“Wisdom Must Come on Foot” | Poems of R.S. Thomas

St Hywyn's Churchyard Abe

St Hywyn’s Churchyard and Aberdaron Bay

Online dictionaries don’t seem to know the etymology of the word for what I was doing just after dawn on Wednesday, August 12, 1992 – the word for my way of walking at the tip of the Llŷn peninsula in Wales.

As I walked along the road from Porthor to Aberdaron and the Church of St. Hywyn, where R. S. Thomas was vicar for eleven years, rays of sunshine cut light blue slashes through the clouds, occasionally lighting up gorse and heather on the hillsides. No humans stirred in the farmyards, but sheep and seagulls sprouted in the fields, and trees blossomed with magpies.

My movement was not as imperceptible and sticky as that of the snails crossing my path, but it was slow, deliberate, as if I knew that getting to St. Hywyn’s Church was as important as being at St. Hywyn’s Church.

The word for what I was doing?


Online dictionaries provide serviceable definitions. But Henry David Thoreau’s etymology, even if persnickety scholars pooh-pooh it, frees our imaginations.

Thoreau says sauntering is derived from the fact that people roved the countryside in the middle ages, asking handouts, declaring they were going à la sainte terre” – to the holy land. Children, with their penchant for nicknaming, began to taunt, “There goes a sainte-terrer!” A holy lander, a saunterer. A lazy bum cadging bread and cheese and a cup of wine.

I’d like to think that some of the sainte-terrers actually were going to the holy land, not as crusaders to kill people who believed differently, but as pilgrims hoping their sandals would soak up blessings.

To saunter, then, is to walk slowly, expectantly, meditatively.

R. S. Thomas closes a poem in his collection Counterpoint by saying that “the new travelers in time / . . . arrive too speedily / to have grown wise on the way.”

On the facing page, Thomas has four, instead of three, magi traveling to Bethlehem:

The first king was on horseback.
The second a pillion rider.
The third came by plane.

Where was the god-child?
He was in the manger
with the beasts, all looking

the other way where the fourth
was a slow dawning because
wisdom must come on foot.

The post this coming Sunday is by Sue of Aberdaron, and deals with wisdom coming on slow foot as men and women saunter through a labyrinth on the beach at Aberdaron.

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

“the new travelers in time” – untitled poem, Counterpoint, 30.

“The first kind was on horseback” – untitled poem, Counterpoint, 31.


4 thoughts on ““Wisdom Must Come on Foot” | Poems of R.S. Thomas

  1. Jim Cotter, vicar at St Hywyn’s 2008 – 2012, a great wordsmith, who’s career through the church has largely been in publishing, produced a pamphlet for visitors “Sauntering around St Hywyn’s”. An invitaton to meditate upon the architectural and artistic features within the church, drawing in to mind the earthly elements at the same time. e.g font/water, candles/fire.

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