I spend several days in Wales once way back in the early 1980s and unfortunately the weather was very bleak as we travelled through the many little mining towns. Everywhere was either dark or grey with stone upon stone, grey slate upon grey slate and still more slate. The countryside was almost depressing, but coming from Ireland where we, too, often have terribly grey rainy days with the clouds practically down on the ground obscuring all beauty, it certainly did not have that effect on us. Actually the landscape inspired me in a strange, mysterious and, shall I say, mystical sort of way.
And so, I am quite taken with R.S. Thomas' poems about the peasant people of his Wales from the forties until the eighties of the twentieth century. It's almost as if these strong peasant farmers, labourers or tillers of the soil or hewers of wood grew out like trees from the slate grey soil or even from the very rocks or stones. Hereunder, I'll type out two of these strong, virile, dispassionate poems. These poems are so dispassionate, so unsentimental that they become, to my mind, very compassionate in a Buddhist way. Only those who practise meditation will get this point, I feel. Here are two strong, unsentimental, objective and extrememly compassionate poems:
A LabourerReflect on these poems because they are strong poems which deserve to be reflected upon. They contain a strength beneath which is a wondrous wisdom that respects difference. A lecturer told us once years ago that what made good literature of any genre was its honesty. In counselling and psychotherapy circles, we speak about the counsellor's or therapist's being congruent with his/her inner self so that they can in turn be honest, open and true for their clients. By being so congruent, he/she will thereby enable the patients or clients to trust the therapist and consequently to open up to their own personal development. R.S. Thomas is nothing if not honest, authentic, genuine, true and congruent. What we have in his poems is simply great literature.
Who can tell his years, for the winds have stretched
So tight the skin on the bare racks of bone
That his face is smooth, inscrutable as stone?
And when he wades in the brown bilge of earth
Hour by hour, or stoops to pull
The reluctant swedes, who can read the look
In the colourless eyes, as his back comes straight
Like an old tree lightened of the snow's weight?
Is there love there, or hope, or any thought
For the frail form broken beneath his tread,
And the sweet pregnancy that yields his bread?
Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed
Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,
Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.
Docking mangels, chipping the green skin
From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin
Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth
To a stiff sea of clouds that glint in the wind -
So are his days spent, his spittled mirth
Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks
Of the gaunt sky perphaps once a week.
And then at night see him fixed in his chair
Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.
There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.
His clothes, sour with years of sweat
And animal contact, shock the refined,
But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.
Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season
Against seige of rain and the wind's attrition,
Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
Not to be stormed even in death's confusion.
Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,
Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.