It’s rather jarring to be reading poems about Welsh farmers and the Welsh landscape and come across one entitled “The Peasant.” Or find a rather unsympathetic and critical eye when you’re expecting something more akin to a romanticized view.
And yet, there is love here, and kindness, and an understanding of the people who populate these poems. There’s a kind of protective fierceness here, too, the shepherd watching over his flock even if the flock doesn’t realize it needs protecting.
I’ve been reading the Collected Poems 1945-1990 of R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), Anglican clergyman, Welsh nationalist, neo-Luddite (he didn’t like any of the modern conveniences, like vacuum cleaners), and poet. I read a shorter, “everyday poems” version first, and then turned to the Collected Poems. Rarely have I been so moved by what at first glance seems more like pastoral poetry but soon becomes a kind of love song to rural life and its people.
Thomas was born in Cardiff, Wales, and ordained in the Church in Wales. He married in 1940 and he and his wife Mildred had one son. He began publishing poetry in 1945, and achieved literary and critical notice with his fourth book, Song of the Year’s Turning, which included an introduction by poet John Betjeman, who would eventually become a poet laureate. Thomas was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1996 but the award went to Seamus Heaney. (Heaney would speak at Thomas’s funeral service in Westminster Abbey in 2000.)
Thomas’s love and regard for the people he ministered to have a kind of stark bleakness to them, but they are there nonetheless. Consider his poem “Evans:”
Evans? Yes, many a time
I came down his bare flight
Of stairs into the gaunt kitchen
With its wood fire, where crickets sang
Accompaniment to the black kettle’s
Whine, and so into the cold
Dark to smother in the thick tide
Of night that drifted about the walls
Of his stark farm on the hill ridge.
It was not the dark filling my eyes
And mouth that appalled me; not even the drip
Of rain like blood from the one tree
Weather-tortured. It was the dark
Silting the veins of that sick man
I left stranded upon the vast
And lonely shore of his bleak bed.
This understanding of the reality of daily life extends to the group he knew especially well, because he was a member of it – the country clergy, quietly serving far from the excitement of the cities and the politics of the church. From “The Country Clergy," the poem that is likely my favorite in the whole collection:
I see them working in old rectories
By the sun’s light, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels. They left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes; rather they wrote
On men’s hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten. God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.
Thomas writes of farming and the landscape; of Welsh history and the church. And individual people – men and women, old and young. Very little escapes his eye, or his heart.
He even writes of poets and poetry, and I can almost picture him imagining his own end in “Death of a Poet” that includes several subtle references to death in the first stanza:
Laid now on his smooth bed
For the last time, watching dully
Through heavy eyelids the day’s colour
Widow the sky, what can he say
Worthy of record, the books all open,
Pens ready, the faces, sad,
Waiting gravely for the tired lips
To move once – what can he say?
His tongue wrestles to force one word
Past the thick phlegm; no speech, no phrases
For the day’s news, just the one word ‘sorry’;
Sorry for the lies, for the long failure
In the poet’s war; that he preferred
The easier rhythms of the heart
To the mind’s scansion; that he now dies
Intestate, having nothing to leave
But a few songs, cold as stones
In the thin hands that asked for bread.
The BBC obituary.