The first two books in R.S.Thomas Collected Poems 1945-1990 “The Stones of the Field” and “An Acre of Land” offer a view of Thomas’ poetry that I never glimpsed in Collected Later Poems 1988-2000. Some of the earliest poems seem to represent the poor farmer, “Iago Prytherch his name,” as “Enduring like a tree under the curious stars,” almost as a symbol of what we should all become, or return to.
Near the end of these two collections, however, Thomas begins to doubt that this plain peasant retains the beauty he should have inherited from his natural setting:
You failed me, farmer, I was afraid you would
The day I saw you loitering with the cows,
Yourself one of them but for the smile,
Vague as moonlight, cast upon your face
From some dim source, whose nature I mistook.
The hills had grace, the light clothed them
With wild beauty, so that I thought,
Watching the pattern of your slow wake
Through seas of dew, that you yourself
Wore that same beauty by the right of birth.
I know now, many a time since
Hurt by your spite or guile that is more sharp
Than stinging hail and treacherous
As white frost forming after a day
Of smiling warmth, that your uncouthness has
No kinship with the earth, where all is forgiven,
All is requited in the seasonal round
Of sun and rain, healing the year’s scars.
Unnatural and inhuman, your wild ways
Are not sanctioned; you are condemned
By man’s potential stature. The two things
That could redeem your ignorance, the beauty
And grace that trees and flowers labour to teach,
Were never yours, you shut your heart against them.
You stopped your ears to the soft influence
Of birds, preferring the dull tone
Of the thick blood, the loud, unlovely rattle
Of mucus in the throat, the shallow stream
Of neighbours’ trivial talk.
For this I leave you
Alone in your harsh acres, herding pennies
Into a sock to serve you for a pillow
Through the long night that waits upon your span.
From personal experience I rejected Thomas’ earlier views that these poor Welch farmers, practicing farming as their ancestors had, were closer to God than the rest of us because the farmers I’ve known too often see Nature as a force to be overcome. I suspect that the less control the farmer has, the more he is subject to the vagaries of weather and natural pests, the more he sees Nature as “Enemy.”
Instead of learning from the “beauty and grace that trees and flowers labour to teach” the farmer turns to “the dull tone of the thick blood, the loud, unlovely rattle of mucous in the throat, the shallow stream of neighbours’ trivial talk,” penny-pinching money for an uncertain future rather than appreciating the beauty that nature offers for free.
On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I’ve never been as critical as Thomas is of those who don’t see the world the way he does. That last stanza seems rather unforgiving to me.