Updated: May 29
This beauty made me dream there was a time
Long past and irrecoverable, a clime
Where any brook so radiant racing clear
Through buttercup and kingcup bright as brass
But gentle, nourishing the meadow grass
That leans and scurries in the wind, would bear
Another beauty, divine and feminine,
Child of the sun, a nymph whose soul unstained
Could love all day, and never hate or tire,
A lover of mortal or immortal kin.
And yet, rid of this dream, ere I had drained
Its poison, quieted was my desire
So that I only looked into the water,
Clearer than any goddess or man's daughter,
And hearkened while it combed the dark green hair
And shook the millions of the blossoms white
Of water-crowfoot, and curdled to one sheet
The flowers fallen from the chestnuts in the park
Far off. And sedge-warblers, clinging so light
To willow twigs, sang longer than the lark,
Quick, shrill or grating, a song to match the heat
Of the strong sun, nor less the water's cool,
Gushing through narrows, swirling in the pool.
Their song that lacks all words, all melody,
All sweetness almost, was dearer then to me
Than sweetest voice that sings in tune sweet words.
This was the best of May - the small brown birds
Wisely reiterating endlessly
What no man learnt yet, in or out of school.
Unlike many poems that Edward Thomas wrote during the first half of 1915, which drew from past experiences, often years before, Sedge-Warblers was written on the day he saw them "May 23 beyond Warnford" on the River Meon. The entry in his field note book (FNB80) continued: "Water crowfoot and marigolds iris leaf and clear swift combing water but no nymph only the sedgewarblers in willows more continuous than lark and dearer than sweetest voice singing sweetest words I know though often grating or shrill and always jerky and spasmlike with rare sweet gentle iterations and 3 or 4 together in turns."
Below this entry he jotted down the beginning of a poem: "Long ago it would have borne a nymph/ w(ith) cloudless clear soul/ Now it drifts the chestnut petals from the distant park/ She could/ Love all day long and never hate or tire/ the best of May/ Buttercups brighter than brass/ but? soft."
Much of the poem he wrote later that day having returned home was based on this entry.
According to a letter to Robert Frost also written on May 23, ET had been on a bike ride with his elder daughter, Bronwen:
"It seemed that I had dried up, owing to Marlborough, but I have done a thing today. I shall send [the poem] if I find time to copy it. It came of a Sunday with no work but a cycle ride with Bronwen. It is devilish like habit, but I am all rules & evasions."
ET had always disliked Sundays from childhood. In his autobiography "The Childhood of Edward Thomas" he wrote of how as an adult he still had "a profound detestation of Sunday in whatever part of England or Wales it overtakes me." The habit and the rules were probably keeping Sundays free from work. He was writing the biography of the Duke of Marlborough, a suitable patriotic historic subject for the first year of the war. His reference to evasions point to his dislike of the task in hand, which he had been hard at for several weeks. This Sunday was to prove more productive than many.
ET had visited the Meon valley on a few occasions since he and his family had moved to Hampshire in 1906. A favourite destination was Old Winchester Hill with its magnificent views of the valley and Beacon Hill and other South Downs heights heading west towards Winchester.
In early July 1909 he had made a round trip from home via Clanfield, beyond Butser Hill, down past Old Winchester Hill to Droxford and then back up the Meon via Corhampton, Exton and Warnford.
In each village he was drawn to the river. In Droxford he noted "the clear shallow swift waters, the swifts, the horses on the level rough grass." On the way to Corhampton he noted "Poplars along Meon, elms by road." At Corhampton he wrote; "The ch(urch) is just above low bridge & mill, river shallow bright pale bottomed & full of anchored trout, under tall weeping ashes - winds with elder thickets."
At Exton the houses were "about the stream & its soggy meadows - sycamore & ash - winding stream & hay by it.......Old half timbered mill deserted and isolated in mid of nettles by stream - fowls climbing - haymaking - stream gushing over weir." After notes about Exton church and Exton Manor Farm he wrote:
"Meon - exquisite surface of water - curved by slight eddies, cut by stems & stones; and by the light wind & all cut/out? of sharp crystal - also bubbles & sunny netted ripples w(ith) their rounded honeycomb of light & shade on floor. (To the side Sedgewarblers)"
Thereafter in the notebook he walked to Warnford Park, presumably along the main road. Based on this itinerary it would seem likely that he was describing the Meon at the ford on the other side of the main road from Exton, on Garden Hill Lane, about the only point they would have been able to get access to the river on bikes.
The park "far off" in the poem and "the distant park" of the notes would therefore have been Warnford Park, a mile or so upstream whose chestnut trees still overhang the Meon.
Later in the same notebook (FNB34) ET jotted down as a subject for a possible prose piece (in 1909 he was still over five years away from becoming a poet):
"Sedgewarblers - tuneless bird at evening - timeless/tuneless? singing by water for ever pouring under rustling trees. This is better than dust of road & crown."
He had noted down observations of sedge warblers in his trips throughout the south country but the ones on the Meon seem to have attracted his attention in particular. The year before his bike trip with Bronwen there, he had described another hot May day along the Meon where "Sedgewarblers sing w(ith) heads turning to & fro."
Field note book 34 is brimming with bird observations. Earlier in his 1909 trip, he had written eloquently of lark song:
"Sometimes spurting out a string of notes as fast as possible in a jet of liquid bubbles. Sometimes hurrying as if it cd only just keep pace w(ith) mere dancing speed anon pausing in a note so sweet & languishing if almost fainting in it but mostly it is a dance in wh(ich) all thought of anything but speed & keeping it up seems lost."
Later on in the journey he wrote of chaffinches in a lovely image "Chaffinches go thru firs clinking on their silver anvils as on spring."
Edna Longley writes in the notes to Sedgewarblers that this is one of the poems cited by James Fisher in The Shell Bird Book to support the view that Edward Thomas was " the major English poet of our century [20th]". Arguably this could be extended to all time.
His 140 poems are full of birds and their songs - besides sedgewarblers, there are thrushes, blackbirds, robins, wrens, goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches, wagtails, flycatcher, nightingales, linnets, swallows, swifts, starlings, cuckoos, dove, pigeons, larks, pewits, woodpeckers, jackdaws, rooks, magpie, curlews, owls, gulls, moorhen, buzzards. His notebooks are also full of observations of these and other birds including the chiffchaff (his favourite as a harbinger of spring), goldcrests, sparrows (tree and hedge), tits - great, long tailed etc - yellowhammers, corn and reed buntings, nuthatch, treecreepers, blackcaps, whitethroats, stonechats and whinchats, bullfinches, willow and wood wrens (warblers), garden warbler, meadow pipit, nightjar, crows, jays, ravens and kestrels.
One is tempted to wonder what other poems he may have written about birds had he survived the war. In his war diary in 1917 he continued to note birds and their songs as a constant amid the boredom, trauma and tragedy, and occasional humour, of trench life.
The beginning of Sedge-Warblers is "This beauty", not a term ET used lightly. He had used it less sparingly in the flowery prose of his younger days, which, as Edna Longley notes, he imitated in the first verse of Sedge-Warblers before he resumed the pared-back style of his later poetry in the second verse. Integral to ET's appreciation of beauty was the soundscape, of which birdsong was the key element throughout much of the year. Birdsong was beautiful both in itself and because it was always a mystery to man, hinting at meanings beyond human understanding. But it was also closely linked to human poetry - as Edna Longley writes: "Thomas assumes (rightly) that birdsong, the most complex utterance by any other species, and the lyric poem have a common evolutionary origin". ET in Sedge-Warblers manages to capture both the experience and the essence of their incomprehensible bird song. This combination of non-comprehension of, yet close connection with, the natural world was a key theme that reoccurs in many other of ET's poems besides Sedge-Warblers. But this poem is one of the finest examples of his expression of this "mystery", as well as an extraordinary synthesis of poetry and birdsong. The significance of the poem was recognised in ET's lifetime by its inclusion as the first poem in ET's first single-authored selection of Six Poems, published by his friend James Guthrie in 1916.
Below is a video of Sedge Warblers in full song, not in Hampshire but in North Norfolk. Birds Brittanica (Chatto & Windus, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey) describes the song of the Sedge Warbler as "hectic and magical". It will "often cap its high-energy performance with a striking song flights when the bird rises steeply into the air, then parachutes back to earth with wings outstretched and tail spread...one of the most distinctive sights and sound of the British wetland in spring." They go on to say the song is full of wonderfully accurate imitations of other birds' calls and songs and that each passage of song is a unique performance, never repeated exactly.
A good walk can be done from Exton, across the Meon and along the old railway track south, and then coming back to Exton via Meonstoke and Corhampton.
You start at the car parking areas just off the A32 on the way into Exton from the north (Warnford). Crossing the busy road you follow the footpath (the South Downs way) over the Meon at the ford where ET and Bronwen would have seen the sedge warblers that day. Follow the footpath round past Shavards Farm (in ET's day Exton Grange Farm) along the root-knotted, rough way to the railway bridge. Looking back there's a good view of Beacon Hill. Going up the steps by the bridge you go right along the old railway track which is now a bike and walking track between West Meon and Wickham, You walk along the track for about a mile enjoying occasional views of Old Winchester Hill, back to the left. Crossing over one lane (Stocks) you reach a bridge, where you take steps on left up to the lane above Meonstoke. Follow the lane down in the village and its pub, The Bucks Head. Before you get to the pub, there's a lane to the right towards the church, which you take. You may want to view the "shallow bright pale bottomed" Meon from the church green. Taking the footpath, on the right of the church through the graveyard, you get to a lane where you go left down to the main road (A32). Go left along pavement for 100 yards or so until you see on the opposite the small church and vast yew tree of Corhampton, still much as ET would have seen. He described the yew as "huge...very muscular and protruberant but in good condition, tho it has lost its biggest limb by lopping".
The river below is now overhung by a large willow and it is less easy to see the "anchored" trout than in ET's day. You follow the track below the church to the footpath sign past Corhampton Farm towards Exton. This is probably the path that ET took in 1909 coming out at Exton Farm, through the water meadows that are now mainly paddocks. The Meon villages have grown significantly in the last hundred years, farms have been split into multiple dwellings and the river and its landscape have a manicured feel.
Passing Exton Farm you carry on along the lane round past a thatched cottage that ET mentioned and down the lane to the Shoe Inn which was there in ET's day and is an excellent lunch spot besides the Meon. Heading down the lane from the pub, following the Meon upstream, you see Exton church up Church Lane. ET noted that its porch was "paved w(ith) fragments of gravestones" and sketched them.
Returning to the lane you follow it round a blind corner back towards the car parking spot. On the corner you pass Exton Manor, which ET may have confused with Exton Manor Farm (further along the lane) as the Manor has the four pillars he ascribed to the Farm.
At the end of the lane you return to your car.
Unfortunately a walk from Exton to Warnford which ET would have walked in 1909, exulting in it - "Oh might I never never leave the long white & hedges cool" - is not easy or safe to do nowadays because of the speed of traffic on the A32. Much of Warnford Park is private. However you can visit the church and ruins of the medieval house along a footpath that takes you through the park and its chestnuts, over the Meon, with views down to the lake and up to Old Winchester Hill. ET visited here at least twice - once writing down the inscription on the outside of the church (still there) and probably visiting the ruins of the old hall.
OS Explorer Map for Meon Valley OL3 (previously Explorer 119)
Starting point to walk: car parking area on Church Lane, close to A32, north east of Exton.
Grid reference: SU617212
Nearest post code SO32 3NR
Field Note Books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York.
Quotes taken from Edna Longley's notes on Sedge-Warblers in the Annotated Poems of Edward Thomas.
My thanks to Ben Mackay for editorial support as always and providing the original and his transcription of the FNB 80 notebook.