As Reviewed By:
Collected Later Poems by R. S. Thomas. Bloodaxe, 2004. 368 pages, $25.95.
I that have not your faith, how shall I know
—W. B. Yeats, King and No King
The tensions holding the early work of Welsh poet R. S. Thomas aloft were always clear. As a Welshman who only learned his native tongue as an adult, he never composed poetry in Welsh, but nonetheless chose that landscape and people as his defining theme. As a nationalist seeking to valorize his people and land, Thomas was nonetheless unflinchingly critical of both. As an Anglican priest charged with serving various parishes, he wrote early poems that struggle with his public role and with the way his own struggle to justify the ways of man to God might affect that role. By the middle phase of his career, his concerns had grown somewhat more abstract, dangling tentatively between his personal and public concerns, lapsing here into polemic, there into characterless theology; the most successful poems of this period illustrated the threat of technology with the same cruel empathy shown the farmers of his earlier work, or else made small epics of the hunt for God in a world whose answers came, increasingly, from science.
Having served in various parishes throughout
Wales, Thomas settled, during the mid-1970's, in the parish of Aberdaron,
on the Liyn peninsula, to serve out the remainder of his term as a vicar.
When he reached retirement age, however, he balked:
The governing body of the Church in Wales had ruled that a clergyman was free to retire at sixty-five if he so wished; but had no choice about going at the age of seventy. R. S. wasn't keen to remain as vicar to face the reformed services, along with the complications that were bound to arise following the attempt to unite the denominations. At the same time he was fond of the vicarage. While Sarn-y-Plas, the cottage in Y Rhiw was too small, there was plenty of space in the vicarage. Along the walls there were his wife's paintings, and in many rooms thousands of books of all kinds—excellent furniture. It would be more convenient to stay on and, having reached compulsory retirement age, to remain and do voluntary work in the parish. He wrote to the bishop to ask whether he wanted to appoint a successor. If not, R. S. would be willing to stay on in the living on the conditions mentioned. It was a disappointing answer that he received. So he wrote back to give the required notice of his intention to retire at the end of six months, when he would be sixty-five. He also determined to retire in the full sense of the word, and did not apply for the bishop's license that would have enabled him to minister in the diocese. So it is that, seven years later, the parish of Aberdaron is still without a vicar.
This passage, from Thomas' autobiographical essay “No-one,” sketches the somewhat messy resolution of a struggle central to his verse: between the sense of duty he felt toward the Church and his parishioners and the marked ambivalence toward the same. Thomas, by his own admission, would have been happier wandering the woods spotting birds than tending to a flock he found both reprehensible and possessed of nearly incomprehensible, nearly alien depth.
As his retirement gradually disentangled him from churchly duties, Thomas devoted more time to Welsh nationalism and the anti-nuclear and environmental movements, as well as to poetry and prose. By the time of The Echoes Return Slow, the first work compiled in the collection under consideration here, the tensions that underpinned his early work had turned inward and joined with the more abstract tone of his middle period to form a style that eclipsed his earlier work—already quite strong—and presented his readership with a significant body of late poems, the power and grace of which put him in the rare company of other artists whose careers ended with a final, stunning burst of creativity:
You waited with impatience
life! must one swear to the truth of a song?”
—Matthew Prior, A Better Answer
Thomas' book of autobiographical essays written in Welsh,
translated into English and collected under the apt title Autobiographies,
is a fine, though not essential, companion piece to The Echoes Return
Slow, the experimental, impressionistic collage of prose and verse
that opens the Collected Later Poems. This autobiographical turn
was a new, and crucial, step in the career of a poet whose work always
displayed a concern for the shape of his career (as the truncation of
Thomas' first Collected Poems at the year 1986 attests, despite the
collection's subtitle “1945-1990”); in that collection a single poem,
a leave-taking written for Thomas's deceased wife, represents the years
1987-1990, despite the appearance of two more books of poetry during that
period. The Echoes Return Slow, along with Autobiographies,
opens a new chapter, as the poet seems well aware:
sea at his window was a shallow sea; a thin counterpane over a buried
cantref. There were deeper fathoms to plumb, 'les délires
des grandes profondeurs', in which he was under compulsion to give away
whatever assurances he possessed. He was too insignificant for it to be a
kind of dark night of the soul.
Hear me. The hands
The titleless, episodic narrative structure persists in 1990's Counterpoint,
as does the snug blending of abstraction and specificity, while previous
themes from the poet's career resurface and mix as well to produce an
autobiography of spiritual struggle, a sort of 20th century update of
Herbert's The Temple, with a keen eye on the 21st:
There must be the mountain
Both of these works, while coherent works of art unto themselves, serve
(in the context of the Collected Later Poems) as foundations for
the poems that follow. By exhuming the story of his life and spiritual
struggle, Thomas introduced a personal dimension to his persona—one that
had been missing from his earlier work—and thereby prepared the way for
a revitalized return to the main thoroughfare of his poetics: a second
coming of sorts, but instead of coming back to judge mankind, Thomas'
return brought him closer to his own humanity.
Duty, in that a Priest is to do that which Christ did, and after his
manner, both for Doctrine and Life.” —George
Herbert, The Country Parson
Readers who find themselves uncomfortable with religious poetry would do well to avail themselves of Thomas' ouevre, as the portrait of God which emerges is so extraordinarily complex that even strict atheists can find a sort of salvation in the fearless honesty of his vision. A far cry from the caricature of religiosity perpetuated by instructors of poetry workshops—recognizable by references to “the muse” or “the finding of voice”—Thomas's relationship to his God was painfully intimate. As his late poems found new footing after scaling the hilltop of autobiography, this intimacy grew more concrete, tethering the poet's metaphysical abstractions to the earth:
Not to worry myself any more
Four books of poems published during Thomas' lifetime are
represented here, along with a fifth, collected posthumously, that
displays most of the virtues and vices of any such undertaking.
Nonetheless, there are startlingly fine poems to be found even in the
posthumous hodgepodge, including some rather funny, if not exactly
lighthearted, poems from an author whose detractors have frequently called
attention to the grim eye with which he viewed this world.
When the Collected Later Poems is set side-by-side with the Collected Poems 1945-1988, the result is a formidable 800+ page behemoth, one that intimidates by virtue of the humility of its careful craft while giving poets of lesser commitment—let alone skill—a righteous slap across the face. Thomas has catalogued the sensations of mind, spirit, and place with the thoroughness one might expect of an ardent bird-watcher, his eye and ear attuned to the shifting of seasons, to subtle changes in the wind, to the disappointment arising from mankind's blundering intrusions, and to the joy which comes from a momentary glimpse of a species so rare, its very existence had come into doubt.