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    Turn Aside

    The Poetic Vision of R. S. Thomas

    Jeffrey Bilbro

    August 25, 2020
    3 Comments
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    • Garry Morris

      So much ground covered, but not the most Holy of his ground, imho. The Slayer of the slithering thing that would encoil the world of weakness that is frail humanity. Our Champion, Redeemer Lord and Saviour, looking down in pity, coming down in wombed lightning, lifting up both Creature and Creation... Jesus Victor's tightrope transition from sympathy to empathy. "The Coming"

    • Mark Smith

      Thank you for this well written and thoughtful piece on R S Thomas, a poet I used to teach. There is another kind of turning aside to be found in Thomas' poems, the turning aside on life itself. You can see this in "Evans", a poem about a dying or dead farmer: It was not the dark filling my eyes And mouth appalled me; not even the drip Of rain like blood from the one tree Weather-tortured. It was the dark Silting the veins of that sick man I left stranded upon the vast And lonely shore of his bleak bed. In this case turning aside is abandonment, resignation and the accompanying horror and guilt of not being able to help a lonely sick man. Similarly in "Death of a Peasant": You remember Davies? He died, you know, With his face to the wall, as the manner is Of the poor peasant in his stone croft On the Welsh hills. ... Lonely as an ewe that is sick to lamb In the hard weather of mid-March I will never forget the image of Davies, dead, "with his face to the wall". The horror, the horror.

    • Michael Evans

      Thank you for this excellent essay. I will share it more widely on Twitter and facebook. If anyone reading this likes RS Thomas then you might be interested in facebook.com/groups/RSThomas/ and/or twitter @RSThomaspoet - share RS Thomas poems, quotes, events, info, Q&A etc…

    R. S. Thomas (1913–2000) was an Anglo-Welsh poet and Anglican priest who lived in Wales and served in small rural parishes with his wife, the artist Mildred “Elsi” Eldridge. Thomas’s poems bear witness to the Welsh landscape, its rural inhabitants, and the changes wrought by war, mechanization, and English tourists. They also articulate a deep longing for a God who usually remains silent. His poetry is a bracing guide to living well in an ugly age, an age flattened by efficiency, an all-out quest for profits, and the globalizing machine. His verse is subversive in the best sense, plowing the packed soil of our hearts, turning over desiccated imaginations, and preparing our souls to bear fruit.

    This praise for Thomas may strike some as inconsistent with the tone of his poetry. He is often seen as a nostalgic misanthrope, obsessing over a Welsh countryside that was a hard place to live in, and is now, thankfully, being modernized. But a deeper read reveals an honest love and empathy for his Welsh parishioners and neighbors who are caught within forces about which they can do little. And it’s true that a powerful sense of hiraeth pervades his work, but this Welsh word, meaning homesickness or nostalgia, does not refer to a simple fondness for some idyllic past that never was. In Thomas’s hands, hiraeth conveys a longing for our eternal home, whose beauty he glimpses in the sea breaking over a rocky Welsh coast or a kite winging its way northwards.

    Take his poem “A Bright Field.” An irregular sonnet in some respects, its volta or turning point, as in a traditional Petrarchan sonnet, highlights the crux of the poem. Our besetting sin is to hurry, and the remedy is to turn aside:

    I have seen the sun break through
    to illuminate a small field
    for a while, and gone my way
    and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
    of great price, the one field that had
    the treasure in it. I realize now
    that I must give all that I have
    to possess it. Life is not hurrying

    on to a receding future, nor hankering after
    an imagined past. It is the turning
    aside like Moses to the miracle
    of the lit bush, to a brightness
    that seemed as transitory as your youth
    once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

    Beauty, ephemeral as the sunlight breaking over a field, points to the eternal realities that stand aside from so much of our human striving. For many of us, the standard by which we should measure our lives lies in the future, a future where new technologies, political policies, or promotions will enable us to realize our heart’s longings. For others (and Thomas was tempted in this direction), this standard lies in an imagined past: before nominalism, before the Industrial Revolution, before tractors, before smart phones, before some personal loss. We imagine that back then life was sweet, and we measure our present grief by this lost ideal. Yet Thomas insists that life is found when we, like Moses, turn aside from our habitual strivings, take off our shoes, and stand before a miracle that lies outside our expectations.

    Our situation may seem bleak, but hope lies in the eternity that awaits if we would stop hurrying on and instead turn aside.

    This gesture of turning aside appears in many of Thomas’s poems and reveals much about his poetic vision. There are three elements to this motif of turning: The first is that turning aside brings us “within listening distance” of the ineffable, whether that be the Welsh landscape, other people, or God himself. Second, as in “A Bright Field,” turning aside becomes an alternative both to mechanistic progress and to simplistic nostalgia. Finally, though Thomas may not see God “when I turn,” he finds him “in the turning” itself; the practice of Christian faith entails precisely this turning aside to “the eternity that awaits.” If we follow Thomas, we may learn to see beauty in an age dominated by the machine. Our situation may seem bleak, but hope lies in the eternity that awaits if we would stop hurrying on and instead turn aside.

    In his autobiography, Thomas recalls playing on a beach outside Liverpool one afternoon when his father pointed across the water and told him, “That’s Wales.” Wales, it seems, can only be named from a certain distance. In this case, in the English language and from the English coast. As someone who grew up with English as his native tongue and didn’t learn to speak Welsh until he was thirty, Thomas felt this distance acutely. Yet it also granted him a certain perspective, enabling him, he felt, to perceive the tensions of Wales “more clearly than the Welsh themselves.”

    In his life and poetry, Thomas sought the “listening distance” that would enable him to articulate fraught truths. We can see the fruits of this carefully cultivated stance in Thomas’s poems about Iago Prytherch, the Welsh peasant figure that recurs in his early poems. “There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind,” Thomas writes in the first such poem. And yet he warns readers not to dismiss Prytherch as a mindless oaf:

    Don’t be taken in
    By stinking garments or an aimless grin;
    He also is human, and the same small star,
    That lights you homeward, has inflamed his mind
    With the old hunger, born of his kind.

    His failings are human and so are his longings; those who stand too far off might find this farmer’s life idyllic, and those who come too near might smell only the stench of his sweat, but Thomas invites readers to recognize both. After all, is Prytherch any more backward than those who live in so-called “developed” regions? Plenty of comfortable suburbanites have similarly vacant minds, numbed by the digital and pharmaceutical opiates so many turn to in order to survive the inhuman world we have made for ourselves. The clatter of the machine and the drone of the computer can drown out thought just as effectively as the monotonous plod of a horse’s hooves. And yet these people too burn with the old hunger, yearn for the same small star that lights us homeward.

    In “Aside,” another Prytherch poem, Thomas concludes that this farmer models an exemplary patience:

    Between better
    And worse is no bad place

    For a labourer, whose lot is to seem
    Stationary in traffic so fast.
    Turn aside, I said; do not turn back.
    There is no forward and no back
    In the fields, only the year’s two
    Solstices, and patience between.

    It is this patience that enables him to cultivate life in a harsh place. There is no bucolic escapism here; the beauty he finds grows in the midst of difficulty and ugliness and hardship. Among both dirt-poor peasants and suburban consumers, among both rich and poor, among both rural and urban, can be found people who craft beautiful lives from the intractable matter of their circumstances. Such art is always a miracle, an irruption of grace, a bush on fire. In “A Priest to His People,” Thomas acknowledges the gap between his own literary aspirations and his parishioners’ culture, but he also recognizes its hard-won beauty:

    I have taxed your ignorance of rhyme and sonnet,
    Your want of deference to the painter’s skill,
    But I know as I listen, that your speech has in it
    The source of all poetry, clear as a rill
    Bubbling from your lips; and what brushwork could equal
    The artistry of your dwelling on the bare hill?

    What might feed the “old hunger” that can inspire normal people to achieve such humble artistry? Thomas points to the ache for a beauty we can sense but cannot fully experience, indicting our modern tendency toward skepticism and irony. Being jaded isn’t a sign of sophistication. It’s a mark of what the machine has done to us:

    Men, who in their day
    went down acknowledging
    defeat, what would they say
    now, where no superlatives
    have meaning? What was failure
    to them, our abandonment
    of an ideal has turned
    into high art.

    We need an ideal to aspire to, a standard of beauty against which to measure our lives. We may be debarred from Eden, but we must not forget the shalom for which we were created. We can’t give up on Wales or on beauty or on God just because they seem distant and elusive. The saving paradox is that the loss of such beauty may only intensify our perception of and longing for it: “An absence is how we become surer of what we want.”

    Thomas was an Anglican priest in a modern age of disbelief. He was an Anglo-Welsh poet, doomed by his birth to write in the colonizing tongue. Yet these dislocations taught him to know and love “the silence we call God” and to seek after “the true Wales of my imagination.”

    pink foxgloves flowers in the sunset

    Public domain

    Many of Thomas’s poems wrestle with how he and other inhabitants of Wales should respond to the effects of a cosmopolitan, industrial modernity. While some embrace machines and the progress they promise, others condemn all change and long nostalgically for some earlier time. Thomas rejects both these options and seeks instead to turn aside from modernity, to bend “over a still pool” and come face-to-face with the “roundness of our world.”

    The Welsh poetic tradition has a strong streak of nostalgia. As England’s cultural, political, and military dominance solidified, writes Welsh historian Geraint H. Jenkins, “native poets were at once comforting and destabilizing voices which recalled the past glories of a vanquished people and kept alive hopes of freedom.” In our own age of recrudescent nationalism, the dangers of an essentialist, white-washed version of the past are newly apparent. No nation can be made “great again,” for the realities of history are as messy as the present. As Thomas puts it in “Welsh Landscape,” “You cannot live in the present, at least not in Wales.”

    There is no present in Wales,
    And no future;
    There is only the past,
    Brittle with relics,
    Wind-bitten towers and castles
    With sham ghosts;
    Mouldering quarries and mines;
    And an impotent people,
    Sick with inbreeding,
    Worrying the carcase of an old song.

    This is a harsh indictment of an unhealthy obsession with a supposedly glorious past. You won’t find any yearning for King Arthur to come riding out of the hills in Thomas’s poems. But the siren song of the mechanical future is just as insidious. In “Too Late,” the poet asks Prytherch,

    Can’t you see
    Behind the smile on the times’ face
    The cold brain of the machine
    That will destroy you and your race?

    Despite this destructive potential, in “The Other,” the temptations of modernity and progress prove irresistible:

    The machine appeared
    In the distance, singing to itself
    Of money. Its song was the web
    They were caught in, men and women
    Together. The villages were as flies
    To be sucked empty.

    God secreted
    A tear. Enough, enough,
    He commanded, but the machine
    Looked at him and went on singing.

    Our pursuit of profit and power ensnares us – and beyond that, we are confronted with the sad reality that even all nature is infected with human wrong. We have plucked “the nuclear fruit with the malignant core,” and a mushroom cloud now looms over every inch of the planet. It is part of the human condition to be drawn to taste the knowledge of good and evil, but when we choose this kind of knowledge-as-power, the damage ripples outward and across many generations. In its wake, we sometimes fear that we have no viable choices anymore: the world has already been polluted, the economy has been irredeemably rigged, the fruit has been plucked, and the machine has defiled the garden.

    Against such despair, Thomas offers another way – the now familiar gesture of turning aside:

    Yet wisdom
    is at our elbow, whispering,
    as at his once: Progress
    is not with the machine;
    it is a turning aside,
    a bending over a still pool,
    where the bubbles arise
    from unseen depths, as from truth
    breathing, showing us by their roundness
    the roundness of our world.

    The choice to pluck the fruit, to take the path of control and efficiency and power, irrevocably ramifies in hindsight, but in the moment of decision it often seems trivial or at least limited. Did those who designed the internal combustion engine foresee the consequences of their actions? Did those who built binary architecture or developed the smart phone realize the far-reaching effects of their choices? Similarly, the apparently small choices we make today have lasting consequences. By stepping aside we can learn to discern opportunities for fidelity and redemption even now.

    In “Lore,” Thomas encourages his readers find creative ways of living well amid a broken world.

    What to do? Stay green.
    Never mind the machine,
    Whose fuel is human souls.
    Live large, man, and dream small.

    But what might it mean to live large and dream small? Thomas found inspiration in the subversive, humane practices of Czech dissidents: actors staging censored plays in secret, the greengrocer refusing to display Communist slogans, authors and readers relying on samizdat publishing. In “Prague Spring,” Thomas imagines the thoughts and action that were hidden behind the façade thrown up to satisfy Communist Party rulers. Casual observers would never guess what was happening behind the scenes:

    Could we have known
    that back of their faces hope
    ticked to alternative rhythms;
    that within the arteries
    of the state itself the anti-coagulating
    influences were at work?

    Those of us who inhabit a machine age can learn from these small acts of civil disobedience, which become ways of slipping through the cracks in the machine’s rigid systems and affirming the value of a green life.

    Thomas admired the Welsh peasants because they served humbly and faithfully in a marginal place, far from the centers of power and technology – and he modeled his own efforts on their example. Prytherch endured the many wars of empire; he didn’t fight, he just spent the days growing food, doing his work:

    With no medals to be won,
    You were on the old side of life,
    Helping it in through the dark door
    Of earth and beast, quietly repairing
    The rents of history with your hands.

    Thomas’s own war-time effort, in addition to serving his rural parishioners, was to learn Welsh. For him, keeping the Welsh language alive was not sentimental nostalgia, but a means of turning aside from the imperative to efficiency, a kind of fifth-column protest against the technological powers of destruction.

    Those of us who inhabit a machine age can learn from these small acts of civil disobedience, which become ways of slipping through the cracks in the machine’s rigid systems and affirming the value of a green life.

    Thomas achieved enough fluency to pen his autobiography in Welsh. He titled it Neb, a Welsh word meaning no one. Yet as his translator Jason Wolford Davies notes, “‘neb’ in Welsh actually means ‘someone’; it is in colloquial speech – or titles – when the word is cut adrift from syntax, that it has, incorrectly, the negative force of ‘no one.’ It is the same jack-knife ambiguity that one finds in that other basic Welsh word ‘dim,’ which can mean both ‘nothing’ and ‘something.’”

    Perhaps the backwards nobodies from nowhere are, in fact, somebodies, particularly when they look for ways to quietly repair the rents of history with their hands. These are the true patriots, the people who faithfully love their small corner of the world. As Thomas writes in “The Small Country,”

    Everything
    on this shrinking planet favours the survival
    of the small people, whose horizons
    are large only because they are content to look at them
    from their own hills.
    I grow old,
    bending to enter the promised
    land that was here all the time.

    Among his fellow priests in rural parishes, Thomas also perceived such unassuming but redemptive labor. As he writes in “The Country Clergy,” the priests who work in nowhere places won’t receive much recognition, but their work matters:

    They left no books,
    Memorial to their lonely thought
    In grey parishes; rather they wrote
    On men’s hearts and in the minds
    Of young children sublime words
    Too soon forgotten. God in his time
    Or out of time will correct this.

    clouds over a mountainous landscape

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    The gesture of turning also defines Thomas’s approach to that elusive, yet most real truth: God. Rather than pursuing or fleeing from him, Thomas waits for God to reveal himself. In “A Bright Field,” his exemplar is Moses, who had fled from Egypt forty years earlier and was tending his flock on “the backside of the desert” when he “turns aside” to the burning bush and encounters God. Yet all too often, even when we do turn, God seems absent. Nonetheless, Thomas continues this strange and patient search that is, in the end, a waiting on mystery. In “Mass for Hard Times,” he offers the following Gloria: “Because you are not there when I turn, but are in the turning.”

    Thomas is a poet of divine silence, a poet who tests “his faith on emptiness, nailing his questions one by one to an untenanted cross,” yet paradoxically he also testifies to God’s ubiquitous presence. In fact, as William V. Davis reminds us in his commentary on Thomas’s work, Protestant churches display an empty, untenanted cross because Christ has risen and is alive. So in some poems his prayers are answered, God shows up in the silence, and, most surprising, God becomes suddenly “voluble,” speaking even through “the machine itself.” In several later poems, the cross becomes a “signpost,” gesturing us to “turn aside” from our path. “Tell Us,” for instance, concludes this way:

    You have answered
    us with the image of yourself
    on a hewn tree, suffering
    injustice, pardoning it;
    pointing as though in either
    direction; horrifying us
    with the possibility of dislocation.
    Ah, love, with your arms out
    wide, tell us how much more
    they must still be stretched
    to embrace a universe drawing
    away from us at the speed of light.

    As the universe rushes away, dislocating life as it was known before, the arms of outstretched love encompass all, though invisible to the tools of our creation: “With our greatest modern telescope we look out into the depths of space, but there is no heaven there. With our supersonic aircraft we annihilate time, but are no nearer eternity. May it not be that alongside us, made invisible by the thinnest of veils, is the heaven we seek? The immortality we must put on?,” writes Thomas in an essay. “It is even closer. It is within us, as Jesus said. That is why there is no need to go anywhere from here.”

    As the universe rushes away, dislocating life as it was known before, the arms of outstretched love encompass all, though invisible to the tools of our creation.

    In stillness, not in frantic action, God will be revealed:

    But the silence in the mind
    is when we live best, within
    listening distance of the silence
    we call God. This is the deep
    calling to deep of the psalm-
    writer, the bottomless ocean
    we launch the armada of
    our thoughts on, never arriving.

    It is a presence, then,
    whose margins are our margins;
    that calls us out over our
    own fathoms. What to do
    but draw a little nearer to
    such ubiquity by remaining still?

    The blessed irony on which such redirections rely is that when God seems most absent, he is most present. As C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves: “Man approaches God most nearly when he is in one sense least like God. For what can be more unlike than fullness and need, sovereignty and humility, righteousness and penitence, limitless power and a cry for help?” Thomas articulates this mysterious grace in a poem that once again recalls the burning bush:

    When we are weak, we are
    strong. When our eyes close
    on the world, then somewhere
    within us the bush

    burns. When we are poor
    and aware of the inadequacy
    of our table, it is to that
    uninvited the guest comes.

    God is at hand, even when we seem utterly alone. And Thomas seeks to cultivate that sense of inadequacy and of our own desperate need that can prepare us to recognize and welcome the uninvited guest.

    The great enemy in this endeavor is the reductive materialism that threatens to enclose us, that renders us blind to the burning bush and deaf to the still small voice. Such materialism assumes that “life, the universe, man are nothing but elaborations of physical laws which can be subsumed under comparatively simple equations.” There is no technology that can break us out of the carapace of such materialism. But between the false allures of history and technology, while the “old men looked back” and the “young forward,” Thomas offers this promise: “love and truth kept their place on the horizon.” Perhaps a poem, with its striking metaphor, its shocking image, its surprising rhythm, might jolt our eyes open to see them there.

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    Public domain

    In his life and poetry, Thomas sought the distance that would enable him to articulate fraught truths. He is Welsh, but alienated from Wales, no one but someone. Peasant life is at once bucolic and grotesque. The machine is totalizing but escapable. God is at once present and absent. The proper listening distance to which his poems aspire is one that enables us to hear both these notes and sit with their apparent dissonance.

    Though he received many awards in his lifetime and was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature, Thomas simply aspired to be, as the title of one poem has it, “the listener in the corner.” When others are caught up in interminable debates,

    Alone in the corner
    one sits whose silence persuades
    of the pointlessness
    of the discourse.

    And what is the result of this silence? Not much, but enough:

    The universe
    is a large place with more of
    darkness than light. But slowly
    a web is spun there as minds like
    his swing themselves to and fro.

    Thomas invites us to join him in patiently sitting out the cacophony of our day so that we may listen to the profound silence of the universe. Such a search sharpens our sense of hiraeth, our longing for the eternal home for which we were made.

    Neb concludes with this haunting question from Psalm 51: “What, any longer, is it fitting for man to do but repeat, day after day, ‘Miserere me, Domine’” – have mercy on me, O God? If attending to Thomas’s poems brings us to the place where we, too, repeat David’s prayer, our time will be well spent. For such a prayer subverts the hard soil of our hearts, preparing it to receive the seed whose fruit is able to save our souls – and the world.

    Contributed By Jeffrey Bilbro Jeffrey Bilbro

    Jeffrey Bilbro is the editor-in-chief at Front Porch Republic and the author of several books.

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