Tuesday, February 8, 2022


My afternoon walk takes me through a grove of pines.  Beside a turning of the path is a small group of bushes, sheltered beneath the boughs overhead, growing amid years of fallen needles and leaves. The bushes are widely-spaced, open-branched candelabras, varying between four to eight feet tall.  Over time, they have become a harbinger of spring, for they are often the bearers of the first green buds of late winter.  

And so it is again: a few days ago, as I idly made my way, I noticed buds at the tip of nearly every twig, each lit by the low sun, most still folded tight, others already unfolding.  Before long, small white blossoms will appear.  I was startled by this sudden green presence. Sleepwalking once again.  But the World always finds a way to shake us awake.

          A Thicket in Lleyn

I was no tree walking.
I was still.  They ignored me,
the birds, the migrants
on their way south.  They re-leafed
the trees, budding them
with their notes.  They filtered through
the boughs like sunlight,
looked at me from three feet
off, their eyes blackberry bright,
not seeing me, not detaching me
from the withies, where I was
caged and they free.
                                     They would have perched
on me, had I had nourishment
in my fissures.  As it was,
they netted me in their shadows,
brushed me with sound, feathering the arrows
of their own bows, and were gone,
leaving me to reflect on the answer
to a question I had not asked.
"A repetition in time of the eternal
I AM."  Say it.  Don't be shy.
Escape from your mortal cage
in thought.  Your migrations will never 
be over.  Between two truths
there is only the mind to fly with.
Navigate by such stars as are not
leaves falling from life's
deciduous tree, but spray from the fountain
of the imagination, endlessly
replenishing itself out of its own waters.

R. S. Thomas, Experimenting with an Amen (Macmillan 1986).

Duncan Grant (1885-1978), "Charleston Barn" (1942)

"A repetition in time of the eternal I AM" is a variation by Thomas on Coleridge's definition of "the primary Imagination": "The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM."  (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817) (edited by Adam Roberts) (Edinburgh University Press 2014), page 205.)  Thomas' alteration of the language is interesting, for he seems to broaden the scope of Coleridge's conception: Coleridge is seeking to define the nature of "the Primary Imagination," but Thomas expands this into an observation on the nature of our existence.

However, I shouldn't get too carried away with this parsing of words, for I would never wish to sell Coleridge short when it comes to contemplations upon eternity or upon the eternal and infinite "I AM": they are arguably in the foreground and background of all his thought and work.  For instance, one finds them again in the final sentence of Biographia Literaria:

"It is Night, sacred Night! the upraised Eye views only the starry Heaven which manifests itself alone: and the outward Beholding is fixed on the sparks twinkling in the aweful depth, though Suns of other Worlds, only to preserve the Soul steady and collected in its pure Act of inward Adoration to the great I AM, and to the filial WORD that re-affirmeth it from Eternity to Eternity, whose choral Echo is the Universe."

Ibid, page 414.  ("Aweful" is an archaic spelling often used by Coleridge, particularly in his younger years.  He uses it in this sense: "Solemnly impressive; sublimely majestic."  (The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition (Clarendon Press 1989), page 833.)  The spelling appears odd to modern eyes, but the presence of "awe" in the word is lovely.  It's a shame that this sense of the word has been lost.)

With respect to Coleridge and "eternity," words written soon after Coleridge's death by Charles Lamb, his friend from childhood, are telling and touching:

"When I heard of the death of Coleridge, it was without grief.  It seemed to me that he long had been on the confines of the next world, — that he had a hunger for eternity.  I grieved then that I could not grieve.  But, since, I feel how great a part he was of me.  His great and dear spirit haunts me.  I cannot think a thought, I cannot make a criticism on men and books, without an ineffectual turning and reference to him.  He was the proof and touchstone of all my cognitions. . . . Never saw I his likeness, nor probably the world can see again."

Charles Lamb, in E. V. Lucas, The Life of Charles Lamb, Volume II (Methuen 1905), page 266.  Coleridge died on July 25, 1834.  Lamb's remarks were written in November of that year, "in the album of Mr. Keymer, a bookseller."  Ibid.  Lamb died soon after, on December 27.

Duncan Grant, "The Doorway" (1929)

A recurring theme in the poetry of R. S. Thomas (one might even say the theme of his poetry) is the obdurate silence of God, and Thomas' impatience with, and ultimate acceptance of, that silence.  The fact that Thomas was an Anglican priest certainly adds an interesting and deeper dimension to the situation.  

At the same time, however, Thomas' preoccupation with this baffling, provocative, and powerful silence takes place in a World of immanence.  And, at unexpected times and in unexpected places, all suddenly becomes clear: Something is there.  As in "A Thicket in Lleyn."  Or as in this:


Not conscious
       that you have been seeking
       you come upon it

the village in the Welsh hills
              dust free
       with no road out
but the one you came in by.

              A bird chimes
       from a green tree
the hour that is no hour
       you know.  The river dawdles
to hold a mirror for you
where you may see yourself
       as you are, a traveller
              with the moon's halo
       above him, who has arrived
       after long journeying where he
              began, catching this
       one truth by surprise
that there is everything to look forward to.

R. S. Thomas, Later Poems (Macmillan 1983).

Duncan Grant, "Laughton Castle" (c. 1930)

"He had a hunger for eternity."  There are worse things to hunger after.  And "there is everything to look forward to."  All of this inevitably brings me to my favorite poem by Thomas, which has appeared here six times over the past eleven years.  So please bear with me, dear readers: it needs to be here.

             The 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
the treasure in it.  I realize 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.

R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (Macmillan 1975).

Duncan Grant, "Girl at the Piano" (1940)