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The Other

Updated: Apr 12



The forest ended. Glad I was

To feel the light, and hear the hum

Of bees, and smell the drying grass

And the sweet mint, because I had come

To an end of forest, and because

Here was both road and inn, the sum

Of what's not forest. But 'twas here

They asked me if I did not pass

Yesterday this way? 'Not you? Queer.'

'Who then? and slept here?' I felt fear.


I learnt his road and, ere they were

Sure I was I, left the dark wood

Behind, kestrel and woodpecker,

The inn in the sun, the happy mood

When first I tasted sunlight there.

I travelled fast, in hopes I should

Outrun that other. What to do

When caught, I planned not. I pursued

To prove the likeness, and, if true,

To watch until myself I knew.


I tried the inns that evening

Of a long gabled high-street grey,

Of courts and outskirts, travelling

An eager but a weary way,

In vain. He was not there. Nothing

Told me that ever till that day

Had one like me entered those doors,

Save once. That time I dared: 'You may

Recall' - but never-foamless shores

Make better friends than those dull boors.


Many and many a day like this

Aimed at the unseen moving goal

And nothing found but remedies

For all desire. These made not whole;

They sowed a new desire, to kiss

Desire's self beyond control,

Desire of desire. And yet

Life stayed on within my soul.

One night in sheltering from the wet

I quite forgot I could forget.


A customer, then the landlady

Stared at me. With a kind of smile

They hesitated awkwardly:

Their silence gave me time for guile.

Had anyone called there like me,

I asked. It was quite plain the wile

Succeeded. For they poured out all.

And that was naught. Less than a mile

Beyond the inn, I could recall

He was like me in general.


He had pleased them, but I less.

I was more eager than before

To find him out and to confess,

To bore him and to let him bore.

I could not wait: children might guess

I had a purpose, something more

That made an answer indiscreet.

One girl's caution made me sore,

Too indignant even to greet

The other had we chanced to meet.


I sought then in solitude,

The wind had fallen with the night; as still

The roads lay as the ploughland rude,

Dark and naked, on the hill.

Had there been ever any feud

'Twixt earth and sky, a mighty will

Closed it: the crocketed dark trees,

A dark house, dark impossible

Cloud-towers, one star, one lamp, one peace

Held on an everlasting lease:


And all was earth's, or all was sky's;

No difference endured between

The two. A dog barked on a hidden rise;

A marshbird whistled high unseen;

The latest waking blackbird's cries

Perished upon the silence keen.

The last light filled a narrow firth

Among the clouds. I stood serene,

And with a solemn quiet mirth,

An old inhabitant of earth.


Once the name I gave to hours

Like this was melancholy, when

It was not happiness and powers

Coming like exiles home again,

And weaknesses quitting their bowers,

Smiled and enjoyed, far off from men,

Moments of everlastingness.

And fortunate my search was then

While what I sought, nevertheless,

That I was seeking, I did not guess.


That time was brief: once more at inn

And upon road I sought my man

Till once amid a tap-room's din

Loudly he asked for me, began

To speak, as if it had been a sin,

Of how I thought and dreamed and ran

After him thus, day after day:

He lived as one under a ban

For this: what had I got to say?

I said nothing. I slipped away.


And now I dare not follow after

Too close. I try to keep in sight,

Dreading his frown and worse his laughter.

I steal out of the wood to light;

I see the swift shoot from the rafter

By the inn door: ere I alight

I wait and hear the starlings wheeze

And nibble like ducks: I wait his flight.

He goes: I follow: no release

Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease.


The Other is one of Edward Thomas’s earliest poems, written in the last days of 1914. It had as its subject something he had been becoming more concerned about in recent years, as it was increasingly effecting his mental health.


In a letter to a friend in 1911 Thomas had written: “I hope it will cure my head, which is almost always wrong now - a sort of conspiracy going on in it which leaves me only a joint tenancy and a perpetual scare of the other tenant and wonder what he will do.”


The Other Man had been first introduced in his account of his bike journey from London to the Quantocks over Easter 1913 in In Pursuit of Spring. Although there had been other precursors, the Other Man who appeared to ET first in a bird shop in the Merton Road, buying a chaffinch to free it, was more evidently another version of himself, with the same interests and attitudes. He then reappeared at Morden, Epsom Common, and the following night at Salisbury. Then there was a gap until Bradford-upon-Avon (where they teamed up and biked together through the Mendips to Shepton) and finally they met again at Kilve in the foothills of the Quantocks. Their talk was of weather vanes, pipes, inn signs, writing and notebooks among other topics.



In the poem, the Other becomes the centre of the drama (though rarely seen), not just a frequent visitor as in In Pursuit of Spring. Commentators and critics tend to agree that this complex psychodrama is Thomas’s two selves in contention. The Other has been described as an inner critical voice; “two selves…irrevocably linked…irrevocably hostile”; “different selves inhabiting the same mind”; and “not just a replica but an improved version of himself”. The narrative is a search "for his deepest, his ‘real’ self..”.; an attempt to integrate his two selves, one long repressed; and a quest that "continues through time and many places…and....ends with the impossibility of reconciling identities, or of knowing oneself fully”.


The journey and the landscape through which he travels do have a quest-like feel. Yet two parts of the landscape that ET described in the poem were actual places in England that he knew well and which shed light on aspects of the poem which could otherwise be overlooked.


The opening lines, a beguiling beginning as Matthew Hollis notes, describe the protagonist’s relief at coming out of a forest: 


“The forest ended. Glad I was 

To feel the light……

Here was both road and inn,”


ET during his life got to know a number of forests well.  His two years of military training before going to France was spent in, or in sight of, Epping Forest. He had explored the length and breadth of Ashdown Forest when staying at Selsfield House in the winter of 1913. From the top of the Hangers at his home in Steep he could see the sandy heathland of Woolmer Forest and he had gone on longer expeditions over the other side of the downs to Bere Forest in Hampshire and the New Forest. He had also passed through other forests on his travels but one especially stood out in his memory: Savernake Forest. 



He visited Savernake on a number of occasions from when he was young. Perhaps most memorably, just out of school in April 1895 with a summer ahead of him, he set out on foot from London to Marlborough Forest (or Savernake). According to the note in The Woodland Life of 15th - 17th April, he took three days to get there, staying at inns and cottages on the way. He went via Hungerford (where he noted snipe in the water-meadows). From Marlborough Forest he travelled to Swindon where he spent the rest of the spring and summer, based at his grandmother’s house, exploring Wiltshire. 


No detailed notes of that walk have survived but on later visits to Savernake he clearly relished the woods of beech and oak, and the long avenues with the “heroic look of forest ahead with nothing but tall pale muscular beeches”.


Later that year he wrote on his approach to the forest: “Mounded purple surface of the distant Savernake forest in NW windy blue rainy day”


In the forest itself he described “The moss golden turf of the rides among bracken. Wood pigeons racing thro clear moist air over the bare large dense thorns & the stately pale beech clumps & the mousy deer.”


Like many visitors he was intrigued by the characterful old oaks noting: 


“Oaks doing great feats of holding out long snaky mossy & polypody horizontal branches - one such to each very old tree.”


and


“Oaks with rustling ferns up high, oaks with dead stripped branches tangled like a knot of dark & wide struggling snakes”



Savernake was evidently a magical kingdom for him, as it had been for Richard Jefferies, the country writer before. He wrote, as Jefferies might have, of mossy glades, whose "sunny turf....shimmer like the sea far off among beech or oaks." 


And


"Some..mossy beech boughs glow warmly golden green in a dear & lovely way in horizontal rays of sun & the moss on ground makes emerald pools." 


He referenced Savernake on other occasions when writing about other parts of the South Country, for instance comparing woods below Old Winchester Hill in Hampshire to a glade in Savernake, or asserting that Burley common had more of a forest feel than Savernake. 


So Savernake was a forest that he had known the longest, was often in his thoughts,  and would have been the one that would have sprung to mind as the “dark wood” which he left behind as the poem begins. 


Later in the poem, on the evening of the day he came out of the forest, the poet described the town where he was searching the inns as having “a long gabled high-street grey,/Of courts and outskirts.” As Edna Longley notes this has “a trace of Wiltshire”.  Edward Thomas in his biography of Richard Jefferies, who had lived at Coate near Swindon, had written a chapter on Jefferies's country, including a description of Marlborough:


“Marlborough town, with its dormered and gabled High Street, long, wide and discreet, and, though genial, obviously an entity which the visitor can know little of…(possibly because of its deep backyards (courts?) etc behind houses?)… The downs & Savernake Forest dominate the town. It is but a place at the edge of the forest.” 


This matches the poem's "long gabled high-street grey,/ Of courts and outskirts." The greyness in the poem may have been not only of the slate roofs but also of the sarsen stone that he noted stood at one end of high street. 



So it would seem likely that Savernake Forest and neighbouring Marlborough were the forest and town respectively of the first day of the quest. 


The second identifiable place occurs in the 7th and 8th verses of The Other. For these he drew from his field note book of the winter of 1913 when he was staying at Selsfield House near Ashdown Forest in West Sussex. The note of 18th December provided  much of the detail that he used for these verses: 


“4.30 one of those eternal evenings - the wind gone, no-one upon the road. I grasp the stile by the holly & look over the ploughland to the near ridge, the crocketed spruces, the dark house mass, & behind them a soft dulling flame-coloured sky where large shapeless soft dull-dark clouds in roughly horizontal lines are massing with one bright star in an interstice- and far behind me an owl calls again & again & somewhere far to one side in a hid hollow a dog barks & nearer, one or two blackbirds chink as they fly along hedges.


“What does it mean? I feel an old inhabitant of the earth at such times. How many hundred times have I seen the same since I was 15. 


“At 5.30 wind moaning & over the West is a mass of cloud like a great hand with a star eastward.”


He was returning that afternoon to Selsfield from a visit to East Grinstead, the local market town.  He had walked along the roads between the two and had arrived at a stile close to Selsfield, looking across Selsfield Common from Vowels Lane. The footpath over the field would have been a short cut to Selsfield House, rather than going along the road round two long sides of a triangle. 



The final image in the poem of the poet hearing “the starlings wheeze/And nibble like ducks” also appears almost word for word in a notebook from Selsfield House on his first day of his prolonged stay there in early November. He may have been prompted to remember the striking simile when rereading his notes, as he had also spotted starlings in East Grinstead before his walk back to Selsfield that December afternoon. He had noted “ a starling or 2 at 3.45 puffed out on chimneys & bent with sharp beaks whistling sharp but at 4 out of town many groups on single trees making a charm of whistles…”


(The timings he noted of his walk out of town would suggest that he must have walked along the road pretty swiftly but we know ET was capable of sustained high speed walking.)




At the back of the 1913 Selsfield notebook in which he described the eternal December evening, he had jotted down some ideas for future pieces, as was his habit.  The first is a sketch of the later poem:


“Set out for a walk


First inn mistaken for 

a man who was there 

night before


2nd night nothing happens 


3rd - again it appears

they are looking at me as if 

they’d seen me before. ‘I’

inquire - some one in 

bar remembers man saying 

he was going to - 

I follow him


4th I ask after him .

They are suspicious & I 

learn nothing 


5th He is at the 

inn. He has been 

inquiring if someone else

was there. Was he enquiring of

me. I had to say No.”



As we have seen ET had written on his encounters with the Other Man in In Pursuit of Spring earlier in the year, but not with the frequency or intensity described in this note.  The note is remarkably close to the narrative he adopted for the poem when he wrote it a year later at the end of 1914. He may have intended to write the note up as a prose piece but, having already written some lines of poetry at Selsfield in September - see the post on The Source -  he could already have been considering this as the basis of a future poem. He never used it for a prose piece. 



The stages which he fleshed out in the poem are for much of the journey generalised but the inclusion of two places that ET knew well is suggestive. As we have seen Savernake was the destination of his first long walk as a teenager on his way to an extended stay in Wiltshire, having left school . This must have been an exciting, hugely promising time for ET, an excitement and promise he expressed in his later poem, It was upon - see separate post - which drew on memories from that summer: 


“Flushed with desire I was. The earth outspread,

Like meadows of the future, I possessed.” 



So he may have been recollecting in The Other this excitement. Was this period in his late teens also the last time he could recall being free of the other self which came to dog hm through his adult life? 


His notes from Selsfield which he drew on for the later verse show him in a serenely philosophical mood on that December evening. He was feeling much more positive than a few days previously when he had experienced a dark night of the soul which he described in The Gypsy - see separate post. This experience, on a walk south of West Hoathly, seems to have been a final denouement in a period of depression which he had left his home and his family in Hampshire to resolve. The respite from this became in the poem a brief truce in the endless pursuit and counter-pursuit of his different selves. 


The journey of the poem thus described the arc of his adult life from his walk to Savernake in 1896 to his stay at Selsfield House in the winter of 1913 and beyond. At Selsfield he had written the autobiography of his early life. This concluded before he had left school but he may have been more conscious as he jotted down his original plan of the quest or pursuit of The Other how it might be overlaid on the adult half of his life.


In this journey through his adulthood it would seem that he was picking these places and moments out because of their special significance in his endless struggle with the Other: the first before his different selves began their struggle when excited at the potential and promise in front of him as a young man; and the second in an interlude in this struggle, a rare moment of release and serenity which he very unusually noted down in his notebook. In addition the observation of the starlings sounding like ducks took place on the first full day of his semi-permanent stay at Selsfield in November which his notes show him really appreciating. Perhaps as well as remembering a striking image, he was also recalling another moment of release and excitement at the promise ahead, after struggling with his depression at home. (He had written a few days earlier just before leaving home for Selsfield: “This day was the end of the beautiful weather of this wretched October.”) 


He knew there could be no relenting from the struggle between his different selves but moments of equipoise like these could be marked and celebrated.



A walk 


If one were to travel between Savernake Forest and Selsfield Common it would take about four days, walking at 25 miles a day. As far as we know ET never made this journey directly although he would have travelled or crossed the paths which connected the two, when walking between his Hampshire home and Selsfield and his home and London and Wiltshire.


The route out of Savernake Forest to Marlborough that Edward Thomas took in April 1896 would have been either along the London Road or on a footpath off Postern Hill at the far West of the Forest which led across fields to the road (the path still exists but now goes through suburbs of Marlborough). Either way he would have to cross railway lines (long since gone) before reaching The Roebuck Inn, which is still there at the junction of the London Road and Buck Lane. One can imagine the young Thomas having a celebratory drink at the end of his walk, before boarding the train at the station close by and going to his final destination in Swindon. 



His walk returning from East Grinstead to Selsfield House is less practicable nowadays as the road is busy and dangerous for pedestrians, however there is a good walk round Selsfield Common which has some fine views up to the North Downs and south over rolling fields towards the South Downs.



There is a place to park a car on Selsfield Common and a short round walk can be done. After exploring the common and its views north and west, you follow the footpath crossing west to east past Selsfield Place through fields until you reach Vowels Lane. Go right along the road, taking care as it is busy and pedestrians can be unsighted. This would have been the road that ET took when walking to and fro East Grinstead, something he did regularly during December 1913. After a few hundred yards, there is a footpath sign on the right. This would have been the location of the stile where ET had his eternal moment. Following in his footsteps we cross the field towards the water tower, before going through gates on to the junction of Ardingly and Selsfield roads. Go right along the pavement and them turn right back to Selsfield Common and the car park.




Acknowledgements etc


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


I have also drawn on Edward Thomas's In Pursuit of Spring and Richard Jefferies.


Quotes about The Other from William Cooke's Edward Thomas a Critical Biography, HC Coombes's Edward Thomas a Critical Study, Matthew Hollis's Now All Roads Lead to France, Edna Longley's Edward Thomas, the Annotated Collected Poems, Jan Marsh's Edward Thomas: A Poet for his Country, Andrew Motion's The Poetry of Edward Thomas, Jean Moorcroft Wilson's Edward Thomas From Adlestrop to Arras - with thanks.


Thanks as always to Ben Mackay for editorial support.



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