Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Un-doubting Thomas

I am asking the difficult question. I need help.
I'm not asking from ill will.
I have no desire to see you coping
Or not coping with unmanageable coils
Of a problem frivolously called up.
I've read your books, had glimpses of a climate
That is rigorous, though not too hard
For the spirit. I may have grown
Since reading them; there is no scale
To judge by, neither is the soul
Measurable. I know all the tropes
Of religion, how God is not there
To go to; how time is what we buy
With his absence, and how we look
Through the near end of the binocular at pain,
Evil, deformity. I have tried
Bandaging my sharp eyes
With humility, but still the hearing
Of the ear holds; from as far off as Tibet
The cries come.

From one not to be penned
In a concept, and differing in kind
From the human; whose attributes are the negations
Of thought; who holds us at bay with
His symbols, the opposed emblems
Of hawk and dove, what can my prayers win
For the kindred, souls brought to the bone
To be tortured, and burning, burning,
Through history with their own strange light?

- R. S. Thomas 'After the Lecture'

It's one of the saddest injustices in the world that to most people R.S. Thomas will always be the 'other' Thomas. While Thomas's poetry never comes close to the verbal high jinx of his more famous namesake, he is one of the soundest, strongest and most glorious poets of his time. His poems have a sparse, prose-like quality, the smoothness of a polished stone, a balanced, exact voice that is comparable to Larkin's. Yet hidden away in them is often the tiny gem of a line that makes the whole thing come alive. In one of his poems, Thomas writes "Among the forests of metal / The one human sound / Was the lament of the poets / For deciduous language". That one stanza sums up, for me, the essential qualities of Thomas's work - its sternness, its courage. Thomas' poetry may well be the finest engagement of God attempted in verse in our century, making him the true heir of Donne and Hopkins.

A pen appeared, and the god said:
'Write what it is to be
man.' And my hand hovered
long over the bare page,

until there, like footprints
of the lost traveller, letters
took shape on the page's
blankness, and I spelled out

the word 'lonely'. And my hand moved
to erase it; but the voices
of all those waiting at life's
window cried out loud: 'It is true'.

- R.S. Thomas, 'The Word'.


Other Thomas poems I love:

Thirteen blackbirds looking at a man
To a young poet

For more, see here and here

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Falstaff,

R. S. Thomas is a really inspirational poet, particularly because he forces you to confront difficult questions about life, spirituality etc but in such a unique and thought-provoking way! When I re-read some poems they have the effect is as if you've discovered them for the first time. I'm finding that with 'emerging', and 'pilgrimages' at the moment.

I also love Dylan Thomas though! - completely different, but magical and powerful - e.g. 'Fern Hill', but later poems e.g. 'Poem on his Birthday' are really moving.

Thank you for remindingme of some of RST's words!

With very best wishes,