Consolation in the poetry of R.S. Thomas
I have a confession to make: I’m almost to the point where I don’t want to follow the news anymore.
Life can be exhausting in a nation of people who are constantly outraged at something. People seem to be losing a sense of respect for others. Our corporate and political leaders seem to be getting more arrogant, more corrupt, and less willing to actually solve problems.
But in the midst of this frantic, stressful world, I’m thankful for the moments when I can sit down and read a book. I’m especially thankful for writers who help me slow down and stay sane. One of them is Welsh poet R. S. Thomas.
Thomas lived much of his life (1913-2000) as a minister in rural Wales. He loved his land and its people, and his poetry has a deep sense of place. As I read his descriptions of Wales, I can feel the wind, the rain, and the cold, and I can see the sheep in the long grass of the Welsh hillsides. Thomas loved his country and its culture. It was home.
Yet, like me, Thomas was also frustrated with the direction of society in his time. He saw the cultural destruction of rural Welsh communities as the forces of globalization, technology, and other factors converged. In the midst of this loss, his poetry is an attempt to find sanity.
Thomas’s poetry offers several ways to stay sane in dark times:
1. We can reconnect with nature.
Thomas’s poetry reminds us that despite its flaws, this world is a beautiful place, and life itself is a gift. Thomas paid close attention to the beauty of his land, and his poetry shows an eye for detail.
Consider his poem “Bright Field:”
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Despite the troubles of the world, today is a gift, and it’s worth slowing down, getting outside, and appreciating the beauty of the world around us.
Just recently, my wife and I did this. After an extremely stressful week, my wife suggested that we take our children out of town and spend some time on a farm. So we did, and it was wonderful. As we picked fruit in the sunshine, we enjoyed the fields, the scents and smells of the farm, and the relaxed pace of the day. It was therapeutic for all of us. We’ve learned that getting out in nature is one of the best ways to relieve stress, remind ourselves of the beauty of God’s world, and regain perspective.
2. We can focus on the individuals in our local communities, not huge, abstract problems out of our control.
Despite his frustration with changes in his world, Thomas was fascinated by the people of his community, and his poetry includes some amazing sketches of individual human beings. “The Hill Farmer Speaks” shows his sense of common humanity with an old farmer working in his field:
The hens go in and out at the door
From sun to shadow, as stray thoughts pass
Over the floor of my wide skull.
The dirt is under my cracked nails;
The tale of my life is smirched with dung;
The phlegm rattles. But what I am saying
Over the grasses rough with dew
Is, Listen, listen, I am a man like you.
News headlines bombard our attention with massive problems that we have no control over. Sometimes the best thing we can do is turn the screen off, get out of the house, and have a conversation with a friend or neighbor. Rather than worrying about abstract problems with the world, we might take the time to bless the real people in our communities by connecting with them, one by one.
3. We can remember people of the past who have found hope in dark times.
Thomas seems to have been deeply afflicted with depression and doubt. And yet he disciplined himself to remember the community of souls who had gone through dark times before, and who had found hope. These lines from his poem “Groping” show his hope in the midst of darkness:
it is all darkness; for me, too,
it is dark. But there are hands
there I can take, voices to hear
solider than the echoes
without. And sometimes a strange light
shines, purer than the moon,
casting no shadow, that is
the halo upon the bones
of the pioneers who died for truth.
I’ve found encouragement in reading the works of writers who lived through some of the darkest events of the past. I think of C. S. Lewis, who wrote novels and essays to encourage the people of England during World War II, or T. S. Eliot, whose Four Quartets reflects his faith during that same era. In the darkest of times, people have survived, and even thrived.
At its best, Thomas’s poetry reminds us that each of us is a unique human being, created to live a meaningful life. And he offers us some powerful and enduring ways to pursue that meaning and find consolation, even in our time.
Nathan Huffstutler teaches college literature and writing in southern Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and their three daughters. He has published essays, book reviews, and poetry, and he loves bookstores, nature, and wonder.