‘The Nativity? No’ by R.S. Thomas

Text above the poem in the book
 The Nativity? No.
Something has gone wrong.
There is a hole in the stable
acid rain drips through
onto an absence. Beauty
is hoisted upside down.
The truth is Pilate not
lingering for an answer.
The angels are prostrate
'beaten into the clay'
as Yeats thundered. Only Satan beams down,
poisoning with fertilisers
the place where the child
lay, harrowing the ground
for the drumming of the machine-
gun tears of the rich that are
seed of the next war.


By R. S. Thomas
from Counterpoint (1990) 2. Incarnation

‘Loving, I am still dumbfounded’ by Afanasy Fet

Loving, I am still dumbfounded

by the world and its beauty,

and nothing will make me renounce

the sweetness you grant me.

However hard my breath come,

while I stand here on earth

the sound of new life will be welcome

wherever it stirs.

Submissive to the sun’s rays,

roots go down into the grave

to seek from death the strength

to meet spring days.

 

by Афанасий Афанасьевич Фет (Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet)

a.k.a. Шеншин (Shenshin)

(1890)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’ by William Wordsworth

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

 

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

 

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

 

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

 

by William Wordsworth

from Poems, in Two Volumes


Fun Fact: This poem is also known as ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’.

In Great Waters by R. S. Thomas

You are there also

at the foot of the precipice

of water that was too steep

for the drowned: their breath broke

and they fell. You have made an altar

out of the deck of the lost

trawler whose spars

are your cross. The sand crumbles

like bread; the wine is

the light quietly lying

in its own chalice. There is

a sacrament there more beauty

than terror whose ministrant

you are and the aisles are full

of the sea shapes coming to its celebration.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Frequencies (1978)

Коршун (The Kite) by Alexander Blok

Over the empty fields a black kite hovers,

and circle after circle smoothly weaves.

In the poor hut, over her son in a cradle

a mother grieves:

‘There suck my breast: there, grow and take our bread,

and learn to bear your cross and bow your head.’

 

Time passes. War returns. Rebellion rages.

The farms and villages go up in flame,

and Russia in her ancient tear-stained beauty,

is yet the same,

unchanged through all the ages. How long will

the mother grieve and the kite circle still?

 

by Александр Александрович Блок (Alexander Alexandrovich Blok)

(22 March 1916)

translated by Frances Cornford and Esther Polianowsky Salaman


Fun fact: As you can tell from the date this was written into the lead up to the Russian Revolution. To be more exact, during the early months of 1916, there were increasing food and fuel shortages and increasingly high prices. Thus the Progressive Bloc was formed. Despite successes in the Brusilov offensive, the Russian war effort was still characterised by shortages, poor command, death and desertion. Away from the front, the conflict caused starvation, inflation and a torrent of refugees. Both soldiers and civilians blamed the incompetence of the Tsar and his government. This lead, later in the year, to increasing strikes which are supported by the military who declare they won’t protect the Tsar from a revolution – which would be successful in October 1917 after many further events and internal conflicts.

A recital of the poem in Russian:

The original Russian text in Cyrillic:

Чертя за кругом плавный круг,
Над сонным лугом коршун кружит
И смотрит на пустынный луг. —
В избушке мать над сыном тужит:
«На́ хлеба, на́, на́ грудь, соси,
Расти, покорствуй, крест неси».

Идут века, шумит война,
Встаёт мятеж, горят деревни,
А ты всё та ж, моя страна,
В красе заплаканной и древней. —
Доколе матери тужить?
Доколе коршуну кружить?

The Letter by R. S. Thomas

And to be able to put at the end

Of the letter Anthens, Florence – some name

That the spirit recalls from earlier journeys

Through the dark wood, seeking the path

To the bright mansions; cities and towns

Where the soul added depth to its stature.

 

And not to worry about the date,

The words being timeless, concerned with truth,

Beauty, love, misery even,

Which has its seasons in the long growth

From seed to flesh, flesh to spirit.

 

And laying aside the pen, dipped

Not in tear’s volatile liquid

But in black ink of the heart’s well,

To read again what the hand has written

To the many voices’ quiet diction.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Poetry for Supper (1958)