Edward Thomas in Gower

April 23, 2021 0 Comments

At last some warmth returned with the sun, and I took the rough path along the top of the cliff between Rotherslade and Limeslade.  The sea was calm, empty and quiet, except for one thing: the bell of a floating buoy, its clear sound carried over the water by a light onshore breeze.  I’ve been reading some of the poems Edward Thomas wrote during that brief but ferociously creative period of his life before a shell put an end to it at Arras on 9 April 1917, and the sea bell immediately brought to mind ‘The child on the cliff’, a poem he wrote in March 1915.

Mother, the root of this little yellow flower
Among the stones has the taste of quinine.
Things are strange to-day on the cliff. The sun shines so bright,
And the grasshopper works at his sewing-machine
So hard. Here’s one on my hand, mother, look;
I lie so still. There’s one on your book.

But I have something to tell more strange. So leave
Your book to the grasshopper, mother dear,—
Like a green knight in a dazzling market-place,—
And listen now. Can you hear what I hear
Far out? Now and then the foam there curls
And stretches a white arm out like a girl’s.

Fishes and gulls ring no bells. There cannot be
A chapel or church between here and Devon,
With fishes or gulls ringing its bell,—hark!—
Somewhere under the sea or up in heaven.
“It’s the bell, my son, out in the bay
On the buoy. It does sound sweet to-day.”

Sweeter I never heard, mother, no, not in all Wales.
I should like to be lying under that foam,
Dead, but able to hear the sound of the bell,
And certain that you would often come
And rest, listening happily.
I should be happy if that could be.

In a letter to a close friend, Eleanor Farjeon, on 25 March, Thomas wrote, ‘it is a memory between one of my brothers and myself which he reminded me of lately.  He was most of the child and I have been truthful.  I think I can expect some allowances for the ‘strangeness’ of the day.’  The Thomas family had often spent their summer holidays in west Wales, and Gower, a favourite destination, was almost certainly the setting of the poem.

A boy sits with his mother on the clifftop.  She’s absorbed in reading her book, but his mind is wide open, and alive to what the place can tell him.  He replays his perceptions to his mother.  First, the ‘little yellow flower’.  Not its appearance, though, but its root, which ‘has the taste of quinine’.  This is the first ‘strangeness’ in the story.  Why has the boy taken a bite of the flower’s root?  And why ‘quinine’, bitter to the tongue?  The everyday world seems to have taken an odd twist from its normal course: ‘things are strange to-day on the cliff’.  The light is preternaturally intense.  The crickets are everywhere: they’re both homely-familiar (‘works at his sewing machine’) and fantasy-medieval (‘like a green knight in a dazzling market-place’).  The sea’s foam, curling and stretching an arm ‘like a girl’, takes us further into the world of myth and legend, of sirens and mermaids.  (In a manuscript draft Thomas had ‘white beseeching arm’, a clearer hint that a bewitching female figure is beckoning the boy to join her.)

The unseen bell cuts across the calmness of the scene and intensifies the strangeness of the experience.  The mother’s prosaic explanation of the sound (‘it’s the bell … on the buoy’) and tepid response to it (‘it does sound sweet to-day’), far from grounding the boy’s floating imagination, give it further flight.  He pictures himself lying dead under water, within hearing of the bell, and comforted from time to time by visits from his mother.  This final thought drops gently, despite the strong positioning of the word ‘dead’, aided by the weak rhymes in the stanza (‘foam’ / ‘come’ and ‘happily’ / ‘could be’).

The world of legend flickers at the edges of the boy’s monologue.  As well as the green knight and the enticing girl, Thomas has in mind the stories of lost landscapes off the Welsh coast, like Coed Arian, the drowned forest in Swansea Bay, and Cantre’r Gwaelod, the old kingdom in Cardigan Bay that was inundated by the sea when the watchman Seithenyn left the floodgates open.  Years earlier Thomas had retold the tale of Cantre’r Gwaelod in his book Beautiful Wales (1905), introduced by these (characteristically contorted) words:

… the legends that I remember most are those of buried and unforgotten lands.  What I see becomes but a symbol of what is now invisible.  And sometimes I dream of something hidden out there and elaborating some omnipotent alcahest for the world’s delight or the world’s bane. [alcahest: ‘the universal solvent of the alchemists’]

For the child, the self-drowning is an innocent thought-experiment, a way of persuading himself that his mother will always stay with him.  For the adult – the reader, and Edward Thomas himself – ‘lying under that foam’ is much more ominous: not a means of prolonging a relationship (in any case, Thomas was a firm atheist), but the bitter curtailment of everything.  Death lurks in many of Thomas’s poems, as he began to realise, in the words of the later poem ‘Roads’, that ‘now all roads lead to France’ and his own likely death.  Four months after writing ‘The child on the cliff’, he enlisted with the Artists’ Rifles.

It’s interesting that when, in his last few years, Thomas thought about the Swansea area – probably the part of Wales he knew best, along with the Amman valley – it was not so much ‘Swansea for leisure’, Swansea Bay, Mumbles and the Gower coast, that came to mind, but ‘Swansea for business’: the polluted industrial landscape, the ‘dirty witch’, of the lower Tawe valley.  This is the Swansea that preoccupies him in his controversial essay ‘Swansea village’, published in June 1914.  Here the lost dreams of childhood were replaced by a grimmer, more realistic present.

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