Michael Bartholomew-Biggs welcomes the reappearance of some half-hidden R.S. Thomas poems



Uncollected Poems by R.S. Thomas
Edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies
Bloodaxe Books
ISBN 978 1 85224 896 3
176pp £9.95

I should probably begin by admitting I am sometimes mildly irritated when the weekend culture section of a national newspaper devotes its mere half-page of poetry coverage to a review of a new edition of collected poems by a (long-) dead poet.  Surely there are living poets – even young living poets – who deserve attention?  And yet I am now about to review a new book of poems by the late R S Thomas.  My excuse is that these are poems which were previously uncollected and which have now been painstakingly gathered from a range of sources by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies.

Spanning the years from 1939 to 2010, these poems offer the chance to reflect on the development of Thomas’s themes and style.  We might indeed make a rather glib checklist: in the early 1940s Thomas began to look at people (for instance Iago Prytherch) rather than landscape; the 1950s saw him moving away from the use of rhyme and also starting to explore his complex relationship with Wales and Welshness;  his characteristic short spare line emerged in the 1960s; and by the 1970s he was experimenting with layout and abandoning capitals at the start of each line.  More significantly, perhaps, his distinctive questioning of God’s absences and silences also appeared the late 1970s. This book includes fewer poems of this type than the content of his later collections might lead us to expect.  One wonders whether Thomas was initially reluctant to offer these to magazines or whether the editors were reluctant to take them.

A first important change involves the role of the ‘I’ in Thomas’s poetry.  Some of the earliest pieces are gentle observations and reflections about the poet’s surroundings.  The poems seem immediately to come more fully to life when Thomas begins to look at – or to contemplate the world through the eyes of – other people.  The opening lines of ‘Gideon Pugh’ (1944) foreshadow this:

Gideon Pugh has a house of his own, but no wife
To ease the loneliness of his wide bed

For me, there is more more energy, individuality and promise here than the beginning of a poem he published a few years later

One day this summer I will go to Llanddewi
And buy a cottage and stand at the door
                                                [‘Llandewi Brefi’, 1948]

A familiar Thomas character makes his first striking appearance in 1949

Poor Iago Prytherch wandering in the dew
Drunk with dew as others with wine;
Hanging out his thoughts on the far skyline,
Wind-chastened for the world to view.

This rugged and original imagery dates from the same year as ‘Three Countries’ which represents more or less the last we hear of Thomas’s blander, more traditional voice:

At Soay of the Cuillins I saw the salmon leap,
Uneasy captives at the coble’s side,
Where four stern men were hauling at the nets
That bore the glittering burden of the tide.

From here on, Thomas is less an observer and more a commentator – and often a rather abrasive one.  An occasional sense of mischief begins to show itself – Those are snails that were his eyes. The no-good Puw brothers (from the much anthologised ‘On the Farm’) are prefigured in ‘Original Sin’ which speaks of the man in the fields with his half grin /… whose blind fingers / fondle the sex of the warm soil.

Prytherch turns up again in an intriguing poem, ‘The Grave, from 1969, where Thomas squashes rumours of his resurrection, warning that

… under
The bright grass there is nothing
But your dry bones.  Prytherch,
They won’t believe that this
Is the truth.

The poem goes on to speak of young (and probably false) hopes as being the old / failing,  a skirmish seen / as a battle, victory turned / to a legend before it is won.  And here he is surely reflecting disappointment at the acceptance of small gains made in the search for greater Welsh independence.  Thomas’s complicated relationship with Wales appears first in a poem dedicated to Raymond Garlick who was Welsh not by birth, but for a better reason – / birth being compulsory and not chosen. But this positive sentiment stands in contrast to such observations as You couldn’t, I thought, ask for / a seedier crowd than these Welsh.  Similar complaints occur throughout the book. Wales is the botched land where we can see the insolence / of a poster advertising /a nation for sale.  Thomas bemoans the shotgun / marriage of English and Welsh and regrets that the reputable men, / makers of verse will never set a bomb / alight or bring disaster / on England.   Yet along with such collective criticism of the nation, he is also capable of individual empathy and compassion.  He acknowledges the sorry fate of the last occupant of an abandoned Welsh farm when he speaks of failure’s crop unstored in the barns; and he is surprisingly defiant in his refusal to blame the rural downtrodden when he declares

You want me to say
They were bored with it:
Life like a stubbed fag relit
Each day because there was nothing
Better to do; that was the way
They were made – and I’m not going to.
                                          [‘Work To Do’ – reviewer’s bold face]

Thomas reserves a wonderful blunt eloquence for dealing with Divine mysteries.  In ‘Stop Press’ he reports (although perhaps speaking in the voice of the world’s media rather than on his own behalf)

God’s bluff
called at last.  The bedroom
with the words over the door

Do not disturb – has been forced
by science and found to be

Elsewhere he suspects that God was never in charge here; and when he finds the mind’s branches / are empty and without / song he is free to ask the plain question Where has God gone?  In an elegiac poem from 2007, Thomas seeks to claim Ted Hughes as a kindred spirit

I think looking askance
into nature’s mirror he saw,
even as I do, a god
hiding his face.

While Thomas is often puzzled or disappointed by God his feelings towards the, largely unbelieving, world are much more like fear and mistrust.  Not far away there are torturers and usurers inhabiting a world where, under an obscene / acupuncture the prisoners / are cured of their allergy / to the truth.  In ‘Tourney’, Thomas imagines himself looking out from a tower when a master / of electronics drives by and with one blast / summons me to unequal combat.  In the face of such a  technological threat, Thomas has to turn back to his elusive God: Lord of my life, tell me what armour to put on.

That closing prayer may be a rare moment of self-revelation; but there are one or two others.  As regards the making of poetry, Thomas could be speaking of himself when he writes

of the pen with old
words, images from a time
that was past had continually
to be checked

And perhaps there is some Prufrock-like regret in ‘Dreams’ which begins The poet sleeps and includes the observation he is not Dante.   Thomas seems to expose a much more expected side to his imagination in ‘Chat’ which describes a mildly flirtatious encounter with a young girl in a hotel dining room in Paris or somewhere. / She was so pretty.  During the meal

          Over the glass
Rim a momentary fencing
Of eyes.  Touché, touché:
This is my own blood,
Rich as mahogany,
She is drinking

A more startling sense of sexual intrigue surfaces in ‘A1’ where the narrator has been given a lift and is riding

in the back
with her, squashed together,
no need. Soft. In the look-back
mirror the husband’s eyes

This is a welcome and wonderful book:  the next best thing to having some new R.S. Thomas poems is to be presented with over one hundred of them I had not seen before.  Even when he is transmitting his bleakest or most complex thoughts the spare clarity of his poetry is thrilling.  In an undated poem ‘The orphan’ he states the obvious quite beautifully: Grow / up is what time says / to us, and externally / we obey it.  The opening lines of this poem

There is a small boy
in us that we exclude
from the pitiless surfaces
of the mirrors that life
would hold to him.

are a poignant complement to a quite late (2002) poem in which a dying father confesses all my life / I tried to keep love from bursting / its banks and finds that at the last the smile/  you hold out to me breaks/  like a stick, because there is / as much pity in it as love.

I now want to read the book again without being hobbled by having to make notes for the purposes of a review.