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Brave Answers

John McAuliffe

Uncollected Poems, by RS Thomas, edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies, Bloodaxe, 192 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 978-1852248963

RS Thomas’s Uncollected Poems is a substantial collection, 150 pages of poems that Thomas published in journals and newspapers over his long writing life. The first poems reprinted here show the antecedents to his mature, “hard” and clear style; Thomas’s early poems are softer and will sound familiar to Irish readers, who will recognise their wishful mixture of early Yeats and early Kavanagh: “For my own country’s part / Her lore and language / I should have by heart” begins “Confessions of an Anglo-Welshman” while his Lake Isle is “Llanddewi Brefi”: “One day this summer I will go to Llanddewi, / And buy a cottage and stand at the door.” His Patrick Maguire figure is of course Iago Prytherch, who first appears in “Welsh Shepherd”: “There he stands, counting his phantom flock / Carefully as his money, while the ravens mock / Each dream picture of a swollen fold.”

The Irish connection is an important part of Thomas’s formation. Many of the early poems were originally published in The Dublin Magazine and his reflections on Irish writing in English often dramatise his own position, as when he describes Yeats and Joyce as the greatest disaster to have befallen the Irish literary tradition, thinking surely of his own desire for the “cymrification” of Wales even as he continued to write poetry almost solely in English (there is a single poem in Welsh in this collection, translated by Jason Walford Davies as “The Peasant”). Thomas’s first three collections were initially published by a small Welsh press and it was only in 1955 that a selection from those books, with a preface by John Betjeman, brought his work to a larger audience. Thomas was forty-two at that point and Yeatsian cadences (“I have seen them smirking as I passed, / Toothless, busy with their brood” (“Farm Wives” [1955]) still flit in and out. It is clear from this selection of work that he saw this as a drawback and his work from the late 1950s and afterwards rejects the Yeatsian influence and adopts a narrower line and a characteristic simplicity of phrase, with prosy rhythms often dominating until a clinching phrase or image arises to conclude the piece. The poems feel more procedural too, with more emphasis on inquiry and argument and fewer lyrical and meditative passages.

This distinctive style was also a reaction of course to his namesake Dylan Thomas’s exuberantly inventive style. Thomas was born a year after RS in 1914 but died in 1953, before RS’s work found a large audience. He was already by then the most mythologised of Welsh writers and RS Thomas’s severe reaction to him chimed with the anti-Romantic Movement aesthetic of Donald Davie, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, poets with whom he is still sometimes critically associated. For RS Thomas, though, as Uncollected Poems makes clear, the argument with Dylan Thomas is not just about style but is related to the matter of Wales, whose reality he felt escaped the Laugharne writer, of whom he would say “The only thing Welsh about Dylan was that he knew his Bible.”

If the development of Thomas’s style is interestingly revealed by this new collection, the recurrence of key ideas and themes is also apparent. In his introduction to the 1963 Penguin Book of Religious Verse, Thomas wrote of it as being that which “embrac[ed] an experience of ultimate reality”. This typically simple-looking phrase actually meshes together philosophical ideas which would drive decades of his own work: the intimate verb “embrace” posits the importance of personal feeling to his work; the phrase also points to the more abstract and existential questioning of personal “experience” as the grounds and limits of human knowledge; and his poems perpetually pursue the possibility or impossibility of registering a “reality” which is not a screen or misleading mirror of their own concerns.

In Thomas’s case this set of philosophical conundrums is bound up too with a particular attention to the identity of Wales, the deceptions of technology (often known as “The Machine” in his poems) and the difficulties of knowing God. Uncollected Poems offers a speeded up version of the trajectory of his writing life, covering the same ground as his Collected Poems (or individual collections): in sparse, clear, almost bare lines, Thomas tests and finds wanting the world around him all the while lamenting his own poor equipment for representing anything other than disillusion.

There is, obviously, a good deal of change in the incidental details across his long writing life but his readers will most likely be struck most by the continuities of his work from the 1960s to the 1990s: his initial engagement with the realities of North Wales, for example, is a constant theme to which he added the incendiary anglophobia of the 1960s, an increasing hatred of the filthy modern tide in the 1970s and, around the same time, a contextual interest in science and birds which provides him with a further, more objective grounds for despair at the human condition. Through all this he relies on a binary, morally coded set of images, the deciduous trees (of Wales) opposed to the metal machines (of modernity). This sometimes leads him, as in “The Source” (1977), into the praise of some original urWales:

in the deciduousness
of the nation it is hard to discover
pattern, but the further we go back
the shapelier on the horizon
the tree that is still in bud
with its poets and its princes.

This nostalgic hankering after purer times is disconcerting, as are those poems which predictably lament and hector the twentieth century’s falling away from some imaginary past. The attack on “the incorrigibly human / With their dogs and their fags and their children, / stated at by indolent gulls, unconscious of history […] The consortium of fools” (“Thoughts by the sea” (1968) recurs through the work of the sixties and seventies, as does his attack on the “reputable men / Makers of verse, scholars, lecturers” who would never “set a bomb / alight or bring disaster / on England” (“The need” [1968]).

Over the course of this collection, though, Thomas’s sincerity on the matter of the one Welsh nation seems too pronounced and unreliably one-dimensional, missing the ways in which that kind of poem was redeemed in individual collections by poems like “Postscript” from H’m (1972) which offer, alongside the nationalist bravado, a self-reflexive scepticism and tempering dreaminess: “As life improved, their poems / grew sadder and sadder”. A similar, much less antagonistic note is struck here by the poem “Pact” (date of composition unclear, possibly 1980s), which ends: “it is peace / in the hand is the translation / of peace in the mind.”

If the book provides us with confirmation of Thomas’s style and thought rather than anything unexpected, are there individual poems or enlightening new patterns within this collection? As well as recognisable moments of excellence like “Pact”, there are new Iago Prytherch poems, which are torn, just as much as their already published companions, between sympathy and alienation. They are joined here by a set of monologues for, or close observations of, other workers: Prytherch is accompanied by a farmhand, a bank clerk, lifeboat workers, the “big preachers” of his childhood and the “Island Boatman” the editors see as Prytherch’s direct descendant:

Sitting with him over
a fire of salt wood,
spitting and purring, I
forgave him his clichés,
his attempt to live up
to his eyes’ knowingness.
They had looked down so many
times without flinching
into a glass coffin
at the shipwreck of such
bones as might have been his.

Another antecedent for Prytherch is suggested by a pair of 1969 poems which may be related to “Lob”, Edward Thomas’s brilliant fantasia of an archetypal Briton. Edward Thomas’s Anglo-Welsh background was occluded in Matthew Hollis’s recent study of him, All Roads Lead to France, but his influence on this Welsh writer may be seen in how “The Grave” (1969) conjures an afterlife for Prytherch:

Someone has seen
you at a meeting; somewhere
a bomb grumbles. Echoes
reverberate in the heart’s
hollows. Durable
as a tree in history’s
landscape, you are renewed
by wishes, by foliage
of young hopes.

Its companion poem is called “Old Man”, which immediately calls to mind Edward Thomas’s self-revising poem of that name which begins “Old Man, or Lad’s-Love, – in the name there’s nothing / To one that knows not Lad’s-Love, or Old Man, / The hoar-green feathery herb,”. In RS Thomas’s “Old Man”, Prytherch is Welsh-speaking and cursed too by a kind of namelessness and inarticulacy, “the huge stone / of a tongue he has been burdened with”:

Conscious of flowers
that are nameless, he would cry out,
if he could, utter a poetry
so savage the great books
of your writers , Keats and Blake
and Shakepeare, would remain
closed

Thomas’s uneasy deliberations and exaggerations on his resort to the English language still provoke readers interested in Welsh literature and its complex English (and Welsh) inheritances ( his work is an important context for how we read Gwyneth Lewis and Robert Minhinnick). These poems also offer interesting analogues to Irish readers who are familiar with the ways in which Patrick Kavanagh, Thomas Kinsella and others have tracked (and despaired of) the divisions and dilemmas of a colonised cultural tradition newly alive in two languages.

If Wales and God are defining features of Thomas’s work (Justin Wintle’s engaging 1996 biographical study is called Furious Interiors: Wales, RS Thomas and God) one of the more surprising elements of his work, very evident in this collection, is the way it engages with science: as in other matters Thomas responds diversely to the scientific imagination, drawing the vocabulary of the Big Bang into a religious narrative in “Sonata in X” (1973): “God heated / the instruments with / which to extract meaning, / sweating over them his excess ichor. The furnaces / roared; stars were struck”. At other times, science is satirically treated as a prurient endeavour, poking its nose where it is not wanted:

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
empty.
(“Stop Press” [1979])

More seriously, he is keen to stake a claim for theology as “queen of the sciences”, pressing the point that we need theology to understand the merely empirical discoveries of the physical world, “erecting our small edifices / in the context of space-time, / domesticating the wilderness / that geology has bequeathed us.” (“A Species”, [1995]). In “Waiting for the tale to begin” (2000), he writes, “there was many a false start / but always the electrons were busy”. However, for Thomas, this knowledge is never an end itself, missing as it must the framing relationship with an unfathomable Creator:

Ah how we thought
science would deliver us, when
all it has done is to set us
circling a little more swiftly
about a self that is an echo.

Uncollected Poems is directed at the general reader, but does come with some scholarly apparatus. The editors helpfully print an appendix which lists the original date and place of publication of the poems collected here as well as the titles of dozens of other poems they have deemed unfit for republication. This may be tantalising for the RS Thomas completist, but their selection does well by Thomas’s own standards of publication (unlike, say, the chaotic recent edition of Larkin). The poems are printed by date of publication although the editors indicate that some of the poems were published decades after they had been written, so the organisation by date of publication is occasionally misleading (“Wings”, published in 1992, begins, “Six years of war that / no treaty has ended” which indicates a date of composition closer to World War II, and has a Yeatsian tone which seems to be characteristic of much earlier work: “I have / no tower, only a cottage / to proclaim a warning / of the barbarism at hand. / The bees have gone from mankind’s / tree”). Likewise Uncollected Poems ends with an out-of-sequence series of more occasional and personal poems, published posthumously but likely to have been composed at an earlier date. In these pieces, austerity is complicated by a gentleness with which this poet is not usually associated. There is a short, touching set of poems on the “gossamer vows” of marriage (as “Luminary” [2002] calls them) while “In Memory of James and Frances Williams” (1996) unequivocally praises its subjects, founders of the first lifeboat in Ynys Môn (or Anglesey), who say: “We need / not come back, but we have to go out’’. This “brave answer”, Thomas writes, may have “shrunk/ to a whisper” but “Put your ear / to this stone, so you may hear it still.”

John McAuliffe’s third book, Of All Places, (Gallery Press) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation in Autumn 2011 and has just been reprinted. He teaches poetry at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, where he also co-edits the online journal The Manchester Review.