“The Motorist Goes By Insolently Wagging His Speedometer’s Finger” | Poems of R.S. Thomas

"The Machine" in which the author's webmaster came home from the hospital, 1967.

“The Machine” in which the author’s webmaster came home from the hospital, 1967.

Yes, another sighting of R. S. Thomas on a bag of Tyrrells crisps. Perhaps he’ll gain more readers?

Tyrrells more nibblers? I know I’ll be on the lookout for Tyrrells crisps – probably not the sweet chili and red pepper ones – when I’m in England and Wales in May.

But it’s what’s behind the photo of R.S. that interests me today: an old car.

When I was a kid, many people referred to their car as “the machine.”

The Machine, for Thomas, is a synechdoche for everything that separates us from our natural environment, everything that rips us out of intimate contact with animate and inanimate nature.

…………………… . . . Consumers
of distance at vast cost
what do they know of the green
twig . . . ?

Before you growl about “synechdoche,” let me note that it involves using a part of something to stand for the whole. “Fifty sail” for “fifty ships.” “White House” to indicate the President and his (her) administration. “The Machine” for our mechanized world and its insistence that it is speeding us toward nirvana.

Key opposites in Thomas’s worldview are the farmer in the field and the driver in the car:

…….  . . . the motorist goes by insolently
wagging his speedometer’s finger.

My hearty thanks to susanriverside for reminding me of those lines, and then, when I couldn’t find them, identifying the poem; see her comment on my February 2nd post.

Back to Thomas’s key opposites: the natural world and the machine. “[W]hat else but the land,” Thomas asks, “Can make men eternally new?”

In “Once,” the first man and woman, “Confederates of the natural day, . . went forth to meet the Machine.” The Machine was in their future from the moment that Homo sapiens tasted the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:1-7).

In “This One,” people of the Machine-world gorge

………………………… . . . themselves
On a dream; kindling
A new truth, withering by it.

While “this poor farmer”

 ………. . . . Ploughing under the tall boughs
Of the tree of the knowledge of
Good and evil, watching its fruit
Ripen, abstaining from it.

Thomas was part of the Romantic Movement that urged abstinence from the fruit of industrialism’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Romantics shuddered at the sight of Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills,” preferring Wordsworth’s “crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils.”

The preference for daffodils seems to be losing:

……………….. . . . The nucleus
In the atom awaits
Our bidding. Come forth,
We cry, and the dust spreads
Its carpet. Over the creeds
And masterpieces our wheels go.

But the Machine, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, may be boasting too soon: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Thomas, in one of his poems, has God ask humans:

…………………… . . . Where will [the Machine]
Take you from the invisible
Viruses, the personnel
Of the darkness that do my will?

No matter how many pharmaceuticals spew from machines – “Production, / Production, the wheels // Whistled” – it still takes the six days of creation to get rid of the common cold.

And viruses gather at their resorts to discuss papers that will keep them ahead of the chemists.

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

“Consumers of distance” – “This One,” Experimenting with an Amen, 58.

“the motorist goes by insolently” – “Come Down,” Mass for Hard Times, 39.

“what else but the land” – “The Peasant,” Uncollected Poems, 33.

“Confederates of the natural day” – “Once,” H’m, 1.

“themselves on a dream” – “This One,” H’m, 3 – note that RST sometimes uses the same title for different poems.

“The nucleus in the atom” – “No Answer,” H’m, 7.

“I listened to you too long” – “Soliloquy,” H’m, 30.

“Production, Production” – “Postscript,” H’m, 22.

You Can Grow Rich Just by Looking at Nature | Poems of R.S. Thomas

R. S. Thomas clicks for us a photograph of “A Day in Autumn”:

It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up
From the day’s chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.

walesThomas’s nature poems reveal a man who was always finding something under the open sky to wear against his heart in the long cold of modern life.

Writing autobiographically, he remembers that “he was on the whole a happy boy,” and it “was the countryside that made him so.”

Even though his mother was anxious, overprotective, he was free to roam the countryside around his boyhood home in Holyhead “from earliest morning to sunset. He would gather flowers in the spring and mushrooms in the autumn. He would climb the rocks and cliffs, gazing long at the sea and listening to the sound of the waves in caves.”

Idyllic.

Yet Thomas the boy must have been aware of the Janus-faced nature of mushrooms: One way they face, they are life; the other way, death.

Later, Thomas the seer linked mushrooms and clouds:

Gathering mushrooms by the light of the moon. . . . The clouds towered. Their shape was prophetic, but there were no prophets.

Whether or not there are prophets to see into it, nature’s womb contains embryos of mushroom soup and mushroom clouds, a two-sidedness for which Thomas’s key metaphor is the sea.

The sea . . .

is both a mirror and a window. In the mirror is to be seen all the beauty and glory of creation: the colours and images of the clouds, with the birds going past on their eternal journey. But on using it as a window, an endless war is to be seen, one creature mercilessly and continuously devouring another.

Before I say more about the problem posed for Thomas’s mind by nature’s two faces, let me quote a poem in which he tells us how to escape the pestilent:

The swifts winnow the air.
It is pleasant at the end of the day
To watch them. I have shut the mind
On fools. The phone’s frenzy
Is over. There is only the swifts’
Restlessness in the sky
And their shrill squealing.

                       Sometimes they glide,
Or rip the silk of the wind
In passing. Unseen ribbons
Are trailing upon the air. . . .

That poem is another photograph to wear against the heart in the long cold of the mind’s ruminations – the age-old ponderings of homo sapiens.

“To a thinking person,” Thomas writes, “there are two aspects of the sea, the external and the internal. Or, if you like, it is both a mirror and a window.” In the sea’s mirror, we see blue skies, green trees, and migrating birds. But under “the deceptively innocent surface there are thousands of horrors, as if they were the creator’s failed experiments. And through the seaweed, as if through a forest, the seals and the cormorants and the mackerel hunt like rapacious wolves.”

All of which forces Thomas the believer in God, Thomas the priest ministering in a seaside parish, Thomas the twentieth-century thinker, to question: “What kind of God created such a world? A God of love?”

I plan to consider Thomas the doubting-believer in God in my next blog.

For now, here’s Thomas the man at the small window:

In Wales there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only. A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn; in one day
You can witness the extent
Of the spectrum and grow rich

With looking. . . .

Thomas’s eyes took in the riches of nature.

But he recognized that all wealth is Janus-faced. In Thomas’s thought-world, nature’s beauty is hyphenated with ugliness, nature’s goodness with cruelty.

He was, in short, a doubting-believer in nature, as he was a doubting-believer in himself, a doubting-believer in other persons, and a doubting-believer in God.

Poetry and prose of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“It will not always be like this” – “A Day in Autumn,” Poetry for Supper, 18.

“he was on the whole a happy boy” – from “No-One,” Autobiographies, 31.

“Gathering mushrooms by the light of the moon” – untitled prose paragraph, The Echoes Return Slow, 10.

“is both a mirror and a window” – from “No-One,” Autobiographies, 78.

“The swifts winnow the air” – “Swifts,” Pietà, 9.

“What kind of God created such a world?” – from “No-One,” Autobiographies, 78.

“In Wales there are jewels” – “The Small Window,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 38.

How R.S. Thomas’s Poems Got ‘Started’

rst“As I go through my day,” R. S. Thomas writes, “at my desk, in my contact with others, or out in the world of nature, I see something, begin to turn it over in my mind, and decide that it has poetic possibilities.”

The ‘starter’ for the following poem is, I think, an evening when Thomas, the parish priest, visited a parishioner and listened to her talk about her son who now knew the reason for the roaring in his veins:

At nine o’clock in the morning
My son said to me:
Mother, he said, from the wet streets
The clouds are removed and the sun walks
Without shoes on the warm pavements.
There are girls biddable at the corners
With teeth cleaner than your white plates
The sharp clatter of your dishes
Is less pleasant to me than their laughter.
The day is building; before its bright walls
Fall in dust, let me go
Beyond the front garden without you
To find glasses unstained by tears, . . .

For me, the mother is a widow living with her only son in a cottage on a remote farm. Thomas has walked up the path to call on her, and nodded attentively, over a cup of tea, to her grumbling about her son and those – perhaps “sluts” – down in the village.

Every pastor has listened to both the son and the mother. Every pastor empathizes with each of them, for they are doing what comes naturally. But only one pastor has brought this common experience to poetry, writing:

           . . . from the wet streets
The clouds are removed and the sun walks
Without shoes on the warm pavements.

Thomas chose words and rhythms to keep the experience fresh; words and rhythms that recreate it for each new reader.

Here’s the full quote with which I began:

As I go through my day at my desk, Thomas writes, in my contact with others, or out in the world of nature, I see something, begin to turn in over in my mind, and decide that it has poetic possibilities. The main concern now will be not to kill it; not to make it common, prosaic, uninteresting. If it bores me in the telling, it will surely bore the public in the reading. I must choose words and rhythms which will keep it fresh and have the power to recreate the experience in all its original intensity for each new reader. But in this very process the experience is changed, and will continue to be changed as each new reader apprehends it.

R. S. Thomas quotes used in this blog:

“As I go through my day” – “Words and the Poet,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 65.

“At nine o’clock in the morning” – “Mother and Son,” Tares, 37.

“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:

Nevertheless,
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.

“God Is a Young God” | Poems of R.S. Thomas

R.S. Thomas’ “The Chapel of the Spirit” at Maes-yr-Onnen

R.S. Thomas’ “The Chapel of the Spirit” at Maes-yr-Onnen, overlooking the river Wye

R. S. Thomas liked-human built churches that seem to be pushing up out of the ground as naturally as a rock formation.

Although he never visited the adobe church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico, I think he would have liked Georgia O’Keefe’s painting of it. For the church appears to be rising from the desert soil – the soil that is the basic ingredient of the mud-bricks and mud-plaster used by its builders.

Two of Thomas’s favorite Welsh chapels, Maes-yr-Onnen and Soar-y-Mynydd, are constructed with stones gathered from nearby fields and mountains, and they nestle into their settings as integral parts of the landscape.

Thomas tells us that he visited both chapels during the summer of 1947, attracted by their “lonely wild romantic settings.” Each chapel, by the time he wrote an article about them the next year, had taken on a symbolic significance.

R.S. Thomas’ “The Chapel of the Spirit” at Maes-yr-Onnen

R.S. Thomas’ “The Chapel of the Spirit” at Maes-yr-Onnen, from the cemetery

In his brief piece titled “Two Chapels,” Thomas calls Maes-yr-Onnen “The Chapel of the Spirit” and Soar-y-Mynydd “The Chapel of the Soul.” I’ll save the latter for another blog; for now, “The Chapel of the Spirit.”

“I went [to Maes-yr-Onnen],” Thomas tells us, “on a sunny morning in August with the East wind chasing the clouds across the blue sky. . . . The chapel stood in the fields, amidst the waving grass, its roof covered with a layer of yellow lichen. There were tall nettles growing around and at its side there swayed a big old tree like someone leaning forward to listen to the sermon.”

Thomas translated that prose into this poem:

Though I describe it stone by stone, the chapel
Left stranded in the hurrying grass,
Painting faithfully the mossed tiles and the tree,
The one listener to the long homily
Of the ministering wind, and the dry, locked doors,
And the stale piety, mouldering within;
You cannot share with me the rarer air,
Blue as a flower . . . .

Because no one was there to unlock the door, Thomas stretched himself out on the grass and “had a vision, in which [he] could comprehend the breadth and length and depth and height of the mystery of creation.”

“It might have been the first day of Creation,” he continues, “and myself one of the first men. Might have been? No it was the first day. The world was recreated before my eyes. The dew of its creation was on everything, and I fell to my knees and praised God – a young man worshiping a young God, for surely that is what our God is.”

Centuries of Christian art and theology have left us with an old-god image of God – white-haired, long-bearded, the Ancient of Days. If a color were to be assigned to this God, it would be gray. Green, however, is the color of Thomas’s young God, the God of Springtime, the God of re-emerging life.

In the section of Thomas’s poem that we looked at above, the poet tells us we cannot share with him the “rarer air / Blue as a flower” of his visit to Maes-yr-Onnen. At the poem’s end, he writes:

You cannot hear as I, incredulous, heard
Up in the rafters, where the bell should ring,
The wild, sweet singing of Rhiannon’s birds.

To search the web for Rhiannon’s birds is to discover what Thomas experienced at Maes-yr-Onnen “on a sunny morning in August.”

The hymning of Rhiannon’s birds suspends time. Their “wild, sweet singing” opens a window in the mundane through which rays of eternity flow.

When R. S. Thomas heard Rhiannon’s choir, he experienced a dream-vision, in which he received the revelation that “God is a young God: the God of the fresh Spring.”

Like Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Thomas could say: “I felt / The universe feel Love.”

Quotes used in this blog:

The prose quotes are from “Two Chapels,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 36-40.

“Though I describe it stone by stone, the chapel” – “Maes-yr-Onnen,” An Acre of Land, 10.

“I felt / The universe feel Love” – Dante, The Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James, 60.

“I Am Guilty of the Love of Created Things” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

R.S. Thomas Porth Llechog, Ynys Mon

Cliffs near the Bull Bay Hotel, Porth Llechog, Ynys Mon

R. S. Thomas said a host of self-revealing things on a November afternoon – the sort of afternoon that Melville’s Ishmael calls “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.”

An electric fire pushed back the chill in the residents’ lounge of the Bull Bay Hotel, allowing Thomas to make a frosty comment about mysticism, “I don’t take to it at all,” and a warm comment about sacramentalism, “I am guilty of the love of created things.”

Cliffs near the Bull Bay Hotel, Porth Llechog, Ynys Mon R.S. Thomas

Cliffs near the Bull Bay Hotel, Porth Llechog, Ynys Mon

The mystic desires to bracket out the realm of created things, and, as a fleshless spirit, to experience unity with God.

Thomas, on the other hand, discerned God revealing the divine Self in and through created things; in particular, the beauties of nature, but also human creations.

Roughly twenty-four hours before Thomas’s comment about being “guilty of the love of created things,” he took my wife and me on a tour of places associated with his university days, then stopped at Beaumaris, where we could see the setting sun illuminating the autumn colors on the opposite shore of the Menai Strait.

I could hear Thomas saying:

Like a painting it is set before one,
But less brittle, ageless; these colours
Are renewed daily with variations
Of light and distance that no painter
Achieves or suggests. . . .
. . . All through history
The great brush has not rested,
Nor the paint dried; . . .

Cliffs near the Bull Bay Hotel, Porth Llechog, Ynys Mon R.S. Thomas

Cliffs near the Bull Bay Hotel, Porth Llechog, Ynys Mon

Thomas speaks well-chosen words over created things, such as landscapes, and they become sacramental.

Here’s what I mean: In the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist, liturgical words are spoken over bread and wine, and these material things become for communicants the God-given food of everlasting life.

Some of Thomas’s poems are like liturgies. So when their words are spoken and heard, created things, such as weeds, stones, the surgeon’s hand, birds, moors, and the chain-saw, become God addressing us “from a myriad / directions with the fluency / of water, the articulateness / of green leaves.”

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

“The View from the Window” – Poetry for Supper, 27.

“from a myriad” – “Suddenly,” Later Poems, 201; the chain-saw, the surgeon’s hand, weeds, and stones are found in this poem; I added birds and moors from other poems by Thomas.

R.S. Thomas: Guide to the Border Between Welshness and Englishness

Cader Idris in Snowdonia National Park, Wales

Cader Idris in Snowdonia National Park, Wales

The small bus reeked of hot brakes – all the fault of our tour guide: R. S. Thomas.

Ten of us hired a driver and a small bus for touring England and Wales. Thomas joined us when we arrived in Wales, and sat by the driver to give him directions.

Unclouded sunshine brought out the natural beauty of Wales, as R. S. led us along Tal-y-llyn, a lake from whose shore we had a clear view of Cader Idris, which means “chair of Idris,” a giant variously celebrated by the Welsh bards as warrior, poet, and astronomer. According to tradition, anyone sleeping for a night in the chair of Idris wakes up as a poet or a madman. But no one knows the precise throne-like stone that is Idris’s chair.

We drove on to Dolgellau, where Thomas told the driver to turn onto a one-track road. Before long, he realized that he’d picked the wrong turning. So back to Dolgellau, where he asked for directions, which took us to another single-track road that was blocked again and again by gates to keep sheep from straying.

Soon the road plunged downward, and we began to smell overheating brakes. The road flattened just before we reached Penmaenpool on the river Mawddach, where Thomas announced we’d eat lunch at the George III Hotel.

The George the III Hotel in Penmaenpool, Wales

The George the III Hotel in Penmaenpool, Wales

Surely, R.S. grinned inwardly: A Welshman taking ten Americans to an inn named for the English king that Americans love to hate. And the Welsh, too, are not overly fond of English monarchs. Yet Thomas, self-crowned arbiter of pure Welshness, received the English Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.

R.S. treated me to a pint of bitter in the pub; then each of us had steak and kidney pie with chips and peas, which is quintessential English pub fare.

No one knows precisely where R. S. Thomas lives in the borders between Welshness and Englishness.