Today’s title quotation is not from R. S. Thomas. He was only twelve when the American novelist with perfect 1920s pitch, F. Scott Fitzgerald, gave those words to Jay Gatsby.
Gatsby and Nick Caraway are discussing Daisy Buchanan. “She’s got an indiscreet voice,” Nick remarks. “It’s full of – “ he hesitates.
“Her voice is full of money,” Gatsby says suddenly.
“Money” is like the wine of Communion for the “casualty” in one of R. S. Thomas’s poems:
. . . money
had never appeared
so ethereal; it was God’s blood
circulating in the veins
of creation; I partook
of it like Communion, lost
myself on the way
home, . . .
“Lost on the way home” is the plight of girls who “spend / With lavish precision because / Big dreams need big budgets” in Peter Galen Massey’s poem “The Money Girls”:
Will they be content after they
Eat the world and don’t grow fat?
Will work and reward fill the void
Or just gild it over? I can’t say, but
The money girls will spend their youth
In acquisitive pursuit, and if those years
Go to hard waste, they can’t buy them back.
Massey shows us girls who bought what money can buy and found that they could not buy what they had lost while they were doing all that buying.
R. S. Thomas shows us a man . . .
anywhere set before the shop window
of life, full of comestibles
and jewels; to put out his hand
is to come up against
glass; to break it is
to injure himself.
Thomas goes on to point out alternatives: The man could become a poet and imagine that he has acquired the things in the shop. Or he could become an ascetic and praise himself for his ability to resist their allure.
Thomas’s next move in the poem is to place the manufacturers of the “comestibles and jewels” inside the shop window looking out.
I can picture the scene: One morning, my wife and I were walking through Fort-de-France’s district devoted to cruise-ship shoppers, when, suddenly, all the shop keepers began to roll down the steel blinds they use to protect their luxuries at night. Before long a procession of the working poor of Martinique pressed along the street, and Nancy and I made ourselves small in a shop’s doorway.
Thomas wants his manufacturers to be able to look out through their shop window:
. . . Let them see the eyes
staring in, be splashed with the blood
of the shop-breakers; let them live
on the poet’s diet, on the pocket-money
of the priest.
Finally, Thomas shares with us a vision:
. . . I see the blinds
going down in Europe, over the
whole world: the rich with everything to
sell, the poor with nothing to buy it with.
Thomas understood that a balanced approach to money is one of life’s hardest things to achieve. What is too much? Too little? He, like most of us, worried about the latter.
Writing to me on October 8, 1996, he said: “I was lucky enough to be awarded a Lannan prize recently, which will boost my finances a bit.” In fact, by $50,000. But (always there was a but with Thomas): “Fortunately one is not expected to travel to Los Angeles to receive it!”
The improvement in Thomas’s financial security was good. The city built on providing images of people whose talk is full of money was not good. Or was his grouch about Los Angeles simply one more manifestation of Thomas’s distaste for every conurbation, except “the sleepless conurbations / of the stars”?
As a concluding image for this blog, Thomas invites us to picture capital building a high golden arch for the Christ Child to pass through on Christmas Eve. It is constructed with gilt-edge bonds, with checks, with credit.
But . . .
But “it is still not high enough / for the child to pass under / who comes to us this” Christmas Eve. The Baby of Bethlehem is larger than anything that people whose voices are full of money can construct.
Poems by R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“money // had never appeared” – “The Casualty,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 21.
“anywhere set before the shop window” – “The Window,” Experimenting With an Amen, 36.
“the sleepless conurbations” – “Alive,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 51.
“it is still not high enough” – “Christmas Eve,” No Truce with the Furies, 13.