R. S. Thomas, as far as I know, never had second thoughts about the things he said about English tourists in Wales. Indeed, it’s unlikely that he ever repainted his picture of them as roughshod hikers over the Welsh people and their language.
Thomas did, however, think again about the “peasants” he found on the hill farms around Manafon, his parish from 1942 to 1954. At first sniff, their “clothes, sour with years of sweat / And animal contact,” shocked his “refined / But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.” Later, that comment struck him as sniffy.
For the “peasants” had something Thomas lacked – the natural world’s ability to survive: “Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.” What had he, a town boy accustomed to “the musty sandwiches / in the library,” to contribute to their lives?
Ransack your brainbox, pull out the drawers
That rot in your heart’s dust, and what have you to give
To enrich his spirit or the way he lives?
From the standpoint of education or caste or creed
Is there anything to show that your essential need
Is less than his, who has the world for church,
And stands bare-headed in the woods’ wide porch
Morning and evening to heard God’s choir
Scatter their praises? Don’t be taken in
By stinking garments . . . .
One of Thomas’s best poems about a survivor is “Lore” (Job’s surname is pronounced Dā’ vis):
Job Davies, eighty-five
Winters old, and still alive
After the slow poison
And treachery of the seasons.
Miserable? Kick my arse!
It needs more than the rain’s hearse
Wind-drawn, to pull me off
The great perch of my laugh.
What’s living but courage?
Paunch full of hot porridge,
Nerves strengthened with tea,
Peat-black, dawn found me
Mowing where the grass grew,
Bearded with golden dew.
Rhythm of the long scythe
Kept this tall frame lithe.
What to do? Stay green.
Never mind the machine,
Whose fuel is human souls.
Live large, man, and dream small.
Thomas’s lines are cut off as if by the swishing of Job’s scythe. Tied together by ropes of rhyming words. All in imitation of nature’s endings, beginnings, continuities, endurances.
Some months ago, I listened to a retired bishop, the writer of many books, describe his typical day. He uses a home treadmill for exercise, which allows him to read while running and to avoid weather’s vagaries and the distractions of meeting people and noticing birds, trees, and clouds. While cooking dinner, he listens to a book, thereby, I assume, occluding any fascination with the beautiful fish he’s preparing as broiled salmon, any meditation on the soil that produced the broccoli, any consideration of the poorly paid, uninsured workers who picked the strawberries he’s serving for dessert.
If the bishop had read “Lore,” it had not taken root in him: “Stay green. / Never mind the machine, / Whose fuel is human souls.”
The bishop’s Master once said: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil or spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-29).
Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:
“clothes, sour with sweat” and “Enduring like a tree” – “A Peasant,” The Stones of the Field (1946), 14.
“the musty sandwiches” – “He rationed his intake,” The Echoes Return Slow (1988), 15.
“Ransack your brainbox” – “Affinity,” The Stones of the Field (1946), 20.
“Job Davies, eighty-five” – “Lore,” Tares (1961), 35.