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The Glory

Updated: May 31, 2023

The glory of the beauty of the morning, -

The cuckoo crying over the untouched dew;

The blackbird that has found it, and the dove

That tempts me on to something sweeter than love;

White clouds ranged even and fair as new-mown hay;

The heat, the stir, the sublime vacancy

Of sky and meadow and forest and my own heart: -

The glory that invites me, yet it leaves me scorning

All I can ever do, all I can be,

Beside the lovely of motion, shape, and hue,

The happiness I fancy fit to dwell

In beauty's presence. Shall I now this day

Begin to seek as far as heaven, as hell,

Wisdom or strength to match this beauty, start

And tread the pale dust pitted with small dark drops,

In hope to find whatever it is I seek,

Hearkening to short-lived happy-seeming things

That we know naught of, in the hazel copse?

Or must I be content with discontent

As larks and swallows are perhaps with wings?

And shall I ask at the day's end once more

What beauty is, and what I can have meant

By happiness? And shall I let go,

Glad, weary, or both? Or shall I perhaps know

That I was happy oft and oft before,

Awhile forgetting how I am fast pent,

How dreary-swift, with naught to travel to,

Is Time? I cannot bite the day to the core.

The Glory was written in early May 1915, when Edward Thomas was writing his biography of the Duke of Marlborough, an appropriate martial subject for the times. It was a commission he hated - he described himself as being buried by it in a letter to his friend, Gordon Bottomley, and it was “by far the worst job I ever undertook”. He had already spent weeks on it and reckoned in early May “I can’t get out in less than 2 months if I ever do.” He must have resented the time taken away from writing poetry but it was his only opportunity to earn anything when so many commissions had dried up. Much of the writing of the biography he did in his study at the top of Ashford Hangers, with an occasional foray to London for research at the British Museum.

The Glory describes a perfect late Spring morning, where summer is already beckoning. The descriptions of the sky, landscape and natural world feel fresh as if just observed. He made very few notes of his observations of the natural world during that time, unlike in previous years. His notebook for 1915 is mainly full of poetic ideas (including a much crossed out early draft fragment of The Glory). But there is a reference on 2nd May to “soft raindrops pit(ting) the clean pale dust” which he used in the poem. It seems likely that the poem describes an early May morning walk around this time, before sitting down to the day’s drudgery in his study.

He could walk up to the study a number of ways - normally up Stoner Hill, but also using the Woodcutter’s path in Lutcombe, or climbing the Shoulder of Mutton hill, or occasionally using the old coach road up Old Stoner.

The poem suggests that he is looking from a height out into the country. The Shoulder of Mutton, his favourite hill, with its sweeping views of the South Country would be the obvious place. But as the Downs, which are such a feature of this view, are not mentioned, it seems unlikely. Old Stoner could be another option, but the views glimpsed on this wooded track by May have become even more restricted as trees come into leaf. So another high spot along the hangers seems likely. His description of “the sublime vacancy/Of sky and meadow and forest..” provides a very distinct clue.

Forests or their remnants are few and far between in this part of the South Country. The nearest one to Steep and the one in view from Ashford Hangers is Woolmer Forest. It stretched from Weaver Down and the Longmoor Inclosure in the South to Kingsley in the North. Woolmer then as now was used for military purposes. In May 1908 ET described Woolmer as being like Dartmoor (which he had recently visited) with its “two dark humps pine-tufted in sudden light & gloom”. In November 1914 from the far eastern hangers he saw Alice Holt (a forest further north) & Woolmer “all as one broad level brown forest extending to horizon“. He noted Woolmer at other times when at the top of the Hangers looking North East and East, from Wheatham Hill (pronounced Wetham).

Wheatham Hill is the eastern promontory of the Ashford Hangers ridge and it seems to be the obvious place that inspired The Glory. There are only partial views at best of Woolmer Forest from elsewhere along Ashford Hangers. Wheatham was a hill that ET visited often. One winter afternoon he observed in the dimming winter light, when tobogganing on Wheatham with his children, “streaky Woolmer fragments & clumps of trees & hill top vaguely & in isolated patches, apparently above the earth”.

He would walk up there from Steep via Shoulder of Mutton Hill or up the track from Ashford Farm. Or he could come at it from its eastern ridge, up the track via the Chalk Pit by Wheatham Farm (the site of his poem The Chalk Pit which he write shortly after The Glory - see separate post). Or he could stroll there along the hangers ridge from his study, The Bee-House along Cockshott Lane and Old Litten Lane. Wheatham Hill was where Jack Norman had picked the cowslips in his poem May the 23rd (written back in February).

From the Steep side of the hangers Wheatham Hill was always a presence and it was the first place ET had written of in his notebook when he had arrived in Hampshire at Christmas 1906, observing three kestrels playing against the yew clump on Wheatham. In another early notebook he described how the Wheatham beeches “in mist juts out always suggest(ing) early marshy Britain with Roman eagles indiscernible thro the mist”.

In Winter it was a”shaggy huge mound; in April it was “dark with bare woods & solemn”; in June it was “covered with small daisy, thyme, flax, lotus & fine grass”

He was hugely irritated when, in Spring 1908, he found “barbed wire at top of Wheatham fastened to oak & beech & ash & hazel & maple wherever possible.” He expostulated in his notebook “By what right?”!

In those days the top of Wheatham Hill was largely bare and unwooded at the top, on every side except the south (the Steep side) where the hanging woods rose to the ridge. The top was surrounded with thistly deserted cornfields or waste fields, stretching right down to the tumulus on the eastern ridge, now deep in woodland. The views must have been even more panoramic and magnificent than now - and he would have seen the full extent of Woolmer Forest to the east.

This hilltop would also have been reminiscent of the hill tops that Richard Jefferies described in, among other books, The Story of My Heart, a favourite of ET to which he referred to obliquely in The Glory. Jefferies was an author he much admired and he had written his biography in 1908. With a flat grass top, clear unobstructed wide views, huge sky, Wheatham then would have had the most similar feel in the Hangers to the Wiltshire Downs that Jefferies described so passionately. Jefferies’ idealism about the natural world and his style was a strong early influence which ET drew on in The Glory.

Although The Glory was almost certainly from ET’s immediate observations shortly before he wrote the poem in May 1915, he was also looking back many years to the first spring he spent in Hampshire in 1907. His notebook of the time shows how enthused he was with the countryside, fresh and new to him, as it came into full bloom. After listing the birds and all the unfolding flora he had seen along the hangers and in his garden at Berryfield Cottage, he went on “Now & then the smell of it all brings summer & the past summers to my mind & then I wonder how I can fit myself to enjoy —- the white clouds plunged in blue floating heavy over Mutton treetops & down behind them - the delicate thrushes with speckled breasts in dew, the delicate green flowers - hellebore, spurge, spurge laurel, moschatel, moist saxifrage.”

A few days later on 4th May he expanded the thought “Moments of fine idleness, mostly out of doors, when one leaps by chance into closer fitness to the scheme of things - for these I wait & denied them am unhappy and can’t write.”

Eight years later, in his last field notebook he had developed the thought in one of the

crossed out fragments of what was to become The Glory. He wrote “I exult and then I despair in beauty that has no correspondence with any strength or wisdom known to me.”

In The Glory this stream of self-conscious thought and awareness arose as he observed natural beauty at its best and he synthesised the internal conflict brilliantly in the poem’s concluding line “I cannot bite the day to the core.”

Going back to the earlier notebook of May 1907 when he first moved to Hampshire it is evident in a number of his jottings the effect this beautiful new country was having on him. In seeking to understand the sublimity and beauty around him, he was also raising questions about his and humanity’s response to nature, being part of it and yet apart.

Seeking an answer to why nature had such a positive effect on him, half-humorously, he speculated in a note on 12th May 1907: “There must be woods & lawns in brain, how else this joy of seeming to see the rain leavening my rain, the fair shapes of leaves etc, all seem like a pleasure of ones own, & thro one’s inner woods flies the woodpecker & sings the nightingale.” It’s a poetical response many years before he became a poet.

He also continued to question man’s lack of understanding of nature. In another note on 16th May 1907 on a walk up a tributary of Ashford Stream he wrote “Looking at bright water running & rippling round a curved steep sand bank at Steep Marsh I thought it was (a) pity that men had so long lived on this earth & not learnt these idioms of waters & winds among the leaves.”

That gap in comprehension between man and nature and the elements is a perennial theme in ET’s poetry but his own especial frustration came to the fore in a few poems such as The Glory - his inability to match the standard of sublimity and beauty that nature sets*. Getting to know the beautiful country round Steep in that first Spring heightened his sensibility of this but it only came to be fully expressed in his poetry many years later.

And in creating poetry, ET did find the appropriate or fitting response to the beauty of nature all around. In The Glory he achieved what he concluded he could not do. His poetic language does “bite to the core”.

A walk

That May morning Thomas could have walked to Wheatham Hill either from his home in Steep or his study at the top of Ashford Hangers. But for today’s walkers the two best routes up Wheatham are either from the chalk pit in Cottage Lane on the way to Oakshott or from Ashford Farm. Both have good parking places.

The walk from the chalk pit climbs the ridge from Wheatham Farm. It’s an ancient way that at first climbs steeply under the beech and yew. Levelling out at the top of the first steep incline there are views to the right through the woods into the valley of Oakshott up to Hawkley and to the left, again through trees, over the Rother valley with the Downs beyond. Further along on the left the track up the hangers from Ashford Farm comes in.

The way up from Ashford Farm to this point is along another well worn track which you follow from the farm, past two fields, the second being like a sea cove, lapping the base of the hangers. The path when it reaches the base goes diagonally up the slope. Reaching a gate on the right, you can find a bench above a grassy slope dotted with junipers. There are excellent views of Butser and the other downs to the west of Harting Down.

Returning to the track you continue up through the wood until you arrive at the junction with the path up the ridge from the chalk pit. Opposite is the tumulus, the woods climbed no higher in ET’s day. Here one frozen February day he had one of his encounters with agricultural workers, which he liked to note down: “Man with one arm & steel hook

digging (with pickaxe) flints in waste fields by Wheatham & wheeling them to a heap by tumulus, his short black hair, foreign look, servile, ceaseless worker, strong, simple.”

The tumulus is now covered in wild garlic and later in the year by a sea of hemp agrimony. Both plants seem to have been less prevalent in ET’s day.

Continuing up the track you come to a gate which takes you into an open space. The view from the top of Wheatham is more restricted than 100 years ago as there are more mature trees closer to the summit, but it has improved this century. Until recently the summit was submerged in trees and one had to struggled through the underwood to find the trig point. The trees have now being cut back so the crown is cropped. There is copse of hazel close to the top which may be the successor to the one where ET heard “short-lived happy-seeming things”

The signage under an old maple at the gate identifies Wheatham Hill as the place where William Cobbett, nearly 90 years before ET’s day, stopped on one of his rural rides to admire the view. He wrote ..”never, in all my life, was (I) so surprised and delighted!” He pulled up his horse at the very edge of the hanger “and it was like looking from the top of a castle down into the sea, except that the valley was land and not water.” There had been no indication from those warning of the dangers of the route of “the matchless beauties of the scene”.

There are some questions about whether Wheatham Hill could be the precise spot that Cobbett rode past that day. He was directed by a friend to go a different route, down Hawkley Hanger which is a few miles further north; and the way down he described sounds considerably steeper than the old ways off Wheatham. But looking out from the clear top of Wheatham, above the precipitous hangers to the countryside below, still elicits much the same response as Cobbett described.

The villages of Hawkley and its distinctive church tower can be seen to the North East in front of the heights of Noar Hill above Selborne. The higher hangers curve round from Wheatham to Noar Hill, behind which is Selborne Common. The lower hangers stretch out on the right hand side of Hawkley and below them are the meadows before the village of Greatham and its church spire. (ET described its spire as “gleam(ing) like a thumbnail scratch of pure white on a grey chalk face”) Behind that lies Woolmer Forest and further north Alice Holt and Crooksbury by Farnham (a height ET looked out for and noted) and beyond the line of the North Downs. East the A3 can be seen splitting the forest in two, with the masts on Weavers Down visible to the south (right) of the road and beyond Black Down above Haslemere.

As Cobbett recognised, the view is one of the best in the South Country. It’s certainly a match to the more famous one half a mile away at the top of Shoulder of Mutton Hill looking south.

To reach this viewpoint you follow a path from the top of Wheatham Hill, through the hazel copse back to the main track up the ridge. Follow the track along the top of the hangers, with the woods falling off to to the left and fields on the right. Edward Thomas must have used this track many times which had fields on both sides in those days. After a main track to the right, you reach in a couple of hundred yards or so the Hangers Way signposted to the right. Keep straight on along the track until you turn left at the Hangers Way sign. In 100 yards you reach the bench above Shoulder of Mutton Hill and views out to West Harting Down. Quarter of the way down the hill is the memorial to Edward Thomas who loved this hill more than any other (as described in When First).

Below the memorial stone is a path that contours round the hangers. The view along the South Downs from the right hand side of the path is one of the longest in the South Country 40 miles or so east to Ditchling Beacon. Taking the left hand path you contour round the hangers back to your car. To reach Ashford Farm you can take either the first or second track on the right down the hangers; to get back to the chalk pit you continue to follow the path on the same contour, crossing the two tracks, the second one being the main track up from Ashford Farm. At the end you join the main track going up from the chalk pit to Wheatham Hill.

Acknowledgements etc

*See Edna Longley's notes on The Glory in her Annotated Collected Poems of Edward Thomas.

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

The OS map for Ashford Hangers and Wheatham Hill is OL33 Haslemere & Petersfield.

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