Best R.S. Thomas Poems | On the World of Nature: “January”

RSThomasSepia.jpgBorn in a city, raised in a town, R. S. Thomas was a naturalized citizen of the natural world – a solitary walker on the moors, in the mountains, by the sea.

His natural habitat was nature uninhabited by Homo sapiens. A contradiction, of course. For even if he met no other human being on a particular walk, he left his own footprints on the grass, in the sand.

The human presence in today’s poem is that of Thomas, as a winter’s day walker, and, perhaps, another person, the one responsible for wounding a fox.

The fox drags its wounded belly
Over the snow, the crimson seeds
Of blood burst with a mild explosion,
Soft as excrement, bold as roses.

Over the snow that feels no pity,
Whose white hands can give no healing,
The fox drags its wounded belly.

It could be a winter scene in the neighborhood of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, painted by Andrew Wyeth, with red punctuating white on his palette.

Green, however, is the color usually associated with nature. So why, in one of Thomas’s best nature poems, is there no green? Because Thomas is using white daubed with red as a metaphor for the doubleness of nature; for its duplexity. For nature’s “pitilessness, its beauty.”

“January,” like a great painting, is, in its simplicity, tightly controlled. The first and last lines rhyme. More than that, they’re identical. Yet they don’t give us the sense of being contrived, jimmied into place.

Like the natural world, “January” is cyclical – it cycles and recycles. It reflects the natural world, which, in a line from another of Thomas’s poems, is “a self-regulating machine / of blood and faeces.” A world cycling from flowers to compost to flowers to compost to . . . .

Thomas chooses words – wounded, blood, explosion, excrement, no pity, no healing – that unsettle his landscape. Words that leave us dislocated, offput, even ready to ball up “January” and toss it into the trash.

But before we do that, let’s deal with the question: “How did the fox come to have a wounded belly?”

Perhaps because nature itself is “red in tooth and claw.” The willets I watched on a Florida beach were brunching on nuggets of marine life. Nature was bloody long before club-wielding humans lumbered onto the scene. So perhaps a larger animal wounded the fox.

Or perhaps the attacker was a man or woman. Humans set traps, string barbed wire, fire guns, go foxhunting – “The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.”

In “January,” Thomas walks forty-five words across seven lines to paint the natural world: “its pitilessness, its beauty.” A beautiful winter’s day, but with no healing in its white beauty.

“January” paints our world in its true colors, and that’s why I nominate it as one of Thomas’s best poems about the world of nature.

Quotes used in this post:

“The fox drags its wounded belly” – “January,” Song at the Year’s Turning (1955), 107.

“its pitilessness, its beauty” – “Islandmen,” Young and Old (1972), 15.

“a self-regulation machine” – “Rough,” Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 36.


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