R. S. Thomas: Poetry and Theology
Few other poets writing in English during the second half of the 20th century wrote as well as the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas (1913-2000), and none wrote as well about that interweaving of faith and doubt that forms part of the fabric of most (if not all) thinking Christians’ experience. If you have ever thought or felt that God was absent from your personal life or church or culture, then chances are that Thomas has written something about it already; and written in such a way as to cause you to suspect he somehow looked into your diary or overheard your prayers, and then revised your language to make it more clear without denying subtleties of meaning, more truthful without positing easy answers, more precise without sacrificing strong emotion—to make it, that is, into poetry.
Such poetry deserves and rewards study, and so we have R. S. Thomas: Poetry and Theology, a book that presents as ten chapters a collection of ten studies by William V. Davis, all of them (at least in part) delivered previously as lectures and published previously in journals or critical anthologies or both. The book’s subject, author, and focus make an unusually good fit: Thomas was both poet and priest for most of his adult life; Davis, a Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Baylor who has also written about the poetry of Robert Bly, is himself a very fine poet and a student of theology; and, as the subtitle suggests, the focus is on the part of Thomas’s poetic oeuvre that is concerned with theological issues.
As a critic, Davis is at his very best when, in Chapter 2, he gives short accounts of Thomas’s life and poetic career and when, in Chapter 3, he relates the imagery of the cross to the “central theological theme” in Thomas’s work, “the presence of God’s absence, the deusab sconditus” (28).
With the addition of a few geographical details, and for the sake of those readers unfamiliar with the poet, I offer the following summary of Davis’s account of the life of Ronald Stuart Thomas. He was born on March 29, 1913, in Cardiff. At age five, when his father found work on the ferries crossing the Irish Sea, the family moved north and west to Holyhead, on an island off the coast of Wales. Thomas later attended the University College of North Wales in nearby Bangor, where he studied classics, graduating in 1935, before moving south to Llandaff, near Cardiff, to study theology at St. Michael’s College. Ordained as a priest of the Anglican Church in 1937, he served as a curate in Chirk and in Hamner (both near the English border) and married Mildred Eldridge, called “Elsi,” a teacher and painter. In 1942, he became rector at Manafon, about 30 miles to the southwest, where his only child, a son named Gwydion, was born in 1945, and where he started writing the poems gathered in his first books. In 1954 Thomas moved farther west to serve at Eglwys-fach, and in 1967 moved farther still to Aberdaron, a village at the tip of the Llyn Peninsula. After retirement from the priesthood in 1978, Thomas and his wife moved from Aberdaron to a nearby stone cottage. In 1994, three years after his wife’s death, he moved north to Llanfairynghornwy, on the island of Anglesey, near his boyhood home. In 1996, he married a Canadian widow named Betty Vernon and moved back south, near the Llyn Peninsula, to Pentrefelin, where he died on September 25, 2000.
Davis divides Thomas’s poetic career into four phases: early, middle, late interlude, and last decade. It is the second half of the middle phase, consisting of work collected in three books published in the 1970s—H’m, Laboratories of the Spirit, and Frequencies—that he regards as “Thomas’s major period,” a period filled with many powerful poems on the theme of deusab sconditus (28). In Chapter 3, he renames this theme “Agnostic Faith” and connects it to the image of the “untenanted cross” that ends “In Church.” That poem opens with a statement and a question about the place and about an apparently hidden God:
Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching?
A dozen lines later, the poem makes God’s absence present:
There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
Davis writes insightfully of the symbolic meaning of this cross, and of the cross:
Thomas seems to be suggesting that it is not that the symbol is untenable, but that the very fact that the cross is untenanted makes the case even more tenable: that Jesus, as Christ, even in his absence—indeed, perhaps because of, and by, his absence—symbolizes and thus affirms his continuing presence; that, during the crucifixion, he literally occupies the place and property of that other member of the Trinity; and that the symbolic power of that presence remains (and is perhaps even increased) by the symbol itself—which is a continuing evocation of his presence, even in the presence of his visible absence! That is: the presence of Jesus’s absence on the untenanted cross symbolizes the abiding presence of Christ’s presence, as tenant, for God (48-49).
In spite of insights like these, R. S. Thomas: Poetry and Theology is not always a successful book. One problem—redundancy—is an unsurprising result of the ten studies being published previously. As Davis admits in his Preface, he has collected the studies without revising passages where they overlap, and so they “sometimes revisit themes and theses—sometimes even through the same poems” (xi). The hope that he has “found something new to say about the theme or the poem (or both) with each return” (xi) is not fulfilled quite well enough to counterbalance the experience of reading about many poems three times. In fact, we read five times that “Pilgrimages” is the last poem in Frequencies; Davis never adds quite enough insight to this information.
Another problem—the low quality of some of the writing—is surprising, given the author’s credentials and the chapters’ previous incarnations. For example, twice we read that The Echoes Return Slow is Thomas’s “most unique” book (32, 85). To move from bad grammar to what is (at the level of etymology) a bad pun, we read elsewhere that “the word ‘cross’ is a crucial word in Thomas’s vocabulary” (64; italics added). Davis also places too much emphasis on, and plays too obviously with, the titles of poems. For example, on one page of Chapter 6 (which goes in order through some of the poems of Frequencies), three successive short paragraphs begin as follows:
“It is perhaps now a time for ‘adjustments.’ Thomas’s poem ‘Adjustments’ (F 29-30) begins…”
“The next important poem in Frequencies is ‘Waiting’ (F 32). Indeed, it is almost as if Thomas himself has been waiting for ‘Waiting’…”
“‘Somewhere between faith and doubt.’ Such vacillation is an accurate description of Thomas’s position. It has, indeed, become a ‘possession,’ as the next poem ‘The Possession’ (F 33) asserts” (93).
Consider too the faulty logic (to be specific, the false antithesis) in this passage:
Despite his professed pacifism, Thomas frequently followed the lead of other outspoken Welsh activists, such as the flamboyant Saunders Lewis (1893-1985). He took an active role in backing various causes, including the controversial Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and he even argued that in order to keep Wales for the Welsh he would support the use of force against British rule in Wales, and also against individual English citizens who, increasingly, were buying up homes and cottages throughout Wales (18; italics added).
The words I have italicized do, in fact, run counter to a pacifist worldview, warranting the phrase “Despite his professed pacifism.” But to suggest, as the rest of this passage does, that taking an active role in causes is “despite” (or contradictory to) pacifism is to place in opposition two things—pacifism and active engagement in social causes—that are not necessarily opposed. Finally, there are passages in which Davis could take more control of his argument, passages consisting almost entirely of quotations (either from another critic or from Thomas’s poems) strung together. Chapter 1, paragraph 1, is a case in point. The first sentence reads,“ J. Hillis Miller has argued that Matthew Arnold’s thought provides us with “one of the most important testimonies to the spiritual situation of the nineteenth century” and perhaps the quintessential transition to the twentieth” (1). The second begins, “Miller concludes his argument by saying that” and proceeds to quote Miller. The third begins, “Elsewhere Miller comments,” and then quotes Miller a third time. And that is the paragraph.
Some chapters have their own distinct problems. For example, in Chapter 1, “Poetry in Theological Crisis,” Davis overcomplicates and blurs the simple point that Matthew Arnold and Wallace Stevens regarded poetry as a substitution for a theology that no longer sufficed. A more complex point—how it is that what might be termed the “agnostic lack of faith” of these poets is related to the “agnostic faith” of Thomas—is hinted at by means of an insightful comparative reading of Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Thomas’s “Tidal” but is not nailed down sufficiently until Chapter 10, “R. S. Thomas and Wallace Stevens.” In Chapter 4, “Poet-Priest of the Apocalyptic Mode,” Davis writes that Thomas “is ideally suited for confronting the apocalyptic moment of recent history” and he mentions that there are contemporary and younger “apocalyptic poets,” but he does not define clearly what he means by “apocalyptic”—although he does quote a source who equates apocalypse with eschatology in passing—and he does not say who these other poets are (59-60).
Even though these are substantial problems, the accounts of Thomas’s life and poetic career, the categorization and analysis of Thomas’s images (not only the cross but also, in Chapter 5, mirrors and, in Chapter 8, “the machine”), and the readings (in Chapters 9 and 10) of poems in which Thomas refers to Kierkegaard and Stevens combine to make much of the book useful. In the Preface, Davis writes that the book is a record of both Thomas’s and his own pilgrimages. Perhaps the most important outcome of the book for me is that it makes me want to begin my own literary pilgrimage—to read R. S. Thomas’s poems again.