers, Cockshott lane, Froxfield GU32 1AB
Shoulder of Mutton viewpoint - SU738269
A more extended walk described here; https://www.visit-hampshire.co.uk/downloads/dmsimgs/EdwardThomasWalk_1245734082.pdf