March the third
Updated: Apr 6
Here again (she said) is March the third
And twelve hours' singing for the bird
'Twixt dawn and dusk, from half-past six
To half-past six, never unheard.
'Tis Sunday, and the church-bells end
When the birds do. I think they blend
Now better than they will when passed
Is this unnamed, unmarked godsend.
Or do all mark, and none dares say,
How it may shift and long delay,
Somewhere before the first of Spring,
But never fails, this singing day?
And when it falls on Sunday, bells
Are a wild natural voice that dwells
On hillsides; but the birds' songs have
The holiness gone from the bells.
This day unpromised is more dear
Than all the named days of the year
When seasonable sweets come in,
Because we know how lucky we are.
March the third was Edward Thomas’s birthday. It was a day he often wrote about in his notebooks, but the poem is not based directly on any of these notes. Instead it draws on a number of notebook entries about other Spring days when ET noted church bells and bird songs combining.
On 21st February 1915, a few weeks before he wrote the poem, he noted “Thrushes & blackbirds sing up to 6pm - along with the church bells now on Sunday in the still clear cold evening - now and then one blackbird 1/2 mile off sings alone between thrushes talk & chatter.” He goes on to describe two Seaforths stopping at the gate, probably at his house in Steep, and one saying to the other “D’ ye ken that bird saying "Cn ye do it? Can ye do it?” (A battalion of Seaforth Highlanders had been moved to Petersfield in November 1914 and moved to Salisbury Plain at the end of February, before being sent to France and the trenches in the summer.)
A few day later on his birthday itself he noted “Birds now sing 12 hrs - from 6.20am to 6.20pm”
The first note appears with other ideas for poems towards the back of the notebook but, unlike the others, does not seem to have been drawn from some past observation in a previous year’s notebook, but from that year, 1915, when 21st February was a Sunday.
However there were previous notes he was remembering, at least in part, when writing the poem - in particular one of the first notes jotted down while in his new study at the top of Ashford Hangers on the evening of 25th April 1909. He wrote “How the church bells clash with the 1000 songs this still evening in the high woods up against the silver sky under the ashen & golden drift of sunset & the calm smoke rising past the new larch & beech.” Here lies the explanation for the lines that in early March the birds “blend/ Now better than they will when passed/Is this unnamed, unmarked godsend.”
By April most birds are singing before the final crescendo in May, whereas in early March there are only a few types of birds singing regularly and completely. Fortunately these include some of Britain’s finest songbirds including the mistle thrush, robin, blackbird and lark, as well as starlings (which have a remarkable ability to mimic all sorts of sounds including bells). By the end of April these would have been supplemented by all the warblers and finches, including black caps, whitethroats, nightingales and, of course the chiffchaff whose arrival ET always listened out for each year towards the end of March. Such a chorus could well have clashed with the church bells, unlike the more individual solos of early March.
In early March these songs can still be picked out from the heights and depths of the hangers and from different sides of the coombes - the distances and echos complimenting the church bells even farther away. Later the number of songs increased to such a level that, in the clamour especially at dawn and dusk, only performances close to can be picked out.
Bells would have been more easily heard from the top of the Hangers in ET’s day than nowadays. Then the top of the hangers were almost entirely bare of vegetation and trees compared to now, while the noise of traffic has increased exponentially. On Christmas Day 1909, after a frosty start followed by a fine day with a NW wind, ET stood at the far end of the ridge on Cockshott Lane from The Red House, where they had just moved, looking towards Noar Hill above Selborne, “the air very clear so that it seems I ought to fly over the lucid valleys. Church bells ring out of solitary vales like huge quiet creatures & in the clear windy air their 6s, 5s & 4s are pleasant.” These bells would have been from Hawkley church to the north and, possibly, despite the wind being in the wrong direction, the churches of High Cross, Froxfield and Steep.
At the end of the following month he noted from his study, after an early morning snow, a slight thaw which “makes eaves & hollies drip..only sounds are church bells & a great tit sharpening saw(!)”
In late February 1914 on a clear breezy evening he wrote of “blackbirds sing long rounded lingering songs & thrushes further off down Stoner shout loud..at 6.10 a clear sky pale blue over the dark low looking Downs & one large star, Sirius, 1/2 way up in the South, church bells going in Petersfield. A swooping cold wind now & then rolls in Ludcombe.” Again he was in his study above the slopes of Stoner Hill and the depths of Ludcombe and from here he could clearly hear the bells of Petersfield, farther away than Steep and High Cross, Froxfield.
A few weeks later he has the genesis of another idea in the poem. He noted on a glorious April day “It is Easter Sunday which is really something of a pagan outdoor festival still. At 9.30 it m(igh)t be a festival of missel thrushes & tits & birds.” A year later in the poem, he had developed this thought further, with the birds not just taking over the pagan festival but also “the holiness” of the bells.
His immediate inspiration for March the Third was from the Sunday in February when he was probably at his home in Yew Tree Cottage in Steep. But the evidence of his other notes, and also when he wrote the poem, suggest that his main inspiration lay at the top of the hangers.
In the early part of 1915, ET had injured his ankle and was laid up for many weeks at home, only occasionally (“no more than once a week”) managing to hobble up to the study on top of the hangers.
By March 23rd, the day he wrote March the Third, he was back to his normal routine of going up once or twice a day to his study. As he described two days later in a letter to Eleanor Farjeon he could hardly wait to light the fire in his study before starting to write poetry “it has perhaps become a really bad habit as I walk up the hill…”
One can imagine him hurriedly lighting the fire before starting on the poem that he had been thinking about on his walk up the hill. Perhaps his enforced absence from his study and the top of the hangers inspired him, when he returned, to write about subjects which he associated with the study and its immediate neighbourhood. Some of the poems he wrote around this time would certainly fit into this scenario - they include The New House and Wind and Mist, both about The Red House next door to his study; The Path which he would have seen on his walk up and down New Stoner Hill to his study; Sowing (which drew on memories of vegetable gardening at the Red House, which he detailed in 1911, and also more recently at Yew Tree Cottage). Writing March the Third would have evoked memories of sitting in his study for the first time, listening to church bells and bird song combining on that Sunday evening in April.
He expressed dissatisfaction with this poem, writing to his close friend, Eleanor Farjeon at the end of April 1915, presumably in response to her letter critiquing March the Third “Perhaps I shall be able to mend March the 3rd. I know it must either be mended or ended.”
The reason for his dissatisfaction may have been, as Edna Longley writes, for a poetic reason - that “his vein of quatrain poetry may have worked itself out. The rhyme scheme seems over-emphatic.”
But it may have also related to the provenance of the poem. Despite March 3rd being the poet’s birthday (as the poem is specifically asterisked in the Faber edition) this is no birthday ode. It has no reference to the poet's birthday, except obliquely at the beginning when possibly his wife or daughter says “here again”. Instead the day is celebrated as a forerunner to the first spring day which “may shift and long delay”. However so could weather conditions on his birthday. In his notebooks he describes March 3rd in very varying conditions, deep snow and wintery one year, frosty and misty another, a good day for sowing in a third. Birds and their song are mentioned intermittently. Only in his birthday note for 1915 did he write specifically how long the birds were singing. So this singing day, the precursor to spring, could also "shift" around and "long delay", another reason, besides not being a high day or holiday, why he described the day as "unpromised" and an "unmarked godsend".
For ET another sign of Spring was the arrival of the chiffchaff, which he normally observed on 19th March or "within a day or two of that date". This was a couple of weeks after his birthday, an arrival he always noted, and which could have made a more reliable signal to the coming of Spring than March 3rd. So ET, having anchored the poem to March 3rd, may have been dissatisfied with the decision.
That said the general progression of birdsong in the early part of the year leading up to spring is a wonderful, almost miraculous, reoccurrence, as much as the reappearance of the earliest flowers. In the poem ET captures this seasonal moment, never mind the day, before Spring has completely sprung, when, as one mid-March dawn, he found himself surrounded by “throngs of songs and larks”.
In the poem he also shows his lingering aversion to Sundays from his childhood, in reaction to his strictly religious father. (ET had written of church bells in an early notebook comparing the tinkly non-conformist bell “respectful to the might of Congregation” - his father's religion - with the deep bell of the Church of England “caring nothing”). Both the birds' songs, by taking the holiness out of the bells, and the bells sounding like a natural phenomenon in the hangers, desanctify the day which becomes "this singing day". Despite the use of "godsend" earlier in the poem, ET concludes in the same secular spirit - using the adjective, "lucky", to describe what "we know" we are, instead of the more obvious “blessed”. God had had nothing to do with it!
Although, as we have seen, the most immediate note suggests that Edward Thomas was listening to the bells and birds from Yew Tree Cottage, there is much evidence that he was remembering hearing the blending of birds and bells from his study in the Bee House at the top of Ashford Hangers. From there he could see the high woods of Stoner Hill and Ashford Hill curving round beneath the sky, creating an amphitheatre of birdsong.
ET had a strong affection for his study. R George Thomas in his biography of Edward Thomas states “His tenure of the study from April 1909 until June 1916 was the longest tenancy of his professional life”. He goes on “this Bee-House study provided the secure base necessary for probes into his innermost thoughts.”
The Bee-House had a thatched roof and was split into two non-connecting rooms, separated by a chimney and fireplace. ET had the use of one side and had made himself a large table and bookshelves and planted his favourite herbs, including old man, outside its door. Geoffrey Lupton, who had built The Red House for the Thomas’s and had the workshop above The Bee-House, kept bee-keeping equipment in the second room. Jean Moorcroft Wilson writes in her biography of Thomas that “it (the Bee-House) became a refuge for him, a place…of his own” to escape family distractions.
R. George Thomas goes further - he believes that it was here that ET went through the long initiation and “tortuous process of self-discovery and readjustment…before he emerged as a poet fully confident…that he had found his vocation.”
The Bee-House sits between and just below The Red House and the Edward Barnsley workshop, on the lip of the hangers. Since Edward Thomas’s day, trees and vegetation have grown up but the view is as stunning as it ever was. The growth of trees may diminish the sound of church bells on the ridge, but the bells of Steep, Froxfield and Hawkley can still be heard when the wind is in the right direction.
A walk along Cockshott Lane, past the workshop, the Bee-House and the Red House, along the ridge and then down Shoulder of Mutton and round the hangers on a Sunday in spring may yield a similar auditory experience to the one Edward Thomas describes. The walk follows the same route as that for After Rain, and a full description of the walk can be found in that post.
There is also the opportunity to enjoy the views of the high woods of the hangers ET could see from his study. The Folly, next door to, and in the garden of, the Bee-House, now much extended, is run by the owners an Airbnb - surely one with one of the most awe-inspiring views in the South of England.
Field note books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York.
My thanks to the Antonini Family for their help and for allowing me access to the Bee-House and its garden. As mentioned above they run the Folly, in the garden of the Bee-House as an Airbnb. For more details see link below:
I have quoted from R George Thomas's Edward Thomas A Portrait; Jean Moorcroft Wilson's Edward Thomas From Adlestrop to Arras and Edna Longley's Annotated Poems of Edward Thomas.
And finally my thanks as ever to Ben Mackay for editorial support.