Best R.S. Thomas Poems About People | “Lore”

Peasant digging, Vincent van Gogh, 1882

Peasant digging, Vincent van Gogh, 1882

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.


6 thoughts on “Best R.S. Thomas Poems About People | “Lore”

  1. “Stay green”: R.S. Thomas was an environmentalist very early! This is an important poem in RS’s work, I think. Job Davies represents all that the Machine ignores.(Is this one of R.S.’s earliest uses of the term, the villain of H’m?) ignores. (cf “Cynddylan on a Tractor”, of course)

    • “Murmuration of engines” in “Homo Sapiens 1941” hints at the Machine. I’ll do some looking to see if I can spot the first time he uses Machine in full clutch-cursing way. “Cynddylan” may well be it.

  2. John, with every post i read, I grow more in awe of the beauty of Thomas’ poetry and the depth of his love and appreciation for Wales. I have shared a number of his poems on my facebook page. They are getting ‘liked’. I’m pretty sure Thomas would not be a fan of facebook.

    • RS was a fan of getting his poems noticed . . . and appreciated. He snarled at the English, yet was happy to find London publishers for his books. So he’d probably see Facebook as an avatar of the Machine, but, with an impish grin, nudge others to use it to call attention to his poetry.

  3. Michael Evans of Swansea is ‘nudging others to call attention to his poetry’ too. He has set up the RS Thomas Poetry Appreciation Group on facebook. 54 members and growing….

    • Thank you Susan, now on 1st Feb 2016 the group has grown to 661 members – clearly there is much interest in the work of RS! The group has also been acknowledged by Gwydion, son of RS. It can be found here…

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