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.

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: 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.

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 – 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.

Churches: Stone Monsters Waiting to Spring – R.S. Thomas

Wells Cathedral, beautiful beast

December 7th is remembered in the United States as “a date which will live in infamy,” because roughly 2,400 persons died in that day’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

On August 6th, 1945, when an Armageddon weapon was dropped on Hiroshima, the total number of deaths was at least 25 times that number. But Americans don’t remember it as “a date which will live in infamy.”

Just as Christians often do not see the Church the way R. S. Thomas sometimes sees it:

   . . . the chapel crouches,
a stone monster,
waiting to spring, . . .

Some of today’s Christians see mosques as stone monsters crouching, waiting to spring. But they forget that their churches have been, and in many cases still are, stone monsters crouching, waiting to spring on God’s vast cornucopia of human beings.

Churches spring on historians, scientists, and literary scholars who raise questions about the Bible. They spring on people who decline to be processed by their salvation-machines. They spring on homosexual lovers who want to marry; on heterosexual lovers who do not want to marry. They spring on people of different skin colors who try to enter their sanctuaries.

The behaviors that caused Jesus to spring are, however, the very ones that many churches celebrate or at least tolerate.

Jesus tended to crouch and spring on the rich. But there were no Jesus-like protesters when the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, announced that it was going to spend $90 million to build a new sanctuary and make other improvements to church property.

I think RS would see that humongously expensive edifice as an example of over-furnishing the Christian faith:

We have over-furnished
our faith. Our churches
are as limousines in the procession
towards heaven.

Jesus cared for the last, the least, the lost. Many today who identify themselves as his followers complain about being forced to pay high taxes to care for those very persons.

Jesus said that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). The taking continues, the perishing continues. And there are persons who identify themselves as followers of Jesus who insist on their right to pack heat in the house of the Prince of Peace.

RS provides a picture of the message that churches should proclaim and embody:

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

 

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

“. . . the chapel crouches” – “A Land,” Welsh Airs (1987), 43.

“We have over-furnished” – “Not the empty tomb,” Counterpoint (1990), 37.

“It’s a long way off but inside it” – “The Kingdom,” H’m (1972). 34.

Poets and Politics: “Poetry Makes Nothing Happen”

I woke up in Wales on the day after America’s midterm elections in 1994, turned on the telly, and learned that there had been a Republican sweep.

Twenty years later, I woke up in Pennsylvania on the day after America’s midterm elections, turned on the television, and learned that there was a Republican wave.

After the 1994 Republican sweep, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich led impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. Twenty years later, Clinton is one of the most popular men in America, while Gingrich is a nattering bobble-head on TV.

How soon will Americans wave goodbye to the latest wave?

R.S. Thomas might shrug, remark that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and then get on with writing a poem – perhaps similar to the one he wrote in 1953, in which politicians try to energize voters “In the hill country at the moor’s edge” in North Wales.

They “came and spoke to them about Wales, / The land they lived in without knowing it.” “They mentioned Henry Richard and S. R. – the great names; / And Keir Hardie; the names nobody knew.”

Thanks to Tony Brown, co-director of the R. S. Thomas Study Centre at Bangor University, Henry Richard can be identified as a nineteenth-century Liberal, who became Member of Parliament for Merthyr, a coal and iron town north of Cardiff. S. R. was Samuel Roberts, a Nonconformist writer and radical. Keir Hardie was the first Labour MP for Merthyr. All names to conjure with in their political heyday. But . . .

. . . and here RS gets to his point:

It was quite exciting, but in the high marginal land
No names last longer than the wind
And the rain let them on the cold tombstone.

Poets may not make anything happen . . . except for voicing the reminder that the “names” that are riding a wave today will be lost eventually in the depths of oblivion. While the words of such poets as R. S. Thomas and W. H. Auden will continue to buoy up the human spirit generation after generation.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise
.

 

Poems quoted in this post:

“poetry makes nothing happen” – “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” W. H. Auden, Another Time (1940), 98.

“In the hill country” and following quotes – “The Minister,” Collected Poems, 1945-1990 (1993), 42, 51.

“Follow, poet, follow right” – “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden, Another Time, 99-100.

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.