“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.

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R S. Thomas: Condomless Sex with the Machine | Poems

RS Thomas on SexSometimes I read something in one of R. S. Thomas’s books and wonder: “Did RS really write that?” For example:

Is there a contraceptive
for the machine, that we may enjoy
intercourse with it without being overrun
by vocabulary?

When Thomas published those lines, in 1990, our internet world was a glimmer on the tech horizon. Yes, there were computers – he refers to them in several poems – but they were bulky and balky, and he never used one as far as I know.

Thomas, although he lived until 2000, could scarcely have imagined our world of email, iPhones, apps, Google, blogs, etc. Yet he coined a phrase, “being overrun by vocabulary,” that precisely encapsulates our world.

We are engaging in condomless sex with the machine – the internet world – and as a consequence are being overrun by vocabulary. E-mail words, text-message words, cell-phone words, voice-mail words. Sometimes we feel we’re a dam for the vocabulary streaming into us.

And sometimes we are literally run over by vocabulary. Almost daily there are reports of someone texting while crossing a busy street, being hit, occasionally killed.

To symbolize this world that he half-experienced, half-foresaw, Thomas uses The Machine.

Which stands for the industrial-technological-capitalistic-utilitarian-consumerist environment in which we live and move, communicate, and have our being.

Here is Thomas on what happened to villages when tending a machine in a factory began to pay better than tending cows on a farm:

        . . . The machine appeared
In the distance, singing to itself
Of money. Its song was the web
They were caught in, men and women
Together. The villages were as flies
To be sucked empty.

   God secreted
A tear. Enough, enough,
He commanded, but the machine
Looked at him and went on singing.

And former villagers picked up their pay packets, slouched off to pubs, clinked their pints, and joined the beery chorus.

Thomas poeticizes that they were better off back in the village, back on the farm, with a cup of strong tea.

Better off? Through the eyes of a Romantic, perhaps. And Thomas was part of the Romantic tradition that, beginning with William Blake, decried the “dark Satanic Mills” of the industrializing world.

Thomas romanticized life in remote Welsh villages and farms, saw it as being closer to the soil, which it was, praised those who endured this way of life, but often overlooked the fact that it was hardscrabble and cachu-smirched.

Thomas chose to live in small villages or in cottages standing almost alone, but he did not make his living in the soil, or on a fishing boat, or at a shop counter. His stipend as a parish priest came from church offices whose coffers were kept full, directly or indirectly, by the industrialized world.

An industrialized world in which Thomas, too, held citizenship. He drove a machine, talked on a machine, listened to opera broadcasts on a machine, typed final drafts of his poems on a machine, and depended upon a brigade of machines to advance his poetry into the world.

Did he imagine he was describing someone else when he wrote about “the smile / on the countenance of the machine / he was in adultery with”?

I don’t think so.

I think he understood his own extra-marital relationship with technological-utilitarian culture.

I think Thomas viewed the Transcendent Other as his true life-partner, so it was adulterous to go to bed with the machine.

Yet he found himself, as human beings do, with a commitment and an entanglement.

Can all this be translated into everyday prose? Yes, but doing so adulterates Thomas’s poetry.

Make the internet world your employee, not your employer.

Use technology, but do not bow down and worship it.

Do not have condomless sex with the machine.

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

“Is there a contraceptive” – “’The body is mine and the soul is mine,’” Counterpoint, 47.

“The machine appeared” – “Other,” H’m, 36.

“the smile” – untitled poem, Counterpoint, 52.