The Collected Later Poems of R.S. Thomas
Diarmuid Johnson examines the themes which dominate the late work of R.S. Thomas.

Read also about The Life and Work of R.S. Thomas.

R.S. Thomas' Collected Later Poems 1988-2000 (CLP) brings together the poet's last five collections. These are The Echoes Return Slow (1988), Counterpoint (1990), Mass for Hard Times (1992), No Truce With The Furies (1995), and the posthumous Residues (2002).

The Echoes Return Slow, an extended series of autobiographical reflections long out of print, is a taking of stock of the poet's career and life. This act of reminiscence complete, there is, in the later work of R.S. Thomas, a sense of primeval time, and of the man's being in harmony with the space he inhabits. Writing of these things the poet says: 'To be no longer young, yet not to be old is a calm without equal' (CLP 214). The tensions of a lifetime have been resolved: 'I...have been made free by the tide's pendulum truth that the heart which is low now will be at the full tomorrow' (CLP 246). The ego is of little consequence in a world with '...our deeds blowing away from us on anonymity's threshold' (CLP 321). In terms such as these, R.S. Thomas broaches questions of being, becoming, and ceasing to be in his later work.

In his maturest years, however, the poet is not preoccupied by a single given theme. Love and marriage continue to feature in his poems. He reflects on fatherhood: 'The hours were long, waiting for the child to speak, waiting for that breaking of silence which is the unique sacrament of man' (CLP 29). Matrimony is a challenging sacrament but 'gradually over fifty long years of held breath the heart has become warm' (CLP 328). He speaks tenderly in his bereavement: 'And she, who in life had done everything with a bird's grace, opened her bill now for the shedding of a sigh no heavier than a feather' (CLP 198). Perhaps the ache caused by the passing of his wife M.E. Eldridge is something he never outlived, or wished to. Sometimes 'there is a tremor of light, as of a bird crossing the sun's path, and I look up in recognition of a presence in absence' (CLP 237).

The latter day hegemony of the machine, and man's alienation in a world obsessed with technological progress, remains a burning theme in R.S. Thomas' late work. First, 'the tractor invaded the age-old quietness of the land' (CLP 25). Soon, scientists agree the 'myth of their equations' (CLP 149). Despite the cataclysm of two world wars 'we talked peace, and brought our arms up to date' (CLP 172). Describing himself as a '...composer of the first radioactive verses,' the poet notes: 'When I was a child...there was dew on the early-morning mushroom, as there is not now' (CLP 142). The image of the split nucleus feeds lines such as: 'The scientist brings his lenses to bear and unity is fragmented' (CLP 142). Ultimately the machine voices its request 'not for humanity's head but its heart on a platter' (CLP 330). However, while regretting this, R.S. Thomas, man and poet, resists despair and escapes disillusionment: 'Let the space probes continue. I have a different distant to travel' (CLP 147).

The distance travelled is along a path where the poet encounters faith, a positive, and its fellow negative. In an early image, 'the clouds towered. Their shape was prophetic, but there were no prophets' (CLP 16). In the poem 'Tidal'. he continues: 'The waves run up the shore and fall back. I run up the approaches of God and fall back' (CLP 167). At times, the negative dominates: 'You, the bridge builder, will you lay me down a causeway between us over the gulf I have come to?' (CLP 311), and: 'What does a man do with his silence, his aloneness, but suffer the sapping of unanswerable questions?' (CLP 21). The poet extracts an idiom from the quarry of contemporary thought , and, deviously, bolsters faith with the language of empiricism. Thus, in 'Nuance' we read: 'Reality is composed of waves and particles...We must not despair. To pray, perhaps, is to have a part in an infinitesimal deflection' (CLP 269).

In the work of R.S. Thomas, there is little room for idle lyricism. The beauty of the flower, for example, is not something which needs to be re-affirmed. Rather than its shape or colour, its smell is significant: 'I take my place by a lily-flower, believing...that when God comes he come sometimes by way of the nostril' (CLP 147). Its smell, and also its strength: 'I have watched the tendrils of flowers with less strength than a child's fingers opening the hard rock' (CLP 22). Also, moments of simple sensual beauty, while uncommon, are not absent from R.S. Thomas' work: 'The archer with time as his arrow - has he broken his strings that the rainbow is so quiet over our village?' (CLP 223).

Nature in R.S. Thomas' work, a multifaceted manifestation of divinity, is a thing he chooses to dwell close to. Shepherd of rural flocks in Manafon, Eglwys Fach and Aberdaron, the poet sometimes yearns for higher things: 'Imaginary congregations in enlightened parishes hovered above the heads of his peasants. But the fields were too strong. The woods were holier than a cathedral' (CLP 24).

Welsh-speaking and nationalist, author of What is a Welshman? (1974) and Welsh Airs (1987), R.S. Thomas, in his late work, returns occasionally to a theme predominant in his mid-career writing. He states: 'We are the lost people...The wind blows through our castles; the chair of poetry is without a tenant. We are exiles within our own country' (CLP 218). And: 'I was shown the fact: a people with a language and an inheritance for sale; their skies noisy with armed aircraft' (CLP 323). His words go beyond the national context: '...old senators, statesmen...ready as ever to declare war' (CLP 243). War and consumerism, hand in hand, disgust him: 'Beyond this room are the arid sluices through which cash pours and the heart desiccates, watching it pass' (CLP 322). Words in a similar vein are: '...the species re-consumes its waste, cultivates disinfected ersatz, reproduces and dies' (CLP 334).

In his later poetry, R.S. Thomas comments on the medium in which he makes his work. He is concerned with the limitations of language, and the relationship between phenomena and the expression of the existence of these phenomena. Language in the modern world 'is thrown away when it no longer earns its keep as an advertiser' (CLP 356). Words suffer 'the dry minds' of theologians, and 'the long sentences of their chapters' (CLP 150). Poetry he defines as 'a spell woven by consonants and vowels in the absence of logic' and 'that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart'. Poetry serves to safeguard the poet against material things: 'I came down from the mountain where the tempter had offered in exchange for my poetry the kingdom of this world. My insanity saved me' (CLP 304).

The power of R.S. Thomas' poetry stems, in part, from its originality. Combing western philosophy, he discards what he feels to be no longer relevant or tenable. 'Hume, bumping his mind so often against a cause, as to become insensible of its presence' and: 'Descartes...what he thought were the co-respondents in a divorce' (CLP 171). Other references distinguish him from insular romantics: 'Kierkegaard hinted, Heidegger agreed: the nominative is God, a clearing in thought's forest where truth breathes...' Though he wrote while Beckett and Eliot were alive, modernism, with its questions of individuality, is not a place in which R.S. lingers. And post-modernism, with all its paraphernalia, was, perhaps, too indulgent a phenomenon to have held his attention.

To describe him as a humanist is more accurate. But in the work of R.S. Thomas we encounter neither a search for or an expression of orthodoxy. Rather, there is paradox: 'With the end nowhere, the travelling all, how better to get there than on one's knees?' (CLP 33). Other questions are less rhetorical: 'What God is proud of this garden of dead flowers, this underwater grotto of humanity' he asks in 'Geriatrics' (CLP 213). And, in 'Sonata in X', echoing Yeats' dancer and dance: 'Does the tune exist when the instruments are silent?' (CLP 207).

However, caution is imperative when dealing on one hand with the work of a pioneer and on the other with the tendency to categorise. Nevertheless, in two poems, 'Homage to Wallace Stevens' (CLP 266) and 'Homage to Paul Klee' (CLP 279), he acknowledges indebtedness in matters spiritual and artistic. Then the poet tells us of himself, a little playfully, that 'an obsession with nothing distinguished him from his co-thinkers' (CLP 35). True to a reputation for being reclusive which followed him during his lifetime, R.S. affirms in 'Island': 'I would still go there...and live, prisoner of the keyless sea, on the mind bread and water,' (CLP 283).

Now read Transcript's review of Residues by R.S. Thomas.

© University of Wales, Aberystwyth 2002-2009       home  |  e-mail us  |  back to top
site by CHL