Uncollected Poems by R.S. Thomas. Bloodaxe Books. $22.95, 192 pp.
A thought experiment: Let us read a poem by R.S. Thomas as an exercise in intentional comedy. The severe poet-priest from Wales, dubbed “Laughing Boy” by a reader in England, earned a reputation, not unreasonably, as a latter-day Old Testament scold, a cranky Jeremiah of the north. His unintentional comedy, especially in the rants against Welshmen, non-Welshman, and technology, are easy enough to spot, so perhaps we have misread him, or read him only in part, for just as Moby-Dick is most profitably understood as Ishmael’s extended comedic riff, so too is Thomas rich in unsuspected reservoirs of humor, some of it even cautiously bawdy. Consider “Brochure,” a 1964 poem from Uncollected Poems, edited by Tony Brown and Jason Davies:
And the guide book?
Cut it down a bit, say:
An area of high land,
Longitude 3° W.
The people with dark hair,
Small in the thigh,
A large proportion
English the prevailing speech,
With periods of Welsh,
Mostly on Sundays.
Imports, strontium in bulk;
Exports, H2O, free.
The first line is off-puttingly unexpected. “To what?” we ask. “Don’t you know?” Ah, the very poem we’re reading, fifteen narrow lines, is to be the brochure of the title, the anti-guide book. “3° W”? That would be Wales. “Ordovician?” The geologic period that owes its name a nineteenth-century dispute among geologists over the rock beds in Northern Wales. Our man is unkind. Dark hair is neutral enough, even small thighs, but “Dolichocephalic”? That’s having a head longer than it is wide, common among children born prematurely. Thomas, the nationalist who called for the fire-bombing of English-owned cottages in rural Wales, next chastises his countrymen for not being Welsh enough—especially at church. By the early nineteen-sixties, scientists were already linking elevated infant mortality rates in Wales with radioactive fallout. Wales exports what others already have. In sum: Wales is victim and victimized, a land of ungrateful mutants. This, from a man who learned Welsh as an adult, wrote no poetry in the language and published exclusively with English publishers, yet who condemned English in Wales as an “alien” tongue.
To read Thomas is to know self-contradiction. The man never entertained an unconflicted thought nor wrote an unconflicted poem. He was the sort of vicar who ignored his parishioners when he passed them in the street. An Anglican priest, he pursued God (“that great absence”) exclusively along the via negativa. His son said Thomas was “a man incapable of love, and full of love, so with him it came roaring out.” The essayist Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) noted: “Suddenly we see that Thomas’ misanthropy is disappointed love, not free-standing hatred, and that he feels passionate sympathy for his fellow-beings.” But Thomas’ fellow-feeling, like Swift’s, is thwarted. Forgiveness is not among his gifts. A little Thomas, rightly prescribed, goes a long way. His thwartedness is the curse of his life and the blessing (often, not always) of his poetry.
Thomas is at his best in short poems with short lines, often descriptions of scenes in the natural world. His default voice is flinty, but grows larded when he won’t resist the urge to preach. His metrics are customarily free, though the earlier poems run more regularly to the iambic. He’s fond of enjambment and surprises us with occasional rhymes. His style is plain, with little filigree and few poeticisms, and it owes something to the odd couple of William Carlos Williams and Ted Hughes, but laced with borrowings from science and theology. “A Wish” dates from 1988:
Three fields, one
to produce, one
to lie fallow, one
to take my repose
in and, decontaminated,
to awake to the night-
stillborn in the dew.
The poem begins like a fairy tale or riddle, with life divided into threes. It hints at resurrection but the mushroom suggests one of Thomas’ bêtes noires, the atomic bomb. Thomas is making a virtue of gnomic brevity, though late in life he was blessed and cursed with a poetic gift of tongues. He became dangerously prolific. Like Wordsworth and Tennyson he wrote too many poems and, even worse, had the temerity to publish them. Yet, in thematic terms, he wrote very little. That is, Thomas obsessively recomposed the same small set of poems throughout his life, playing minor variations on familiar themes. In his last dozen years he published six volumes of poems, including Collected Poems 1945-1990, plus three volumes of prose. After his death in 2000 at age eighty-seven came Residues, Collected Later Poems 1988-2000, and now Uncollected Poems.
The latest volume, culled by the editors from newspapers, magazines and journals, spans Thomas’ sixty-year writing career. The earliest poem collected dates from 1939; the latest, from his final years and after. Almost absent from these fugitive pieces are Thomas’ signature arguments with God. With Geoffrey Hill, he may be the great embattled poet of faith from late in the twentieth century, but a reader new to Thomas would hardly know that from the Uncollected Poems. What to make of this is a puzzle. Here is “Indoors” from 1962, a religious poem detoured at midpoint into misanthropy:
It was easier to come out with you
into the fields, where birds made no claim
on my poor knowledge and flowers grew
with no thought but to declare God.
Within I had the old problems
to cope with: turning from the Book’s
comfortable words, I came face to face
with the proud priests and their intolerant look.
Of course, Thomas was a priest of the Church in Wales, an Anglican, a minority faith in his country, where nonconformist churches predominate. His outsider status was real but much dramatized and exaggerated. This rare “God poem” in the Uncollected Poems isn’t very good. The contradictions, so fruitful in much of Thomas’ poetry, don’t work. Isn’t pride our besetting sin, whether or not we are priests? Since when is scripture “comfortable” (as opposed to comforting)? The pathetic fallacy of depicting flowers as having “no thought but to declare God” is silly, a greeting-card sentiment unworthy of the man who once wrote: “It is this great absence / that is like a presence, that compels / me to address it without hope / of a reply.” Close readers of Thomas are happy even with scraps, and most of the Uncollected Poems are previously discarded leftovers, not the main course. Readers new to Thomas are advised to try one of the slender original volumes from Bloodaxe or even the Collected Poems, all 560 pages of it.
Back to that thought experiment. “The Two Sisters” from 1950 reads like a ballad or folktale. Here is the last of its three stanzas.
She that is fair is soft of speech,
Yet each soft word conceals a lie;
From her I turn to where that other
Keeps her cold vigil, proud but shy.
This might be a self-portrait with two faces. One is “rich and shares the sunlight.” The other shares only “the spleen of the grey rain.” R.S. Thomas as Juno, daughter of Saturn. Now that’s funny.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, Texas, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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