God, the absentee father

by
21 September 2018

Richard Harries continues his exploration of the significance of faith for modern writers with the poet Edward Thomas

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Edward Thomas, b.1878, killed in the Battle of Arras 1917

Edward Thomas, b.1878, killed in the Battle of Arras 1917

AS A child, Edward Thomas was taken regularly to chapel, but loathed it. The language he writes about it is strong. The atmosphere he remembers is “a mild poison steadily creeping into me on all sides”. Chapel and Sunday school were to him “cruel ceremonious punishments”.

His father had originally been something of a free thinker, and Thomas also remembers some jocular sceptical conversations with his father about the devil. Something of this scepticism may have got early into Edward, which was reinforced later when his father became a regular chapelgoer. This was further strengthened by the fact that he came to hate his father.

In adulthood, his letters and poems express an entirely negative attitude to religion. In his war diaries, he notes that when someone tackles him about God and claims that marvellous escapes are ordained, he replies, “So are the marvellous escapes of certain telegraph poles, houses, etc.”

In one poem reflecting on the war, he wrote:

Men strike and bear the stroke
Of war as ever, audacious or resigned,
And God still sits aloft in the array
That we have wrought for him, stone-deaf and stone-blind.

(“February Afternoon”, in Longley (ed.), The Annotated Collected Poems of Edward Thomas, Bloodaxe Books, 2008)
 

THIS story of a conventional, often Evangelical, upbringing, and reaction against it, is one of the familiar narratives in 19th- and early-20th-century literature. But, if many became agnostics or atheists, often combining this with some form of socialism, others took another path and became Roman Catholics or Anglo-Catholics.

Ronald Knox, one of the best-known Roman Catholics of the day, and one of the cleverest men of his generation, was the son of an Evangelical Bishop of Liverpool. In his autobiography, he said a man must have a religion, and it must be different from that of his father.

This is a profound psychological truth, which fitted the pattern of many at that time: one that involved both continuity and discontinuity with a formative upbringing. Whether that path rather than the other was taken depended on many factors: the people encountered, the milieu inhabited, and the experiences that life offered.

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All we can say is that none of these factors in the life of Edward Thomas were such as to take him on that path to a renewed understanding of religious faith, even though it was clearly a path that appealed to many people with a similar intellectual and aesthetic temperament. Yet the poetry of Thomas has a haunting quality, recognised by all his readers — a longing for something just beyond the horizon: what I term an “elusive call”.

I will look briefly at three such people (who all have a chapter to themselves later in this book, but for whom one aspect of their experience is relevant here).

C. S. LEWIS (1898-1963) also fought in the First World War, and, for the first part of his life, was a militant atheist. In his autobiography, he writes about the touch of beauty, longing, and loss in a way that resonates with Edward Thomas. He argued that, although we tend to locate the touch of glory in the past, sometimes in childhood — as in Wordsworth and Traherne — it escapes us even there because it is, in fact, a touch from beyond, a touch of heavenly glory.

In a wonderful wartime essay, he writes about this glory in these words: “We do not want merely to see beauty. . . we want something else that can hardly be put into words — to be united to the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

He suggests that this is what we see in the myths of gods and goddesses, and in the biblical picture of heaven: “At present. . . we cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. . . We are summoned to pass in through nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects” (“The Weight of Glory”, in Transposition and Other Addresses, Geoffrey Bles, 1949).

We could say that Lewis shared something of the temperament of a late Romantic, but after his conversion to Christianity discovered that the tantalising, elusive quality he had met in experiences of beauty found its fulfilment in a divine beauty.

Thomas ended his poem “The Glory” by saying, “I cannot bite the day to the core.” For Lewis, this desire to pass into beauty and become part of it became focused on the glory of God.

The remarkable Frenchwoman Simone Weil used a similar image in writing about beauty: “It is a sphinx, an enigma, a mystery which is painfully tantalising. We should like to feed upon it but it is merely something to look at, it appears only from a certain distance. The great trouble in human life is that looking and eating are two different operations. Only beyond the sky, in the country inhabited by God, are they one and the same operation” (Waiting on God; Fontana, 1959).

ANOTHER interesting comparison with Edward Thomas is T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), who was just ten years younger than Thomas. He was shaped not just by the fin de siècle and the impact of the world war, but by the broken, crazy aftermath, which he reflected so sharply in his earlier poetry.

Like Thomas, he is concerned with time. But, whereas for Thomas past, present, and future are seen as a whole, in a unified narrative, in Eliot the past and the future, in their different ways, have their focus mainly in the present, and what matters is our awareness of this, the still point of the turning world, the timeless moment.

It is most powerfully visualized in “Little Gidding”:

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

(T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets; Faber & Faber, 1959)
 

Thomas in his poetry conveyed those still, silent moments. But with him we remain lingering with them as in “Adelstrop”. For Eliot, they have another dimension; for it is in these moments that we are aware of “A condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)”. This is always a matter of “Quick now, here, now, always” (Four Quartets)

THE final point of comparison I want to make is with the later Thomas, R. S., born in 1913. Thomas was a very serious birdwatcher, but birds in his poetry do not carry the resonance they have for Edward. They are not a vehicle for a call beyond themselves. In one poem, the call of a bird reveals a farmer’s loneliness. In another, the rareness of a rare bird is like the rareness of moments of grace in prayer; in another beautiful lyric to his wife after her death, he compares her to a light bird.

More central to R. S. Thomas is the theme of the absence of God, his elusiveness, his always going before. We never find him, but only the place where he has been. In short, there is not a yearning for something unformulated, but the exploration of a God who by definition cannot be with us in any obvious sense.

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As with Lewis and Eliot, feelings and attitudes that at another time and in another person might have taken a rather different form became focused and channelled by a religious vocabulary. In a later chapter on R. S. Thomas, I quote a poem and a piece of prose on the theme of Abercauwg, in which the poet suggests the essential elusiveness of God.

What was, in Edward Thomas, an unaccounted-for sense of dissatisfaction becomes in R. S. Thomas an elusiveness that is accepted and integrated, because it accords with his fundamental view of human existence and belief in a God whom we can never properly grasp.

This is an edited extract from Haunted by Christ: Modern writers and the struggle for faith by Richard Harries, just published by SPCK at £19.99 (CT Bookshop £16.99).

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