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An Old Song II

Updated: Mar 12

The sun set, the wind fell, the sea

Was like a mirror shaking:

The one small wave that clapped the land

A mile-long snake of foam was making

Where tide had smoothed and wind had dried

The vacant sand.

A light divided the swollen clouds

And lay most perfectly

Like a straight narrow footbridge bright

That crossed over the sea to me;

And no one else in the whole world

Saw the same sight.

I walked elate, my bridge always

Just one step from my feet:

A robin sang, a shade in shade:

And all I did was to repeat:

'I'll go no more a-roving

With you, fair maid.'

The sailors' song of merry loving

With dusk and sea-gull's mewing

Mixed sweet, the lewdness far outweighed

By the wild charm the chorus played:

"I'll go no more a-roving

With you, fair maid:

A-roving, a-roving, since roving's been my ruin,

I'll go no more a-roving with you, fair maid."

In Amsterdam there dwelt a maid -

Mark well what I do say -

In Amsterdam there dwelt a maid

And she was mistress of her trade:

I'll go no more a-roving

With you, fair maid:

A-roving, a-roving, since roving's been my ruin,

I'll go no more a-roving with you, fair maid.

Edward Thomas’s second Old Song written on Boxing Day 1914, drew on memories of seven years before when he was staying at Minsmere, near Dunwich on the coast of Suffolk. He was there from shortly after Christmas in 1907 for the whole of January and February of 1908. He wrote up his field notebooks of the time (FNB 14 & FNB 15) most days throughout his stay, describing the shoreline, sea views, skyscapes and landscapes in varying weather conditions and at different times of the day.

Unlike An Old Song I, which includes a number of his exploits, An Old Song II is based almost entirely on what he saw and felt after sunset on 4th January 1908 with some supplementary detail from other entries in January. 

He had gone to Minsmere to write his book on Richard Jefferies, something he had found difficult to do at home. He was staying in one of the remote coast guard cottages on Minsmere cliffs overlooking the sea, surrounded by the moorland of Dunwich Heath. From there he could see up the coast to Dunwich and beyond, as far as Southwold, and southwards lay the Minsmere levels of salt marshes and dykes. He was immediately taken with these new surroundings. On the afternoon of 2nd January he wrote:

“Beauty of the foamy sided lofty wall as the horizontal sunbeams strike full upon it & make it warmish yellow while all the rest of sea is cold & steely & heaving - while the wind rasps & carves the sandy cliff. Dunwich ch(urch) ruin is sandyish yellow for the while & the foam slides up like table cloth sliding on a smooth top.”

“Southward the flat Minsmere land is all hazy & glittering in strong sun so that windmills are just visible, & the herd of small black cattle & the dim low trees very far beyond.”

The following day he noted a robin after sunset on the sand below Minsmere cliffs. That day he focused on describing the sunset, a favourite subject wherever he was. He wrote: “No clouds visible but just a rich yellow & orange glow SW the sea iron-brown with white perpendicular waves all cold & the glow fading above into pale cold blue or purple in which is the liquid white evening star (Venus). The sunrises out of the sea are equally simple - the sun small & red, the sea cold & dark, the sky cold & pale.” 

The sunset and its aftermath. the following day, on the 4th January was what he was remembering in particular nearly 7 years later when writing An Old Song II:

“4 i 08 just after sunset 

Sea a wavering mirror-like grey green, sombre white almost level & one wonders why just at the edge it should fall lazily & smack about with foam every 2 seconds - no wind - although sun is set a gap in the soft bulging grey blue clouds lets thro(ugh) some white light wh(ich) lies in a lane across the sea (there are one or two of these lanes SW & S ward)

the MInsmere cliff is hazy textureless grey against a smoky red - smoke of a steamer is stiff upright & dark (like ostrich feather).

“One of these lanes is of a delicious crisp almost glistening/glittering?  palest green & if ahead? are like froth of champagne - as I looked at it the song of ‘Amsterdam came into my mind’ & did not spoil the cold white plunging edge of the mile long curving beach.”

Most of the elements of the poem are here - the sunset, the wind which had fallen, the sea like a wavering or shaking mirror, the wave smacking or clapping the edge along the mile long sandy beach, the gap in the swollen or bulging clouds that let through white light which lay in a lane or bridge across the sea; and the song, Amsterdam coming into his mind.

A few days later he wrote “Each of us has his own moon bridge over a sea which no one else can share.” This was not a new idea for him. As Edna Longley has pointed out, he had used the image in a review about the “supremacy” of lyric poetry since the Romantics in the Daily Chronicle back in 1901. He had written “Everyone must have noticed, standing on the shore, when the sun or moon is over the sea, how the highway of light on the water comes right to his feet, and how those on the right and the left seem not to be sharing his pleasure, but to be in darkness. In some such way the former class (those practising the art of lyric poetry) views life.” 

The song, Amsterdam, at first seems to be a strange juxtaposition in his mind with this wintry view of sea, sky and beach. An immediate assumption could be that ET, looking out along his “moon bridge”, would have known that on the other side of the North Sea was Holland and the city of Amsterdam, pretty much at the same latitude. So his bridge would have taken him there! 

However this “sailor’s song of merry loving” suggests much more than this was going on in ET’s mind. 

The song The Maid of Amsterdam or A-roving is a British sea shanty and cautionary tale which dates back at least to the 17th century. There are a number of variations but the common theme is that the sailor concludes that he will no longer go roving with the maid because “roving’s been my ruin”. This may be either because the maid is married and the husband appears, or she has the pox or has taken his money. An early version describes the progression as the sailor becomes more intimate with the maid until the inevitable denouement. 

The song coming into his mind that wintry evening was prompted by a maid, but very different from the maid of the song. 

When ET was looking around for a place, away from home, where he could write his book on Richard Jefferies, their friends the Hootons came to the rescue. Janet Hooton, nee Aldis was Helen’s best friend from childhood and Harry her husband had become close to ET. They offered him their Coast Guard cottage at Minsmere, which they rented next door to Janet’s parents, who rented three other cottages for themselves and their grown-up daughters. The other four cottages were rented by their friends, the Webbs, who had eight children. 

One of these, Hope Webb, aged 17, became an object of powerful attraction to ET.  She had “two long plaits of dark brown hair & the richest grey eyes, very wild & shy….I liked her for her wild youthfulness & remoteness from myself.” . Over the Christmas holidays they had walked together along the coast, beach combing and collecting pebbles and shells and discussing poetry - she was an embryonic poet. To Walter de la Mare he had written that “she is ….a particular lovely age” because she was the same age as Helen when they had  met so “in the presence of this new one I had the sharpest pains and pleasure of retrospection, longing and ———-“. 

As with Helen, he lent Hope books and talked to her about their shared love of the outdoor life, nature and the landscape of the Suffolk coast. He seems to have told Helen all about Hope. She remembered her fondly as she had been her governess, when Hope was a young girl, during the time she and ET were courting. Indeed Hope seems to have confided in Helen as well. Helen was concerned enough about the relationship to pour into a series of letters to her husband questions, advice and warnings in which she veered between being wounded and conciliatory, though always loving. 

In her memoir World without end Helen tells of the Edward Thomas figure, David, describing the relationship: “He said she was like a wild, timid sea-bird and that only very gradually had he overcome her shyness…. To David she was beautiful creature, more a dryad or sea nymph than a beautiful girl.” There may have been an element of wishful thinking in this, but in any event by January Hope was back at school and, though there was much correspondence between them over the next couple of months, ET was left increasingly dissatisfied. In further letters to friends he confessed that Hope was becoming a remote idealised figure for him, almost a fantasy figure, though somewhat let down by her letter writing. 

As ET was leaving Minsmere in early March, after Helen had come to stay for a few days, Hope’s father, a writer and poet, getting wind of the unsuitable relationship, had suggested no further contact and ET had been thoroughly mortified. 

But a couple of months earlier on 4th January 1908 ET was feeling very different. Hope was just back at boarding school and his thoughts were very much focused on the feelings the girl had inspired in him. He wrote in a letter to a friend “I have become so deeply corrupted. My wife and family are completely forgotten among these delights.” As in the poem he “walked elate”.

On the Minsmere beach or cliffs that evening in early January 1908, looking along the coastline where they had so recently walked together, into his mind came the lines of the song “I’ll go no more a-roving with you, fair maid”. Literally true, it was also ironical as he contrasted the innocence of the maid with the lascivious nature of the song, and it must also have prompted that feeling of unfulfilled longing he expressed in his letter to Walter de la Mare. In the poem written 7 years later long after the initial passion had died down, he was quick to make the point that the lewdness of the song was far outweighed by the wild charm of the sea shore, that wild charm presumably personified in the young innocent Hope. 

Both Old Songs have Thomas poking fun at himself with private jokes that would have only been known to himself and a few confidantes. In the first he referenced the gamekeeper, met with Robert Frost on a November evening a few weeks before he wrote the poem whom he had declined to fight, an inglorious incident that left him feeling he needed to prove something. While in An Old Song II he was remembering the relationship with an innocent young 17 year old that never got beyond conversing on walks and in letters and where contact had been unequivocally stopped through interventions from Helen and Hope's father. So in the spirit of entertainment and humour of the underlying folk songs - The Lincolnshire Poacher and The Maid of Amsterdam - he was adding to each a veiled joke at his own expense which he, in particular, would have been all too aware of.

A walk 

The coastguard cottages where ET stayed that winter of 1908 still stand on the Minsmere cliffs looking out on the North Sea.  They are now owned by the National Trust and are open to the public throughout the year and it is possible to stay there. 

Views extend south along the coast and over Minsmere reed beds to the dome of Sizewell which dominates the horizon; and north along the shingle beech to Dunwich and in the far north, Southwold.

A good walk can be done from the coastguard cottages along the beach to Dunwich and then up on the cliffs through the ruins of Greyfriars Abbey and its woods and across Dunwich Heath back to the cottages. 

The beach curves round in the “mile-long snake of foam” to Dunwich. Nowadays there is more shingle than sand. When he had first seen the sea here, ET had thought it resembled a brown Welsh peaty mountain and he had only known it to be the sea “when I saw the three banks/walls of white wave with which it was entrenched at the edge.” 

Thereafter he was constantly finding new ways to describe the waves - against the shingle they were “like soldiers grounding arms perfunctorily”; in a January gale they were a “procession in ghostly lines trooping across"; in early February “the level tide (is) sliding up with freight of towering foam which slides stately back and gets swallowed by the next glide of level wave”. Two days later the sea is “in bands of coloured blue green grey rosy so gentle that (we) talked on the very edge". A few days later he wrote “now and then when largest wave has fallen & is spurting up in bubbly quarrelling curdling foam, when the tall broad white wave lies slain quivering upon the sand, I hear skylarks notes above the heather”. The foam of the sea came  “like bobbing rats” or “like so many chickens retreating…in fright”. One late February evening with Jupiter, Sirius and Venus visible, the sea was “very dark (except at horizon which is silvery with remains of gold dissolving in it) & the two lines of white waves are singularly beautiful, as they throw up a continual waving vapour or muslin of foam.”

Along the beach ET had hunted for pebbles with Hope and he continued to do so after she returned to school. After one tide he noted “blue pebbles strewn so carefully”; after another “pebbles arranged like mounds of dung on a grass field”. In a lyrical moment he wrote “This beautiful life where clouds cannot help being fairly spun & carved, or pebbles being delicious to eye & touch.”

Out to sea there was more to see in ET’s day than nowadays with steamers and sailing boats plying trade between harbours up and down the Suffolk coast and further afield. After walking for sometime on the moor around the coastguard cottages ET had come back in sight of the “pale & quiet” sea and seen “one breathless ship or even 5 or 6 and it seems to be on the lower sky that they are floating”. On a still morning “one ship seems flying against the sky - for the sky ends (where the sea ends) at my feet at foot of cliff.” 

At the northern horizon at the top of “a perfect huge curve of foamy coast” was Southwold with its red light (now white) of lighthouse. He noted “Southwold scarcely visible, but the curve of shore with heavings of tree covered land is fair & dim —clean pale sandy cliffs hard & bright.” 

Crunching along the pebbly beach under sandy crumbling cliffs, it’s about a mile and a half along the beach from the foot of Minsmere cliffs to Dunwich. In ET’s day, as he described, there was still a ruined church on the cliffs above the beach at Dunwich (“Four arches & a broken tower, pale & airy.”) It finally fell into the sea in 1919. This was the last of a dozen or so Dunwich churches that had succumbed to the sea, together with monasteries, convents, hospitals, shipyards, merchants' houses and warehouses, and fortifications (against man and sea). The city had been a major European seaport in the Middle Ages but its foundations on shifting sand and clay could not withstand the ever encroaching sea. Two catastrophic incursions following storms in 1285 and 1328 destroyed much of the port and town. They were followed by further episodic encroachments of the sea over the centuries, which, together with endless erosion, left Dunwich a shadow of its past glory. 

The village is nowadays centred on its excellent pub, The Ship and St James, its parish church, built to replace All Saints in the 19th century. On the cliffs above are the fine ruins of Greyfriars Abbey and on the path up to it can be found the last grave of All Saints graveyard close to the cliff edge. 

Going through the woods behind the extensive Abbey grounds you follow a side road  until it reaches the road from Dunwich to Westleton. On the left there is a footpath taking you down a drive into Greyfriars woods. Through the woods you cross over the road to the Coastguard cottages. On the left there is a path that runs parallel to the road taking you across Dunwich Heath towards the Coastguard Cottages, alternatively follow the path straight on for a more extensive walk over the common. 

ET described Dunwich Common or Heath thus: 

“One of earth’s most lovely & close coverings is on Dunwich Common - heather (purple, green, iron grey on silver stems, rosy etc), low gorse with it, & this is padded with mats of moss, & on that silver lichen!”

Amidst the gorse and heather, there are clusters of birch, pine, holly and holm oak.

The lone telegraph wire on which ET saw starlings dispersing and regathering has gone. Nowadays there is less feeling of remoteness at the Coastguard Cottages when open to visitors. But the surroundings are still very beautiful and wild and, after the visitors have left, it can feel as far-flung as when Thomas was there over a century ago. 


Field note books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York.

Transcriptions of Edward Thomas's Field Notebooks 14 and 15 which cover his stay at Minsmere are available in the Edward Thomas Study Centre at Petersfield Museum.

I have also drawn on Edward Thomas's letters to Gordon Bottomley and Walter de la Mare; Helen Thomas's World without end; Edna Longley's Annotated poems, and Jean Moorcroft Wilson's and Matthew Hollis's biographies of Edward Thomas - with thanks.

More on the National Trust coastguard cottages on Dunwich Heath can be found here:

There are also two excellent, comfortable pubs close by to stay and for good food - The Westleton Crown and The Ship at Dunwich:

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