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:


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.

Pt. Defiance Rhododendron Garden

After three years of trying to portray the exquisite beauty of the Pt. Defiance Rhododendron Garden through mere photographs I’ve decided it’s impossible. Photographs may convey the beauty of certain specimens but can never adequately convey the setting that makes this garden so special.

A photo reduces a twenty-foot-tall rhododendron to a mere nine inches. You look down on it rather than looking up at it.

White Rhododendron in Forest

A plant that would appear gaudy standing alone in a yard, takes on a new dimension when viewed in its proper context, or at least relatively proper context since few of us are liable to see it in a forest in China or even in the Cascades.

Pink Rhodendron on Bank

Of course, there are also specimens, like this one

Small Rhododendron plant

you may want to plant in your own front yard, particularly when you’re able to see the flowers up-close-and-personal.

Red Rhododendron

If you live in the Tacoma area and want to see the garden at its best, NOW is the time to go because earlier varieties are starting to lose their flowers and later varieties

Purple Rhododendron

are already starting to bloom.

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.