Rooks and White Violets.
Each springtime, I slow past greening banks, searching for the first white violets. I mistake them for the smallest things: ‘The shell of a little snail bleached/ In the grass; chip of flint, and mite/ Of chalk; and the small birds’ dung/ In splashes of purest white’. These are the poet Edward Thomas’s words, 101 years ago. This year, I found the first violets on the 99th anniversary of his death at Arras, on the first day, aged 39.
Once the violets were out, everything followed. Among blue-green blades of stitchwort and a backdrop of spring lambs, come bluebells, waxy celandine suns, primroses and wood anemones.
When I take the pony hay in the shelter, I find a blackbird sitting on a nest in the rafters. Strands of hay and horsehair hold a cob-walled cup of mud, churned by horses’ hooves all winter. Outside, cumulous clouds build like giant cauliflowers and there is sudden lightning. Snow-cloudbursts unroll like bolts of white tulle from a navy sky. It snows – or hails (the children agree it is ‘snailing’) as if a giant beanbag has burst, strewing polystyrene beads. The sun flashes and briefly, there is a snowbow with an apocalyptic backdrop of forked lightening.
The oaks’ unfurling of new leaves against swallow-coloured clouds is arresting: a zingy, acid green-bronziness in the stormlight.
Wood warblers accompany the lucid clarity, spinning songs like coins on a hard surface.
Nearing midnight, I am writing in my hut, thinking again of Edward Thomas. In some ways, the war freed him from the financial constraints of commissioned writing. He wrote 140 poems in two years. Walter de la Mare wrote of Thomas’s death that ‘a mirror of England was shattered … its secret haunts and solitudes … its very flints and dust, were his freedom and his peace’.
Sudden thunderous rain beats against the panes and on the roof of my hut. I feel like I am in a boat, adrift from the house. Copper-eyed, gauzy lacewings flutter around the lamp. I reach into my drawer to pull out two letters. Myfanwy Thomas, Edward and Helen’s
youngest daughter, wrote to me a few years ago, after I’d written about her father and the violets in this paper. Aged 94, she described beautifully, how she and her sister Bronwyn searched for the tiny flowers with their father. A few years after that, I received a letter from Thomas’s granddaughter, Rosemary. She wrote of ravens and a pet rook, as well as a treasured London Underground poster illustrating Thomas’s Thaw poem: Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed/ The speculating rooks at their nests cawed/ And saw …What we below could not see, Winter pass’.
Both letters are among my most treasured possessions.
NB; Little Toller has just published a new ed. of Edward Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring. A fine, ‘brooding elegy’ of a journey he made from Clapham to the Quantocks by bike, illustrated with newly discovered photographs he took along the way.