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.

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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.