(Poem #392) Good
The old man comes out on the hill and looks down to recall earlier days in the valley. He sees the stream shine, the church stand, hears the litter of children's voices. A chill in the flesh tells him that death is not far off now: it is the shadow under the great boughs of life. His garden has herbs growing. The kestrel goes by with fresh prey in its claws. The wind scatters the scent of wild beans. The tractor operates on the earth's body. His grandson is there ploughing; his young wife fetches him cakes and tea and a dark smile. It is well.
'Granitic' is not a word I use very often while describing poetry (it sounds far too pretentious, if you ask me), but if ever a poet deserved to be called a hewer of stony verse, R. S. Thomas does. Indeed, rarely do you hear a poet speak with a voice as strong and self-assured as that of this humble Welsh clergyman. This is in large part due to the simplicity of his themes and the directness of his language - there's no room for ornamentation in either. But it also betokens the care with which Thomas selects and arranges his words - witness today's wonderfully constructed poem, in which not a single image or phrase seems out of place. It takes craftsmanship of the highest order to be able to create a whole as unified and perfect as this, and it's all the better for being well nigh unnoticeable. The poem itself is quiet and restrained (though no less moving for all that); in its air of dignified acceptance, it achieves a slow grandeur denied to most evocations of death and the passing of time. And although at first glance its message may seem unduly harsh, I find the poem as a whole profoundly calm and serene - at peace with the world and all that is in it. thomas. [Moreover] George Macbeth has this to say about R. S. Thomas: "... R[onald] S[tuart] Thomas was born in Wales in 1913, a year before his more famous namesake Dylan Thomas. He lived his life as a clergyman, often in the remote country parishes whose landscape and people he has celebrated in his poems. Thomas' poetry seems at first sight a grim and forbidding body of work to appreach. His tone of voice is invariably severe, his rhythm slow and heavy and his subject matter Man scratching a pitiful livelihood from a bare and inhospitable land. Thomas' poetry is narrow in range, but it seems sure to last for its depth and its honesty." and this about today's poem: "A quiet poem about old age. There is a note of acceptance in some of Thomas' [later] work which is a refreshing change from the harshness of his earlier pieces. The image of death as 'the shadow under the great boughs of life' is particularly resonant, with its hint of a real (if limited) immortality." -- George Macbeth, Poetry 1900-1975 [Minstrels Links] 'Poetry for Supper' offers two diametrically opposite views of the poetic process - the one, that it is somehow 'inspired' and innately unfathomable; the other, that it requires careful labour and skilled workmanship. As you've no doubt guessed by now, I tend towards the latter (as, I think, does R. S. T.); you can decide for yourself at poem #187 'The Ancients of the World' shows Thomas in the guise of storyteller and mythmaker; it's a wonderfully evocative three stanzas' worth of bardic breath, at poem #152 [Biography and Assessment] b. March 29, 1913, Cardiff, Glamorgan [now South Glamorgan], Wales Welsh clergyman and poet whose lucid, austere verse expresses an undeviating affirmation of the values of the common man. Thomas was educated in Wales and ordained in the Church of Wales (1936), in which he held several appointments, including vicar of St. Hywyn (Aberdaron) with St. Mary (Bodferi) from 1967, as well as rector of Rhiw with Llanfaelrhys from 1973. He published his first volume of poetry in 1946 and gradually developed his unadorned style with each new collection. His early poems, most notably those found in Stones of the Field (1946) and Song at the Year's Turning Point: Poems, contained a harshly critical but increasingly compassionate view of the Welsh people and their stark homeland. In Thomas' later volumes, starting with Poetry for Supper (1958), the subjects of his poetry remained the same, yet his questions became more specific, his irony more bitter, and his compassion deeper. In such later works as The Way of It (1977), Frequencies (1978), Between Here and Now (1981), and Later Poems, Thomas was not without hope when he described with mournful derision the cultural decay affecting his parishioners, his country, and the modern world. -- EB