The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

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“Green Categories” is one of R. S. Thomas’s more complex poems, drawing in part on the ideas of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant that are developed in Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason, 1838). Thomas blends language and concepts from Kant’s work with images of the Welsh countryside, a device that simultaneously raises questions about Kant’s ideas and provides a larger context for the representation of a Welsh farmer, Iago Prytherch. The title reflects this blend: “Green” describes the countryside, while “Categories” refers specifically to Kant’s divisions of forms of pure understanding.

Stylistically, the poem is not particularly complicated: It consists of two stanzas, a long first one and a shorter second one. It is written in the second person and addressed to Prytherch, who is a character in several of Thomas’s other poems, including “Iago Prytherch,” “Lament for Prytherch,” and “Invasion on the Farm.” Thomas introduces Kant in the first line, writing, “You never heard of Kant, did you, Prytherch?” He goes on in the stanza to speculate upon what Kant might have thought of Prytherch’s life and draws distinctions between Kant’s logic and abstract ideas and Prytherch’s life on the farm, a life tied to the natural world and concrete objects. Slightly more than halfway through the first stanza, Thomas takes two of Kant’s concepts, space and time, and gives an alternate definition for them in Prytherch’s life. He justifies his definition by then asking “how else” Prytherch could live as he does and as the men before him did. The stanza ends as it begins: with a question. However, both questions are rhetorical; the speaker is using them to make assertions about Prytherch’s life.

The second stanza is significantly shorter. It begins with a contrast, indicating that Prytherch and Kant would have given pause to each other, then concludes by saying that they “could have been at one.” While each one’s logic and mind could not stand up to the other’s, the two men do share a kind of faith.

Perhaps because of the use of Kant’s ideas and terminology, Thomas keeps the rest of the poem structurally simple. He uses no rhyme and, as is typical of his work, does not rely heavily on metaphors or elaborate images, using, instead, simple and plain words. This simplicity of language does not, however, keep the poem from being a difficult one to understand; even a reader who is well versed in Kant’s philosophy will probably have to puzzle out what Thomas means by “faith.” At the same time, though, the reader can connect to the concrete images of objects belonging to Prytherch’s world and, in comparing them to the abstract terms referring to Kant, think about different ways of being. One need not understand Kant to see that the poem contrasts a life shaped by inner logic and mental properties with one formed by external forces upon the body; furthermore, one need not understand Kant to try to find connections between these two lives.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 397

Thomas does not use many of the traditional forms or devices associated with poetry in the poem: It has no obvious rhyme or meter, and there are only a few metaphors. Several of them are used to describe the landscape: “the dark moor exerts/ Its pressure,” “the moor’s deep tides,” and the “moor’s/ Constant aggression.” These representations of the land as a heavy, moving, dangerous force bring home the difficulty of Prytherch’s life and its close connections to the natural world. Thomas’s other metaphors reinforce this theme: A “green calendar” suggests that Prytherch lives according to the seasons rather than by the arbitrary dates delineated in a calendar, and the phrase “cold wind/ Of genius” reminds the reader of the hostile forces of nature that Prytherch encounters, even while it deepens the contrast between him and Kant.

One of the more interesting stylistic devices in the poem is the linguistic shift between certainty and uncertainty. The first stanza contains three questions, and, while the first and last are actually assertions in question form, the second one, beginning “What would he have said,” is a question for the reader to consider. Prytherch, never having heard of Kant, could not speculate on what Kant might say to his life, but Thomas is asking the reader to engage in such speculation: Although the poem is written in the second person to Prytherch, the language requires readers to take parts of the poem as addressed to themselves. The speaker then returns to a descriptive voice, stating as fact that “Here all is sure.” This certainty continues through the first stanza, even with the question at the end. The second stanza, however, moves from what is to what is possible, stating that “His logic would have failed” and that “you could have been at one.” While neither of these are speculative in the same way that the poem’s second question is—indeed, both assert that, given certain conditions, such would have happened—they do ask the reader to imagine a contrary-to-fact situation: a meeting between the philosopher and the Welsh farmer. Thomas moves back and forth in the poem from defining a situation to inviting the reader to reflect on that situation, a move that is, in some ways, parallel to the difference between Prytherch’s life of the body and Kant’s life of the mind.