'A single dead prawn': A reading and reflection on the poem 'At the End' by R.S.Thomas

At the End by R.S.Thomas

Few possessions: a chair,

a table, a bed

to say my prayers by,

and, gathered from the shore,

the bone-like, crossed sticks

proving that nature

acknowledges the Crucifixion.

All night I am at

a window not too small

to be frame to the stars

that are no further off

than the city lights

I have rejected. By day

the passers-by, who are not

pilgrims, stare through the rain’s

bars, seeing me as prisoner

of the one view, I who

have been made free

by the tide’s pendulum truth

that the heart that is low now

will be at the full tomorrow.

from: No Truce with the Furies

Bloodaxe Books, 1995

In his biography, The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of R.S.Thomas, Byron Rogers describes how he chivvied Gwydion, R.S.Thomas’ son, for his father’s ‘papers.’ Apparently R.S.Thomas wrote with a waste paper basket beside him and the survival of some poems has been due to Gwydion’s mother who ‘retrieved and ironed them.’ Apart from his puzzling autobiographical work, Neb or No-one, R.S.Thomas left no diary nor private journal. But one day Byron Rogers came to be entrusted with four ‘bulging supermarket bags’ of his possessions. Perhaps he had hoped for new bardic words from the poet but instead, as he lists in a rather lengthy paragraph, the bags contained such items as: the skull of a hare, a cheese box containing a puffin’s beak, advice on the control of moth damage… a list of mills in Merionethshire…..Rogers concludes the inventory with: ‘Envelope containing a single dead prawn.’

At the End appears in R.S.Thomas’ last collection in 1995, No Truce with the Furies. There is here, a paring back to the essentials and recognition that the things we need matter less than how we construct them to frame our vision of the world. The poem centres upon a person’s aloneness; their ‘one view’ is formulated by the Crucifixion, a small window to the stars, a ‘pendulum truth.’ Passers-by see but do not see, for their lives are constructed differently. With its reversals of logic and adept laneways of discursive waywardness, the poem is best apprehended intuitively.

Although it’s written as one single 21 line verse, At the End is divided into three distinct parts; each one sentence long. The first lists the few possessions of the poet, including a bed that seems to mean more to pray by than sleep in, and some crossed sticks, offered from the ocean as nature’s acknowledgement of the Crucifixion. The second sentence describes the poet in vigil at night, much like the cross sticks now is his small framed view of the stars which are as close to him as the city lights which he has turned his back on. And the third, set during the daytime: the poet positioned apart from others, seeing life very differently. Passersby view him as a person in prison, but are blind to ‘the tide’s pendulum truth.’ Time for the poet, may swing linear by the clock, but its nature is more real when understood to be cyclic. Indeed, in reality, ‘at the end’ the ‘heart that is low now / will be at the full tomorrow.’

The tone of this poem isn’t angry or bitter about human suffering or estrangement from others. ‘At the end’ our human life needs right understanding about human aloneness, and we need reconciliation with suffering which is shared in God. Experiencing relationship with God transforms us from being simply passersby along the road to pilgrims seeking meaning, entrusted with a deep heart. Those supermarket bags of R.S.Thomas possessions given to Byron Rogers, are redolent with new interpretation when understood in the light of the poet’s relationship with his God. Everything matters to God. At one with himself in prayer, he is set ‘free’ by the very act of prayer itself. The cost of this freedom is patience in vigil, preparedness to sit and know dark periods of the heart’s waning, the ebb tide. To turn aside from city-lights, to claim another identity other than simply being a passer-by, means to stay faithful to this 'one view’ which, in time’s revelation will embrace all views. ’At the end’ there is no end, only human reconciliation in relationship with God Eternal.

by Carol O’Connor