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Passing Through Hard Facts: The Poetry of R.S. Thomas

by Ephraim Radner

Ephraim Radner, an Episcopal priest who has been involved in urban mission in Cleveland, is now in a doctoral program in theology at Yale University. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 19,1986, p. 1027. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In Great Britain, Ronald Stuart Thomas has long been considered one of the pre-eminent Christian poets in the English language. In the U.S., however, he is little known. The publication of his collected Poems last year by the University of Arkansas, which ought to have been something of a major literary event, went virtually unnoticed.

But then, Thomas has always had to struggle against secular critics’ prejudice toward explicit religiosity. And his spare, often brutal depictions of the human encounter with God have also puzzled Christian readers, sometimes offending their sense of propriety and orthodoxy. The new collection offers American readers a chance to inspect Thomas’s very concentrated and consistent religious vision and to experience the disturbing power of his religious assessment of our planet.

And disturbing it is. Consider "The Island," from the 1972 collection titled H’M, which nicely illustrates Thomas’s characteristic concerns and technique.

And God said, I will build a church here
And cause this people to worship me,
And afflict them with poverty and sickness
In return for centuries of hard work
And patience.
And its walls shall be hard as
Their hearts, and its windows let in the light
Grudgingly, as their minds do, and the priest’s words be drowned
By the wind’s caterwauling. All this I will do,
Said God, and watch the bitterness in their eyes
Grow, and their lips suppurate with
Their prayers. And their women shall bring forth
On my altar, and I will choose the best
Of them to be thrown back into the sea.

And that was only on one island.

Laid out as a string of facts, accruing weight through conjunctions -- 12 "ands" dot the text -- the piece claims first of all to be a history. The opening line, "And God said. . ." draws us into the history that begins Genesis. It is a metaphysical, not a metaphorical (and certainly not scientific), version of history. The poem is not strewn with the symbolist’s ambiguous images -- something the parabolic structure of so many of Thomas’s poems might lead us to expect -- but is instead coldly descriptive. We read of a church and the material of which it is built; of a way of life characterized by "sickness," "poverty" and "centuries of hard work and patience"; thoughts and attitudes, religious practice and desire; and of the wind and the sea. In the end, we are told that there is more to be looked into, more to be lived and grappled with, perhaps even with these same lines and edges to experience: "And that was only on one island." Nonetheless, what is given in the scope of these 14 lines is a complete history of one community of people as they are pushed against the surfaces of their existence and attempt to live with the God who lurks behind.

Some features of the poem are understandable in light of Thomas’s background. He is an Anglican priest who served the Church of Wales as a parish vicar in several small rural churches before retiring in 1978. Although something of a Welsh nationalist, it is not politics but the land, with its succession of human inhabitants, that has animated his imagination. His last parish, in isolated Aberdaron on the coast, brought him back to the sea which his father had sailed as a merchant seaman. Thomas has described his own delight in wandering among the rocks and along the hills, watching the birds and observing the natural spaces within and against which his fellow citizens have pried out their livelihood. "The Island," despite its unspecified locale and ungenerous elaboration, is firmly moored to the people and places Thomas has observed.

At the center of the purely descriptive life of this particular poem is the church, its building and its practice. It makes its appearance first as something alien to the people, thrust on them as either a gift or an imposition. Despite having a life of its own, the church takes on the life of its people, becoming them even in the inert substance of its construction: "And its walls shall be hard as! Their hearts, and its windows let in the light! Grudgingly, as their minds do." Irrespective of its relationship with God, the church as a physical entity comes to be identified with the people; it is their mode of civilized expression, through which relationships are molded. And all the time it remains just outside their control, and suggests a certain stubborn enmity with them, brutalizing them insofar as it allows itself to become their tool. In the end, the women sacrifice their children on its altars, trusting in a delusion of protection, the responsibility for which is unclear. Civilization, and the church as a kind of vestigial appendage to this uncontrollable human invention -- vestigial at least in modern terms -- are for Thomas an object of subdued, though often angry, reflection.

Surrounding the somewhat recalcitrant materials of community and religious culture are the far less easily mastered elements of the natural world, which in "The Island" is represented by the light, the wind and the sea. All three elements are like assaulting creatures. People protect themselves against the light, both by the gnarled minds they have forged and the buildings they erect. They lose the grasp of their professional ideals and official purposes as the wind sucks out the priest’s prayers -- with no protest offered by the cheated congregation. And the sea, at the poem’s end, is the receptacle for the creative energies of the women. No one curses these elements, nor are they expressive of any thought toward the people they seem to overpower. The natural world resides in a kind of muted and ambiguous dignity beside the repetitive activity of the human community.

But since "the best" of the villagers are "thrown back" into the sea, one wonders if perhaps some deeper kinship, unacknowledged or even resented, is implied between the people and their environment. Thomas frequently dwells upon the continuities, both good and evil, between these often inimical relations. Their hinted common origins, in fact, point to something greater beyond either.

For from out of this natural history Thomas attempts to cull some mark of God’s presence. Within the story of the poem, God is effectively silent. The people speak, both through their prayers and through the visible tale told through their eyes, and the wind gives voice to the forces of the world about them and impinging upon them; yet God has nothing to say. Prayers are not answered, the light is not clearly derivative of its Maker, and the sea does its business without comment or divine elucidation. The poet is forced to ascribe invisible actions to God which, accurate and true though they may be, keep God’s presence veiled. God "causes" and God "watches," God "chooses" and God "does," but all these verbs are ascribed to God only indirectly, within the discourse of the history. God is said to "build a church here," with certain walls and certain windows, among certain people, but this, it becomes clear, is only an elusive attempt by the poet at explaining a bewildering fact of culture. God "watches" the people become bitter in the endless ineffectiveness of their prayers and "chooses" certain children for drowning. Yet here again, we realize, the assertions contain only the seeds of possibility and, most important, do not affect the outcome of the story one way or another.

By the end the reader understands the seeming fantasy of the plot that begins, "And God said." The poet’s imaginary discourse is not an attempt to propel the story into the realm of fable, but rather his only means of articulating an impossible voice. The actual silence of God amid the desperate facts of the community’s life demands imagination. And this divine stinginess is not unrelated to the predicament of the people’s hearts and minds, from which only prayer can bring some kind of undefined freedom, as it flies out into the unknown reaches of the wind.

Though it is possible to blame God as a petty tyrant manipulating the world’s weak, Thomas steadfastly avoids doing so. God silently watches the people’s flailing, but he also somehow defines the people’s origin. It appears that Thomas is proposing something unusually sweeping: God is not some false answer to the human predicament, nor simply the brutal cause of their distress but the very predicament itself. Far from fighting God or grasping at God, human activity takes place within coordinates that are God, and that constitute any activity’s origin, locus and end. The limited geography of the island, circumscribed in its history, too, only points to this encompassing and upholding divine context.

Thomas’s vision of redemption flowers slowly from his descriptive exercises. For in his view, salvation is a statement of the truth and thus there is something redemptive in description as such. In "The Word," from the 1975 volume Laboratories of the Spirit, the figure of Christ alluded to in the title is masked in the simple call to tell the truth:

A pen appeared, and the god said:
"write what it is to be man."

The vital power to describe the truth, according to Thomas, is an act of God for the restoration of humankind. It is also an act which, by its reiteration of hard fact, participates in the truth it describes -- something which, as we shall see, lies at the base of the incarnation.

To have some knowledge of God is to be open to the cruelties of history, to describe what is, in truth, where the truth is painful. And yet all that can be said from such a posture about the purpose of creation is that God is present in it and linked to it. Sin and redemption are facts that remain without logical relation to this knowledge. And so they too, along with God, can merely be reported.

The opening poem in Laboratories of the Spirit, "The Hand," makes this point clearly. Appearing before God without reason or explanation, the hand seems to be of God’s own making. But it is also God’s opponent, wrestling with God for the chance to create. "Tell/ me your name," the hand cries, "and I will write it/ in bright gold . . . The world/ is without meaning, awaiting/ my coming." God is both wary of the hand’s purported mission and unable to oppose it wholeheartedly. "This was the long war with himself/ always foreseen, the question not/ to be answered. What is the hand/ for?" God knows the outcome of this creative emanation, and is saddened by it. "As at the end/ of a dark tunnel, he saw cities/ the hand would build, engines/ that it would raze them with. His sight/ dimmed." Eventually God acquiesces, letting loose upon the world -- or is the world itself created by it? -- the power of his imagination and ingenuity. "‘I let you go,’/ he said, ‘but without blessing./ Messenger to the mixed things/ of your making, tell them I am."’

Tell them I am. It is the final and only articulated purpose God breathes into the fragments of creation. The objects of human and divine fabrication have no meaning beyond themselves but one: to tell of God’s being, even in the midst of obsessive and destructive pursuits.

This is hardly a vision that makes sense of human affairs. Thomas recognizes that there is more comfort in firmer, more intelligible readings of the world, and he refuses to dismiss the value of cultural religion and its explanations. The church, after all, is also capable of truthtelling. "Many of us have/ gone mad in the mastering/ of your medium," he writes in a poem called "Shadows," explaining the difficulty of entering God’s acknowledged purposes.

But he also sees that there are other recourses: Looking at the world as it is, while also making use of the religious apparatus offered in its midst, provides an indirect reward to the inquirer.

I will open
my eyes on a world where the problems
remain but our doctrines
protect us. The shadow of the bent cross
is warmer than yours. I see how the sinners
of history run in and out
at its dark doors and are not confounded.

There is the possibility of self-deception in embracing the church, but it is one mixed with the possibility of survival, which for Thomas is the one great sign of hope’s legitimacy.

For with time, Thomas says, the shadows can take substance. In one poem an 85-year-old man, who has spent his many years beating "black and blue" the land, "warped inside/ And given to watching, sullen-eyed,/ Love still-born," now sits alone in a corner before the fire, with nothing left to dream on but the self-delusions of his past. But because he is "The Survivor," as the poem is entitled he has the chance to face facts and to gain some kind of redemption:

Old and weak, he must chew now
The cud of prayer and be taught how
From hard hearts huge tears are wrung.

As in "The Island," the continuity of people’s efforts in the face of their environment and the unremitting constancy of their unanswered prayer allow at least the possibility of apprehending God and knowing oneself. In "Emerging," a beautiful poem about the effort of waiting upon God, Thomas writes:

In everyday life
it is the plain facts and natural happenings
that conceal God and reveal him to us
little by little under the mind’s tooling.

If only one can wait to pick through to the encrusted core.

But a voice sounds
in my ear: Why so fast,
Mortal? These very seas
are baptized . . .
You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer too,
has its phases.

The natural world’s patience is the model of the constancy required of the Christian. The shape of hope is not detailed, but its possibility -- as vast and unspecified as the "baptized seas" -- depends on our becoming attuned to the shape of the world.

It is in this posture that the light of redemption is finally perceived. The prayer of patience is always answered, Thomas says simply because it is at one with the unruffled surface of what is. Where Christ has specificity in his poems, it is at the end of a long process of encountering the hard and unnuanced substance of the world’s surrounding. This is why reference to Christ is so rare in Thomas’s poems, and why the recognition of Christ’s power is so ambiguous. God’s Son is too much like the world to be either evident or obviously attractive. And yet, he is not wholly obscure, either, to those who pass through the hardness of "plain fact." In his weakness and ordinariness, in the ease of his dismissal by those seeking something larger, in the character of his fragility, which fits so neatly into the world and into what is despicable about the world, Jesus is the Nobody whose prayer can mirror and fulfill the plodding of true prayer.

In "The Coming," God shows his Son the tiny globe of the world, its "fierce colour," its lights and shadows, the filth of its civilization, and its brittle energies. The natural and human objects of the earth are viewed with a dispassionate regard, "as through water," the distance enforcing the integrity of the examination. Christ sees plain fact, as Thomas would say, without illusion or desire. Yet it is this realm that Christ chooses as his own, for no other reason than an impulse, or perhaps because of the echo of his own being heard within the world. As the people wait, he takes his place among them:

On a bare
Hill a tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched

Them. Let me so there, he said.

By conforming so perfectly to the desire of plain people – people who, at any rate, are willing to live out the authentic character of their inevitable waiting -- Christ provides the small mark of God’s presence. "I choose white, but with/ Red on it," writes Thomas in the tiny poem "Song," "Like the snow/ In winter with its few/ Holly berries . . . like Christ/ Comes to us in his weakness,/ But with a sharp song."

It is such conscious "choice" that Thomas seems to believe is the only effective Christian vocation -- consciously taking hold with one’s eyes the cast-out landscape that numbs through its repetition and unarticulated contours, and resting there with it until the spot of suffered color brushes by. As always with Thomas, the heart and the land are one in their capacities -- spirit and fact are inseparable -- and so physical experience has the power to reveal God’s passing. For Thomas, that revelation is no small blessing.

There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body
["The Answer"].

It is clear that Thomas’s poetic vocation coincides with this choice for the world’s factual colors to which he points as a means of grasping the possibility of salvation. If his work becomes more familiar to American readers, the distinctive option he offers will also become more keenly appreciated.


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