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Sun on a winter landscape

28 March 2013

A posthumous collection of poems by R. S. Thomas has been published to mark tomorrow's centenary of his birth. Martyn Halsall looks at the poems from an Easter perspective

THE Welsh poet R. S. Thomas spent his writing life patrolling borders between faith and doubt, contending cultures and their languages, and the desolation of Good Friday and the glad morning of Easter Day.

If Thomas had gone early to the garden, he would more likely have written about birdsong or chilled dew than an empty tomb, although its vacancy would have engaged him. He remains interpreted through paradox. The editors of this new collection do not mention Thomas's religious preoccupations in their introduction.

They list "the matter of Wales" among his most prominent themes. Thomas stalks these Golgotha landscapes, pitying its people. His most frequently referenced guide - perhaps negotiator - is the peasant hill-farmer Iago Prytherch, in "Auguries" decoding the nature of Nature.

As a young farmhand, "following the plough cloudward", he not so much saw the light, like a classic convert, but "knew" the light as it disclosed a dying year:

. . . a sign
Of frost to follow with the bestial night
Coiled at its root.

Prytherch "read the sign aright", although over-optimistically about the length and severity of winter. For all its power and parable, Thomas suggests, such darkness in the natural world remains dominant, even when it is read in daylight.

The publication of 139 "lost" poems, published previously in magazines or journals, but not in his many collections, offers refreshed perspectives on a Welshman who wrote his poetry in English, a Christian believer frequently most conscious of God by his absence, and a private man on a global stage, spotlit by a nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

THESE "uncollected" poems also illustrate the range of Thomas's work: his precise imagery; his prophetic anger as the natural world is threatened by "the machine"; and his fierce identity as a Welsh person, particularly around the time of the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales.

There is, too, his lingering lament for existence, endured by the economically and spiritually impoverished hill-farming communities, and, balancing the steel within such an uncompromising writer, an attentive sensitivity to a bird's song, or the deepening delights of a long marriage.

He noted and analysed everything. He saw a farmer whose 

. . . plough was stopped in the top corner
Of a field he has just roofed.

Writing "In Memory of Ted Hughes", he recalls both poet and fisherman seeing in a river's reflection 

even as I do, a god
hiding his face.

R. S. THOMAS grew up in Holyhead, where a sea-going father seems to have conditioned his theology of absence. He read classics at Bangor, and, after ordination, served in remote parishes. Thomas later wrote a characteristically detached memoir, No-one, in Welsh, in the third person.

His solitary childhood appeared to endure, despite the societal urge to "grow up" that he records in "The Orphan", published after 1971:

But there is that crying
within of the young child
who has fallen and will not
pick itself up and is
unconsoled, knowing there
is nobody for it to run to.

This forms the penultimate poem in this collection, spanning Thomas's 60 years of published poetry.

A foundation of such isolation set him apart from parishioners that he visited; and also from God, whom he similarly appeared to encounter through duty rather than joyful recognition. If there is poetic consolation here, it comes with Thomas's equally acerbic autobiographical assessment. In "Autobiography", he imagines himself in the womb: 

Could it be said, then,
I am on my way, a nonentity
with a destination? 

His relation to "home" is acidic:

my life I must swim
out of the suction of its vortex.

SOMETIMES, as in "Two Versions of a Theme", beauty breaks through, even within a funeral congregation that he despises - "You couldn't, I thought, ask for A seedier crowd - and the "cant" of the liturgy. As he is leaving, he hears hymn-singing, and realises that the hills are also mourning. 

For a long moment
The music became the poem, that became you.

Land, people, and questionable presence also come together in chilled Welsh theology, as where "the veined hand of God" is possibly "lifted to bless the despised sod?" ("Proportions"). But this is also a negotiated interpretation; speculation around someone who looks at trees and sees "timber" rather than beauty. In "Original Sin", he realises that it is pointless to explore such beliefs with "the man in the fields with his half grin", whose work will be blessed naturally by the sun.

Instead, he turned to a "Farm-hand" as practical theologian:

I have seen you kneeling
In the wet furrows, as though you prayed,
Through the long silences, to the earth mother
For testimony. 

THIS raises, as in "Everywhere", the issue of where an ultimate answer might be found: 

Is it from without
The answer is to come? I get no nearer,
Seeking with as much patience within.

Yet, when presence is encountered, Thomas finds within it a definition of eternity. On a bleak coast, he asks:

Yet why, if there were no God,
had I been brought there? To discover
him in silence or rather in his absence?

The answer is that creation proclaims God's presence:

Suddenly I understood: the heaving
of the water was himself breathing. The age was to remind how young
was a presence that had been there
for ever.

Perhaps he came late, yet gracefully, to the garden? In "Easter. I approach", published nine years after his death, he reviews life in images of death. There is his life, or priesthood, labelled "the years' empty tomb"; his theology, "the news worth communicating?"; his preaching, the largely forgotten "word's loincloth", and the "brittle bundles" of evidence for the purpose of human existence that drive him to tears.

Yet in abandoning even such frail evidence of remembrance, he discerns: 

an absence so much richer
than a presence

The "skull's leer", reminiscent of Hamlet's debates, that he embraces elsewhere is replaced by something "so much richer". He has nothing "to hold on to", yet there remains

an impalpable possibility
for faith's fingertips to explore.

Dr Martyn Halsall is the Poet in Residence at Carlisle Cathedral, and the poetry editor of Third Way.

R. S. Thomas: Uncollected poems, edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies, is published by Bloodaxe Books at £9.95 (Church Times Bookshop £8.95); 978-1-85224-896-3.


Easter. I approach
the years' empty tomb.
What has time done with
itself? Is the news worth
the communicating? The word's
loincloth can remember
little. A thin, cold wind
blows from beyond the abysm
that I gawp into. But supposing
there were bones; the darkness
illuminated like a museum?
In glass cases I have
peered at the brittle bundles,
exonerating my conscience
with mortality's tears.
But here, true to my name,
I have nothing to hold on
to, an absence so much richer
than a presence, offering
instead of the skull's
leer an impalpable possibility
for faith's fingertips to explore.


I had never been there before,
nor maybe had anyone else,
though the ring contradicted,
remembering the long oars
and the galleys like shadows
that came with the rising sun
and the frost on their armour.

What was the song from the rocks,
grey seals or the carolling of mermaids?
I had believed anything
in the half light with the great sea-horses
straining at their bridles.
God was never in charge here,
I repeated, eyeing the wrinkles 

in worn cheeks too old to be human.
Yet why, if there were no God,
had I been brought there? To discover
him in silence or rather in his absence?
Suddenly I understood: the heaving
of the water was himself breathing.
The age was to remind how young

was a presence that had been there
for ever. I realised the wideness
of the sky was his face gazing;
that the curvature of ocean
was the emblem of a mind
rounded like space yet always expanding,
so the keeled stars could navigate him for ever.


Do you know the light when the hedge leaves are thinned
By September gales? Prytherch knew it, too,
In the old days when he was a lad like you,
Following the plough cloudward, sowing the wind
With squalls of gulls at every furrow end.
Eyes greying with the dawn, boots bright with dew,
He walked these fields and gathered as they grew
The fresh mushrooms with the wet rind.
He saw also the armoured holly shine
Down to its spurs on many a matchless day
Of sunny calm, and took it for a sign
Of frost to follow with the bestial night
Coiled at its root. He read the sign aright,
But never dreamed how long the cold would stay.

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