The Chalk Pit by Edward Thomas

In ‘The Chalk Pit’ Thomas explores themes of mystery, story-telling, and the past. The tone is contemplative and calm throughout the poem, with a few moments of confusion in the middle of the text. The first speaker is more bothered by the land than the second, and this shows through the way Thomas constructed his speech. Throughout, the mood ranges from mysterious to foreboding, to peaceful at the end. 

The Chalk Pit by Edward Thomas

 

Summary of The Chalk Pit 

‘The Chalk Pit’ by Edward Thomas is a lyrical depiction of an abandoned chalk-pit and the “fullness” or life one speaker senses there. 

The poem takes the reader through a variety of vibrant images that paint a picture of the abandoned chalk-pit. It appears to the first speaker like an amphitheatreor stage. There is something very much alive about it even though, as the second speaker says, it has been abandoned for a century. The first can’t get the feeling out of his mind though. He insists that he’s sensing the presence of something that “just” ended, like a play or performance. 

The two try to fill in details, imagined and real, about the land but in the end, the second speaker declares the place to be silent. The only thing living there are themselves and the trees and between them, they’ve been able to create mystery. 

 

Structure of The Chalk Pit 

The Chalk Pit’ by Edward Thomas is a fifty-eight line poem that’s contained within one single stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but the majority of the lines do conform to the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter. This means that each (or in this case almost every) line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. 

Additionally, the poet makes use of half-rhyme. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example “briar” and “amphitheatre” in lines three and four, as well as “emptiness” and “silence” in line thirteen. 

 

Poetic Techniques in The Chalk Pit 

Thomas makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Chalk Pit’. These include alliteration, caesura, enjambment, and simile. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “briar and bramble” in line seven and “smoked and strolled” in line forty-three. 

Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed with an important turn or transition in the text. There is a good example in line eight. It reads: “’ That is the place. As usual no one is here”. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout the poem, for instance, the transition between lines eleven and twelve or that between lines twenty-four and twenty-five. 

A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For instance, line forty-nine. It reads: “And hair brown as a thrush or as a nut”. 

 

Analysis of The Chalk Pit 

Lines 1-10

‘Is this the road that climbs above and bends

Round what was once a chalk-pit: now it is

By accident an amphitheatre.

Some ash trees standing ankle-deep in briar

And bramble act the parts, and neither speak

Nor stir,’ ‘But see: they have fallen, every one,

And briar and bramble have grown over them.’

‘That is the place. As usual no one is here.

Hardly can I imagine the drop of the axe,

And the smack that is like an echo, sounding here.’

In the first lines of ‘The Chalk Pit’ the speaker begins by asking a rhetorical question. He is not expecting an answer, instead, he is setting up a commentary on the “chalk pit.” The speaker is investigating what it was, is, and what it actually resembles. He wonders if this is the road that “bends / Round what was once a chalk-pit”. By some accident, he adds, the chalk-pit has become an amphitheatre. 

The pit has been abandoned, and now, due to its shape that which grows in it, it’s been transformed. The metaphor is expanded, referencing the “ash trees” and the “bramble”. Each has a part to play and each is personified in order to act as an onlooker to the theatre. They stand silently, resembling human viewers, waiting for something to play out before them. 

The first speaker concludes his analysis of the place and the second picks it up. He adds that the trees aren’t so much standing and watching. In fact, they are on the ground. They’ve fallen and the “briar and bramble” have grown over them. 

The physical change is noteworthy to these two speakers, but even more so is the lack of sound or movement. One speaker mentions how strange it is to even imagine the sound of an “axe” falling in this place. It’s not easy to recall the work that would’ve been done there. 

 

Lines 11-20

‘I do not understand.’ ‘Why, what I mean is

That I have seen the place two or three times

At most, and that its emptiness and silence

And stillness haunt me, as if just before

It was not empty, silent, still, but full

Of life of some kind, perhaps tragical.

Has anything unusual happened here?’

‘Not that I know of. It is called the Dell.

They have not dug chalk here for a century.

That was the ash trees’ age. But I will ask.’

The second speaker doesn’t quite understand what the first means when he recalls the sound of the axe, and how strange it would seem now. In order to clear up any confusion, the first speaker Strats another statement that begins with “Why, what I mean is…” He tells his companion that every time he’s visited the chalk pit that is been “still” and empty. The silence has been one of the most powerful features of that landscape. 

A reader should take note of the use of sibilance in these lines of ‘The Chalk Pit’ . That is, the repetition of words that include “s,” such as “stillness,” “silence,” “silent,” and “still”. These work together to create an audible “hush” to the lines. 

The speaker explains that the reason the place is empty, but also has the feeling that it very recently wasn’t. It is as if “just before / It was not empty, silent, still, but full” instead. He isn’t sure what kind of life would’ve been there, but it is perhaps “tragical” or of a tragic nature. The first speaker concludes his description by asking the second if “anything unusual” has “happened here”. The second speaker does have an answer, and that is no. It’s been empty for a “century” he adds. There is nothing that was “just” happening, even though the first speaker senses there was. 

There is a very clever use of imagery in these lines. By describing the land as “empty” but at the same time as somehow “full”, a reader is left to fill in the blanks. This creates an uneasy feeling, one that is foreboding and might foreshadow some revelation down the line. 

 

Lines 21-33

‘No. Do not. I prefer to make a tale,

Or better leave it like the end of a play,

Actors and audience and lights all gone;

For so it looks now. In my memory

Again and again I see it, strangely dark,

And vacant of a life but just withdrawn.

We have not seen the woodman with the axe.

Some ghost has left it now as we two came,’

‘And yet you doubted if this were the road?’

‘Well, sometimes I have thought of it and failed

To place it. No. And I am not quite sure,

Even now, this is it. For another place,

Real or painted, may have combined with it.

The first speaker decides that they’d rather not know if anything strange happened on this land in these lines of ‘The Chalk Pit’ . They’d rather “make a tale” and use that to fill in any blanks in their head. Or, alternatively, they add, leave it like “the end of a play”. Using this simile, he compares the chalk-pit to an empty stage, devoid of actors and props, but still alluding to action of some kind. Continuing on, the speaker makes suggestions of life that might’ve recently been there and that they didn’t see. His example is of a “ghost” that has “left…as we two came” or a “woodman with the axe”. 

The second speaker chimes in again, harkening back to the first line of the poem where the first speaker wondered if this was the correct road. In reply, the first speaker expresses his general disorientation in regards to the whole experience. Things just feel off to him, as though they are still not quite in the right location. He has a hard time describing what he means, as is seen through Thomas’ choice to write in short statements like “No. And I am not quite sure / Even now, this is it”. 

The strangeness of this exchange and the experience the first speaker alone seems to be having, is expanded when he says that “another place,” real or imaginary, “may have combined with” the chalk-pit they see in front of them. 

 

Lines 34-43

Or I myself a long way back in time…’

‘Why, as to that, I used to meet a man –

I had forgotten, – searching for birds’ nests

Along the road and in the chalk-pit too.

The wren’s hole was an eye that looked at him

For recognition. Every nest he knew.

He got a stiff neck, by looking this side or that,

Spring after spring, he told me, with his laugh –

A sort of laugh. He was a visitor,

A man of forty, – smoked and strolled about.

The story of the chalk pit expands with a recollection about a man, and then a woman, that one of the speakers used to see in this area. He would come in search of birds’ nests. He had a good eye for it and could seek them out easily. This did not mean that it didn’t pain him though. The man often got “stiff” in the neck from looking “this side or that / Spring after spring”. It was something he returned to, a repetitive process that always brought him back to the chalk-pit. He sought out life in amongst the ruins of the mining operation. This is quite similar to the search the first speaker is engaging in, trying to find some movement or fullness in amongst the silence. 

 

Lines 44-50

At orts and crosses Pleasure and Pain had played

On his brown features; – I think both had lost; –

Mild and yet wild too. You may know the kind.

And once or twice a woman shared his walks,

A girl of twenty with a brown boy’s face,

And hair brown as a thrush or as a nut,

Thick eyebrows, glinting eyes -‘ ‘You have said enough.

The man experiences both “Pleasure and Pain” when he sought out his nests in these lines of ‘The Chalk Pit’ . The emotional states “played on his brown features”. This connects back to the metaphor of the chalk-pit as a stage or amphitheatre on which a drama is playing out. Sometimes, a “woman shared” the man’s walks. She was young, with a brown face and brown hair. Her features are described, through a simile to a “thrush or…nut”. She is connected in this way to the natural imagery in the area. 

 

Lines 51-58 

A pair, – free thought, free love, – I know the breed:

I shall not mix my fancies up with them.’

‘You please yourself. I should prefer the truth

Or nothing. Here, in fact, is nothing at all

Except a silent place that once rang loud,

And trees and us – imperfect friends, we men

And trees since time began and nevertheless

Between us we still breed a mystery.’ 

The first speaker knows exactly what the second is talking about and for the reason of their “free thought, free love” does not want to get involved with them. They are unencumbered in a way that bothers this speaker and even this short story about them sets him on edge. 

‘The Chalk Pit’ concludes with one of the speakers declaring that he’d rather know “the truth” of the land or nothing at all. The stories proposed by the first speaker earlier on in the poem do not suit him. He decides that this place is nothing other than how it appears. It is a “silent place that once rang loud”. It has a history, and that’s what they’ve been tapping into. But, there is nothing to be seen there now. It is only “trees and us” the speaker says. They are “imperfect friends,” human men who connect at this moment to trees. Since time began life has come and gone, yet they still are able to through fallen ash trees and bramble and briar, “breed a mystery”. 

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