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Vows of Silence: How to Read an R. S. Thomas Poem

5th September 2021, 8:00 am-5:00 pm

From George Cochrane

Flicking through my shelf of R. S. Thomas recently, I was struck for the first time by the number of his poems that start with the word “and”: nine in his 1972 collection H’m alone. There aren’t many poems that start this way. The only one that springs to mind immediately is “And did those feet in ancient times…”, whose next three sentences, you will recall, also begin with the word. And, of course, there is the Bible: Genesis is just about all “and”s. Yet despite their author’s vocation as an Anglican priest, Thomas’ “and”s hit rather differently. In Genesis, the word is creative and declarative; in Thomas, it is tentative and surprised.

To illustrate, I would like to take a look at one of these “and” poems, “Saunders Lewis”, from the 1987 volume Welsh Airs. Taking its title from the name of the famous Welsh-language poet, “Saunders Lewis” embodies for me the best qualities of R. S. Thomas’ poetry and, for those not familiar with them, is a good introduction to the work and the man. The poem in full:

And he dared them;
Dared them to grow old and bitter
As he. He kept his pen clean
By burying it in their fat
Flesh. He was ascetic and Wales
His diet. He lived off the harsh fare
Of her troubles, worn yet heady
At moments with the poets’ wine.

A recluse, then; himself
His hermitage? Unhabited
He moved among us; would have led
To rebellion. Small as he was
He towered, the trigger of his mind
Cocked, ready to let fly with his scorn.

Leaving aside its sense for a moment, the first thing that strikes me about this poem – that strikes me about many R. S. Thomas poems – is its shape: it’s a sonnet, right? Well, it has fourteen lines. To hear it loud, however, you would be hard pressed to tell: the odd half-rhyme aside (“Unhabited/led”/ “them/clean”), there is little end-of-line euphony, nor a regular rhythm to set your watch by. It’s unruly for a sonnet. When I read it, I never fail to be surprised by those full stops at the start of lines three, five and six, the lack of punctuation at the end of the previous lines having sent me rushing headlong into them.

This element of surprise is largely lost, I would argue, when read aloud. Which leads me to suggest this: that Thomas is a poet best read in silence; who, in the ways described, actively encourages his poems to be read in silence. It’s a word that features heavily in his work (“the silence in the mind / is when we live best”; “the air / a staircase for silence”; et al.). And in his biography. A reluctant reader of his poetry, Thomas, like Lewis, was “a recluse,” continuing to ply his trade in some of the remotest parishes in Wales even as his literary fame flourished. “Saunders Lewis” can be read as a self-portrait in that respect.

Where the biographies of these Welsh nationalists differ is on the matter of language. Unlike Lewis, Thomas was not a native Welsh speaker, and though he studiously learned the language in later life, he never felt competent enough to write poetry in it. Success in English, then, was somewhat uncomfortable for him, who was a product of the very anglicisation he railed against. This is the theme of Welsh Airs, in whose title we may detect a note of fraudulence, as if the foreign language in which the poems are written makes them only superficially Welsh; as if, by using this foreign language, they are somehow contributing to the death (and silence!) of the language they celebrate. These things troubled Thomas greatly.

Another pressing silence for Thomas was the silence of God. Not subscribing to “the worn formulae / of the churches,” Thomas’ theology was founded instead on the idea that “Silence is God’s chosen medium of communication”; that you cannot hector Him, only be receptive and wait for contact. In the devotional poetry that resulted, God, more often than not, is absent, the poems bearing witness to the doubt and anguish that was, for their author, a necessary part of faith. The bleakest of these is “In Church,” which ends with

[…] 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.

Thanks to Hamlet (“The rest is silence”), it has become a cliché to describe the end of a poem as a lapse into silence – so I won’t indulge it. Instead, I would like to consider the opposite. For if the ending of a poem is a lapse into silence, what is the beginning of a poem if not a lapse out of silence? This is how I think of Thomas’ poems, which, in the main, are short, leaving vast reservoirs of page space around them; I think of them as sudden illuminations. And nowhere are these more sudden than in the “and” poems, whose inaugural conjunctions suggest a whole, anterior life prior to line one; a life that we are only privileged to join in medias res. The experience this simulates – to borrow, as Thomas so often does, a metaphor from the world of science – is that of a stethoscope applied to a heart: a brief magnification of a process that was happening long before you tuned in, and that will continue long after.

There the comparison ends, however, for whereas a doctor would be seriously worried by the metrical irregularities of Thomas’s verse, for readers, these are what make it so engaging.


This piece is indebted to Barry Morgan’s Strangely Orthodox: R. S. Thomas and his Poetry of Faith (2006).

George Cochrane is a writer and blogger. You can read his work at www.bookstalling.com.