Updated: Apr 19
What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill-at-ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph -
'Here lies all that no-one loved of him
And that loved no-one.' Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied. But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening while it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through the window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unswerving to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there.
Beauty was inspired by a very specific memory that Edward Thomas had from nearly five years before he wrote the poem on 21st January 1915. He wrote in his Field Note Book (No 42) on 8th April 1910, noting the time at 5.15pm:
I sit at tea table tired, angry ill at ease w(ith) children talking abt me & yet I see beauty in the dim-lit quiet vale w(ith) its brown misting trees, its white gables & its gentle curving downs just visible. I see it all far away & lovely & something - some little thing ----- flies to it & is happy while I am sad & sick & weary. Late light coming from low gap in a misted & yellowish clouded sky."
The Thomas family had moved the previous autumn into the house at Wick Green at the top of Ashford Hangers that Geoffrey Lupton had built for them. So ET was having tea that Friday in the kitchen of the Red House, probably with his wife, Helen, certainly with his children. Presumably as normal he had spent much of the day working in his study in The Bee-Hive next door. The Red House has breathtaking views from the house and gardens down on to Petersfield, the Rother Valley and the South Downs beyond. ET never tired of these views, though later he hated the new house because of its exposed position (as described in his later poems The New House and Wind and Mist).
The field note entry is towards the end of the note book and out of chronological order with other dated entries. ET often used the last few pages of these note books to jot down ideas for subjects to write about. In 1910 this would have been for a prose piece rather than a poem. It would seem that he had decided then and there to use this as a subject and so put it towards the end of the field note book rather than where it would normally fall sequentially.
There is a note book entry in the correct sequence from quarter an hour later at 5.30pm on 8th April:
"Cloudy later after(noon) of a warmish N windy day - the vale E ward is smoky dark, but Petersfield & mounded trees nearby catches the soft fold fr(om) a blue gilt edged pane in the W(est) - and it seems to dream, be blest & yet is unconscious of it like an angelic blessed sky & blackbirds sing alone calmly & slowly & sweet. In 1/4 hr afterwards the sun was setting huge clear & scarlet in a dulled cloudy sky."
The sense of beauty in the vale that had moved him 15 minutes before now imbued the landscape in one of the most lyrical passages in any of ET's notebooks. The tree, which he imagined the dove slanting down to in the poem, may have been one of the mounded trees that had caught the light of the late afternoon sun. The white gables glinting from the vale in the original note may have been those of Bedales School's Dining Hall or Steephurst , the girl's house, which had recently been extended.
Neither entry for 8th April 1910 mention a specific bird, though many of his entries do. ET, always interested in birds, now from his eyrie at the top of the hangers could watch the flight of different birds - jackdaws in particular, but also rooks, pigeons, woodpeckers, kestrels etc. Pewits appeared frequently in his notes but not around the hangers. However one was mentioned a little later in April:
"A pewit wheels in this misty wind. I think even so shall I return & wail about places."
This may explain his choice in the poem of a solitary pewit, which was normally a bird he saw in large numbers manoeuvring about the country. One on its own was very unusual and may have added emphasis to its solitariness and, thus, its affinity with ET in his mood of alienation.
Earlier that spring on a couple of occasions, he had also seen the doves (white pigeons) on the Manor Farm roof at the remote hamlet of Priors Dean. On a warm February day he had noted:
"I shd like to be white pigeon on the long steep roof of brown old tiles in the sun when there is no wind & the farm yard is hushed & the horses swish their tails & the manes hang over eyes."
This image became central to his poem The Manor Farm written at Christmas 1914 - see separate post.
His mind was clearly on metamorphosis that spring of 1910!
It was a difficult time with a number of books planned but his research for them was in the very early stages and the path was not clear. He was also working hard creating a garden (which he later described in Wind and Mist "The clay first broke my heart, and then my back" (also thus stated in letters to Gordon Bottomley who supplied fresh plants for the new garden). The weather had just broken a couple of days before "after a month's fine dry weather a day of rain & a night, then a day of mist & occasional light drizzle & no wind."
His mood, like the weather, was changeable as reflected in the poem. It seems to have continued to swing about. For instance a few days later on 11th April from a promising start in the morning and a family expedition to Priors Dean, at sunset he saw on a grey bare field "a few pale ducks waddling & grubbing over it in the hush & stillness & (I) thought even so w(ould) they grub & waddle on the day I die." Thoughts of how little people would care about his death recur in his field note books and surface in poems including Beauty and, most fully, in What will they do?
In a field note book devoted to his time at Steep four years later in the spring of 1914 there's an incomplete epitaph, alone on the page as if he had jotted it down before he forgot it and so he could work on it later: "Here lies all that we did not love of..." The epitaph in the poem seems to have been based on this original construct and developed to reflect his bout of self-pity.
So the poem drew on a number of thoughts that ET had jotted down in his field notes, in particular in the spring of 1910.
But it also drew on a much older memory from childhood, as he intimated in a note following a second visit to Priors Dean in March 1910.
"Priors Dean Manor in sun w pigeons on steep tiles - it was not so when I kept pigeons"
ET had been an enthusiastic, if not very successful, pigeon-fancier in his youth in SW London where many of his neighbours kept homing pigeons in cages in their lofts. In his autobiography, The Childhood of Edward Thomas, he wrote of the sublime feeling when watching the "high circlings visible from our back gardens, and....rushing lower flight between the chimney pots" of a neighbour's pigeons. Earlier he had written of another friend and neighbour, Henry's pigeons which "ascended half a mile high and remained circling for a great time." His own, which were of many varieties, "never flew much higher than the topmost chimney pots, and they used to get lost or caught by cats."
From his new house and study at the top of the hangers he was able to observe moment by moment the flights of birds coming and going, climbing and plunging, against a far more magnificent backdrop than London between the commons. He regularly noted down these sightings and it clearly gave him considerable pleasure, which never ceased, and was also a reminder of that first feeling of the sublime when young.
The image of the dove that "slants unswerving to its home and love" in the poem not only linked back to his childhood home in London. Its flight to the vale also connected their homes in Hampshire. In the poem he was looking out at the glorious view from his home at Wick Green, Froxfield, the family's second house in Hampshire. Their first was at Berryfield Cottage, just out of view to the left, at the bottom of Shoulder of Mutton Hill and the beginning of the vale. According to his wife, Helen, it was the family's favourite house. Their third Hampshire home at Yew Tree cottage, Steep, where ET was writing the poem, was also in the vale, almost in sight of Wick Green, round the corner of the shoulder of Stoner Hill. So the poet was remembering looking down from one home into the vale towards two others, one past, one future, while imagining a dove's downward flight that he had first witnessed from his childhood home.
As well as looking back at layers of memories, Beauty also looks forward. As ET quoted his hero, Richard Jefferies, in his biography on beauty being "an expression of hope....while the heart is absorbed in its contemplation, unconscious but powerful hope is filling the breast." In January 1915, ET had been incapacitated for over a couple of weeks with an ankle injury, confined to Yew Tree Cottage. During that time he was writing poetry, sifting through his field note books and the memories they engendered for inspiration. Though there were times he felt caged and disconsolate he was writing nearly a poem a day. Finally he was achieving self fulfilment and a realisation of his hopes. His moods were probably as changeable as when he had jotted down the original note on Beauty in the spring of 1910. The memories of the views, and the bird flights he could see, from the top of Ashford Hangers, where he still kept his study, which he had not been able to visit while laid up, would have provided some consolation and balm to the soul. But the poem is not just a description of beauty and hope. It is also a manifestation of the same, a hope that was less fragmentary and more substantial than in 1910, as he created his 30th poem.
The dream world of poesy that offered the resolution in the poem (as Jean Marsh describes it) and the series of metaphors as a curative process (Edna Longley) were in fact well grounded in ET's day-to-day experiences and observation. Looking at the magnificent views of the Rother vale below, the South Downs beyond and the skies above, and watching birds in flight (and indeed at rest) could literally take him out of himself. He had never been able to express in prose the feelings he had identified that day in 1910. Now in poetry he was able at last express the essence of beauty, renewal and happiness that had countered the sense of alienation when he sat at tea on that late Friday afternoon. And nearly five years later, laid up in the unpromising surrounds of Yew Tree Cottages, he was also expressing hope in the fulfilment of his destiny as a poet - "through the dusk air/ Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there."
The views south and west from the Red House which ET was remembering remain as magnificent as ever. From the window he was looking out of you can see the trees arrayed across the vale and climbing the shoulder of Stoner Hill and making forays up and on top of the Downs on the horizon. In the middle distance Bedales School is more substantial than in ET's day - the white tower of Steephurst had just been built but the Lupton Library and Hall beyond were not built until after 1910 when ET made the original notes. To the left Steep church tower can be seen prodding above the trees and from the westernmost side of the garden the more prominent steeple of Sheet church can be spied. Beyond lies the huddle of Petersfield and then rising farm land to the base of the Downs. The stretch of downs runs from West Harting Down to Manorfarm Down above Cocking via Tower Hill, South Harting Down, Beacon Hill, Treyford Hill, Didling Hill, Linch Down, and Bepton and Cocking Downs.
Birds do slant down from the height of the hangers towards the combe below - often the ubiquitous pigeon, more common then than now, and the jackdaw, a favourite candidate for ET's favourite bird. They fly up to the edge of the coombe and then plunge or tumble down. An occasional buzzard can be seen rising with the thermals - rare in ET's day probably because gamekeepers were able to kill them.
Within all this glory, the terraced garden and hedges provide a lovely immediate setting. In ET's day this would have been the original uncultivated hill top. There is a contemporaneous picture showing the view from the east end of the house towards Lupton's workshop which is completely bare, with no vegetation - not even a tree. Now there are a multitude of trees, hedges, flowerbeds and terraces to protect against the elements. ET spent much time creating a garden, contending with flint and clay as described in his poems Wind and Mist, eventually defeated as it "...first broke my heart, and then my back".
The best walk in the immediate vicinity is the same as for After Rain - see that post for details.
The OS map for the Ashford Hangers is OS Explorer OL33 Haslemere & Petersfield
Thanks in particular to the Handleys who have generously allowed me access to the Red House and its gardens and permission to photograph their lovely house and gardens and its magnificent views.
Field Note Books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York
I have also quoted from The Childhood of Edward Thomas and Richard Jefferies. .
My thanks as ever to Ben Mackay for editorial support.