R. S. Thomas: “a great articulator of uneasy faith”

Since I have a deep respect for Rowan Williams, who is a first-rate theologian and accomplished poet, I am inclined to explore the poetry of fellow Welshman and Anglican R. S. Thomas on his recommendation alone. Here is an introductory video on the poet.

From David E. Anderson’s “The Things of This World” (Religion & Ethics Newsweekly):

In the twentieth century, one of the greatest poets of the dialectical imagination was the Welsh Anglican priest R.S. Thomas (1913-2000). Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called him “as influential as T.S. Eliot in religious circles,” and one critic designated Thomas “a poet of the Cross, the unanswered prayer, the bleak trek through darkness.” His powerful poem “The Porch” needs little explication:

      Do you want to know his name?
      It is forgotten. Would you learn
      what he was like? He was like
      anyone else, a man with ears
      and eyes. Be it sufficient
      that in a church porch on an evening
      in winter, the moon rising, the frost
      sharp, he was driven to his knees and for no reason
      he knew. The cold came at him;
      his breath was carved angularly
      as the tombstones; an owl screamed.

      He had no power to pray.
      His back turned on the interior
      he looked out on a universe
      that was without knowledge
      of him and kept his place
      there for an hour on that lean
      threshold, neither outside nor in.

God’s absence, wrote Thomas, was for him like a presence “that compels me to address it without hope of a reply.”

From David E. Anderson, “R. S. Thomas: Poet of the Cross” (Religion & Ethics Newsweekly):

Thomas is mostly interested in God’s silence or absence, the deus absconditus or hidden God, and what that means for forging an identity in the modern world. What language might be used to address such a God in a meaningful way? As Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written, R.S. Thomas was—like one of the poet’s spiritual mentors, Soren Kierkegaard—a “great articulator of uneasy faith.”

***

Rowan Williams, in his essay “R.S. Thomas and Kierkegaard” in the collection Echoes to the Amen: Essays after R.S. Thomas, argues that a kind of complex love begins to address, not resolve, this paradox [of absence and presence]. He cites a passage from The Echoes Return Slow:

But love answers it
in its turn: I am old now and have died
many times, but my rebirth is surer
than the truth embalming itself
in the second law of your Thermo-Dynamics.

The lines point a slow coming to a kind of faith, a faith in the poet’s own resurrection of some sort that he posits, at least momentarily, is as certain as the dead laws of science and technology. There is in the poem something of the dying to self in order to be born again. Williams concludes that “God, for Thomas, is both the frustration of every expectation and the only exit from despair. And that God is encountered only in the embrace of finitude.”

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4 thoughts on “R. S. Thomas: “a great articulator of uneasy faith”

  1. Will you begin reading Thomas any time soon? If so, what will you begin with? Have you read any of Wiman’s poetry? I remember you obtaining an anthology of sorts of his poems.

    • No, I will not begin reading Thomas any time soon. But I am glad to know about this important religious poet and expect to read him, especially to contrast the sacramental imagination of a 17th century Anglican priest (George Herbert) with the dialectical imagination of a 20th century Anglican priest (R.S. Thomas). William J. McGill has written a book called, Poet’s Meeting: George Herbert, R.S. Thomas, and the Argument with God:

      George Herbert (1593-1633) and R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), each a major English poet and an Anglican priest, lived in very different times, one before the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and industrialization, and one following. Yet the two men and their poetry bear striking resemblances: Both loved nature and music, both were pacifists, and both struggled with the claims of faith, the nature of the spiritual life, and the recurrent silences of God. This book demonstrates that when their lives and poems are studied side by side, each man enhances our understanding of the other. The first essay deals with their sense of calling as priests and poets. The work then explores topics that relate to their roles as parish priests: ministry, the Bible, the Eucharist, and prayer. Several essays follow dealing with broader questions of the human condition: faith, sin, love, reason and science, and nature. The work concludes by considering their poems about Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter.

      To read Thomas, there is Collected Poems: 1945-1990 and Collected Later Poems: 1988-2000. Since I am not inclined to read everything he wrote, I got a volume of selected poems by Everyman’s Poetry (ISBN: 978-0460878111).

      I have not yet read Christian Wiman’s poetry. I added, Hammer Is The Prayer, to my library because Wiman selected three decades of his poetry into an anthology, similar to T.S. Eliot’s editorial choices in Collected Poems: 1909-1962.

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