R.S. Thomas on Mice: How They Are Like the Worrying Mind

artI’ve been thinking about mice lately, ever since they came up in conversation at 5 o’clock drinks.

Once, as I told the group, when a mouse careered through the kitchen, my mother de-materialized on the kitchen flood and re-materialized instantly on the breakfast table.

Why all this fuss – jumping up on tables and such like – about a creature so small that it could cuddle up in your pocket?

And it’s not as if we ourselves hadn’t created the problem. We plowed up their homes, so why shouldn’t they feel entitled to move into ours?

It’s their teeth, of course, that get to us, their teeth and their untidy toilet habits. But R. S. Thomas centers his attention on their teeth.

That’s one of the things that poets do for us: They show us metaphors in things as small as the tooth of a mouse.

We see the teeth of mice as something we hope will bite into the smidgeon of cheese we used to bait our trap. RS sees them as . . . well, here’s his poem:

I am an impressed
audience. Their whiskers
are finer than the strings
of a violin. They turn over
the pages of an unseen
score. They have teeth,
too, smaller than rice
with which they gnaw
and gnaw, as the mind gnaws
at the truth. I lie awake
listening to them, asking
myself would I come
at the truth, coming later
where they have been
at work? A rodent
is a tireless reminder
to the mind worrying away
that the end of such performance
is to bring the house down.

RS begins his poem by fantasizing about a string quartet of mice, sitting on a concert hall’s stage, their whiskers serving as the strings of their instruments. I’m impressed, he tells us. Aren’t you?

The poet snaps us back to reality: the teeth of mice – they’re tiny but capable of gnawing into a box of Cheerios and stealing our breakfast.

Then RS compares the gnawing of mice to the mind’s gnawing at the truth. Worrying about what is the amount of truth in the boss’ statement that the job is secure. Worrying about the line between fact and fiction in the reason the teenager just gave for being so late getting home. Worrying about the doctor’s slight frown when saying there was nothing to worry about in the test results.

Gnaw . . . gnaw . . . gnaw.

And snap . . . goes RS’s conclusion: The house in which we live our physical lives can be brought down by mice. The house in which we live our mental lives can be brought down by worry. Just as any great performance can bring down the house


R. S. Thomas poem quoted in this post:

“I am an impressed” – “Bestiary: Mice,” No Truce with the Furies (1995), 68.


3 thoughts on “R.S. Thomas on Mice: How They Are Like the Worrying Mind

  1. The mouse was nibbling at my brain: just noticed that I wrote that my mother de-materialized on the kitchen “flood” – yep, I meant “floor.” Although there was that time, she broke a glass milk bottle, flooded the floor, and used a word that, for my mother, served as very, very naughty.

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