R.S. Thomas: Caught With A Crib Up His Sleeve

R. S. Thomas saw life as an examination of our ability to love.

Grading his own life, he rated himself a bungler, even though he had a crib up his sleeve.

A crib?

The quirks of the English language are daunting for those not born speaking English, but a hoot for poets.

Consider “winding up.” When you wind up a business, you get it ready to stop. When you wind up a clock, you get it ready to start.

So what does a person mean when she says, “It’s time to wind up my writing”?

What is the “crib” Thomas has up his sleeve? A hop-picker’s bin? A pony? A bed for a baby? A brothel? A ventilated shed for storing corn? A cheat sheet? A manger? All are dictionary definitions of, or synonyms for, “crib.”

Since Thomas is speaking about an exam, we may assume that he had a “cheat sheet” up his sleeve.

Or was it a “pony,” which can be a small horse-like animal, or a pour of beer for people who don’t like beer, or a “cheat sheet,” or a “crib.”

Which brings us back to R.S. and his sense of love-exam failure.

Writing about the period of his life when he was vicar of Saint Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron, he describes himself in this way:

Everywhere he went, despite his round collar and his license, he was there to learn rather than   teach love. In the simplest of homes there were those who with little schooling and less college      had come out top in that sweet examination.

In the concluding poem of the “Incarnation” section of his book Counterpoint, Thomas tells God (or is it Christ?): “I have been student of your love / and have not graduated.”

“I bungled the examination” . . . . even though “Time and again I was / caught with a crib up my sleeve.”

A “cheat sheet” up his sleeve? Yes, but of what variety?

A piece of paper with the answers in tiny writing?

Or “a manger, especially that in which the infant Jesus was said to be laid”? Which is the second definition under “crib” in my New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.


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

“I have been student of your love” – untitled poem in Counterpoint, 34.

“Everywhere he went” – untitled prose in The Echoes Return Slow, 92.

“I have been student of your love” – untitled poem in Counterpoint, 34.


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