RS Thomas, Collected Poems 1945-1990
by Gillian Clarke
A long time ago, when I was about eighteen, a fresh undergraduate reading English Literature, steeped in the Elizabethans and the Romantics but entirely ignorant of contemporary poetry, I came upon a poem called 'The Cat and the Sea'. Later I couldn't recall the poet's name, composed, as it was, of a pair of initials and one of the usual Welsh surnames - Jones, or Williams, or was it Thomas? I didn't know the poet's gender, either, or whether he or she was Welsh as the surname suggested. The poem, however, entered my mind as completely as had William Blake's 'The Sick Rose', Christina Rossetti's 'In the Deep Midwinter', Herrick's 'Upon Julia's Clothes', Yeats' 'Curlew'. All these poems were short and beautiful enough to slide into the memory, laying down their music and their deep influence like veins of quartz, leaving a single image to glitter there as long as I lived. I had dreams of being a writer myself, though the poetry that had so excited me since the nursery rhymes of babyhood, from Chaucer to Wordsworth, seemed as remotely mysterious as the night sky to someone who is neither astronomer nor spaceman. This little poem was different: it did not rhyme or scan, but it sounded like the way we speak, yet heightened. It was simple and strong as a fable, its commonplace subject suddenly seen afresh, the simple, matter-of-fact opening lines:
‘It is a matter of a black cat
On a bare cliff top in March’
Then there was the thrill of the metaphor which in line five R.S. Thomas calls ‘the formal equation’. He continues and concludes with eleven right words in exactly the right order to hand us the metaphor of the cat and the sea, its eyes and the gorse blossom, its ‘domestic purr’ and the deep sound of the sea. Then a final two lines that change direction, and the sea is a mirror, and we’re looking into its cold rooms, wondering how we got there.
‘with the cold interiors
of the sea's mirror.’
It was the purring sea that did it, and that 'formal equation', which made the language of mathematics serve poetry's needs. It demonstrates that a good poem needs no more than one exact image to thrill a reader into shouting' Yes'. Yet there's the music too, the balance of single-syllable words with a few three-syllable Latinates that make this tiny poem work as well as a couplet by Shakespeare. Who was the poet?
Scared to let anyone know I wrote poetry myself, cowed, indeed, by a university tutor who told me to forget about writing and to get down to my academic work, I neither showed my poetry to anyone nor read any contemporary poetry for another decade. Then one day, in a bookshop, I discovered 'The Fisherman' by RS.Thomas. My lost poet! It began, 'A simple man / He liked the crease on the water/ His cast made, but had no pity/ For the broken backbone/ Of water or fish.' Again, one image, exactly right, good enough to make me shiver. That 'broken backbone' of water.
Both these poems appeared in RS.Thomas's Collected Poems, 1945-1990. The book drew from twenty-two collections of poems. There would be three further collections before he died in the year 2000. It is fascinating to recall that he had to pay to publish his first collection, The Stones of the Field, 1946, now a precious collector's item. Although his name is justly famous, the work and the man have been widely misunderstood. His reputation has rested too long on his early poems about the peasant farmer lago Prytherch. Powerful though these poems are, they represent a fraction of his life's work. They have contributed to the idea that he was a dour and unapproachable man gazing down upon, in all meanings of the phrase, the man who labours in the fields. There was a grain of truth in it. Certainly he did not suffer fools gladly, and he was not known for small talk. I heard tell of an occasion when he was asked, 'What do you write about, Mr Thomas?' My informant made the most of his account of the scene. "The tide came in. The tide went out. And at last RS. answered: 'Oh, this and that.'" However, the young who came to RS.Thomas with a question, a request for an interview, an autograph or a kindness, did not find him unapproachable. They report, as I do, that he had a great sense of humour. I remember hearing him read a very amusing poem about hitching a lift, and flirting with the driver's wife in the windscreen mirror. It was full of wit and double entendre. I have not found it published anywhere.
At the same time as he was making the bleak landscape of the Prytherch poems, he was writing tenderly about nature, flowers, birds, legends, Welsh history, country people. In 'Farm Child' he describes a country boy, 'his head is stuffed/with all the nests he knows'. In 'A Blackbird Singing' he writes, 'A slow singer, but loading each phrase/ With history's overtones, love, joy/ And grief'.
Then, the religious poems. He was a Church in Wales priest, after all. For the wavering agnostic, or the believer uneasy with literalist interpretations of the old stories, for whom imagination and maybe even faith were stirred into embers by the intelligent, questing ideas of David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham, RS.Thomas is their poet. David Jenkins's suggestion, that roused so much controversy in the eighties, that the Resurrection might be a metaphor, had already found a voice in the ideas in RS.'s religious poetry. Of course, to a poet, to a lover of poetry, the term ‘metaphor’ implies no diminishment. Metaphor is capable of the magic transformation needed to explain the conundrum. It is a revelation, a solving of the mystery. In a radio interview RS. once said that, as a naturalist, he often put his hand into the still warm form of the hare. He extended the metaphor of the warm but empty place to a room someone has just left. That, he explained, is why he could believe in God. His religious imagery is as beautiful as Hopkins's, or Heaney's. In 'The Moor' he begins, 'It was like a church to me. /I entered it on soft foot, /breath held like a cap in the hand. '
Decades before his death, when the sixties became the seventies, he was warning us against the potentially destructive power of the machine, of war, of the excessive use of chemicals, the uncurbed ambitions of science, the selfishness of profit. He was thought eccentric and backward-looking. At that time only young people wanted to save the earth from uncurbed progress. While RS. warned us against nuclear power, scientists told us it would supply all the world's energy needs and solve third world problems. 'No Answer' was written at this time. It ends with the unforgettable words, 'Over the creeds/ And masterpieces our wheels go.' 'The Moon in Lleyn' begins, 'The last quarter of the moon/ of Jesus gives way/ to the dark; the serpent digests the egg'. Then, 'Here/ on my knees in this stone/ church, that is full only/ of the silent congregation / of shadows and the sea's/ sound, it is easy to believe/ Yeats was right.' And then we remember that Yeats had decades earlier warned of 'The Second Coming' when the millennium would end its 'twenty centuries of stony sleep', and 'what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born. '
In the same collection, Laboratories of the Spirit, which appeared in 1975, is one of the most visionary and hopeful of his poems. 'The Bright Field' looks at one of those sunlit fields of com or mustard that suddenly light up a dark landscape, 'the one field that had/ the treasure in it'. Then, in the late 1970's, in Frequencies, a powerful poem called 'The White Tiger' that almost seems to be about great artists, men like himself, those who do not fit the confining cell. Pacing its cage it turns 'the crumpled flower of its face/ to look into my own'.
To represent the mood of the poems in the last 100 pages of Collected Poems, I choose 'Zero'. A few readings and I had it by heart. He opens this most powerful and simple of poems with a question, the sort of question we ask every day: 'What time is it?' This is an old trick. In his second book, An Acre of Land published in 1952, 'Death of a Peasant' begins with just such a question: 'You remember Davies? He died, you know,/ With his face to the wall, as the manner is/ Of the poor Welsh peasant in his stone croft'. Again and again he opens with common speech, a question, an imperative, an ordinary statement. So,
'What time is it?
Is it the hour when the servant
of Pharoah's daughter went down
and found the abandoned baby
in the bullrushes? The hour
when Dido woke and knew Aeneas
gone from her?'
In a series of such questions the poem strides history and mythology, until it arrives at the answer, the warning that it is ‘no time at all’, just the time when men, as they have always done, 'prepare themselves for the crass deed. '
(RS Thomas died in 2000. This article is amended from a piece first published in Books & Company 2000)