Questions to the Prophet by R. S. Thomas

How will the lion remain a lion

if it eat straw like the ox?

 

Where will the little child lead them

who has not been there before?

 

With our right hand off, with what

shall we beg forgiveness in the kingdom?

 

How shall the hare know it has not won,

dying before the tortoise arrive?

 

Did Christ crying ‘Neither do I condemn thee’,

condemn the prostitute to be good for nothing?

 

If he who increases riches increases sorrow

why are his tears more like pearls than the swine’s tusks?

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Mass for Hard Times (1992)

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Souillac: Le Sacrifice d’Abraham by R. S. Thomas

And he grasps him by the hair

With innocent savagery.

And the son’s face is calm;

There is trust there.

 

And the beast looks on.

 

This is what art could do,

Interpreting faith

With serene chisel.

The resistant stone

Is quiet as our breath,

And is accepted.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from The Bread of Truth (1963)


Fun fact: Souillac is a small market town, and is the hub for the area. This is an agricultural region which is known for its walnuts, strawberries and quiet, rural way of life. Thomas visited the abbey church of Sainte-Marie in this town and that is the subject of this poem. The domed roofs are similar to but rather smaller than those of Périgueux Cathedral. Fragments of the original Romanesque sculptures are grouped just inside the west door.

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)

‘I like the Lutheran service, calm and grave…’ by Fyodor Tyutchev

I like the Lutheran service, calm and grave,

I like its ritual, solemn and severe;

the message of these bare and empty walls

I bow to, I revere.

 

But don’t you see? Why surely you must know

that for the last time Faith is with us there.

She has not crossed the threshold yet to go,

but all is swept and bare.

 

She has not crossed the threshold on her way,

she has not gone for good, and closed the door.

But yet the hour has struck. Kneel down and pray,

for you will pray no more.

 

by Фёдор Иванович Тютчев (Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev)

(1834)

translated by Frances Cornford and Esther Polianowsky Salaman


Fun fact: Counted amongst the admirers of Tyutchev’s works were Dostoevsky and Tolstoy along with Nekrasov and Fet. Then later Osip Mandelstam who, in a passage approved of by Shalamov, believed that a Russian poet should not have copy of Tyutchev in his personal library – he should know all of Tyutchev off by heart.

Gift by R. S. Thomas

Some ask the world

and are diminished

in the receiving

of it. You gave me

 

only this small pool

that the more I drink

from, the more overflows

me with sourceless light.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Experimenting with an Amen (1986)

Funeral by R. S. Thomas

They stand about conversing

In dark clumps, less beautiful than trees.

What have they come here to mourn?

There was a death, yes; but death’s brother,

Sin, is of more importance.

Shabbily the teeth gleam,

Sharpening themselves on reputations

That were firm once. On the cheap coffin

The earth falls more cleanly than tears.

What are these red faces for?

This incidence of pious catarrh

At the grave’s edge? He has returned

Where he belongs; this is acknowledged

By all but the lonely few

Making amends for the heart’s coldness

He had from them, grudging a little

The simple splendour of the wreath

Of words the church lays on him.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from The Bread of Truth (1963)

Jerusalem by R. S. Thomas

A city – its name

keeps it intact. Don’t

touch it. Let the muezzin’s

cry, the blood call

 

of the Christian, the wind

from sources desiccated

as the spirit drift over

its scorched walls. Time

 

devourer of its children

chokes here on the fact

it is in high places love

condescends to be put to death.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Experimenting with an Amen (1986)