Why I Put Robert Frost Aside and Turned to R.S. Thomas

I began collecting the works of R. S. Thomas when a wincing checkbook convinced me to stop collecting the works of Robert Frost. Here’s the story:

It was sometime in the 1950s, either in college or theological school, that Frost’s poems began to colonize my imagination. This reading moved into collecting when a parishioner transferred a treasure from her library to mine. The book is a signed copy of Frost’s 1936 volume of poems titled A Further Range. Just below Frost’s signature, the woman who gave me the book has written: “To the Rev. John Galen McEllhenney from Helen A. Tyson, March 1, 1968.”

For a number of years before Helen gave me A Further Range, I’d been learning about book collecting from Frederick E. Maser, a Methodist minister who was known for occasionally wearing a black suit, a black silk shirt unbuttoned almost to his navel, and a gold necklace. Flamboyant or not, Fred Maser was an exceptionally knowledgeable book buyer.

I learned from Fred to buy books, not because you hoped they’d be an investment increasing in value, but because you loved books. Pick your ‘topic’ – an author, such as Frost, or a category, such as Maser’s Bible collection. And don’t spend more than you can afford.

And so, about 1969, I started collecting the works of Robert Frost. Book stories became my bars. Every time I was in Philadelphia, I hurried to Sessler’s on Walnut Street for a conversation with Mabel Zahn, who usually worked with high-net-worth collectors, but who was willing to be on the lookout for Frost items I could afford.

Also, I haunted secondhand shops, got on the mailing lists of rare book dealers in the United States, and checked the shelves of bookstores in Cambridge, England, when I was there during the summer of 1976. All the while, I was adding both new and used secondary Frost materials to my collection, and started gathering Frost’s Christmas cards.

Eventually, by the late 1970s, I had all the Frost items I could afford; first editions of his earliest books were out of my reach. So I turned my attention to R. S. Thomas. Because he was still living, his books were affordable . . . although the prices I had to pay for his earliest three books and two very limited editions did cause my bank account to wince.

Now, forty years later, my R. S. Thomas collection lives in the special collections section of Drew University’s library, along with several of Fred Maser’s collections.

J.S. Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and R.S. Thomas’s Uninhabited Cross

indexI came away from Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall on April 4th, bathed in music and blood.

That was my response to The Passion According to St. Matthew, which the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by its Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, presented on Holy Saturday.

Bach’s music held me in thrall, while I grouched silently about the theology, which was three hours of wallowing in sin. The only remedy for which was Jesus’s bloody death. In the words of a 21st century hymn: “On the cross as Jesus died, / the wrath of God was satisfied.”

Also, the Saint Matthew Passion sings the message that Jews, generation after generation, are to bear responsibility for Jesus’s blood.

R.S. Thomas should have been Bach’s librettist. He does not close his eyes to sinfulness:

Yes, that’s how I was, . . .
Careless of the claim
Of the world’s sick
Or the world’s poor; . . .

Nearing the end of the same book, he asks:

Why are my hands this way
That they will not do as I say?

RS acknowledges alienation from God – the sense of not living as God intends us to live. But RS does not belabor us with self-flagellant poetry as Bach’s librettist does. Nor does RS, with a few exceptions, interpret the crucifixion sacrificially. Rather, he views the no-longer-inhabited cross as representing the arms of God outstretched to enfold us in love:

. . . . .

Some of us run, some loiter;
some of us turn aside

to erect the Calvary
that is our signpost, arms

pointing in opposite directions
to bring us in the end

to the same place, so impossible
is it to escape love. . . .

For RS, the cross to be hymned is

. . . the uninhabited
cross. Look long enough
and you will see the arms
put on leaves. Not a crown
of thorns, but a crown of flowers
haloing it, with a bird singing
as though perched on paradise’s threshold.

 

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

“Yes, that’s how I was” – “Judgment Day,” Tares (1961), 20.

“Why are my hands this way” – “Here,” Tares, 43.

“Some of us run, some loiter” – “The Word,” Mass for Hard Times (1992), 71.

“Not the empty tomb” – untitled poem, Counterpoint (1990), 37.

RST … FDR … and Birdwatching

rs thomas with birdwatching glasses“In that far-off place, with myriads of birds waking up. It was quite impossible to think much of the horrors of war.”

So wrote Daisy Suckley, remembering how her cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, settled his nerves while awaiting news of the outcome of the Battle of Midway in May of 1942. If successful, FDR recognized, Midway would be the second marker, after the Doolittle bombing of Tokyo, on the American road to victory over the Japanese Empire.

But there was the President, getting up at 2:00 a.m. to go birding: “Total for day 108 species,” he noted with satisfaction, signing his checklist “Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

Imagine the gotcha-glee of today’s reporters and bloggers if they were to nab President Obama watching birds during, say, the Charlie Hebdo horrors in Paris. Fortunately, only Daisy Suckley and a few others knew FDR was birding as he waited for cables from Midway. And, as Daisy noted, “It did him lots of good.”

Was there also a message for him from God? R.S. Thomas received one:

A message from God
delivered by a bird
at my window, offering friendship.
Listen. Such language!
Who said God was without
speech? Every word an injection
to make me smile. Meet me,
it says, tomorrow, here
at the same time and you will remember
how wonderful today
was: no pain, no worry;
irrelevant the mystery if
unsolved. I gave you the X-ray
eye for you to use, not
to prospect, but to discover
the unmalignancy of love’s
growth. You were a patient, too,
anaesthetised on truth’s table,
with life operating on you
with a green scalpel. Meet me, tomorrow,
I say, and I will sing it all over
Again for you, when you have come to.

For RS, watching for a rare bird to soar through the field of his binoculars was training in silence and patience, preparing him for rare and fleeting experiences of God’s presence in the natural world.

For FDR, on the other hand, birdwatching was a momentary stay against anxiety at a time when he was trying on the mantle of command, having discovered that he could not depend upon his generals and admirals to look strategically at the whole world.

 

Quotes in this post:

“In that far-off place” – Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 (2014), 275.

“A message from God” – “The Message,” Destinations (1985), 7.

This Blogger Reappears . . . An Interview . . . R.S. Thomas and Easter

rs thomas with birdwatching glasses croppedThis is an appropriate day for a new post to emerge after weeks of tomb-like darkness.

As always, none of my God-questions were answered during Lent, but I did find it possible to nail some of them “one by one to an untenanted cross,” and then to look into my mind and see them “folded and in a place / by themselves, like the piled graveclothes of love’s risen body.”

Echoes of R. S. Thomas? Yes.

Before amplifying the echoes, let me invite you to listen to me speaking about RS on Ron Way’s Author Talk. Dropping modesty like RS’s tree undressing, I’ll quote what Way says: “This interview was one of the most delightful in memory. What a joy to meet R. S. Thomas for the first time through the eyes of John McEllhenney and his book, A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief.

Now, back to Thomas and Easter.

RS looks at the cross from the empty tomb. So it is a cross without a tenant. A cross to which to nail our unanswered God-questions. Questions like the one that Jesus asked while he was tenanting the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

Referring to the silences of an empty church, RS asks: “Is this where God hides / From my searching?” Continuing to listen, he concludes:

 ….  . . . There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

In a poem titled “The Answer,” published twelve years later, RS writes:

….  . . . There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

RS’s placement of lie at the end of the line causes our eye, our voice, our mind, to stop short and consider: Is there something not honest about Why?-God questions?

Then we drop down to the next line and discover our God-questions lying inside our tomb-like minds, “folded and in a place / by themselves, like the piled / graveclothes of love’s risen body.”

Finally, on this Easter Day, after a winter that that was an increasingly unwelcome tenant in my part of the world, these lines:

….  ….               . . . Now
in the small hours
of belief the one eloquence

to master is that
of the bowed head, the bent
knee, waiting, as at the end

of a hard winter
for one flower to open
on the mind’s tree of thorns.

 

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

“Is this where God hides . . . . There is no other sound” – “In Church,” Pietà (1966), 44.

“There have been times” – “The Answer,” Frequencies (1978), 46.

“Now / in the small hours” – “Waiting,” Between Here and Now (1981), 83.

R. S. Thomas and the Throbbing of Bells

saint hywyn aberdaron wales

Saint Hywyn’s church, Aberdaron, Wales

Metal clanged against metal, drowning out the solos of the birds, as I enjoyed a late-morning walk on this year’s Martin Luther King holiday. Someone was ringing the bell at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, and it sounded as if iron ore from the nearby quarry had come to life.

The throbbing against my eardrums turned my thoughts to poets who celebrated bells, often hearing them as bells of glory. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Betjeman, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, . . .

“Ring out, wild bells,” cries Tennyson, cheering the bells of New Year’s Eve:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
…………The flying cloud, the frosty light:
…………The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
…………Ring happy bells, across the snow:
…………The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

. . . .

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
…………And ancient forms of party strife;
…………Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

. . . .

Ring in the valiant man and free,
…………The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
…………Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Tennyson is a nineteenth-century optimist, buoyant in his belief that party strife is dying, that purer laws are being born; that darkness is dissipating, that the Messiah is coming.

There’s nothing of Tennyson’s exuberance, his bravado in R. S. Thomas . . . but . . . perhaps . . . there will be a throbbing of bells:

I have seen it standing up grey,
Gaunt, as though no sunlight
Could ever thaw out the music
Of its great bell; terrible
In its own way, for religion
Is like that. There are times
When a black frost is upon
One’s whole being, and the heart
In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

But who is to know? Always,
Even in winter in the cold
Of a stone church, on his knees
Someone is praying, whose prayers fall
Steadily through the hard spell
Of weather that is between God
And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain
That brings the sun and afterwards flowers
On the raw graves and throbbing of bells.

To my ear, Tennyson pulls the bell rope of optimism, Thomas tugs the bell rope of faith.

 

Poems quoted in this post:

“Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky” – “In Memoriam” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; section 56.

“I have seen it standing up grey” – “The Belfry,” Pietà (1966), 29.

R.S. Thomas and the People Who Think They Live on the Main Road to God

roadI wish drivers wouldn’t tempt me to grumble on the way to church.

It was, after all, the Sunday before Christmas. A day to be joyous, right? But there was this hulking black SUV in front of me, its two bumper stickers blasting me with: Jesus said, “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7).

Yes, Jesus did say that, at least according to some translations. But Jesus said many things, such as “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19) and “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37). So why is “born again” used to badger all and sundry into accepting one particular view of salvation?

Because it is easier to turn Jesus into a dogma that must be believed, than it is to follow him as a man who invites us to love as he loves.

There are many loving people who say, “I was born again when I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”

Others use the formulaic “I’m a born-again believer” as their guarantee of accommodation in heaven. Also, they use the born-again mantra as, in the words of Frank Bruni, “a fig leaf for intolerance” – intolerance of different religions, races, and sexual orientations.

R.S. Thomas responded as a poet-theologian to those who think they hold e-tickets on the only flight to God:

There was part of the parish that few knew.
They lived in houses on the main road
To God, as they thought, managing primly
The day’s dirt, bottling talk
Of birth and marriage in cold eyes;
Nothing to tell in their spick rooms’
Discipline how with its old violence
Grass raged under the floor.

But you knew it, farmer; your hand
Had felt its power, if not your heart
Its loveliness. . . .

This poem speaks to me of God’s green grass and man’s stone structures. How divine freshness rages under the seemingly solid ideas that humans form about pious behavior.

In RS’s poem, men and women who think they live on the main road to God, also suppose that their spick rooms reflect the spick-ness of their lives. That their squeaky clean floors provide a solid foundation for their judgments. That they are speaking for God when they declare what is ‘dirty’ in the sex lives of their neighbors.

Much that they deplore is simply ‘natural’ in the Green Book of God’s revelation. Fresh life rages under the stony doctrines of those who thumb the Black Book of God’s revelation, looking for passages to buttress their prejudices.

There are many roads to God other than the one marked with the sign “Born Again Believer.” There are many ways of expressing true love other than the one marked “Heterosexual Marriage.” No matter what the law says or prudes declare, every child is a legitimate child of God.

RS’s farmer feels the power – and, perhaps, the loveliness – of the grass raging under the floors of those who think they live on the main road to God.

 

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

“There was part of the parish” – “The Parish,” Tares (1961), 15.

Where Will R.S. Thomas Show Up Next?

ThomasMertonGriffithWe often find what we’re looking for when we’re looking for something else.

I’m always looking for R. S. Thomas. Recently I found him when I was looking for Thomas Merton’s love affair, and that search began while I was looking for a poem presented as Merton’s “Final Prayer.”

I discovered that the so-called “Final Prayer” is, in fact, the last paragraph of a letter Merton wrote to the poet Czeslaw Milosz on February 28, 1959, which, of course, does not lessen the power of Merton’s words, which sound prescient: “All loyalties have to pass through fire. Much has to be lost. Much in us has to be killed, even much that is best in us.”

Seven years later, Merton tested his loyalty to his vow of chastity when he slid headlong into love with a student nurse. Because it seems to me that Christianity’s traditional theology of sex is screwed up, I decided to follow the spoor of Merton’s experiment with sexual passion through his journal entries for 1966-1967.

After the affair was largely over, he notes that he was healthier when he was expressing his love: “I had much less trouble all around when I was seeing M.” Four days later, he writes: “I definitely do not intend to try to see M. or do anything more about her.”

I was still wondering whether killing his love for M. was good for Merton – good too for M., when R. S. Thomas jumped out of Merton’s journal: “Got a very good letter from Ron Johnson,” Merton writes, on July 3, 1967. “He spoke of having met R. S. Thomas in Wales – lovely description of his unearthly Welsh wife.”

“She was English!” I belabored the book, which shrugged and said, “Take that up with Merton.”

Since that suggestion called for powers I lack, I checked the online catalog for the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, Kentucky, and found an interview with A. M. Allchin about Merton, in which Allchin says that Merton “was interested in R. S. Thomas and quite appreciated him.” Later in the interview, Allchin notes that by 1968 Merton “had this contact with R. S. Thomas and he got interested in the Welsh background in his own family tree.”

Where will RS next appear, just when I’m looking for someone else?

 

Quotes in this post:

“All loyalties have to pass through fire” – Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz (1997), 20.

“I had much less trouble,” “I definitely do not intend,” and “Got a very good letter” – Learning to Love: The Journals of Thomas Merton 1966-1967 (1998), 254, 255, 257.

Victor A. Kramer, “An Interview with Canon A. M. Allchin about Merton,” 245, 249.