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.”

R.S. Thomas’ “Come Down”

I had a hard time deciding which poem I liked best in the section called “Mass for Hard Times (1992)” and which best represented Thomas’ themes. I liked the first section of the title poem as well as any of his poems I’ve read, but since it’s a long poem and seemed rather uneven, I chose to go with this one:

COME DOWN

A peasantry on its knees,
not praying, labouring
for the bread that perishes.

And this one came preaching
the gospel of folly
that man shall not live

by bread only. So they left
the fields to assist
at the delivery of the machine

from time’s side. Of whom
does the scarecrow remind
arms wide as though pierced

by the rain’s nails, while
the motorist goes by insolently
wagging his speedometer’s finger?

which presents several of Thomas’ major themes. The most obvious is that the spiritual life is more important than the material life, ironically referred to as the “gospel of folly,” a gospel that’s certainly been hard to sell.

Misunderstanding His message, the peasantry abandoned the fields which produced the grain and turned to machines for salvation.

In doing so, Thomas believes that man has left Jesus behind — like an abandoned scarecrow, a theme quite similar to one in American literature, often referred to as “The Machine in the Garden of Eden.”

The Silence in the Mind

The second section of R.S. Thomas’ Collected Later Poems entitled “Counterpoint (1990) is broken down into four parts: BC., Incarnation, Crucifixion, and AD, and, as in the previous section, each of the poems seems an integral part of the whole, best understood as a part of that whole.

That said, this poem from “AD” is one of my favorites:

But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean
we launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.

It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?

On one level, this is something I would expect from a Taoist or Buddhist, not a Christian for it clearly sounds like Thomas is advocating some form of meditation. On another level, referring to God as “the silence we call God” seems pretty revolutionary. People generally don’t like to think of God as being “silent;” they like to think of him as answering their prayers.

The idea that thoughts are an “armada” we launch against(?) God is probably even more revolutionary, though that idea is consistent with Thomas’s view that modern philosophy has undermined our faith in God.

But if God is, indeed, ubiquitous, omnipresent, we should be able to find him simply by standing still instead of frantically searching for him everywhere but where we are.

R.S. Thomas’ Collected Later Poems

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.