R. S. Thomas Essay - Thomas, R(onald) S(tuart) (Vol. 6)

Thomas, R(onald) S(tuart) (Vol. 6)

Thomas, R(onald) S(tuart) 1913–

A Welsh poet and a clergyman, Thomas writes in English of his rural parishioners and their somber homeland. The ordinary and bleak are made universal and tragic by his austere and passionate concern.

[H'm] is a beautifully organised book of stern and moving poems. A casual glance at its titles ('Once', 'No Answer', 'The Epitaph', 'Ruins', 'Via Negativa', 'Postscript') might seem to suggest that something irreversible has happened—even 'Period' contains an ambivalence inclining towards a full-stop—and many of the poems, taken singly, could appear to offer no comfort at all. On 'The Island', God, whom Thomas has brought out from behind the scenes of his earlier books, announces:

           I will build a church here
           And cause this people to worship me,
           And afflict them with poverty and sickness
           In return for centuries of hard work
           And patience …

—thus, and much more, 'And that was only on one island.' It was bleak enough when, year by year, Prytherch's spade struck flint while he and his local kind endured like trees 'under the curious stars' but now, in a poem such as 'He', the peasant is explicitly Man, his hands 'calloused with the long failure of prayer' and:

            Nothing he does, nothing he
            Says is accepted, and the thin dribble
            Of his poetry dries on the rocks
            Of a harsh landscape under an ailing sun.

—so the landscape is explicitly the World, too. While God strikes at emptiness in search of an echo, the only human sound heard above the whistling wheels of the production Machine is 'the lament of/The poets for deciduous language' and if those tears don't dry on the rocks their fate, three poems later, is to be put on tape for the future as 'a lesson in style'. So much for our civilization. And if we continue to dip into the poems, a mosaic of despair seems to be pieced together. Mankind is an idiot and his brother in a bumping-car at the fair, the dust of civilization is 'slave-coloured', the nature of modern urban life is 'ubiquitous and unseizable', Science—like a generous stripper—'reveals/All, asking no pay/For it' and, in the title poem, the preacher—inescapably Thomas himself—reaches out his arms:

                  but the little
                  children the ones with
                  big bellies and bow
                  legs that were like
                  a razor shell
                  were too weak to come.

—not for them the tins which march 'to the music/Of the conveyor belt'. 'A billion/Mouths opened' but not theirs.

That this book is resonant with a sense of vacuity seems quite undeniable. The comparison with Ted Hughes' Crow universe is also obvious—a civilization of metal, dust and big wheels crushing 'the creeds and masterpieces' of the past, and beyond it all a God alternating between helpless bewilderment and anger, experimenting, offering himself, withdrawing, offering himself again, interposing…. Thomas himself has acknowledged this similarity but in a recent interview he has gone on to say 'In Hughes there is a surface brilliance, a verbal power that dazzles but disguises an emptiness underneath…. What I'm after is to demonstrate that man is spiritual. Even through the machine, man is showing his divine nature.' And this brings us back, I think, to the need to consider H'm as a whole, a carefully ordered sequence of poems (in Thomas's terms, a 'demonstration') rather than a set of random fatalisms. It might also be remembered that in another personal statement Thomas has written 'There is always lurking at the back of my poetry a kind of moralistic or propagandist intention': not the words of a man who is anywhere near passive acceptance, but rather indicating a poet for whom a poem entitled 'No Answer' might be expected to imply at least a partial answer, or for whom 'Via Negativa' could indicate a more positive way. (pp. 40-1)

It is the book's pattern … which I find so moving. Between its beginning and its end it is full of voices—lyric monologues, dialogues between doubt and faith, Cain and God, God and his new creatures, and the blandishments of tempters—interspersed with the occasional direct lyric of the kind Thomas has managed so well ever since that beautiful 'Song' in 'An Acre of Land'. Again, in H'm, 'Song' presents us with something quiet and, in its way, perfect. (p. 42)

In Words and the Poet Thomas has written: 'A recurring ideal, I find, is that of simplicity. At times there comes the desire to write with great precision and clarity, words so simple and moving that they bring tears to the eyes, or, if you like, Wordsworth said are 'too deep for tears'. 'For me he has done just this, not only in 'Song' but in many of the poems in this book. Ultimately, the difference between Crow and H'm, as far as I am concerned, (and I come back to the comparison because several critics have insisted on it) is the difference between Hughes's power to exhilarate by battering his reader, and Thomas's to move by a more gentle, but nevertheless firm and uncompromising, invitation. When I read Crow I am in a totalitarian universe—I am admitted on the bird's black terms. I am absorbed, thrilled, but never thinking for myself. I even come away with the feeling that I may have been conned into a kind of synthetic despair. On the other hand, I have read H'm three times now, from cover to cover, and shall return to it again as a book which offers a source of growth. 'Unless I can see the seeds of Godhead' Thomas has said recently 'the light of the spirit, I can no longer be satisfied with … the irony, the savagery, the muck…. Previously I saw death as the solution to life or a poem; now it is a question of breaking through that level.' In H'm, he takes a long look at the irony, the savagery, the muck, but the beauty of the book is that we are not left wallowing. (pp. 42-3)

John Mole, "Warm, Human Tears," in Phoenix (8 Cavendish Road, Heaton Mersey, Stockport, Cheshire, England), Winter, 1972, pp. 40-3.

Thomas is a preacher and he does a good deal of preaching [in H'm]: about nasty machines, sciences, and cities; about good old religion and the good old countryside. I think I share, in fact, most of his values. And as one long ago converted to Theism (if not to Christianity) by Christian poets, I certainly don't object to his writing God down on the page instead of searching out some occult surrogate. But sometimes these poems sound too much like the language of a fundamentalist tent meeting. (p. 50)

John Matthias, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1974.

It is generally agreed that [R. S. Thomas] is "one of the half-dozen best poets now writing in English," as Kingsley Amis says on the jacket of Selected Poems 1956–1968…. Thomas is austere, tough-minded, but can bring tears. (p. 29)

William Cole, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April 20, 1974.

A lifetime spent in the bleak hills of northwestern Wales has persuaded Thomas to reject any "bland philosophy of nature." Watching the hill farmers struggle with poor soil, bad weather, and livestock diseases, he has come to recognize the pitilessness of a nature answerable only to its own sovereignty. In his initial distress he sought in vain for some natural spirit answerable to human feelings, but he has come eventually to the melancholy belief that nature is unfeeling and indifferent. It subjects all species equally to changeless and irresistible laws…. (p. 326)

Years of hardship must necessarily end in numbing the feelings, and, where pleasures are rare, the ability to enjoy them is all too likely to grow atrophied. The weary farmer may be excused his unresponsiveness even to the natural beauty surrounding him. What, then, are the advantages and rewards of country life? First, there is the satisfaction of participating in fundamental rituals of existence—the everlasting generation of new life and food for the living…. This solitary labor also encourages men to develop the Stoic virtues of patience and endurance. Their tenacity leads Thomas to compare these farmers repeatedly with trees twisted by the wind and beaten by rain but solidly rooted. Most valuable to Thomas, however, is the authenticity of the farmers' existence. Nakedly exposed still to forces which cities have largely concealed from many of us, they understand that "the soil is all," and the dignity of their response to the earth's demands contrasts pointedly with the "immense solvency for show" and the inconsequential existence of too many urbanites. (p. 327)

Thirty years' residence among these tough people has caused Thomas' youthful dread of elemental forces to yield to speechless wonder; his alarm at nature's power has given way to contentment. (pp. 327-28)

Julian Gitzen, in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright 1973, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Summer, 1974.

Thomas the poet—not Dylan as one might suppose, but R S unknown in a popular sense even in Wales, [is] also a poet of outstanding genius…. It is ironic both poets should be called Thomas, they seem so completely different: Dylan histrionic, gregarious, a passionate projector of himself, in love with poetry and its bardic power (I know these are clichés of comment on him, yet I think they hold some grains of truth); R S, an Anglican clergyman, a solitary, whether on the moor or in his church at evening time, or broodingly watchful of his flock from behind rectory curtains, while the rain slants down on the unchanging hills into the emptying valleys. His poetry seems always wrung from him, it never pours forth.

Unlike Dylan, R S Thomas has excited no critical controversy, only respectful acclaim (thoroughly deserved, no doubt, yet somehow ever mindful of the cloth). In this he is usually called austere and praised for his insight and compassion. Yet it seems to me these truths are simply balm, like Hamlet's 'flattering unction', to cover up the wound from which the poetry has seeped. Or put another way, they never come close to the quick of power, the hidden contraries from which the words are forced. On any instant comparison, it is Dylan who seems selfish, R S, self-denying. Yet responding in a more probing way one finds that it is Dylan's imagination that would never let him rest, while there is something consolatory and self-protective and composing in the way R S Thomas has compromised with his. (p. 64)

R S Thomas records the utter separation and emptiness of his long years of visiting parishioners, from his point of view always a confrontation, with no conceivable possibility of identification, only self-destructive compassion and the desire to 'uplift' what he sees as animal. 'I longed to forgive them but they never smiled'—more than once, reading R S Thomas's Selected Poems and listening to him speak of priestly duties, I found myself recalling the last line of Stephen Spender's well-known poem: My Parents Kept Me From Children Who Were Rough, for though utterly different in circumstance there seem to be some similar assumptions and in-built patronage. R S Thomas speaks of the nagging unfulfilment when he leaves a farm, 'after talk about the weather and the beasts and the farm prices … having made no mention of their souls or immortality or the good life'. The good life—what on earth (I use the image advisedly) does the priest mean by that, for these people, living in these conditions? Can the priest make it real in words (quite apart from moving to help men work for it in actuality), with images as hard and true as his power wrings from him in his finest poems? If not, which vision is made false by this, the poet's or the priest's?

The making real in flesh as well as spirit is obviously of deep painful concern to R S Thomas and obviously crucial in this concern is his attitude to sex and to the body. In a way, as an Anglican, he is doubly shut out from his country's main tradition in this, first as a Christian denying the Celtic knowing of its energy and power; then his protestantism is not the central protestantism of Wales, which is chapel not church. Chapel has always fiercely denounced the sins of the flesh but in this there has been a twisted acknowledgement of its glories and its power which is quite lacking in the well-bred gentility of the Church of England. Always, says R S Thomas, there is a pane of glass between us and our desire. But is this so? Can one speak for others here? Can anything be created without desire? Some poets may put on a surplice of negation—T S Eliot quite often did, so in a bleak and rational way does Philip Larkin—but this seems usually to keep themselves warm, to cloak as decently as maybe their own lack of passion. In his inner being I suspect R S Thomas knows this. Many of his most moving poems chart the contrast between the text in church and the more fundamental one in nature outside…. But he never has the courage of his poetic vision, so never acts in life upon its findings.

Instead in isolation he has sought still further solitude in nature, going up always onto the moor, which as well as offering stillness has, ironically, an affinity for him with his own church at evening time when it is always empty. At one point in an early poem he uses the phrase; 'in a frenzy of solitude', which heightens the underlying preoccupation with the self and its spiritual state. He speaks of the urgency, the need for some revelation for himself, some proof that this lifetime of waiting is part of the plan of his Christian God. He speaks of himself as a nature mystic, but does not seem strongly responsive to nature for its own sake. He shows none of the spontaneous joy in nature of Traherne, for instance, who was also Welsh; nor any of the profound wrestling of Hopkins (also Welsh) whose church was much more deeply at war with pantheism than R S Thomas's. He is never driven by passion for the power in nature as the young Wordsworth was, before he composed the tumult and turned to Anglicanism. (pp. 65-6)

[All] the time, as one reads and lives the twisted life of the poem he has written, one knows there has been an inner wound, a draining away of strength and power and capacity for joy, a dulling of the green taste he once had 'for every right word'. The loss is never faced, the self never blamed, the other vision never acknowledged. Instead he takes refuge in quietism. I did not ask to be born, he says, and there is a sorry little poem called 'Sorry' to bear witness to this. (p. 66)

One is left in a complex state, delighting in the ease and rightness of the words, despising the self-pity behind much of the vision…. For R S Thomas [an] incapacity to see himself with others and to share in a common natural humanity seems to have brought him to a point of hating and denying life itself, which for a Christian priest must be a frightening state. It is this, perhaps, that has decided the thinning down of his selection for [Selected Poems 1946–1968]. For he seems to have cut out all poems, especially those in the first of his books, Song at the Year's Turning, that speak of an affinity with the men in his flock; that rejoice in the sounds and sights of life, the breath of cattle breathing the morning air, the priest coming back down into the turbulent life of the town…. [In] his subsequent most slight volume H'm … there is movement again and a lyricism and scepticism that is not the fruit of hatred; a kind of intermediary questioning quality that marks a new departure. (pp. 66-7)

Marie Peel, "Pessimistic Poet," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Hansom Books 1974), September, 1974, pp. 64-7.

R. S. Thomas glories in the Midas touch—and to some degree suffers from it, as the case must be. There are very few poets to whom one could point confidently, helping out some stranger to the earth and its great forms, and say, of almost any one of his pieces, that is poetry, and not fear that one had failed to show the thing in its purity. R. S. Thomas is happily such a poet. Though he lacks the big, dredging gift of his countryman Dylan Thomas, though his poetry cannot stir us in our very bones, like new marrow, as 'Fern Hill', 'The force that through the green fuse', and other of Dylan Thomas's poems do, it is yet, unlike his, never lost in the rhythm and the words. It stands out clear, lighter in weight because of its clarity, but with a flame as intense and fine.

R. S. Thomas's poems have an almost visible brilliance and unremitting sensual poignancy. They involve the eye and the feelings equally and strongly. Never, perhaps, has sensory firmness seemed so ready a conductor for emotion. 'Concrete' is too heavy a word for the texture of Thomas's poems. For all their particularization, they are airborne, penetrated with light…. Has Thomas not heard of 'modern' poetry and its difficulty? Has he no embarrassment before the primary emotions?… Reading Thomas one learns to endure the glare of emotion; one learns again a kind of innocence. (pp. 51-2)

Thomas is an anachronism, a poet of feeling in an age of intellect—and not the less an anachronism, because the nomenclature of his feeling is religious. With the exception of 'Green Categories', which brings Kant and a peasant together, Thomas never really challenges the mind. His appeal is all to feeling—to compassion, indignation, awe, the love of beauty.

The great quality of Thomas's work—evident from his very first volume, The Stones of the Field (1946)—is thus a passionate naturalness. Thomas makes most other poets seem stale, stuck away in rooms, or carrying The Oxford Book of English Verse, if not Webster's Third, across a desert. His feeling, his movement, his diction, are light and unlaboured. He seems to enter each of his conceptions as if into a stream that has just sprung out of the ground before him, that takes him abruptly and resistlessly on, and banks him in sight of the sea, the far silence, where all poems end. Though he rides his inspiration, it yet runs away beneath him…. Of studied progress, of a painful trial-and-error adding on, there is never a note. For all we can tell, of course, Thomas may labour every one of his unfinicky lines, and he has said of being a poet that from the age of forty on you recognize that the Muse's smile is not for you. Yet the poem on the printed page, his gift to us, affords the joy of a passionate and effortless openness before experience. (pp. 52-3)

Hopkins and Dylan Thomas are … like stained glass windows and R. S. Thomas like a clear one. Their poetry enacts the communion; it shows the ego, the whole body, as irradiated. His only alludes to it, yet with a piercing beauty that convinces. Like most of the better British poets now writing, Thomas puts little between himself and his subject. Except for metaphor and eloquence—important exceptions, to be sure—his poems are ascetic. They seem out there, where the lucid phrase meets the world.

In movement, Thomas's poems make a kind of dash up the shore of their subject. They are, as poems go, rapid and sudden, as if to surprise their subject matter, the better to invade or take hold of it…. Thomas's poetry is like a briskly descending brook. Everything about it is bent to a single aim, namely the swift, happy arrival at a mainstream realization.

The same holds true of Thomas's words. They, too, are naked daylight. They have none of the pregnant darkness of things. They refer, they throw up blinds before their subjects. Though eloquently modulated, pleasingly united, they seem scarcely conscious of themselves as sounds. Nor do they jostle their traditional meanings. Sometimes, indeed, especially in figures, they are all too common. When Thomas is not brilliant at metaphor, he is dully conventional; in this regard, there are, in his work, only peaks and slumps…. Reading Thomas, we seldom miss newly peeled words, or for that matter formal music, compulsive rhythms, or stanzas and rhymes, because we are too much under the power of his phrase. To seem at once lean and sensuous, transparent and deeply crimsoned, is part of his distinction.

Lean as they are, Thomas's words conduct both strength and subtlety. If he is swift it is not because he has lightened his load; he is swift without leaving anything behind. (pp. 53-4)

What helps make Thomas's poetry poetic is the grateful dependence of his senses on the world. He needs matter temperamentally as poetry needs it aesthetically: as the blood of his spirit…. The beauty of the world rushes into Thomas's poetry because he leaves himself open as he rushes out to meet it. The universe is, for this artist, itself the supreme work of art. (p. 56)

For a natural poet such as Thomas, memory is the morning air of imagination. Indeed, Thomas is homeward to a fault. He never tires of speaking of what is around him, though we sometimes do, for he has told us about it before. We seem often to be passing the same tree, or seeing the same hills 'buttressed with cloud'. On the other hand, take him out of his Welsh hills, put him in Spain or start him reflecting on manned flights to the moon, and his imagination pales. We must take his excess with his best, nor is this hard, for it is an excess of love.

One fruit of this love is a magnificent talent for metaphor. In this Thomas perhaps excels all English poets since Hopkins, bringing to mind the great, wild outcrop of figurative genius in the seventeenth century. (pp. 56-7)

In truth, however, metaphor is somewhat too prominent in the poems. Because Thomas attempts to catch us with neither lilting rhythms nor lush words, almost the whole burden of arrestment falls on his figures. These pour in as if to fill a gap. But there are simply too many of them. They surfeit. Of course it is hardly Thomas's fault if we read him in the bulk. His poems, after all, were written one by one, in an ecstasy of isolation. And when a poet offers manna, should we hold out for bread? Yet beauty dies of beauty, as Yeats observed; and facility—even the facility of genius—cheapens.

Then, too, as noted, not all Thomas's figures are fresh and right…. Nor need he repeat certain figures—the rain's claw, the wind's pane, the stars' shrillness, for instance—as if he were at a loss for novelty or too fond of them.

The truth is that Thomas could throw away half the figures in his volumes and still beglamour us. Yet he does well, I think, to make the most of his gift. Modern British poetry needs it, rather as the eye needs greens and blues. And Thomas's own poetry, for reasons shown, needs it too. When he writes without metaphor he sounds, at best, somewhat like Donald Davie…. (p. 59)

The moral quality of Thomas's poems is as remarkable as their aesthetic quality—as sharp and unexpected. Nowhere else in English poetry do we find poem after poem directed, in love and anger, at an entire people. There is something of Whitman in Thomas, but a severe, severely tender, hardened, narrowed, and disillusioned Whitman. Thomas is to Wales a kind of Good Samaritan, Mary Magdalen, and fearful Jahweh in one. Turning to his next poem we scarcely know whether to expect a poet blessing or scorning, or steeped in an acid of despair. What we do know is that we will find him as terribly open to his country as a wound.

Often, conscious of his collar, Thomas writes from the implicit position of God's deputy in Wales. And yet, having entered his bloodstream, his Anglicanism emerges, in great part, not as dogma but as a badgering compassion…. [The] atmosphere of compassion is continually present—asserting the human, brightening when it finds it, darkening when it does not, but always itself a warmth and an illumination. (pp. 60-1)

Thomas wants the peasants to bestir themselves until, like him, they see the big stars shaking, wildly signalling…. Thomas cannot leave the peasants alone. They obsess him; his threats and valedictions are but bravura. He cannot really delight in the wood until he has healed, has tried to heal, the wounded deer within it. Let him name in hard words the peasants' faults; they only endear themselves to him the more. (pp. 61-2)

The central and stubborn meaning of Thomas's work is … the ambiguity of reflection…. The peasants, however keenly he observes them, are yet as opaque and unforthcoming as a spot of ink, which he draws out, with his pen, this way then that, in fine lines, in an effort to make the inarticulate speak. Closing their doors to him as the farmers do, they leave him in the hollow vastness of the plausible. Dumb and distant, they perforce become a sounding board for his own changing guilts, humiliations, and arrogances—they are subject to his whims. Yet he experiences this license as anguish. Because they do not come out to meet him, they throw him back on himself. He cannot speak of them without entering himself, second-guessing. He is, when he writes, himself the sum of their changing integers. But it was their own sum, meagre or dear, that he had meant to tally.

So, having hoped to enfold the peasants, Thomas is forced merely to circle about them. Or he goes out to them again and again as if sewn to them but, alas, not sewn tightly enough, nor loosely enough, either. He is litigiously bound to the ambiguity of human experience. (p. 67)

Yet if poetry is a consciousness of Being that, however complete for the moment, aspires to final permanence only in its form of expression, then Thomas's frustration before the mute men of Wales may be counted a poetic asset, since it keeps his consciousness of life restless and pressing. It has led, at any rate, to poetry finally balanced and alive in its contrary moods and uncertainties.

It is in their common pacing quality that Thomas's manner and matter blend to form a strong and harmonious mood. The lines will not, cannot slow down enough to delight in their own rhythms; nor can the mind at work in them finally rest in any one view of its subject. The open, passionate manner, catching at the world by tufts of metaphor, swiftly climbing, is the aesthetic manifestation of the poet's philosophical quandary, his interpretative eagerness, his need for certainty and its continual frustration.

Doubtless, Thomas's poetry would be still more indelible if its rhythms were deeper set; but perhaps it would be less true to itself. Its lean nervousness is at once attractive in its own right and characteristic of his region and his age; one would not like to see it changed. Unsettled in themselves as his poems may be, they are yet—perhaps partly for that very reason—quick with life, and certain to live.

Besides being internally harmonious, Thomas's poems are also balanced in what Arnold called poetry's two 'interpretations': natural magic and moral profundity. Both qualities are vigorous in his work—the first in the rank strength and quite amazing beauty of his sensuous imagination, the second in his reflection on the lives of the poor and bare, and on his own.

No wonder that in reading Thomas at his best—for instance in 'Green Categories', 'Ninetieth Birthday', 'Walter Llywarch', 'Absolution', 'Portrait', 'The Gap in the Hedge', 'A Peasant', 'The Airy Tomb', 'Death of a Peasant'—one feels a high excitement. In Thomas one can rejoice that another rare poet has come, though as yet scarcely heard of, to the English-speaking world. (pp. 67-8)

Calvin Bedient, "R. S. Thomas," in his Eight Contemporary Poets (copyright © 1974 by Oxford University Press; reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher), Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 51-68.