“The Bird’s Rainbow Is Above Us” | Poems of R.S. Thomas

RS Thomas Agnostic Believer

RS Thomas at Castell-y-Bere Wales with his field glasses

If only R. S. Thomas could have been standing beside me: He’d have identified them by their size, color, and shape.

All I knew was: Birds . . . . which a corn field seemed to be launching.

Groups of seven, ten, or more. Or only two or one. Eventually, several hundred had flown off, all moving, sometimes after correcting their course, in the same direction.

It had been an overcast morning, so when the sun came out, I decided to walk up the hill to where I can look over an expanse of mature corn. Usually, I take a minute to scan the parking lot across the road from the field, checking to see if there are any horse boxes, which means there are riders on the trail. But before I could check, I saw the corn stalks erupting with birds.

If Thomas had been there, would he have whispered this poem that he put into the bill of a blackbird:

which is not the case
with a man, our
bills give us no trouble.

My bills had been paid for the month, but I wondered what, if one of the birds had chanced to look down at me, he would have thought. Perhaps: “A tree in shorts and sandals.”

Thomas was a birder. Whenever Nancy and I were out walking with him, he carried his powerful field glasses. So it was natural for him to spy metaphors in birds and bird-behavior.

Three years before he died, Thomas published this poem about the hummingbird that never came:

We waited
breath held looks aimed
the garden as tempting
as ever. Was there a lack
of nectar within us?

God, too? We
are waiting. Is it
for the same reason
he delays? Sourness,
the intellect’s

dried-up comb? Dust
where there should be
pollen? Come, Lord;
though our heads hang
the bird’s rainbow is above us.

“The great quality of Thomas’s work,” comments Calvin Bedient, “is a passionate naturalness. He makes most other poets seem stale, stuck away in rooms. . . . He seems to enter each of his conceptions as if into a stream that has just sprung out of the ground before him.”

Thomas’s poetry is natural, yes, but its images, it metaphors, carry us into a realm that transcends the natural. A hummingbird’s failure to visit a garden helps us grasp why God doesn’t visit us. Our mind is, perhaps, like a desiccated honeycomb.

. . . though our heads hang
the bird’s rainbow is above us.

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

“Nevertheless,” – “Thirteen Blackbirds Look at a Man, Number 7” Later Poems 1972-1982, 175.

“We waited” – “The Hummingbird Never Came,” Uncollected Poems, 158.

The prose quotation is from Calvin Bedient’s book Eight Contemporary Poets (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), 53.

“Budding the Trees with Their Notes” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

RS Thomas at Castell-y-Bere Wales

RS Thomas at Castell-y-Bere Wales

A chorus of small birds musiced the sky.

R. S. Thomas lowered his powerful field-glasses and, turning to me, said, “It’s the first time I’ve heard those migrants this spring.”

It was May 5, 1993, and we were walking up to the ruins of Castell-y-Bere, with which Thomas had a tangy anti-English association.

The castle was Welsh, taken by the English in 1283, rebuilt for King Edward I, and retaken by Welsh insurgents in 1295.

Then destroyed . . . by the Welsh.

That destruction, I think, is one reason why Thomas was drawn to the site.

I imagine him hearing the Welsh insurgents saying, “We can’t keep you English lot out, but we’re not going to roll over and let you use our castle to keep us down.”

Back to the chorus ofsmall birds: With their morning anthem, they were “quietly repairing / The rents of history.”

Castell-y-Bere Wales

Castell-y-Bere Wales

Those small birds – who re-leafed / the trees” when they landed in their branches, and budded “them with their notes” – were heralds of nature’s old triumph over human madness.

The energy of life is still everywhere: Small birds continue to music the sky.

The quotes are from “For the Record,” Pietà, 22; “A Thicket in Lleyn,” Experimenting with an Amen, 45.