Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Hampstead Heath in August by Edward Thomas

I have filched the following from a copy of the Ham & High.  The original article by Paul Jarman can be found here.

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.

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.

Paul Jarman writes: This 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.