The Belfry by R. S. Thomas

I have seen it standing up grey,

Gaunt, as though no sunlight

Could ever thaw out the music

Of its great bell; terrible

In its own way, for religion

Is like that. There are times

When a black frost is upon

One’s whole being, and the heart

In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

 

But who is to know? Always,

Even in winter in the cold

Of a stone church, on his knees

Someone is praying, whose prayers fall

Steadily through the hard spell

Of weather that is between God

And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain

That brings the sun and afterwards flowers

On the raw graves and throbbing of bells.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Pietà (1966)

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The Island by R. S. Thomas

And God said, I will build a church here

And cause this people to worship me,

And afflict them with poverty and sickness

In return for centuries of hard work

And patience. And its walls shall be hard as

Their hearts, and its windows let in the light

Grudgingly, as their minds do, and the priest’s words be drowned

By the wind’s caterwauling. All this I will do,

 

Said God, and watch the bitterness in their eyes

Grow, and their lips suppurate with

Their prayers. And their women shall bring forth

On my altars, and I will choose the best

Of them to be thrown back into the sea.

 

And that was only on one island.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from H’m (1972)

Land of my Mothers by Idris Davies

Land of my mothers, how shall my brothers praise you?

With timbrels or rattles or tins?

With fire.

How shall we praise you on the banks of the rhymneying waters,

On the smokey shores and the glittering shores of Glamorgan,

On wet mornings in the bare fields behind the Newport docks,

On fine evenings when lovers walk by Bedwellty Church,

When the cuckoo calles to miners coming home to Rhymney Bridge,

When the wild rose defies the Industrial Revolution

And when the dear old drunken lady sings of Jesus and a little shilling.

 

Come down, O girls of song, to the bank of the coal canal

At twilight, at twilight

When mongrels fight

And long rats bite

Under the shadows of pit-head light,

And dance, you daughters of Gwenllian,

Dance in the dust in the lust of delight.

And you who have prayed in the golden pastures

And oiled the wheels of the Western Tradition

And trod where bards have danced to church,

Pay a penny for this fragment of a burning torch.

It will never go out.

 

It will gather unto itself all the fires

That blaze between the heavens above and the earth beneath

Until the flame shall frighten each mud-hearted hypocrite

And scatter the beetles fattened on the cream of corruption,

The beetles that riddle the ramparts of Man.

 

Pay a penny for my singing torch,

O my sisters, my brothers of the land of my mothers,

The land of our fathers, our troubles, our dreams,

The land of Llewellyn and Shoni bach Shinkin,

The land of the sermons that peddle the streams,

The land of the englyn and Crawshay’s old engine,

The land that is sometimes as proud as she seems.

And the sons of the mountains and sons of the valleys

O lift up your hearts, and then

lift up your feet.

 

by Idris Davies

Shape Ships To Seek by Vladislav Khodasevich

Shape ships to seek some shining shore,

or, if you choose, chirp chants in churches.

But seize your chance – shout one shy cheer,

and shoot up starwards, sharp and sheer…

I shift the chairs – a cheerless chore…

What tosh you chunter in these searches

for shoes and spectacles, to be sure!

 

by Владислав Фелицианович Ходасевич (Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich)

(1922)

translated by Michael Frayn

Wolves by A. K. Tolstoy

When the streets empty out

and the singing dies down

and a white fog covers

the swamps and the town,

from the forests in silence

one after another

the wolves come out and go hunting.

 

Seven wolves walk on bravely;

in front of them walks

an eighth with white fur;

while bringing up the rear

is a ninth, who is lame:

with a heel that is bloody

he completes their mysterious procession.

 

Nothing frightens or scares them.

If they walk through the town

not a dog will bark at them,

while a man will not dare

even to breathe if he sees them.

He becomes pale with fear

and quietly  utters a prayer.

 

The wolves circle the church

carefully all around;

into the parson’s yard they enter,

with tails sweeping the ground;

near the tavern they listen

pricking their ears

for any words being said that are sinful.

 

All their eyes are like candles,

sharp as needles their teeth.

Go and take thirteen bullets,

with goat’s fur plug them in,

and then fire at them bravely.

The white wolf will fall first;

after him, the rest will fall also.

 

When dawn comes and the townsmen

are awoken by the cock,

you will find nine old women

lying dead on the ground.

In front, a grey-haired one,

in back, a lame one,

all in blood… may the Lord be with us!

 

by Алексей Константинович Толстой (Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy)

(1840s)

translated by Ilya Bernstein

After Plodding Year After Year by Georgy Ivanov

After plodding year after year

through towns in an alien land,

we have ground enough to despair –

and despair is where we must end.

 

For despair is our final refuge –

as if, midwinter, we had come

from Vespers in a nearby church,

through Russian snow, to our home.

 

by Георгий Владимирович Иванов (Georgii Vladimirovich Ivanov)

(1958)

by Robert Chandler

In A Country Church by R. S. Thomas

To one kneeling down no word came,

Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips

Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;

Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,

Bats not angels, in the high roof.

 

Was he balked by the silence? He kneeled long,

And saw love in a dark crown

Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree

Golden with fruit of a man’s body.

 

by R. S. Thomas

From Song At The Year’s Turning (1955)