Written just before the first world war, this vivid account of a journey through the English countryside is a vivid and poignant portrait of a vanished age
In Pursuit of Spring is the classic literary tale of one man and his bicycle. The reader piggybacks Edward Thomas on his week long journey from Clapham Junction in London to the Quantock Hills in Somerset and is enlightened by a guide who never fails to acknowledge the different species of birds, plants and trees along the way.
The piece has a strange fantastical quality – perhaps it is the age of the book (the journey it records took place just before Easter in March 1913), the stretches of open roads with a striking lack of motor vehicles, the colloquial style with light and often lyrical passages or Thomas's invention of "the Other Man" whom we meet several times along the way. These days there's no escape from cars on the roads, and the meadows have almost disappeared. Thomas writes:
"A motor car overtook me in the village … as the thing passed me by … rapidly I slid down, crossed the railway, and found myself in a land where oaks stood in the hedges and out in mid-meadow, and the banks were all primroses, and a brook gurgled slow among rush, marigold, and willow."
Nothing much happens, but this is a remarkable journey and one that builds to a crescendo. From a bleak, claustrophobic starting point, in a "mysterious and depressing" set of rooms where "the furniture gloomed vaguely above and around the little space", there is a sense of confusion and restlessness over the "false Spring" weather. Hampered by the rain falling hard at Haydons Road Station, Thomas shelters by a pet shop selling caged birds. It is Thomas's alter ego, the Other Man, who buys a bird and then a few hundred yards away sets it free.
By the end of the journey Thomas is himself free, not only from the Other Man, but of winter. The account reflects his mood: "the road was like a stream on which I floated in the shadows of trees and steep hillsides". It is when he sees the bluebells and cowslips that by chance a child had gathered "on a glorious sunlit road" where "the million gorse petals seemed to be flames sown by the sun" that spring finally arrives and is the ultimate ending. Thomas's uncertainty lifts and he has a clear vision for the first time: "I had found Spring, and I was confident that I could ride home again and find Spring all along the road."
The account was written at a time when the threat of a European war created an uncertainty and deep suspicion of change that sharpened the longing for the British countryside. Throughout the book Thomas muses on what he finds and it becomes a personal journey of life, death and legacy. The epitaphs and engravings – or their absence – on fountains, statues and tombstones build upon this notion and so do the lovers walking hand in hand and children chatting or playing. At one point life and death come gracefully together:
"… two boys were doing the cleverest thing I saw on this journey. They were keeping a whiptop, and that a carrotshaped one, spinning by kicking it in turns. Which was an accomplishment more worthy of being commemorated on a tombstone than the fact that you owned Glastonbury Abbey."
It is perhaps fitting that at this time Thomas's attitude towards his work changed. He sought guidance from his friend, the poet Robert Frost, who gave him encouragement to utilise imagery from his prose and began in 1914 to write poetry, including "March" and "The Other", thought to draw on In Pursuit of Spring. The poet Ted Hughes later declared Thomas to be the "Father of us all".
Strangely, as part of his military training Edward Thomas was stationed on the fields around Bradford-on-Avon in 1915 and revisited the route taken a few years earlier when writing In Pursuit of Spring. This travel account becomes a fitting journey of a writer, naturalist and poet who died in action on the battlefields of Arras in the Spring of 1917, on Easter Monday.