"Testing his faith on emptiness": reading R. S. Thomas's poems on prayer.
And when ... O Lord, Thou seemest not to hear my voice ... I will even then continue to pray to Thee.... (Soren Kierkegaard)
Unreachable by prayer, even if poems are prayers. (Carol Ann Duffy)
THROUGH his struggles with his own agnostic faith and his Miltonic attempts to "justify the ways of God to men," R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet and Anglican priest, has given us one of the most incisive and detailed, if unsystematic, theodicies in twentieth-century literature. What I propose to do here is to provide one way into Thomas's overtly theological poems through a general consideration of his many poems on prayer and then through a close reading of "The Moon in Lleyn," a poem that might be seen as a paradigm of Thomas's prayer poems.
Some of Thomas's poems literally are prayers. Others are expressions of his attempts to find God, poems depicting his literal or linguistic search for Him. In still others, Thomas, as Anglican priest, records his or his protagonist's self-doubts, and these poems recount the trials, tribulations, and temptations to be found even in faith. Due to the inevitable association of Thomas with his poetic, priestly speaker--and especially so in his many overtly theological poems--it is frequently extremely difficult to separate the voice speaking in the poem from what must be assumed would be Thomas's own private and personal voice. Even so, the issue is regularly and further confounded because Thomas so frequently speaks through a conspicuously impersonal persona--in his poems and even in his prose writings. This habitual tendency is most conspicuous in his autobiographical writings, where it is obvious that Thomas is speaking for himself, although, even there, he inevitably does so in the third person, through the use of the simple "he" or, even more intriguingly, as "R. S." Therefore, it seems safe to assume that Thomas, conflicted as he was by his faith and in his priestly practice, often (but not always) purposely conflated his own voice and posture within the poem or in the prose piece with that of his protagonist, and thus, when we read the poems, just as when we read his non-fictional works, we seem to hear Thomas's thoughts as we read his seemingly anonymous words. This, of course, makes for a complex situation, one that is often complicated and difficult to disentangle. It also makes for much of the fascination many readers have had with Thomas's work. In his poems that have to do with prayer, these are issues that often play a central role.
BEFORE I turn to "The Moon in Lleyn," let me mention some of the most significant poems in Thomas's canon that deal with prayer and thus attempt to provide a context for this theme so pervasive throughout his poetry and also provide a prelude to my reading of "The Moon in Lleyn."
Even though Thomas acknowledges that "There are those ... / not given to prayer" (CP 364) (1), he clearly wishes to seek out a relationship with the divine, to establish communication, even dialogue, with God. In "The Belfry" Thomas appropriates a Hopkinsesque metaphor and suggests that the truth of the matter, for the religious, is that religion creates a rather "terrible" condition, a longing unrealized and a "black frost" over "one's whole being," as "the heart / In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb." However, one should always remember that "Even in winter in the cold / Of a stone church, on his knees / Someone is praying," his prayers falling "Steadily through the hard spell / Of weather that is between God / And himself' (CP 168). Such a realization should provide at least some hope.
Among Thomas's many poems that have to do with prayer, several issues with respect to the relationship between God and man are conspicuous. The first is both generic and generative and has to do with the basis for the relationship in the first place. Initially, God and man might be thought to be potential adversaries, warily watching one another, caught in the midst of a kind of standoff, each seemingly sizing the other up (almost as if to do battle with one another), each watching and waiting for the other to make the first move or to initiate some sort of contact. But, as Thomas says in "Silence," "The relation between us was / silence" (CLP 287), the communication nonexistent. Even so, man believes, or wants to believe, that God is "available for conversation" (CLP 60), if only man can find a way to begin the conversation. Prayer would seem to be the obvious avenue for such "conversation," for such communication.
Thus, in "Credo" Thomas announces, "I call / on you, as I have done / often before" (CLP 136). And in "The Prayer" Thomas describes how he "kneeled down" and, after "dismissing his [earlier] orisons / as inappropriate" (and perhaps believing that what he has prayed, or what he has prayed for, might have been "inappropriate" as well), prays for insight into the process of prayer itself, asking to be taught "what to pray for" (CP 270). Or, as he says in "Kneeling," where he also acknowledges the need for direction and guidance, even in initiating the process of prayer, he asks God to "Prompt" him (CP 199).
But, unfortunately, he finds that his prayers are inevitably ineffective, inevitably unanswered. Because they seemingly lack the power to produce the desired effect, they elicit no response. "It is not that he can't speak," Thomas writes, "Nor that he won't .../ ... It is just that / he doesn't" (CP 317). In another poem, ironically titled "The Presence"--since the only "presence" is invariably the presence of absence or, simply, silence--we read, "I pray and incur / silence" (CP 391). Such a silence seems to be the inevitable result when man attempts to communicate with God through prayer. In "In a Country Church" Thomas writes, "To one kneeling down no word came" (CP 67). But then, later, his speaker begins to realize, to understand, that the silence itself may ultimately be God's "chosen medium / of communication" (CP 388) and this gives him hope.
In the companion poems "In Church" and "The Empty Church," each set in an emptied church, Thomas attempts to evaluate the silence that resounds from "the hard ribs / Of a body that our prayers have failed / To animate" (CP 180). In "In Church" Thomas tries to understand the silence he encounters when he prays and the silences that he finds in churches. Since he has not received an answer to his prayers elsewhere, he wonders whether anything different will happen if or when he prays in a church. When he does, and when no answer seems to come even there, he wonders whether "God hides / From my searching" in church as well as elsewhere. Indeed, instead of any response, he hears only the sound of his own breath. He comes to realize, finally, that he is apparently only "testing his faith / On emptiness" as he nails "his questions / One by one to an untenanted cross" (CP 180). The phrase "testing his faith / On emptiness," broken by the line break, forces the reader to read it in two ways at once. On the one hand, Thomas seems clearly to be "testing his faith" in prayer and attempting to come to a sense of the efficacy of prayer itself. On the other hand, however, he seems also to be "testing his faith on [the] emptiness" itself. That is, attempting to understand what it means to be alone in a void, in a place where only his own breath is discernible and where the void itself provides only an echo of his own voice returning to him, a place where his faith is empty and where the emptiness is, finally, all that he can put his faith in. One wonders whether this is enough, whether such a soliloquy, such a solipsistic endeavor, such an ambiguous and ultimately unsatisfactory response as the only answer, is sufficient. Might such an absent God, one who can seemingly "Never [be] known as anything / but an absence" (CP 345), be, in any way, thought of as a "presence" or as a "person" to whom prayer can be addressed or directed? And can such a continually resounding silence, and such an absence, in any way be described as meaningful communication? "Via Negativa" suggests that perhaps it might be:
Why no! I never thought other than That God is that great absence In our lives, the empty silence Within, the place where we go Seeking, not in hope to Arrive or find.
If this is the case, then:
He keeps the interstices In our knowledge, the darkness Between stars. His are the echoes We follow, the footprints he has just Left. We put our hands in His side hoping to find It warm. (CP 220)
In short, instead of hearing only our own echoes sounding and resounding in a silence, we might (must?) believe that the echoes we hear are His "echoes," His "footprints," leading us on, in faith, toward Him. True believers, therefore, should perhaps be "undaunted" by the absence of any response. They should "not despair," since the invisible and seemingly unresponsive God, in spite of everything, is "susceptible / of being inferred." And, thus, "to pray, perhaps, is / to have a part in an infinitesimal deflection" (CLP 236). This is, of course, a somewhat curious argument and it is certainly a curious image. It seems to suggest that prayer itself represents an "infinitesimal deflection," a tiny deviation, something that might even be off-putting, both for the person praying (the prayer) and for the object or "person" that the prayers are being directed to or toward. That is, in spite of the "deflection," a seeming turning aside of the one from the other between the two parties, there is, nevertheless, an inevitably reciprocal relationship between the two of them--even if that relationship is difficult to discern and even more difficult to define.
As I have argued elsewhere with respect to poems like "In Church" and to the metaphor of the via negativa so prevalent in so many of Thomas's poems, the attempt to communicate is essentially equivalent to the successful achievement of communication, that when we stop and listen, "even if we receive no answers, even if we hear nothing save the silence echoing in an empty edifice or in our own minds" (Davis 48), even then, we have succeeded in participating in the essence of what prayer is or can accomplish, or, indeed, what has been accomplished by it.
In short, one is reduced or restricted to waiting, as Thomas himself suggests in "Waiting." The poem begins, "Face to face? Ah, no / God." Again, Thomas's line break is crucial. As I have suggested elsewhere, one wonders how best to read this sentence in terms of this line break. Are we to read the line as a self-contained unit and take the "Ah, no" to mean that we are not "face to face" with God? Or are we to read the lines in terms of the sentence structure and take the "Ah" as "an interjection or an exclamation, an almost inarticulately articulate ejaculation over the astounding and stunning recognition--evoking both awe and bewilderment at once--that there is 'no God?'" (Davis 54). But then we quickly notice that Thomas, completing the sentence, immediately adds, "such language falsifies / the relation." Indeed, he insists, the relationship is neither one of "side by side," nor even "near you, nor anywhere / in time and space" (CP 347). At the end of "Waiting," Thomas describes himself as leaning "far out / over an immense depth" and letting the name of God "go" off into the void in another seemingly vain attempt at communication, and then waiting "somewhere between faith and doubt, / for the echoes of its arrival." This is another complicated image and argument, one in which, as I have discussed elsewhere (see Davis 53-54, passim), Thomas, like Paul Tillich, posits the inevitable need for patience, for "waiting" in terms of one's dealings with God.
Thomas read Tillich closely, and he may well have been influenced by one of Tillich's sermons in describing his own position in this poem. In his sermon, also entitled "Waiting," Tillich argued that just as the prophets and the apostles had to wait for God's words, so too ordinary men must also wait for God "in the most absolute and radical way." Indeed, Tillich believes that God "is God for us just in so far as we do not possess Him," that we "have God through not having Him." And, therefore, "although waiting is not having, it is also having" because waiting "for something shows that in some way we already possess it" since "that for which we wait is already effective within us." Therefore, "if we know that we do not know Him, and if we wait for Him," we are "known and possessed by Him," and we are then "accepted by Him in spite of our separation from Him." And it is, thus, "that we are believers in our unbelief," and the waiting "means not having and having at the same time" and, then, "we are accepted by Him in spite of our separation from Him." And this is, Tillich insists, "not despair" (Tillich 149-51, all of the italics are Tillich's). Thus it would seem that, for both Tillich and Thomas, as Thomas asserts in "Kneeling," another obvious prayer poem, "The meaning is in the waiting" (CP 199).
IN "The Empty Church" (CP 349) Thomas metaphorically describes the potential relationship, the interrelated, mutual, and reciprocal bond that exists between man and God in prayer. The poem begins in an empty church, which is depicted as a "trap" into which a moth-like God might be lured:
They laid this stone trap for him, enticing him with candles, as though he would come like some huge moth out of the darkness to beat there.
But God is wary of being "enticed" into such a trap. Since he had been "burned ... / before," "He will not come any more // to our lure." And since this is the case, Thomas asks, "Why, then, do I kneel still / striking my prayers on a stone / heart?" He answers this question with another question:
Is it in hope one of them will ignite yet and throw on its illumined walls the shadow of someone greater than I can understand?
This second question seems to provide an answer to the first. The suggested answer is the anticipation, the expectation, the hope, that, through prayer, God, or the presence of His presence (even if it comes only as a "shadow") will arise, as if out of absence, and become "present." The hanging question at the end of the poem implies that this hope is a hope beyond hope, but it also suggests that in spite of such a possible impossibility, it might, or could, occur, since, paradoxically, the lack of any present reality suggests the presence of an original reality that, through hope and prayer, may somehow be recovered. Again, as Thomas said in "The Prayer," one needs to pray "to know / what to pray for" (CP 270).
What then can be said about Thomas's exploration of "the long failure / of prayer," in which "nothing he / Says is accepted" (CP 224)? What are we to make of the fact that, even after he has been "driven / to his knees," and even though he seemingly has "no power to pray" (CP 326), and even little hope that, if he had, anything would come of it, somehow, something might come of it. "Sea-watching" is perhaps as close as Thomas comes to any definitive answer to these kinds of questions, these speculative hypotheses. "Sea-watching" begins:
Grey waters, vast as an area of prayer that one enters. Daily over a period of years I have let the eye rest on them. Was I waiting for something? Nothing but that continuous waving that is without meaning occurred. (CP 306)
Here, Thomas suggests that waiting for, expecting to receive an answer to prayer, is like looking for a rare bird. Thomas, who was himself an avid bird-watcher, knows that "a rare bird is ! rare," and that "It is when one is not looking" for it "that it comes." Therefore, in watching for a rare bird, "You must wear your eyes out." Likewise, in watching and waiting for God through prayer, one must wear his knees out in order to discover that God's "absence / was as [His] presence" and that, finally, there is no way to distinguish waiting and "watching from praying" (CP 306). Indeed, it is in times like these when,
after long on my knees in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled from my mind, and I have looked in and seen the old questions lie folded and in a place by themselves, like the piled graveclothes of love's risen body (CP 359)
This, as this poem's title asserts, is "The Answer"--if there is an answer.
In a poem entitled "Emerging" (CP 263) Thomas suggests a somewhat different progression with respect to the relationship between man and God in prayer. He says that he no longer prays "as in the old days" because his life "is not what it was" then. "Once," apparently in the old days, he "would have knelt / long wrestling with" God, "wearing [Him] down," pleading "Hear my prayer, Lord, hear / my prayer." And when there was no answer to those prayers, he came to believe that God's silence was the result of his own "unfitness." But now he recognizes that that was a mistaken conclusion, that that "is not what prayer is about." It is, rather, "the annihilation of difference" between man and God, "the consciousness of myself in you, ! of you in me," the recognition of growth in terms of the understanding of what prayer really is, "the emerging / from ... adolescence ... into the adult geometry / of the mind," a condition in which Thomas acknowledges that he "begin[s] to recognize / [God] anew." In another, later, poem, also called "Emerging" (CP 355), Thomas, waiting for God "on some peninsula / of the spirit," discovers that "he must be put together / like a poem or a composition / in music, that what he conforms to / is art."
Elsewhere, in a series of pseudo-scientific poems, Thomas describes launching "prayer probes" into space, "like gravel / Flung at the sky's window" (CP 517), in an attempt to find God. In "Night after night I point my hands" he describes pointing his hands at the sky and sending prayers orbiting out into "immense space," lifting his face to a face whose features are "dissolving / in the radiation out of a black hole." When there is no answer to the prayers he has sent, he wonders, "What listener / is this, who ... says nothing?" (CLP 30). In "Space Walking" he says, "I have seen / my prayers fall one by one / into [a] chasm" (CLP 311). In "The New Mariner" he says, "For me now / there is only the God-space / into which I send out my probes." But he finds that he "cannot decipher" any messages that might have been returned in response to those "probes" (CP 388). In "Bleak Liturgies" he writes, "The prayer probes / have been launched and silence / closes behind them." Obviously frustrated, he wonders: "Are we / our own answer?" (CLP 184). It is a question that may be an answer. Is it perhaps the case that "With the end / nowhere, the travelling / [is] all ...?" (CLP 33). In "Mass for Hard Times" Thomas insists that "one listens and must not listen / in vain" (CLP 137). And in "Navigation" Thomas actually prays that "on this latest stage / of my journey," God will let him "employ / radar as though it were [His] gift" (CLP 269). In the "Credo" section of this poem, in a series of assertions, each followed by a parenthetical question that seems to undercut or undermine the assertion, Thomas documents what may be his final credo:
(My parentheses are exhausted.) Almighty pseudonym, grant me at last, as the token of my belief, such ability to remain silent, as is the nearest to a reflection of your silence to which the human looking-glass may attain. (CLP 137)
Thomas here seems to be seeking the same kind of silence that God, the "Almighty / pseudonym," sought and has found. Thomas's final prayer and petition, then, is that he might similarly find in such silence a "reflection" and a duplication of God's silence. Indeed, in the poem "Silence" he asserts that even if his attempt at communication with God through prayer "had begun / by my talking all of the time / repeating the worn formulae / of the churches in the belief / that was prayer" (CLP 287), he has discovered, or rediscovered, that, in the end, there is no response and there are no answers to his prayers. God remains silent. But God's silence is a silence that Thomas finds he can contend with, if not be fully contented with. As he says in "The Presence," "There is nothing I can do / but fill myself with my own/silence" (CP 391). Therefore, having "said/New prayers, or said the old / In a new way," he has "learned [that] / Silence is best" (CP 209).
If the sequence of Thomas's poems having to do with prayer might be argued to have begun, appropriately enough if ambiguously so, with "In a Country Church," it here ends, equally appropriately for Thomas, with "Silence." "In a Country Church" begins, "To one kneeling down no word came" (CP 67), a line couched in--but contradictorily echoing--familiar words from the biblical text. However, instead of the traditional, almost ubiquitous biblical phrase, "The word of the Lord came unto," we are here told that, even "To one kneeling down[,] no word came." How are we to read this line? Is it that God fails to hear man's words uttered in prayer, or is it that man has failed, or been unable, to hear the "word of the Lord" when it comes to him? Perhaps it is both. But, however we read this line, it initiates Thomas's long meditation on the relationship between God and man as that relationship is dealt with in his poems on prayer. And this meditation ends in silence, with the absence of any communication. Silence, as has been noted, is Thomas's most frequent designation for the lack of communication between man and God. There is only silence between them. It is as if there is the "feeling / of each one being watched / by the other" (CP 287), of each staring as it were blindly into blank space and being ultimately unable to see, speak to, or in any other way to communicate with the other. Indeed, this sense of impasse seems to be the essence of Thomas's long double-audienced dialogue with this God who is invariably described as being simultaneously present and absent--a present absence, an absent presence. Such an impasse, such a failure of communication, is, finally, the dominant theme that runs throughout Thomas's poems on prayer.
LET me now turn to "The Moon in Lleyn," one of Thomas's most insistent, explicit, and definitive poems having to do with prayer, a poem that deals with most of the issues and concerns that have been present, or are suggested, in his many poems on prayer mentioned above. It is a poem that, in many ways, can be read paradigmatically.
"The Moon in Lleyn" reads:
The last quarter of the moon of Jesus gives way to the dark; the serpent digests the egg. Here on my knees in this stone church, that is full only of the silent congregation of shadows and the sea's sound, it is easy to believe Yeats was right. Just as though choirs had not sung, shells have swallowed them; the tide laps at the Bible; the bell fetches no people to the brittle miracle of the bread. The sand is waiting for the running back of the grains in the wall into its blond glass. Religion is over, and what will emerge from the body of the new moon, no one can say. But a voice sounds in my ear: Why so fast, mortal? These very seas are baptized. The parish has a saint's name time cannot unfrock. In cities that have outgrown their promise people are becoming pilgrims again, if not to this place, then to the recreation of it in their own spirits. You must remain kneeling. Even as this moon making its way through the earth's cumbersome shadow, prayer, too, has it phases. (CP 282)
As the poem begins we find Thomas in the posture of prayer, on his knees on the stones of a stone church, either literally praying or considering what his action and activity there might mean. In the metaphor that runs through the poem, Thomas focuses particularly on the phases of the reflected light of the moon and compares the moon moving through those phases to the phases of prayer as they "reflect" on the speaker's ruminations with respect to the relationship between man and God and to the possible communication between them. Indeed, the first lines of the poem conflate the two "heavenly bodies" of the moon and the deity.
Although the poem is built around the metaphor of the phases of the moon, it begins with the rather enigmatic phrase "the moon of Jesus." What, one wonders, does Thomas mean by "the moon of Jesus"? (This phrase in itself is additionally intriguing since Thomas typically refers not to Jesus but to God when he refers to or focuses on the divine.) Does Thomas mean to suggest, since it is the "last quarter" of this "moon of Jesus," that Jesus, or our thinking about him as our most immediate representative of the divine Godhead, goes through phases, or that our faith in Jesus goes through phases, just as the moon, in itself and in our viewing of it, seems to go through phases? If so, then the "last quarter" of the moon, that sliver of moon still visible after the major portion of it becomes invisible or is darkened, would, metaphorically, and in terms of the phrase "the moon of Jesus," be a reference to Jesus as the final visible, but fragmentary, manifestation of the invisible Godhead. It is therefore possible that what Thomas has in mind in making this comparison is two-fold. On the one hand, that God's full presence can be divined (no pun intended) even though all that is "visible" of it is the "last quarter" of His presence (made "visible" in the person of Jesus), and that we can infer God's full presence through, and only through, the presence of the person of Jesus, just as we infer the "invisible" three quarters of the moon even when only the last quarter of it is literally visible. Or, on the other hand, it may be that, by referring to the final stage "of the moon / of Jesus," Thomas is suggesting that the "final stage" of the Godhead is Jesus. And since he says that the last quarter of the moon is about to give "way / to the dark," may he, further, be suggesting that the revelation of God in Jesus (who might or should be seen as a kind of final fragment, a last partial glimmer of the divine Godhead) is about to "give way"--to become invisible, to be extinguished, but then to reappear (with apocalyptic trappings?) and to shine forth in the light of the new full moon of the divine Godhead? But there is a pun as well as a complex and convoluted metaphor here: just as the moon is only visible through the reflected light of the sun, so Jesus, as the Son of God and also as the visible incarnation, the "reflected light" of God, allows us to "see," to divine, the "invisible" God as He is reflected through Jesus's light, which illuminates Him. And may Thomas, furthermore, be suggesting that through this reciprocally divine "reflection" and these human "reflections" on them--and perhaps through this "reflection" and these "reflections" alone--we are able to "see" God and to acknowledge Him as the ultimate source both of the light and life of the sun, and of the Son, and, thereby, of our understanding, through Jesus, both of the significance of God's "reflection" in Jesus and of our "reflections" on Him through it?
Even so, with his semi-colon in the opening sentence, Thomas also suggests another reversal through another complex image. The serpent digesting the egg alludes at once to Genesis and to the temptation in the Garden of Eden, and it traces the serpent back to its own source in an egg. By making the serpent synonymous with Satan, as it is in the Genesis story, Thomas suggests that this serpent is also a source of temptation. But the semicolon in Thomas's sentence suggests another parallel, that between a serpent "digesting" its egg and "the moon / of Jesus" giving "way / to the dark." In terms of the introductory image in the first section of the sentence, perhaps the most inevitable way to read this additional and serpentine metaphor would be to take it as simply another uroboric reference, one in which a living, visible emanation appears and then disappears (or seems to disappear) into its propagating source: the serpent "digests" the moon-like egg it was born of and thus manifests this now invisible "source" in its visibly substantial self, just as Jesus is the visible manifestation of an invisible God.
THE next word, "Here," however, shifts things considerably, and the rest of the poem is more straightforward. The "Here" fixes Thomas, or his protagonist, in an immediate and literal, not mythical, place, in a "stone church," and on his knees. "Here"--there--he is surrounded by silent shadows and the sound of the nearby sea, suggesting that this here refers to St. Hywyn's church in Aberdaron at the very tip of the Llyn peninsula (the traditional spelling of the peninsula where Thomas lived late in his life and where he served as vicar). The sea is only a few feet away from St. Hywyn's church and the "sea's sound" is a constant, even when the sea itself is invisible, as at night. This would seem to be yet another reference to a presence that does not need to be seen or known to be known to be nearby. Indeed, in "Alive," Thomas describes "The darkness" as "the deepening shadow / of your presence" (CP 296), and in "Shadows" he refers to "the splendour / of your darkness" and then argues that "The darkness implies your presence, / the shadow of your steep mind / on my world" (CP 343).
"Here" then, "in this stone / church," the only congregation, the only gathering, is the "silent congregation / of shadows." These shadows are themselves figures in a partial darkness, a vague obscurity huddled within a place and in a space in which the light is at least seemingly partially cut off by the imposition of some opaque entity. The shadows are the reflected images or attenuated forms, the vestigial remnants of a light almost lost but here gathered together again, assembled or reassembled for some sort of service or activity. In such a place, and under such circumstances, Thomas says, "it is easy [enough] to believe / [that] Yeats was right."
I take it that Thomas here has in mind and is overtly alluding to Yeats's poem "The Second Coming," specifically to the "revelation" of the "rough beast" conjured up at the end of the poem, which Yeats describes as slouching "toward Bethlehem to be born." But Thomas also seems to be alluding to Yeats's description of the turnings of the gyres at the beginning of "The Second Coming." And because of the way that Thomas's lines are enjambed, the phrase broken by the line break--a typical Thomas tactic--he forces the reader to focus on each phrase individually and to consider them separately, just as they are separated by the line break, to read "it is easy to believe" on the one hand, and "Yeats was right" on the other, before putting them back together again, in context, into a single phrase, "it is easy to believe /Yeats was right." And, indeed, when we read these two phrases as the line break separates them, they seem to mean something quite different from what they mean when we put them together. The phrase "it is easy to believe" has a clear theological association, and it seems to be simply an expression of the ease with which faith is accomplished; it is, as it asserts, "easy to believe." The second phrase, "Yeats was right," has a literary focus and makes a literal literary reference to Yeats and to his rather pessimistic poem concerning the prospects of a "second coming," one that may not really be very easy to believe in and, certainly, a second coming far different from the one seemingly prophesied by the biblical texts and believed in by believers. This kind of ambiguity, which is a variation on the traditional maieutic method of teasing out answers or drawing conclusions that are inherent to but latent in the context, is classic Thomas, as M. Wynn Thomas has pointed out. The OED defines a maieutic meaning as one "pertaining to intellectual midwifery; i.e. to the Socratic method of helping a person to bring into full consciousness a conception previously latent in his mind." It is certainly the case that Thomas often invokes two seemingly antithetical things and then undercuts both of them simultaneously, leaving the reader to puzzle out his meaning in much the same way that (we sense) he has also tried to puzzle it out for himself as he has gone along, his mental argument and his arrangement of the issues as it were debating with or among themselves in his mind and in his lines as he muses on them in his poems and, even, as he suggests here, apparently also in his prayers.
Here then, in this empty church, it is "as though / choirs had not sung." The nearby tide "laps / at the Bible" and the church bells fail to fetch people to "the brittle miracle / of the bread." Thomas's precise words are "the bell fetches / no people." Again, as with the phrase "it is easy to believe / Yeats was right," Thomas breaks or delays the meaning, or at least the initial understanding of the meaning, with his line break. As we first read the lines we begin to believe that the Church bell fetches (brings forth, brings back, or delivers) the faithful. But, at the moment that we are about to believe in this almost miraculous occurrence, the line breaks and the unforeseen conclusion clangs like a bell when we are told that "no people" have been summoned by the bell "to the brittle miracle" either of the communion of the faithful or, indeed, to the sacrament of communion itself. Since the church is empty, perhaps what has been heard was only the wind playing fitfully with the bells in the steeple. Therefore, even the miracle of the sacrament is as "brittle" and apparently as easily broken as the bread used in the communion service. Even the sand in the stone that the church was built of and on is "waiting / for," anticipating, its dissipation or dissolution. This is an image that suggests the running out of sand in an hourglass, which, interestingly enough, is a figure or emblem that, turned on its side, accurately duplicates Yeats's diagram of the gyres in his A Vision (see 68), the very gyres that are described at the outset of "The Second Coming?' In both cases, the suggestion is that something is coming to an end. As Yeats says, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold?' And, indeed, Thomas's speaker at the end of the first part of his poem concludes with a definitive statement, a summary of what has already been said, and of what he has taken from it. His conclusion is "Religion is over." Then, returning to the metaphor of the moon's phases at the end of this first section of the poem, Thomas adds, "and what will emerge from/ ... the new moon, no one / can say." It may indeed be something like the "rough beast" at the end of Yeats's poem, slouching "toward Bethlehem to be born." For M. Wynn Thomas, the line break between "it is easy to believe" and "Yeats was right" is crucial and thematically suggestive. Following up on his description of Thomas's use of the Socratic, maieutical, method referred to above, he concludes that these lines imply--or that they literally say--that "it is easy to believe there is no God." And, he adds, "this is not something Thomas tells us" but rather "it is something his poetry gradually does to us" (67). This, of course, may not be the conclusion that all readers come to when reading these lines, and it may not be what Thomas's poetry does to most of them, but it certainly gives one pause.
THERE is no definitive stanzaic break between the first and the second sections of the poem, but the dropped line and the indentation at the beginning of the second section sets off and distinguishes a division into what appears to be two voices, even if it fails to fully separate or individualize them. In this way Thomas manages to suggest the presence of a second speaker, one who (apparently) angrily asks, "Why so fast / mortal?" Clearly, this "voice" may be that of an other, or another, but it is equally possible, since the voice only "sounds / in my ear," that it is perhaps an internal or an imaginary voice, a voice that the speaker (as might well be the case in prayer) only "hears" as his own voice, even if it sounds (in both senses of the word) as if it were literally a voice in his ear, or even if it echoes like his own blood in a sea-shell held to the ear. That is, that it is really only an internal "voice," which may be, or could be thought to be, ventriloquistically "thrown" in such a way that it seems to have come from another, or some other, source. Therefore, Thomas's "hearing" of this "voice," and his understanding, or attempted understanding of it, in the here and now of the poem, and in this place, is the understanding itself, the attempt to grasp or to comprehend the meaning, or an intended meaning; it is finally, ultimately, only the mental wrestling of a man alone in an empty church, "testing his faith / On emptiness," as he said in "In Church." Thus, here, Thomas must confess that he hears only himself, and that he must consider the possibility that there is no one else there, or anywhere, within his hearing--that he is, and is to be, truly alone. Whatever it is, whichever is the case, Thomas seems almost to interrupt his initial meditation in order to consider this insistent conclusion. The voice that sounds in his ear seems almost to shout out to him, "Why so fast, / mortal?" Is this question only an internal, self-created, and self-directed question, or is it a question posed by an external entity or "voice"? Whichever, whatever it is, it is. Again, the lineation is important. The words "fast" and "mortal" are separated by the line break and a comma, which suggests that they should be read as a direct command from an other, a "voice" outside of the self, even if it is a voice heard from inside as something similar to what might be an expressed thought. Regardless, the hearer is clearly aware of the voice, no matter whether it is an exterior or an interior one. And the "voice" continues, creating a kind of dialogue, pointing out that the "very seas / are baptised," that the "parish / has a saint's name" that "time cannot / unfrock," that "people / are becoming pilgrims / again," even if they are only recreating places of pilgrimage and/or imagining prayers "in their own spirits." And then the voice again seems to make a literal command: "You must remain kneeling." The clear implication is that "you" (one) must continue to pray--in spite of the odds against receiving any answer to your prayers.
And then the poem ends, abruptly, by returning to the opening metaphor, apparently still in the voice that spoke at the outset.
Even as this moon making its way through the earth's cumbersome shadow, prayer, too, has its phases.
Perhaps the most interesting word in this final sentence is the word "cumbersome?' Meaning awkward, troublesome, or difficult to deal with, "cumbersome," an awkward, troublesome, and difficult to deal with word in the context of "the earth's shadow," accurately suggests the conclusion that Thomas has come to with respect to his metaphor and with respect to his position on prayer. It is cumbersome. Prayer waxes and wanes just as the moon does but, like the moon, it is only rarely in total eclipse--even if it has fallen into obscurity, or declined in use or significance, even if it has seemed largely to disappear.
What then, finally, can be said about Thomas's understanding of prayer as it asserts itself in this paradigmatic poem and, indeed, throughout his canon? He seems to suggest that, as in so many of the things we most firmly believe in--in religion and, even, ironically, in poetry--language, finally, fails us. This is an awkward, cumbersome, conclusion to come to for a poet and a priest, but perhaps it can be given a positive turn and invested with a final hope. If it is the case that language finally will always fail us, Thomas seems to suggest that prayers (and poems about prayer) nonetheless remain important for what they attempt to do. Prayers and poems are man's attempts to communicate to or with someone or something beyond himself. And so, since for Thomas "there is nothing more important than the relationship between man and God" and nothing "more difficult than establishing that relationship," we must come to the belief-and to believe--that, in spite of the fact that we must live our lives "in the presence of an invisible and mute God," that the lack of God's response is "never a bar to anyone seeking to come into contact with Him" Indeed, "that is what prayer is" (Autobiographies 104). In short, Thomas seems to suggest that although God, not man, initiates whatever communication there may be between them, man must remain ever ready to receive such divinely initiated communications, if and when they come: that men must pray not so much to be heard as to hear.
Davis, William V. R. S. Thomas: Poetry and Theology. Waco: Baylor UP, 2007.
Duffy, Carol Ann. Feminine Gospels. London: Picador, 2002.
Kierkegaard, Scren. SOren Kierkegaards Papirer. Ed. E A. Heiberg, V. Kuhr, & E. Torsting. 11 vols. Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel Nordisk Forlag, 1909-48.
Thomas, M. Wynn. "Irony in the Soul: The Religious Poetry of R. S[ocrates] Thomas." Agenda 36.2 (1998): 49-69.
Thomas, R. S. Autobiographies. Trans. Jason Walford Davies. London: J. M. Dent, 1997.
--. Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: J. M. Dent, 1993.
--. Collected Later Poems 1988-2000. Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2004.
Tillich, Paul. The Shaking of the Foundations. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948.
Weil, Simone. The Simone Weil Reader. Ed. George A. Panichas. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1977.
Yeats, William Butler. A Vision. New York: Collier Books, 1966.
--. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. New York: MacMillan, 1956.
(1) References to Thomas's works will be included in the text, abbreviated as follows: Collected Poems 1945-1990 (CP) and Collected Later Poems (CLP).
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|Author:||Davis, William V.|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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