I’m enamored, right now, with R.S. Thomas’ work. I’m so new to it, but thankful for the discovery.
It reminds me of the writing of other men caught in the act of leading people and caring for their souls: Solomon languishing before the Lord, David madly grabbing the horn of the altar. The narrator throughout Song at the Year’s Turning is caught up in the meaninglessness and mystery of ministry as he walks about the ecology of existence, hands and feet blistered by the rough terrain of men.
The long poem, “The Minister”, was originally broadcast on the Welsh Regional programme of the BBC and examines the muck-a-muck reality of ministry under a sky that is darkened by “the blood of God”:
When I returned, strengthened, to the bare manse
That smelled of mould, someone had broken a window
During my absence and let a bird in.
I found it dead, starved, on the warm sill.
There is always a thin pane of glass set up between us
And our desires. We stare and stare and stare, until the night comes” ( 86).
Nature shows little pity or regard for the minister, perhaps even less than the congregants of the small country church of men with “racked hearts” who are starved and cramped in their religious tradition:
Protestantism – the adroit castrator
Of art; the bitter negation
Of song and dance and the heart’s innocent joy —
You have botched our flesh and left us only the soul’s
Terrible impotence in a warm world (92).
But it’s not all despair and frustration, a coping with the inescapable futility of the fallen world. The people faithfully filling the pews aren’t belligerent toward the preacher. They, like him, are caged by the boredom and limitations of a religious and cultural tradition that demands the question, “Is there no passion in Wales?” The created world reveals a world of beauty written in the “wind’s text” that does more in a gale than the “formal praise” written in the church yard’s tomb stones to commemorate and honour the dead.
Nature, however, is only a signal and sign. It morphs into many shapes throughout the tome. At once a friend and comfort, the narrator announces it is also the “brown bitch fawning about my feet,” a thing he never loved that has branded and enslaved, and Adam and Eve are to blame for the whole mess in “The Slave”. The narrator is covered in the earth’s stench. “My clothes stink,” he states, “where she has pressed/ Her body to me, the lewd bawd, / Gravid as an old sow, but clawed” (104). Wholly, man’s dilemma.
The book’s late poems resonate with lament, yes, but also with the Song at the Year’s Turning, in which the fallow soil is overturned and the heart is renewed:
Is there blessing? Light’s peculiar grace
In cold splendour robes this tortured place
For strange marriage. Voices in the wind
Weave a garland where a mortal sinned.
Winter rots you; who is there to blame?
The new grass shall purge you in its flame.
Nature “has of itself no power to make men wise” (106) the narrator concludes; through her seasons and times, cruelty and kindness. In the end, she is formed and moved at the whims and by the design of the Almighty. In a Job-like pronouncement, simple and direct near the book’s end the narrator asks in a poem entitled “Picsces”, “Who said to the trout,/ You shall die on Good Friday/ To be food for a man/ And his pretty lady?” The text seems to lurch and break, paused by a declaration:
It was I, said God,
Who formed the roses
In the delicate flesh
And the tooth that bruises (110).
Is this the poet’s conclusion, creatures and the created are pushed and prodded, formed into delicate shapes, bitten and bruised? “In a Country Church,” the narrator examines the man kneeling in prayer in an old church surrounded by the icons of saints, held lifeless in stain-glass, sadly praying. “Was he balked by silence?” the question posed to the reader as the whispered petition is uttered in the hollow stone church.
He kneeled long,
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with the fruit of man’s body (114).
One poem follows this, and in it again a near heart-stopping question. Upon reflection on the utter vanity of his “long absorption” ploughing through the earth and the thoughts of man, believing he “failed after many seasons/ To bring truth to birth,” the narrator asks “But where to turn?” The promise of “green places” from the new world beckons him. A promise he describes as “the old lie… That men pry for in truth’s name” (115).
“No Through Road”, the book’s final poem, quoted above, is a stunning conclusion to a body of poems that plunge deeply into the depths of existence and fear not to tread where most angels or men might. Juxtaposed with “In a Country Church” where the faithful prays, nearly shamed at the act itself as the physical realm betrays him- he hears “Bats not angels, in the high roof” (114) – the book begs the question, What is the road through man’s existential dilemma?
Winter, the season of “necessary shame” which hammers the book with its incessant cruelty, defiant as nature can be and relentless, makes the thought and promise of a new season a lie too. And by the last line of the last verse, I cannot but return to the most defiant image Thomas presents of that “winter tree/ Golden with fruit of a man’s body” (114). Eternal winter died with that man too, melted as it were by “thorns blazing.” Perhaps the silence of God that haunts the pages, highlighted, even mocked by the “wind’s song,” exists because there is in fact, nothing that remains to be said.
The minister as man, can only go so far with it, with thought and thinking, and comes to the end of himself. And so finally at the end, with no where else to go, we must turn with him and go back through all that we know, and be at home, walking the wild and waking world like the narrator of “Taliesin 1952” who stands like the great mythic Welsh bard as “all men known to history”:
King, beggar and fool, I have been all by turns,
Knowing the body’s sweetness, the mind’s treasons;
Taliesin still, I show you a new world, risen,
Stubborn with beauty, out of the heart’s need (105).
R.S. Thomas, Song at the Year’s Turning. Rupert Hart-Davis, 1960.
R.S. Thomas on PoetryArchive.org
R.S. Thomas Study Centre