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
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
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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