The reputation of the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), already strong in his own lifetime, has been rising since. He was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1964, and in 1996 the prestigious Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature and the Horst Bienek Prize for Poetry. He is a major poet of the twentieth century, and one of the finest religious poets in the English language.

I am not an expert on Thomas, but I have read the biography by Byron Rogers (The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of R.S.Thomas, Aurum Press Ltd), I have read a lot of the poems, and I have read various essays on the man and his work. My chief claim to some sort of right to comment is that I feel a lot of affinity for what is going on in his poetry. Seamus Heaney once remarked that “the only reliable source” for teaching about a given poem was “the experience of having felt the poem come home, memorably and irrefutably”. [1]

Thomas’ themes include the natural world, the often harsh conditions of life, and the sense of something further, something not ever fully captured in words, but inescapably part of what we are, and that must be recognized as not just spiritual but religious. It is his ability to grapple with this final aspect that makes him stand out, in my opinion.

Thomas was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church in 1936, and priest in 1937 (aged 24). It seems clear enough that his central vocation was to poetry, not priesthood, but it is part of the genius of the Anglican Church that it can understand situations like this. It understands that there is a wide range of interpretations of the role of vicar, and that no clergyman is a fixed point but a person on his or her own journey. By giving Thomas some basic fixtures in his life, with duties, and therefore an income, it liberated him to find the space that he needed to be a poet of space and silence. But, in a paradox, he is a talkative such poet. He went into the silence and tried to tell others about it in words. This is what makes him so helpful.

He is also helpful because he does this without breaking faith with the Enlightenment. He sees that it is no use just disappearing into mysticism in order to overcome the incompleteness of purely analytical accounts of humanity. One must state carefully what it is that is missing, or where the incompleteness lies, and if one is telling others about something, one must try to do so in their language. He sometimes makes explicit allusion to science, but more important is his awareness of the seriousness of the modern claim that science offers the whole truth. He recognized the need for something informed in reply. In this regard he is more important than Yeats or Eliot, for example. His reply is the one that religion has learned to make more and more carefully since the Enlightenment: that analysis into well-defined parts and their interrelations is not the only way to get at truth, and it is not the only way we need to learn. He is especially good at finding ways to say this succinctly and convincingly.

In this short piece I am not going to survey Thomas’ work. My purpose is simply to encourage others to read it, and to give my own opinion on how we should understand his spirituality. There is a temptation to claim that other people whose work we like are “really” in whatever religious camp we ourselves feel part of. Thomas’ work is unsettled, voyaging over ideas, so it is possible to find reasons to place him in a number of different camps. However, I think there is sufficient that is constant, and there is a sufficient sense of coming to some sort of “home” in his later poetry, that we can read him in the following way.

Thomas, like any poet, is intensely interested in truthful speech. Some poetry is about capturing or transmitting experiences whose main ingredient is emotional. Some poetry is about the empathy of one person for another, or of a human for another creature. Sometimes it is simply about declaring the truth of one’s own or another’s life. Thomas does all of this. But, woven among these things, he also does business with an element that most poets do not know how to explore. Possibly because they have never sat still enough. Possibly because they did not read the gospels seriously. It is a version of spirituality that is not interested in what feels nice, only in what withstands scrutiny.

Jole Mole of Phoenix quotes Thomas as stating [2],

“What I’m after is to demonstrate that man is spiritual.”

I find this statement utterly convincing. Thomas did not set out to demonstrate the truth of any particular codified belief, whether Christian, or Buddhist, or other, but he did want to insist, repeatedly and convincingly, that the human being is a spiritual being. The word “spiritual” is itself capable of a number of interpretations, including atheist ones, but the atheism to be found in Thomas is the atheism of any honest theist. It is the one that is aware of outrageous or inauthentic definitions of God, and paints them in the imagination only in order to reject them all the more ruthlessly. But the authentic home whose signals never quite die away, and whose reality Thomas is struggling to express, is one in which the “silence” and the “absence” which he writes about is, with as much honesty and reality as one can say anything, an inhabited silence, and a meaningful absence. It is an absence of meaningless chatter, and of gods, not an absence of that which can correctly be named “God”.

The one whom Thomas called God, the reality he was forever drawn to and trying to show both himself and others, can be described in Christian terms, and those terms made sense to Thomas, but he was keenly aware of the limits of all religious terminology, whether Christian or not. His occasional statements in interviews suggest that he saw Jesus of Nazareth as a person engaged with and demonstrating authenticity about God, and all such authenticity cannot be captured in analytical speech but always requires indirectness and paradox and poetry. He was profoundly aware of and disturbed by suffering. In an interview on Radio 4 (31 July 1981), he said that the reason he was content to call himself a Christian is because the Christian belief that God has taken suffering into himself is the most profound and satisfactory answer to the great problem of suffering. Although Thomas could write with devastating sharpness about human folly, he also shared Jesus’ sense of compassion on both rich and poor. In particular he felt that the life of ordinary people is utterly, and unjustly, diminished if their spiritual roots are not allowed to grow. (The graceless accusation sometimes leveled against him, that he had no humour and looked down on his parishioners, is quite without foundation.) But the most important question, for Thomas, about any religious proposition, is not “is it Christian?” but “is it truthful?”

Thomas’ poetry is full of doubt, with occasional flourishes of confidence. Faith is not confidence, but the decision to continue the struggle, and this he never lost. The bottom line is that something survived. Something stood up under all his probing. In his later work there is, underneath the continuing journey and questions, a sense of something more settled, something that remains in place. It is at once delicate and yet indestructible. Delicate in the sense of delicately traced, not garish or forthright, but indestructible because not made of things that can be destroyed. One of the most important lines in his work is, in my opinion, “it is matter is the scaffolding / of spirit” (in a poem called Emerging). This is the lesson, repeated by all spiritual leaders worth their salt, that God is chiefly to be recognized in ordinary sights, sounds and happenings. Coming alive is, for us, learning to see and hear, and then to speak.

Once Thomas has internalized this truth, it does not need to be explicit in his poetry. It somehow shines through, even in verses that are purely about natural phenomena. Here is the second stanza of Minuet (in the collection New Poems)

The butterfly has no
clock. It is always noon
where it is, the sun overhead,
the flower feeding on what feeds
on itself. The wings turn and are sails
of a slow windmill, not to grind
but to be the signal for another
aviator to arrive that the air
may have dancing, a movement
of wings in an invisible
ballroom to a music that,
unheard by ourselves, is to them
as though it will never cease.

“That the air may have dancing” is a profoundly religious statement, for anyone whose sense of God is honed. And the assertion to which I already alluded, “it is matter is the scaffolding of spirit” is, furthermore, not just any religious assertion, but the fundamental Christian assertion. We just have to learn what it means.

[1] Seamus Heaney, Influences; The Power of T.S. Eliot (Boston Review, October 03, 1989)

[2] The Poetry Foundation, R.S. Thomas, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/r-s-thomas

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