Raptor by R.S.Thomas

A Reading by Carol O'Connor


On Wednesday the 16th of June, Carol O’Connor led a Spiritual Reading Group session via Zoom on the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas. Four poems were discussed, the third poem being ‘Raptor’.

Artwork: Portion of Iso-Mandala 313 by Philip Harvey


Raptor by R.S.Thomas


You have made God small

setting him astride

a pipette or a retort

studying the bubbles

absorbed in an experiment

that will come to nothing.


I think of him rather

as an enormous owl

abroad in the shadows

brushing me sometimes

with his wing so the blood

in my veins freezes, able


to find his way from one

soul to another because

he can see in the dark.

I have heard him crooning

to himself, so that almost

I could believe in angels,


those feathered overtones

in love's rafters, I have heard

him scream, too, fastening

his talons in his great

adversary, or in some lesser

denizen, maybe, like you or me.


Rowan Williams has been quoted as saying that R.S.Thomas is a ‘great articulator of an uneasy faith.’ An increasing influence on the poet’s writing and thinking is the work of Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard. God may be glimpsed by a person occasionally in a country church, but is essentially baffling and unknowable. God is wholly other to our human categories of understanding. Raptor is a later poem, published in No Truce with the Furies in 1995. There’s something of this experience of the wholly otherness of God touched on here. This poem makes us feel uncomfortable. It asks us to include aspects of life that we would prefer not to in our conversation about God. The opening six lines form themselves as a ‘retort’ to the reader: to you - who treat God as something or someone we know and feel very familiar with. The reader assumes something about God that is not possible: an entity to break down scientifically, known in a laboratory, able to be tested and measured. The poet plays on the word ‘retort’: being a return argument, a retaliating defensive holding of a position; or, a ‘retort stand’ , equipment or glassware to support scientific equipment. Both meanings imply the reader assumes science experiments and quantifiable measurements will open up to us the nature of God. Articulate this even in measured stanzas. But if we remain true to this task in our absorption, the task becomes really one of ‘bubbles’, effervescent, evaporating, interesting to our attention but ultimately futile. God cannot be measured and is not quantifiable. This is a call to the reader to wake up from this illusion. The poet’s own ‘retort’ or refutation to ‘you’ becomes the premise of the poem. In the first stanza this, he says, is what ‘you’ think of God. But the next three stanzas will turn to what the poet thinks. Turning away from the laboratory he draws on nature as his chosen place to think on God. A place which is never quantifiable in bubbles nor readymade to order. He chooses a metaphor: considering God to be a large bird who can move in the half light, live in the shadows and operate stealthily in the dark. This ‘enormous owl’ has no inclination to lie astride instruments in a laboratory, but flies ‘abroad’ in the night. It is a living creature whose enormity defies the smallness of being grounded inside a pipette. It can’t be objectified, but neither one whose presence can be denied: sometimes it physically touches the poet with its wing. And then the poet’s ‘blood freezes.’ The brush of feathers may be ever so gentle, but the physical response is immediate and dramatic. The Owl has the capacity to visit ‘one soul to another’ amongst all of us. It is never still for long. Its presence can cause our very self to stop and feel aghast. Rather than retracting this sense of unease and discomfort the poet pushes the point further in stanza 3. This is a God whose very language is a weird inaccessible ‘crooning.’ It sings in a soft low voice to itself - its own strange tunes are unintelligible to humans; a God whose words are secret, keeping its own counsel. A capricious God too, who without warning, can turn violent, flinging itself down with a ‘scream’ to ‘fasten its talons’ into its opponent. Is this a mighty act on the part of the Owl against some great enemy? Are we the ‘denizen’ whereby our own spiritual territory unaccountably and suddenly invaded and violated? Are these talons for rescue or consumption? There is a fascination with violence and cruelty which runs through this poem and is projected onto God. If we can’t examine God under a microscope is this the sort of God we end up inviting in? If we can’t control God, are we then vulnerable to sudden predatory attack? If we can’t pin down God with our mind under a microscope then we risk being pinned down by God in our emotional response of terror? But R.S.Thomas is being honest in his perception that for him God can be complicit and involved in cruelty in the world. We live in a world where natural disasters, violence and suffering happen for no apparent reason. How do we begin to reconcile ourselves with this phenomenon? We each have to come to terms with violence in the world in our own way. So on one level we can read this poem as a wrestling with the notion of a God who chooses not only to be complicit in but an active agent of violence in nature and human disaster. There is good precedent for this wrestling state of soul in our Christian scriptures: the prophets, the psalmist, Jesus’ ‘haunting cry’ on the cross. There is permission in our Christian history of language about God to explore these darker instincts. But there’s more. The poet shows us that if we choose to engage with the process of understanding God as a metaphor rather than investigation under a microscope then we are changing the very premise in our discourse about the nature of God. Something else is understood to be at work here and we have to invite it in to our language. For a start we surrender control. No longer the scientist in control of the experiment, we enter a territory in which mystery and unknown pathways are acknowledged. We have to learn to see differently. And to speak what we see differently. The territory involves owning our emotions, imagination and intuition. There is quite a range being expressed: feelings of wonder and awe at an ‘enormous owl abroad in the shadows’, at ‘angels in love’s rafters.’ The poem is full of soft sibilant sounds which at times give the effect of tenderness. But there is also the terror, ‘the blood in the vein freezes,’ the owl’s scream in fastening his talons. Feelings and intuitions may not be at all comfortable nor welcome, but that doesn’t make them less credible. In fact, underlying the poem is the understanding that in reckoning with pain, suffering and violence we have to bring these responses into play. In doing this the reckoning now has its own language and expression. And we, as free agents not studying scientists, now are able to recognise and credit not only the sinister ‘croon’ but also legitimise the presence of angels and hear their overtones, for their voices in ‘love’s rafters’ though unknowable are still valid. What we are receiving in these three stanzas is not a cut and hang out to dry God, but something much bigger, deeper, richer. By employing our whole range of perceptions, thoughts and feelings about God we are loosened into a new understanding not only about the nature of God, but of ourselves. There are fears being expressed here that need to be brought out, seen for what they are. They too may have their own bubbles of illusion. This poem is expression a pathway towards forming a much richer, more mature relationship with God. In this sense, Raptor is a call to be free to wrestle with dark emotions, frightening thoughts and observation of evil. We can never know God fully. But if we open ourselves emotionally and imaginatively, we can grow into discovering a relationship with God which can, despite all, hold our terrors, inspire our wonder and help us see, as He does, into the dark.


Sources

R. S. Thomas. No truce with the furies. Bloodaxe Books, 1995