It is an unfortunate fact that mention of the Welsh poet
R.S. Thomas to Americans is still likely to produce such responses as
who? or don't you mean Dylan? Although R.S. Thomas was born a year
before his better known namesake and has been turning out poetry
of very high quality since the nineteen forties, he has lived a
relatively quiet and contemplative life. He has not made a practice
of visiting the United States for protracted tours of poetry readings
and drinking, and he did not take the precaution of dying romantically,
poetically, and pathetically young. Perhaps because of this, his
successes are only barely audible in the United States.
And yet in Great Britain his
poetic reputation today easily eclipses that of the ''other Thomas.''
Certainly in Wales his
position as the preeminent Anglo-Welsh poet is secure. For young Welsh
poets, particularly those disposed to write in the English language,
R.S. Thomas is nothing short of a poetic guru. Peter Elfed
Lewis has argued that ''the achievement of R.S. Thomas in itself justifies
the Anglo-Welsh poetic tradition''(quoted by Bianchi 73), while Tony
Bianchi, himself an Anglo-Welsh poet, looks to R.S. Thomas rather than
Dylan as ''the dominant voice in the attempt by Anglo-Welsh writers to
define an audience''(84).
In the larger context of contemporary British
literature, R.S. Thomas's stature has also been recognized. Kingsley
Amis goes so far as to call him ''one of the half-dozen best poets now
writing in English (dust cover,
an assessment echoed by A.E. Dyson (21).
A critic for the
claims for Thomas a position ''with the greatest poets of the century,''
and indeed, there have been a number of
comparisons with Yeats and Eliot (see Bianchi 73).
If a capacity for considerable and telling
poetic development determines our
judgment of a poet's stature, such claims may not seem unjustified.
Since the appearance of
The Stones of the Field
in 1946, Thomas has written over twenty volumes of poetry, most
Preparations for an A-Men,
published by Macmillan in 1985. Although Thomas has confined himself
to the rather narrow compass of the lyric, within this compass his
growth and range have been remarkable. Thomas's development may
usefully be seen in terms of his continuing exploration of place,
his Welsh surroundings first, and later the subtle and interior
terrain of the spirit. As his most recent poems suggest, though
he may be more forgiving now, the fervor of his exploration is
unabated. Old men, perhaps, should be explorers.
An intense consciousness of place, in particular of place in Wales, is what first sparks and informs the poetry of R.S. Thomas. Here the ancient and modern, the secular and spiritual meet one another and coexist — often uneasily. In the early poem, ''Welsh Landscape,'' Thomas sets forth these concerns:
To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went to the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.
You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales. (Selected Poems 16)
Indeed, the subjects of Thomas's early poems are very earthly. His first efforts to establish and experience a sense of place issue in the poems about Welsh villages and farmers. These are hardly picturesque or pastoral images, however. The Wales of Thomas's early poems seems claustrophobically small and small-minded; Thomas grants his subjects a certain dignity only by way of paradox. Iago Prytherch, a peasant character who appears in a number of poems, is described as ''an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills ... with a half-witted grin'' and ''spittled mirth / Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks / Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week.'' And yet, as Thomas reminds his readers, he ''is your prototype, who, season by season / Against siege of rain and the wind's attrition, / Preserves his stock,...he, too, is a winner of wars, / Enduring like a tree under the curious stars'' (Selected Poems 11). Prytherch is no ideal pastoral man for Thomas — indeed, he shocks ''the refined, / But affected sense with [his] stark naturalness.'' But he is valuable, for one thing, in placing the refined and affected sense of Thomas and his readers, and also for his brute stoicism in the face of adversity. As in many of the early poems, Thomas's attitude is ambivalent — some critics have taken it simply as condescending — hovering between admiration and disdain. Thomas is certainly not concerned to romanticize the lives of the Welsh peasants. As Walter Llywarch, another of Thomas's characters puts it, his life in Wales is filled with
Months of fog, months of drizzle;
Thought wrapped in the grey cocoon
Of race, of place, awaiting the sun's
Coming, but when the sun came,
Touching the hills with a hot hand,
Wings were spread only to fly
Round and round in a cramped cage
Or beat in vain at the sky's window.
(Selected Poems 60).
Stay, then, village, for round you spins
On slow axis a world as vast
And meaningful as any posed
By great Plato's solitary mind.
Thomas's own place, as a pastor in this country, is especially ambiguous, and a number of poems try to stake out this difficult terrain. In ''Those Others,'' he writes:
I have looked long at this land,
Trying to understand
My place in it — why,
With each fertile country
So free of its room,
This was the cramped womb
At last took me in
From the void of unbeing
(Selected Poems 67).
In a number of poems he considers the difficulty of his relations with his own parishioners, who do not share his most vital concerns. ''The Priest'' (Selected Poems 106) is seen as an outsider moving among superstitious villagers, ''limping through life / On his prayers.'' He
picks his way
Through the parish. Eyes watch him
From windows, from the farms;
Hearts wanting him to come near.
The flesh rejects him.
I have watched them bent
For hours over their trade,
Speechless, and have held my tongue
From its question. It was not my part
To show them, like a meddler from the town,
Their picture, nor the audiences
That look at them in pity or pride.
the ability to be in hell is a spiritual prerogative, and proclaims the true nature of [a poet]. Without darkness, in the world we know, the light would go unprized; without evil, goodness would have no meaning. Over every poet's door is nailed Keats's saying about negative capability. (Quoted by Merchant 72)
Evans? Yes, many a time
I came down his bare flight
Of stairs into the gaunt kitchen
With its wood fire, where crickets sang
Accompaniment to the black kettle's
Whine, and so into the cold
Dark to smother in the thick tide
Of night that drifted about the walls
Of his stark farm on the hill ridge.
It was not the dark filling my eyes
And mouth appalled me; not even the drip
Of rain like blood from the one tree
Weather-tortured. It was the dark
Silting the veins of that sick man
I left stranded upon the vast
And lonely shore of his bleak bed.
And of course, Thomas has his own wrestling to think about — with the ''silent'' God who has preoccupied him increasingly since the publication of Pietà in 1966. As he puts it in ''Via Negativa'' (Later Poems 23), ''I have never thought other than / That God is that great absence / In our lives, the empty silence / Within, the place we go / Seeking, not in hope to / Arrive or find.'' The difficulty of praying to a seemingly uncommunicative God had long been a minor theme in Thomas's work. As early as Song at the Year's Turning (1955), he was producing lines like these from ''In a Country Church'' (Selected Poems 43):
To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind's song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.
Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon,
Of the still scene.
And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid's arms. (Selected Poems 85)
It is certainly in the imagination that Thomas searches for the God whose ''most consistent feature,'' as Vimala Herman puts it, ''is his absence''(713). The modern world, it becomes increasingly apparent, is not hospitable to God or spiritual salvation. ''St Julian and the Leper'' considers a kind of sacrifice no longer possible or even desirable in our society:
Though all ran from him, he did not
Run, but awaited
Him with his arms
Out, his ears stopped
To his bell, his alarmed
Crying. He lay down
With him there, sharing his sores'
Stench, the quarantine
Of his soul; contaminating
Himself with a kiss,
With the love that
Our science has disinfected. (Selected Poems 99)
In an aggressively secular world, the efficacy of prayer to an absent God may be questioned. Not That He Brought Flowers contains for the first time foreign landscapes, but these are as desolate as the landscapes of Wales. ''Coto Donana,'' ''Burgos,'' and ''No, Señor'' offer a kind of counter-Wales that is, if anything, more disturbing for being foreign:
We saw the asses
Hobbling upon the road
To the village, no Don Quixote
Upon their backs, but all the burden
Of a poor land, the weeds and grasses
Of the mesa. (''No, Señor,'' Selected Poems 109)
Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before the altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun's light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great rôle. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting. (Selected Poems 107)
The books of the early 'seventies, H'M and Laboratories of the Spirit, develop the more mature themes announced in Not That He Brought Flowers. In ''Petition'' (Later Poems 12), Thomas confesses his helplessness as an observer of life's pain: ''Seeking the poem / In the pain, I have learned / Silence is best, paying for it / With my conscience. I am eyes / Merely, witnessing virtue's / Defeat.'' God will not grant even an aesthetic satisfaction:
One thing I have asked
Of the disposer of the issues
Of life: that truth should defer
To beauty. It was not granted.
the fables serve as a forceful reminder that Thomas's God functions primarily as a creator....While the miniature mythical fable differs strikingly in character from Thomas's early pieces of regional realism, it serves his current needs by permitting him to escape constraints of time and space, the better to conceptualize his supernatural subject. (5)
Indeed, the material world and its concomitant, the machine, are seen by Thomas as the chief life-destroying forces. ''The Hearth'' compares the ''eternity'' in a small room where ''our love / Widens'' with what is outside: ''time and the victims / Of time, travellers / To a new Bethlehem, statesmen / And scientists with their hands full / Of the gifts that destroy'' (Later Poems 24). The exact nature of the ''machine'' Thomas inveighs against is somewhat vague. It may be associated with nuclear weapons, as in ''Digest,'' where politicians plan the next war ''exempted / From compact by the machine's / Exigencies'' (Later Poems 19), or it may suggest simply the hum of tractors. In general, the machine appears as an overarching metaphor for the modern industrial world, as in E.M. Forster's ''The Machine Stops.'' ''Digest'' closes with a grim futuristic prediction:
The labour of the years
Was over; the children were heirs
To an instant existence. They fed the machine
Their questions, knowing the answers
Already, unable to apply them.
''Invitation'' may be read as Thomas's ''Everlasting Nay'' to the enticements of the material world. In it the speaker is tempted by two voices, one of which invites him to ''Come / Back to the rain and manure / Of Siloh, to the small talk, / Of the wind, and the chapel's / Temptation'' (Later Poems 15). All this seems pleasant enough in its way, though it suggests a world of material comfort and discomfort, the ''temptation'' of the chapel and ''the pale, / Sickly half-smile of / The daughter of the village / Grocer.'' In a sense, it suggests the world of Thomas's early poems, stern and spiritually exhausted. The other voice offers the temptation of the modern world, ''the streets, where the pound / Sings and the doors open / To its music, with life / Like an express train running / To time.'' This world is certainly not exhausted, but the evil of materialism provides its energy, and it is even more dangerous. The speaker's solution is to refuse either way, to ''stay / Here, listening to them, blowing / On the small soul in my / Keeping with such breath as I have.'' The solution Thomas proposes is personal, and it involves him in a new exploration of interior space. As ''The Kingdom'' suggests, the laws of the material world do not apply when spiritual salvation is at issue:
It's a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf. (Later Poems 35)
In Frequencies (1978), Thomas explores this theme in a number of powerful poems. ''Groping'' Later Poems 99) is an important statement of the need to find a spiritual place in the interior of the self:
Moving away is only to the boundaries
of the self. Better to stay here,
I said, leaving the horizons
clear. The best journey to make
is inward. It is the interior
But there are hands
there I can take, voices to hear
solider than the echoes
without. And sometimes a strange light
shines, purer than the moon,
casting no shadow, that is
the halo upon the bones
of the pioneers who died for truth.
Is it I, then,
who am being addressed? A God's words
are for their own sake; we hear
at our peril. Many of us have gone
mad in the mastering
of your medium.
Indeed, human language, imperfect and corrupted, is increasingly seen by Thomas as the source of our religious disappointment. In ''Directions'' (Later Poems 131), he speaks of the ''desert of language / we find ourselves in,'' while in ''Code'' (Later Poems 144), he calls it a ''duplicity / of language, that could name / what was not there.'' ''Minor'' (Later Poems 149) argues that the language of the atheist Nietzsche has been discredited by history, while ''ours / more quietly rusts / in autumnal libraries / of the spirit.'' ''Waiting'' (Later Poems 111) questions the traditional language used to discuss and address God:
Face to face? Ah, no
God; such language falsifies
the relation. Nor side by side,
nor near you, nor anywhere
in time and space.
* * * *
I pronounced you. Older
I still do, but seldomer
now, leaning far out
over an immense depth, letting
your name go and waiting,
somewhere between faith and doubt,
for echoes of its arrival.
Thomas views this exploration of interior space as an heroic
act of travel before returning home, perhaps with something ''to show /
you have been there: a lock of God's / hair, stolen from him while
he was / asleep; a photograph of the garden / of the spirit''
(''Somewhere'', Later Poems
73). Thomas's career can be seen as a series of such explorations,
probing first the physical world and later the world of the interior,
the acres of Wales and, equally stony, the acres of the imagination.
The point of traveling, however, ''is not / to arrive, but
to return home / laden with pollen you shall work up / into honey
the mind feeds on.'' One seeks ''the proof / of experiences it would
be worth dying for,'' and like Herakles one must wear ''a shirt of
fire'' that can be ''hung up now / like some rare fleece in the hall
of heroes.'' For Thomas, such journeying now seems the essence of our lives,
those ''harbours / we are continually setting out / from'' in search
of ''the one light that can cast such shadows.''
Copyright © 1989 by Jeffery Triggs. All rights reserved. This essay first appeared in The Literary Review 32.2 (Winter 1989): 140-52.