Hampstead Heath in August is celebrated by Edward Thomas

Poet Edward Thomas provided an exquisite description of the Heath in prose

The environs of Hampstead Heath can hardly be said to have lacked their fair share of favourable delineation from the literary great and good, yet one of my personal favourites will probably be new to most readers: a short description – only just over 500 words – of Hampstead in late August by Edward Thomas. Virtually ever since the publication of his first volume of poems in October 1917, six months after his death at the Battle of Arras, Thomas has consistently maintained a place among the nation’s favourite poets, while any survey that sought to ascertain the top 10 most popular poems in the English language must surely contain Adlestrop. What all this masks, however, is the fact that, for most of his literary career, Thomas was not a poet at all but a reviewer, an essayist and a writer of books on travel and topography.

Thomas has featured heavily in the literary news within the last year, due primarily to Matthew Hollis’s much-acclaimed biography Now All Roads Lead To France (Faber). While this deserved the commendation which it received, it nevertheless endorsed a critically conventional picture of Thomas as the frustrated, angst-ridden caterpillar inevitably destined to break out of the chrysalis of near penury and unfulfilling hackwork in order to emerge as the beautiful butterfly poet. Whereas there are undoubtedly elements of truth in this portrayal, one of its dangers is the implication that everything which Thomas wrote in those pre-poetry, pre-war years was of little value.

This is very far from the case, as this exquisite description of Hampstead illustrates. It is taken from a series of five similar pieces which were given the title London Miniatures when they were first published in a posthumous 1928 collection of Thomas’s essays, The Last Sheaf. The originals are extant in an undated manuscript in the New York Public Library, so that it is impossible to be certain when Thomas might have composed them. The London Miniatures were all republished last year in England and Wales, the second volume of Oxford University Press’s on-going Edward Thomas: Prose Writings, edited by Guy Cuthbertson and Lucy Newlyn.

Hampstead Heath in August

By Edward Thomas

Hampstead Heath is too good in itself to be made or obliterated by associations. When you have gone up nearly to the top of Heath Street — put in a certain humour by oldish, quiet shops, and flagged pavement in place of asphalte — you forget Keats and Leigh Hunt, ’Arry and ’Arriet and Mr. Kipling. The street goes steep and straight up to perhaps the highest point of the heath, and when you are almost there the walls of the last pair of houses frame the milky blue of the high harvest sky. Then, suddenly, they seem the last houses in the world; for only a hundred yards of ground lies visible between you and the sky.

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This patch, containing a pond, is of hard, dry, bare, undulating gravel like a sea beach, and because nothing is to be seen beyond it save the unclouded blue, it creates instantly and powerfully the belief that beyond the edge of this beach the sea is hidden, whether at the foot of a cliff or of a gradual slope is uncertain. The belief lasts a quarter of a minute, and once at the top of the street and on this bare patch, the horizon is seen to be not a curve of sea, but serrated woods upon a long line of hills, all swiftly revealed as if by a miraculous command at blast of trumpet. Almost in the same moment, over the edge, the hollow land of the heath appears below you. Houses unmistakably bound it. Sometimes they look over it as if they regarded it as a possession. Sometimes as if they felt some dull astonishment at being separated only by the road from these billowy trees and wild hollows.

Were the heath level, this sense of possession would be lasting and complete. But the uneven wildness due to nature and excavation makes up for its small extent and saves the heath from the humiliation. Thus the houses are nothing but a frame: they do not combine the heath; they neither influence it nor receive any influence from it. They stand bald and impotent at the edge of this fragment of the wild. They are indifferent to the dry air, spiced with harvest, which divides all the little leaves of the trees and carries the bright notes of swallows and scattering linnets.

The last sheet but one of August Bank Holiday paper has been picked up. The dust, though harsh to feet and eyes and nostrils and fingers, is sweet to the mind because it is the dust of summer; and the linnets sweeten it like a fount breaking out of dry sand. This wind, though soft as sleep, is one of the great winds of the world: it touches the cheek with the tip of a light wing dipped in coolness, though the air is as fiery as it should be at St. Bartholomew-tide. It is no mere afterthought from the first illusion of distant sea: this August air extends from sea to sea over the world, linking the streets and these suburb glades to the upland corn, league beyond league, and to the waves shimmering around the coast.

A play by Nick Dear exploring the complexities of Thomas’s life, The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, directed by Richard Eyre, will be running from November 8 to January 12 at the Almeida Theatre in Islington.