Caught by the River

The Forest Ended – Edward Thomas and The Attempt

Adam Scovell | 6th December 2016

Adam Scovell introduces his new film, centred on poet, essayist & novelist Edward Thomas:

Last year, I adapted a book called Holloway by Stanley Donwood, Robert Macfarlane and Dan Richards into a short super-8 film. I had spent months with the audio playing through my speakers, the words that narrate the film gradually becoming one singular being rather than the collage of original prose and quotes from other work that it actually was. Towards the end of that film, Robert spoke the following words which, at the time, I falsely attributed to him. The words are as follows:

“… 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.”

It was only later on in the year that I recognised these to be the words of the poet, Edward Thomas, from his beautiful poem, The Path. The words chimed in a context outside of the sandstone pathways of Dorset of the film and into other areas; as if the landscape could provide a sense of wonder and perhaps even a sense of the transcendental. This was in sharp contrast to much of the writing by Thomas in the volume in which I finally encountered the poem, mixing prose, short fiction and, of course, his poetry. Before coming upon this poem once again, the piece of his writing that had really stood out was his autobiographical story, The Attempt, first published in his Light and Twilight volume in 1911. It stood out because it solidifies Thomas’ view of the landscape and the rural more so than the Romanticism that we now commonly link with escaping to such areas; in this story, it is initially the area to make one final visit. Its unforgiving nature and the almost brutal cyclic consistency of the natural world being a fitting place for departure from the land and this world.

Though fictionalised and with a character named Morgan Traheron, I learned from both Stan Smith’s biography of Thomas and from Helen Thomas’ own autobiography, World Without End, that the detailed event portrayed in the story, that of an attempt to go through with a suicide, did in fact happen to the poet. Helen writes of this moment being one of Edward’s “attacks of gloom and wretchedness” where, due to becoming angry with one his children, he took his revolver with him on a walk and “with dull eyes and ashen cheeks strode out of the house up to the bare hill.” Helen suggests that she knew he would not leave her and the family in such a circumstance, in spite of the recent “lifting of financial cares”. Throughout the story, Thomas’ use of language and drama suggests an array of feelings; the landscape seems to reflect his sense of loss and detachment rather than a consolation, where “The ragwort was dead now, blossom and leaf.” His character is eventually startled during the moment before he can pull the trigger, by a man who cries a hello towards him “as if he had sighted a fox”. It’s a far more tragic and detached sense of affairs than Helen’s suggestion.

In attempting to bring this story to visual life, it seemed a difficult and delicate balance to achieve some of the sense of loss but without descending into the tawdry; his work and life is now too important to me to risk such a mistake. Instead then, in turning the story into a vignette, I wanted to bring other elements in from the social mix of Thomas’ life. The first was the sense of an encroaching war, the alignment of atmosphere and politics inscribed into the very air. Instead of the sight of someone ultimately stopping him from pulling trigger, the film projects a brief moment of foresight of this global calamity; of course something we can only portray in hindsight. The second was creating that feeling of mystery from the landscape found in The Path. I was lucky enough to have Robert Macfarlane again read the poem, filling in the gaps from the quotes he had recorded last time. It ties both Holloway and this film together by allowing the English landscape to not be the simple tool of mental rejuvenation or the cleansing pill to aid the weary urban dweller, but instead to be a place where people hide from persecution, whether it be the Catholic priests avoiding the purges through a labyrinth of Dorset pathways or a man attempting to avoid the darkness within through a landscape which is just as haggard and unforgiving as his own depression.

These paths run like veins through Thomas’ work but, looking at the history of the man in both Stan Smith’s biography and Matthew Hollis’ excellent book, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years Of Edward Thomas, the paths clearly run through the man himself. Perhaps he knew this, treading them with a stern foot as he walked off the anger and the sorrow that almost lead him to take his own life that day in 1911. The painful denouement with hindsight being that such a decision would be taken out of his own hands only a few years later on another muddy pathway, this time in Arras.

“This might be winter’s quiet. While the glint
Of hollies dark in the swollen hedge lasts –
One mile – and those bells ring, little I know
Or heed if time be still the same, until
The lane ends and once more all is the same.”

Adam Scovell on Caught by the River / Celluloid Wicker Man