A note on 'The Echoes Return Slow' (Macmillan:1988) by R.S.THOMAS.
(in Agenda Vol.36 No.2: Autumn 1998)
In a 70th birthday broadcast tribute Gwyn Jones, no mean critic, suggested Thomas'
poetry lacked 'human love (and) the expression of natural, warm emotions...' Yet
this 'exemplary', third person prose/verse autobiography of a poet who reviles personality
cults and the personalising of God, is framed and punctuated by profoundly imagised
reflections on the degrees and centrality of love. Its title derives from response
to the ageing sick of his parishes. (' When one should be leading them on to peer
into the future, one is drawn back by them into the past ..')
'...without the subdued light their smiles kindle, I would have gone wild, drinking
earth's huge draughts of joy and woe.'
The self-directed irony implies that truths and wisdom arise from unexpected quarters,
an answer to the critical 'truism' that in the later poetry freshness of insight
gives way to mordant, if cadenced philosophic introspection. The poet of Laboratories
of The Spirit who ' became the hermit/of the rocks,/ habited with the wind/ and the
mist...' implies in the final passages of TERS that he can only 'be forgiven' because
the sea that preoccupies him in abstruse meditation is yet reminiscent of someone
ageing and cherished: 'Over love's depths only the surface is wrinkled.'
This is consistent with his astute tribute to George Herbert's balance of asceticism
and charity in the 1967 Faber selection. And in this version of his own life as 'marginalised'
priest/ poet experiences of human behaviour illuminate his retrospections and inner
turmoil. On one occasion he attempts 'to evacuate the ear of the echoes of the cloying
Amens' by walking the shore, though some women are there too, 'like those of Troy,
gathered to watch the tilting of innumerable riders'. The poem scorns one who detaches
herself as if for a performance until he suddenly intuits that she is driven to the
extremity of herself by forces which she resisted; a woman formed for desire but
repudiating even the velleities of it.
The tension between the prose's blend of detachment and fantasy and the poem's modulation
into gravity typifies the multi-focal relationship of the media. 'Echoes' are not
only from the past but from within the whole narrative and to and fro across the
apparent divide of styles. 'Slow' counterpointing denotes reluctance to judge when
opposites or evasive ingredients shadow every contention or image.
After retirement, for example, 'The problems he had concealed from his congregations
had him...to themselves', and recalling a dictum of Yeats which is almost mantric
for Thomas, the priest has avoided the rhetoric of quarrels with parishoners, only
to ask 'over what poetry could he be said to preside from his quarrel with himself
?' The poem answers with images that stop short of defining a God who
..........escapes always the vigilance of our lenses, the faceless negative of himself
we dare not expose.
Antidote to years of 'Ancient and Modern' and preaching to affluent congregations
who tell God what He is like and put Him in a fix about cheating in favour of good
causes. Yet we also recall his dream of a parish in the heart of Wales ( 'blue shadows
on a longed-for horizon'), a 'young man...sent unprepared to expose his ignorance
of life in a leafless pulpit' who felt he was there 'to blow on ashes/ that were
too long cold' and tried to speak of 'light and love/ in the thickening shadows of
their kitchens'. The poem's open-ended reversal of the dream.
'Return' is even subtler when early episodes are echoed in later counterparts. One
duet recalls gathering mushrooms by moonlight, clouds towering prophetically in contrast
to the town's obsession with money and his with academia. The poem fuses all this
into a guessing game with clenched hands, imagising choice as illusion. Many years
later the mushrooms return as skulls or gravestones; he is an angel who can gather
but not resurrect; the bounty of nature is set against the poisonous beauty of the
mushroom cloud. In a tone of self-mockery suffused with regret the poem won't allow
the symbolic disappearance of dew from the early-morning mushroom to deflect a poet's
choice: he must avoid 'fitting a bent/ poem to his broken bow', refine his 'weapons'
to 'beams and gasses' and become composer of the first radio-active verses...
The Holocaust also raised questions about poetry's role. In contrast to the prose's
speculation, the poem appears 'off centre': ' From meditation on a flower/ you think
more flowers will be born /of your mind ?...' Yet the beauty and ruthlessness of
flowers ' with less strength/ than a child's fingers opening/ the hard rock..' suggests
that the cultivated nature of Eichmann who 'meditated/on music and played on his/
victims' limbs the symphony/ of perdition...' is a universal paradox, but also implies
the unlikely but undeniable power of metaphor to communicate a terrible logic.
Clearly mere recollection is eschewed for imaginative recreation of formative experiences
coloured by present maturity but without loss of immediacy. Connected to this and
to concurrent developments of style and content, is the way 'prayer' becomes an ever
more inclusive receptivity. One telling illustration concerns his child. The prose
qualifies Wordsworth's 'The Child is Father of the Man' and the nurturing aspirations
of Coleridge's 'Frost At Midnight': foster his son's imagination and pray as he will,
'dark thoughts come to the priest in the church porch at night'. The poem articulates
darkness as the distancing of the divine by the progress of a material knowledge,
sinister and minimal as 'tinkering with the lock on the door/ into a dark room' whose
'combination/ is yielding' perhaps only to reveal further chasms. Even so the context
is is one of prayer 'orbiting/ in immense space', and he ends by lifting his face
'to a face, its features dissolving/ in the radiation out of a black hole.' We travel
from fireside cradle to infinity, from the 'romantic' synthesis of heart and mind
to a bleak guess.
TERS may be reprinted pending demand. Unique in the canon of Thomas's work, and a
crucial index of its continuity, it is not in the 'Collected' and may be overshadowed
by the Autobiographies, a Welsh prose testament to political, cultural and topographical
influences. Its translator, J. Walford Davies, is obtuse about the original's qualities
of style, argues that the prose of TERS 'could have been included...except that (it)
cannot be divorced from the corresponding poems', and puts critical energy into commending
the latest work as 'contextual' background. The flexible prose of TERS is never supplementary
or anecdotal in this sense, and supports Coleridge's view that the opposite of poetry
is not prose but 'science' (one of Thomas's pulpit themes). The verse grows organically
from the prose and yet rivals the autonomous poems of the 1980s. Though Thomas hinted
that Autobiographies is his prose equivalent of Wordsworth’s Prelude, I suspect TERS
will rank as the more catholic 'Growth of a Poet's Mind'.