“Panoramas Are Not What They Used to Be” | A Memory of R.S. Thomas

claude lorrain

The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, Claude Lorrain, 1648

It’s been a heat-wave July, and I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to be looking at instead of the view from my study window. Getting up before dawn and going out to the rim of Bryce Canyon to wait for the rising sun to illuminate a hoodoo-accented panorama. Rolling over on my back in the Sea of Galilee and slowly turning my head from side to side to take in panoramic views of the hillsides.

Then I remember a letter from R. S. Thomas, in which he says: “The cruise we went on was not aimed at birds, so I didn’t see many. Mainly I had an overdose of scenery. As Wallace Stevens said: ‘Panoramas are not what they used to be’.”

That quote is the first line of “Botanist on Alp (No.1);” the second line is: “Claude has been dead a long time.” In fact, the French artist died in 1682, and the panoramas he painted now appear, to eyes brought up on Cézanne, emotionally sterile.

Back to R.S.’s overly panoramic cruise: He’s referring to an Alaskan cruise that he and Betty took – all, he claims, because “Betty still has an appetite for travel.”

Several months after R.S. wrote that he hadn’t seen many birds, Nancy and I had dinner with him and Betty. In the course of our conversation, he recalled that he had seen about thirty new species of birds on the cruise, including the bald eagle.

Always with Thomas there’s but . . . but . . . butting, which he makes no effort to hide. Indeed, he parades the contraries that are endemic in human nature.

So it’s not surprising that, in fact, Thomas continued to find certain panoramas what they used to be – Welsh panoramas that were close to home; preferably, just outside his door.

snowdon mountains

The Snowdon Mountains, Wales

In July of 1998, in a letter giving me his new address, he said:

After many delays we are in our cottage, still trying to impose order. I have lost sight of the sea although it is only some 3 or 4 miles away. This is the pick of Welsh mountain scenery. I can see Snowdon from just outside the cottage and other mountains are about us, though they do not pass the qualifying altitude of 3000 feet.

All of which convinces me that R.S. must have remembered the final stanza of the poem by Wallace Stevens:

The pillars are prostrate, the arches are haggard,
The hotel is boarded and bare.
Yet the panorama of despair
Cannot be the specialty
Of this ecstatic air.

Stevens’ use of “ecstatic” surely must have delighted Thomas. For he had written: Stevens’

       . . . adjectives
are the wand he waves
so language gets up
and dances under
a fastidious moon.

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

“adjectives / are the wand he waves” – “Homage to Wallace Stevens,” No Truce with the Furies, 62.