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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R. S. Thomas and Robert Frost: Before Mending a Wall . . . .

wallRobert Frost begins his poem “Mending Wall” with the observation: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Then he goes on to say that he and his neighbor picked a day for mending the dry stone wall between their properties, and as they worked, the neighbor kept repeating, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Frost is not so certain:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in and walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

The neighbor, on the other hand, is certain: His father had said, “Good fences make good neighbors,” and that is good enough for him – “He will not go behind his father’s saying.”

Churches tend to mimic Frost’s neighbor, declaring, “This is what we’ve always believed. It was good enough for the Church Fathers, so it’s good enough for us.”

They will not go behind their Fathers’ sayings, will not look open-eyed at whom or what they are walling in and walling out. No; their principal concern is keeping the old walls mended.

God, meanwhile, is the One who doesn’t love a wall, who wants it down, who undermines the walls that people build, often in God’s name.

For centuries, slave owners used the Bible to support the wall they erected to protect the institution of slavery. God used the Abolitionists, who worked with a loving-God reading of the Bible, to undermine that wall.

For centuries, men used the Bible to keep women subservient, to ban them from church pulpits and altars, to keep them subjected to men in society. God used Feminists, who worked with a loving-God reading of the Bible, to gain full equality for women in church and society.

R.S. Thomas carted a wall with him when he went to Manafon, his first parish. This wall enclosed him as a town-bred, educated, ordained man. It walled out parishioners as uncouth, stinky, spiritually numb. But as he ministered among these hill farmers and shepherds, God, the one who doesn’t love a wall, began an undermining action, and RS, in the poem that follows, asks himself about a man with “stinking garments” and “an aimless grin”:

Is there anything to show that your essential need
Is less than his, who has the world for church,
And stands bare-headed in the woods’ wide porch
Morning and evening to hear God’s choir
Scatter their praises?

Soon RS was seeing people like this man as his “prototypes,” as men and women who were themselves grounded, deeply rooted in the natural world, God’s creation, and therefore able to help ground him.

When, I wonder, will churches begin to see same-gender lovers as their prototypes? For it is certain that the loving care of gay men for their partners and friends dying of AIDS is a model of selfless love in our era.

Physician and poet Rafael Campo, who is gay, writes:

                                 . . . I saw the fence

I still believe invisibly
Might fence me out; . . .

In another poem, Campo says:

No knowledge is more powerful
Than knowing love, than knowing how
To love despite a world so full

Of the intent to hate. . . .

 

Poems quoted in this post:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” – “Mending Wall,” The Poetry of Robert Frost (1969), 33-34.

“Is there anything to show that your essential need” – “Affinity,” The Stones of the Field (1946), 20.

“I saw the fence” – “So in Love,” Rafael Campo, What the Body Told (1996), 3.

“No knowledge is more powerful” – “Defining Us,” Rafael Campo, What the Body Told (1996), 13.

I Shun the Claques Stamping Their Feet for Snow Encores

Photograph by Peter Tobia, 2014.

Photograph by Peter Tobia, 2014.

Stop it! I say. That’s enough! I’ve already seen too many of your performances!

The podiatrist’s receptionist just called and changed my appointment . . . again. Another two weeks to wait. My toes have scheduled a walk-out vote.

And as for your “thousandth time,” Rob Frost, hush up!

I’ve seen this white stuff more than a thousand times, it seems like, and I’m exhausted from answering “from within.”

Now, it’s from without that I answer, from my throat to the sky: Cut in out!

Does talking to snow, to the sky, make me feel better?

A little . . . but what I like is, it puts me in R. S. Thomas’s company:

It was always weather.
The reason of our being
was to record it, telling it
how it was hot, cold, wet
to the pointlessness of saturation.
. . . It repeated itself
in a way we were never tired
of listening to. ‘Do that again,’
we implored . . . .

Hold on, Ronald. So far, I’ve been with you. But this matter of asking weather to repeat itself. It’s done enough of that lately without being asked, snow upon snow, snow upon snow.

I’m sick and tired of it taking one curtain call after another.

You hold on, John, and continue reading: ‘Do that again,’ / we implored it on the morrow / of a fine day.

Sorry for jumping the gun, Ronald; I, too, clamour for fine-day encores.

***

In the “January” section of his book A Year in Llŷn, Thomas often mentions the weather:

It was raining as I was driving along the Clynnog road, but above my head the slopes were already beginning to whiten. The difference a few hundred feet make!

It was only in Manafon that I experienced all the difficulties of heavy snow. What if I had been born an Eskimo and had to learn forty different names for snow, because there was so much of it?

These days, it is rain, rain, rain. Weathermen love to promise storm after storm from the Atlantic, but they never say why. Looking back, they can explain how the path of the storms changed, but they cannot say why. The weather is one great mysterious machine which continues to produce periods of fair and foul weather, heat and cold; but it keeps its secret, just as the soul refuses to tell us how it becomes incarnate in the womb. We are not, and never shall be, all-knowing.

***

If you don’t know Robert Frost’s poem “Snow,” which I alluded to above, here are my favorite lines:

Things must expect to come in front of us
A many times—I don’t say just how many—
That varies with the things—before we see them.
One of the lies would make it out that nothing
Ever presents itself before us twice.
Where would we be at last if that were so?
Our very life depends on everything’s
Recurring till we answer from within.
The thousandth time may prove the charm.

(The Poetry of Robert Frost, 149-150)

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

“It was always weather” – “Meteorological,” No Truce with the Furies, 28.

Assorted “weather” quotes – Autobiographies, 114, 115, 117.