George Herbert (1593-1633) and R. S. Thomas (1913-) arguably are among the greatest poets who have written in English; undeniably, they are among the great religious poets of any language, any tradition, any time. Various literary critics have remarked that "Thomas is often compared to Herbert," but few have ventured beyond that casual generalization. The superficial similarities are obvious: both have Welsh connections, but write in English; both are priests in the Anglican tradition; both served their pastorates in rural settings. There are other, more complex, similarities: they share a love of nature and music; for both the Cross is a central image and the idea of Deus absconditus is a recurrent theme; each employs space as well as text to create meaning, underscoring the sense that human language is inadequate to express fully the truths of God.
But central to any comparison is the idea of calling, as priest and as poet. The purpose of this study is to examine and compare the dual vocations of these two men. Of course, it is possible to be a priest and a poet and for these pursuits to be disjoined or one to be subordinated to the other. Ultimately I will argue that for Herbert and Thomas the two callings are integrally related and thus indivisible, but for the sake of the argument I will examine them separately, looking first at their priestly calling and then at their poetic calling.
Shortly before his death, George Herbert sent the manuscript of all the poems he had written and arranged under the title The Temple to his friend Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding with instructions to do with it what he wished. In the covering letter he described the poems as "A picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have past betwixt God and my Soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master, in whose service I have now found perfect freedom" (F. E. Hutchinson, ed., The Works of George Herbert, p. xxxvii). Perhaps no poem in that manuscript better captures the quality of those "spiritual Conflicts" than "The Collar":
I Struck the board, and cry'd, No more.
I will abroad.
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the rode.
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me bloud, and not restore
What I have lost with cordiall fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did drie it: there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the yeare onely lost to me?
Have I no bayes to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
Not so, my heart: but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit, and not. Forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands,
Which pettie thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
Away; take heed:
I will abroad.
Call in thy deaths head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
Deserves his load.
But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wilde
At every word,
Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child!
And I reply'd, My Lord.
"The Collar" epitomizes his story. It speaks of his own desires, his restlessness, his ungratefulness. It speaks also of what he saw as God's own great mercy.
Herbert attended Westminster School and then Trinity College, Cambridge. In both places he distinguished himself as a scholar and, having completed his baccalaureate, he was chosen as a fellow of Trinity College. He began to teach as well as to pursue the masters, then the normal route to ordination. At that time he wrote his stepfather, Sir John Danvers:
...I want Books extremely; You know Sir, how I am now setting foot into Divinitie, to lay the platform of my future life, and shall I then be fain alwayes to borrow Books, and build on anothers foundation? What Tradesman is there who will set up without his Tools? Pardon my boldness Sir, it is a most serious Case, nor can I write coldly in that, wherein consisteth the making good of my former education, of obeying that Spirit which hath guided me hitherto, and of achieving my (I dare say) holy ends (Works, p. 364).
Thus ordination clearly seemed his goal.
But, as he later wrote in A Priest to the Temple, "Of Pastors ... some live in the Universities, some in Noble houses, some in Parishes residing on their cures" (Works, pp. 225-226). His social status and his academic success led him to think more of the first two paths than the last. That inclination received encouragement when he was chosen first a Reader in Rhetoric (1618) and then Public Orator of the University (1620). As he explained to his stepfather,
The Orators place (that you may understand what it is) is the finest place in the University, though not the gainfullest; ... but the commodiousness is beyond the Revenue; for the Orator writes all the University Letters, makes all the Orations, be it to King, Prince, or whatever comes to the University; to requite these pains, he takes place next the Doctors, is at all their Assemblies and Meetings, and sits above the Proctors, is Regent or Non-regent at his pleasure, and such like Gaynesses, which will please a young man well (Works, pp. 369-370).
The prospect of employment at the court was not beyond his thinking, though he would deny it. He reported that Sir Francis Nethersol, whom his stepfather had approached on his behalf, feared "this place being civil ... [might] draw me too much from Divinity ... but I ... wrote him back, that this dignity, hath no such earthiness in it, but it may very well be joined with Heaven; or if it had to others, yet to me it should not" (Works, p. 370). It may have been of such rationalizations that he was thinking later when he wrote:
Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round!
Parents first season us: then schoolmasters
Deliver us to laws; they send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,
Pulpits and Sundayes, sorrow dogging sinne,
Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes
Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,
Blessings beforehand, tyes of gratefulnesse,
The sound of glorie ringing in our eares;
Without, our shame; within, our consciences;
Angels and grace, eternall hopes and fears.
Yet all these fences and their whole aray
One cunning bosome-sinne blows quite away.
The attractions of the civil life were great and his hopes were not inconsiderable. His family connections afforded him opportunity and his academic successes drew notice. As Orator his work drew the attention of noteworthy patrons, including the Duke of Richmond, the Marquis of Hamilton, King James himself. There was, as well, a negative force that restrained him from the pursuit of ordination: his own sense of unworthiness, a real and recurrent element in his life. That sense found clear expression in his later poetry as he pondered the priestly vocation:
Blest Order, which in power dost so excell,
That with th'one hand thou liftest to the sky,
And with the other throwest down to hell
In thy just censures; fain would I draw nigh,
Fain put thee on, exchanging my lay-sword
For that of th'holy Word.
But thou art fire, sacred and hallow'd fire;
And I but earth and clay: should I presume
To wear thy habit, the severe attire
My slender compositions might consume.
I am both foul and brittle; much unfit
To deal in Holy Writ.
"The Priesthood," II.1-12
The deaths in 1624 and 1625 of each of his great patrons gave him pause and strengthened again the thought of a vocation. Encouraged by his mother and her great friend, John Donne, he accepted ordination as a deacon. Yet his own disposition and his frail health (another recurrent theme in his life) inclined him to believe that he would best exercise his ministry through his scholarship.
The Bishop of Lincoln granted him the canonry and prebend of Leighton Bromswold, a living which was an easy yoke in terms of duties, affording him the chance to serve in a manner he felt consistent with his powers. In retrospect he would come to see this somewhat grudging assent to vocation as evidence of too much pride: he would serve God, but he would tell Him how He might use him. But, for the moment he wrapped that pride in a false humility, proclaiming his unworthiness to assume fully the dignity and the duty of priesthood.
Ill health and sorrow also distracted him. His mother's death in 1627 was a grievous affliction. Physical weakness impeded even his scholarly pursuits. His poems entitled "Affliction" graphically describe this stage of his life, and he began to feel a profound sense of uselessness. Yet even in the midst of that difficult time he began to understand that if he were to be strong he must do His word, not read it only, that it was his own prideful insistence on his unworthiness that held him in thrall.
Two things then occurred that strengthened him in his commitment to follow the call wherever it might lead. He met, courted and married Jane Danvers, who proved to be a soul mate in his ministry, and within the year he received the cure of Bemerton St. Andrew and Fulston St. Peter, just outside Salisbury. "Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child!/And I reply'd, My Lord." He accepted the call and was ordained to the priesthood.
How sweetly doth My Master sound! My Master!
As Amber-greese leaves a rich sent
Unto the taster:
So do these words a sweet content,
An orientall fragrancie, My Master!
"The Odour. 2 Cor. 2.15"
Thus to Bemerton he came. In the preface to A Priest to the Temple he wrote:
...Considering that with my self, That the way to please him, is to feed my Flocke diligently and faithfully, since our Saviour hath made that the argument of a Pastour's love, I have resolved to set down the Form and Character of a true Pastour, that I may have a Mark to aim at: which also I have set as high as I can, since hee shoots higher that threatens the Moon, then hee that aims at a Tree. Not that I think, if a man do not all which is here expressed, hee presently sinns, and displeases God, but that it is a good thing to go as farre as we can in pleasing of him, who hath done so much for us (Works, p. 224).
To Bemerton he came and fulfilled his calling as priest--and as poet.
In contrast to Herbert's conflicted movement toward inevitable ordination, the calling of R. S. Thomas seems prosaic: there is no Thomas poem equivalent to Herbert's "The Collar." In his most distinctively autobiographical collection, The Echoes Return Slow (1988), a series of matching prose pieces and poems, he moves directly from a pairing about his years at University College, Bangor, to one on conducting the funeral of a child. Thomas does write often and eloquently of the tasks of ministry, specifically, of course, of ministry in small rural parishes. And unlike Herbert his ministry was a long one: curacies in Chirk (1936-1940) and Hanmer (1940-1942), then vicarates in Manafon (1942-1953), Eglwys-fach (1953-1967), and finally Aberdaron (1967-1978). Typical of the tone and perspective in his treatment of ministry is this pairing from Echoes:
What had been blue shadows on a longed-for horizon, traced on an inherited background, were shown in time to contain this valley, this village and a church built with stones from the river, where the rectory stood, plangent as a mahogany piano. The stream was a bright tuning-fork in the moonlight. The hay-fields ran with a dark current. The young man was sent unprepared to expose his ignorance of life in a leafless pulpit.
I was vicar of large things in a small parish. Small-minded I will not say; there were depths in some of them I shrank back from, wells that the word 'God' fell into and died away, and for all I know is still falling. Who goes for water to such must prepare for a long wait. Their eyes looked at me and were the remains of flowers on an old grave. I was there, I felt, to blow on ashes that were too long cold. Often, when I thought they were about to unbar to me, the draught out of their empty places came whistling, so that I wrapped myself in the heavier clothing of my calling, speaking of light and love in the thickening shadows of their kitchens.
Thomas's poems about or references to the priesthood give a strong sense of the tasks to which he was called and of the strains of and obstacles to carrying out those tasks. If his words are sometimes harsh, he also shows a strong empathy for his parishioners and is clear about pastoral responsibilities. What we miss is Herbert's personal sense of Him who is doing the calling. We find no parallel to "Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child!/And I reply'd, My Lord." We should note the tentativeness of "Me thoughts I heard," but even so that is more certainty on the subject than one will find in Thomas.
In Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), published three years before his retirement from the ministry, he included a poem "The Calling" which challenges any effort to understand his vocation:
And the word came--was it a god
spoke or a devil--Go
to that lean parish; let them tread
on your dreams; and learn silence
is wisdom. Be alone with yourself
as they are alone in the cold room
of the wind. Listen to the earth
mumbling the monotonous song
of the soil: I am hungry, I
am hungry, in spite of the red dung
of this people. See them go
one by one through that dark door
with the crumpled ticket of your prayers
in their hands. Share their distraught
joy at the dropping of their inane
children. Test your belief
in spirit on their faces staring
at you, on beauty's surrender
to truth, on the soul's selling
of itself for a corner
by the body's fire. Learn the thinness
of the window that is
between you and life, and how
the mind cuts itself if it goes through.
A quality which Thomas and Herbert share is the provisional nature of their individual poems. While the individual poems stand very well by themselves, they gain in resonance when read against earlier and later poems. Like "shards of brittle crazie glass" in a stained glass window (to borrow from Herbert), the individual poems interact with one another to form greater patterns. The Temple contains virtually all of Herbert's English poems, and he labored over the ordering. Thus, the complementarity of his poems is easy enough to grasp. With Thomas the reader can easily approach the individual collections, each usually containing forty to fifty poems, assuming both an interactive and an experimental quality. Indeed, the very name of the collection from which "The Calling" comes underscores the tentative quality of each poem, as do such collection titles as Frequencies, Experimenting with an Amen, and Ingrowing Thoughts. But it is as true of the whole canon of his work stretching over a half century. The "echoes may return slow," but they do return, and one's sense and appreciation of a single poem grows by listening for them.
Unlike Herbert, however, Thomas does not present us with a finished product, a sequencing that itself describes the "many spiritual conflicts between God and my soul." His work is more protean and less a spiritual autobiography--though no less experiential. C. S. Lewis credited Herbert with "describing the very quality of life as we actually live it day by day" and that is a quality which Thomas shares. The experiences Thomas describes are not only his own efforts to understand, to find meaning, to give meaning, but those of the people among whom he ministers. There is more here of the hardness of daily living, the sheer weight of the mundane, the narrowness of the human heart--and more too of the silence of God. That is hardly surprising since the silence of God, while Herbert too experiences it, is a dominant theme in Thomas.
But, if God is silent, "Who put it into his head to be a candidate for Holy Orders?" Thomas addresses that question most directly in his autobiographical piece "Neb." In Welsh the title means literally "No One." Thomas originally wrote it in Welsh. A condensed version of it appeared in English in 1986 (Contemporary Authors: Autobiographical Series 4, 301-313) and was republished in William V. Davis, ed., Miraculous Simplicity: Essays on R. S. Thomas (1993). A translation of the full text was published in Jason Walford Davies, ed. and trans., R. S. Thomas: Autobiographies (1997). One of the principal omissions from the earlier English version is precisely the segment in which Thomas addresses the question of his calling.
But who knows in what way a man's fate asserts itself? We are familiar with the story in the Bible about God calling Samuel, and consequently we perhaps think that we must hear God's voice calling fairly clearly, if we are supposed to do a particular thing. But on reflection, of course, it is obvious that choosing a vocation depends on many things (Autobiographies, p. 34).
The one of many things which appears most often in the remarks on the subject which Thomas and others make is the influence of his mother. Interestingly, in his introduction to A Choice of George Herbert's Verse, Thomas quotes at length from Izaak Walton's description of the influence of Magdalen Herbert over her son. One senses that Thomas's mother was less moved by piety than by a desire for respectability. In a 1995 interview Thomas remarked that his mother "obviously had these secret ambitions for me. I was at a malleable age in my teens and I didn't raise any resistance. God moves in mysterious ways" (Quoted in Justin Wintie, Furious Interiors, p. 114).
The temptation is to regard his entry to the priesthood as almost incidental. The fact that he consciously chose to spend his entire career in the active ministry in small rural parishes and that in that time he published sixteen collections of poetry might make him appear as yet another example of the Anglican country clergyman settled into a comfortable cure, allowing him to pursue some scholarly or literary interest, whether it be a treatise on butterflies or the writing of poetry. To yield to that temptation, however, fails to take seriously Thomas's own words in both prose and poetry. "God moves in mysterious ways": if he is not serious in saying that, then he is not serious about anything, and whatever one thinks about Thomas as poet or priest one cannot doubt his absorbing seriousness.
All the evidence is that he pursued his calling as priest (preacher, pastor, liturgist) with dedication and purpose. He was conscious of the differences between the parishes he served and tried to speak to the parishioners of each in ways that would connect with their experience. And in that work he was driven by the same urgency that informs so much of his poetry.
After all, there is nothing more important than the relationship between man and God. Nor anything more difficult than establishing that relationship. Who is it that ever saw God? Who ever heard Him speak? We have to live virtually the whole of our lives in the presence of an invisible and mute God. But that was never a bar to anyone seeking to come into contact with Him. That is what prayer is. ... (Autobiographies, p. 104).
Was he beloved by all his parishioners, remembered by them now as a saint who dwelt among them? Of course not: few clergy are. George Herbert apparently was remembered that way and probably deservedly so, but his parish ministry lasted only three years, not forty-two. Thomas calls his career in the parish ministry "insignificant," but it lasted too long and touched too many people to be that, and too many touched him. Again from The Echoes Return Slow:
The cure of souls! Congregations tend to get older. There is no cure for old age. And the old tend to be sick. When one should be leading them on to peer into the future, one is drawn back by them into the past. The visitation of the sick! A ministry more credible because more noticeable than the cure of souls.
They keep me sober, the old ladies stiff in their beds, mostly with pale eyes wintering me. Some are like blonde dolls their joints twisted; life in its brief play was a bit rough. Some fumble with thick tongues for words,
and are deaf;
shouting their faint names
I listen; they are far off,
the echoes return slow.
But without them,
without the subdued light
their smiles kindle, I would have gone wild,
drinking earth's huge draughts
of joy and woe.
What matters, however, is not the effectiveness of his ministry, but the importance of it in defining him. He accepted his ministry not as a convenience, but as the place he was supposed to be. In "Neb" he also wrote: "Life is a pilgrimage, and if we do not succeed in coming a little nearer to the truth, if we do not have a better comprehension of the nature of God before reaching the end of the journey, why was it we started the journey at all?" (p. 106). A priest finally is only a servant helping other pilgrims on the way.
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 thought: 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.'
"The Priest," Not That He Brought Flowers
Not exactly the stuff of a seminary recruiting poster, yet it has the same force as Herbert's concluding "And I reply'd, My Lord."
Whatever else it is, poetry is a craft, being a poet a work. Both George Herbert and R. S. Thomas incarnate that idea.
Steeped in the classics, Herbert first demonstrated his command of language through his public function as Orator of the University, and his poetry shows the same command--and sensitivity to sound and sense. As poet he employed a variety of verse forms and the care he took in the sequencing of his poems reflects the fact that he was truly a craftsman. But aside from the fact of this body of work, which remains a shining testament to his mind and heart and soul, we have little explicit evidence of what it meant to him to be a poet.
The closest things we have to measured reflection on the matter are the dedication which appeared in the manuscript and the subsequent printed versions, the first stanza of "The Church-porch" (the opening section of The Temple), and his instructions to Nicholas Ferrar to whom he sent the manuscript before his death.
The dedication reads:
Lord, my first fruits present themselves to thee;
Yet not mine neither: for from thee they came,
And must return. Accept of them and me,
And make us strive, who shall sing best thy name.
Turn their eyes hither, who shall make a gain:
Theirs, who shall hurt themselves or me, refrain.
The premise that the fruits of his creativity were not merely of his own making, but came to him from God, is hardly surprising. Strikingly, he calls them his "first fruits" which suggests a particular valuing of them and the fourth line underscores that valuation both by stressing the effort involved and defining as his purpose singing best the Lord's name. The final two lines lead naturally into the opening stanza of "The Church-porch":
Thou whose sweet youth and early hopes inhance
Thy rate and price, and mark thee for a treasure;
Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance
Ryme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may find him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice.
To a degree the explanation of his purpose in the above-cited passages is formulaic, the affirmation of a common theme among sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English religious poets. It was a necessary defense against the querulous question of certain Christians: why would a priest also be a poet? It is an explanation that subordinates poetry to religion. Thomas himself says of Herbert, "There is too often the impression that the verse is being made subordinate to an idea, and not that the idea emerges naturally from the poetry" (A Choice, p. 14). Yet Herbert's rhetorical control, the vitality of his language and images supplied by the variety of his interests--and one must say as well the freshness of his faith--raise the bulk of his efforts far beyond the merely didactic or pietistic.
Undeniably, Herbert sees all his work, and certainly a work so important to him that he characterizes its results as his "first fruits," as serving God, for that is the vocation behind all his roles. He was a poet as he was a priest because God called him to it. That conviction informs his instructions to Ferrar: "If he can think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made public: if not, let him burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God's mercies." He has done his best with the gifts God gave him and if it is not enough, so be it. All that he has done is strive to serve God.
We know substantially more about Thomas's understanding of what it means to be a poet and of the nature of poetry and the poetic craft, and we know it more explicitly than we know Herbert's. Thomas has dealt with those subjects in his autobiographical writings, in interviews and essays, in his introductions to selections of poems by Herbert, Edward Thomas, and Wordsworth, and in his poetry.
In "Neb," even before he posed the question "Who put it into his head to be a candidate for Holy Orders?" he asks "Was he preparing himself to be a poet? How can someone become a poet? From where did the desire to write verses come ...?" (p. 32). The form of the questions is perhaps telling, yet he gives no real answer to them, merely reporting that he did write verses at university. And while he was curate at Chirk, he notes, "Under the influence of the beautiful and exciting country to the west he continued to write poetry. ..." (p. 44). In a lecture given at the University College at Swansea in 1963 Thomas observed:
I suppose most men wish to tell others of their experiences. They gratify this wish mainly in talk, that endless noise which goes on in streets and buses and pubs. But some few have been born with the urge and the gift to write about their experiences in prose, fewer in poetry ("Words and the Poet," Sandra Anstey, ed., R. S. Thomas. Selected Prose (1995 edition), p. 65).
Becoming a poet thus appears as incidental, yet as inevitable, as becoming a priest, but in Thomas' descriptions of being a poet he makes clear there is more to it than simply having the gift--just as there is more to being a priest. In the essay "The Making of a Poem" Thomas declares:
It is the actual craft of poetry which is important, and I think this must be said and adhered to. ... If a poet realizes that it has been his privilege to have a certain gift in the manipulation of language (language being the supreme human manifestation), then he is obviously committed from the very beginning to a life-time of self discipline, struggle, disappointment, failure, with just possibly that odd success which is greater in his eyes than it probably is in the eyes of anybody else (Selected Prose, p. 86).
Being a poet is studying the works of other poets, observing the world around one, developing technique, struggling to balance sound and sense: "The people who are most likely to be inspired are the people who have had the most training and done the most work. ... There is something deliberate about the poetic craft. ..." (p. 89).
For the first twenty years you are still growing
Bodily that is: as a poet, of course,
You are not born yet. It's the next ten
You cut your teeth on the emerge smirking
For your brash courtship of the muse.
You will take seriously those first affairs
With young poems, but no attachments
Formed then but come to shame you,
When love has changed to a grave service
Of a cold queen.
From forty on
You learn from the sharp cuts and jags
Of poems that have come to pieces
In your crude hands how to assemble
With more skill the arbitrary parts
Of ode or sonnet, while time fosters
A new impulse to conceal your wounds
From her and from a bold public,
Given to pry.
You are old now
As years reckon, but in that slower
World of the poet you are just coming
To sad manhood, knowing the smile
On her proud face is not for you.
"To a Young Poet," The Bread of Truth
Being a poet is a gift, but not necessarily a blessing, for it is a gift that requires long and diligent labor if one is to fulfill the obligation which the gift entails. "Words," one of the final poems in No Truce with the Furies (1995), begins "Accuse me of sincerity/I deny complicity / art is my necessity." God works in mysterious ways.
While Herbert may have felt compelled to justify why he would address religious questions in poetry, Thomas has more often had to confront the question why a poet would address religious questions. In our day, the term "religious poetry" has a dismissive quality to it akin, in the minds of some, to saying "He writes limericks." Such an attitude, however, says more about the paucity of the modern imagination than it does about either poetry or religion. In The English Poetic Mind, Charles Williams remarks, "Religious poetry is poetry, not religion. But good poetry does something more than allude to its subject; it is related to it, and it relates us to it" (p. 3). Soren Kierkegaard (in whose works Thomas has read widely and deeply) wrote: "For life is like a poet, and on that account is different from the observer who always seeks to bring things to a conclusion. The poet pulls us into the very complex center of life" (Purity of Heart, p. 101). For both Herbert and Thomas that center is the relationship between man and God. One may argue against that conviction, but one cannot deny its creative force.
Thomas, in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Religious Verse (1963), writes:
What is the common ground between religion and poetry? Is there such? Do definitions help? If I say that religion is the total response of the whole person to reality, but poetry the response of a certain kind of person, I appear to be doing so at the expense of poetry. Perhaps Coleridge can help us here. The nearest we approach to God, he appears to say, is as creative beings. The poet by echoing the primary imagination, recreates. Through his work he forces those who read him to do the same, thus bringing them nearer the primary imagination themselves, and so, in a way, nearer to the actual being of God as displayed in action. ... Now the power of the imagination is a unifying power, hence the force of metaphor; and the poet is the supreme manipulator of metaphor. This would dispose of him as a minor craftsman among many. The world needs the unifying power of the imagination. The two things which give it best are poetry and religion. ... (pp. 8-9).
Poetry concerns itself with the concrete and particular, not to simplify, but to elucidate. Given the limitations of human understanding, the imperfections of language itself, poetry enables us to think about, speak about, grapple with "The complex center of life." For Herbert it was the natural and obvious way to record "the many spiritual conflicts which passed betwixt God and my soul." As James Boyd White observes, "The central drama of Herbert's verse lies in its ways of imagining God, and the speaker and the relation between them" (This Book of Starres: Learning to Read George Herbert, p. 194). And in his introduction to his selection of Herbert's poems, Thomas is more specific: "Yeats said that out of his quarrel with others a man makes rhetoric, but out of his quarrel with himself poetry. Herbert surely had no quarrel with others. What he had was an argument, not with others, nor with himself primarily, but with God, and God always won" (p. 12). Above all else the argument was about his calling. Both poetry and priesthood are vocations of the word. By being a poet Herbert was able to describe the argument, which is not to say there is no tension between the two vocations. In one of the prose/poem pairings in Echoes, Thomas writes:
Salving his conscience in the face of the Gospel's commandment to judge not with the necessity for the writer of poetry to be his own critic. The creative mind judges, weighs and selects, as well as discarding, in the act of composing. Yet honesty is without mercy, punishing the practitioner along with the patient.
What I ask of humans is more than human so without idolatry I can follow. While he
who is called God, now scorches with sparks of blood, now glaciates me in the draught out of his tomb.
Later he notes "He defended himself with the fact that Jesus was a poet."
In a television interview Thomas remarked "Primarily I'm trying to find out what it means to use the word 'God' in the late twentieth century with all the discoveries and changes which have come about in the human intellect." That observation sums up not only the central preoccupation of Thomas as poet, but also the difference between Thomas and Herbert, a difference primarily of time and opportunity. We live within our experience that both enables us and limits us. Of Herbert, Thomas writes "[He] demonstrates ... both the possibility and the desirability of a friendship with God. Friendship is no longer the fight way to describe it. The word now is dialogue, encounter, confrontation; but the realities engaged have not altered all that much" (A Selection. ... p. 16). If anything Thomas has grown more uncomfortable over the years with the idea of a "friendship with God." How can one establish a friendship or even a dialogue with one of whom your primary experience is silence?
In a late poem, "Resurrections" (No Truce), Thomas speaks directly of those poets with whom he is most often identified and gives weight to that question:
Easier for them, God
only at the beginning
of his recession. Blandish him
said the times and they did so,
Herbert, Traherne, walking
in a garden not yet
polluted. Music in Donne's
mind was still polyphonic.
The corners of the spirit waiting
to be developed, Hopkins
renewed the endearments
taming the lion-like presence
lying against him. What
happened? Suddenly he was
gone, leaving love guttering
in his withdrawal. And scenting
disaster, as flies are attracted
to a carcase, far down
in the subconscious the ghouls
and the demons we thought
we had buried for ever resurrected.
Yet Thomas says also of Herbert: "He commends a way of life for the individual that is still viable. It is reason, not so much tinged with, as warmed by emotion, and solidly based on order and discipline, the soul's good form" (p. 17). Being a Christian is like being a poet: committed "to a life-time of self discipline, struggle, disappointment, failure, with just possibly that odd success which is greater in his eyes than it probably is in the eyes of anybody else." And being a poet is like being a Christian.
For Thomas, like Herbert, being a poet is an extension of his calling. Certainly Thomas argues with others and persistently with himself, but time and again he returns to the argument with God which gives all else force.
Why, then, of all possible
turnings do we take
this one rather than that,
when the only signs discernible
are what no one has erected?
Is it because, at the road's
ending, the one who is as a power
in hiding is waiting to be christened?
"The Waiting," No Truce with the Furies, p. 64.
All works and writings cited are from F. E. Hutchinson, The Works of George Herbert. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941.
C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1956.
James Boyd White, This Book of Starres: Learning to Read George Herbert. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Charles Williams, The English Poetic Mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932.
R. S. THOMAS:
The Bread of Truth. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1963.
A Choice of George Herbert's Verse. London: Faber and Faber, 1967.
The Echoes Return Slow. London: MacMillan, 1988.
Experimenting with an Amen. London: MacMillan, 1986.
Frequencies. London: MacMillan, 1978.
Ingrowing Thoughts. Brigend, Mid Glamorgan: Poetry Wales Press, 1985.
Laboratories of the Spirit. London: MacMillan, 1975.
No Truce with the Furies. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1995.
Not That He Brought Flowers. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968.
The Penguin Book of Religious Verse. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1962.
Sandra Anstey, ed., R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose. Brigend, Mid Glamorgan: Poetry Wales Press, 1995.
Jason w. Davies, ed., R. S. Thomas: Autobiographies. London: J. M. Dent, 1997.
William Davis, ed., Miraculous Simplicity: Essays on R, S. Thomas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.
Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing: Spiritual Preparation for the Office of Confession. New York: Harper, 1948.
Justin Wintle, Furious Interiors. London: HarperCollins, 1996.
By William J. McGill
William J. McGill is Senior Vice President and Dean of the Faculty Emeritus, Lebanon Valley College and non-stipendiary priest of the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania.