“No Sense of Smell for the Holiness Suspiring from Forked Humans” | Poems of R.S. Thomas

St Hywyn's Churchyard Abe

St Hywyn’s Churchyard and Aberdaron Bay

I think of an email friend as Sue of Aberdaron.

Although Sue lives elsewhere on R. S. Thomas’s much-loved Llŷn peninsula, she is a key figure in bringing Thomas pilgrims to Saint Hywyn’s Church, Aberdaron, where Thomas was the parish priest from 1967 to 1978.

In a recent blog, I wrote: “One [Thomas] poem presents other people as this. But a few pages along, another poem presents the same people as that.”

In response to which, Sue of Aberdaron said: “And this contradictory nature, seemingly dependent 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 Thomas hint,” Sue wonders, “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.

Thomas had a nose keen to sniff out some odors exuded by forked humans: sweat, vacancy of mind, lust, animal contact, hypocrisy, sourness of spirit.

Occasionally, however, he picked up, if not smell of holiness, then the sound of tears being gulped. “I have chosen,” Thomas tells us,

       . . . for an indulgent world’s
Ear the story of one whose hands
Have bruised themselves on the locked doors
Of life; whose heart, fuller then mine
Of gulped tears, is the dark well
From which to draw, drop after drop,
The terrible poetry of his kind.

I can see Thomas walking toward Saint Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron, thinking the thoughts that would become a poem. Meeting people along the way. Perhaps nodding. But all the while listening in his head to the rhythms of the lines and the sounds of the words.

Later, Elsi remarks at tea: “Mrs. Morgan said you walked right past her today without even nodding.”

“Was I really there?” Thomas, still somewhat absentmindedly, responds.

“Yes.”

“Was I paying attention?”

“Yes, to something in your head.”

All that’s true, I suggest, but a poet’s abstractedness is not the whole story.

The year before he died, Thomas told an interviewer: “I don’t think I’m a very loving person. I wasn’t brought up in a loving home – my mother was afraid of emotion – and you tend to carry on in the same way don’t you? I’m always ready to confess the things that are lacking in me and particularly this lack of love for human beings.”

But even that is not the whole story.

Thomas wrote lyric poetry of love, which I’ll talk about in my next blog.

For now, kudos to Sue of Aberdaron for contributing an anecdote and suggesting a poem that have expanded our understanding of R. S. Thomas.

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

“believing / with Blake” – “Retired,” Mass for Hard Times, 23.

“for an indulgent world’s” – “The Dark Well, Tares, 9.

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