Christianity and Literature: The paradoxes of R S Thomas

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R S Thomas had a reputation for writing verse expressing a very bleak view of life, and being a dour and unsociable man. In fact some of his poems have a remarkable tender, lyrical quality and new evidence about his life reveals a man of great wit and warmth. The lecture will explore these paradoxes.

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The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth


When R. S. Thomas's collection of poems, Song at the year's turning was published in 1955 it had an introduction by John Betjeman containing the words 'The 'Name' which has the honour to introduce this fine poet to a wider public will be forgotten long before that of R. S. Thomas'. Betjeman remains popular, but the reputation of Thomas has indeed grown, and will endure as long a people explore the mystery of life in poetry. He was nominated by the Welsh Academy for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Through a combination of fashion and ill luck this particular award never came his way, but he regarded all such things with total disdain anyway. What is certain is that after the deaths of W.H.Auden and T. S. Eliot he was the major English language writing on religious themes. Moreover his poetry resonated on unbelievers and believers alike. For the last part of the 20th century his poetry spoke more clearly than any other for and to the condition of all who raise the question of God in any serious way.

Born in 1913, Thomas's father was a sailor. In a poem about his parents' marriage he wrote:

        The voice of my father
        in the night with the hunger
        of the sea in it and the emptiness
        of the sea. While the house founders
        in time, I must listen to him
        complaining, a ship's captain
        with no crew, a navigator
        without a port; rejected
        by the barrenness of his wife's
        coasts, by the wind's bitterness
        off her heart. I take his failure
        for ensign, flying it
        at my bedpost, where my own
        children cry to be born.[1]

It is a poem that immediately brings home one of the strengths of his poetry, its vivid, sustained imagery.  Various aspects of a sea captain's life are used to accentuate the emptiness of his parent's marriage. It is also a poem that indicates both the harsh honesty of his own approach to life, and the source of that hardness within himself.[2]

The influence of his mother led Thomas to be ordained[3], and after training he served as a curate in two parishes on the Welsh Borders. But from here he could see the Welsh hills in the distance, and this unsettled him. He knew he needed to be living in really Welsh countryside, so he set about learning Welsh and in 1942 went to Manafon in the Welsh hills, then totally remote from the industrial world with not a single tractor. There he observed the Welsh hill farmers and wondered aloud in poetry what went on in their heads.

        Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed
        Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,
        Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.
        Docking mangels, chipping the green skin
        From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin
        Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth
        To a stiff sea of clods that glint in the wind-
        So are this days spent, his spittled mirth
        Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks
        Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week.
        And then at night see him fixed in his chair
        Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.
        There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.
        His clothes, sour with years of sweat
        And animal contact, shock the refined,
        But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.
        Yet this is your prototype, who, season y season
        Against siege of rain and the wind's attrition,
        Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
        Not to be stormed even in death's confusion.
        Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,
        Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.[4]

There is a brutal realism in the description of that farm labourer, yet at the same time the onlooker is warned off any attitude of superiority, and there is an ungrudging admiration for his fortitude and endurance. It was poems like these that first caught people's imagination, and with which he is often associated because a number have been reproduced in school text books and anthologies. But this was not an approach to life likely to win many friends in the parish. This is his poem about a funeral

        There was a death, yes; but death's brother,
        Sin, is of more importance.
        Shabbily the teeth gleam,
        Sharpening themselves on reputations
        That were firm once. On the cheap coffin
        The earth falls more cleanly than tears.
        What are these red faces for?
        This incidence of pious catarrh
        At the grave's edge?[5]

Like Wordsworth Thomas found inspiration both for his poetry and his spirit in nature. But he has a less idealistic view of the people who lived there, and he focuses far more on the harsher aspects of lives which are 'mortgaged to the grasping soil'.[6]

Thomas's poetry never lost this element of bleak realism, this stark, painful honesty. It matched  photos of his face that began appearing in the press, gaunt, unsmiling, uncompromising. But if he was hard on other people, he was even harder on himself. He warns himself and town dwellers not to think themselves superior and as he put it in one poem

        Ransack your brainbox, pull out the drawers
        That rot in your heart's dust, and what have you to give
        To enrich his spirit or the way he lives?

Interviewed towards the end of his life Thomas said he was disqualified from major status by his 'lack of love for human beings', adding 'there is a kind of narrowness in my work which a good critic would condemn.'[7]Yet in fact the element of sensitive compassion does often comes out in his poems. He knows that the hill farmers to whom he ministers have hands that have 'bruised themselves on the locked doors of life' and that their hearts are 'full of gulped tears'.

This bleak and uncompromising honesty does not sit well with people's image of the average parish priest and there is no doubt that the majority of people found him aloof and cold. When the BBC made a film about him a few years ago they interviewed the churchwarden of one of the parishes where he had served, and received the response 'Aye, I knew him-and a right miserable bugger he was too'. But if the first paradox of Thomas is that someone of his temperament ever became and a parish priest at all and then remained one, the second one is even stranger. For a recent biography of Thomas by Byron Rogers suggests a picture, with a great deal of supporting evidence from people who knew Thomas well, that strongly contradict the public impression of him.[8]  First, Thomas could be extremely funny. The BBC Wales arts correspondent said he had only met three really funny men in his life. The first two were Ken Dodd and Lenny Bruce; the third was R.S. Thomas. Secondly, when Thomas felt that people were in real need, he was sensitive and unstinting in his support for them. There are many testimonies in the book to this.

The second major tension and paradox in his life was in his attitude to Wales and the Welsh Language. His love of Wales was passionate, and the other side of this was his hatred of English domination both in history, and even more now through the influx of caravans and the use of the English language. He compared the destruction of Wales by the English to the destruction of the Indians in America. [9] Indeed he achieved notoriety in the 1960's when he failed to condemn the burning of English second homes in Wales, even though he was a lifelong pacifist and member of CND. What he actually said was:

    'I deplore killing, but what is the life of one English person compared to the destruction of a Nation?'

Years later he denied that this was encouraging violence, and was quite clear that he would say it again. He defended it on the grounds that when you are dealing with a nation you are dealing with a spiritual concept, in this case the very soul of Wales, which was being eroded more and more.[10]  He resigned from Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalist political party because he thought they compromised too much with the English. He taught himself to be fluent in Welsh, and though he published prose in Welsh, it was a great regret to him that he knew he could not achieve in Welsh poetry what he achieved writing in English. Yet, he did not teach his son Gwydion to speak Welsh, and sent him to be educated in an English Public School, whilst he himself in fact sounded like an upper class Englishman. A good number of his poems are critical of the English invasion, but even more powerful are the ones which castigate the Welsh for caring so little about it.  'Through indifference, lack of backbone, snobbishness and laziness', they had chosen to speak English and to cast away their inheritance, a culture older than that of the English. They were, he wrote in 1955:

        An impotent people
        Sick with inbreeding
        Worrying the carcase of an old song.[11]

However, when Thomas died it was recognized by most Welshmen that he had in fact been their austere, fierce conscience.

From most of his fellow Welshmen Thomas evinced the same grudging respect we reserve for our consciences. He was the one who urged us down the difficult road of duty and responsibility to our past when our feet danced towards the primrose path of compromise, accommodation and forgetfulness.[12]

The next paradox is that of his first marriage to Mildred Eldridge, a talented artist. Whilst getting on perfectly well, they seem to have lived somewhat separate lives, for she liked to stay at home and paint, whilst he liked to be out an about in the countryside, particularly bird watching, which was his greatest passion in life. There were no newspapers in their house, still less a Television, and virtually no heating. Thomas himself was clearly something of a recluse, but his wife was a very private person as well. When she died a journalist asked him whether he missed his wife 'I suppose so' he replied. 'Was he lonely?' 'I was lonely when I was with her', he said. Yet, after her death he wrote what must be some of the loveliest of all poems about marriage.

        We met
                    under a shower
        of bird-notes.
                     Fifty years passed,
        love's moment
                     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
                         partner for
        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.[13]

The bird image occurs in another poem about their marriage, where he writes:

               She is at work
        always, mending the garment
        of our marriage foraging
        like a bird for something
        for us to eat.[14]

The other extraordinary aspect of this side of Thomas's life, is that a few years after his wife died, he was seen going around hand in hand with another woman. At the age of 83 he married Betty Vernon, of Irish Canadian extraction, not much younger than himself. This lady, Betty Vernon, was a member of the English squirarchy, with attitudes very different from those of Thomas himself. But apparently he was like a young boy, joyous and bubbly.

Earlier he had written a poem called 'Self-Portrait':

        That resigned look! Here I am,
        it says; fifty nine,
        balding, shirking the challenge
        of the young girls. Time is running out
        now; and the soul
        unfinished. And the heart knows
        this is not the portrait
        it posed for. Keep the lips
        firm; too many disappointments
        have turned the mouth down
        at the corners. There is no surgery
        can mend those lines; cruelly
        the light fingers them and the mind
        winces. All that skill,
        life, on the carving
        of the curved nostril and to no end
        but disgust. The hurrying eyes
        pause, waiting for an outdistanced
        gladness to overtake them.[15]

Well, that gladness did seem to overtake him at the end.

So those are some of the paradoxes of Thomas's life, but I have mentioned these only to set the scene for his poetry which relates to God.

Thomas was hardly original in finding nature itself a great source of spiritual sustenance, but it must be mentioned because it was true. He had happy childhood memories of the sea.[16] He loved to imagine the nativity scene as set in the countryside;[17] birdwatching was his great passion in life, and he is on record as saying that to sustain his faith he wanted nothing other than contact with God through nature.[18] A poem called 'The Moor' has rightly become popular:

        It was like a church to me.
        I entered it on soft foot,
        Breath held like a cap in the hand.
        It was quiet.
        What God was there made himself felt,
        Not listened to, in clean colours
        That brought a moistening of the eye,
        In movement of the wind over grass

        There were no prayers said. But the stillness
        Of the heart's passions-that was praise
        Enough; and the mind's cession
        Of its kingdom. I walked on,
        Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
        And broke on me generously as bread.[19]

One of his most telling images is that of a field on the hillside lit up by the sun, which he writes about both in an essay and a poem. This he calls 'the pearl of great price'.[20] And he has described how nature has sometimes come to him like the first day of creation and he has fallen to his knees to praise God.[21]

There was nothing sentimental about his view of nature, as we might guess from his poetry about hill farmers. He knew the hardness and cruelty of nature at first hand.[22] Let me quote a very short poem of his:

        Who said to the trout,
        You shall die on Good Friday
        To be food for a man
        And his pretty lady?

        It was I, said God,
        Who formed the roses
        In the delicate flesh
        And the tooth that bruises.[23]

This brings out his holistic view of nature, both its beauty, the roses in the delicate flesh of the trout, and the pain-the tooth that bruises. But it also indicates his great lyrical gift, which he used only sparingly, because like Beckett, he was suspicious of the power of language to seduce us away from the truth, particularly the influence of poets like Yeasts on him. He clearly had the gift of a lyricist, but lyrical elements in his poetry like that are very rare. He sought instead a spare, austere language to tell the hard truth as he saw it, without consolation.

Although imagery drawn from nature was natural to Thomas he tried seriously to use metaphors from science and technology. The negative side of this was that he hated what he termed 'the machine', the mechanization of life, all that technology brings. His dislike of this was as strong as his bitterness towards the English language and English caravans destroying Welsh culture, and it is a theme that recurs in his middle period.

In one poem he writes:

        The idiot goes round and around
        With his brother in a bumping-car
        At the fair. The famous idiot
        Smile hangs over the car's edge,
        Illuminating nothing. This is mankind
        Being taken for a ride by a rich
        Relation. The responses are fixed:
        Bump, smile; bump, smile. And the current

        Is generated by the smooth flow
        Of the shillings. This is an orchestra
        Of steel with the constant percussion
        Of laughter. But where he should be laughing
        Too, his features are split open, and look!
        Out of the cracks come warm human tears.[24]

It is a poem which brings out a number of characteristic features of Thomas's poetry. First, a simple vivid image; and it is important to remember that Thomas, according to his own account has always tried to make his poetry as accessible as possible and has deliberately eschewed the obscure. Then, that image is developed with a number of subsidiary images which are all related to the main one. In terms of the theme, it expresses a number of his hatreds, including the mechanization of human life in the service of mindless sensation.  But also 'Out of the cracks come warm human tears.' 

More positively he tried to use the language of physics in some poems to bring out the immensity and mystery of the universe

Aware of the harshness of nature, he was as you might expect highly conscious of the suffering in human life. It was well stated in a poem called simply 'H'm':

        and one said
        speak to us of love
        and the preacher opened
        his mouth and the word God
        fell out so they  tried
        again speak to us
        of God then but the preacher
        was silent reaching
        his arms out but the little
        children the ones with
        big bellies and bow
        legs that were like
        a razor shell
        were too weak to come [25]

The title gets it right 'H'm', a quizzical, skeptical questioning of all the answers. The poem has no punctuation, no capital at the beginning or full stop at the end. It is, as it were, a fragment of an unending sentence.

Against this background it is not surprising that for Thomas the image of the cross was crucial. Indeed he has said that the reason he is content to call himself a Christian is because  the Christian belief that God has taken suffering into himself is the most profound and satisfactory answer to the great problem of suffering.[26]  The image of the cross occurs in a number of poems. It was a conviction he expressed in his poem 'The Coming':

        And God held in his hand
        A small globe. Look, he said.
        The son looked. Far off,
        As through water, he saw
        A scorched land of fierce
        Colour. The light burned
        There; crusted buildings
        Cast their shadows; a bright
        Serpent, a river
        Uncoiled itself, radiant
        With slime.
                          On a bare
        Hill a bare tree saddened
        The sky. Many people
        Held out their thin arms
        To it, as though waiting
        For a vanished April
        To return to its crossed
        boughs. The son watched
        Them. Let me go there, he said.[27]

This, we might say, however hard, is Christian orthodoxy, powerfully conveyed. But in the 1970's the poetry of Thomas was going through a stranger, more disconcerting phase. A number of poems accused God of egomaniacal sadism, as in his poem 'The island'.

        And God said, I will build a church here
        And cause this people to worship me,
        And afflict them with poverty and sickness
        In return for centuries of hard work
        And patience. And its walls shall be hard as
        Their hearts, and its windows let in the light
        Grudgingly, as their minds do, and the priest's words be drowned
        By the wind's caterwauling. All this I will do,

        Said God, and watch the bitterness in their eyes
        Grow, and their lips suppurate with
        Their prayers. And their women shall bring forth
        On my altars, and I will choose the best
        Of them to be thrown back into the sea.

        And that was only on one island.[28]

It is possible to see this and other poems infected with the same bitterness and hate towards God as a kind of poetic therapy, as Thomas getting something out of his system. But it is a more than that. As has been well said, Thomas seems to be pursuing a kind of Via Negativa. 'Stating the worst that can be said against the anthropomorphic notion of God, he also traces a discipline of deliberate spiritual emptying.'[29] And this leads us into the main religious image of Thomas's poetry, the absence of God, which is at the same time his presence. In 1964 R.S. as he was always known, not Ronald, his name, and certainly not Ron, moved with his wife to Aberdaron at the end of the Lleyn Peninsula. Although he moved homes on retirement and then again, he never moved from this isolated spot on the edge of the British Isles. It marked a change in the direction of his poetry. As he wrote:

I have become more interested in what somebody termed semi-abstract ideas. It coincided with moving out to the end of the Lleyn peninsula in Wales, away from the hill country and the hill farmers, where I became conscious of the large horizons, the sea, the Atlantic thrusting itself into the Irish Sea, and the starry sky at night.[30]

Poems speak of the silence of God and tell of many hours spent kneeling in the chancel of the church and no word coming; of questions addressed to which no answer is given. Images include that of the church building as a trap in which the great God might be caught but who somehow always eludes him; of a record which picks up nothing but the natural background; of a camera which films the landscape but whose film shows a blank as far as God is concerned. By the time of his 1972 collection he seems to have accepted this:

        Why no! I never thought other than
        That God is that great absence
        In our lives, the empty silence
        Within, the place where we go
        Seeking, not in hope to
        Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
        In our knowledge, the darkness
        Between stars.  His are the echoes
        We follow, the footprints he has just

That last image was developed in an interview on the radio where he said:

'Being something of a naturalist myself, I know how I have found a hare's form on the hillside and I have been able to put my hand in it and feel it still warm, and this is my feeling of God-that we don't actually find him but we find where he has been, we find the place still warm with his presence, but he is absent, and we find his footsteps, his footprints, but we never actually come upon him because how can we? If we could comprehend God we would be God ourselves.'

This absence, however, has a powerful effect on him:

        It is this great absence
        that is like a presence, that compels
        me to address it without hope
        of a reply

Here we need to pause and refer more widely than Thomas himself to this theme. The remarkable French woman Simone Weil once wrote that 'God can only be present in creation under the form of absence'. This is because God is not a thing in the world of things. He is not a reality that can be put in any category of which we are aware. Anything that we could categorize in that way would not be God. He upholds all things, fills all things and includes all things within his infinity, but is not anything that we can point to or describe. So it is that, paradoxically, the more aware we are of the absence of God from creation, in the sense that he cannot be pinpointed by either finger or word, the more aware of what it is for God to be God.

The fact that this absence is not an ordinary kind of absence reveals itself by the way it does not let us go, but haunts us. Thomas has written both an essay in Welsh and a poem in English on the theme of Abercaug. Literally this means something like the place where the cuckoos sing. But it is a place we can never find. Wherever we look, it is not there; but this is not cause for despair. In the poem he wrote:

        An absence is how we become surer
        Of what we want. Abercaug
        Is not here now, but there And
        There is the indefinable point...

 In the essay he said:

'The fact that we go to the Machynlleth area to look for the site of Abercaug, saying 'No this isn't it', means nothing. Here is not cause for disappointment and despair, but rather a way to come to know better, though its absence, the nature of the place we seek... through striving to see it, through longing for it, through refusing to accept that it belongs to the past and has fallen into oblivion; through refusing to accept some second-hand substitute, we will succeed in preserving it as an eternal possibility.'

Thomas hated being pressed to give sound bite answers. Once when he was giving a public reading of his poems in the University Church in Cambridge he went into the pulpit with a great sheaf of papers, and after a certain amount of shuffling through them read a number of poems in his dry voice, all the more powerful for being expressionless, and then showed himself willing to answer questions. 'Which poet has most influenced you Mr Thomas?' 'I never answer that question'. And that was the kind of answer all the questions got. He does not like oversimplifications, or being categorized. 'No, friend, that is not what I said. I am not one of those people who have a ready answer'[32] This is most obviously so in questions relating God, who is by definition mystery beyond anything we can say about him and in relation to whom all words are partially misleading. This makes all the more surprising an interview he once gave to Naim Attallah for 'The Oldie', in which he said that whilst his crisis of faith is a continual one, he has never ceased to believe in God, and puts his trust in 'this great presence', and, as far as his own future is concerned, trust for whatever might come after death, oblivion or a continued existence in some form. So we are not talking about atheist here, but of an ultimate mystery which can never been described. I think he would have had a lot of sympathy with what Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote to his friend Robert Bridges 'What you mean by a mystery is an interesting uncertainty. What I mean is an incomprehensible certainty.' Whilst it is natural to try to understand that mystery, that is, make it comprehensible, not only is our comprehension limited and limiting, unless we are very careful it has the effect of pinning down or tying up that which by definition must always elude such attempt. When those attempts at comprehension have been sanctified by authority and long usage, as in any established religion, this can also blind us to the limiting effect of the words used. So Thomas as it were lets go his religious anchorage in a tradition and launches out. As he put it through striving to see it, through longing for it, through refusing to accept that it belongs to the past and has fallen into oblivion; through refusing to accept some second-hand substitute, we will succeed in preserving it as an eternal possibility. What he wants to keep as an eternal possibility is God as God, not simply preserve a hallowed image which we can control.

The title of Simone Weil's best know book is Waiting on God, which is the theme of one of the essays in it. The image of waiting is also central to one of Thomas's best loved poems:

        Moments of great calm,
        Kneeling before an altar
        Of wood in a stone church
        In summer, waiting for the God
        To speak; the air a staircase
        For silence; the sun's light
        Ringing me, as though I acted
        A great role. And the audiences
        Still; all that close throng
        Of spirits waiting, as I,
        For the message.
                                    Prompt me, God;
        But not yet. When I speak,
        Though it be you who speak
        Through me, something is lost.
        The meaning is in the waiting.[33]

This brings out well the fact that all words purportedly from God come to us through human words, and as such will inevitably be limited, that is in some way distorting: 'something is lost'. We can only speak of God at all through our human metaphors, and every metaphor of image we use is as untrue as it is true. So our human images that try to reach up and refer to God have continually to be made, and broken and remade. One image has constantly to be set against another, which contradicts and corrects it, and then this image in its turn has to be qualified in a new way.

In a previous lecture I mentioned that there are two classical ways of approaching God: the Via Positiva, or Kataphatic way, in which we use words as best we can, in the way I have described. The other way is the Via Negative or Apophatic way, in which, realizing the radical limitation of all words, we simply wait upon God in wordless longing. What the author of the wonderful 14th century work termed darts of longing love into  'The Cloud of unknowing'  So best of all is simply to wait wordlessly, in stillness, on God-the meaning is in the waiting. As he put it:

        When I speak,
        Though it be you who speak
        Through me, something is lost.

This is a theme which is also very powerfully put in T. S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets':[34]

        I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
        For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
        For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
        But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
        Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

Although the poetry of brutal in its bleak realism, and though sometimes he has posited an egomaniacal and sadistic God,  the dominant themes of Thomas's religious poems, the absence and silence of God have their proper place in the Christian mystical tradition. There are also moments that keep hope alive.  As I mentioned earlier, he is an expert bird watcher. In one poem he draws on the imagery of looking for birds over the sea.

        Grey waters, vast
                          as an area of prayer
        that one enters. Daily
                           over a period of years
        I have let the eye rest on them.
        Was I waiting for something?
        but that continuous waving
                      that is without meaning
                      Ah, but a rare bird is
        rare. It is when one is not looking,
        at times one is not there
                                              that it comes.[35]

So there is hope. The rare bird does come even if it comes when one is not looking or not there. There might be a moment of illumination that comes to us through nature:

        Suddenly after long silence
        he has become voluble.
        He addresses me from a myriad
        directions with the fluency
        of water, the articulateness
        of green leaves...
                                I listen to the things
        round me: weeds, stones, instruments,
        the machine itself, all
        Speaking to me in the vernacular
        of the purposes of One who is.[36]

There is the occasional moment of hope.

        Not conscious
                that you have been seeking
                you have come upon it.

        the village in the Welsh hills
                       dust free
               with no road out
        but the one you came in by.

                       A bird chimes
                 from a green tree
        the hour that is no hour
               you know. The river dawdles
        to hold a mirror for you
        where you may see yourself
                 as you are, a traveller
                         with the moon's halo
                  above him, who has arrived
        after long journeying where he
                 began, catching this
        one truth by surprise
        that there is everything to look forward to.[37]

It is a haunting poem with many of the same themes as Eliot, the timeless moment, the journey back to where we started, the echoes of joy, but put in a very different way from him.

But these moments are rare, and not easily won. They emerge, if at all out of the silence, which was at the heart of Thomas's approach to God; the silent waiting, the silent waiting on the mystery that always eludes our words. As has been written, for Thomas,

'The very silence of god is the most profound invitation we will ever receive to search for him and come to know him. Thomas gave his understanding, his poetry and his ministry to the quest, and this is the nearest he came to a conclusion.' [38]

        But the silence in the mind
        is when we live best, within
        listening distance of the silence
        we call God. This is the deep
        calling to deep of the psalm-
        writer, the bottomless ocean
        we launch the armada of
        our thoughts on, never arriving.

        It is a presence, then,
        whose margins are our margins;
        that calls us out over our
        own fathoms. What to do
        but draw a little nearer to
        such ubiquity by remaining still.[39]

Finally a few lines from a poem in which he indicates how he was once attracted by the Poetry of Yeats, and then came to distrust that kind of eloquence when faced by the harshness of life. It ends:

        in the small hours
        0f belief the one eloquence

        to master is that
        of the bowed head, the bent
        knee, waiting, as at the end

        0f a hard winter
        for one flower to open
        on the mind's tree of thorns.[40]

So the final paradox of R. S. Thomas is that few poets have been so fierce in their disbelief in a God of love, or of the presence of any kind of God with us. Yet, he, more than any other modern poet since Eliot, has conveyed the reality of belief in a time of unbelief; has kept open the possibility of faith in God in a hard time. The winter may be long, and the mind scratched by thorns of continual self-questioning, but the poet waits in hope for that one flower to open.




©The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Gresham College, 5 March 2009



[1] R. S. Thomas, 'Salt', Collected Poems, Dent, 1993, p.394. See also, 'Album', Collected Poems, p.350

[2] Later he seems to have come to terms with his parents and writes about 'a bitter affection' for them and their influence on him. See 'In Memory', p.310.

[3] Interview with Naim Attallah in 'The Oldie'. His mother had been brought up by a relation was who a cleric, so she had acquired an admiration and fondness for the priesthood.

[4] 'A Peasant',  Collected Poems, p.4

[5] 'Funeral', Collected Poems, p.125

[6] From a particularly harsh poem indicting the hypocrisy of Welsh chapel religion. 'The Minister, Collected Poems, p.42

[7] The Guardian, September 27 2000,p.8

[8] Byron Rogers, The Man who went into the West: The Life of R. S. Thomas, Aurum 2006

[9] R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, Ed. Sandra Anstey, Poetry Wales Press,

[10] Interview with Naim Attallah in 'The Oldie'

[11] 'Welsh Landscape', Collected Poems, p.37

[12] Mario Basini, Welsh Mail, 26 September 2000

[13] 'A Marriage', Collected Poems, p. 533

[14] 'The Way of It', Collected Poems, p.323

[15] 'Self-Portrait', R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit, McMillan, 1975,p.27. This was not included in his Collected Poems

[16] 'Former Paths', R. S. Thomas, Autobiographies, translated from the Welsh by Jason Walford Davies, J. M. Dent, 1997,

[17] 'The Qualities of Christmas', R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, ed. Sandra Anstey, Poetry Wales Press, 1993, p.55

[18] Interview on Radio 4, 31 July 1981

[19] 'The Moor', Collected Poems, p.166

[20] 'The Bright Field', Collected Poems, p.302. 'The Mountains',  Selected Prose, p.95

[21] 'Two Chapels', Selected Prose, p.41

[22] Sometimes the realism of his view of nature is startling and shocking, but still true. See The Man who went into the West, p.11

[23] 'Pisces', Collected Poems, p.63

[24] 'The Fair', Collected Poems, p.236

[25] 'H'm', Collected Poems, p.232

[26] Interview on Radio 4, 31 July 1981

[27] 'The Coming', Collected Poems, p.234

[28] 'The Island', Collected Poems, p.223

[29] Grevel Lindop, TLS, 16 December 1983

[30] Talk at Great St Mary's, Cambridge, 17 Oct 1982

[31] 'Via Negativa', Collected Poems,  p.220

[32] Ronald Blythe, Obituary in the Church Times, 6th October 2000

[33] 'Kneeling', Collected Poems, p.199

[34] T. S. Eliot, 'East Coker', The Complete Poems and Play of T. S. Eliot, Faber, 1969, p.180

[35] 'Sea-watching', Collected Poems, p.306

[36] 'Suddenly', Complete Poems, p.426

[37] 'Arrival', Complete Poems, p.427

[38] Margaret Bowker, 'The Unknowlable Not Unknown: The Poetry of R. S. Thomas', in Knowing the Unknowable, ed. John Bowker, L. B. Tauris, 2009, chap.8

[39] Later Poems, p.118.

[40] 'Waiting', Complete Poems, p.376

This event was on Thu, 05 Mar 2009

Lord Harries

The Rt Revd Lord Harries

Professor of Divinity

Professor the Rt Revd Lord Harries was the Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006. He was previously the Dean of King's College London, where he is now a Fellow and an Honorary Professor of Theology.

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