The Other 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 first poem being ‘'The Other.

Artwork: Portion of Iso-Mandala 324 by Philip Harvey




The Other

There are nights that are so still

that I can hear the small owl calling

far off and a fox barking

miles away. It is then that I lie

in the lean hours awake listening

to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic

rising and falling, rising and falling

wave on wave on the long shore

by the village that is without light

and companionless. And the thought comes

of that other being who is awake, too,

letting our prayers break on him,

not like this for a few hours,

but for days, years, for eternity.


from Destinations, 1985


In the late 1990s, 20 years after R.S.Thomas left Aberdaron, Evelyn Davies came as vicar there. Apart from mentioning: ‘I think RS would turn in his grave if he knew a woman priest was here,’ she also says of her time there: ‘…..You('d) hear such stories. Someone would have come for miles to knock on his door. This would open a crack. “What do you want?” “I should like to talk to you about your poetry. There’s something I don’t understand.” “Well, if you don’t understand it, there’s very little I can add.” Bang. But I think he used to blame that on the wind.’ (Rogers 233)

R.S.Thomas mostly resisted ever giving an interpretation of his poetry. Insisting that the words can only ever say what they mean by their actual saying it. No matter where we take these poems, R.S.Thomas is right in that we can only ever go back to the words in the poem. This poem is written out on a large slate slab in the church at Aberdaron commemorating his memory there. It was originally published in 1985 and probably would have been written later during his retirement at Sarn. There at night, in the white stone cottage high above the ocean, such ponderings seem a good setting. The tone in this poem is a gentle one and the theme touches on a recognition of a kind of existential consciousness of self in relation to other, that particularly runs through the latter poems. The poem reads simply, smoothly. But like so many of his poems, this belies its ambiguity and complexity. The language and imagery are pared back. As the hours are described as being lean so too is there something without embroidery or productive in the experience of lying awake alone in the night. Lean has a double meaning in English. Spare, skin and bones. But also slope, bend, recline into. These hours seem to lean into the swell born from some deeper ocean of experience.

The single syllables of the first two lines are uttered as if night time quiet tentative footsteps: There are nights that are so still that I can hear the small owl. After this come a series of present participles: calling barking, listening….These words ending with -ing give the sensation of rocking. The rhythm begins to sync with the gentle motion rising and falling of the ocean waves. The reader is softly swayed, coaxed and attuned into the rhythm of the poet’s line of thought. The voice is self-consciously solitary: the poet is alone with his thoughts at night, perhaps lying awake in bed. It’s a period those of us prone to nocturnal meditations can identify with. The imagery is natural: the fox, the owl. Night creatures, accustomed to this period of time, are awake with him. To be solitary in this way feels natural in the poem. Yet bereft. And it is not only confined to the sense of being a single individual. The village itself with its own lights turned off is companionless. But alone and apart from what? Many of R.S.Thomas' poems directly ask spiritual questions: ‘What are a god’s dreams?’ he asks in Incarnations or ‘What are the emotions / of God’ in Silence. If not directly, they rest upon or are in tussle with some existential interrogation. There is an absence of celebratory poems for occasions such as birthdays or Christmas. Even when featured, the mood in poems such as Blind Noel is not celebratory in observing: Love knocks with such frosted fingers. His poems are never directly addressed to Christ, or to God, they are often internal soliloquies on absence or presence. The question this poem The Other seems premised on has something to do with how far apart can we bear to be or feel from another soul or from God? How far out is too far out? How dark does a village have to be before it is too dark? There are two spiritually pivotal moments in the poem: “listening / to the swell born in lines 5-6 and “the thought comes / of that other being” in lines 10-11. They are both broken across two lines and I think of them as spiritual because they are moments when the poet connects with something bigger than himself. The swell of the ocean expands the movement of his own reflections. Through this sea the listening poet is being rocked and linked slowly into some greater recognition about the nature of existence. His listening stretches beyond the St Georges Channel of Wales and the Celtic sea, right out much further into the large expanse of Atlantic Ocean.

Once more it takes only 3 single syllable words: 'the thought comes' which seems to move into the verse with the quiet stealth of a night owl or fox, to create a powerful effect. This thought is a fastening and enough to spark connection. It's as if by the very act of thinking of another person, known or unknown, is itself enough in prayer to bring us together. And it’s the imagery of the sea that allows this joining of one spirit to another to happen. The last 5 lines all run in together. Once the swell of the ocean has opened his imagining of another, his own pondering further expands in person and place. The first person ‘I’ becomes third person ‘our’ and time and these few hours becomes eternity. This is the life of prayer. This is what links us all not just in empathy, or place and one time, but in all time itself. It is never too far out to be apart from God. It is never too dark for a village to be companionless. In the life of prayer broken relationships are linked into an unending unity with others, known or unknown. The poem becomes our prayer, as our perceptions, alongside the poet, are expanded out in time, place and personhood: from the particular to the all. In all this is a deep abiding: rest and peace, solitary yet connected with one another and in swelling presence of God.

Sources


Byron Rogers. The man who went into the west : the life of R.S. Thomas. Aurum, 2006 R. S. Thomas. Collected poems 1945-1990. Phoenix Giants, 1993