Why I Put Robert Frost Aside and Turned to R.S. Thomas

I began collecting the works of R. S. Thomas when a wincing checkbook convinced me to stop collecting the works of Robert Frost. Here’s the story:

It was sometime in the 1950s, either in college or theological school, that Frost’s poems began to colonize my imagination. This reading moved into collecting when a parishioner transferred a treasure from her library to mine. The book is a signed copy of Frost’s 1936 volume of poems titled A Further Range. Just below Frost’s signature, the woman who gave me the book has written: “To the Rev. John Galen McEllhenney from Helen A. Tyson, March 1, 1968.”

For a number of years before Helen gave me A Further Range, I’d been learning about book collecting from Frederick E. Maser, a Methodist minister who was known for occasionally wearing a black suit, a black silk shirt unbuttoned almost to his navel, and a gold necklace. Flamboyant or not, Fred Maser was an exceptionally knowledgeable book buyer.

I learned from Fred to buy books, not because you hoped they’d be an investment increasing in value, but because you loved books. Pick your ‘topic’ – an author, such as Frost, or a category, such as Maser’s Bible collection. And don’t spend more than you can afford.

And so, about 1969, I started collecting the works of Robert Frost. Book stories became my bars. Every time I was in Philadelphia, I hurried to Sessler’s on Walnut Street for a conversation with Mabel Zahn, who usually worked with high-net-worth collectors, but who was willing to be on the lookout for Frost items I could afford.

Also, I haunted secondhand shops, got on the mailing lists of rare book dealers in the United States, and checked the shelves of bookstores in Cambridge, England, when I was there during the summer of 1976. All the while, I was adding both new and used secondary Frost materials to my collection, and started gathering Frost’s Christmas cards.

Eventually, by the late 1970s, I had all the Frost items I could afford; first editions of his earliest books were out of my reach. So I turned my attention to R. S. Thomas. Because he was still living, his books were affordable . . . although the prices I had to pay for his earliest three books and two very limited editions did cause my bank account to wince.

Now, forty years later, my R. S. Thomas collection lives in the special collections section of Drew University’s library, along with several of Fred Maser’s collections.

J.S. Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and R.S. Thomas’s Uninhabited Cross

indexI came away from Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall on April 4th, bathed in music and blood.

That was my response to The Passion According to St. Matthew, which the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by its Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, presented on Holy Saturday.

Bach’s music held me in thrall, while I grouched silently about the theology, which was three hours of wallowing in sin. The only remedy for which was Jesus’s bloody death. In the words of a 21st century hymn: “On the cross as Jesus died, / the wrath of God was satisfied.”

Also, the Saint Matthew Passion sings the message that Jews, generation after generation, are to bear responsibility for Jesus’s blood.

R.S. Thomas should have been Bach’s librettist. He does not close his eyes to sinfulness:

Yes, that’s how I was, . . .
Careless of the claim
Of the world’s sick
Or the world’s poor; . . .

Nearing the end of the same book, he asks:

Why are my hands this way
That they will not do as I say?

RS acknowledges alienation from God – the sense of not living as God intends us to live. But RS does not belabor us with self-flagellant poetry as Bach’s librettist does. Nor does RS, with a few exceptions, interpret the crucifixion sacrificially. Rather, he views the no-longer-inhabited cross as representing the arms of God outstretched to enfold us in love:

. . . . .

Some of us run, some loiter;
some of us turn aside

to erect the Calvary
that is our signpost, arms

pointing in opposite directions
to bring us in the end

to the same place, so impossible
is it to escape love. . . .

For RS, the cross to be hymned is

. . . the uninhabited
cross. Look long enough
and you will see the arms
put on leaves. Not a crown
of thorns, but a crown of flowers
haloing it, with a bird singing
as though perched on paradise’s threshold.

 

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“Yes, that’s how I was” – “Judgment Day,” Tares (1961), 20.

“Why are my hands this way” – “Here,” Tares, 43.

“Some of us run, some loiter” – “The Word,” Mass for Hard Times (1992), 71.

“Not the empty tomb” – untitled poem, Counterpoint (1990), 37.

RST … FDR … and Birdwatching

rs thomas with birdwatching glasses“In that far-off place, with myriads of birds waking up. It was quite impossible to think much of the horrors of war.”

So wrote Daisy Suckley, remembering how her cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, settled his nerves while awaiting news of the outcome of the Battle of Midway in May of 1942. If successful, FDR recognized, Midway would be the second marker, after the Doolittle bombing of Tokyo, on the American road to victory over the Japanese Empire.

But there was the President, getting up at 2:00 a.m. to go birding: “Total for day 108 species,” he noted with satisfaction, signing his checklist “Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

Imagine the gotcha-glee of today’s reporters and bloggers if they were to nab President Obama watching birds during, say, the Charlie Hebdo horrors in Paris. Fortunately, only Daisy Suckley and a few others knew FDR was birding as he waited for cables from Midway. And, as Daisy noted, “It did him lots of good.”

Was there also a message for him from God? R.S. Thomas received one:

A message from God
delivered by a bird
at my window, offering friendship.
Listen. Such language!
Who said God was without
speech? Every word an injection
to make me smile. Meet me,
it says, tomorrow, here
at the same time and you will remember
how wonderful today
was: no pain, no worry;
irrelevant the mystery if
unsolved. I gave you the X-ray
eye for you to use, not
to prospect, but to discover
the unmalignancy of love’s
growth. You were a patient, too,
anaesthetised on truth’s table,
with life operating on you
with a green scalpel. Meet me, tomorrow,
I say, and I will sing it all over
Again for you, when you have come to.

For RS, watching for a rare bird to soar through the field of his binoculars was training in silence and patience, preparing him for rare and fleeting experiences of God’s presence in the natural world.

For FDR, on the other hand, birdwatching was a momentary stay against anxiety at a time when he was trying on the mantle of command, having discovered that he could not depend upon his generals and admirals to look strategically at the whole world.

 

Quotes in this post:

“In that far-off place” – Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 (2014), 275.

“A message from God” – “The Message,” Destinations (1985), 7.

This Blogger Reappears . . . An Interview . . . R.S. Thomas and Easter

rs thomas with birdwatching glasses croppedThis is an appropriate day for a new post to emerge after weeks of tomb-like darkness.

As always, none of my God-questions were answered during Lent, but I did find it possible to nail some of them “one by one to an untenanted cross,” and then to look into my mind and see them “folded and in a place / by themselves, like the piled graveclothes of love’s risen body.”

Echoes of R. S. Thomas? Yes.

Before amplifying the echoes, let me invite you to listen to me speaking about RS on Ron Way’s Author Talk. Dropping modesty like RS’s tree undressing, I’ll quote what Way says: “This interview was one of the most delightful in memory. What a joy to meet R. S. Thomas for the first time through the eyes of John McEllhenney and his book, A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief.

Now, back to Thomas and Easter.

RS looks at the cross from the empty tomb. So it is a cross without a tenant. A cross to which to nail our unanswered God-questions. Questions like the one that Jesus asked while he was tenanting the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

Referring to the silences of an empty church, RS asks: “Is this where God hides / From my searching?” Continuing to listen, he concludes:

 ….  . . . There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

In a poem titled “The Answer,” published twelve years later, RS writes:

….  . . . There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

RS’s placement of lie at the end of the line causes our eye, our voice, our mind, to stop short and consider: Is there something not honest about Why?-God questions?

Then we drop down to the next line and discover our God-questions lying inside our tomb-like minds, “folded and in a place / by themselves, like the piled / graveclothes of love’s risen body.”

Finally, on this Easter Day, after a winter that that was an increasingly unwelcome tenant in my part of the world, these lines:

….  ….               . . . Now
in the small hours
of belief the one eloquence

to master is that
of the bowed head, the bent
knee, waiting, as at the end

of a hard winter
for one flower to open
on the mind’s tree of thorns.

 

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“Is this where God hides . . . . There is no other sound” – “In Church,” Pietà (1966), 44.

“There have been times” – “The Answer,” Frequencies (1978), 46.

“Now / in the small hours” – “Waiting,” Between Here and Now (1981), 83.

R.S. Thomas: A Valentine-Writing Poet?

Elsi and R.S. Thomas

Elsi and R.S. Thomas, around 1940, from “R.S. Thomas: Writers of Wales” by Tony Brown

Now that ads for Valentine bouquets are no longer trailing dollar signs, or pounds sterling signs, across our computer screen, perhaps we can consider R. S. Thomas as a Valentine-poet.

Did he ever send Elsi a Valentine card? Give her a heart-shaped box of chocolates? Buy her a bouquet of red roses? Slip into scarlet pajamas on February 14th?

It’s difficult to imagine him doing those things.

And yet . . .

Women I know, who met and talked with RS, say that he responded to them in ways that made clear that he liked women, enjoyed their presence, was anything but immune to their charms.

Recently, Damian Walford Davies brought together a selection of RS’s poems in a book titled R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi (Seren, 2013). There’s nothing amorously chilly about the man who wrote these poems: “I never thought in this poor world to find” (about 1939) and “Luminary” (about 1980).

I never thought in this poor world to find
Another who had loved the things I love,
The wind, the trees, the cloud-swept sky above;
One who was beautiful and grave and kind,
Who struck no discord in my dreaming mind,
Content to live with silence as a cloak
About her every thought, or, if she spoke,
Her gentle voice was music on the wind. . . .

RS was not a Hallmark-card-rhymester, writing generalized doggerel. Rather, he wrote as a particular lover for a particular beloved:

My luminary,
my morning and evening
star. My light at noon
when there is no sun
and the sky lowers. My balance
of joy in a world
that has gone off joy’s
standard. Yours the face
that young I recognised
as though I had known you
of old. Come, my eyes
said, out into the morning
of a world whose dew
waits for your footprint. . . .

elsi

Elsi Thomas

“Luminary” is the work of a mature poet; “I never thought in this poor world to find,” the work of a man who has not yet found his poetic ‘voice’.

But each poem is the creation of a man who loved. A lover who, perhaps, provides a clue to help us understand the way he voiced his love.

These lines appear on the page facing “Luminary” in R.S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems:

. . . all my life
I tried to keep love from bursting
its banks. Love is the fine thing
but destructive. I strove to contain it, . . .

Poems by R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“I never thought in this poor world to find” – R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi (2013), 17; also see R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies (2013), 22.

“My luminary” – “Luminary,” R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi, 54; also see R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems, 169.

“all my life” – “The Father Dies,” R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems, 168.

“A Bridge Too Far . . . . ” | R.S. Thomas and The Machine

two bridge photo Abardaron

Lorry accident, Aberdaron, Cymru

Blogger’s note: While I was recovering from successful cataract surgery on both eyes, Susan Fogarty suggested a post about an ‘accident’ on a bridge in Aberdaron, Wales, R. S. Thomas’s last parish. I asked her to write it, which, with poetic sensitivity, she has done.

The sleepy seaside village of Aberdaron made headlines on the Welsh TV news on 2nd February, as an articulated wagon (known as an eighteen-wheeler in the US) had become wedged, almost destroying the 200-year-old bridge that straddles the small river running through the centre of the village.

The GPS navigator was made a scapegoat. The driver, without a signal, was lost. His intelligence forsaken, for the sake of ‘ease’, in using a machine.

What were the driver’s thoughts at the moment he approached the narrow bridge? Did he stop to think that the small bridge, built for farmers like RS Thomas’s Prytherch, sufficient to give them access with their donkey carts to the flour mill on the other side of the river, would have sufficient space for him?

Without meeting him, we have No Answer. Perhaps in defense he would say,

But the chemicals in
My mind were not
Ready, so I let
Him go on, dissolving
The word on my
Tongue.

For the purpose of this post, ‘Him’ refers to the machine (not God) and the articulated vehicle that could not articulate, “Stop, this is a bridge too far”. No words from the driver could stop the machine urging him onward.

     . . . it takes time
To prepare a sacrifice
For the God.

How long did the driver maneuver backwards and forwards, smashing the parapets until the machine was trapped, pinned down, as a sacrifice on the altar of the bridge?

           . . . Give yourself
To science that reveals
All, asking no pay
For it

And now, there was a price to pay for a man giving himself over to science. The core belief of RS in his poems on the theme of the machine, is that our machine culture, our addiction to science and technology that many believe has the answers to life, comes at a cost to ourselves.

……. . . Knowledge is power;
The old oracle
Has not changed……

until it loses its satellite signal, its data, its knowledge and fails . . . .

Then we reach for the road atlas, the illustrated journal of truth to guide us to our destination.

Meanwhile . . .

………… . . . Over the creeds
And masterpieces our wheels go.

The machines trundle over the masterpiece of the bridge, with no regard for the human beings who constructed it. A bridge that has served well the needs of a small community for two centuries, a bridge over and a bridge to, people and time. A bridge,

whose stone is the language
of its builders. Here

by the sea they said little.
But their message to the future
was: Build well.

And they did build well, for it was only the parapets that were dislodged, which are now being restored to their rightful place. Another week from now, the traffic will again trundle over the small bridge, and few, except the local people, would guess at the story of the night when this was a bridge too far for a man lost in his machine.

 

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

All of the quotes, beginning with “But the chemicals in” and concluding with “Over the creeds,” are from “No Answer,” H’m (1972), 7.

“whose stone is the language” – “Sarn Rhiw,” Destinations (1985), 29.

 

R. S. Thomas and the Throbbing of Bells

saint hywyn aberdaron wales

Saint Hywyn’s church, Aberdaron, Wales

Metal clanged against metal, drowning out the solos of the birds, as I enjoyed a late-morning walk on this year’s Martin Luther King holiday. Someone was ringing the bell at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, and it sounded as if iron ore from the nearby quarry had come to life.

The throbbing against my eardrums turned my thoughts to poets who celebrated bells, often hearing them as bells of glory. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Betjeman, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, . . .

“Ring out, wild bells,” cries Tennyson, cheering the bells of New Year’s Eve:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
…………The flying cloud, the frosty light:
…………The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
…………Ring happy bells, across the snow:
…………The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

. . . .

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
…………And ancient forms of party strife;
…………Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

. . . .

Ring in the valiant man and free,
…………The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
…………Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Tennyson is a nineteenth-century optimist, buoyant in his belief that party strife is dying, that purer laws are being born; that darkness is dissipating, that the Messiah is coming.

There’s nothing of Tennyson’s exuberance, his bravado in R. S. Thomas . . . but . . . perhaps . . . there will be a throbbing of bells:

I have seen it standing up grey,
Gaunt, as though no sunlight
Could ever thaw out the music
Of its great bell; terrible
In its own way, for religion
Is like that. There are times
When a black frost is upon
One’s whole being, and the heart
In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

But who is to know? Always,
Even in winter in the cold
Of a stone church, on his knees
Someone is praying, whose prayers fall
Steadily through the hard spell
Of weather that is between God
And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain
That brings the sun and afterwards flowers
On the raw graves and throbbing of bells.

To my ear, Tennyson pulls the bell rope of optimism, Thomas tugs the bell rope of faith.

 

Poems quoted in this post:

“Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky” – “In Memoriam” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; section 56.

“I have seen it standing up grey” – “The Belfry,” Pietà (1966), 29.