by R. S. Thomas
Penguin Modern Classics, £9.99, pp. 368, ISBN 0140188908
Some 40 years ago, about to sit an entrance scholarship for Aberyst-wyth, I got hold of some papers set in previous years. One I have found it impossible to forget. It was a paper of literary criticism, only there were no questions, just a poem you were asked to discuss. And it got worse, much worse. The poem was a carol.
Poems I thought I knew about: they were puzzles. Poems allowed me to write at length, using words whose meaning I was not entirely sure about, like ambiguity and irony. Yet here was something so simple, so clear, it had to be a trick. I stared as balefully as a used-car dealer at ‘In the bleak midwinter/ Frosty wind made moan…’ I was 16 years old, and had encountered the sneakiness of poets.
Even at the end they confuse you. When R. S. Thomas’s Collected Poems 1945-1990 came out the book weighed in at over 500 pages, and even then was not his collected poems but only something like two thirds of them. Thomas had left the work of assembling them to his son, and the publishers Dent having stipulated 500 pages, 500 pages they got. Now the Bloodaxe Later Poems appears, the collection of his subsequent work, and that is 368 pages alone. Were everything he ever wrote to be assembled in one book, that would be well over 1,000 pages.
Yet this was not a poet who went in for epic verse, or, like his countryman Sir Lewis Morris, would address a sonnet to a Trades Union Congress in Swansea, and so fill out an oeuvre and in turn, behind glass, fill out mahogany book-cases in cold parlours. This was the poet of minimalism, of short lines and white space, of slim volumes entitled H’m or Tares, who wrote this, from the Penguin Selected:
Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon,
Of the still scene.
And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.
It was just that we had forgotten how many slim volumes there had been (50 according to the Penguin Selected, which is coming it strong), and how much white space. It is even more startling now to be reminded of how prolific Thomas was in the last of his nine decades, that this saw a third of his total output in verse. But mostly these are not the lyrical poems I first read.
Then there were people in them, and landscapes, and agonised probes into what constituted a Welsh identity. There was great beauty: ‘The church stands, built from the river stone, /Brittle with light . . .’ and a precision to the language, as in this on the Welsh past — ‘We were a people taut for war’ — and a joy in this on a chapel deacon — ‘Who put that crease in your soul, Davies?’ In ‘The Survivors’, he told the story of his seaman father rescued on the coast of Argentina after six days afloat in an open dinghy without food:
From the swell’s rise one of them saw the
Of all that sea, where a lean horseman
Rode towards them and with a rope
Galloped them up on to the curt sand.
That last adjective is so perfect that the whole poem turns about it, this abrupt and prosaic moment of safety after the infinite anxieties of the previous days.
But then in the poems of subsequent decades, slowly, one by one, these things, people, landscape, beauty, disappeared. God appeared, a not wholly omnipotent or charitable figure, and the implacable machine, Thomas’s symbol for the technology that has come between man and his environment. If there was a landscape at all it was something glimpsed from space which at times seemed one of the covers of Astounding Science Fiction. The green had gone. a
What made us think
It was yours? Because it was signed
With your blood, God of battles?
It is such a small thing
Easily overlooked in the multitude
Of the worlds.
There were poems to philosophers now, about paintings, poems that came in clumps called ‘Minuet’, ‘Sonata’, ‘Carol’. There was little imagery and few metaphors, these were abstract poems, of the study, not of personal experience. Thomas had come in from the open air.
Those in the Bloodaxe Later Poems are different again. Garrulous now, he wrote occasional poems, one on Mrs Thatcher, another on dinner parties, others on places abroad he had visited (there were two on Prague), and some were doodles in words. The odd thing about these is that you can start reading one, turn a few pages, and think you are still reading the same poem. He was conscious of this, referring in a letter to the ‘sameness’ of his work, and of being sucked dry.
God had been dropped from the dramatis personae, being increasingly an absence. ‘Night after night I point my hands/ at the sky…’
And then there was a personal absence. In 1990, after 50 years of marriage, his wife, the painter Elsi Eldridge, died, and the poems he wrote about the the two of them rise delicately through the chatter. ‘No Time’ and ‘A Marriage’ are as lovely as anything he ever wrote, especially the latter, thought trickling through its short lines like water down outstretched fingers.
under a shower
of bird notes.
Fifty years passed,
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young,
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
‘Come,’ said death,
choosing her as his
the last dance. And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.
This is so hard-cut and clear it would have terrified that 16-year-old busy at his Eng. lit. The man he grew into suspects he is again reading the great lyric poet of his lifetime.
Byron Rogers is writing a biography of R. S. Thomas. He would be interested in hearing from anyone who has information about him.