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R.S. Thomas

Thomas’ “The Bright Field”

Although my favorite poem from the volumes The Way of It and Frequencies is a poem about God called “The White Tiger,” I thought it past time to focus on Thomas’ nature poems, though I suspect God is implied in those poems, too.

I’ll let you be the judge of that, though.

THE BRIGHT FIELD

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receeding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Perhaps there’s merely something about old age that makes some of us finally stop “hurrying/on to a receeding future” and take the time to see what’s in front of us. Even though my summers off as a teacher gave me more time to enjoy nature than most people ever have, I’m sure even then I used to rush past such simple beauty . Now that I no longer have to work or have a future to worry about, I spend much more time looking at those small, bright fields.

I suppose you could tell that by the number of wildflowers, butterflies, and birds I’ve photographed since retiring. Amazingly, the closer I look the more miraculous that field seems to me.

It doesn’t hurt to read poems like this that remind me what’s important.

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R.S. Thomas

R.S. Thomas’ “Mediations”

R.S. Thomas’ poems about God continue to fascinate me, particularly ones like:

MEDIATIONS

And to one God says: Come

to me by numbers and

figures; see my beauty

in the angles between

stars, in the equations

of my kingdom. Bring

your lenses to the worship

of my dimensions: far

out and far in, there

is always more of me

in proportion. And to another:

I am the bush burning

at the centre of

your existence; you must put

your knowledge off and come

to me with your mind

bare. And to this one

he says: Because of

your high stomach, the bleakness

of your emotions, I

will come to you in the simplest

things, in the body

of a man hung on a tall

tree you have converted to

timber and you shall not know me.

Younger I was fascinated with science, particularly with the way things seemed to fit together perfectly. I remember the magical moment when I first saw an award-winning science short which featured microscopic close-ups and telescopic shots of the universe, revealing remarkable symmetries. I used to belief the purpose of science was to reveal those mysteries, though in recent years it seems as if it serves very different purposes.

Although I’ve never been able to feel God as the center of my existence, I envy many who have felt that way. In fact, that might well be what I most admire about R.S. Thomas’ poetry.

Of course, it’s the third argument that’s most shocking, at least coming from the pen of a minister. I’ll have to admit that, though the statement rings true to me, I’m also dumb-founded by it, unable to put my own reaction into words.

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R.S. Thomas

“That Great Absence”

Although I’m drawn to R.S. Thomas for his views on nature, I often find myself sticking around to listen to his views on religion and God. Part of the appeal is his willingness to admit his own doubts about God.

IN CHURCH

Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

It’s seems little short of amazing to have a minister writing lines like “Is this where God hides/From my searching?” or “There is no other sound/In the darkness but the sound of a man/Breathing, testing his faith.” Equally remarkable, what does one do with “These are the hard ribs/Of a body that our prayers have failed/To animate.” Of course, it’s the sheer poetry of the last five lines that holds me most in the end, “testing his faith/On emptiness, nailing his questions/One by one to an untenanted cross.”

But as I’ve mentioned in an earlier discussion, I’m also drawn to his discussion of “the quality/Of its silences,” an aspect that is more central in:

VIA NEGATIVA

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

I’m particularly fond of “the empty silence/Within, the place where we go/Seeking, not in hope to arrive or find,” perhaps because it comes close to describing my own state of mind when I take time to meditate. I never meditate with the hope of arriving somewhere or finding something. Just the opposite. I manage to free myself from things and in that freedom find revitalization, but I suspect that what I find there is very similar to the feeling I sometimes get while hiking or birding, perhaps echoes of His passing.

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R.S. Thomas

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:

TOO LATE

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.