R.S. Thomas “Absolution”

It’s a rather amazing poet who publicly recants his earlier poetry, but that seems to be exactly what R.S. Thomas does in this poem in “Song at the Year’s Turning” published in 1955, published three years after “Valediction,” which I cited yesterday:

ABSOLUTION
Prytherch, man, can you forgive
From your stone altar on which the light’s
Bread is broken at dusk and dawn
One who strafed you with thin scorn
From the cheap gallery of his mind?
It was you who were right the whole time
Right in this that the day’s end
Finds you still in the same field
In which you started, your soul made strong
By the earth’s incense, the wind’s song.
While I have worn my soul bare
On the world’s roads, seeking what lay
Too close for the mind’s lenses to see,
And come now with the first stars
Big on my lids westward to find
With the slow lifting up of your hand
No welcome, only forgiveness.

I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure what caused the change of heart, though it must have come from Thomas’ change in attitude toward “the cheap gallery of his [own] mind” for it’s clear that Prytherch hasn’t changed. In fact, it seems to be his very lack of change, “finds you in the same field/ In which you started” that the narrator admires.

In contrast, the narrator has worn his soul “bare/ On the world’s roads, seeking what lay/ Too close for the mind’s lenses to see,” which I’d have to interpret as a rejection of purely “rational” thought. There lies something within us that is “made strong/By the earth’s incense, the wind’s song” that cannot be perceived by the mind alone.

I suspect that the narrator sees himself as the greatest sinner because he has abandoned the natural world for the mind, whereas the farmer, at least, has not abandoned that world and, thus, has a greater chance of redemption than the intellectual.

R.S. Thomas Collected Poems 1945-1990

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:

VALEDICTION

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.

Don’t Ask Me

I finished R.S. Thomas’ Collected Later Poems today while waiting to have my Tacoma Pickup serviced at two different shops. It’s amazing how much reading you can get done in 2+ hours if you leave the noisy waiting room with the TV blaring away and sit in the parking lot.

The final section was entitled “Residues” and consisted of poems unpublished when Thomas died. Though there was several poems I liked, there probably wasn’t as many as in earlier sections. Though it was interesting to see how Thomas reacted in the face of death, I actually preferred two of his poems about poetry. The first one would resonant with anyone who’s devoted much time to poetry:

LEGEND

I went up the holy mountain
thinking to be at dawn
a poet or a dead man,
but not mad, not mad:
I was that already.

I came down from the mountain
where the tempter had offered
in exchange for my poetry
the kingdom of this world.
My insanity saved me.

Poets don’t make money writing poetry, but I can’t remember ever hearing a poet express any regret about choosing poetry over money, which isn’t to say that I haven’t heard a few complain about how little poets earn. It’s that last line, though, that makes the poem effective. If “insanity” saved him, how can it be insanity? Perhaps this last one appeals to me because I just started reading Levertov’s essays, and this bears on what she has to say in the first essay and on my earlier discussion of a vague feeling I had that Levertov’s poetry didn’t quite measure up to what I most love in poetry.

‘DON’T ASK ME…’

Don’t ask me;
I have no recipe
for a poem. You
know the language,

know where prose ends
and poetry begins.
There should be no
introit into a poem.

The listener should come
to and realise
verse has been going on
for some time. Let

there be no coughing,
no sighing. Poetry
is a spell woven
by consonants and vowels

in the absence of logic.
Ask no rhyme
of a poem, only
that it keep faith

with life’s rhythm.
Language will trick
you if it can.
Syntax is words’

way of shackling
the spirit. Poetry is that
which arrives at the intellect
by way of the heart.

Considering the relative “informality” of most of Thomas’ poems, it comes as no surprise that he doesn’t have a “recipe for a poem,” but it would also take an obtuse reader not to realize that these are poems merely by looking at the line breaks, especially with metaphors like “Poetry/ is a spell woven/ by consonants and vowels/ in the absence of logic” and “Poetry is that/ which arrives at the intellect/by way of the heart.”

What I most found lacking in Levertov’s poetry was the “spell woven by consonants and vowels,” something which almost gives Thomas’ poem a “traditional feel.” Look at the last two stanzas where three words begin with “s” and three words end in “t.” You could almost swear the poem ends with a rhyme, or, at the very least, a near rhyme.

It doesn’t hurt that he ends his poem with a sentence that, for me at least, captures the essence of poetry, “Poetry is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart.”

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.”