Doubting Our Belief That We See Other People Clearly | The Poems of R.S. Thomas

Elsi and R.S. Thomas

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

It’s human to believe we see other people clearly. Human to form opinions about them based on first sightings. Human to believe our opinions are undoubtedly correct.

As a young parish priest in Manafon, R. S. Thomas believed that no cataracts blurred his view of his parishioners:

Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales,
With your sheep and your pigs and your ponies, your sweaty females,
How I have hated you for your irreverence, your scorn even
Of the refinements of art and the Church, . . .
Men of bone, wrenched from the bitter moorland,
Who have not yet shaken the moss from your savage skulls,
Or prayed the peat from your eyes, . . .

Thomas strafed his people with his pen’s bullets, but when they didn’t bleed, he began to doubt his aim: Was his vision foggy?

I have taxed your ignorance of rhyme and sonnet,
Your want to deference to the painter’s skill,
But I know, as I listen, that your speech has in it
The source of all poetry, clear as a rill
Bubbling from your lips; and what brushwork could equal
The artistry of your dwelling on the bare hill?

Thomas’s parishioners were not impressed by the fact that their priest was a poet, that his wife, Elsi, was an artist.

Perhaps his parishioners were right, he began to suspect, to be unimpressed. Perhaps they had something that he and Elsi lacked.

Could it be endurance, Thomas asked, in a world doing its damnedest to best them?

In one of his most anthologized poems, “A Peasant,” Thomas begins by believing that he clearly sees a hill farmer. Smells him, too, for his clothes reek of muck and sweat. His manner are gross. And “There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.”

But as time passes, doubt weakens Thomas’s belief in his clear-sightedness.

Perhaps there is something frightening in the vacancy of his own mind?

Does he give off the odor of town and library as the farmer gives off the odor of field and barn?

As doubt undercuts his first impression of the peasant, Thomas begins to believe that what he now sees is the truth. This man of dirt and dung has a staying power that he, Thomas, lacks. “This is your prototype,” he tells himself,

                   . . . who, season by season
Against siege of rain and the wind’s attrition,
Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
Not to be stormed even in death’s confusion.

This peasant can withstand life’s sieges, and survive.

But . . . .

A doubt begins to niggle at Thomas: Could the very qualities that make hill-farmers survivors also make them stranglers?

Could their choke hold on life squeeze the life out of the next generation?

Thomas etches for us the children of the survivors, who are waiting for the old to die, so that they can inherit the farm; so that they can join in singing the love song of the blackbird:

This is pain’s landscape.
A savage agriculture is practiced
Here; every farm has its
Grandfather or grandmother, gnarled hands
On the cheque-book, a long, slow
Pull on the placenta about the neck.
Old lips monopolize the talk
When a friend calls. The children listen
From the kitchen; the children march
With angry patience against the dawn.
They are waiting for someone to die
Whose name is a bitter as the soil
They handle. In clear pools
In the furrows they watch themselves grow old
To the terrible accompaniment of the song
Of the blackbird, that promises them love.

One reason for Thomas’s greatness as a poet is that he takes a but . . . but . . . butting . . . approach to other people.

One poem presents other people as this. But a few pages along, another poem presents the same people as that. But the new this is soon challenged by another this.

Contradictory expressions of this-ness, but . . . .

A reminder that what we believe we see when we look at other people is never the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Thomas believed there is something in other people worth seeing.

But he learned to doubt his first look.

But then he learned to doubt his second look. And so on . . . .

There are times in Thomas’s poetry when he fails to doubt his belief that his first look is all there is to be seen. These poems leave a nasty taste in the mouth of the reader. Perhaps I’ll gargle and deal with them some day.

But at his best, Thomas is a doubting-believer in other people, offering us poems that give us unexpected glimpses of multi-sided, fractured, Cubism-like human truth.

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

“Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales” – “A Priest to His People,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 29.

“I have taxed your ignorance of rhyme and sonnet” – “A Priest to Hi People,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 29.

“There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind” – “A Peasant,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 21.

“This is pain’s landscape” – “Tenancies,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 33.

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3 thoughts on “Doubting Our Belief That We See Other People Clearly | The Poems of R.S. Thomas

  1. “One poem presents other people as this. But a few pages along, another poem presents the same people as that.”
    And this contradictory nature, often seemignly dependant on which way the wind was blowing, is what local people say about him, never sure how he was going to engage with you, from one encounter to the next. Does he hint at a sense of regret of his own ability to be too quick to judge others in “Retired”? “…… believing with Blake that when God comes/ he comes sometimes by way/ of the nostril. My failure, perhaps,/ was to have had no sense of smell/ for the holiness suspiring from forked humans.

  2. Pingback: “No Sense of Smell for the Holiness Suspiring from Forked Humans” | Poems of R.S. Thomas | Doubt & Belief

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