Pilgrims of Truth – R.S. Thomas

We live in a Googlesque world where facts are assumed to be the same thing as truth.

Don’t minute-by-minute updates on what’s going on in our world give us the truth? No. All they do is tell us what’s happening right now. Truth, on the other hand, is “the daughter of time.”

We must wait for the clouded waters of the present to clear . . . then truth, or some portion of truth, may be discerned.

For example, we glimpse the truth of what’s happening today in Iraq only when we take time to understand hundreds of years of that country’s history; only when we have become pilgrims of truth.

A number of R. S. Thomas’s poems introduce us to this pilgrimage. Here are two lines:

The truth is Pilate not
lingering for an answer.

RS is alluding to the biblical moment when Pilate asks Jesus, “So you are a king?” To which Jesus responds: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate asks, “What is truth?” Then, without “lingering for an answer,” Pilate goes out to the crowd clamoring for him to deal . . . immediately . . . summarily . . . murderously . . . with Jesus (John 18:37-38)

Many people are like Pilate: They do not linger . . . for the truth of Jesus.

This lecturer on atheism tells them that Jesus is a charlatan miracle-worker, so they grab and run with that answer.

This pastor uses the Bible to pound home the doctrine that Jesus is half-human, half-divine, and they rush out to tell others that they know the whole truth of Jesus.

They don’t. For the truth of Jesus is too mysterious to be known with perfect clarity, with complete understanding, by anyone.

It is a mysterious truth that opens for us, perhaps once in a lifetime. Referring to an ancient Welsh pilgrimage island, RS says:

I would still go there
if only to await
the once-in-a-lifetime
opening of truth’s flower; . . .

We live in an information-cluttered world, and I have no inclination to opt out. I tune in to cable news, Google for facts. Whereas back in the day, I trolled my bookshelves or drove to a library to find the information fragments that today I obtain with a few mouse clicks.

But pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of God, pilgrims of Jesus, switch off their electronic devices. Pilgrims of truth pack light with regard to information, dwell deep in silence. “From bottomless fathoms they dredge up the truth.”

They tiptoe, as they seek what Wordsworth calls “central peace, subsisting at the heart / Of endless agitation.” They “whisper,” in RS’s words, “like one coming / on the truth asleep / and fearing to disturb it.”

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

“the daughter of time” – Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

“The truth is Pilate not” – “The Nativity? No.” Counterpoint (1990), 29.

“I would still go there” – “Island,” No Truce with the Furies (1995), 79.

“from bottomless fathoms” – “Fathoms,” No Truce with the Furies (1995), 10.

They “whisper” – “Pen Llŷn,” Mass for Hard Times (1992), 72.

When a Poet Says “I” — R.S. Thomas and the Prostituée Parisienne

When Liam Neeson plays the role on Broadway of a man broken in body, mind, and spirit by hard-labor imprisonment after being tried and convicted for the ‘crime’ of loving men, we do not say that Liam Neeson is gay. We say Liam Neeson is playing Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss.

So why, when poets say “I” in a poem, do we assume they are telling us something true about themselves? Perhaps they’re playing a role on the stage of poetry. Perhaps they’re imagining what it’s like to be another person. Even a man looking into the eyes of a beautiful woman at a café in Paris.

R. S. Thomas published a poem titled “Chat” in Poetry Wales in 1971. When I first read it, in 2013, I wondered what subscribers to Poetry Wales thought about it four decades earlier. Did they stop to ask, “Is RS the priest telling us about his one-nighter in Paris? Or is he role-playing?”

If they knew RS, as I learned to know him in the 1990s, they recognized that this often austere man had an appreciative eye for feminine beauty. But that does not mean that RS is the man in “Chat” who is dining alone in Paris with a soignée woman:

What’s that you say?
No never. Well, just once . . .
Oh, in Paris or somewhere.
She was so pretty. Imagine
Yourself in an hotel
Dining-room; the tables engaged
All save yours. There comes in
A woman, young, soignée;
Looks around, summons the head
Waiter. They confer. He approaches:
Would Monsieur? I arise;
She is seated. Slowly the conversation
Develops. She is well-informed.
I incline; would she allow?
Good. Waiter, some more
Claret. Over the glass
Rim a momentary fencing
Of eyes. . . .

“Is Mademoiselle engaged for the evening?” the poem’s “I” asks. Non. They leave the hotel, walk, the young woman indicating the way. “In the spring gardens / All the birds of the city / In song.”

Then the streets narrow, the buildings change. “There is no / Birdsong now; my rhymes / Falter.” A door at the end of an alley. Baudelaire remembered. The “laughter of the whores / Of Paris.”

     . . . What was that
That you said? Well, yes,
I was taken in, I suppose.

Taken in through the door? Taken in by the Prostituée Parisienne, but before going through the door, bidding her Adieu?

Is RS taking us in?

The answer to all these questions is: “We, the readers, must decide for ourselves.”

The poet has written the poem; now it is ours to interpret . . . or to let it interpret us.

 

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

“What’s that you say?” – “Chat,” R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems (edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies, 2013), 83-84.

R.S. Thomas on Mice: How They Are Like the Worrying Mind

artI’ve been thinking about mice lately, ever since they came up in conversation at 5 o’clock drinks.

Once, as I told the group, when a mouse careered through the kitchen, my mother de-materialized on the kitchen flood and re-materialized instantly on the breakfast table.

Why all this fuss – jumping up on tables and such like – about a creature so small that it could cuddle up in your pocket?

And it’s not as if we ourselves hadn’t created the problem. We plowed up their homes, so why shouldn’t they feel entitled to move into ours?

It’s their teeth, of course, that get to us, their teeth and their untidy toilet habits. But R. S. Thomas centers his attention on their teeth.

That’s one of the things that poets do for us: They show us metaphors in things as small as the tooth of a mouse.

We see the teeth of mice as something we hope will bite into the smidgeon of cheese we used to bait our trap. RS sees them as . . . well, here’s his poem:

I am an impressed
audience. Their whiskers
are finer than the strings
of a violin. They turn over
the pages of an unseen
score. They have teeth,
too, smaller than rice
with which they gnaw
and gnaw, as the mind gnaws
at the truth. I lie awake
listening to them, asking
myself would I come
at the truth, coming later
where they have been
at work? A rodent
is a tireless reminder
to the mind worrying away
that the end of such performance
is to bring the house down.

RS begins his poem by fantasizing about a string quartet of mice, sitting on a concert hall’s stage, their whiskers serving as the strings of their instruments. I’m impressed, he tells us. Aren’t you?

The poet snaps us back to reality: the teeth of mice – they’re tiny but capable of gnawing into a box of Cheerios and stealing our breakfast.

Then RS compares the gnawing of mice to the mind’s gnawing at the truth. Worrying about what is the amount of truth in the boss’ statement that the job is secure. Worrying about the line between fact and fiction in the reason the teenager just gave for being so late getting home. Worrying about the doctor’s slight frown when saying there was nothing to worry about in the test results.

Gnaw . . . gnaw . . . gnaw.

And snap . . . goes RS’s conclusion: The house in which we live our physical lives can be brought down by mice. The house in which we live our mental lives can be brought down by worry. Just as any great performance can bring down the house

 

R. S. Thomas poem quoted in this post:

“I am an impressed” – “Bestiary: Mice,” No Truce with the Furies (1995), 68.

Packing A Welsh Poet In My Bag For My Upcoming Trip to Wales

RS Thomas on SexTwenty thousand saints are said to be buried on Bardsey Island, all 445 acres of it. So to take the bones of saints to Bardsey would be like rounding up more politicians and lobbyists for Washington.

Excessive, to say the least . . . certainly un-called-for . . . a fool’s errand.

No matter.

I’m packing a Welsh poet in my bag for my upcoming trip to Wales, which will include, if weather permits, a boat trip to Bardsey. The island lies off the coast of Aberdaron, R. S. Thomas’s last parish.

I’ll take Thomas out of my bag in Aberdaron on May 28th, but he’ll come out, first, the previous weekend at Gladstone’s Library at Hawarden, also in Wales.

The story is this: I may be the only American parish minister who developed a personal relationship with Thomas, visiting him in 1992, 1993, and 1994, and corresponding with him from 1991 until his death, in 2000. Indeed, I may be the only American, no matter of what vocation, who learned to know him – I welcome comments proving me wrong.

My book A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R. S. Thomas and His Poetry was published in 2013, during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. That publication has led to my forthcoming speaking opportunities in Wales.

An American whose tongue does back flips when trying to pronounce simple Welsh words, carrying the preeminent poet of Welshness to Wales; the preeminent twentieth-century poet of God, too.

And that, if anything, justifies the packing of nine talks about Thomas and his poetry in my bag. Like RS, I’m an ordained minister; like him, I was a parish minister for forty years; like him, I’m a doubting-believer. Unlike him, I’m an American. Unlike him, I don’t write poetry. Well, an occasional limerick. So if there’s an acceptable reason for me to speak about RS and his poems, it lies in the way our similarities and dissimilarities afford me a distinctive perspective on his doubt and his belief.

These links will take you to what I’m doing at Gladstone’s Library and Aberdaron:

http://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/calendar/rsthomas-masterwork-doubting-belief.html

http://www.st-hywyn.org.uk/events.html

Who knows what’ll happen. Perhaps I’ll be pelted with leeks. Expect a report in June.

Best R.S. Thomas Poems About People | “Lore”

Peasant digging, Vincent van Gogh, 1882

Peasant digging, Vincent van Gogh, 1882

R. S. Thomas, as far as I know, never had second thoughts about the things he said about English tourists in Wales. Indeed, it’s unlikely that he ever repainted his picture of them as roughshod hikers over the Welsh people and their language.

Thomas did, however, think again about the “peasants” he found on the hill farms around Manafon, his parish from 1942 to 1954. At first sniff, their “clothes, sour with years of sweat / And animal contact,” shocked his “refined / But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.” Later, that comment struck him as sniffy.

For the “peasants” had something Thomas lacked – the natural world’s ability to survive: “Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.” What had he, a town boy accustomed to “the musty sandwiches / in the library,” to contribute to their lives?

Ransack your brainbox, pull out the drawers
That rot in your heart’s dust, and what have you to give
To enrich his spirit or the way he lives?
From the standpoint of education or caste or creed
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 heard God’s choir
Scatter their praises? Don’t be taken in
By stinking garments . . . .

One of Thomas’s best poems about a survivor is “Lore” (Job’s surname is pronounced Dā’ vis):

Job Davies, eighty-five
Winters old, and still alive
After the slow poison
And treachery of the seasons.

Miserable? Kick my arse!
It needs more than the rain’s hearse
Wind-drawn, to pull me off
The great perch of my laugh.

What’s living but courage?
Paunch full of hot porridge,
Nerves strengthened with tea,
Peat-black, dawn found me

Mowing where the grass grew,
Bearded with golden dew.
Rhythm of the long scythe
Kept this tall frame lithe.

What to do? Stay green.
Never mind the machine,
Whose fuel is human souls.
Live large, man, and dream small.

Thomas’s lines are cut off as if by the swishing of Job’s scythe. Tied together by ropes of rhyming words. All in imitation of nature’s endings, beginnings, continuities, endurances.

Some months ago, I listened to a retired bishop, the writer of many books, describe his typical day. He uses a home treadmill for exercise, which allows him to read while running and to avoid weather’s vagaries and the distractions of meeting people and noticing birds, trees, and clouds. While cooking dinner, he listens to a book, thereby, I assume, occluding any fascination with the beautiful fish he’s preparing as broiled salmon, any meditation on the soil that produced the broccoli, any consideration of the poorly paid, uninsured workers who picked the strawberries he’s serving for dessert.

If the bishop had read “Lore,” it had not taken root in him: “Stay green. / Never mind the machine, / Whose fuel is human souls.”

The bishop’s Master once said: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil or spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-29).

 

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

“clothes, sour with sweat” and “Enduring like a tree” – “A Peasant,” The Stones of the Field (1946), 14.

“the musty sandwiches” – “He rationed his intake,” The Echoes Return Slow (1988), 15.

“Ransack your brainbox” – “Affinity,” The Stones of the Field (1946), 20.

“Job Davies, eighty-five” – “Lore,” Tares (1961), 35.

R.S. Thomas’s Wife: A Thorn Bird

Elsi and R.S. Thomas

Elsi and R.S. Thomas, around 1940, from “R.S. Thomas: Writers of Wales” by Tony Brown

A bestselling book turned into a television mini-series: not an uncommon phenomenon. But a bright star in that firmament is Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, which was published in 1977 – the TV version ran in March of 1983.

The date 1977 makes it possible, just barely, that R. S. Thomas had read McCullough’s book or a review of it before he wrote “The Way of It,” which, too, was published that year. Or he may simply have known the thorn-bird legend.

“There is a legend,” in McCullough’s words, “about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale.”

Thomas, describing his wife Elsi, says:

. . . If there are thorns
in my life, it is she who
will press her breast to them and sing.

Some of Elsi’s sketches of R.S. portray a beak-nosed, sharp-eyed man with furious feathers of hair, as if she had pressed her breast to thorns in his life and her pencil began to sing.

R.S. launches his poem with this tribute to Elsi’s artistic talent:

With her fingers she turns paint
into flowers, with her body
flowers into a remembrance
of herself. She is at work
always, mending the garment
or our marriage, foraging
like a bird for something
for us to eat. If there are thorns
in my life, it is she who
will press her breast to them and sing.

Her words, when she would scold,
are too sharp. She is busy
after for hours rubbing smiles
into the wounds. . . .

In recent blogs, I quoted what Thomas said, a year before his death, to an interviewer: “I don’t think I’m a very loving person. I wasn’t brought up in a loving home – my mother was afraid of emotion – and you tend to carry on in the same way don’t you?”

Perhaps R.S. was assessing one of the thorns in his life, his standoffishness from feelings and expressions of love.

And because Elsi was willing to impale her breast on his thorns, R.S. was set free to sing in words as she was singing in colors.

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

“If there are thorns” – “The Way of It,” R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi, 32.

R.S. Thomas: Not a Greeting-Card Lover

rs thomas with birdwatching glasses croppedThomas was not a lover of greeting cards, with their rhyming saccharine gush.

Even Christmas cards were on his Scrooge list – something I learned after I’d been sending him one for several years. The width of the Atlantic prevented me from hearing his bah-humbug.

So far, of course, I’ve been dealing with one of the meanings of “lover.”

Also, Thomas was not a lover who does greeting-card types of things.

It’s hard for me to picture him approaching his wife on Valentine’s Day with a bouquet of red roses picked up at the florist’s shop.

With a handful of wildflowers in springtime? Yes. Or with the bronze-colored bracken that he brought in from a walk, and Betty put in a large container the November day that my wife and I were their dinner guests.

But the store-bought? No.

Thomas was attuned to the world of nature, and nature, unlike greeting cards, doesn’t gush.

Thomas gives us this image of a lover of nature and the lover of a woman:

Not that he brought flowers
Except for the eyes’ blue,
Perishable ones, or that his hands,
Famed for kindness were put then
To such usage; but rather that, going
Through flowers later, she yet could feel
These he spared perhaps for my sake.

Ronald and Elsi Thomas observed their nineteenth wedding anniversary in 1959. Marking it, he wrote:

Nineteen years now
Under the same roof
Eating our bread,
Using the same air;
Sighing if one sighs,
Meeting the other’s
Words with a look
That thaws suspicion.

. . . .

Nineteen years now
Keeping simple house,
Opening the door
To friend and stranger; . . .

A dry poem, to be sure, but closer to the truth of enduring unions than what is often printed on anniversary cards.

In my last blog, I quoted what Thomas said, a year before his death, to an interviewer: “I don’t think I’m a very loving person. I wasn’t brought up in a loving home – my mother was afraid of emotion – and you tend to carry on in the same way don’t you?”

Thomas was not a bells-and-whistles lover, certainly not one to talk about the earth shaking, but . . .

But here’s what he wrote a year or so before he and Elsi married:

I never thought in this poor world to find
Another who had loved the things I love,
The wind, the trees, the cloud-swept sky above;
One who was beautiful and grave and kind,
Who struck no discord in my dreaming mind,
Content to live with silence as a cloak
About her every thought, or, if she spoke,
Her gentle voice was music on the wind. . . .

Thomas is showing promise of greatness – “Content to live with silence as a cloak / About her every thought” – but he has not yet hit his stride.

What is clear, however, is that he was a loving person.

Many years later, as Elsi’s life was ebbing, he wrote:

I look out over the timeless sea
over the head of one, calendar
to time’s passing, who is now open
at the last month, her hair wintry.

Am I catalyst of her mettle that,
at my approach, her grimace of pain
turns to a smile? What it is saying is:
‘Over love’s depths only the surface is wrinkled.’

Thomas’s love poems have been brought together by Damian Walford Davies in R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi – I recommend it.

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

“Not that he brought flowers” – “Concession,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 14.

“Nineteen years now” – “Anniversary,” Tares, 18.

“I never thought in this poor world to find” – untitled poem in R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems, 22.

“I look out over the timeless sea” – untitled poem in The Echoes Return Slow, 121.