R.S. Thomas: A Valentine-Writing Poet?

Elsi and R.S. Thomas

Elsi and R.S. Thomas, around 1940, from “R.S. Thomas: Writers of Wales” by Tony Brown

Now that ads for Valentine bouquets are no longer trailing dollar signs, or pounds sterling signs, across our computer screen, perhaps we can consider R. S. Thomas as a Valentine-poet.

Did he ever send Elsi a Valentine card? Give her a heart-shaped box of chocolates? Buy her a bouquet of red roses? Slip into scarlet pajamas on February 14th?

It’s difficult to imagine him doing those things.

And yet . . .

Women I know, who met and talked with RS, say that he responded to them in ways that made clear that he liked women, enjoyed their presence, was anything but immune to their charms.

Recently, Damian Walford Davies brought together a selection of RS’s poems in a book titled R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi (Seren, 2013). There’s nothing amorously chilly about the man who wrote these poems: “I never thought in this poor world to find” (about 1939) and “Luminary” (about 1980).

I never thought in this poor world to find
Another who had loved the things I love,
The wind, the trees, the cloud-swept sky above;
One who was beautiful and grave and kind,
Who struck no discord in my dreaming mind,
Content to live with silence as a cloak
About her every thought, or, if she spoke,
Her gentle voice was music on the wind. . . .

RS was not a Hallmark-card-rhymester, writing generalized doggerel. Rather, he wrote as a particular lover for a particular beloved:

My luminary,
my morning and evening
star. My light at noon
when there is no sun
and the sky lowers. My balance
of joy in a world
that has gone off joy’s
standard. Yours the face
that young I recognised
as though I had known you
of old. Come, my eyes
said, out into the morning
of a world whose dew
waits for your footprint. . . .

elsi

Elsi Thomas

“Luminary” is the work of a mature poet; “I never thought in this poor world to find,” the work of a man who has not yet found his poetic ‘voice’.

But each poem is the creation of a man who loved. A lover who, perhaps, provides a clue to help us understand the way he voiced his love.

These lines appear on the page facing “Luminary” in R.S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems:

. . . all my life
I tried to keep love from bursting
its banks. Love is the fine thing
but destructive. I strove to contain it, . . .

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

“I never thought in this poor world to find” – R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi (2013), 17; also see R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies (2013), 22.

“My luminary” – “Luminary,” R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi, 54; also see R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems, 169.

“all my life” – “The Father Dies,” R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems, 168.

“A Bridge Too Far . . . . ” | R.S. Thomas and The Machine

two bridge photo Abardaron

Lorry accident, Aberdaron, Cymru

Blogger’s note: While I was recovering from successful cataract surgery on both eyes, Susan Fogarty suggested a post about an ‘accident’ on a bridge in Aberdaron, Wales, R. S. Thomas’s last parish. I asked her to write it, which, with poetic sensitivity, she has done.

The sleepy seaside village of Aberdaron made headlines on the Welsh TV news on 2nd February, as an articulated wagon (known as an eighteen-wheeler in the US) had become wedged, almost destroying the 200-year-old bridge that straddles the small river running through the centre of the village.

The GPS navigator was made a scapegoat. The driver, without a signal, was lost. His intelligence forsaken, for the sake of ‘ease’, in using a machine.

What were the driver’s thoughts at the moment he approached the narrow bridge? Did he stop to think that the small bridge, built for farmers like RS Thomas’s Prytherch, sufficient to give them access with their donkey carts to the flour mill on the other side of the river, would have sufficient space for him?

Without meeting him, we have No Answer. Perhaps in defense he would say,

But the chemicals in
My mind were not
Ready, so I let
Him go on, dissolving
The word on my
Tongue.

For the purpose of this post, ‘Him’ refers to the machine (not God) and the articulated vehicle that could not articulate, “Stop, this is a bridge too far”. No words from the driver could stop the machine urging him onward.

     . . . it takes time
To prepare a sacrifice
For the God.

How long did the driver maneuver backwards and forwards, smashing the parapets until the machine was trapped, pinned down, as a sacrifice on the altar of the bridge?

           . . . Give yourself
To science that reveals
All, asking no pay
For it

And now, there was a price to pay for a man giving himself over to science. The core belief of RS in his poems on the theme of the machine, is that our machine culture, our addiction to science and technology that many believe has the answers to life, comes at a cost to ourselves.

……. . . Knowledge is power;
The old oracle
Has not changed……

until it loses its satellite signal, its data, its knowledge and fails . . . .

Then we reach for the road atlas, the illustrated journal of truth to guide us to our destination.

Meanwhile . . .

………… . . . Over the creeds
And masterpieces our wheels go.

The machines trundle over the masterpiece of the bridge, with no regard for the human beings who constructed it. A bridge that has served well the needs of a small community for two centuries, a bridge over and a bridge to, people and time. A bridge,

whose stone is the language
of its builders. Here

by the sea they said little.
But their message to the future
was: Build well.

And they did build well, for it was only the parapets that were dislodged, which are now being restored to their rightful place. Another week from now, the traffic will again trundle over the small bridge, and few, except the local people, would guess at the story of the night when this was a bridge too far for a man lost in his machine.

 

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

All of the quotes, beginning with “But the chemicals in” and concluding with “Over the creeds,” are from “No Answer,” H’m (1972), 7.

“whose stone is the language” – “Sarn Rhiw,” Destinations (1985), 29.

 

R.S. Thomas – Prayer Is Not a Popsy Ping Sort of Thing

popsy pingAmericans often put on the Ritz when they speak – cops don’t get out of their cars, they exit their vehicles.

At Saint Corny by the Quarry where I live, there’s a suite of rooms where you can see a doctor. It used to be called the Clinic, which was easy to say when you called the switchboard – yes, we still have a human being routing calls. But the Clinic has gone upscale to Visiting Physicians’ Office.

A friend in Wales has a thingy in her kitchen called a Popsy Ping. You pop in food, wait for the ping, then pick up a fork. A microwave, of course, but since I’ve never been able to visualize a wave that is micro, I prefer Popsy Ping – I know what pop-in means, and I can hear a ping.

Many believers seem to think that prayer is a popsy-ping sort of thing. You pop in your request, make sure the power level is correct, then wait for a ping to announce that a response is coming.

R.S. Thomas tells God that he no longer prays popsy-ping:

…………..      . . . I would have knelt
long, wrestling with you, wearing
you down. Hear my prayer, Lord, hear
my prayer. As though you were deaf, myriads
of mortals have kept up their shrill
cry, explaining your silence by
their unfitness.

..............       It begins to appear
this is not what prayer is about.
It is the annihilation of difference,
the consciousness of myself in you,
of you in me; the emerging
from the adolescence of nature
into the adult geometry
of the mind. I begin to recognize
you anew, God of form and number.
There are questions we are the solution
to, others whose echoes we must expand
to contain. Circular as our way
is, it leads not back to that snake-haunted
garden, but onward to the tall city
of glass that is the laboratory of the spirit.

In another poem, one in which RS talks about standing in a stream, “dangling a fly / between one depth and another,” he asks, “What is existence / but standing patiently for a while / amid flux?”

What is prayer? Not a popsy-ping sort of thing. But standing patiently and silently for a while amid flux.

 

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

“I would have knelt” – “Emerging,” Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 1.

“dangling a fly” – “Afon Rhiw,” Mass for Hard Times (1992), 79.

R.S. Thomas: Commerce Cannot Overtop the Christ Child

A Christmas carol confession – sometimes it’s easier to remember a carol’s parody than its original words:

While Shepherds washed their socks by night,
All seated round the tub,
The Angel of the Lord came down,
And gave their socks a scrub.

England’s laxative-producing Beecham Company issued a Christmas Carol Annual. For one year’s edition, according to the anecdote, the senior Beecham asked his son to write a parody of a familiar carol that would plug Beecham’s unplugging pills. The son – later, Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961), noted orchestra conductor – came up with:

Hark! The herald angels sing
Beecham’s pills are just the thing
Two for a woman, one for a child,
They will make you meek and mild.

Commerce Cannot Overtop the Christ ChildBeecham’s parody was not the first step in the commercialization of Christmas. That step was taken when it was decided, in the fourth century, to observe the birth of Jesus in the bleak mid-winter. At the time of the winter solstice, the celebration of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun. During Saturnalia, the wine-laced, toga-dropping Roman festival honoring the god Saturn.

Ever since the linking of Christ’s Birth with Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, caroling, partying, and spending have run on parallel tracks, with accelerating speed in recent decades. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Accompanied, predictably, by ever increasing spurts of sacred spleen.

R.S. Thomas, on the other hand, simply says that the commercialization of Christmas can never overtop the Christ Child:

Erect capital’s arch;
decorate it with the gilt edge
of the moon. Pave the way to it
with cheques and with credit –

it is still not high enough
for the child to pass under
who comes to us this midnight
invisible as radiation.

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

“Erect capital’s arch” – “Christmas Eve,” No Truce with the Furies (1995), 13.

R.S. Thomas – Not Cut Out To Be An Angel

by Andrew Wyeth

by Andrew Wyeth

I wonder how R. S. Thomas would respond to being remembered as a cut-out angel.

The retirement community where I live had a holiday appeal for contributions to its benevolent care fund, so I wrote a check and noted that it was in memory of R. S. Thomas. Some days later, I walked past a window and noticed paper angels floating on the glass. One was designated “in memory of R. S. Thomas.”

I can see him stooping to look at the inscription, then straightening up to quip: “I’m not cut-out to be an angel.”

Certainly, RS was not cut out to be the angel on the e-Christmas card I received the other day. After clicking and waiting for it to load, I was instructed to click on an angel, which, animated by my click, began to flit like a mechanical butterfly about a Christmas tree. As she fluttered up to candles, they lit up; when she flew by balls, they sang portions of carols. At last, she landed on the top of the tree, and became an ornament herself.

RS’s Christmas poems are not ornamental; they have an edge – no twee angels on his tree:

They came over the snow to the bread’s
purer snow, fumbled it in their huge
hands, put their lips to it
like beasts, stared into the dark chalice
where the wine shone, felt it sharp
on their tongue, shivered as at a sin
remembered, and heard love cry
momentarily in their hearts’ manger.

They rose and went back to their poor
holdings, naked in the bleak light
of December. Their horizon contracted
to the one small, stone-riddled field
with its tree, where the weather was nailing
the appalled body that had asked to be born.

For RS, the tree of Christmas pointed to the tree of Calvary.

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

“They came over the snow” – “Hill Christmas,” Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 42.

May Peace in the Mind Be Peace in the Hand | R.S. Thomas

Poppies Veterans DayEarlier this month, November 11th, Veterans Day was observed in the United States. Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom. Armistice de la Première Guerre mondiale in France.

On November 11, 2001, my wife and I stood silently outside Notre Dame, watching elderly men, medals pinned to their chests, holding their backs straight, lining up to enter the cathedral for a service of remembrance.

On November 11, 1994, we had dinner with R. S. Thomas and Betty. Two days later, we sat in the choir of Saint David’s Cathedral, noticing the red poppies pinned to the vestments of the clergy. And I remembered RS’s poem:

The Iron Lady became
rusty. Generals haunted
unstaffed corridors, clanking
their medals. On the imagination’s

barbed wire a dove sat,
its eyes red as the poppies
that were being hawked in aid
of casualties of the next war.

I am not in any way indifferent to the blood-red suffering and dying remembered on November 11th.

Don, a cherished friend who died several years ago, was the navigator for a flight of planes that dropped paratroopers behind the German lines on D-Day. His stories and my own visit to the Normandy beaches and cemeteries bring a moistening of the eye.

But . . . too often November 11th brings a celebration of war instead of an act of penitence for our human failure to live as brothers and sisters in God’s world.

This year, on November 11th, Michael Evans posted another poem by RS on Facebook; because I’m not Facebooked, it was forwarded to me by a friend in Wales:

This is my child;
that is yours. Let
peace be between them
when they grow up.

They are far off
now; let it not
be through war they are brought
near. Their languages

are different. Let them both
learn it is peace
in the hand is the translation
of peace in the mind.

 

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

“The Iron Lady became” – “Not Blonde,” Mass for Hard Times (1992), 24.

“This is my child” – “Pact,” R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems (2013), 178.

Money Is God’s Blood Circulating in the Veins of Creation | R.S. Thomas on Greed

greed made oh so prettyThe city of Las Vegas has been placing magazine ads that could be used to illustrate Dante’s Inferno. Incorporated in each photograph of Sin City Sybarites are the words GlitzGlamourGluttony. Not printed but patently present is another “g” word Greed.

Dante’s gluttons are punished by being mired in muck and fed great gobs of rain, hail and snow. Miserable, but not overflowing with Dantean insight. His handling of greed, on the other hand, is masterful.

The greedy shriek at one another: “Why pile it up?” and “Why waste cash?” In another translation: “Why do you hang on to everything?” and “Why do you throw everything away?”

I remember a disembodied voice on an airplane as it was landing at Las Vegas, saying, “Welcome to Lost Wages” – it was meant to be funny, but . . . .

But it was another take on Dante’s description of the greedy: They “had minds so glitter-struck / In their first lives they couldn’t see / Their own unbridled overreaching.”

Greed involves overreaching in one of two ways: Some greedy people suck in as much wealth as they can, some spit out as much as they can. Dante was for moderation in both gaining and spending.

R.S. Thomas gives voice to the Ronald Reagan—Margaret Thatcher era “greed is good” person:

I had forgotten
…………the old quest for truth
……………………I was here for. Other cares

held me: urgencies
…………of the body; a girl
……………………beckoned; money

had never appeared
…………so ethereal; it was God’s blood
……………………circulating in the veins

of creation; I partook
…………of it like Communion, lost
……………………myself on my way

home, . . .

I went on with that
…………metallic warfare in which
……………………the one casualty is love.

Brian Chikwava, a Zimbabwean writer and musician now living in London, notes that the masterstroke of capitalism is that it makes “people feel permanently dissatisfied with their own condition so that they always want to have something more. Everything around you solicits a response. It is really a kind of mental banditry.”

And the victim of capitalism’s banditry is love, which is why medieval Christian thought – Dante’s intellectual world – viewed greed as the sin most offensive to the spirit of love.

Today, greed is the new god, and its priests use glitz, glamour, and gluttony to attract new worshipers.

As ever, “the one casualty is love.”

 

Quotations used in this post:

“Why pile it up?” and “Why waste cash?” – The Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James (2013), 37.

“Why do you hang on to everything?” – Inferno, translated by Mary Jo Bang (2012), 72.

“had minds so glitter-struck” – Bang, 72.

“I had forgotten” – “The Casualty,” R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 21.

“people feel permanently dissatisfied” – Marius Kociejowski, God’s Zoo: Artists, Exiles, Londoners (2014), 227.

R. S. Thomas and Robert Frost: Before Mending a Wall . . . .

wallRobert Frost begins his poem “Mending Wall” with the observation: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Then he goes on to say that he and his neighbor picked a day for mending the dry stone wall between their properties, and as they worked, the neighbor kept repeating, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Frost is not so certain:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in and walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

The neighbor, on the other hand, is certain: His father had said, “Good fences make good neighbors,” and that is good enough for him – “He will not go behind his father’s saying.”

Churches tend to mimic Frost’s neighbor, declaring, “This is what we’ve always believed. It was good enough for the Church Fathers, so it’s good enough for us.”

They will not go behind their Fathers’ sayings, will not look open-eyed at whom or what they are walling in and walling out. No; their principal concern is keeping the old walls mended.

God, meanwhile, is the One who doesn’t love a wall, who wants it down, who undermines the walls that people build, often in God’s name.

For centuries, slave owners used the Bible to support the wall they erected to protect the institution of slavery. God used the Abolitionists, who worked with a loving-God reading of the Bible, to undermine that wall.

For centuries, men used the Bible to keep women subservient, to ban them from church pulpits and altars, to keep them subjected to men in society. God used Feminists, who worked with a loving-God reading of the Bible, to gain full equality for women in church and society.

R.S. Thomas carted a wall with him when he went to Manafon, his first parish. This wall enclosed him as a town-bred, educated, ordained man. It walled out parishioners as uncouth, stinky, spiritually numb. But as he ministered among these hill farmers and shepherds, God, the one who doesn’t love a wall, began an undermining action, and RS, in the poem that follows, asks himself about a man with “stinking garments” and “an aimless grin”:

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 hear God’s choir
Scatter their praises?

Soon RS was seeing people like this man as his “prototypes,” as men and women who were themselves grounded, deeply rooted in the natural world, God’s creation, and therefore able to help ground him.

When, I wonder, will churches begin to see same-gender lovers as their prototypes? For it is certain that the loving care of gay men for their partners and friends dying of AIDS is a model of selfless love in our era.

Physician and poet Rafael Campo, who is gay, writes:

                                 . . . I saw the fence

I still believe invisibly
Might fence me out; . . .

In another poem, Campo says:

No knowledge is more powerful
Than knowing love, than knowing how
To love despite a world so full

Of the intent to hate. . . .

 

Poems quoted in this post:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” – “Mending Wall,” The Poetry of Robert Frost (1969), 33-34.

“Is there anything to show that your essential need” – “Affinity,” The Stones of the Field (1946), 20.

“I saw the fence” – “So in Love,” Rafael Campo, What the Body Told (1996), 3.

“No knowledge is more powerful” – “Defining Us,” Rafael Campo, What the Body Told (1996), 13.

Pilgrims of Truth – R.S. Thomas

We live in a Googlesque world where facts are assumed to be the same thing as truth.

Don’t minute-by-minute updates on what’s going on in our world give us the truth? No. All they do is tell us what’s happening right now. Truth, on the other hand, is “the daughter of time.”

We must wait for the clouded waters of the present to clear . . . then truth, or some portion of truth, may be discerned.

For example, we glimpse the truth of what’s happening today in Iraq only when we take time to understand hundreds of years of that country’s history; only when we have become pilgrims of truth.

A number of R. S. Thomas’s poems introduce us to this pilgrimage. Here are two lines:

The truth is Pilate not
lingering for an answer.

RS is alluding to the biblical moment when Pilate asks Jesus, “So you are a king?” To which Jesus responds: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate asks, “What is truth?” Then, without “lingering for an answer,” Pilate goes out to the crowd clamoring for him to deal . . . immediately . . . summarily . . . murderously . . . with Jesus (John 18:37-38)

Many people are like Pilate: They do not linger . . . for the truth of Jesus.

This lecturer on atheism tells them that Jesus is a charlatan miracle-worker, so they grab and run with that answer.

This pastor uses the Bible to pound home the doctrine that Jesus is half-human, half-divine, and they rush out to tell others that they know the whole truth of Jesus.

They don’t. For the truth of Jesus is too mysterious to be known with perfect clarity, with complete understanding, by anyone.

It is a mysterious truth that opens for us, perhaps once in a lifetime. Referring to an ancient Welsh pilgrimage island, RS says:

I would still go there
if only to await
the once-in-a-lifetime
opening of truth’s flower; . . .

We live in an information-cluttered world, and I have no inclination to opt out. I tune in to cable news, Google for facts. Whereas back in the day, I trolled my bookshelves or drove to a library to find the information fragments that today I obtain with a few mouse clicks.

But pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of God, pilgrims of Jesus, switch off their electronic devices. Pilgrims of truth pack light with regard to information, dwell deep in silence. “From bottomless fathoms they dredge up the truth.”

They tiptoe, as they seek what Wordsworth calls “central peace, subsisting at the heart / Of endless agitation.” They “whisper,” in RS’s words, “like one coming / on the truth asleep / and fearing to disturb it.”

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

“the daughter of time” – Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

“The truth is Pilate not” – “The Nativity? No.” Counterpoint (1990), 29.

“I would still go there” – “Island,” No Truce with the Furies (1995), 79.

“from bottomless fathoms” – “Fathoms,” No Truce with the Furies (1995), 10.

They “whisper” – “Pen Llŷn,” Mass for Hard Times (1992), 72.

Two Poets as Trees: George Herbert and R. S. Thomas

treesIt’s Labor Day weekend in the United States, which means that the trees where I live will soon stop singing anthems at dawn and dusk.

The leaves that concealed the singers will color, then drop to the grass, where machines will suck them up, shred them, and haul them off to the compost heap.

And the singers will migrate . . . .

Which is what Canada geese have been doing for the past few weeks – V-shaped flights honking their way across the sky during my evening walks.

Meanwhile, my thoughts have migrated towards two poets, George Herbert and R. S. Thomas, who shared the fantasy of being a tree that birds would come to and make a home in.

Herbert, in his poem titled “Affliction (1),” tells God about the life that God has allowed him to live – a life of academic achievement, public acclaim, even royal approbation, then of ill health and seeming uselessness. Drawing near to the conclusion of his autobiographical summary, Herbert says:

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show:
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree;
For sure I then should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust
Her household to me, and I should be just.

“I’m no longer good for anything else,” Herbert seems to be saying, “so perhaps I can be of use as a tree that will be a home for birds, where they can raise their children without being afraid of at least one human being.”

R.S. Thomas’s me-as-tree mood differs memorably from Herbert’s:

Summer is here.
Once more the house has its
Spray of martins, Proust’s fountain
Of small birds, whose light shadows
Come and go in the sunshine
Of the lawn as thoughts do
In the mind. Watching them fly
Is my business, not as a man vowed
To science, who counts their returns
To the rafters, or sifts their droppings
For facts, recording the wave-length
Of their screaming; my method is so
To have them about myself
Through the hours of this brief
Season and to fill with their
Movement, that it is I they build
In and bring up their young
To return to after the bitter
Migrations, knowing the site
Inviolate through its outward changes.

Can anyone tell me where in Proust’s writings to find his fountain of small birds?

 

Poems quoted in this post:

“Now I am here” – “Affliction (1),” George Herbert, The Complete English Works (1995), 46.

“Summer is here” – “The Place,” Not That He Brought Flowers [1968], 45.