The Thin, Crisp Sound of Christmas | Poems of R.S. Thomas

iceWhat does the sound of breaking flatbread – perhaps for serving holiday canapes – have in common with the sound of “Christ”?

Nothing, you say?

Then each of us lacks the ear of a poet.

When poets hear words, their minds do not immediately leap to what the word signifies. First, they think of the word as a “thing” in itself; as something that has weight and sound and color.

For poets, words have qualities of their own that are distinct from their job of helping us make “sense” in our speaking and writing.

So when R. S. Thomas hears “Christ,” he hears the sound of thin sheets of ice cracking under winter-walking feet. Only second does the word signify for him one of the titles given to Jesus.

Now, permit my mind to do a flip:

When I’m asked if any of Thomas’s sermons have been published, I reply, “A Christmas one.” Giving it a re-look recently, I realized it’s less a homily than a Christmas essay.

Thomas, in his opening paragraph, quotes the first line of Christina Rossetti’s familiar poem, which is often sung as a carol:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, . . .

Then Thomas observes that Rossetti’s words bring

. . . that sense of coldness and crispness which has become the conventional environment of an English Christmas. How many children and grown-ups feel a secret desire for snow, or at least a touch of frost on Christmas Eve? The very word Christ has that thin, crisp sound so suggestive of frost and snow and the small sheets of ice that crack and splinter under our feet, even as the Host is broken in the priest’s fingers.

“The very word Christ has that thin, crisp sound so suggestive of . . . the Host [being] broken in the priest’s fingers,” or of flatbread snapping as we ready hors d’oeuvres.

In his poem “The Moor,” Thomas tells us that he

           . . . walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.

Thomas’s priestly experience of standing at the altar, breaking the matzah-like Eucharistic wafer, prepared his ear for the sound of the wind crumbling on him as he walked on the moor. And his experience of snow . . . .

They came over the snow to the bread’s
purer snow, fumbled it in their huge
hands, put their lips to it
like beasts, stared into the dark chalice
where the wine shone, felt it sharp
on their tongue, shivered as at a sin
remembered, and heard love cry
momentarily in their hearts’ manger.

Prose and poetry of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“that sense of coldness and crispness” – “The Qualities of Christmas,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose (third edition), 44.

“walked on” – “The Moor,” Pietà, 24.

“They came over the snow to the bread’s” – “Hill Christmas,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 42.


2 thoughts on “The Thin, Crisp Sound of Christmas | Poems of R.S. Thomas

    • Yes, I know that . . . with my mind, but my ‘feel’ of Christmas has a hard time taking it in. How can I enjoy cheese fondue on a hot Christmas Eve!

      One or two posts from now, I’ll be quoting RST’s awareness of the various climates of Christmas.

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