There by R.S. Thomas

They are those that life happens to.

They didn’t ask to be born

In those bleak farmsteads, but neither

Did they ask not. Life took the seed

And broadcast it upon the poor,

Rush-stricken soil, an experiment

In patience.

What is a man’s

Price? For promises of a break

In the clouds; for harvests that are not all

Wasted; for one animal born

Healthy, where seven have died,

He will kneel down and give thanks

In a chapel whose stones are wrenched

From the moorland.

I have watched them bent

For hours over their trade,

Speechless, and have held my tongue

From its question. It was not my part

To show them, like a meddler from the town,

their picture, nor the audiences

That look at them in pity or pride.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Pietà (1966)

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Reservoirs by R.S. Thomas

There are places in Wales I don’t go:

Reservoirs that are the subconscious

Of a people, troubled far down

With gravestones, chapels, villages even;

The serenity of their expression

Revolts me, it is a pose

For strangers, a watercolour’s appeal

To the mass, instead of the poem’s

Harsher conditions. There are the hills,

Too; gardens gone under the scum

Of the forests; and the smashed faces

Of the farms with the stone trickle

Of their tears down the hills’ side.

 

Where can I go, then, from the smell

Of decay, from the putrefying of a dead

Nation? I have walked the shore

For an hour and seen the English

Scavenging among the remains

Of our culture, covering the sand

Like the tide and, with the roughness

Of the tide, elbowing our language

Into the grave that we have dug for it.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Not That He Brought Flowers (1968)


Ronald Stuart Thomas (29 March 1913 – 25 September 2000), published as R. S. Thomas, was a Welsh poet and Anglican priest who was noted for his nationalism, spirituality and deep dislike of the anglicisation of Wales. M. Wynn Thomas said: “He was the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn of Wales because he was such a troubler of the Welsh conscience.”

R. S. Thomas believed in what he called “the true Wales of my imagination”, a Welsh-speaking aboriginal community that was in tune with the natural world. He viewed western (specifically English) materialism and greed, represented in the poetry by his mythical “Machine”, as the destroyers of community. He could tolerate neither the English who bought up Wales, and in his view stripped it of its wild and essential nature, nor the Welsh whom he saw as all too eager to kowtow to English money and influence.

As Capel Celyn was flooded in 1965 it’s almost certain one of the resevoirs referred to in this poem is this lost community. Capel Celyn was a rural community to the north west of Bala in Gwynedd, north Wales, in the Afon Tryweryn valley. The village and other parts of the valley were flooded to create a reservoir, Llyn Celyn, in order to supply Liverpool and Wirral with water for industry. The village contained, among other things, a chapel, as the name suggests, capel being Welsh for chapel, while celyn is Welsh for holly.

The Ballad of a Bounder by Idris Davies

He addressed great congregations

And rolled his tongue with grease,

And his belly always flourished,

In times of war or peace.

 

He would talk of distant comrades

And brothers o’er the sea,

And snarl above his liquor

about neighbours two or three.

 

He knew a lot about public money –

More than he liked to say –

And sometimes sat with the paupers

To increase his Extra pay.

 

He could quote from Martin Tupper

and Wilhelmina Stitch,

And creep from chapel to bargain

With the likeliest local bitch.

 

He could swindle and squeal and snivel

And cheat and chant and pray,

and retreat like a famous general

When Truth would bar his way.

 

But God grew sick and tired

Of such a godly soul,

And sent down Death to gather

His body to a hole.

 

But before he died, the Bounder

Said: ‘My children, be at peace;

I know I am going to heaven,

So rub my tongue with grease.’

 

by Idris Davies


Fun facts: Martin Tupper was an English writer, and poet, and the author of Proverbial Philosophy. Wilhelmina Stitch was one of the pen names of Ruth Collie, an English born poet who started her writing career in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

‘The air is split into black branches’ by Velimir Khlebnikov

The air is split into black branches,

like old glass.

Pray to Our Lady of Autumn!

The windows of autumn’s chapel,

smashed by a hurtling bullet,

are wrinkling.

A tree was burning,

a bright spill in the golden air.

It bends; it bows down.

Autumn’s flint and steel angrily

struck the sparks of golden days.

A forest at prayer. All at once

golden smells fell to the ground.

Trees stretch out – rakes

gathering armfuls of the sun’s hay.

Autumn’s tree resonantly evokes

a sketch of Russia’s railroads.

The golden autumn wind

has scattered me everywhere.

 

by Велимир Хлебников (Velimir Khlebnikov)

a.k.a. Виктор Владимирович Хлебников

(Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov)

(1921)

translated by Robert Chandler

Red Balloon by Dannie Abse

It sailed across the startled town,

over chapels, over chimney-pots,

wind-blown above a block of flats

before it floated down.

 

Oddly, it landed where I stood,

and finding’s keeping, as you know.

I breathed on it, I polished it,

till it shone like living blood.

 

It was my shame, it was my joy,

it brought me notoriety.

From all of Wales the rude boy came,

it ceased to be a toy.

 

I heard the girls of Cardiff sigh

When my balloon, my red balloon,

soared higher like a happiness

towards the dark blue sky.

 

Nine months since, have I boasted of

my unique, my only precious;

but to no one dare I show it now

however long they swear their love.

 

‘It’s a Jew’s balloon,’ my best friend cried,

‘stained with our dear Lord’s blood.’

‘That I’m a Jew is true,’ I said,

said I, ‘that cannot be denied.’

 

‘What relevance?’ I asked, surprised,

‘what’s religion to do with this?’

‘Your red balloon’s a Jew’s balloon,

let’s get it circumcised.’

 

Then some boys laughed and some boys cursed,

some unsheathed their dirty knives:

some lunged, some clawed at my balloon,

but still it would not burst.

 

They bled my nose, they cut my eye,

half conscious in the street I heard,

‘Give up, give up your red balloon.’

I don’t know exactly why.

 

Father, bolt the door, turn the key,

lest those sad, brash boys return

to insult my faith and steal

my red balloon from me.

 

by Dannie Abse

from Poems, Golders Green (1962)


Fun facts: Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.

The Chapel by R. S. Thomas

A little aside from the main road,

becalmed in a last-century greyness,

there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal

to the tourist to stop his car

and visit it. The traffic goes by,

and the river goes by, and quick shadows

of clouds, too, and the chapel settles

a little deeper into the grass.

 

But here once on an evening like this,

in the darkness that was about

his hearers, a preacher caught fire

and burned steadily before them

with a strange light, so that they saw

the spendour of the barren mountains

about them and sang their amens

fiercely, narrow but saved

in a way that men are not now.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)

The Lay Preacher Ponders by Idris Davies

‘Isn’t the violet a dear little flower? And the daisy, too.

What nice little thoughts arise from a daisy!

If I were a poet now – but no, not a poet,

For a poet is a wild and blasphemous man;

He talks about wine and women too much for me

And he makes mad songs about old pagans, look you.

Poets are dangerous men to have in chapel,

And it is bad enough in chapel as it is

with all the quarelling over the organ and the deacons;

The deacons are not too nice to saintly young men like me.

(Look at Jenkins John Jones, the old damn scoundrel!)

They know I can pray for hours and hours,

They know what a righteous young man I am,

They know how my Bible is always in my pocket

And Abraham and Jonah like brothers to me,

But they prefer the proper preacher with his collar turned around;

They say he is more cultured than I am,

And what is culture but palaver and swank?

I turn up my nose at culture.

I stand up for faith, and very simple faith,

And knowledge I hate because it is poison.

Think of this devilish thing they call science,

It is Satan’s new trick to poison men’s minds.

When I shall be local councillor and a famous man –

I  look forward to the day when I shall be mayor –

I will put my foot down on clever palaver,

And show what a righteous young man I am.

And they ought to know I am that already,

For I give all my spare cash to the chapel

And all my spare time to God.’

 

by Idris Davies