Collected Later Poems by R. S. Thomas. Bloodaxe, 2004. 368 pages, $25.95.
As Reviewed By: Marc Pietrzykowski
“And I that have not your faith, how shall I know
That in the blinding light beyond the grave
We’ll find so good a thing as that we have lost?”
—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.[private]
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:
“Odds 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:
The 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
pointed, the eyes
closed, the lips move
as though manipulating
soul’s spittle. At bedsides,
in churches the ego
reviews its claim
to attention. The air
sighs. This is
the long siege, the deafness
of space. Distant stars
are no more, but their light
nags us. At times
in the silence between
prayers, after the Amens
fade, at the world’s
centre, it is as though
love stands, renouncing itself.
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
receiving its degree
in purple and ermine;
and the girl with the drained face
moving the beholder
to ecstasy and grief.
There must be the skull
with spectacles on it
seeing what none see,
and the fly in the web
with its decibels of musica
not attained to before.
All these must be there
as so many threads
of the garment without seam.
And to enthrall the journey
that has no ending, once in a while
the falling of his shadow.
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.
“The 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
if I am out of step, fallen behind.
Let the space probes continue;
I have a different distance to travel.
Here I can watch the night sky,
listen to how one grass blade
grates on another as member
of a disdained orchestra.
There are no meetings to attend
now other than those nocturnal
gatherings, whose luminaries
fell silent millennia ago.
No longer guilty of wasting
my time, I take my place
by a lily-flower, believing
with Blake that when God comes
he comes sometimes by way
of the nostril. My failure, perhaps,
was to have had no sense of smell
for the holiness suspiring from forked humans.
I count over the hours put by
for repentance, pulling thought’s buildings
down to make way for the new,
fooling myself with the assurances
that when he occurs it is as the weather
of prayer’s forecast, never with all
the unexpectedness of his body’s
lightning, naked upon a cross.
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.[/private]