Saturday, August 30, 2008

Turf rich and fragrant with thyme and burnet

In The Literary Pilgrim in England, first published in 1917, Edward Thomas described the 'homes and haunts' of British writers. He covered a good range of poets and topographical writers: London and the Home Counties (Blake, Lamb, Keats), The Thames (Shelley, William Morris), The Downs and South Coast (Aubrey, Gilbert White, Cobbett, Jefferies, Hardy, Belloc), the West Country (Herrick, Coleridge, W.H. Hudson), The East Coast and Midlands (Cowper, Crabbe, Clare, Tennyson), the North (Wordsworth, Emily Bronte) and Scotland (Burns, Scott). Mostly obvious names, but not all. John Aubrey, for example, is perhaps not as immediately synonymous with a particular landscape as some of these writers, although his magnum opus was a book on Wiltshire antiquities.

Thomas begins his essay on Aubrey by praising the way he was able to isolate telling details: 'who but Aubrey would have noticed and entered in a book the spring after the fire of London "all the ruins were overgrown with an herb or two, but especially with a yellow flower, Ericolevis Neapolitana."' Aubrey seems to have been the first to notice the stones at Avebury which he first encountered in 1648 and later showed to Charles II. Thomas relates that the grey wethers, the 'grey stones scattered sheep like over the slopes' of the Marlborough Downs, were then much more numerous and looked to Aubrey like the scene "where the giants fought with huge stones against the gods, as is described by Hesiod in his Theogonia". On another visit to this country, Aubrey wrote, "our sport was very good and in a romantic country, for the prospects are noble and vast, the downs stocked with numerous flocks of sheep, the turf rich and fragrant with thyme and burnet... nor are the nut-brown shepherdesses without their graces." Sadly Aubrey never quite finished his book on antiquities but hoped that some "public-spirited young Wiltshire man" would polish and complete his "natural remarques."

Although brief lives and landscapes such as the account of John Aubrey make for an enjoyable read, they proved a bore to write. In a December 1913 letter Edward Thomas complained: 'Homes & Haunts I have got to Detest, & I believe I have been doing it intolerably ll through indifference & haste to be done with it.' He worked on it through the spring and summer of 1914, finally sending it off to the publishers at the beginning of August. By this time war was imminent and Thomas wondered whether the book would sell. He wrote, 'I am a little at a loose end after sending off Homes and Haunts yesterday. Who will want the thing now? I may as well write poetry.'

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