I thought that some poetry by R.S. Thomas, the rather bleak Welsh poet-priest, would be good for the week after Easter; so I started with The Stones of the Field, his first published collection. I read it in a fantastically good-value collection of his poems up to 1990, which was published to celebrate the poet’s eightieth birthday (and which my father gave me – thanks, Dad). Despite its impressive size it’s a little sparse, with no introduction, barely any biographical information and no differentiation between the staggering twenty-two collections it contains other than on the contents page (i.e. there’s no indication that one collection has finished and another begun). I think more recent editions have an introduction by Andrew Motion. But that’s all a rather irrelevant aside, given that I was reading just the first collection. One last, but worst, complaint: the typeface used makes it very difficult to tell the difference between commas and full stops, which is exacerbated by the fact that Thomas, in his early work, begins his lines with capital letters. It seems a shame that a collected works of such an important poet can have been so poorly served by its publisher.
I really got on with R.S. Thomas, which I thought I would, being a little familiar already with some of his explicitly religious work (‘The Kingdom’, ‘The Coming’, ‘Via Negativa’, ‘The Belfry’), and with his themes of wrestling with God and doubt. The Stones of the Field felt like an invitation to stop and look at things, especially people, and especially people that one (the reader is sometimes directly addressed or questioned) might dismiss as being different, other, not perhaps very useful. ‘Man and tree’ opens with the command ‘Study this man’; ‘Affinity’ with ‘Consider this man’; ‘The Mistress’ with ‘See how earth claims him as he passes by’. Each of these poems – and many others in the collection – creates a portrait of a peasant, or a labourer, or a farmer, and invites you to take an unsentimental look at a man of the earth, while reminding you that ‘his name is also written in the Book of Life’, that
He also is human, and the same small star,
That lights you homeward, has inflamed his mind
With the old hunger, born of his kind. (‘Affinity’)
Once again it’s the combination of a certain toughness with real lyrical beauty – or perhaps harshness expressed through the beauty of words – that really drew me in; lines such as
Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,
Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,
Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud. (‘A Peasant’)
reflect the spareness, the sparseness of the setting; and yet penning sheep ‘in a gap of cloud’ manages to both express this sense of a tough life within narrow confines and also suggest something transcendent, magnificent.
Another interesting aspect of this collection was the number of strong end-rhymes, very close together; and yet none of it sounded trite, as heavily rhyming poetry often does.
It was a very short collection, and the overall effect was a series of miniatures, all painted in exquisite detail, all suggesting something beyond themselves while at the same time remaining absolutely rooted in a sense of place. Favourites: ‘A Labourer’, ‘A Peasant’, ‘Affinity’ and, appropriately, ‘Spring Equinox’:-
Do not say, referring to the sun,
‘Its journey northward has begun.’
As though it were a bird, annually migrating,
That now returns to build in the rich trees
Its nest of golden grass. Do not belie
Its lusty health with words such as imply
A pallid invalid recuperating.
The age demands the facts, therefore be brief –
Others will sense the simile – and say:
‘We are turning towards the sun’s indifferent ray.’