Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Christmas in Wales

No one wrote more austere, less conventionally festive Christmas poems than R.S. Thomas. If you have read The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas, by Byron Rogers, you know how impossible a man he was, a poet/priest dedicated to upsetting the expectations of everyone, especially family and parishioners, not to mention readers. To read Gwydion Thomas on his father, as reported by Rogers, is chilling. On Christmas Eve, Bryan Appleyard posted one of Thomas’ cheerier Yuletide works, “Song,” from the volume with perhaps the strangest title in modern poetry, H’m (1972). Inspired by Appleyard (who made me laugh out loud by calling Thomas “Laughing Boy”), I went trolling for Christmas poems in Collected Poems: 1945-1990 and Collected Later Poems: 1988-2000, and found another 10, some disguised, all oblique, so I probably missed others. Here they are, starting with “Christmas,” from Pieta (1966):

“There is a morning:
Time brings it nearer.
Brittle with frost
And starlight. The owls sing
In the parishes. The people rise
And walk to the churches’
Stone lanterns, there to kneel
And eat the new bread
Of love, washing it down
With the sharp taste
Of blood they will shed.”

Cheery, eh? All the earmarks of Thomas and his hard faith are present in these 11 lines. Here is “Lost Christmas,” from Young and Old (1972):

“He is alone, it is Christmas.
Up the hill go three trees, the three kings.
There is a star also
Over the dark manger. But where is the child?

“Pity him. He has come far
Like the trees, matching their patience
With hi. But the mind was before
Him on the long road. The manger is empty.”

This is “Hill Christmas,” from Laboratories of the Spirit (1975):

“They came over the snow to the bread’s
purer snow, fumbled it in their huge
hands, put their lips to it
like beasts, stared into the dark chalice
where the wine shone, felt it sharp
on their tongue, shivered as at a sin
remembered, and heard love cry
momentarily in their hearts’ manger.

“They rose and went back to their poor
holdings, naked in the bleak light
of December. Their horizon contracted
to the one small, stone-riddled field
with its tree, where the weather was nailing
the appalled body that had asked to be born.”

And “Carol,” from Later Poems (1983), in which the robin recurs, as in the poem cited by Appleyard:

“What is Christmas without
snow? We need it
as bread of a cold
climate, ermine to trim

“our sins with, a brief
sleeve for charity’s
scarecrow to wear its heart
on, bold as a robin.”

“Nativity,” from Experimenting with an Amen (1986):

“The moon is born
and a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.

“They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.”

Another “Nativity,” from Mass for Hard Times (1992):

“Christmas Eve! Five
hundred poets waited, pen
poised above paper,
for the poem to arrive,
bells ringing. It was because
the chimney was too small,
because they had ceased
to believe, the poem passed them
by on its way out
into oblivion, leaving
the doorstep bare
of all but the sky-rhyming
child to whom later
on they would teach prose.”

“Christmas Eve,” from No Truce with the Furies (1995):

“Erect capital’s arch;
decorate it with the gilt edge
of the moon. Pave the way to it
with cheques and with credit –

“it is still not high enough
for the child to pass under
who comes to us this midnight
invisible as radiation.”

“Blind Noel,” also from No Truce with the Furies:

“Christmas; the themes are exhausted.
Yet there is always room
On the heart for another
Snowflake to reveal a pattern.

“Love knocks with such frosted fingers.
I look out. In the shadow
Of so vast a God I shiver, unable
To detect the child for the whiteness.”

“The Mass of Christ,” from No Truce with the Furies:

“This day I am with the beasts –
animal Christmas – staring
with brute eyes at the mystery
in the cradle. Emmanuel!
God with men, but not God
with the creatures. Are we in need
of a saviour, when it is not
our fault? Nebuchadnezzar,
the beasts’ Christ, incarnate
as an animal and not
as a human being, but with a human
conscience. What love sentenced
us to murder in order
that we survive? Does God know
what it is to eat his food
off the ground, to draw sustenance
from intestines? We prey
and are preyed on. Such peace
as we know is purchased
only by an interminable
alertness. When winter arrives
we lie out in open country
because we have to, wrapping
our threadbare breath about our
aggrieved bones. Does God die
and still live? We live only
by the perpetual sacrifice
of our kind, ignorant
of love, yet innocent of a love
that has anthropomorphised its creation.”

“Festival,” published posthumously in Residues (2002):

“This Christmas before
an altar of gold
the holly will remind
us how love bleeds,

“the mistletoe remind
how pale and puny
the knuckles of the few
fingers clenched upon faith.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas Patrick.

Here is the question: Why don't you believe?