No 4 - Spring 1996
On not catching the poacher: R.S. Thomas
Mass for Hard Times. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe. £7.95.
No Truce with the Furies. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe. £7.95.
Collected Poems. London: Phoenix. £9.99.
R.S Thomas’s doctrine is an attractive one. It’s a rigorous compassion that glosses poems like ‘A Labourer’ and ‘The Unborn’, who in A Mass for Hard Times (1992) transcends in wisdom and physicality the term “foetal”, as at once human, “innocent” of that condition, “waiting to be loved” (‘A Species’), and implicating the hypocrite lecteur. Doctrinaire, his “Disgust tempered by an exquisite/ charity” (‘A Poet’), Thomas raises his “priest’s” hands not in the cheery salute of the evangelical but to accuse “The one who is without name,/ but all-powerful, sowed intelligence/ in them like a virus”. To preach the ad hoc, ad hominem solution: “The priests’ cure, not on prescription, is/ that love’s casualties must be mended by love”.
Not on prescription: the disclaimer comes as a shock. In the work of R. S. Thomas (perhaps more than that of any other contemporary poet, more even than that of Simon Armitage whose social worker’s anxiety about his street-wisdom seems to prowl his poems), two personae apparently meet and muddle. “Poet”, “priest" (a term from The Book of Common Prayer whose use in Anglican and non-conformist communities is in any case largely reserved for Catholic celibates): both callings seem to be somewhat impersonal, both (in Wales at least) deeply gendered and highly public affairs. The implicated reader wants to implicate the writer and yet finds himself “clawing the void air” (‘The Poacher’).
There’s a mannered diction which is far from provisional employed here:
I have seen the child in the womb,
neither asking to be born
or not to be born...
And we, too, hear this diction as priestly. R.S. Thomas’s livings have been in the Church in Wales: he is that cultural oxymoron, a Welsh Anglican. The English monarch is his Fid Def. The irony in this is not so much that Thomas is a republican, as was that defender of his other faith Saunders Lewis, as that he precisely has such a colourful sense of the powers of monarchies and of their impact on the rural ‘Welsh Landscape’: “To live in Wales is to be conscious/ At dusk of the spilled blood/ That went to the making of the wild sky/ Dying the immaculate rivers/ In all their courses.” With the eye not over-distracted by line-breaks, it’s easy to see the regularity of the rhythm that marches under this rhetoric. Though “wild” is a bonus, increasing the range of the image as much by its unexpected presence as by its leaping the register, in three consecutive lines in this one sentence the formula of single adjective-noun sits down on a line. Of course “immaculate” is a brilliant stroke - Catholic orthodoxy and good Welsh housekeeping all in one - but what does it mean here? Perhaps Thomas is talking avant le deluge, though “wild” records a transformation. But never mind the quality, feel the width: repetition is a crowd-pleaser.
In An Acre of Land (1952) Thomas still starts his lines with capitals. Perhaps because they are “not high enough/ for the child to pass under/ who comes.../ invisible as radiation” (‘Christmas Eve’, No Truce with the Furies), he lapses into lower case from What is a Welshman? in 1974. In the Collected, this new departure resonates against its own soundings: the poem ‘If You Can Call It Living’ starts “In Wales there are/ no crocodiles”. For a moment we wonder whether the poetic pun is actual humour, a wry acknowledgement of what was pitched perhaps too high in ‘Welsh Landscape’ (“the strung woods! vibrant with sped arrows” affords a pair of Janus - faced metaphors which interlock perfectly, but animates with a degree of hyperbole a landscape which is after all routine to those who live in it). “But”, the 1974 poem goes on, “the tears/ continue to flow from/ their slimed sources”: and we realise these hypocrisies are non-indigenous; even they accuse perfidious Albion. Moreover, those “sources” lead a Welsh audience to valleys, including the Elan above which the poet Taliesin is buried, flooded to supply English cities - Birmingham, Liverpool - with water.
Such touchstones speak to the taboos of the “thirteenth tribe”, but do they “purify its dialect”? Thomas dramatises the complexity of a doubling which has none of the symmetry of the Shakespearean. Wales is bilingual, bi-cultural: the urban postindustrial anglicised South, the agricultural Welsh-speaking North. Thomas learnt Welsh as an adult, yet has constructed his life around the necessity to write poems which he believes erode his chosen dialect. Interviewed in the tabloid Your Life, he “admits too that life as a remote parish priest ‘suited me because it didn’t interfere with my routine’ and if pushed will also concede he’s ‘always been more poet than priest’.” He is not alone in his struggle with his hyphenated identity. Many native speakers of Welsh lack confidence in their formal writing skills. Yet the term Anglo-Welsh isn’t one Thomas embraces. The ambiguous space where a hyphen runs - into “doubts, uncertainties” - leaves the individual vulnerable to The Furies, as to “the stale smell/ Of death in league with those damp walls” (‘Death of a Peasant’).
And R. S. Thomas is an Augustinian for whom naming is, always, a kind of knowing (“Let Augustine be our spokesman”, he says in ‘Time’). The use of the proper name as an individuating ground for the early subjects is a kind of bluff: Prytherch, Davies, ap Huw - these denominations are hardly more personal than the apocryphal “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. The local reader knows that, in closely-interrelated communities such as those Thomas writes about, the traditional repetition of Christian names within a family means proper names are often insufficient to identify an individual (an attribute, usually an occupation, must be added as qualification); but English grammar supplies a set of expectations of this kind. Thomas plays on these with ‘lago Prytherch’, the mock apology which is in fact apologia. And he seems reluctant to relinquish the characters he has at a stroke made into Everyman and also the focus of individuating attention. The Prytherch poems struggle on through Tares (published fifteen years after Stones of the Field): “And Prytherch - was he a real man...?”
Later, this naming and knowing have a joyous resurrection in scientific terminology, which sits between the familiar, archetypal birds and chalices with complete felicity: “Physics’ suggestion/ is... reality is composed of waves and particles/ coming at us as the Janus-faced/ chooses” (‘Nuance’, Furies). Even the title poem of Mass for Hard Times seems to expand its diction with confidence in the correctness of that form for the work of thinking and praying. Thomas has, too, a curiously non-oblique way of offering his reader “Other Men’s Flowers”: ‘Markers’ (Mass) gives us a nonchronological canter through Western ontological thought that is plainly a sentimental education, but which for all its brilliance moves no more than the gaucherie of name-dropping. Or, in ‘The Elusive’, a poem in Furies which returns to the theme of the failure of the word (in this Thomas is, after all, as much a Heideggerian as he claims in ‘I’) an understated self-assessment of his achievement as a love poet is immediately gainsayed by the company he claims:
I will make many poems
in her honour, all of them failures.
Dante, what would you have done?
ap Gwilym, Catullus?
- an invocation that seems the clumsier for one’s feeling it should be earned.
Yeats is a frequently-nominated fellow-traveller: there are obvious analogies with his English-language reminiscences of Gaelic Ireland. But Yeats is too of course the poet of old age: and Thomas in these Hard Times perhaps needs a companion. What we read, though, is not “rage against the dying of the light” but a curious and gradual detachment from the messiness of matter. The opacity and resistance of land, character, our inability to see through (to) the other, are the substance of the first collections. Their titles record this: The Stones of the Field, An Acre of Land, The Minister, Song at the Year ‘s Turning. They record too the move to make an allegorical life for what is material - Poetry for Supper, Tares, The Bread of Truth, Pieta - and through to collections with titles like Laboratories of the Spirit and Ingrowing Thoughts.
“The best journey to make/ is inward” (‘Groping’). As he detaches himself from the cave of the corporeal, the subtle flame of Thomas’s painful identification with the earlier objects of his verse seems largely to go out. That fire was in any case often lit by the frisson on his readers’ lips of words like “stock” and “prototype”. Sometimes, too, there is in the earlier poems the conversational tone — “He died, you know”, “He’s a new man now", “Leave it, leave it” — that places the author in the narrator’s shoes more intimately than any amount of confession. But the rhythmic life of speech-patterns has no place in the pared-down diction that emerges, in poems long and thin as ladders - verticals which ascend, emulating perfection, rather than “delve”, emulating the archaeology Heaney’ s Wintering Out and North performed - from the collections, growing in frequency as their poet makes, certainly, some journey.
‘Welsh Landscape’ looks like their prototype: turning from “life” to “inbreeding”, the present “dusk” to a ghostly “old song”; but it is a poem of excavation. Besides, it is capacious enough for each phrase to have room of its own. Sometimes Thomas even gets to use the line-break as parenthesis:
It is to be aware
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods
Vibrant with sped arrows.
But the characteristic Thomas line-break resembles more a stumble than a step: a gasping, ugly progress that fights the sonorous rhythms of customary diction and suggests the hard work of the confessional:
God, on this latest stage
of my journey let me profit
from my inventions by christening
Here the grammatical symmetries of the second and third lines aren’t compensation for the discomfort of following a line which starts from a thumping invocation with three others starting respectively on two prepositions and a pronoun: one moreover for the object of the sentence. On the other hand, each line does run on until it reaches a next “stage” of significance: and this is the effect not only of gasping but of chant in the Anglican liturgy, where ministers in particular are required to pray at length on a single note. This is not to say that R.S. Thomas’s vertical poems reproduce the rhythm of the Common Prayer or of more recent liturgies, whose phrases are considerably lengthier. But it reminds us that they are notated in ways that tell us more about destinations than origins.
If Thomas is a sort of Platonic idealist whose God kicks a great deal of the ground from under his feet, his detachment has its human cost too. ‘Remembering’, one of the last poems in Furies, is a piece about tenderness in long marriage; perhaps, too, a love poem. A review quoted on the paperback cover describes it as “beautifully tender”. Yet it is not: as if frozen by too-long exposure on the mountains of North Wales, Thomas here seems only able to write love as a series of commands to a putative young husband:
“Love her now... Your part then...”.
The movement of the work into the reflective mode is so nearly Cartesian, so nearly reflexive, as to move us by the proximity of the narrator’s self when we meet the conceptual limits we so nearly fall for. For Thomas, the Cartesian mind and body were “corespondents in a divorce”. But Thomas is not “thinking he could think” Thomas. Instead, he searches for a relationship with God. Once again the subject is a false predicate: “It was not! I who lived, but life rather/ that lived me... There were only.. .the dismantling/ by the self of a self it/ could not reassemble” (‘In Context’). He is stubbornly Christian, picking his universal way through the slough of despond. Hypocrite lecteur! ... once again the reader feels the trap being set.
This rigorous humility, the doctrinaire compassion of ‘Remembering’, are as paradoxical as the trope to which Thomas turns and returns, perhaps advertently displaying the proximity of faith and doubt. The title poem of Mass for Hard Times - the form itself a triumph of scientific “naming” method in faith, though foreign to Thomas’s own “priestly” practice - offers us a virtuoso display of paradox and irony, from the examples of human potency in the Kyrie’s plea for mercy to the questioning Credo and the losses and pains which the Benedictus blesses. (“Because we are full of pride! in our humility”: the sonority of what are almost now archaisms almost makes us forget that Eliot’s Thomas was here first.) The form these parts of the Mass employ, though - a bare listing of paradoxes that owes more to the versicles and responses of Common Prayer than to the closely-woven grammar of Latin prayer - is also articulated by other poems in the collection: ‘Requests’, ‘Question to the Prophet’, ‘The God’ and ‘Monday’s Child’, whose paradoxes overflow into an autonomous metaphorical life:
Let down at birth
into a dark well and
overflowing with it. To have
all this to spare, and the heart empty.
Though the diction is not naive this forced clumsiness seems to eschew synthesis on behalf of the poem as if eschewing “truth’s mirage”: yet that very forcefulness is itself dogmatic.
But to think about R. S. Thomas in paradox and irony is in any case to think in “Anglo-Welsh”. Repetition, the rhythm of prose, paradox: these are the tools with which metaphysical poetry struggles to make symbols of the material world, to illustrate if not experience the immanence of the immaterial. This isn’t Hopkins’s project, but it represents a strand of Welsh writing in English, one in which Thomas’s poetry is undoubtedly situated. The tropes we’re hearing are those of Herbert and Vaughan: “The Country Clergy” in whose “old rectories” R.S. Thomas too has sat; alone. His claim that “They left no books” reads almost like an anxiety about paternal influence.
If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em. Negotiating an identity as complex as Thomas’s, in a world of numinous borders where an Anglican clergyman can support militant Welsh-language activism, can be difficult: “I must stay here with my hurt” (from the brusquelytitled ‘Here’). The existence of God provides a touchstone of authenticity: something about the possibility and application of which Thomas shows anxiety even in 1963, when he is still living some part of his life through the medium of English. “I’m Welsh, see:! A real Cymro,! Peat in my veins”: authenticity uncouples the hyphens of Anglo-Welshness. The dream of authenticity is less suited to obliquity than to hyperbole: “Pryterch, 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?” (‘Absolution’). In the end the poet seems to prefer certainty to another kind of capability. The definition is a characteristic ending to a prolonged conceptual climb: “which is the...”, “who is...”, “that is the...”.
The cumulative familiarity of these phrases, and the finitude of the poems so ended, identifies a certainty oddly different from that numenosity which we expect to suit not only the poetic pesona but also, as those poems claim, the “priestly” role of speaking to a “great void” (‘Adjustments’). “Because you are not there/ When I turn, but are in the turning” (‘Mass’), Thomas’s God, who hides in a nest of metaphors - an owl, the North Pole, and perhaps “love” too - is most really present in the very provisionality of faith: and in the provisionality of the attempt to have faith rather than in a sort of fruitful occupation (“never arrive to breed”) of “the climate of our conception” (‘Migrants’).
But as God retreats from R.S. Thomas’s verse through “a universe drawing/ away from us at the speed of light” (‘Tell Us’), the poet too seems to slip and shape-shift within the ambiguity of an identity whose hyphens are already being tugged by chronology. Unlike those of his seventeenth-century peers, these theological struggles are no longer Everyman’s, and Thomas is probably no nearer speaking for Jago Prytherch in Mass and Furies than in his earliest ventriloquist attempts. That such ventriloquism is impossible Thomas in any case knows: “Withdrawing from the present,/ wandering a past that is alive/ in books only.” Still, dogged as lago Prytherch he climbs the mountain again - “You have either been up or you haven’t” (‘Alpine’), “to see far off the dream that is life:/ winged yachts hovering over/ a gentian sea; sun-making/ windscreens...” (‘Waiting’).
For it isn’t God we encounter on the mountainous Llyn, or Anglesey, but Thomas’s extraordinary lyric gift. Every so often he lets an image sing and, like a poacher, steals such a trick from Auden, or Larkin - “the motorist goes by insolently/ wagging his speedometer’s finger” (‘Come Down’) - the other Thomas - “She leaned over me/ and I saw through her hair/ the stars thawing” (‘The Case’) - or with an almost transatlantic rhythmic poise:
They are white moths
Over a dark water.
There are other surprising and human strengths in R.S. Thomas’s Collected Poems - the empathy and acuity of the portraits of paintings Between Here and Now, the humour of ‘Unposted’ - that indicate other kinds of poetry Thomas might perhaps have chosen to write. But the rarity of these images from “the dream that is life” in a career of some twenty-three collections creates a kind of void in which Thomas moves over the face of the reader’s waters like a discomforting wind:
Tuming aside, never meeting
In the still lanes, fly-infested,
Our frank greeting with quick smile,
You are the wind that set the bramble
Aimlessly clawing the void air.
It’s hard for us to read this poem ‘The Poacher’ without thinking of the “void” of Thomas’s own God: but also of the capacity for self - portraiture that this extraordinary provisional verse betrays.
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