Vol 29 No 1
R.S. Thomas's Existential Agony
He looked over
the world's edge and nausea
(The Echoes Return Slow, p. 49)
We have all, perhaps, heard enough about Prytherch, but what about Evans?
Evans? Yes, many a time
I came down his bare flight
Of stairs into the gaunt kitchen
With its wood fire, where crickets sang
Accompaniment to the black kettle's
Whine, and so into the cold
Dark to smother in the thick tide
Of night that drifted about the walls
Of his stark farm on the hill ridge.
It was not the dark filling my eyes
And mouth appalled me; not even the drip
Of rain like blood from the one tree
Weather-tortured. It was the dark
Silting the veins of that sick man
I left stranded upon the vast
And lonely shore of his bleak bed.
The movement is down the purgatorial steps into the dark where the living man drowns and has added to his pains the responsibility for the man he has left behind him in bed. This image of Evans dying in his Welsh hill-top farm is an archetypal statement of the modem malaise and R.S. Thomas's finest contribution to the literature of existentialism. Nothing alleviates Evans's expiry, neither the visit of the man (who might be his priest) nor the echo of the Christian crucifixion in the weather-tortured tree; it remains only "Weather-tortured", incapable of yielding a meaning from the sacrifice. As so often in Thomas's poetry, the metaphors point not outward to some transforming purpose but inward towards the physical universe: the night reminds him of the tide, the rain of blood, the veins of rivers, a bed of a shore perhaps the same shore that Sophocles heard long ago in the Aegean:
the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery;...
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full,...
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar
And behind Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach' lies George Herbert's "rope of sands" in 'The Collar' which once expressed an operating faith. The river of life clogs up a dying man's breath as it empties into the sea of death. Evans's house is "bare" and "gaunt", his farm "stark"; only the crickets on the hearth offer a temporary alleviation of the mood before they, too, are swept away by the kettle's "whine”. Here is a drama of a bleak universe, sustained by breath only so long as breath lasts - and then not at all. It is the world of Beckett's tramps, of Graham Greene's "abandoned" universe, of religious men staring into the void, the void of Camus's “absurd" and Sartre's "nausea", the "dark night" Robert Lowell so memorably defined in 'Skunk Hour'; it is a realm of duty and responsibility. The ghost of Christian witness hovers behind the scene, but it cannot be its activating principle. It is, after all, God who has deserted the universe. No living God could permit Evans's death. The dark night is thus not a night of the soul; it reveals the soul's emptiness. It may contain echoes of the past but it cannot reanimate the faith as hinted at by the weather-tortured tree or the armed warriors of Wales's heroic past that Thomas mentions in some of his other poems. The emptiness brings back the echoes. Evans dies bereft of consolation and the poet is "appalled" (a nicely-punning word).
Pity for Evans is not the only reason for his reaction. He has discovered that Evans's existence is only another version of Kant's "uncertainty faced with a world / of [the mind's] own making ('Green Categories'). As 'The Epigraph' puts it, considering the world of facts:
Each day I had to begin
Their assembly, as though it were I
who contrived them.
Like Lowell, Thomas climbs his hill of agony only to find that "We are all alone", The realisation is both a torment and a true beginning, and its consequences are to be traced in the image of a man kneeling silently at prayer on cold floors in empty stone churches or' staring at the geological strata in the rocks before him, At that point, we recall Wallace Stevens's snow man, the one who, nothing himself, perceives the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
The interesting point is that Thomas's empty world would exist whether or not Wales had had a harmonious past and whether or not faith had once been a more active reality. The nothingness' is a universal phenomenon, not dependent on Wales's particular condition or the character of its religious observances. Others than Prytherch have discovered that there is
no forward and no back
In the fields, only the year's two
Solstices, and patience between.
At first, the shock of realisation led Thomas to write his many poems about Prytherch, the 'half-witted, bestial labourer, albeit enduring. The view gradually widened to include Thomas himself, one who, reflecting on the pre-Cambrian formations at Braich-y-Pwll, declared himself to be a "neb", no-one, anyone, an "ordinary man", like Prytherch ploughing his way through a "stiff sea of clods". It is what Wallace Stevens had in mind when he defined 'The Emperor of Ice-Cream', ironically presenting the ruler of a transient, trivial reality -the world about us. Here is R.S. Thomas's existential moment, a "spot of time" that reveals humanity's insubstantiality before the geological cosmos. His grief is truly Arnoldian; a man of God discovers in himself "the molecule's and the blood's virus" ('Amen').
Evans's fate had been anticipated in 'The Airy Tomb':
...You must face the fact
Of his long life alone in that crumbling house
With winds rending the joints, and the grey
Sharp in the thatch; of his work up on the moors
With the moon for candle, and the shrill rabble
Crowding his shoulders...
where youth and age
Met in the circle of a buzzard's flight
Round the blue axle of heaven...
--- a heaven that is like the weather-tortured tree of 'Evans' and implies a Christian system of values, but one that has been superseded by the suffering which the poem locates in crumbling house, grey rain, shrill rabble of stars, buzzard's flight. D.Z. Phillips has written of Thomas:
When he looks at the facts that confront him, they are not facts which seem to get their sense from an integrated whole... there is no large sense to be found; there is simply the sense of this, that and the other thing.
(R.S. Thomas, Poet of the Hidden God, London, 1986, p. 42)
And one of these things is God, but he rests alongside many others. He is a contingent reality, part of a local weather that makes and unmakes itself from moment to moment. In 'The Airy Tomb', the rain and the wind, the crumbling house, the moors, stars and buzzards are itemised in Thomas's finest style. They recall the farm, the hill, darkness and rain of 'Evans'. These are the constants of R.S. Thomas's early poetry. The later poems are more abstract, though still powerful in their way: "the void / over my head" ('The New Mariner' - no "blue axle of heaven" there!); "There is randomness / at the centre" ('Senior'); "the interval between here and now" ('Pluperfect'). Even more poignantly:
I have heard the still, small voice
and it was that of the bacteria
demolishing my cosmos...
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet.
The titles of Thomas's poems, as J.P. Ward has observed, repeat the point. They offer a laconic account of the absurd: 'This One', ‘Once’, ‘Here’, ‘He’, ‘So’, ‘Other’, ‘Thus’, ‘This’, 'That', 'Those Others', 'Then', 'There', 'Where', 'Somewhere', 'Suddenly', 'Again', 'Aside', 'No', 'Now', 'Ah', 'Who?', 'Whichr, 'Because', 'Gone?’, 'Perhaps'.
'Meet the Family' puts it another way:
John One takes his place at the table,
He is the first part of the fable;
His eyes are dry as a dead leaf.
Look on him and learn grief.
John Two stands in the door
Dumb; you have seen that face before
Leaning out of the dark past,
Tortured in thought's bitter blast.
John Three is still outside
Drooling where the daylight died
On the wet stones; his hands are crossed
In mourning for a playmate lost.
John All and his lean wife,
Whose forced complicity gave life
To each loathed foetus, stare from the wall,
Dead not absent. The night falls.
It is a ghastly horror, deliberately satirizing the hallowed iconography of Welsh family portraits pinned on living-room walls, a horror that is intensified by the play on " dead but not forgotten" in the last line. The "dark past" leads to the dark that engulfs both poet and dying man in 'Evans', just as the "dead leaf" recalls Evans's "weather-tortured tree" and leads to the "torture" of thought's bitter blast. The poet remains notably dry-eyed himself in all this, describing the horror unflinchingly, as if he were relating a nursery story for adults. It is the sort of thing Housman did so well:
The night my father got me
His mind was not on me;
He did not plague his fancy
To muse if I should be
The son you see.
The day my mother bore me
She was a fool and glad,
For all the pain I cost her,
That she had borne the lad
That borne she had.
My mother and my father
Out of the light they lie;
The warrant would not find them,
And here 'tis only I
Shall hang so high.
Oh let not man remember
The soul that God forgot,
But fetch the county kerchief
And noose me in the knot,
And I will rot.
For so the game is ended
That should not have begun.
My father and my mother
They had a likely son,
And I have none.
('The Culprit', Last Poems)
As Philip Larkin once said, your parents fuck you up.
Thomas returned to this theme again in 'Sorry'. It opens: "Dear parents, / I forgive you my life" .That is a way of putting it. In 'Walter Llywarch', he dwells on the lovelessness of "forced complicity". His hero recalls how he married,
as others had done
Before, a wife from the back pews
In chapel, rather to share the rain
Of winter evenings, than to intrude
On her pale body; and yet we lay
For warmth together and laughed to hear
Each new child's cry of despair.
A Hardyesque melodrama, ripe with anxiety. Sexual guilt and the dark, tortured hill have produced a view of birth as the continuation of an age-old tragedy. Men approach women sexually only to trespass on their bodies, while each new life adds a burden to the child born. The biological imperative drives to an act which, left to oneself, one would avoid.
The portrait of Prytherch differs from that of Evans and John All and Llywarch in that there is sufficient sympathy for him to lend his character a more complicated outline. He may taunt the poet with his "half-witted grin" and "the vacancy of his mind", developed over years of sour, animal-like sweating in the fields, but there is a sense of endurance in him, of contact with reality, that impresses. Not but what the Welsh are "an impotent people, sick with inbreeding" ('Welsh Landscape'), and the resulting tension leads to a number of paradoxes in Thomas's poetry. The reader who tries to impose a unity on them will be disappointed; the constants of R.S. Thomas's poetry attract his imagination precisely because he cannot give a satisfactory account of them. The existential darkness, indeed, inheres in the very notion of his writing poems in English, in his very status as a priest within the Church in Wales, and this kind of radical equivocation spreads through his subject matter. The natural drama of 'Evans' mutates in 'In a Country Church' into a vision of "love in a dark crown / of thorns blazing" before relapsing again. The "land's thug" described in 'The Survivor' becomes "an impregnable fortress / Not to be stormed even in death's confusion" in 'A Peasant' but nonetheless is no less a thug. God is absent but is present again before vanishing. Each new poem is a raid on experience which produces different results. There is no more absorbing sensation in reading Thomas's poems than discovering that each work is a new beginning, probing familiar material in fresh ways and always muscly with thought. The only principle that binds them to each other is uncertainty, an uncertainty composed of exploration, contradiction, refinement and restatement. Things are both one thing and another, something and nothing, a feature that J.P. Ward has related to the Protestant conscience (but then, for Thomas, Protestantism is also an "adroit castrator / of art" ('The Minister'). Matters are clarified only to slip again into the flux. The poet observes realities that continue to defy him; he is radically unstable. Inauthenticity, therefore, is at the heart of his work. Alone, at prayer,
I lift my face
to a face, its features dissolving
in the radiation out of a black hole.
(The Echoes Return Slow, p. 49)
How interesting it is that Thomas should have domesticated the language of science in his poems! At first, it was used to define the materialistic-technocratic nightmare, but in the end it emerges as part of his expression, a: medium like any other. It is as if, with Camus, he had concluded that:
What's natural is the microbe.
All the rest - health, integrity,
purity (if you like) - is a
product of the human will.
If that were Camus's condition, Thomas brings to it a very Camus-like determination:
...all our troubles spring from our failure
to use plain, clear-cut language. So
I resolved always to speak -and to
act -quite clearly, as this was the
only way of setting myself on the right
track. (The Plague)
Thomas has been famously plain-spoken - within the prevailing unclearess. Every poem represents an act of will with which he tries to beat a path, to habituate the microbe, to define its Christian antecedents. It is a painstaking effort: he must find a language that is exact, spare, solid, disciplined yet resonant. And the starting point for his endeavour was the Welsh hill farm upon which Evans expired. Read on the social level, Thomas's early poems are at odds with his later, non-specifically Welsh poetry, preoccupied with god, art and the universe; metaphysically, however, they are at one.
Think of 'The Village', which describes a huddle of buildings being eaten away by "the green tide / of grass" in a natural process of decay akin to the "moor's encroaching tide" in 'The Minister' and similar marine images elsewhere (for me, the most interesting feature of Thomas's style, related to the fact that his father was a sailor). Thomas goes on to describe three details: a black dog "cracking his fleas in the hot sun" (a desolate observation made marvellous by the energy of the phrase), a girl who goes from door to door, and the "too few houses", tavern and shop of the village. Here is a moment of time within the vast contingency of being that is the element of Thomas's poetry, a nothingness that happens to be somewhere. The dog's activity, trivial enough as it is, is nonetheless 'history' to a village in which "so little happens", while the girl is said to move "to a scale / Beyond... two dimensions". In the last lines, the village is related to a quasi-Platonic ideal in a Yeatsian gesture that aggrandises the ordinary. In 'A Welsh Testament', however, that world returns to being "a stage / of earth and stone" upon which the poet struts, an actor, with
the absurd label
Of birth, of race hanging askew
About my shoulders.
We live resolutely in time, though we slip out of it every now and then; all that endures within this rhythm is the moment that gives our contradictoriness a spin now this way, now that.
In 'In a Country Church', the poet kneels before his God, denied his "word" and hearing only "the wind's song", "the dry whisper of unseen wings, / Bats not angels, in the high roof" .If, eventually, the promised vision comes ("a winter tree / Golden with fruit of a man's body"), the transfiguration is impermanent. Like King Claudius in Hamlet, his words fly up to heaven while his thoughts remain below. In 'The Belfry', a "black frost" makes a "hard spell / Of weather" between his soul and the creator; there may be others for whom prayer is more effective – perhaps even the poet himself in different moods - "But who is to know?" Do they portend a thaw or not? Do we live with bats or angels? The hesitation is characteristic and resurfaces again in 'The Church', when bats fly about the empty stone church while a man nails his questions "One by one to an untenanted cross". The search for meaning continues.
The abandoned world of the welsh hill - farm is defined further in 'On the Farm', which tells of three individuals - Dai Puw, a hapless labourer, Llew Puw, his backward brother, and Huw Puw, a hopeless man. They share their lives with a girl, "beauty under spell of the beast", and, with her help, "read in life's dark book / The shrill sentence: God is love". It is an uncomfortably ironic moment. If God is love, then the Puws are his Forsterian 'ou-boum'. We are reminded of the finale of 'The Survivor', in which a bestial 85 year-old, a "slumped bundle of fat and bone", "sullen-eyed" and "warped inside", is told he must chew "the cud of prayer and be taught how / From hard hearts huge tears are wrung". The difficulty we have in finding the breath to aspire that last line mimics the difficulty of the thing Thomas is describing. So difficult is it that we doubt whether the Prytherch-like 'survivor' will ever attempt it. As soon expect him to do so as anticipate angels, not bats. Perhaps Wales was once upon a time a country where human beings chewed the cud of prayer; perhaps it was once peopled by princes who were anything but impotent. The present collapse, however, renders their presence a mere memory. The collapse seems final.
The meaning, accordingly, is not in repentance but in the waiting itself, as Thomas has observed. Some of the early poetry suggests that nature might be a fortifying agency (it is what the Reverend Elias Morgan, B.A., turns to at the end of 'The Minister'). In 'Tenancies', the blackbird offers love to the " gnarled hands" and "angry patience" of "pain's landscape", but the hope never materialises. More characteristic is 'Look' in which two cronies meet beneath a birch tree - a Beckettian moment. Like T.S. Eliot's wastelanders, they are "dying / And want[ing] to live" - two thieves on their way to meet, their fates beneath the untenanted cross; like, is Yeat's peasants they are knee-deep in mildew and pus and decay, without belief
in a god who made the world
For misery and for the streams of pain
To flow in.
In any case, faith must be tested
Not in dew nor in the cool fountain
Of beech buds, but in seas
Of manure through which they squelch
To the bleakness of their assignations.
Another Yeatsian moment. A faith in buds and dew cannot survive without immersement in the fury and the mire of human veins and, as it is immersed, so it is changes; it may even fail to survive the. cronies' bleak assignations. Is this Thomas's way of interpreting the belief that "the way down is the way up"? Perhaps. A more pertinent way of putting it would be to say that the way down and the way up mean relatively little to a man who has lost his sense of direction.
From the time of H'm (1972) on, Thomas has addressed these themes with an astringency which more than makes up for the loss of the old concrete virtues. Everything turns on what he calls
that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
This "great absence / that is like a presence" is what he defines as "God" ('The Absence'), the being who is "Never known as anything / but an absence" ('Adjustments'). That this should be so is just one more incongruity in Thomas's poetry, as is the fact that his search after God should involve such frequent quotation from those two great god-deniers, Yeats and Stevens. It is also remarkable that he should pursue God through what he calls "deciduous language" ('Postscript'), a favourite concept.
No wonder the transcendent truth will not come. Worse,
Within the churches
You built me you genuflected
To the machine.
It is the ultimate horror.
Thomas sometimes seems to regard failure as a necessary precondition of spiritual renewal; no failure, no incarnation, no incarnation, no sacrifice, no sacrifice, no mystery , no mystery, no God. Deciduous language may, after all, attempt heavenly realities. In other poems, however, the issue is left open. Welsh peasants wait for the end of their unasked-for lives; a priest wearily pursues his duties in a darkened, empty church. Whether the Cross “grinds into dust / under men's wheels or shines brightly / as a monument to a new era" remains unresolved. The poems themselves are defined as "probes" into “God-space" (a notable example of Thomas's appropriation of scientific language) ('The New Mariner'). Yet the finger that is extended in hope never makes contact.
we explore the universe
on our wave-lengths, picking up nothing
but those acoustic ghosts
that could as well be mineral
signalling to mineral
as immortal mind communicating with itself.
Such fundamental doubt leads Thomas to confess:
I have abandoned
my theories, the easier certainties
of belief. There are no handrails to
beyond there is the galaxies'
violence, the meaningless wastage
Is there a place
here for the spirit? Is there time
on this brief platform for anything
other than mind's failure to explain itself?
In 'The Moon in Lleyn', he tells how easy it would be to believe with Yeats that "Religion is over", that it is one of the "phases of the moon" that Yeats wrote about. Finally, however, he elects to remain on his knees; prayer, too, he says, has its phases. The conclusion is equivocal both careful and honest.
In his last two collections of verse (as opposed to the monothematic The Echoes Return Slow (1988) and Counterpoint (1990), Thomas's position has changed somewhat. In Experimenting with an Amen (1986) and Mass for Hard Times (1992), he continues his argument with Yeats, biology and God with a more pronounced Christian turn. This is especially true of Mass for Hard Times but which I think is his first book to be writer from a specifically Christian point of view (a surprise, perhaps, for those to whom the phrase 'poet-priest' comes too readily in discussion of Thomas). Even here, however, the old doubts persist:
The gyres revolve;
...From tyranny of the hand
We are delivered to the exigencies
of freedom, to the acknowledgement
by the unlimited of its limitations.
What power shall minister to us
at the closure of the century,
of the millenia? The god,
who was Janus-faced, is eclipsed
totally by our planet
Suspended in space, divided against ourselves, we float in the purest of existential agonies. Not surprisingly, the language Thomas uses to describe this position (as above) is heterodox, Yeatsian, Christian, philosophical, political, mythic, scientific, all in one.
Is there a far side
to an abyss, and can our wings
take us there? Or is man's
meaning in the keeping of himself
afloat over seventy thousand
fathoms, tacking against winds
coming from no direction,
going in no direction ?
The questions proliferate. In the bitterest of winters,
The priest lies down alone
face to face with the darkness
that is the nothing from which nothing
Thomas finally suffers Evans's fate. Even belief in God, as 'Moorland' puts it, is "here a moment, then / not here". "Doubtful / of God, too pusillanimous / to deny him" ('A Life'), the poet drifts away.
O thou, to whom...
out of date three hundred
There is the long sigh
from the shore, the wave clearing
its throat to address us, requiring
no answer than the due
we give these things that share
the world with us, that compose
A very Stevensian moment -- an Arnoldian one, too; we are back on the shore and the molecules bow down beneath "the clere-stories of blind space" ('Reply').
All these poems appear in Experimenting with an Amen; Mass for Hard Times is more positive, arguing that the old Stevens imperative - the belief "that nothing is nothing" - presupposes "that there must be something" ('Mass for Hard Times').
Let despair be known
as my ebb-tide; but let prayer
have its springs, too, brimming,
disarming him; discovering somewhere
among his fissures deposits of mercy
where trust may take root and grow.
It is as hopeful as R.S. Thomas has ever sounded. Whether his hope is substantial or simply another swing of the pendulum only time will tell. The bone that is beaten houses a mind that will soar, though it continues to speak in "the macaronics of time" of
brad, la vida
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