After reading several poems by R.S. Thomas in English blogs and woodslot, I decided that I’d finally have to read one of R.S. Thomas’ books. Of course, I had no idea where to begin, but because his earlier collected poems wasn’t available on Amazon, I ended up with Collected Later Poems 1988-2000. After reading the first 100 pages, I began to suspect most of the poems I read on the blogs probably came from the earlier collection.
Although I was expecting something quite different, I was much fonder of the poems in the beginning selection, The Echoes Return Slow (1988) than I would have thought at first glance. Each of the poems begins with a short paragraph that seems to explain some aspect of a minister’s life, starting with the beginning of his career and ending with his retirement. This is followed by a poem that seems to comment on the opening paragraph, though not always directly. The closest thing I’ve encountered is Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Interior where a haiku ends a prose selection. I like the form.
Considering how much I liked this first section, I was surprised that there was not one particular poem that I liked, despite rereading the selection several times. One has to read the whole selection to get the full effect. Only by reading the whole selection is the reader granted the privilege of seeing one man’s entire career from his own perspective.
When forced to choose one poem, I ended up with this one, which doesn’t focus nearly as much as most of the poems on his life as a minister — which may, of course, explain why this is my favorite:
Minerva’s bird, Athene noctua; too small for wisdom, yet unlike
its tawnier cousin active by day, too, its cat’s eyes bitterer than
the gorse petals. But at night it was lyrical, its double note sounded
under the stars in counterpoint to the fall of the waves.
There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl calling
far off, and a fox barking
miles away. It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake, listening
to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village, that is without light
and companionless. And the thought comes
of that other being who is awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.
What this poem does do is convey both the constant faith and the constant doubts of the narrator. The narrator’s is not a “feel-good” religion. In many ways, R.S. Thomas’ poetry seems closer to Thomas Hardy’s poetry than to Dylan Thomas’ poetry. There is a “bitterer” wisdom that’s alluded to in the prose selection, and in the poem itself. Though Thomas makes no direct connection between nature and God, referring to Him as that “other being,” it does seem Nature serves as a constant reminder of God Himself.
What makes Thomas most interesting, at least to me, is his complex view of God. Though he never seems to question the existence of God, he often questions whether He is listening to us. What, for instance, does he mean when he says that the other being lets “our prayers break on him,” like the waves beating on the shore? Isn’t there an implied indifference in that line? In what sense does the land listen to the sea?
There’s also a constant overtone of loneliness, even alienation, in these poems.