Saturday, November 25, 2017

Doubting Thomases (3): R. S. Thomas

R. S. Thomas (1913-2000)

When I was in the third form at school - I guess that would be Year 9 in the new nomenclature - we used to have our French lessons in a classroom shared with an English teacher.

There were a series of posters around the wall which had been created by that 'other' class (whom we never met, though I came to envy them intensely). What with one thing and another, I spent an awful lot of time in class staring at these posters. They contained a series of short pithy statements, written out with bright crayon illustrations. I never consciously memorised any of them, but I can still recall some of those inscriptions, as well as the pictures that accompanied them:

They said:
Take hold of the nettle
seize it with both hands
and I did
and it stung me.

I don't know where that comes from, and Google has provided me with no assistance. Perhaps it was the poster-maker's own inspiration. A bit dark, maybe, but certainly memorable. Then there was:

And I thought about books.
And for the first time I realized
that a man was behind each one of the books.
A man had to think them up.
A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper.
And I'd never even thought that thought before.

That one seemed a bit banal to me at the time (not to mention, now, a bit sexist). It wasn't till some time afterwards that I ran across it while reading Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and suddenly realised that it'd had been a quote from him all along. All at once that made it sound much more pithy to me, little snob that I was.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

The other wonderful thing I discovered in that first reading of Bradbury's masterpiece was the page where the narrator reads out the last two stanzas of "Dover Beach" to his depressed, suicidal wife and a couple of her friends:
"Dover Beach.” His mouth was numb.

“Now read in a nice clear voice and go slow.”

The room was blazing hot, he was all fire, he was all coldness; they sat in the middle of an empty desert with three chairs and him standing, swaying, and him waiting for Mrs. Phelps to stop straightening her dress hem and Mrs. Bowles to take her fingers away from her hair. Then he began to read in a low, stumbling voice that grew firmer as he progressed from line to line, and his voice went out across the desert, into the whiteness, and around the three sitting women there in the great hot emptiness.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
The chairs creaked under the three women, Montag finished it out:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
That poem completely transfixed me at the time. I didn't know it was by Matthew Arnold, or even who Matthew Arnold was. I took good care to find out after that, though.

Matthew Arnold: Dover Beach (1851)

The last of the three sets of poster texts which have stayed with me from that classroom is the only one that was clearly attributed to an author: R. S. Thomas. Just a few phrases stayed with me from that rather fierce poem until I looked it up again just now. To give you an idea of the tricks memory plays, here are the few bits I remembered:
And he said I will make the poem and I will make it now ... so he took paper and pen, the mind's cartridge ... while the spent hearts smoked in its wake ...
And here's the poem itself, from the volume Tares (1961). I don't know if the title was included on the poster. I suspect not:
The Maker

So he said then: I will make the poem,
I will make it now. He took pencil,
The mind's cartridge, and blank paper,
And drilled his thoughts to the slow beat

Of the blood's drum, and there it formed,
On the white surface and went marching
Onward through time while the spent cities
And dry hearts smoked in its wake.

R. S Thomas: Collected Poems 1945-1990 (1993): 122.

I can't tell you how satisfying it is to see that poem again after all these years, and to correct all the mistakes my memory made in recalling it.

I didn't particularly care for the poem at the time, mind you. It didn't rhyme, which was a big deal to me then. The arrogance of it repelled me, as well as what seemed the impossible self-confidence of those opening lines: claiming to know what your poem will be before you've even written it down.

None of that really mattered, though. That was just mind-chatter. What mattered was the fact that I'd finally seen that a poem could repel you and transfix you at the same time: that it could work on you whether you wanted it to or not. I assumed its author, this 'R. S. Thomas' I knew nothing else about, must be a most fearsome person, and it wasn't till years afterwards that I ventured to read any more of his work.

What I read bore no resemblance to the poem I remembered from the classroom, though. To be honest, in its violence and single-mindedness, it sounded more like Ted Hughes than the mild-mannered Welsh clergyman R. S. Thomas turned out to be. Until I read his autobiography, that is.

R. S. Thomas: Autobiographies (1997)

Perhaps I should say "Autobiographies": there are four such works collected in the volume above, all of them written in the Welsh he so painstakingly learned as an adult, but was - much to his chagrin - never able to compose poems in:
For me, being a poet is a full-time job, and although the muse may languish as one grows older, there is a kind of duty upon you to persevere in perfecting your craft, and to secure an answer, though poetry, to some of the great questions of life. Some are still surprised that I write my poems in English, as if it were a matter of choice. I have said many times that I was thirty before I started learning Welsh in earnest. English (my mother tongue, remember) was long since rooted in me, and it is from the depth of his being that poet draws his poetry. If I believed that I could satisfy myself by composing poetry in Welsh, I would so so. But I learned many years ago, with sorrow, that it was not possible. ... But be that as it may, Llŷn is not an escape, but a peninsula where I can be inward with all the tension of our age.
[Blwyddyn yn Llŷn / A Year in Llyn (1990): 151]
I hadn't really thought about that experience of staring at those texts and wishing that I was in that class, where you might be encouraged to create your own poster for your own quotation for quite a few years. A couple of months ago I was talking to Graham Lindsay, though, and he told me about an experience he had as a schoolboy when a relieving teacher gave their class Dylan Thomas's "Poem in October" (plus, I think, "Fern Hill" - which was also extensively excerpted from in the wall texts in my own classroom).

Reading Thomas for the first time was an extraordinary experience for him, and yet he was far too tongue-tied to tell the teacher about it when back at school. No doubt that teacher presumed that his little poetry experiment had been a complete failure. You never know, though. I'm sure that the teacher who got his or her class to create all those posters had no idea that anyone besides them actually read them, let alone was moved, intrigued, provoked by them to such a degree.

It must have been shortly after that that I started to write my own first painfully derivative, clumsily rhymed poems, full of archaic diction and mythological references, just like the nineteenth-century poets who were my models.

There are a lot of striking passages in R. S. Thomas's autobiography:
Today, when I was out in Pen-y-cil and Parwyd, as I was looking down the precipice, there came the old urge to leap down. Almost everyone has experienced it. There is a psychological explanation most probably, but not everyone has a steady enough head to be able to look down, let alone climb down.
[Blwyddyn yn Llŷn / A Year in Llyn (1990): 123]
That one certainly struck a chord. Someone once asked me why I wrote poetry, and I replied: 'To come up with reasons for wanting to stay alive." That must have sounded like a piece of pretentious posing to her, but I'm afraid it was nothing but the strictest truth. It runs in the family, I'm sorry to say.

Then there's this bit:
In 1938 came the awakening .. to a boy with ideals to uphold, the situation was clear enough: Christ was a pacifist, but not so the Church established in his name ... Meanwhile ... under the influence of the beautiful and exciting country to the west he continued to write poetry - tender, innocent lyrics in the manner of the Georgian poets, because that was the background to his reading among the poets. Edward Thomas was one of his favourites and because the latter had written about the countryside, the budding poet tried to imitate him. The more 'modern ' English poets had not yet broken though to his inner world to shatter the unreal dreams that dwelled there. And, alas, the Welsh poets did not exist for him. Who was to blame? The desire to write was within him, but because of the nature of his education and his background, he could only think in terms of the English language.
[Neb /No-one (1985): 44-45].
Those early religious struggles were more quickly resolved in my case, but those problems with 'modernity' took a long time to filter through into my writing, too. For his 1938, put my 1975. I can now see that that poem of his was one of the vehicles of transformation, but I wasn't really aware of it until just now.

Here's a list of the books of his I own:

R. S. Thomas: Collected Later Poems: 1988-2000 (2003)

    Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913-2000)


  • Thomas, R. S. Selected Poems, 1946-1968. 1973. Hart-Davis, MacGibbon Ltd. London: Granada Publishing Limited, 1974.
  • Thomas, R. S. Between Here and Now: Poems. London: Macmillan London Limited, 1981.
  • Thomas, R. S. Collected Poems 1945-1990. 1993. London: Phoenix Giant, 1996.
  • Thomas, R. S. Collected Later Poems 1988-2000. 2003. Highgreen: Bloodaxe Books, 2004.
  • Thomas, R. S. Uncollected Poems. Ed. Tony Brown & Jason Walford Davies. Highgreen: Bloodaxe Books Ltd., 2013.

  • Prose:

  • Thomas, R. S. Autobiographies: Former Paths / The Creative Writer's Suicide / No-one / A Year in Llŷn. 1972, 1977, 1985, 1990. Trans. Jason Walford Davies. 1997. A Phoenix Paperback. London: Orion Books Ltd., 1998.

  • R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems (2013)

    Few possessions: a chair,
    a table, a bed
    to say my prayers by,
    and, gathered from the shore,
    the bone-like, crossed sticks
    proving that nature
    acknowledges the Crucifixion.
    All night I am at
    a window not too small
    to be frame to the stars
    that are no further off
    than the city lights
    I have rejected. ...

    "At the End"


    Richard said...

    I see you are on to the second or is it the third Thomas?! I recall you on Edward Thomas. I knew about Thomas via the poem 'Evans' in an anthology. Scott Hamilton read about him and talked of his 'grumpiness' etc in his Welsh village and reading the introduction to "R S Thomas: Poems" Selected by Anthony Thwaites, Phoenix 2002,* it seemed that this was not quite the true picture of Thomas. But those two poems you had were no there so I copied them into another small book: "Young and Old" by R S Thomas (Chatto and Windus, 1972). I read all of the (many poems) in the first book. I like all those Thomases, Dylan, Edward, and R. S.

    I had read a lot of Sci Fi as a teenager having got to it on a recommendation by my brother in law L. Priestley. He also got me onto 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' and other books by him of that ilk. I recall those as full of an exciting atmosphere. I also have a lot of his stories. But I was spoilt by the movie (which I watched again recently with my son) of Fahrenheit 451. Like 'A Clockwork Orange' I have never read it but in this case saw the movies several times in the early 70s. I should read that Bradbury and some more of R.S. But I have a lot of books by Anthony Burgess including 'Clockwork Orange' and have read none of them.

    The only book by Burgess I read was 'Joysprick' which is a good intro to James Joyce's works.

    But this post is indeed interesting. Are all the other readers trying to fend off death by writing poems and are thus too desperately busy to comment? Of course there are so many Blogs and indeed a lot to do. But I find yours informative Jack even when I DO know and have read, in this case, quite a lot of the writer's poems!

    I just quickly and a bit guiltily read two poems of Dylan Thomas. I cant get over the linguistic and poetic ingenuity of that writer. Of course this is a confession...But I am certain that Dylan Thomas AND Stevens AND Marianne Moore were influences for both Smithyman and Alan Curnow. Scott always leaves Dylan Thomas out. Perhaps he isn't political enough, too 'boomy' and lush etc...BUT the same kind of tone and depth is in Stevens as well as Dylan Thomas. R S Thomas may be more to our more recent tastes. Look, there are no better or worse, just different ways.

    And story of you seeing those quotes is memorable. The poems I learnt at school I recall better. More recently I have been memorizing them and some others: I recall the 'All the World's a Stage' from primary school. Later when I read As You Like it in Full. I thought you mentioned Dover Beach on here somewhere else? In any case I memorized that and was looking at it again tonight the night I looked here. It was because it featured in "Saturday" by Ian McEwan. It is a key point in the novel (I assume it was also in the movie?).

    It seems to me, with it's faults (for at least he doesn't get to the more convoluted and sometimes turgid dramatic poems of Robert Browning's, although at his best Browning is the greater poet I think); with it's sometimes clumsiness, it works, and is still moving. Arnold has been a bit overlooked also...

    How though, does he know Sophocles: 'Long ago...heard it on the Aegean...'? An imaginative leap? Or in one of his plays...?

    * One of the few books I bought at Borders which is a pity as at first they had so many good books.

    Dr Jack Ross said...

    There was a time in the late 40s and 50s when virtually every English-speaking poet in the world was influenced by Dylan Thomas, I think (maybe not Auden). Certainly middle-era Curnow is full of him -- and you keep on hearing it all the way up to "Spectacular Blossom." Eventually he seems to have eradicated it, but it makes those mid-period poems almost unreadable for me.

    Dylan Thomas has always been a hard one to come to terms with, for me. R. S. Thomas is also hard, but in a different way. His simplicity seems forced, at times -- not simple and casual like Edward Thomas's. That's why I think it's his prose that interests me most. He's certainly not a negligible poet, though.

    Thanks for your comments about my blog, Richard. It's nice to know that you're still reading it. They are a bit superseded by instagram and facebook for most people now, I suspect: I still think blogs have their place, though. In any case, it's important to get these things off one's chest sometimes.