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An analysis of R. S. Thomas’s poem titled “Service” might begin by examining the title. The poem is literally about a church “service”; the poem presents a speaker who is conducting this service and is thus of “service” himself; and both the priest/speaker and his congregants are by definition servants of God.
The phrasing of the poem is simple and clear, and its tone seems deliberately flat. The speaker is not describing an ecstatic, emotional church service but in fact just the opposite. Neither the clergyman nor his congregation seems to feel any great warmth toward one another, nor do they seem especially excited about their mutual worship of God.
The word “‘prayer,’” in line 2, is discussed as if it were an object: the clergyman “present[s]” it to them, but they show no great appreciation for this gift. In fact, they hand it back. The somewhat drab, prosaic style of the poem is, then, appropriate to the lack of great feeling in both the priest and the congregants. Neither he nor they are vividly described; nothing individualizes him or them. He feels isolated from them, and they apparently feel the same way toward him. Indeed, the fact that he speaks of them while telling us how he speaks to them suggests their fundamental separation. (In contrast, recall the vivid sermon delivered by Father Mapple in Melville’s Moby-Dick.)
In lines 6-8, the clergyman says,
. . . I am left alone
With no echoes to the amen
I dreamed of. . . .
Alienation, disappointment, a sense of the contrast between the ideal and the real: these are all major themes of the poem. This is a poem about “I” and “they,” not “we.” Paradoxically, the church, which should ideally be a place of hope and joy, is here called in lines 9-10 a
. . . place
Of despair . . .
– literally, a place of hopelessness. It is the sound of church music that “save[s]” this priest, not Christ. It is the music that also finally provokes a response in the congregation as they join together in singing. Indeed, lines 10-12 are full of images of union and communion:
. . . As the melody rises
From nothing, their mouths take up the tune,
And the roof listens.
These lines, describing music, are themselves more musical than anything that has come before. Alliteration appears in the repeated “th” sounds and in “take up the tune.” The phrase “their mouths take up the tune” perfect exemplifies iambic pentameter rhythm in a poem previously lacking a strong metrical pattern. Interestingly, line 11 is the poem’s longest; it stands out in every way.
Very quickly, however, the poem returns to its earlier somber tone and concludes with images of the priest’s separation not only from his congregation but also from God. The poem ends as it began: with images of looking but with no real sight. Ultimately, this seems a "service" that is more of a burden than a source of joy.
For the text of the poem, see The Poems of R. S. Thomas (New York: Everyman, 1997), 62.
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