Wrong?

It’s been a while, but I’m back to finishing R.S. Thomas’ Collected Later Poems 1988-2000 , specifically “No Truce with the Furies, ” published in 1995. Earlier I thought that Thomas seemed to be running out of energy, but this volume dispelled that image. With his retirement he seemed to gain a new freedom. As you’d expect, he still focuses on God, but his vision seems to have expanded.

It’s hard not to be moved by this vision of God:

Raptor

You have made God small,
setting him astride
a pipette or a retort
studying the bubbles,
absorbed in an experiment
that will come to nothing.

I think of him rather
as an enormous owl
abroad in the shadows,
brushing me sometimes
with his wing so the blood
in my veins freezes, able

to find his way from one
soul to another because
he can see in the dark.
I have heard him crooning
to himself, so that almost
I could believe in angels,

those feathered overtones
in love’s rafters, I have heard
him scream, too, fastening
his talons in his great
adversary, or in some lesser
denizen, maybe, like you or me.

Many would like to reduce God to science, to reveal Him through the Laws he has laid down. It’s comforting to think that His actions are logical and predictable. One is apt to have a very different vision of God in combat, when both the good and the bad are swept away without warning. Old age doesn’t seem too different, either. Why does someone who’s smoked their whole life die at 80 from “natural causes” and someone’s who’s never smoked a day in his life dies at 63 from lung cancer?

One could almost imagine R.S. Thomas believes, like Jonathon Edwards, in a God who abhors mankind, an Old Testament God who would like to smite us for our sins but restrains himself if we swear our belief in Christ. Of course, then it would be difficult to know what to do with a poem like this one:

Wrong?

Where is that place apart
you summon us to? Noisily
we seek it and have no time
to stay. Stars are distant;
is it more distant still,
out in the dark in the shadow
of thought itself? No wonder
it recedes as we calculate
its proximity in light years.

Maybe we were mistaken
at the beginning or took later
a wrong turning. In curved space
one can travel for ever and not recognise
one’s arrivals. I feel rather
you are at our shoulder, whispering
of the still pool we could sit down
by; of the tree of quietness
that is at hand; cautioning us
to prepare not for the breathless journeys
into confusion, but for the stepping
aside through the invisible
veil that is about us into a state
not place of innocence and delight.

Judging from this poem it wouldn’t be hard to believe that Thomas was a Taoist or a Zen Buddhist, urging us to seek salvation through quiet meditation. Are we so busy seeking that we “have not time/ to stay?” It’s almost as if Thomas, like Buddhists who seek to calm the mind, is asking us to escape “the shadow of thought itself” and sit by a “still pool” and rediscover our natural “state … of innocence and delight,” with God “at our shoulder.”

3 thoughts on “Wrong?

  1. R. S. Thomas speaks to me in the way Denise Levertov does, with a view of God that is far removed from the impoverished idea of God I grew up with. No wonder that I like Taoist and Zen Buddhist writings, too. I look forward to reading more of R.S. Thomas.

  2. Gee…that’s a fine poem by Thomas. I’m glad he didnt give up on you.

    It reminds me of some others–one called THE END OF THE WEEKEND by Anthony Hecht; and just a little of Ted Hughes famous Hawk Roosting. But as a Christian commentary, it makes me think of the darker tales of Grimm Bros, those scenes of lost girls in the medieval forest where everything looks ominous. Great off-handed finish.

  3. I’m reminded of Frost’s poem “We dance round a ring and suppose. But the secret sits in the middle and knows.” God isn’t an owl, a predator, or a creature of any kind. He’s the creator and his essence is holiness, which we are called to share. We learn about him through prayer. Jesus said “all things have been handed over to me by my father. No one knows the father except the son and anyone to whom the son wishes to reveal him.”

What do you think?