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Thursday, 18 October 2012

Griff says; It begins where the wood ends

Back in March, I wrote 'here' about the release of 'The Woods' EP by talented, English, indie-folk, singer-songwriter Robin Warren-Adamson (above) who records and performs under the moniker Wise Children. In that blog, I also included the Kipling poem 'The Way Through the Woods' and lamented the fact that I had previously used Robert Frost's 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' in a previous blog on Mellow Dramatic Avenue, see 'here', as it would have fitted that piece so nicely.

Anyway, as Wise Children has just released a free (or pay what you want) collection of demos that were written and recorded during the summer of 2011 and didn't quite make it on to The Woods EP I now have a chance to make the Robert Frost/Wise Children connection that I originally wanted to make, as you will see. But first, the music.

The tracks on this new EP, called 'Songs Left in the Woods', are by no means of secondary quality to the ones chosen to grace the original release and they demonstrate a whole range of songwriting forms and production techniques that Robin experimented with during recording. This new release also includes a special acoustic version of 'Artichoke' from Wise Children's 2010 'Absence & Reunion' EP. As a taster, here's track number 1, 'Cold Feet':

I hope that you enjoyed that, and that you check out the remainder of this EP, as it serves as a suitable hors d'oeuvre to 'The Woods' EP which, of course, can also be downloaded from Wise Children's bandcamp page.

Now, to the poetry. I've mentioned before that I have a particular penchant for poetry which uses the imagery of a path through 'the deep, dark woods' as a metaphor for, I suppose, the existentialist crisis. I have two such poems to offer you today, from two seperate but intimately linked poets; Edward Thomas and Robert Frost (yet again).

Edward Thomas is the lesser known of the two, an Anglo-Welsh poet who is often placed into the 'war poet' category; mainly because of his death during the Battle of Arras in 1917 rather than due to the content of his poetry. The poem, to be read and considered as you listen to the 'Songs Left in the Woods' EP, is called 'The Path':

The Path

Running along a bank, a parapet
That saves from the precipitous wood below
The level road, there is a path. It serves
Children for looking down the long smooth steep,
Between the legs of beech and yew, to where
A fallen tree checks the sight: while men and women
Content themselves with the road and what they see
Over the bank, and what the children tell.
The path, winding like silver, trickles on,
Bordered and even invaded by thinnest moss
That tries to cover roots and crumbling chalk
With gold, olive, and emerald, but in vain.
The children wear it. They have flattened the bank
On top, and silvered it between the moss
With the current of their feet, year after year.
But the road is houseless, and leads not to school.
To see a child is rare there, and the eye
Has but the road, the wood that overhangs
And underyawns it, and the path that looks
As if it led on to some legendary
Or fancied place where men have wished to go
And stay; till, sudden, it ends where the wood ends.

Edward Thomas

As you can see, this poem makes a wonderful companion piece to Kipling's 'The Way Through the Woods'.

Now, for a bit of background to the relationship between Thomas and Frost. Firstly, and this is difficult to credit given his subsequent prominence, but Frost's early carrer was not at all successful and, in 1912, he had moved his family to England in a bid to relaunch his stalled literary career. Then in his late 30s, and a father of four, he published his 1914 volume 'North of Boston', which was championed by Thomas, then working as a literary critic in London. As a result, the two men became great friends, and regularly took long walks together in the English countryside, their conversations ranging over wildlife, poetry, relationships and the ever-looming war. Indeed, so close was the friendship that had developed between them that Thomas and Frost even planned to emigrate together, with their families, to America, where they would live side by side, writing, teaching and farming. Meanwhile, the friendship with Frost had revitalised Thomas's own muse and, almost suddenly and relatively late in life, he became prolific, writing 75 poems in the first six months of their friendship alone. Unfortunately, fate was about to intervene.

In late November 1914, Thomas and Frost were strolling in the woods behind Frost's cottage when they were intercepted by the local gamekeeper who brandished a shotgun at them and told them, in no uncertain terms, to clear off. Frost, although unarmed, bravely faced up to the gamekeeper and was persuaded to back-off by Thomas. However, as they walked away, the incident rankled such with Frost that he insisted that they return to the woods and track the keeper to his cottage. Once at the cottage, Frost boldly confronted the gamekeeper once more and,as on the previous occasion, the keeper responded by threatening the men with his shotgun. Although Frost was not intimidated, Thomas was, and he dragged the indignant Frost away to safety. However, later reflecting on his own behaviour on both occasions, Thomas felt that he had shown himself to be cowardly, and suspected Frost of thinking the same. Not once, but twice, he had failed to stand his ground, while his friend had no difficulty standing his.

The night's events began to haunt Thomas and he felt that his fear and cowardice, and his inability to control them, had led him to let down the greatest friend he had ever had. Frost later said of the incident "That's why he went to war". However, there's something more to it than that and, unwittingly, Frost himself played his part in sending Thomas to war. And he did so in the most innocuous of ways - by writing a poem. That poem was Frost's greatly celebrated 'The Road Not Taken'. Here it is, below:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— 
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

As you can see, it is yet another of those poems which make use of the 'path through the woods' metaphor and, while beautiful and profound, it seems to be an unlikely cause for a man's death. So, how did it contribute to the death of Edward Thomas?

Well, for Thomas, the poem carried an uncomfortable, personal message. During their many walks together, Thomas would confidently guide Frost on the promise of wonderful finds, such as rare wild flowers or birds' eggs. However, as often as not, he would find himself disappointed, and would severely rebuke himself, when the path he chose revealed no such wonders. Frost was gently amused at Thomas's inability to satisfy himself, and chided him;
"No matter which road you take, you'll always sigh, and wish you'd taken another."

This innocent comment pricked at Thomas's conscience and he felt that his lack of direction, in poetry and in life, was a sign of his weakness, cowardice and indecisiveness. To be reminded of this by the man whom he most admired and whom he felt knew him best was a devastating blow. Thomas, who had despised the racist, Imperialist, jingoism of the war-time press and who as, an anti-nationalist, refused to 'hate' the Germans now made an extraordinary decision - in July 1915, despite being a mature married man who could have avoided enlisting, he enlisted in the Artists Rifles. In Easter, 1917, a little over two months after arriving in France he was killed on the first day of the battle of Arras. He is buried in the Military Cemetery at Agny in France (Row C, Grave 43).

In a letter to Edward Garnett (who was also a friend of Thomas) after Thomas's death, Frost wrote:

"Edward Thomas was the only brother I ever had. I fail to see how we can have been so much to each other, he an Englishman and I an American and our first meeting put off till we were both in middle life. I hadn't a plan for the future that didn't include him."

And the final words on this tragic story of two poets? Let them be from Frost's poetry. In 1920, he published this poem:

To E. T.

I slumbered with your poems on my breast, 
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb 
To see if in a dream they brought of you,

I might not have the chance I missed in life 
Through some delay, and call you to your face 
First soldier, and then poet, and then both, 
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain 
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained -- 
And one thing more that was not then to say: 
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire 
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day 
The war seemed over more for you than me, 
But now for me than you -- the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew 
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine, 
If I was not to speak of it to you 
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

Robert Frost


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