Updated: May 5
The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that are passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.
Edward Thomas wrote The Cherry Trees in early May 1916, on his way back to his military camp in Romford, or shortly after returning, from a short weekend leave at home in Steep, Hampshire.
He had written to his friend, Eleanor Farjeon on Thursday (4th May) that he was expecting to go home tomorrow “perhaps just till Sunday morning, tho if the weather settles fine I may walk to Haslemere [a distance of 13 miles] and catch the 4.20, I think it is.”
In a letter dated on the Sunday back at his camp, he wrote again to her “We hoped you would appear yesterday but perhaps you were already in Town?…Have you thought better of the verses, or any of them? Here are still more for you, the short one being half Baba’s”. (Thomas sent his handwritten verses to her for appraisal and for typing up.)
Baba was the nickname of ET’s younger daughter, Myfanwy, and the poem that was half hers was The Cherry Trees. Myfanwy described the moment that inspired the poem in her memoirs “One Fine Day”. “I have happy memories too: the happiest were the walks Edward and I took together and I have renewed pleasure when reading his poems, which sometimes told of these walks, in, for instance, The Cherry Trees. I had seen their scattered petals and remarked “Someone’s been married.””
So the walk probably happened that May weekend in Steep and ET wrote the short poem in response. Although the source of his inspiration is clear, the location of the walk has never been identified.
ET had a prodigious appetite for walking. But with the limitations of a short weekend at home, when there would have been other calls on his time, such as gardening, he would not have walked a long distance, especially with his youngest daughter Myfanwy, aged 5 at the time. He would have usually gone up to his study on top of Ashford Hangers when on leave. His normal route was up the Stoner Hill Road (New Stoner as he described it in his notebooks). But he would vary it on occasions by taking the woodcutter’s path up Lutcombe or going straight up Shoulder of Mutton.
There was another slightly longer way to his study up Old Stoner, the old road up the hangers, before the New Stoner road was constructed in the early 19th century. It was an ancient way and would have been the main thoroughfare to get to the top of the hangers north and west of Petersfield up until the 1820s. Old Stoner was the historic coach road to Alton, Winchester and the Midlands, "unbelievably" , as W M Whiteman wrote in The Edward Thomas Country, given how steep and stony it was. He added it must have been a gruelling slog - as it still is.
Old Stoner was close to their current house, Yew Tree Cottage, in Church Lane, and also just at the end of Ashford Lane which led down to Berryfield Cottage, their first house in Hampshire. So it seems likely that ET with his younger daughter, either on a walk up to his study or on a shorter morning excursion from home that May weekend, saw the cherry blossom falling from the trees on the old road of Old Stoner.
Old Stoner had been a favourite walking place of his, from his earliest days in Hampshire, especially in the winter months when the trees were bare and it gave panoramic views of the hills of Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire through the trees - wider even than from the Shoulder of Mutton or his study.
ET described a walk up Old Stoner on New Year’s Day 1909. Halfway up, with the children looking South West at 3.45pm as the sun was setting, “under soft sky with yellowish light - the round low hills with the vales are all vacant & white either with thin snow or with mist very thick & still & low, trees black & small, rosy in one vale from the sun-setting, all very distant & inaccessible & quiet & dead as I stand with the children under the meat-red pines & wet high beeches.”
That year he walked up Old Stoner several times from Berryfield Cottage, enjoying the view from halfway up or at the top. On 7th February he wrote of “Immense flocks of wood pigeons - rooks at little rookery in tall beech & larch - hunt on dry grey ploughland — old Winchester Hill always bluish & gentle & high/huge? above near woods — beauty of the scalloped humpy foot of hills seen SW from 1/2 way up Old Stoner with Barrow Hill & Tegdown at farthest & near the grey ploughlands & green wheat, the Lythe Farm & the sound of invisible woman scolding - sound of sheep bells - but country empty - flint pickers by Bordean on Little Down - the Mutton very bright, except the yews…”
Late in March he wrote of a marvellous clear day “as if you could lean off Old Stoner & stroke the Downs.”
The panorama clearly attracted him - whether looking towards Black Down and Older Hill by Haslemere, along the Downs east to Chanctonbury Hill or south west beyond Butser to Tegdown, Salt Hill and towards Old Winchester Hill.
In October 1913 he noted “The pines of Old Stoner a whity (frosty looking) blue green among the now changing beeches.” These trees would have been at the halfway point of the track, where a path comes in from the left and below, a short cut up from Yew Tree Cottage across a field and then steeply up the hanger to join the old road (possibly the same path as in ET's poem The Path.)
The pines have largely gone but the beeches and yews still predominate up the steep track of Old Stoner. Amidst these are occasional cherry trees, some old, some young, perhaps successors to those that ET and Myfanwy saw that morning in May.
ET would often write about cherry trees - in blossom, in fruit or when their leaves were falling. There had been an ancient cherry tree in their garden at Berryfield (now long gone), with the most beautiful blossom which he celebrated each April and May. In their first year there, he described the “thick pendent clots of white cherry blossom” all over it “dense with sound too that makes the colour.” Later in May he wrote “Under cherry trees the petals are heaped in hollows like shells.”
A couple of years later one noon in late April “suddenly” he looks up “under the bright blossomed dome of the old cherry tree humming under the burning blue. It was like a kind of glorious church but the roof lighter than the floor. The blossom in dense rounded clusters as if great bubbles or snow flakes, with bitter scent delicious & very pure & lovely white.” In May of that year he wrote “Beauty of old Cherry in flower - some of the clusters of paper white bloom are as big & thick as big fist & so close that each bloom can only open to a cup shape- as close as honeycomb & through the end appears the plume of new drooping leaves, rosied & green & larger every day.”
ET was clearly very fond of the wild cherry tree. In his earlier poem Lob, he recalled the folk name for it, the merry tree. Walking at the foot of the hangers in April and early May you can see why this early flowering tree would have been known as that, when so many other trees are not yet in leaf. He made a note of this occurrence in most years. In their first April in the hangers he noted “solitary wild cherry trees flowering among still leafless beech and ash.” The following year again in May he wrote “One wild cherry tree all blossom makes white cloud among glowing brown beeches on Ashford hangers.” Possibly the same tree was later that month “alive with bees from hive bee to largest darkest bumble bees”. In May 1909 the woods have “many greens all pale except yew, & some grey in wind or white in sun, or tinged by rusting bloom (eg cherry), or white of beam.” Easter Day in 1914 was glorious bright and fresh with “a whole cherry flowering loose & white against the dark hanger”.
Before Myfanwy had seen the petals as confetti that morning in May, ET had described the cherry tree blossom variously as clots, bubbles, snow flakes, clouds, honeycomb cups, or shells. He had also likened the tree in blossom with a church, a symbol of purity and innocence, in contrast to the groves of yews and beech on the hangers which were more akin in his imagination to the precinct of temples of ancient Gods - see the post on The Combe.
Myfanwy’s “Someone’s been married” may have reminded him of this earlier comparison. He would also have been conscious of his youngest daughter’s obsession with death, probably caused by being surrounded by the war’s effects and consequences in her early years. As Myfanwy wrote in her memoirs:
“Death was a mysterious subject, towards which I sometimes tried to steer the talk…
‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could see all the dead people in the churchyard.’
‘I don’t think it would at all.’”
At other times ET did more to encourage his daughter in this train of thought! He had scared and thrilled her one New Year with “horrid stories” about a gamekeeper’s “gallows” for vermin (which eventually became the poem The Gallows a couple of months after The Cherry Trees). On a lovely bright day in November 1914 he had written in his note book: “Shadows very clear on the smooth dry road (on the road up to their home from Petersfield) & I told Baba only the dead would be shadowless on such a day.”
In the poem he uses the falling blossoms to convey and evoke a sense of loss and death. But the contrast between the natural world continuing as normal and the terrible death and destruction of war must have added to the hollowness and alienation as he saw the blossom falling.
In his similarly short poem from the previous year, In Memoriam (Easter 1915), he wrote of the young men who would never return to pick flowers with their lovers from the hedgerows round the hangers. Then in The Cherry Trees they are commemorated by their absence, as those who will never marry.
As Edna Longley points out in The Collected Poems, The Cherry Trees must have been influenced by A.E. Houseman's "1887", whose second part is the well-know "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now" - and the elegiac tone of the poem is certainly as Houseman's in The Shropshire Lad. As Jean Moorcroft Wilson writes in her biography of Edward Thomas, The Cherry Trees also has the conciseness of an Imagist poem or a Japanese haiku. It has an absence, an elusiveness which ET had always valued in his critical writing and which was a direct influence from Japanese poetry. ET was intrigued by Japanese poetry and had written a short biography of Lafacadio Hearn, one of the great proponents of Japanese culture and thought in the West. He also knew and had reviewed Yone Noguchi, the influential Japanese poet and Professor of English, one of the few Japanese scholars at the time writing in English.
Alan Watts in The Way of Zen wrote of Japanese poetry “the empty space is the surrounding silence…a silence of the mind in which one does not ‘think about’ the poem but actually feels the sensation which it evokes - all the more strongly for having said so little.” He goes on “…a good haiku is a pebble thrown into the pool of the listener’s mind, evoking associations out of the richness of his own memory. It invites the listener to participate instead of leaving him dumb with admiration while the poet shows off.”!
There may have been a number of associations - or ripples - in the poet’s mind when he wrote The Cherry Trees, beyond the perfect miniature of the cherry tree blossoms falling on the old road. When he wrote “all that passed are dead” he would have been remembering not just the soldiers of his generation, but the multitudes who used the old road before the new one was built. Yet the war was increasingly feeling like an epoch ending time, when hopes of regeneration seemed lost forever amidst the overwhelming losses and death count.
There could have been other associations for him as we’ve seen from his note books: a child obsessed with death talking of weddings; the merry tree, the symbol of Spring, yet deprived of hope; the small church-like cherry tree amidst the temple groves of yews and beeches; the seasonal cycle, absented by man with no-one and nothing left to celebrate. He would also have seen from the viewpoints of Old Stoner, swathes of the rural South Country which had lost much of its male population to the war. There would have been added poignancy for him, visiting a favourite spot during a brief moment of respite, as he was getting set to go to war himself, his two elder children for the moment dispersed, and with only his youngest one remaining to walk with him.
He did not always have an easy relationship with Myfanwy. Yet she was to have a disproportionate influence on his poetry. ET enjoyed noting down children's remarks or actions either because they were humorous or showed the truth of something in a more direct way than an adult could ever communicate. Although he had often noted down Bronwen’s comments or activities when younger, during the period he was writing his poetry, the young Myfanwy became his main source. Her comments or activities are noted down in his notebooks, and others appear in his poems. So in addition to the poem What shall I give? which directly addresses what he would leave his younger daughter (…"Steep and her own world/And her spectacled self with hair uncurled"), Myfanwy appears directly in two other poems, Old Man and The Brook, and inspired The Cherry Trees, The Gallows and his last poem, Out in the Dark.
ET had grown fond and proud of her as she grew from infancy, enjoying her ways and sayings. He wrote to his aunt when Myfanwy was four - “Baby seems to be much cleverer than either [Merfyn or Bronwen] and more independent, but I suppose the youngest often seems so.” Her book One Fine Day includes many memories of ET, though she was only six when has killed. Despite being so young, she had more of a direct influence on his poems than anyone else in his life.
A walk up Old Stoner Hill in April/May still gives tantalising glimpses of the views that Thomas so relished. The track is little used, though bikes and cars have a right of way. It is steep and can be muddy and stony above its chalk base.
At its base the main road from Petersfield towards Alton and Alresford, New Stoner as ET knew it, curves gracefully up the eastern and northern side of Stoner Hill. In contrast Old Stoner climbs steeply up the side of the southern side of Stoner Hill. The effort to get a coach and horses up this hill must have been huge, marking it as a major obstacle to be overcome before the Froxfield plateau and the rolling Hampshire downs beyond.
The choreography of a walk to take in all of Old Stoner, while avoiding the busy road below, is complicated but worthwhile. The best walk starts from the top at the green triangle where Broad Way and Ridge Top Lane meet (round the corner from Stoner Hill Road).
From the triangle go back to the corner of Broad Way and Stoner Hill Road where you will find, if you bear straight on, the top of Old Stoner. On the left by the farm there is the trunk of an old cherry and there are others, still very much alive, in the garden further along the road. Perhaps these were where ET and Myfanwy saw the trees bending over and shedding blossom in the wind.
Going down into Old Stoner you are at once surrounded by high trees on either side - beech, oak, sycamore, many ivy clad. As you go further down the slope of Stoner Hill on the left gets steeper and higher, and the trees soar. Yews intersperse and darken the southern side, while the higher slope is mainly beech and underneath wild garlic - probably not so prevalent in ET’s day as he never noted it. The pine trees, he did note, have disappeared.
The halfway point where he used to stop to take in the view is probably where the slope flattens out and a path comes in from the right, with a gate and an Ashford Hangers sign. Before following this path along the side of the hanger, you can drop down to the bottom of Old Stoner, which gets stonier and darker. You pass, on the right, above a steep quarry, another old cherry tree and some young ones, which could also be possible successors to those they saw.
Retracing your steps, you will see on the left a path going down the hanger, before you reach the higher path that contours round the hangers from the Ashford Hangers sign. If you follow this lower left hand path which goes steeply down, with steps deep in beech leaves and the debris of yews, you come to a path across the field at the bottom of the hanger. This would have been a short cut, and a more interesting way, for ET and his family to have walked up Old Stoner from Yew Tree Cottage. (and may be where the path ends in The Path).
Retracing one’s steps again, you take the path to the left along the side of the hangers. It provides further tantalising glimpses over to Butser Hill and other western heights of the South Downs through the beech trunks. Violets, primroses and spurge are spotted along the path in Spring - and in the underwood of hazel and elder there is the occasional cherry. When you reach a turning off the level path on the right, you take the steps and path steeply up the hanger. As the path levels off, there are, clouds of bluebells under the beech trees in April and May. This wood is Jenny Pinks’s Copse, immortalised in ET’s Fifty Faggots.
You go over the stile into the field following the path up its rise. Views unfold behind you as you climb. At the top from the gate by the green triangle at the end of the walk, you can see from West Harting Down west to Teg Down beyond Butser.
The OS map for Stoner Hill is OS Explorer OL33 Haslemere & Petersfield.
Field note books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York.
I have drawn from Edna Longley's Edward Thomas The Annotated Collected Poems; Eleanor Farjeon's Edward Thomas, The Four Last Years; Myfanwy Thomas's memoirs One Fine Day; Jean Moorcroft Wilson's biography of Edward Thomas; WM Whiteman's The Edward Thomas Country and Alan Watts The Way of Zen.
Thanks to Sarah Green for photograph of cherry blossom against blue sky.