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Book reviews >

POET’S MEETING: George Herbert, R. S. Thomas and the argument with God

McFarland & Co/Eurospan £23.50 (0-7864-1693-9)

Reviwed by Ronald Blythe

A LONG time ago, I stood in R. S. Thomas’s church at Eglwys-fach, wondering what it must be like to be a communicant there; and later I stood on a platform in Ipswich introducing Thomas to a packed audience, and heard his voice. Last summer, I stood close to George Herbert’s dust at Bemerton and experienced the enormity of saying his words and my own in such a place.

And, of course, I am not alone in believing that these two priest-poets, separated by nearly four centuries, had to be brought together eventually as the best shared articulation of Anglicanism we are likely to hear. But I had not reckoned that the poetry editor of Spitball: The literary baseball magazine from Annville, Pennsylvania, would do this so perfectly.

William McGill moves about in the geography and language of Herbert’s England and Thomas’s Wales, and the Church of England and the Church in Wales, and also deeply and impressively in the incarnation, with the freshness of a spring day. No academic language to muffle the extraordinary language of Herbert and Thomas, no attempt to woo the reader with a thesis, just his own reading of these time-divided voices that continue to tell us about Christ, and which express the closeness and absence of God as, maybe, no other writers are able to.

At the end of his remarkable book McGill says: "For Herbert, the story of the cross was true, that Jesus, the Son of God, died there for man’s sins. The question is whether the individual can accept the consequences of that death, can by whatever means say, ‘Thy will be done.’ For Thomas, the question remained the cross itself. Yet, if he was uneasy with the story, he was no less uneasy with trivialisation of it in our own times, the ready de-mythologising, the rationalistic posturings, the peculiar assumption that somehow the discoveries of the vastness of the universe have dimin-ished God. Perhaps, after all, the cross must not mean, but simply be."

McGill begins his book with an examination of the dual calling that Herbert and Thomas experienced, that of priest and poet. Each of them chose to be remote from church politics. Herbert ministered in two tiny parishes for three years; Thomas was a rural clergyman for 42 years, and called his work "insignificant". Herbert, in his The Country Parson, said that such a calling was the most significant one a man could have.

Neither writer was able to admit being "called" to poetry, but both

of them revealed, over and over again, their delight and skill in the "craft" of it, Herbert especially. Unless to a few friends, Herbert was unknown as a poet in his lifetime. Thomas, famously to his annoyance, was a literary celebrity, and sometimes, like his God, a being in hiding.

McGill deals with the latter reality in Thomas’s work, quoting:

In 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.

 McGill notices "waiting" as a recurring theme in Thomas’s poems, and "hiding" as a theme in the work of both writers, Herbert tenderly accepting that "our life is hid with Christ in God." Thomas, testily answering a questioner, said, "Primarily I’m trying to find out what it means to use the word ‘God’ in the 20th century." Both of them sought the companionship of Jesus.

While the Lord was often on easy conversational terms with Herbert — it is enchanting to hear their talk — "for Thomas, God was more distant, or at least more often silent. Like Herbert, he addressed God directly in his poems, but, amidst the static of contemporary life, he seldom heard the answers — if there are any. . . Yet, for all that, he continued to struggle Jacob-like with the central question of Christianity, the Incarnate Word."

These two poets, so distant, so near to each other, continue to exercise an influence over the Church of England, if not on worldwide Anglicanism, which is aesthetic as well as religious, making its beliefs intellectually acceptable at a non-religious time, and the practice of those beliefs most beautiful. William McGill gives us a glimpse of their accomplishment, puzzling though it would have been for them.

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