Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now

R. S. Thomas: Collected Later Poems 1988-2000
(Bloodaxe, £9.95, 2004, 368pp. )

One of the methods I employ when introducing sixth-formers to various poets is to show them, whenever possible, video footage or photographs of the individuals themselves. The pedagogic theory behind this is quite simple: poems are written by people, not just names encountered on examination papers. Thus, the lucky recipients view ancient black-and-white footage of AudenÕs camp, playful explanation of how he writes; Eliot, bank-clerkly and formal behind a huge BBC microphone; Larkin disingenuously enacting 'A Study of Reading Habits' in Hull University Library. And when we come to R.S.Thomas, I show them the dust jacket of Justin Wintle's critical study,Furious Interiors: an old man glares at the camera fiercely, a portrait of forbidding, suppressed rage. He is an ordained minister, but you wouldnÕt want to hear him preach.

While he was alive, this was the received view of R.S.Thomas: an adherent of extreme views on Wales, a critic of the ubiquity of industrialised life, engaged in a war of attrition with his God. Is that all there is ? The publication of this volume, containing Thomas' last four 'official' collections, The Echoes Return Slow
(1988), ŌCounterpoint (1990), Mass for Hard Times (1992), No Truce with the Furies (1995), plus the posthumous Residues (2002) offers an opportunity for reassessment.

The first two volumes listed above find Thomas (to a degree) abandoning his typical short lyric form to sew together verse sequences (or prose-and-verse in the case of The Echoes...) with varying degrees of success. The four short sequences which make up Counterpoint, entitled 'B.C', 'Incarnation', 'Crucifixion' and 'A.D' seem somewhat inconsistent. At their best, taken as short lyrics, they approach the hard-edged sense of parable which distinguishes Thomas' best poetry: '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 Š / writer, the bottomless ocean / we launch the armada of / our thoughts on...' ['A.D', ninth poem]. The wordplay and the twinkling twists and turns in this chain of language might almost be described as metaphysical and the tutelary spirits of Donne, Hopkins and late Yeats recur through many of these meditations. Some of the revisitations to typical Thomas themes (the demands of 'the machine' / the struggle of prayer / God's silence) feel a little worked-out and secondhand: he has been here before to greater effect, notably in his early collections in the 1950s.

The Echoes Return Slow, on the other hand, an alternating autobiographical sequence of verse and prose pieces, seems fresh and rewarding, largely, I suspect, for the novelty of Thomas speaking more openly as Thomas throughout. 'A priest's work' is discussed, the 'bough of land' which is Thomas' parish described, full of 'sins rural and sins social' and 'the echoes of cloying Amens' he wishes to briefly evade ; all these prove a rich extra dimension to understanding Thomas, and should perhaps be used in conjunction with the translated Autobiographies (Dent, 1997).

The last two collections Thomas published, Mass for Hard Times and No Truce with the Furies still seem full of powerful, tough, undiluted stuff to me, though both were written when he was in his late seventies/early eighties. From the former, 'Come Down', 'Tidal', 'Tell Us', and 'Migrants' are strong meditations and petitions for prayers to be answered, or even acknowledged: 'dashing / my prayers at him will achieve / little other than the exposure / of the rock under his surface' ['Tidal']. Unexpectedly, however, this particular poem ends in glimpses of trust and mercy. Equally surprising is 'Winter', which conjures a picture of the aged antagonist amused by the insolent philosophical sallies of Jorge Luis Borges.

No Truce with the Furies is even stronger, a fine last collection. 'Geriatric' offers an unsparing, moving meditation on old age, the shadows of Kierkegaard and Wallace stevens fall on several poems and the concluding pieces, 'Play' and 'Anybody's Alphabet' exhibit a playfulness you'd associate with the very late Auden of 'Epistle to a Godson' or 'Thank You, Fog'.

Two years after Thomas' death, Residues
(2002) appeared, shaped from unpublished manuscripts by M. Wynn Jones, Thomas' literary executor. It is much of a piece with the two preceding collections, albeit a shade more elegiac, with the past tense notable throughout. One of the concluding poems, 'Don't Ask Me...' is a response to a slippery question; how to write poems. Coached in negatives and denials, Thomas actually proffers a lot:

         Ask no rhyme
         of a poem, only
         that it keep faith

         with life's rhythm.
         Language will trick
         you if it can.
         Syntax is words'

         way of shackling
         the spirit. Poetry is that
         which arrives at the intellect
         by way of the heart.

Reminiscent of Larkin's similarly gnomic comments [see Required Writing],
this is actually more informative. It is a heartfelt way to conclude Thomas' poetic career: anyone who has followed it, and has the doorstep Collected Poems 1945 Š 1990 will want to invest in this companion volume, too.

© M. C. Caseley 2004