R.S. Thomas Wrote Poems for Doubting-Believers

rs thomas with birdwatching glasses croppedNo doubt you’re expecting this blog to be about doubting-belief in God. A reasonable assumption, given my blog’s overall theme, but off the mark . . . .

Because I’m going to deal with R. S. Thomas’s doubting-belief in himself as a writer.

In order to write, Thomas had to believe in himself. But in order to write well, he had to doubt himself.

But . . . .

In order to go on writing, he had to doubt his doubts about himself.

Round and around from his belief . . . to his doubt . . . to doubting his doubt . . . to his doubting-belief . . .

Imre Kertész, the Hungarian writer who received the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature, tells us: “I always doubt every sentence I utter, but I have never for a moment doubted that I have to write what I happen to be writing.”

Thomas, in a letter to a friend, speaks about his own writing experience: “One gets pleased at the time and then turns a sour look on the thing later.”

But he doubted his sour look and went on believing in himself as a writer.

But his belief in himself was always shadowed by self-doubt:

          . . . One
of life’s conjurors, standing
upside down on his conscience,
producing out of a hat rabbits
where his brains should have been. . . .

But Thomas also believed in his mental capacities, and never for a moment doubted that he had to be writing what he happened to be writing.

But . . . yes, the buts continue circling . . . .

But he continued to be haunted by self-doubt.

In a letter to me, dated March 31, 1994, Thomas said: “I have not done much solid reading, but have passed the mornings in writing poetry. I don’t think it is of any significance. I have shot my bolt at last. Plenty of interesting ideas, but, as Mallarmé remarked, poetry is not made with ideas.”

Yet he retained sufficient self-belief to risk triviality and go on writing poems, more than thirty of which, with publication dates after 1994, appear in a new book titled R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems, edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies.

Dannie Abse, the Welsh poet who is celebrating his ninetieth birthday this year, created this phrase:

. . . one minute a sinner, the next a seer.

Thomas: one minute a self-doubter, the next a self-believer; and out of that tension comes Thomas, the seer, the bard, the poet of doubting-belief.

In his poem titled “Judgment Day,” which he included in Tares (1964), Thomas looks at himself in the mirror of self-doubt:

Yes, that’s how I was,
I know that face,
That bony figure
Without grace
Of flesh or limb; . . .

Thomas goes on to enumerate what this mirror allowed him to see not only of the outside of his life but also of the inside. Then he asks God to cloud the mirror:

Lord, breathe once more
On that sad mirror, . . .

Thomas’s belief that God’s mirror-misting love was always s bit stronger that his own self-doubt enabled him to go on believing in himself as a writer just a bit more than he doubted himself as a writer.

And writers who do not share Thomas’s belief in God have had similar experiences.

Kertész is such a writer: “. . . as for me,” he notes, “one doesn’t have to be a believer to be receptive to the wonders of life.”

One of those wonders is the realization that self-belief has a slight edge over self-doubt.


Prose and poetry quoted in this blog:

“One gets pleased at the time” – R. S. Thomas: Letters to Raymond Garlick 1951 – 1999, 31.

“One / of life’s conjurors” – untitled poem, The Echoes Return Slow, 59.

“I have not done much solid reading” – McEllhenney, A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R. S. Thomas and His Poetry, 62.

“one minute a sinner” – Dannie Abse, Running Late (London: Hutchinson, 2006), 6.

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


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