R.S. Thomas’s Best Poems about God | “Suddenly”

William Blake's representation of the soldiers gambling for Christ's clothes. John (19:23-25).

William Blake’s representation of the soldiers gambling for Christ’s clothes. John (19:23-25).

R. S. Thomas was not a suddenly sort of religious man. Not for him the notion of lugging his soul to salvation’s laundry for a fast wash and dry.

But in one of his best “God” poems, God comes suddenly as Thomas always knew God would come, with nothing remarkable about the occasion except the absence of whoopla.

When God arrives, no trumpet blares, no sermon flares, just an awareness of being filled to overflowing with God – all as the culmination of a lichen-like process.

Thomas speaks of himself as having

                          . . . to learn

from the lichen’s slowness
at work something of the slowness
of the illumination of the self.

As the first lines of “Suddenly” emphasize, preparation for the coming of God is characterized by lichen-growth slowness . . . until, suddenly . . .

As I had always known
he would come, unannounced,
remarkable merely for the absence
of clamour. So truth must appear
to the thinker; so, at a stage
of the experiment, the answer
must quietly emerge.

Thomas’s point may be likened to what sometimes happens after reading one of his own poems again . . . and again . . . and again . . . Suddenly, its seemingly dry branch buds and blooms in our heart. “So truth must appear / to the thinker.”

The poem continues:

                                    I looked
at him, not with the eye
only, but with the whole
of my being, overflowing with
him as a chalice would
with the sea. Yet was he
no more there than before,
his area occupied
by the unhaloed presences.

When God comes, material things are not forced to stand aside, making room for, in John Betjeman’s phrase, “The Maker of the stars and sea.”

Where God is, everyday persons and things retain their places; they remain quotidian, and ecclesiastical authorities do not rush in to distribute golden circlets.

The final section of “Suddenly” contains two biblical allusions.

In John 20:25, the disciple Thomas insists that he won’t believe Jesus is alive . . . “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.” A week later, Jesus appears and says to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side” (20:27).

The poet Thomas, in contrast with the disciple Thomas, suggests we can put our hand in the One who comes “without consciousness / of his wounds.”

Next, we meet the craps shooters at the cross; again, from John (19:23-25). Four Roman soldiers, after dividing the clothes of Jesus four ways, decide to throw dice to see who will get his seamless tunic.

In Thomas’s poem, the soldiers go on shooting craps . . . while the tunic they covet has become invisible and is being worn by Jesus in his “risen existence.”

You could put your hand
in him without consciousness
of his wounds. The gamblers
at the foot of the unnoticed
cross went on with
their dicing; yet the invisible
garment for which they played
was no longer at stake, but worn
by him in this risen existence.

One of Thomas’s best “God” poems. Or is it about Jesus? RS, I think, would answer: “I wrote the poem, now it’s yours to interpret.”

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

“to learn” – untitled poem, The Echoes Return Slow (1988), 103.
“As I had always known” – “Suddenly,” Laboratories of the Spirit [1975], 32.

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