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.

7 thoughts on “R.S. Thomas’ Collected Later Poems”

  1. I’ve wanted to read RS Thomas for some time, because of reviews like this one. (I love bleak poems and dour worldviews.) But oddly enough, the state university library system has not one of his books! I guess I’ll have to follow your example and buy one online.

  2. I’ve only recently learned of R.S. Thomas through Solitary Walker’s blog from England and have been wanting to read more R.S. Thomas. I’m grateful for this poem you chose to post. Makes me think of the complexity of Denise Levertov, who is probably my favorite poet of all.

    Just from this poem I’d say there is also an overtone that is contemplative, searching, illuminated by desire and grief and love, much like Robinson Jeffers. “Alone” but not entirely lonely, alienated, bleak or dour.

    That’s what makes a good poet and good poem. There is a poem and then there is the shadow of a poem. A poet and the shadow of a poet. Sometimes a person’s “shadow” is brighter than other people would imagine, given the grim and austere appearance they present to others in their work.

    I’m thinking now of R. Allen Jensen, an artist from Western Washington whose subject matter has long been death and who couldn’t be more full of life and light at age 70.


  3. Amazon lists it in America, too, but only through other sellers, several which are in Engand and charge special shipping charges.

    I’m going on vacation for a week shortly, so I decided to wait until I got back before ordering it. Don’t want it sitting on the doorstep for a week.

  4. Please as a lover of RS Thomas’s work I have just finished The Life of R S Thomas by Byron Rogers which I think captured the essence of Thomas. However………… Which poem begins

    In the country house
    doorway the wind that ruffled
    the woman’s skirt came
    from no normal direction…. ?

    I await in earnest !

  5. I’m afraid I’m not one of those people who remember poems verbatim, carol. I don’t recall a poem that begins that way, but I’ve only read the second volume of his collected poems.

    I’m in the process of reading his first volume now, though, and I’ll keep my eyes open for those lines.

  6. Thomas, I discover him when I borrowed his Biography from one of my friend. I was soothed while and after reading it. I did not know why the consolation came. The poetry mentioned in the biography was mostly free verses, but had solid music into it. the invincible seriousness and bleak music reverberated as if listening to Bach at the dark corner. Since then I have been reading his regularly.

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