Updated: Dec 22, 2022
November's days are thirty:
November's earth is dirty,
Those thirty days, from first to last;
And the prettiest things on the ground are the paths
With morning and evening hobnails dinted,
With foot and wing-tip overprinted
Or separately charactered,
Of little beast and little bird.
The fields are mashed by sheep, the roads
Make the worst going, the best the woods
Where dead leaves upward and downward scatter.
Few care for the mixture of earth and water,
Twig, leaf, flint, thorn,
Straw, feather, all that men scorn,
Pounded up and sodden by flood,
Condemned as mud.
But of all the months when earth is greener
Not one has clean skies that are cleaner.
Clean and clear and sweet and cold,
They shine above the earth so old,
While the after-tempest cloud
Sails over in silence though winds are loud,
Till the full moon in the east
Looks at the planet in the west
And earth is silent as it is black,
Yet not unhappy for its lack.
Up from the dirty earth men stare:
One imagines a refuge there
Above the mud, in the pure bright
Of the cloudless heavenly light:
Another loves earth and November more dearly
Because without them, he sees clearly,
The sky would be nothing more to his eye
Than he. in any case, is to the sky;
He loves even the mud whose dyes
Renounce all brightness to the skies.
Edward Thomas wrote November on 4th December 1914, his second poem after Up in the Wind. Like his first poem, November's inspiration was from his field note books - drawing in particular on recent observations written up in his current field note book (79) during the previous month. The main content of the poem actually came from his entry on 1st December. Towards the end of the notebook he has made a note to remind himself of the subject “Dirty earth & clean bright sky see 1 xii back”. This appears close to similarly brief notes for Up in the Wind, and The Sign-Post and Old Man, also some of his earliest poems. The note of 1st December he referred to, reads in full:
“A fine bright morn then sunny drops slanting a few in a sprinkle then heavy rain & a blue & black sky where wind comes from. Then at 12-3 bright sun, clear sweet cold sky with a few white clouds low - the sky so bright & clear & clean. The roads all muddy with mashed leaves & twigs & bare hedges & sodden fields. Clear till moonrise (big full white moon low in E & sun gory? crimson cloudless in West; when Jupiter was visible at 4.45 there was some wet-sand coloured cloud in W — a big rag of it.
“Beautiful hobnail pattern on path over reddish light ploughland
“An evening of alternate blazing moon & wind & of lashing rain. Each long stick in faggot has been dipped in moonlight oil; also water spouts - glitters”
On the opposite page he noted: “Fields stamped over by sheep - mud & mangolds. Lanes rutted by timber carriages with sweet smell of crushed larch boughs.”
So many elements of the poem are in this entry and more. It clearly identified “the planet in the west” as Jupiter, which would have been noticeable in the South West in the early evening at that time of year. And there are a series of tempests, each followed by the blazing moon, an early indicator of the weather that December. The autumn of 1914 was averagely wet - though the trenches in France were already very muddy. But December was to be the wettest December for nearly a century.
ET had travelled a bit that November (of which more later) but on 1st December, having returned the previous day from Gloucestershire, he would have been back in his normal routine of walking up and down from Steep, to and from his study in the grounds of their old house at the top of Ashford Hangers. The footpath where he saw the beautiful hobnail patterns would have probably been on his route to his study, across the field close to his home, a path which he and others walked morning and evening as in the poem. The study also had the wonderful views south to the Downs and gave him an opportunity to observe the sky, the weather and the earth throughout the day, as he did in this note.
In the poem he started with and reiterated the 30 days of November. So, though his note of 1st December was pretty comprehensive, it does not tell the whole story. In the poem he emphasised “from first to last” and from the field note book he drew on his observations from the whole month starting on 1st November. That day he was walking or cycling towards Guildford via Temple farm in the eastern hangers. His entry for that day read:
“After yesterday’s rain & a dull showery morn a glorious high blue with fine whisked clouds above & heavier waved ones below & light mane on horizon. Up & down in deep muddy lanes among hop gardens at Temple often w all view hidden, sometimes w view of Alice Holt & Woolmer all as one broad level brown forest extending to horizon with dome of Crooksbury (Hill, nr Farnham) in centre: Woolmer’s new (crossed out? pale) tower among level mead & oak in foreground. Sometimes the road is quite high with a farm & oast & hops deep below bank. Very muddy, no sun comes over the low scrub hedge of thorn or hazel at top of bank overrun w roots of trees, often the trees gone.”
This view from the hangers east was one ET either had not seen or seen only rarely, so one can imagine him spending time by Temple Farm picking out the landmarks spread out before him on his map. From early November he was already observing the muddiness on earth and the glorious skies above.
And he saw the glorious skies throughout the month and their effect on the earth. Sometimes they gave colour to the earth in the form of the sun shining on frost - “the heavy laced bracken dripping as with warm brownish blood over the frosted grass. Never were haws so crimson or larch sprays so curry(!) coloured”; and once in the form of a rainbow - “on the near hedges violet & yellow & all the hips & black wet stems after heavy rain glitter & glow".
He saw the rainbow at Ryton in Gloucestershire where the Frosts were living. He had already visited them four times that year in Gloucestershire, where he had been increasingly persuaded to become a poet by Robert Frost. This November visit seems to have proved the final catalyst - on his return he started writing poetry in earnest, converting his prose piece on The White Horse into Up in the Wind, and then using various field note book entries for November, within a few days of his return. There’s no evidence that he changed his approach to his entries in the field note books in the knowledge that he was going to use them for his poetry. The entries are similar to their numerous predecessors stretching back 20 years. Having completed the early poems, ET must have been encouraged to delve further through his field note books for other subjects and observations for poems. This was something he continued to do right up to his final poems two years later.
While writing November he almost certainly also looked at the entries in his note books from the previous year, 1913, when he had spent most of the month at Selsfield House, near East Grinstead. Selsfield is on high ground at whose apex there are wide ranging views of both the North and South Downs. With these panoramic views of earth, the sky and clouds become more prominent and, as with the views of the Downs from his study, the land provides reference points to the sky - as he described at the end of the poem.
His two notebooks from November 1913 are full of his observations of the sky above Selsfield. His inventiveness with his descriptions of these skies is always refreshing, sometimes surprising and pushing at the bounds of descriptive language.
Days are variously glorious, noble, splendid, gorgeous, golden, wonderful, perfect. Clouds against sky are mountains, galleons, iron filings and files, lace, grating, folds, banks, dunes, domes, bars, ribs from backbone, and toppling heights.
He observed throughout days and into the night. On the afternoon of 13th November 1913 he described a yellow lit long pane of cloud mountains above the Downs becoming a long low stage, a parallelogram and then as it loses form a soft glow and then finally only a paleness is left above the hills.
He also detailed the gradations of colour he saw in the sky in contrast to the dark earth. On 11th November he observed “a yellowish pane with long slices in South: a laced blue overhead with white drift across the white lace; & East a blue sky to horizon with white thin slips of fine cloud & fine curls - lower down some softer thicker banks in the blue; North East an angrier metallic blue looks thru dark woolly folds.”
A few afternoons later he noted “The upper West clouds rapidly darken & dull - but overhead they are still white but misted & showing dim blue between but the duller deeper crimson under edges lasted in the West over half an hour and the green below turned to an almost silver-white which to the West side was crimson-flushed but with dark bars.”
On other days he described variously: "a curtain of rosy fire descending upon a space of dusky pale green"; "indescribably grey cloud..while all the welkin (an Old English word for the sky) is clear pale blue with some upward reefs of thinnest white"; "a sky mostly overspread with grey radiating from low in the North, except in the West which is cold burning red-gold with many thin ashen bars". On the morning of 27th November he exclaimed “How infinite this ashen fine sky”.
With so much about the skies above in his notebooks, it is not surprising that they featured in many of his poems. Besides November, there is also March, The Clouds that are so bright, The Lofty Sky, Two Pewits, Wind and mist and others where the skies and clouds are a significant presence. November is one of his most complete “sky” poems, introducing the idea, used in other poems, that earth and sky are interdependent and bring out the best of each other, while also extolling the beauty and magnetism of a November sky.
The best walk to celebrate the poem November is a walk under November skies, preferably from a high point where the sky and earth show each other off to best effect. The views from the Ashford Hangers in Hampshire and from the fields above Selsfield House in West Sussex provide two wonderful panoramas which illustrate the dark earth renouncing "all brightness to the sky".
As always in walking matters, ET's observation is acute. Who has not found themselves mudbound and losing their footing on squelchy footpaths and taking the less frequented way through the woods still adrift with leaves? He also often spotted the minutiae under his feet which other men scorned - "Twig, leaf, flint, thorn,/Straw, feather...".
The original inspiration for ET may have been walking to and from his study at Steep but he was also drawing on his memories of the skies at Selsfield the year before, his walk to Alton station to catch the train to Gloucestershire and his walks with Robert Frost in Gloucestershire where they had their infamous encounter with Bott, the gamekeeper round Ryton; and his walk or bike ride to Guildford via the eastern hangers beyond Selborne. There are some excellent walks in all of these areas.
The journey he did on 1st November 1914 to Temple Farm was probably a new one, certainly one he did only occasionally, and opened up new vistas for him.
A good round walk can be made from Temple Farm down Sotherington lane taking the footpath right at the Smoky House across the huge field, parallel with Snap Wood to Brockbridge Farm. Going right along the lane over Brock Bridge, in a 100 yards or so you take the footpath straight ahead on the left hand side of lane which curves right. Following this wooded path between fields down, you cross a stream and shortly afterwards take a right up the hill on a farm track, and at the top bear right alongside of field. You climb the hanger (Squiresfield) keeping on the righthand path and follow until lane is reached by Bradshott Hall. Go left along lane past hall and then take right on path down Homefield Hanger to the wooded pond and the valley bottom. This is Adderhood Coombe, a wild wooded valley, which snakes down from under Noar Hill past various hangers and Island Copse heading east to the plain fields round Blackmoor. Cross over and up the coombe on the other side under Cornbrooks Hanger, which is full of oaks. Climb to the top of the hanger and go though the apple orchards at the top (which would have been hop fields in ET's day) to Sotherington Lane, turning right to reach Temple Farm.
One can imagine ET enjoying exploring Adderhood Coombe, which would have felt wilder than most of the coombes even in his day. It is still well worth exploring.
The OS map for the eastern hangers round Selborne is OS Explorer OL33 Haslemere & Petersfield.
Field note books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York
My thanks as ever to Ben Mackay for editorial support.