Over the Easter weekend in late March of 1913, the thirty-five-year-old English writer and naturalist Edward Thomas rode his bicycle west from South London to the Quantock Hills in Somerset. The 130-mile trip was a pilgrimage, both seasonal and literary, his destination the place where spring traditionally comes first and, more specficially, Nether Stowey, where, in the late 1790s, the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had written some of his most famous poems.
Thomas is best known now as a poet himself and for being one of a handful of accomplished British poets who died in World War I. But in 1913, Thomas was a prose writer, a literary critic and author of more than half a dozen books about English country life. It was only after publishing In Pursuit of Spring that Thomas re-invented himself as poet. During the next four years, up until his death at the Battle of Arras in March, 1917, Thomas produced an impressive and influential body of verse.
Hardly anyone reads Thomas’s prose any more, and that’s a shame. It’s in the tradition of what’s called “country writing,” prose that celebrates English rural life and nature. Not much really happens during the trip, but the shortage of incident is made up for by a marvelous eye for detail, both natural (hedges, birds, flowers) and not (weathervanes, gypsies, telegraph poles). Thomas is the kind of traveler/writer who has an eye for clouds (they “hung like pudding bags all over the sky” on the rainy day he set off) and an ear for birdsong and the tune of telegraph wires in the wind. His prose works through a slow accumulation of closely observed detail.
I went contentedly on between mossy banks, hedges of beech, rhododendrons and woodlands of oak, beech and larch, which opened in one place to show me the fern and pine of Ganger Common. The earth was quiet, dark and beautiful.
Some may find Thomas’s flora focus a bit boring, but it does grow on you. And the wistful quietness of it all feels impossibly quaint now.
This book is also infused with literary references to writers connected to the landscapes he rides through: George Meredith and William Cobbett in Surrey, the naturalist W.H. Hudson and the poet George Herbert in Wiltshire, William Barnes and Thomas Hardy in Wessex, to name just a few. In each case, Thomas offers brief biographical profiles and quotes passages, accompanied by frank critical commentary.
Not surprisingly, Thomas favors poets such as Hardy, for whom the woodland is a “principal consolation” of an otherwise often lonely existence, and Coleridge, who loved equally “mildness and wildness,” finding in nature a regenerative presence “both sensuous and spiritual.”
The book is framed as a pilgrimage, a journey in pursuit of spring, but the titular quest aspect feels a bit disingenuous—can you really call it a quest when you’re searching for something that is going to come in any event? I mean, isn’t looking for spring kind of like looking for getting older? It’s just gonna happen, right?
It seems to me that what Thomas is really searching for is not spring so much as something else--perhaps a disappearing, very English and rural version of nature. In the early chapters especially, the trip feels like an escape not just from winter but the city. Taking forever to wiggle his way out of London, Thomas laments the horrors of urban sprawl, such as it was in 1913 (good Lord, what would he think now?) and revels in being back in a world of shrubberies and chiffchaffs.
It’s even more tempting, given what we know of Thomas’s biography, to see the true object of his pursuit as poetry itself. Legend has it that it was thanks to the encouragement of the American poet Robert Frost, whom Thomas met shortly after this book appeared, that Thomas tried his hand at writing poetry. Frost, who, incidentally, called In Pursuit of Spring “the loveliest book on Spring in England,” persuaded Thomas that the Englishman was, in fact, already a poet. Frost pointed to lines and even paragraphs in the book and “told him [Thomas] to write it in verse form in exactly the same cadence.”
Frost was onto something. Poetic nuggets abound in the book: Spring is “when the earth was an invalid certain of recovery”; a shower causes the roads to “be agleam with silver rain pools.” A small sighting cheers his weather dampened spirits: “On such a morning one sand martin seems enough to make a summer.” What are these if not the building blocks of poems? Witness this Thomas sentence, which I’ve Frostifized into verse:
Out of this crooked comb I emerged
into dust whirls and sunshine.
The edition of the book I’ve got, produced by Little Toller Books in the UK and with an introduction by Alexandra Harris, features 40 of Thomas’s own black and white photographs taken on his trip. They’re stark but fascinating images of a barren landscape, where nature is still dormant, and with so little human presence, that they’re kind of creepy, as if recording some apocalyptic cataclysm that removed the humans yet left all else.
Even if the war hadn’t put an end to Thomas’s travels, I rather doubt that he would have written another bicycling book. His genius was probably better suited to walking, a slower pace, allowing for even closer observation than cycling allows. But there are glorious moments in the book, when Thomas glimpses the transcendental possibilities of bicycle travel:
Motion was extraordinarily easy that afternoon, and I had no doubts that I did well to bicycle instead of walking. It was as easy as riding in a cart, and more satisfying to a restless man. At the same time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be. . . . I fed through the senses directly, but very temperately, through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is explicable or seems reasonable. This pleasure of my disembodied spirit (so to call it) was an inhuman and diffused one, such as may be attained by whatever dregs of this our life survive after death.
For a book about spring time and re-birth, there is a lot of talk of death in it. Thomas loves to stop at country graveyards and read the epitaphs, often quoting bits of tablet verse—some awful, some funny, some lovely. Of course, for us, it’s hard not to read into this some premonition of world war or even Thomas’s own demise. The effect is both foreshadowy and poignant.
In the end, Thomas does find spring, signaled by flowers left by child on the ground by the roadside, which he interprets as an offering on “the grave of Winter.” But it feels a little forced. His movement toward poetry, however, feels natural and true, as inevitable as the coming of spring. When he writes that “[t]he million gorse petals seemed to be flames sown by the sun,” we see that, in fact, something beautiful of Thomas’s spirit survived his death.