“My Balance of Joy in a World That Has Gone off Joy’s Standard” | The Poems of R.S. Thomas

RS Thomas Welsh poet May 1993 1993

R.S. Thomas at the Maybank Hotel, Aberdyfi, Cymru, May 1993.

I spent last weekend in Princeton, New Jersey, and each time I walked past the memorial to Einstein and the Center of Theological Inquiry, I was reminded that Princeton is one of the “towns / Where the soul added depth to its stature.”

The sidewalks formicated – one of R. S. Thomas’s words – with hand-in-hand collegians, enfleshing joie de vivre, their minds firing powerfully like the Audis, Mercedes, and BMWs on Nassau Street. And as I watched them, I projected their futures: novelist, finder of a cure for AIDS, small business consultant, Supreme Court justice, art museum curator, family doctor, playwright, engineer for desalination plants, teacher, . . .

But a voice sounds in my ear: “Why so fast, John? You’re romanticizing those students. Don’t you remember my prayer for my son?”

What shall I say of my boy,
Tall, fair? He is young yet;
Keep his feet free of the world’s net.

Yes, RS, I remember your prayer; in fact, I thought about it the other day when I read some rhyming couplets in a new poem-novel by David Rakoff. The lines are spoken by Susan, who in college joined the chorus denouncing greed, but who now carols her life in “the world’s net”:

She’d no longer be tarred by the words “shame” or “greed,”
Tossed about by the weak. No, now Susan was freed!
If she wanted to spend half the whole day adorning
Herself, well what of it? The American Morning
Had dawned! At Oberlin stuff she’d feigned being above,
Had turned into all that she most dearly loved.

I acknowledge, RS, that some of the students I saw on the Princeton sidewalks will go the way of Susan, whose post-college stomach was turned by the “frailer aspects of the human condition.” But the Princetonians are so joyful, so vigorous, so . . . .


Of course, and fair.

“You’re still in your romantic mood, John. Here’s my vision of their future:

               . . . I am eyes
Merely, . . .
. . . seeing the young born
Fair, knowing the cancer
Awaits them. . . .

Your realism in those lines is the sovereign antidote for my romanticism, RS, and you say something similar, although in a different key, in your poem “A Marriage”:

We met
…… under a shower
of bird-notes.
…… Fifty years passed,
love’s moment
…… in a world in
servitude to time.
…… She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
…… closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
…… ‘Come’ said death,
choosing her as his
…… partner for
the last dance. . . .

I think, RS, that I’ll call you a realist but a romantic, too. In fact, there are times, rare ones to be sure, when I see you as a young romantic, perhaps on the Princeton campus:

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 recognized
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. . . .

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

“towns / Where the soul” – “The Letter,” Poetry for Supper, 26.

“But a voice sounds” – “The Moon in Lleyn,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 30.

“What shall I say of my boy” – “Ap Huw’s Testament,” Poetry for Supper, 29.

“She’d no longer be tarred” – David Rakoff, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (New York: Doubleday, 2013), 67.

“I am eyes” – “Petition,” H’m, 2.

“We met” – “A Marriage,” Mass for Hard Times, 74.

“My luminary” – “Luminary,” Uncollected Poems, 169.