R.S.Thomas’ “Too Late”

All indications to the contrary, I haven’t forsworn reading this summer, even though Google brings more visitors to my images than to my scribblings. It seems strangely appropriate that I’m in the middle of reading R.S. Thomas’ Collected Poems 1945-1990 because if anyone would understand my present preoccupation with being outside in the natural world, he would.

Perhaps, then, I could use this poem to justify my break from such pursuits:


I would have spared you this, Prytherch;
You were like a child to me.
I would have seen you poor and in rags,
Rather than wealthy and not free.

The rain and wind are hard masters:
I have known you wince under their lash.
But there was comfort for you at the day’s end
Dreaming over the warm ash

Of a turf fire on a hill farm,
Contented with your accustomed ration
Of bread and bacon, and drawing your strength
From membership of an old nation

Not given to beg. But look at yourself
Now, a servant hired to flog
The life out of the slow soil,
Or come obediently as a dog

To the pound’s whistle. Can’t you see
Behind the smile on the times’ face
The cold brain of the machine
That will destroy you and your race.

It strikes me as not a little hypocritical for someone, like myself or Thomas, who has never made his living working the land to criticize farmers who employ machinery to make their farming more productive. Ultimately, though, the increasing use of machinery makes family farms obsolete, because few family farmers can pay a million dollars for a machine to harvest their crop.

Farmers who rely on such equipment may become wealthier than those who work smaller plots in more traditional ways, but in a real sense they are not free because they are either working for corporations or they owe their souls to the banks that have financed their equipment.

Many in the organic farming movement seem to draw strength not only from their natural ties to the land, but from their belief that they are part of the tradition of family farmers. My own small experiments in organic farming over twenty some years would tend to support Thomas’ contention that overuse of machinery can “flog the life out of the soil.”

You don’t have to be a farmer to wonder if “the cold brain of the machine” will ultimately lead to the destruction of our race.

4 thoughts on “R.S.Thomas’ “Too Late””

  1. I’m really enjoying your reflections on R. S. Thomas, one of my favourite poets – as you know. Do you also know he was an obsessively keen bird watcher?

    A friend once told me he’d seen Thomas in a Welsh supermarket (accompanied, I think, by his second wife) – and the only items in his shopping trolley were bottles and bottles of whiskey plus numerous tubs of Haagen-Dazs ice-cream.

    Well, I suppose you needed something to anaesthetize you against those bleak and bitter Welsh winters.

  2. I did know that he was a favorite of yours. As I remember it was after reading a couple of his poems on your site that I ordered his first book, though I’m pretty sure that there was a few others that also quoted his poems.

    It doesn’t surprise me that he was a birder, but it’s nice to know.

  3. I remember two brothers on prince edward island, old men and bachelors, who in the late 70’s still farmed with horses. They had the prettiest and best-kept farm. I guess they knew something about the personal cost from using machinery.

  4. R. S. Thomas’s words
    and your reflections on them
    are accurate.

    The longterm use of heavy farming machinery
    destroys the topsoil,
    and planting the same crop over and over
    is not good for what topsoil remains.
    A result of this is that companies
    which manufacture and sell fertilizer
    are prospering.

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