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May 23rd

Updated: May 27



There never was a finer day,

And never will be while May is May,

The third, and not the last of its kind:

But though fair and clear the two behind

Seemed pursued by tempests overpast;

And the morrow with fear that it could not last

Was spoiled. Today ere the stones were warm

Five minutes of thunderstorm

Dashed it with rain, as if to secure,

By one tear, its beauty the luck to endure.


At midday then along the lane

Old Jack Noman appeared again,

Jaunty and old, crooked and tall,

And stopped and grinned at me over the wall,

With a cowslip bunch in his buttonhole

And one in his cap. Who could say if his roll

Came from flints in the road, the weather, or ale?

He was welcome as the nightingale .

Not an hour of the sun had been wasted on Jack.

'I've got my Indian complexion back'

Said he. He was tanned like a harvester,

Like his short clay pipe, like the leaf and bur

That clung to his coat from last night's bed,

Like the ploughland crumbling red.

Fairer flowers were none on this earth

Than his cowslips wet with the dew of their birth,

Or fresher leaves than the cress in his basket.

'Where did they come from, Jack?' 'Don't ask it

And you'll be told no lies.' 'Very well:

Then I can't buy.' 'I don't want to sell.

Take them and these flowers, too, free:

Perhaps you have something to give me?

Wait till the next time. The better the day....

The Lord couldn't make a better, I say,

If he could he never has done.'

So off went Jack with his roll-walk-run,

Leaving his cresses from Oakshott rill

And his cowslips from Wheatham hill.


'Twas the first day that the midges bit;

But though they bit me, I was glad of it:

Of the dust in my face, too, I was glad.

Spring could do nothing to make me sad.

Bluebells hid all the ruts in the copse,

The elm seeds lay in the road like hops,

That fine day, May the twenty-third,

The day Jack Noman disappeared.


May 23 was actually written in mid-February 1915 during an especially wet winter. In the poem ET was invoking the memory of a fine May day, similar in subject to his later poem The Glory, but unlike it because the latter was written on the day he actually experienced it. 


That winter Thomas had been laid up with a badly sprained ankle for several weeks but this was now better and he was due to go up to London the following day, the first time that year. This may have affected the mood of the poem which is lyrical, almost ebullient. For the subject matter of many of the poems that he wrote while incapacitated, he had drawn on his past field note books and he did so again for May 23



Looking back through his notebooks, as ET would have done, May 23rd does not stand out as a date in any of them. In fact ET had originally based the poem on the date May 20th. In his first draft the poem concluded:


“A fine day was May the 20th,

The day of Old Jack Noman’s death”


ET changed the ending from Jack Noman dying to the more ambiguous “disappeared” and so changed the date to  “the twenty-third” to rhyme.


The 20th, as well as the 23rd, seem to have been picked to rhyme, rather than because the events he described happened on that day. In fact for the poem ET used a number of entries from different days in May from two of his field note books in different years, both while he was at home in Steep [*see note on more on ET's use of dates in this poem]. 


Some of its incidental detail of the natural world came from the field note book of May 1914, while the description of the weather was from an earlier notebook of May 1910 when the weather more closely matched what he described in the poem. However there is no mention of Jack Noman and their encounter in either these or any other field note books. 


His May 1910 notebook is full of weather, like the first section of the poem. Its first entry is “15-22 v 1910 Comet weather” and he noted the wind coming from all points of the compass in rapid succession! It was a lovely month but by the 20th there were signs of thunder, with a few drops of rain. The following afternoon there were several claps of thunder in succession followed by pauses and further single claps. That evening or the next he wrote:


“Most loveliest evening that lovely May - yet lovelier because the next wouldn’t so be fine.”


It was a sentiment he was to begin the poem with nearly five years later:


“There never was a finer day,

And never will be while May is May...” 


There are also less detailed references to thunderstorms in his notebooks for May 1914, with thunderstorms on both May 22nd and 23rd - the latter he describes as “terrific” as he headed back home to Steep that morning on his bike from Flansham on the coast, where he had been visiting his friends the Guthries. Both storms left the road strewn with leaves. 



The 1914 notebook contained some of the incidental detail he included in the later sections of the poem. So on May 14th he heard the nightingale sing in Steep Marsh but too faraway to be able to pick out anything but the high fast notes. Later that day he grumbled: “Midges dreadful in garden my head bitten all over” so, unlike in the poem, he was not exactly “glad of it”! On a bike ride to and from Camberley on 19th May he noted “such a lot of elm seed this year on roads like pale hops.”


On the journey back, or possibly the following day, May 20th, on a walk  from his study at the top of the hangers, he wrote “Acres of bluebells … in cleared wood (between The Trooper & White Horse) under oak & fir.”



He went on to describe in detail the copse, known as Chawner’s plantation (which no longer exists). “Bluebells in wood, past Windmill  Cottage on Alton Rd. Fairly level ground with oaks of 60 or 70 years & some larch & fir, & chestnut underwood. Much of underwood cleared, but all over wood at clearings & among chestnuts except on the paths, are bluebells & nothing else except a few wood sorrels.  Whole wood was poached up in soft winter & the leaves hide pitfalls of deep hoof holes & ruts of stony clay.”


Here were the poem’s “Bluebells hid all the ruts in the copse.”


These details aside, there is no sign in these or any other notebooks of the main event, his meeting with Jack Noman.


There has been some speculation about how much Jack Noman is a mythical figure or symbol, a personification rather than a person. Helen Thomas recollected in conversation with Robin Skelton that Jack Noman was based on an actual tramp “who used to call asking for left-off clothes and selling watercress. He used to disappear for long periods, and then appear again as jaunty as ever. We thought his disappearances were spent in prison, for we knew he stole. But we liked him, and if Edward had a particularly warm but outworn garment- especially one he really had liked - he saved it until Jack came again.” 



Helen referred to the original tramp as Jack which provides a clue when looking at ET's notebooks. Although there was no Jack Noman mentioned in the notebooks there was another Jack, Jack Rider who appears on a couple of occasions. He was a tramp and seems to have been the model for Jack Noman and indeed other Jacks in Thomas’s writings. The most substantive entry about him was on the day after the Thomases had moved house from the Red House at the top of the Hangers to Yew Tree Cottage in Steep on 24th July 1913.  ET had been allowed to retain his study, the Bee-House,  next door to the Red House and the encounter with Jack Rider seems to have occurred there. 


He noted:


“Jack Rider (he “gets his living by nature” says Fox) comes with mushrooms. Knight says a parson once turned him off when gathering mushrooms. He returned in an hour - was caught again & being asked if he wasn’t told to go he replied “Yes but you didn’t say I couldn’t come back again”.  He looks enormous now with an old coat of mine bulging & a big thick overcoat bulging & open (from my study).”


Knight and Fox appear to have been locals who may have been helping the Thomases with their move. Knight was probably one of the sons of the shepherd who lived in Honeycritch Lane in Froxfield, close to the Red House; and Fox was probably a carman from Petersfield who may have been providing transport for the move.


What is clear is that Jack Rider was a well known character locally. Thomas had also mentioned a visit from him the previous year in August 1912. Presumably in response to a question from Thomas about why it had been such a long time since his previous visit, Jack had replied: “Anyhow we meet more often than what milestones do”.



Although only mentioned in these two entries, Thomas must have known Jack Rider from a few years before, probably shortly after moving to Berryfield Cottage in Hampshire. Jack had appeared in two earlier prose works by Thomas. In The South Country he is Jackalone and in his only novel The Happy-go-lucky Morgans he makes a fleeting appearance as Jack Horseman (an obvious alias!). Both are clearly the same person as in the poem. 



In the novel written in 1912/13 he was described as: “the tall old watercress-man Jack Horseman, patiently waiting for the right moment to touch his cap. His Indian complexion had come back to the old soldier, he was slightly tipsy, and he had a bunch of cowslips in his hat.“ In the much longer section devoted to Jack and his doings in The South Country, published in 1909, Thomas introduced him with “What dreams are there for that aged child (Jackalone) who goes tottering and reeling up the lane at mid-day? He carries a basket of watercress on his back. He has sold two-pennyworth, and he is tipsy, grinning through the bruises of a tipsy fall, and shifting his cold pipe from one side of his mouth to the other.”


So it would appear that Jack Rider, “who got his living by nature” was the original for three Jacks that Thomas described in his prose and poetry. His disappearance was not unusual and its permanence may not have been noticed for some time, given the irregularity of his comings and goings. Whether Jack Noman had died, ended up in prison again more permanently, or the war intervened in his life in some way, it is impossible to say. There is no record, that we have unearthed, of a Jack Rider dying in the district at this time . And there is no record of him in ET’s field note books beyond July 1913. Perhaps a note for May 1914 is missing or maybe ET was remembering the encounter a few months later having not written it down, but recalling it at the time of the poem.



The notebooks suggest that the timing of this final encounter would have been after they moved to Steep, in which case the study was the most likely location. The poem would also suggest the study, with Jack’s trajectory from Oakshott stream, where he picked the cress, to Wheatham Hill where the cowslips grew, and then along the lane to the study on the ridge.


Oakshott stream rises in the hangers north east of The Red House and his study and below Hawkley. The chalk streams of Oakshott and Steep provided ideal growing conditions for watercress for which they were well known. The water cress beds have now disappeared from the eastern Hampshire hangers. Wheatham Hill which rises above Oakshott at its south eastern end still has many cowslips on its upper grassy slopes, slopes which would have been even more extensive in ET’s day when the tree line was lower. 



Jack Rider would have walked along the lovely Oakshott valley, possibly from Hawkley and then taken one of the old tracks up the side of the hangers to Wheatham Hill where he would join Old Litten Lane, the continuation along the ridge of Cockshott Lane towards the end of which the Red House and ET’s study could be found. Jack would have come along the lane knowing that he would receive a warm welcome and possibly a coat or other cast off and maybe a coin in return for what nature had provided him! 



A walk 



A walk can follow Jack’s progress that day. It is one of the finest short walks in the Hangers, providing an opportunity to walk through a section of the lovely Oakshott valley, as well as taking in the outstanding views from the top of Wheatham Hill. 


The best starting point for the walk is Cockshott Lane, the lane that Edward Thomas would have seen Jack Rider coming down with his “roll-walk-run” that fine May day. Follow the lane until it becomes a track which then is joined by another lane - Old Litten Lane coming in from the left. Keep straight on along the continuation of Old Litten Lane until you reach the Hangers Way sign to the left. You go through a field under some huge beeches and follow the path round to right above Juniper Hanger over a stile and through a wood until a good viewpoint is reached looking out over Oakshott valley towards Hawkley, Hawkley Hanger and Noar Hill. 



Descend the steep hill and follow footpath round the field until you reach the drive of Lower Oakshott Farm which takes you down to Middle Oakshott. Crossing the lane at the bottom you follow the path by Oakshott stream eventually reaching a field over a bridge. Crossing the field and going over another bridge and stile you get into another smaller woodland pasture. The path takes you round the bottom of Longmead Copse and then through another field above Oakshott stream. You reach another field which normally has livestock (donkeys). Follow the path round until the stable and then take the path to right to take you down to the bottom of the field to a bridge crossing over Oakshott stream. You then follow the path up the side of a field until you reach a section of path fenced off. As you climb there are some increasingly fine views of the lower foothills of the hangers. Following the path round two sides of the field you reach a track above Roundway Hanger. Going right along the track it takes you back to the lane where you go right, keeping straight on up the track in a few yards when the lane goes sharp right. Follow the track that curves up the hanger through some lovely woods and increasing views until Old Litten Lane is reached at the top. Go left down the ridge for a couple of hundred yards or so and then climb the steps on the left to take you to the top of Wheatham Hill with its spectacular views north and north east over Oakshott, Noar Hill, Woolmer Forest and the Surrey heathland beyond. You retrace your steps and then follow Old Litten Lane going straight on into Cockshott Lane to reach your starting point.


Acknowledgements 


Edward Thomas field note books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York


Please note transcripts of both field notebooks can be seen at the Edward Thomas Study Centre at the Petersfield Museum


I have also drawn on Edward Thomas's The South Country and The Happy-go-lucky Morgans and Helen Thomas's quote about Jack comes from Edward Thomas Selected Poems edited by Robin Skelton (Hutchinson 1962).


My thanks to Fran Box of the Steep History Group for her exhaustive research on Messrs Knight and Fox and also searching for the register of Jack Rider's death.


Thanks as always to Ben Mackay for editorial support.



*Note:

It is interesting that ET should have picked May 23 as the title for his poem. Unlike the later poem March the Third, ET's birthday, there was no additional signifIcance to the date. As we have seen the date is only selected for the rhyme. But the use of the date both in the poem and as its title suggests that ET was making a wider point. ET says of Jack in his description of Jackalone in the South Country “Never had he thought of the day after tomorrow.” so he would be unlikely to know what day of the month it was. Was ET highlighting how arbitrary and meaningless dates are to people like Jack and the natural world? When ET stepped back from being explicit about Jack's fate, as well as taking out the "sensation" as he wrote to WH Hudson, was it also because a death date would be registered somewhere? Jack's disappearance, like so many natural occurrences, would not have registered as a date except for an exceptional observer like ET. Jack's visits, like other natural recurrences, could also not be tied to any date - a theme in ET's later poem, March the Third - although he himself rigorously marked his observations under dates, and sometimes times, in his notebooks. ET himself espoused the view in poems and other writings that the natural world, and itinerants and tramps close to nature, do not live and should not be judged by, human terms - dates being an example of a human construct. Perhaps as with other poems there is some self-mockery here with the poet purporting to create a poem round a date that had no other significance than for him and which is in any case fake.  


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