Thanks to Dave Lull for passing along a link to R.S. Thomas’ “The Country Clergy,” a poem published 50 years ago this month in the Times Literary Supplement. I’ve been reading The English Poems of George Herbert, the new edition edited by Helen Wilcox and published by Cambridge University Press, and Thomas has been much on my mind. Herbert and Thomas were poets and Anglican priests, and for both their dual vocations blurred and resonated. As Mick Imlah points out, Thomas had already been a “country clergy” for 20 years by the time he wrote his poem. He seems to be contrasting himself with the humble, obscure rural clergy elsewhere in Wales, those who, unlike him, “left no book.” In a slightly later poem, “Country Cures,” published in The Bread of Truth (1963), Thomas writes:
“There are places, where you might have been sent
To learn patience, to make your soul
In long hours by the poor light
Of a few, pale leaves on a tree
In autumn or a flower in spring;
Lost parishes, where the grass keeps
No register and life is bare
Of all but the cold fact of the wind.
“I know those places and the lean men,
Whose collars fasten them by the neck
To loneliness; as I go by,
I hear them pacing from room to room
Of their gaunt houses; or see their white
Faces setting on a blank day.”
There’s more sympathy here for his fellow clergy, for the loneliness, perhaps the futility of their lives. They remind me of the lonely, secular country people in Winesburg, Ohio. In “The Priest,” from Not That He Brought Flowers (1968), Thomas returns to this theme:
“The priest picks his way
Through the parish. Eyes watch him
From windows, from the farms;
Hearts wanting him to come near.
The flesh rejects him.
“Women, pouring from the black kettle,
Stir up the whirling tea-grounds
Of their thoughts; offer him a dark
Filling in their smiling sandwich.
“Priests have a long way to go.
The people wait for them to come
To them over the broken glass
Of their vows, making them pay
With their sweat’s coinage for their correction.
“He goes up a green lane
Through growing birches; lambs cushion
His vision. He comes slowly down
In the dark, feeling the cross warp
In his hands; hanging on it his thought’s icicles.
“`Crippled soul,’ do you say? Looking at him
From the mind’s height; `limping through life
On his prayers. There are other people
In the world, sitting at table
Contented, though the broken body
And the shed blood are not on the menu.’
“`Let it be so,’ I say. `Amen and amen.’”
In The Country Parson. His Character and Rule of Holy Life (1652), a posthumously published prose work, Herbert echoes Thomas devotion to nature and rural life, but he is also more demanding in his expectations of clergy:
“The Country Parson is full of all knowledge. They say, it is an ill Mason that refuseth any stone; and there is no knowledge, but, in a skilful hand, serves either positively as it is, or else to illustrate some other knowledge. He condescends even to the knowledge of tillage, and pastorage, and makes great use of them in teaching, because people by what they understand, are best led to what they understand not.”
Thomas’ poems are famously full of “some other knowledge” – ornithology, theology, Kierkegaard, poetry, Welsh history and science, especially physics. In 1967, Thomas edited A Choice of George Herbert’s Verse. In the introduction he writes that Herbert “demonstrates both the possibility and the desirability of a friendship with God. Friendship is no longer the right way to describe it. The word now is dialogue, encounter, confrontation, but the realities engaged have not altered all that much.” Often, I have the feeling Thomas is laughing up his sleeve. He was an impossible man, as well as a great poet. In 1994, six years before his death at age 87, Thomas told an interviewer he had “lost the ability to read Herbert.” He said:
“I cannot get on `matey’ terms with the Deity as Herbert can.”
Thomas was never “matey’ with a soul, not even his own.