R. S. Thomas clicks for us a photograph of “A Day in Autumn”:
It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up
From the day’s chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.
Writing autobiographically, he remembers that “he was on the whole a happy boy,” and it “was the countryside that made him so.”
Even though his mother was anxious, overprotective, he was free to roam the countryside around his boyhood home in Holyhead “from earliest morning to sunset. He would gather flowers in the spring and mushrooms in the autumn. He would climb the rocks and cliffs, gazing long at the sea and listening to the sound of the waves in caves.”
Yet Thomas the boy must have been aware of the Janus-faced nature of mushrooms: One way they face, they are life; the other way, death.
Later, Thomas the seer linked mushrooms and clouds:
Gathering mushrooms by the light of the moon. . . . The clouds towered. Their shape was prophetic, but there were no prophets.
Whether or not there are prophets to see into it, nature’s womb contains embryos of mushroom soup and mushroom clouds, a two-sidedness for which Thomas’s key metaphor is the sea.
The sea . . .
is both a mirror and a window. In the mirror is to be seen all the beauty and glory of creation: the colours and images of the clouds, with the birds going past on their eternal journey. But on using it as a window, an endless war is to be seen, one creature mercilessly and continuously devouring another.
Before I say more about the problem posed for Thomas’s mind by nature’s two faces, let me quote a poem in which he tells us how to escape the pestilent:
The swifts winnow the air.
It is pleasant at the end of the day
To watch them. I have shut the mind
On fools. The phone’s frenzy
Is over. There is only the swifts’
Restlessness in the sky
And their shrill squealing.
Sometimes they glide,
Or rip the silk of the wind
In passing. Unseen ribbons
Are trailing upon the air. . . .
That poem is another photograph to wear against the heart in the long cold of the mind’s ruminations – the age-old ponderings of homo sapiens.
“To a thinking person,” Thomas writes, “there are two aspects of the sea, the external and the internal. Or, if you like, it is both a mirror and a window.” In the sea’s mirror, we see blue skies, green trees, and migrating birds. But under “the deceptively innocent surface there are thousands of horrors, as if they were the creator’s failed experiments. And through the seaweed, as if through a forest, the seals and the cormorants and the mackerel hunt like rapacious wolves.”
All of which forces Thomas the believer in God, Thomas the priest ministering in a seaside parish, Thomas the twentieth-century thinker, to question: “What kind of God created such a world? A God of love?”
I plan to consider Thomas the doubting-believer in God in my next blog.
For now, here’s Thomas the man at the small window:
In Wales there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only. A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn; in one day
You can witness the extent
Of the spectrum and grow rich
With looking. . . .
Thomas’s eyes took in the riches of nature.
But he recognized that all wealth is Janus-faced. In Thomas’s thought-world, nature’s beauty is hyphenated with ugliness, nature’s goodness with cruelty.
He was, in short, a doubting-believer in nature, as he was a doubting-believer in himself, a doubting-believer in other persons, and a doubting-believer in God.
Poetry and prose of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“It will not always be like this” – “A Day in Autumn,” Poetry for Supper, 18.
“he was on the whole a happy boy” – from “No-One,” Autobiographies, 31.
“Gathering mushrooms by the light of the moon” – untitled prose paragraph, The Echoes Return Slow, 10.
“is both a mirror and a window” – from “No-One,” Autobiographies, 78.
“The swifts winnow the air” – “Swifts,” Pietà, 9.
“What kind of God created such a world?” – from “No-One,” Autobiographies, 78.
“In Wales there are jewels” – “The Small Window,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 38.