Updated: Mar 6
Thinking of her had saddened me at first,
Until I saw the sun on the celandines lie
Redoubled, and she stood up like a flame,
A living thing, not what before I nursed,
The shadow I was growing to love almost,
The phantom, not the creature with bright eye
That I had thought never to see, once lost.
She found the celandines of February
Always before us all. Her nature and name
Were like those flowers, and now immediately
For a short swift eternity back she came,
Beautiful, happy, simply as when she wore
Her brightest bloom among the winter hues
Of all the world; and I was happy too,
Seeing the blossoms and the maiden who
Had seen them with me Februarys before,
Bending to them as in and out she trod
And laughed, with locks sweeping the mossy sod.
But this was a dream: the flowers were not true,
Until I stooped to pluck from the grass there
One of five petals and I smelt the juice
Which made me sigh, remembering she was no more,
Gone like a never perfectly recalled air.
Edward Thomas wrote Celandine on 4th March 1916, at a time when the flower had been out at most for a couple of weeks. Lesser Celandines were one of the flora and fauna with which he marked the seasons each year, as it was one of the first spring flowers to appear. Gilbert White in his Natural History of Selborne in the 18th century had observed the average first flowering was on 21st February and this has remained unchanged over the centuries since.
ET noted down its appearance from February onwards, around home and on his travels. Its “brilliant gold blossoms” feature in his earliest book, The Woodland Life, and he extolled it in his chapter on first daffodils in The Heart of England - their goldness together being “a brand upon winter that marked it for death.” Lesser Celandines braided his bike ride to the Quantocks from London at Easter 1913 which he described in his book In Pursuit of Spring. He noted how it reflected the sun, “redoubling” it as in the poem. “The sun poured out light on flooded waters, on purple-side thickets of alder, and celandines under them….as if all was now to be well.” Later, even in the shadow of steep banks, the celandines “found something like sunbeams to shine in”. Lesser celandines come out in the sun, closing up when the light and temperature wane.
The sun and celandines are partnered throughout his writings. One of his sightings was of “ivy & celandine in sun” on the banks of Nunney Brook in Somerset, on February 23rd 1913. On a sunny April day, much closer to home, in Ludcombe, the wooded source of Ashford or Ludcombe stream, he noted the sun on the ripples of the stream “meshed like honeycomb”; on the flints where the earliest tortoiseshell would alight; and on the celandines and other flowers and leaves in the shady coombe.
Lesser celandine is a great coloniser of stream banks and ditches as well as damp woodland paths. So the Ludcombe would have been an ideal place to see this early flower, a few minutes up the lane from Berryfield Cottage, their first home in Hampshire (and where it is still profuse).
There have been a number of different views on the identity of the maiden who is the spirit of the celandine in the poem. An early suggestion was that she was Helen, ET’s wife; more recently a consensus has formed that she represents, at least partially, Hope Webb, an 18 year old girl he met in Suffolk a few years before with whom he had a brief but intense platonic relationship before it was terminated by her parents.
However all the traits and habits of the maiden in the poem point clearly to another candidate, much closer to home, his eldest daughter, Bronwen. He wrote of her when she was born “an ugly healthy thing with a lot of black hair and blue eyes”. She swiftly became his great favourite, even more so as she nearly died aged 18 months old. He variously described her as “the genius of smiles”, “irrepressible”, “the merry one” and “dear and joyful.”
Bronwen is the character who appears most frequently in his field note books, where ET jotted down her perceptive or amusing remarks, (as he did in letters to friends). She was a great naturalist from an early age and always spotted the first flowers - whether violets, primroses or celandines. This was something ET also used to pride himself upon. He had, when young, written a notebook which matched the first sightings of Gilbert White, the great 18th century naturalist, with his own observations. As Eleanor Farjeon wrote, in response to the later “household” poem for Bronwen, If I should ever by chance, “He vied with her in finding the first things of the year in the Hampshire hedgerows.”
So Bronwen was certainly the girl who found the lesser celandines of February “always before us all” and “had seen them with me Februarys before.” ET wrote a short prose piece called The Flower Gatherer in his 1911 collection of Light and Twilight which was said to be based on her, about a girl who loved picking flowers and sadly drowns when she over-reaches and falls in the stream.
He also had described the young Bronwen previously with other characteristics of the maiden in the poem. When she was 4 years old in 1907 he wrote of her stopping “..to smell a low flower & her hair falls all over it on to the ground” , becoming in the poem her "locks sweeping the mossy sod.” (The black hair of her infancy had become corn coloured and haylike as a child.)
Earlier in the same year he had also written a description of Bronwen in one of his notebooks under the title “Projects”:
“Bronwen’s vivacity in talking, laughing, running, merely looking at you w(ith) wide eyes or throwing her head right back so as to thicken her white neck in abandonment of laughing - her life is like a flame burning straight as/among dry wood so that one wonders how it can last - the joy of the flame tearing through obstacles, careless, unconscious, determined, vivacious - She flames along as she runs, her laugh is a flame and we must (look) at it.”
So here, in addition to her powers of observation and her sweeping locks, are the straight flame, the laughter and the brightness of the girl in the poem. ET jotted down such notes as ideas for future writing which, in 1907, would have been future prose pieces, but which he often turned to much later during his poetry writing, for instance for Beauty, Ambition, The Chalk Pit, A Private, Old Song and many more.
This delving back in time may also explain why ET saw her in the poem as a shadow or phantom, and finally that “she was no more”. For the four year old Bronwen he described in 1907 was by 1916 a young teenager and swiftly growing up, for instance wanting to wear see-through stockings, something which ET disapproved of. Although still adored by him, she had lost the infant precocity which ET had loved to observe. (Aged 3 she had been asked by her religious grandfather, ET’s father “What is little Bronwen going to do this lovely Sunday?” She had shocked him, and hugely amused her father, by responding “Going dungin’” as she pushed her wheelbarrow in which she collected muck for her father’s garden.)
In the poem the maiden is the spirit of Celandine - “Her nature and name/Were like those flowers…” Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas’s great friend and a close friend of all the family said of Bronwen “Her nature was ‘very gay’, to a sharp accent from her father she answered airily: “very well, very well, my dear sir!” and did what he wanted smilingly.” As a result, according to EF, Bronwen “adored her father, was adored by him”.
Her father described at Christmas 1907 how, when he was inclined to be depressed and irritable “Bronwen excelled herself in joy and expressions of joy”.
The celandine also has strong associations with joy. It was the symbol of “joy to come” for the Victorians and one of its folk names was “Spring Messenger”, something which Bronwen could also lay claim to with her ability to hunt out the earliest Spring flowers. The name Bronwen means fair breasted, beautiful and blessed - all of which can also be used to describe the Celandine.
One of ET’s first poems was Old Man, about the Southern-wood plant which he grew in each of his gardens, his youngest daughter, Myfanwy’s response to it and the elusive memories that its scent raised in him of his childhood. In Celandine, another of his favourite plants (as it was for Wordsworth), the scent brings back elusive memories of his elder daughter, when she was young “gone like a never perfectly recalled air”.
Most celandines have 8 or 9 petals and can have as many as 12. So his plucking of one with five petals to smell suggests a particular significance for such an observant naturalist as ET. It could possibly be an especially early one, with only a few petals that had developed or one that had been damaged by the elements of February. So a five petal celandine would for ET have been the very earliest sign of Spring becoming a reality, while reminding him that his elder daughter, who always found the first flowers, had now grown out of childhood.
ET probably wrote Celandine when at his military camp in Essex, having seen the flower locally. However he was remembering his elder daughter finding celandines each early spring, round their home in Hampshire.
Bronwen was 4 when the family moved from the Weald south of Sevenoaks to Berryfield Cottage, under Ashford Hangers in Hampshire. Though not a great walker, unlike her father, she would have been able to explore the hangers and coombes nearby. One frequent foray was to Lutcombe, or Ludcombe as they knew it, a couple of hundred yards from their house. ET noted Ludcombe as the site of celandines on a number of occasions. In March 1909 they walked up Ludcombe on several consecutive days. On March 12th he noted that Bronwen had found the first celandines, the day after she had found the first violets. He continued:
“6.15pm Beauty of Ludcombe in twilight w(ith) smoke & gloom all but hiding the separate boles wh(ich) are like things at bottom of pool, but they roar continuously in the high W. snowy wind.”
It’s still the perfect place to find them and they are still profuse. In those days the stream between the pond and Ludcombe cottage (the ruins of which have long since disappeared) at the bottom of the hangers, just as they rise steeply, was more open than it is now with a field on one side of it. Between the pond and the lane the land either side was parkland but the stream was probably, as it is now, under trees and underwood which would have been a good habitat for celandines to grow in the early spring before the canopy had developed. Nowadays celandines congregate either side of the path and the stream
Beyond the site of the old Lutcombe cottage the Combe winds up into Stoner Hill. The first stretch round the stream bed under the trees would have been a good damp place for hunting celandines. The earliest ones appear on the sunnier bank close to the stream where they receive more nutrients and warmth.
There is a parking place opposite the gates of Ashford Manor and you walk up the track (part of the Hangers Way) to Lutcombe pond, probably the inspiration for Bright Clouds which ET was to write on leave a few months after he wrote Celandine (see Bright Clouds post).
Close to the site of the Lutcombe Cottage, the stream goes under the track and you take a path on the left hand side of the stream up into Lutcombe. You can walk up this Combe right to the corner of the road that snakes up Stoner Hill. Although you can hear traffic above you on either side, you still get a feeling of remoteness under the beech and yew trees. It’s a strange fastness which, like other Combes, along the hangers has an unearthly atmosphere (see The Combe post). After exploring the top of Lutcombe you can return to the lane via a number different paths along the Combe bottom or the side of the Hangers.
The OS map for Ashford Hangers and Lutcombe is OS Explorer OL33 Haslemere & Petersfield.
Car parking at the entrance of the track up to Lutcombe on Ashford Lane is at SU737264.
Field note books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York.
Photographs of Ludcombe Cottage from the collection of the late father of Sue Inglis with thanks, and courtesy and copyright of Steep History Group 2021.
Thanks to Kate Ford for providing the Edward Thomas postcard of Ludcombe pond.
Photographs of Bronwen thanks to Edward Thomas: A Life in Pictures by Richard Emeny
My thanks as always to Ben MacKay for editorial support.