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.

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‘How bare the countryside! What dearth’ by Fyodor Tyutchev

How bare the countryside! What dearth

How stark the  hamlets’ desolation…

Long-suffering country of my birth,

poor homeland of the Russian nation.

 

Never will the stranger’s gaze

look deeper to perceive or guess

what hidden light there is that plays

and shimmers through your nakedness.

 

In servant’s guise the King of Heaven,

beneath the cross in anguish bent,

has walked the length and breadth of Russia,

blessing her people as he went.

 

by Фёдор Иванович Тютчев (Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev)

(1855)

translated by Avril Pyman


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.

‘Farewell Forever, Unwashed Russia!’ by Mikhail Lermontov

Farewell forever, unwashed Russia!

O land of slaves, of masters cruel!

And you, blue-uniformed oppressors!

And you, meek nation whom they rule!

 

Beyond the Caucasus’ high ridges,

I may be safe from your viziers –

far from those eyes – unseen, all-seeing –

and far from their all-hearing ears.

 

by Михаил Юрьевич Лермонтов (Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov)

(1841)

translated by Guy Daniels, revised by Robert Chandler


Fun fact: This poem wasn’t published until 1887 – over 40 years after Lermontov’s death (caused by being shot through the heart during a duel on 27 July 1841) during his second exile. It is possible he wrote this upon being told of his exile when he was ordered to leave St Petersburg within 48 hours. The ‘blue uniformed oppressors’ in the poem were the tsarist police of the time who wore distinctly coloured uniforms and would have played their part in ensuring he followed the exile order.

Pity The Nation by Kahlil Gibran

My friends and my road-fellows, pity the nation

that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.

“Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave…

eats bread it does not harvest…

and drinks a wine that flows not from its own winepress.

 

“Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as a hero,

and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

 

“Pity the nation that raises not its voice save when it

walks in a funeral, boasts not except among its ruins,

and will rebel not save when its neck is laid between

the sword and the block.

 

“Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox, whose

philosopher is a juggler, and whose art is the art of

patching and mimicking.

 

“Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with

trumpetings, and farewells him with hooting, only to

welcome another with trumpeting again.

 

“Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment

deeming itself a nation.”

 

by Kahlil Gibran

(1883-1931), Lebanon