The Bible’s Hebrew poets stood in manure up to their necks, yet lifted their voices to praise God.
That rank image – slipped into a theological school seminar more than fifty years ago – popped into my mind when I reread what R. S. Thomas says about the chapel called Soar-y-Mynydd: “Here, in the soil and the dirt and the peat do we find life and heaven and hell.”
Thomas had a vision at Soar-y-Mynydd, just as he had one at Maes-yr-Onnen, where he saw that God is a young God – see my blog for May 12th.
At Soar-y-Mynydd, Thomas saw “the soul of a special type of man, the Cymro or Welshman. For the very source of Welsh life as it is today is here in the middle of these remote moorlands. And it is in places of this sort that the soul of the true Welshman is formed.”
When Thomas first met this true Welshman, he had misgivings about his body as well as his soul. He was smelly: His clothes were “sour with years of sweat / And animal contact.” His manners were gross: When Thomas called of an evening, he sat “fixed in his chair, / Motionless, except when he leans to gob [spit] in the fire.” And as for his soul, it was “mortgaged to the grasping soil.”
In short, the true Welshman got up the nose of Thomas, this “little bourgeois,” as he calls himself, “well-bred, with the mark of the church and library upon me.” Eventually, however, Thomas came to see these “tough, materialistic, hard-working people” in a new light.
They embodied true Welshness, exemplifying a rooted physical life and an earthed spiritual life.
First, they had something that city Welsh, Anglicized Welsh, lacked – endurance. Take eighty-five-year-old Job Davies, who asks:
Miserable? Kick my arse!
It needs more than the rain’s hearse,
Wind-drawn, to pull me off
The great perch of my laugh.
“When the Welsh as a nation,” Thomas writes, “were bound to this kind of life, then their souls were strong and deep,” because they were rooted “in the soil and the dirt and the peat.” And “once a week” they “would travel from their hidden inaccessible homes, to worship and pray together” in such chapels as Soar-y-Mynydd.
The name means “Zoar on the Mountain.” Zoar was the little place of refuge to which Lot and his family fled when the big places, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, were destroyed (Genesis 19:22-23).
By extension, Soar-y-Mynydd symbolizes for Thomas the little places remote from the mechanization of big-city life, where, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”
Second, in unindustrialized and untouristed Wales, everyday things, mountains and moors, can glow with the presence of God.
Today, Soar-y-Mynydd and other out-of-the-way Welsh chapels settle “a little deeper into the grass.”
But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them . . . .
Novelist Vladimir Nabokov saw another metaphor for what Thomas is picturing, for what my Hebrew professor was expressing: Nabokov remembers that he first understood irony when he saw butterflies on a piece of dung.
Nabokov also says that he came closest to ecstasy not when he finished a novel but when observing rare butterflies.
I think Thomas would have approved, if not used, my Hebrew professor’s image of poets magnifying God while immersed in manure and Nabokov’s sighting of butterflies alighting on dung. But Thomas himself came closest to ecstasy when walking on a moor, which was “like a church to” him:
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In movement of wind over grass.
There is something romantic, of course, about Thomas’s vision of rooted Welshness and earthed spirituality. It is nostalgic, an attempt to Williamsburg-ize the Wales of old. It is political, part of Thomas’s protest again everything that the English had done to transform Wales into England. It is cultural, Thomas’s way of fighting the Machine, which is his synecdoche for the industrialized, technologized, and internetized world that is turning “All to noise.”
It also helps us understand why he loved the paintings of the Impressionists.
Prose and poetry by R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“Here, in the soil and the dirt and the peat” – “Two Chapels,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 40.
“the soul of a special type of man” – “Two Chapels,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 38.
“sour with years of sweat” – “A Peasant,” The Stones of the Field, 14.
“fixed in his chair” – “A Peasant,” The Stones of the Field, 14.
“mortgaged to the grasping soil” – “The Minister,” Collected Poems 1945-1990, 42.
“little bourgeois” – “Former Paths,” R. S. Thomas: Autobiographies, 11.
“tough, materialistic, hard-working people” – “Former Paths,” R. S. Thomas: Autobiographies, 11.
“Miserable? Kick my arse!” – “Lore,” Tares, 35.
“When the Welsh as a nation” – “Two Chapels,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 40.
“once a week” – “Two Chapels,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 38.
“a little deeper into the grass” – “The Chapel,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 19.
“like a church” – “The Moor,” Pietà, 24.
“All to noise” – “The Face,” Pietà, 41.