I have seen it standing up grey,
Gaunt, as though no sunlight
Could ever thaw out the music
Of its great bell: terrible
In its own way, for religion
Is like that. There are times
When a black frost is upon
One’s whole being, and the heart
In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.
But who is to know? Always,
Even in winter in the cold
Of a stone church, on his knees
Someone is praying, whose prayers fall
Steadily through the hard spell
Of weather that is between God
And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain
That brings the sun and afterwards flowers
On the raw graves and throbbing of bells.
R.S. Thomas (1913-2000) from Collected Poems – 1945-1990, Phoenix Press, 1995
“I don’t deny’ he said, that there would be priests to remind men that one day they will die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have other kinds of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet.
G.K. Chesterton, from Manalive
Poet priest. R.S. Thomas was the literal thing, an Anglican priest who wrote poems that travelled outside his native Wales like trumpet blasts from inside a cold, still place. The world heard him, he was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1996, but this poet, some say flinty, difficult, wrote no easy bromides against his own doubts. He is a poet of religious faith, but it is hard won. When Thomas sees God it is a fleeting sighting at best. Where he most often finds God is in God’s absence.
It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter
from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism
of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews
at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?
from Collected Poems 1945 – 1990
Thomas lived up to Chesteron’s definition: he reminds us we aren’t dead yet but he never sugarcoats what it is to be alive still! His poem, The Word spells that out with a haunting simplicity. It is not his most crafted, nor most lyrical, but this poem characterizes Thomas for me. It is unflinching and uncompromising like the Welsh landscape he and his words are so rooted inside.
A pen appeared, and the god said
“Write what it is to be
Man”. And my hand hovered
long over the bare page,
until there, like footprints
of the lost traveler, letters
took shape on the page’s
blankness, and I spelled out
the word “lonely”. And my hand moved
to erase it; but the voices
of all those waiting at life’s
window cried out loud: “It is true”.
from Collected Later Pems 1988 – 2000, Bloodaxe Books Ltd., 2004
Is it true? This poem strips away any of my pretences that it isn’t. Inside the heart-cracking silence of these words is the truth of my human loneliness that no busyness or endless distractions can dispel. This poem reminds to feel my loneliness. Live inside it. When I do, my poems come out of that dark wood and I become the deer, transfixed. Ears rigid, up, do I bolt or do I stay?
Luckily for us Thomas certainly stayed when poetry approached. He was prolific. If you haven’t read him take a try. If ever a poet strikes deep inside my humanity on all my days – the ones when I am a believer in God and the days I am not – it is Thomas. If nothing else he reminds me to stay alive, awake and look for the “little” miracles, the ones that might be the “big” miracles after all.
Here is one of his finest poems. One I first heard in a restored “great house” in Ireland run by Roman Catholic nuns. Perfect setting. I still remember the vast green lawns and the over-arching Yew trees; the cold smell on the way to the chapel in the basement.
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
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding 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 it is the eternity that awaits you.
from Collected Poems – 1945 – 1990
I won’t ask Thomas about poetry! But I will listen to his wonderful answer!
‘Don’t ask me…’
Don’t ask me;
I have no recipe
for a poem, You
know the language,
know where prose ends
and poetry begins.
There should be no
introit into a poem.
The listener should come
to and realize
verse has been going on
for some time. Let
there be no coughing,
no sighing. Poetry
is a spell woven
by consonants and vowels
in the absence of logic.
Ask. no rhyme
of a poem, only
that it keep faith
with life’s rhythm.
Language will trick
you if it can.
Syntax is words’
way of shackling
the spirit. Poetry is that
which arrives at the intellect
by way of the heart.
R.S Thomas from Collected Later Poems 1988-2000, 2004
In a small collection – R.S. Thomas – Poems – published under the imprint Phoenix Poetry through The Orion Publishing Group, I discovered this poem, aching in its tenderness, its gentle lyricism:
under a shower
Fifty years passed,
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
‘Come,’ and death,
choosing her as his
the last dance. And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.
from R.S. Thomas – Poems, The Orion Publishing Group, 2002