Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1108
R. S. Thomas’s output—more than twenty-five volumes of poetry—was substantial. However, Thomas was careless of his own compositions, reluctant to explain difficult passages, and revised very little. Most of his poems were less than thirty lines. He wrote no long poems, although he did create several sequences.
In many ways, it is best to see each small poem as part of one grand, lifelong work. There is never any great philosophical statement, but many detailed observations of life, the cycle of the seasons, the ordinary people he met in his parishes, their joys and griefs, and moments of religious or philosophical insight. Although he was a priest, his faith was more one of uneasy questionings, with black humor substituting for a theology. In real life, he preached the doctrines of his church; but as a poet, he looked enigmatically at each attempt to portray God. As a nature mystic, he is nearer to Ted Hughes, a contemporary from northern England, than to any tradition of religious poetry. Although he was a provincial poet, unashamedly Welsh, his perceptions and questions are universal, with a probing of modernism. Paradox was his hallmark, both in real life and in his poetry, with an ironic perception of his own persona and speaking voice. His poetry is imagistic and Romantic.
Recognition came comparatively late for Thomas. His first two volumes were printed at his own expense. Through the influence of friends, his first acclaimed volume, Song at the Year’s Turning, was published by a small but reputable London publisher, Hart-Davis. That volume proved to be typical of the poetry he published over the next fifteen years, giving him national standing as a poet of Wales, its people, culture, and landscapes.
After his removal to Aberdaron, where he found a truly Welsh milieu, he no longer felt the need to write on obviously Welsh matters. He turned to theological issues, as in H’m. On his retirement, he continued to develop poems on his own spiritual journey, intermixed with autobiographical memories, starting with Laboratories of the Spirit and Frequencies. Longer sequences began to develop, for example a series of meditations on famous paintings in Between Here and Now, and especially in The Echoes Return Slow and Counterpoint. The latter probably represents his most coherent attempt to state a philosophical/religious viewpoint. He continued producing poetry until his death.
Song at the Year’s Turning
Song at the Year’s Turning, published in 1955 when Thomas was already forty-two years old, is the volume that brought him to the attention of the general public. It consists of poems written while he was at Manafon, in the Welsh hill country. The title poem, addressed to himself, suggests the end of idealistic dreams of a Welsh pastoral; in their place is a grittiness, a disillusionment expressed in Romantic imagery of seasonal change. He asks, “Is there blessing?” It could be said that the rest of Thomas’s poetry is an attempt to find the answer to that question. The Wordsworthian optimism in nature has been put aside in Thomas’s ironic perceptions of the rural countryside, just as it was in the writings of Thomas Hardy.
This is most clearly seen in the character Thomas invented in “A Peasant” (from The Stones of the Field), Iago Prytherch, an independent small farmer of the infertile hills. Once he may have been prosperous; now time works against him and his way of life, which has become a physical, ugly fight for survival. “The Last of the Peasantry” in Song at the Year’s Turning echoes this. As a priest, he, the poet, feels unable to find any point of contact, but the reader senses Thomas’s deep compassion.
This sense of searching for the lost Wales and portraying a very unromantic present is the main theme of the poems written up until H’m. This volume introduced quite a new voice, a move that parallels that of Thomas’s contemporary, Hughes. Like Thomas, after a number of volumes of nature poetry, Hughes also discovered a new voice—blatant, anarchistic, and God defying. Hughes’s Crow (1970, revised 1972) and Thomas’s H’m were published within two years of each other.
The word “H’m”—a noncommital utterance—is apparently the expression Thomas used to signify he had heard the speaker but did not want to agree or disagree. In the context of his poetry, however, it could also suggest the word “Him,” in the sense of God, but as an abbreviated perception. The title poem depicts the priest-poet trying to utter a truth about God’s love, but the “big bellies” of the starving children take away the utterance. The poems become, then, a theodicy, that is, a speaking well of God in a world of evil. First, however, the evil has to be spoken about. For Hughes, the evil suggest anarchy and nonexistence; Thomas still hung on grimly to a truth of God, even if it can never be expressed in Romantic terms of presence and beauty.
Thomas’s other concern was with the “machine,” the new religion of technology: “The machine . . . cannot absolve us,” though it tries to dismantle religious faith. The shiny machine is opposed to the dark suffering cross and the wounded side of Christ. The poems are thus far more obviously religious than the earlier ones.
Laboratories of the Spirit
Three years later, Thomas continues his theodicy, but at a more personal level in Laboratories of the Spirit. The mood is set by the first poem in the collection, “Emerging.” There is more address to God; the poetry is not just about him: “Not as in the old days I pray,/ God.” This wrestling with God, as found in Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins, is part of a long tradition that Thomas joins. The poem ends with the phrase “the laboratory of the spirit,” which suggests the need to use modern scientific metaphors to come to terms with God anew in a machine age.
The Hughes-like “Hand” wrestles with the independence of the poet to make sense of the world and to find truth. Somehow God is still in the creative process and cannot be written out of it. In the end, there is an uneasy truce: God gives the poet his freedom but on the condition that he “tell them I am,” just as in the burning bush episode, another poet-priest, Moses, was given the name “I am” by which to call God. It would seem that Thomas, no longer needing to preach about God, felt the need to write about him more and more explicitly in Christian terms.
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