Michael Tolkien


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'.

© Michael Tolkien