‘Top left an angel’ by R.S. Thomas

 Top left an angel
hovering. Top right the attendance
of a star. From both
bottom corners devils
look up, relishing
in prospect a divine
meal. How old at the centre
the child's face gazing
into love's too human
face, like one prepared
for it to have its way
and continue smiling?



By R. S. Thomas
from Counterpoint 2. Incarnation (1990)
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Боярыня Морозова (Boyarynya Morozova) [Excerpt] by Varlam Shalamov

Not love, but rabid fury, has led
God's servant to the truth. Her pride
is justified - first high-born lady
to seek a convict's fate.

Gripping her Old Believer's cross
tight as a whip between her hands,
she thunders out her final curses;
the sleigh slips out of sight.

So this is how God's saints are born...
Her hate more ardent than her love,
she runs dry fingers through her dry,
already frost-chilled hair.


by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)
(1950)
translated by Robert Chandler

The poem refers to Feodosia Prokopiyevna Morozova (Russian: Феодо́сия Проко́пьевна Моро́зова) (21 May 1632 – 1 December 1675) was one of the best-known partisans of the Old Believer movement. She was perceived as a martyr after she was arrested and died in prison.

She became a household name after being discussed by important Russian writers and depicted by Vasily Surikov. She was also taken as a heroine by some radical groups, who saw her as a symbol of resistance to state power. The People’s Will revolutionary movement promoted her, and her virtues were praised by writers of the Soviet era such as Anna Akhmatova, Varlam Shalamov and Fazil Iskander, who “symbolically enlisted her in their own causes of resistance”.

Below is the full Russian version in Cyrillic.

 Боярыня Морозова

Попрощаться с сонною Москвою
Женщина выходит на крыльцо.
Бердыши тюремного конвоя
Отражают хмурое лицо.

И широким знаменьем двуперстным
Осеняет шапки и платки.
Впереди – несчитанные версты,
И снега – светлы и глубоки.

Перед ней склоняются иконы,
Люди – перед силой прямоты
Неземной – земные бьют поклоны
И рисуют в воздухе кресты.

С той землей она не будет в мире,
Первая из русских героинь,
Знатная начетчица Псалтыри,
Сторож исторических руин.

Возвышаясь над толпой порабощенной,
Далеко и сказочно видна,
Непрощающей и непрощеной
Покидает торжище она.

Это – веку новому на диво
Показала крепость старина,
Чтобы верил даже юродивый
В то, за что умрет она.

Не любовь, а бешеная ярость
Водит к правде Божию рабу.
Ей гордиться – первой из боярынь
Встретить арестантскую судьбу.

Точно бич, раскольничье распятье
В разъяренных стиснуто руках,
И гремят последние проклятья
С удаляющегося возка.

Так вот и рождаются святые,
Ненавидя жарче, чем любя,
Ледяные волосы сухие
Пальцами сухими теребя.

Eschatology by R. S. Thomas

It was our last inter-glacial:
the flies, people,
the one as numerous
as the other. We talked
peace, and brought our arms up to date.
The young ones professed
love, embarassing themselves
with their language. As though
coming round on a new
gyre, we approached God
from the far side, an extinct concept.
no one returned from our space
probes, yet still there were
volunteers, believing that as
gravity slackened its hold
on the body, so would time
on the mind. Our scientists,
immaculately dressed not
conceived, preached to us
from their space-stations, calling us
to consider the clockwork birds
and fabricated lilies, how they
also, as they were conditioned to
do, were neither toiling nor spinning.


by R. S. Thomas
from Mass for Hard Times (1992)E

Christian eschatology is a major branch of study within Christian theology dealing with the “last things.” Eschatology, from two Greek words meaning “last” (ἔσχατος) and “study” (-λογία), is the study of ‘end things’, whether the end of an individual life, the end of the age, the end of the world and the nature of the Kingdom of God. Broadly speaking, Christian eschatology is the study concerned with the ultimate destiny of the individual soul and the entire created order, based primarily upon biblical texts within the Old and New Testament. The part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.

Thomas approaches this with a cynical mindset having lived through the threat of a nuclear winter during the Cold War, hippies during the Summer of Love and diminishing church attendance as people favour logic over faith. He bitterly reflects that science is no closer to answering the great questions of existence, posed by eschatology, than theology yet one is dismissed while the other embraced.

Throughout the poem he plays with Christian terminology and imagery to indicate the substitution of Christ with scientists, everlasting life after death with an effort to achieve immortality during this life instead and how to him it is, in comparison, an artificial form of true enlightenment and surpassing our mortal bonds.

Pre-Cambrian by R. S. Thomas

Here I think of the centuries,

six million of them, they say.

Yesterday a fine rain fell;

today the warmth has brought out the crowds.

After Christ, what? The molecules

are without redemption. My shadow

sunning itself on this stone

remembers the lava. Zeus looked down

on a brave world, but there was

no love there; the architecture

of their temples was less permanent

than these waves. Plato, Aristotle,

all those who furrow the calmness

of their foreheads are responsible

for the bomb. I am charmed here

by the serenity of the reflections

in the sea's mirror. It is a window

as well. What I need

now is a faith to enable me to out-stare

the grinning faces of the inmates of its asylum,

the failed experiments God put away.


by R. S. Thomas

from Frequencies (1978)

Hill Christmas by R. S. Thomas

They came over the snow to the bread's

pure snow, fumbled it in their huge

hands, put their lips to it

like beasts, stared into the dark chalice

where the wine shone, felt it sharp

on their tongue, shivered as at a sin

remembered, and heard love cry

momentarily in their hearts' manager.


They rose and went back to their poor

holdings, naked in the bleak light

of December. Their horizon contracted

to the one small, stone-riddled field

with its tree, where the weather was nailing

the appalled body that had not asked to be born.


by R. S. Thomas

from Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)

Blind Noel by R. S. Thomas

Christmas; the themes are exhausted.

Yet there is always room

on the heart for another

snowflake to reveal a pattern.


Love knocks with such frosted fingers.

I look out. In the shadow

of so vast a God I shiver, unable

to detect the child for the whiteness.


by R. S. Thomas

from No Truce with the Furies (1995)

Paramilitary Lover by Samantha Wynne Rhydderch

He strokes my neck like the barrel of a rifle

he might have killed that German with,

his boots by the door, susceptible to the cold.

I glow by the fire in tandem with

the rosewood dresser, impartial to flames,

me with a passion for granite, him

with his head shaved against the night,

shedding his armour plate by plate.

I sleep under his shield, enfolded

in an English flag I think will

become my shroud. While I thrill

among the lilies, placing a chestnut

on the grate like a move in chess,

I see the incentive of lace

defeat artillery hands down.


by Samantha Wynne Rhydderch

Interesting info: Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, sometimes referred to as S. W. Rhydderch, has published two collections, Rockclimbing in Silk (Seren, 2001), and Not in These Shoes (Picador, 2008), which was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2009.