The Bright Field by R.S.Thomas
A reading of the poem 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 fourth poem being ‘The Bright Field’.
This image is a pencil colour drawing by Philip Harvey.
The Bright Field
I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field for a while, and gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the pearl of great price, the one field that had treasure in it. I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
As far as I am aware we have no copies of any sermon which R.S.Thomas delivered. We know, from parishioners, that his sermons spoke to congregation members where they were at and met their needs. He himself maintained that the job of a priest was to represent the church in its teaching. However, in 1972 a film was made of R.S.Thomas by John Ormond. In it, R.S. Thomas created some controversy by statements such as - ‘Poetry is religion and religion is poetry…Christ was a poet….The New Testament is metaphor. Resurrection is metaphor….When one is discussing Christianity one is discussing poetry in its imaginative aspects…..The resurrection is a metaphorical use of language as in the Incarnation. My work as a poet has to deal with presentation of imaginative truth. Christianity ems to me is also the presentation of imaginative truth. So there is no necessary conflict between these two things at all. And as a priest I am committed to the ministry of Word and the ministry of the sacrament. Sacrament is language. The combination is perfectly simple.’ (See Morgan & Williams) The New Testament is metaphor. Resurrection is metaphor. When asked to comment on these words Rowan Williams, ever helpful, offers a pathway through for us: when we hear such statements people can tend to slip the word ‘just’ in there - the New Testament is just a metaphor. However, such a statement from R.S.Thomas is tougher than this. He is not saying that these are simply ways of talking about religion. But here he is making a serious claim. Poetry and metaphor are ways of knowing. And the word truth in the phrase ‘imaginative truth’ is not redundant. So the expression of religion for R.S.Thomas means the necessary employment of the imagination. Spirituality can never be captured or pinned down (to use a recurring metaphor this morning) in language. It is not literal but more than this: mystery, living, ever unfolding. Perhaps these words of R.S.Thomas are close to Jesus’ own use of parables, in which to teach and help open the spiritual mind of those he met. Perhaps too, metaphor became a way for R.S.Thomas to open his own mind into understanding the nature of our relationship with God. The Bright Field came out in the volume ‘Laboratories of the Spirit’ during RS Thomas’ last year at Aberdaron. The poem begins by referencing two parables from St Matthew’s Gospel chapter 13: 44-46: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” R.S.Thomas brings immediacy and particularity to the parables. Also, again his sense of time in this poem shifts. ’The kingdom of heaven’ has been found when the world lit up in a field. It was only for a moment and half-overlooked in that moment, even forgotten after. But at some point later it is remembered and with that the realisation that this is in fact, ‘the pearl of great price.’ The emotions of the poet swivel now from past indifference to a strong need to ‘give everything I have to possess it.’ What was overlooked is realised subsequently to be extraordinary and the poet would give his life for it. The illumination has been seen. It can be again. This is the kingdom of God. The poem plays in the reader’s mind on the paradox of linear time, chronos, the nature of its transitoriness, and kairos, eternal time. Memory can call you back to remember, even your youth, but it can never re-recreate what was. The kingdom is not about pining after a past that has now gone. Nor, is it fixating our mind on with future dreams and desires: Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. Looking forward or backwards is not seeing nor living in the kingdom of God. The voice in this poem again moves from a subjective experience, through a learning gained, then becoming opened out as object lesson to all: ’I have seen the sun…’ finally becomes ‘…the eternity that awaits you.’ There is something humanly instinctive in the nature of seeking this pearl, ‘the field that had treasure in it.’ Once glimpsed, it has the capacity to awaken in any person, whether they notice it or not, the seed of desire to seek eternity. But, another paradox, in order to possess it, something inside the human self must be let go of. In fact, everything must be given: ‘I must give all that I have to possess it.’ Possession of the pearl involves complete dispossession of self. For the poet, the realisation has come that life is found by truly making a home in the present. It’s found by making room for, providing space in the currents of time to open our eye to the light of what’s before us. To ‘turn aside’ like Moses, in this time present, and see the miracle of the burning bush vision that so filled the Old Testament character, Moses. The pearl is analogous to light. The sun illuminates the bright field as the blaze of the lit bush illuminated the mind of Moses. We can at first think this poem is about finding the pearl yet the real pearl, like light itself, can be felt and experienced but never fully owned. It is transitory, but also calls us on as we turn to gaze back. Here is the very Celtic understanding that God’s kingdom is not that area above and unreachable, but intensely close alongside us. It is the understanding that the eternal is already genetically encoded into the present time we are living in. As human beings we have an extraordinarily unique capacity to consciously reflect back over even experiences overlooked, or project our thinking into an imagined future. This poem has had me reflect on the last 12 months which due to Covid opened up a very difficult terrain to navigate for so many of us in the whole world. It has been a time for many, of longing to go back to what we had before and recognising the entry into a new normal. Those privileged with wifi and computer access could go via youtube and zoom, in one day say prayers with others in countries all over the world. I have found that the very best of those prayer times weren’t the ones where we longed for things to return and be fixed up, nor hankered to be in another country as if that would take us away from our own problems, but those which called us back to our present circumstances and place, and look alongside our own locked down selves and surroundings, to find the bush of Moses burning right beside us, no matter where. The Bright Field is a poem about a way of seeing the world. And it means the loveliness and joy cannot be held and caught, nor pinned down or preserved in a book. How we choose to act in the world after we have seen, is another story. But the first step is to see it. Mark Oakley understands this well when he says: ‘What we long for eludes us. If we ever think we possess God we will stop desiring Him…We know information can be got at the press of a key, but we know too truth is hard won, flinty and sharply digested in a lifetime’s search. God is always revising our understanding of God as well as who we are: his gift to us is being, our gift to him is becoming …. [R.S.Thomas] knew the inadequacies of words but uses them as it were, like setting a trap for clarity and for his God. He levels the ground of faith with honesty.’ (Oakley 9)
Barry Morgan & Rowan Williams. Laboratories of the Spirit : R.S. Thomas’ religious poetry. Public conversation conducted by the Learned Society of Wales Cymdeithas Ddysgedig Cymru. On Youtube here:
Mark Oakley. R.S. Thomas and the hiddenness of God. University of Gloucestershire, Park Campus, 2017
R. S. Thomas. Collected poems 1945-1990. Phoenix Giants, 1993