'Was I waiting for something?': A reading and reflection on the poem 'Sea-watching' by R.S.Thomas

Sea-watching by R.S.Thomas

Grey waters, vast

as an area of prayer

that one enters. Daily,

over a period of years

I have let the eye rest on them.

Was I waiting for something?


but that continuous waving

that is without meaning


Ah, but a rare bird is

rare. It is when one is not looking,

at times one is not there

that it comes.

You must wear your eyes out,

as others their knees.

I became the hermit

of the rocks habited with the wind

and the mist. There were days,

so beautiful the emptiness

it might have filled,

its absence

was as its presence; not to be told

any more, so single my mind

after its long fast,

my watching from praying.

The poetry of 20th Century Anglo-Welsh Anglican priest and writer, R.S. Thomas, has been a travelling companion for me for some months during this year. A man, full of contradictions, enigmatic with a biting sarcasm; there’s certainly no drawing close to a warm and cuddly persona. Always concerned with the singularity of a person’s existence, his later poetry takes this further into the realm of the self’s individual relationship with God. Often this relationship he sets within a church environment or natural surrounding. His language can be prickly and sparse. Angular, but honest. His sharp clarity of perception can deliberately falter before a mature realisation that any life worth living with meaning in God, is going to involve new possibility as well surrendering before paradox and conundrum.

In the 1950s during his second incumbency at Eglwys Fach along the west coastline of Wales, bird watching became a method of contemplation for R.S. Thomas. He would leave his family and parish for weeks at a time to watch them in remote islands and areas. Taken by their ancient beauty and independence he began to understand a similarity between bird watching and praying. He wrote: ‘It is exactly the same with the relationship between man and God that is known as prayer. Great patience is called for because no-one knows when God will choose to reveal himself.’ (from No-one: see endnote)

The poem Sea-watching was written in the 1970s when R.S. Thomas lived at Aberdaron. Here, at the furthest western most tip of Wales he felt that he had reached the end of his personal pilgrimage. Ministering amongst Welsh speaking people he felt better able to focus on meaning and a person’s relationship with God. He had learned not only to ‘rest the eye’ on ‘grey waters’, but to ‘wear’ them out, as do ‘others their knees.’

One question only is asked in this poem: ‘Was I waiting for for something?’ By this, we are not just as reader invited into the poem, but asked to identify with the poet.

As if response to this question the poem goes on to broaden this theme of ‘waiting’. But it also implies more questions for us as reader: What is it in our life that brings us meaning? Have we ever waited longing for a glimpse of ‘that rare bird’? What is it to wear our eyes out in prayer? How do we move and have our being in our relationship with God?

The ‘continuous waving / that is without meaning’ is not just the constant movement of the ocean’s waves, but also our own body’s motion through time and place. There are periods, long stretches, when living appears to have no apparent reason. It’s simply a monotony of time passing. But, the poet encourages us, if we we do not stay vigilant in remaining present and aware living in each moment, then we may miss that glimpse of the ‘rare bird’: the one most unexpected moment that makes sense of all moments. Even then, this moment is most likely to come 'when one is not looking, / at times one is not there.’

Entering the landscape of an R.S. Thomas poem can be hard work. It’s not so much the general hills and valleys of his thought or the intuitive and natural imagery he uses that can challenge. But it’s in the minutiae and particular that our mind can get snagged. Like a track through hills which seems to be leading somewhere but then suddenly doubles back on itself, so can the language of R.S. Thomas’ flip over our thinking.

The words:

I became the hermit

of the rocks, habited with the wind

and the mist

ring out with stark life-force, an existential clarion song. They are immediately followed by the last sentence of this poem. Travelling over 8 broken lines, the broad gaps on the page invite the mind to be set free for a moment beyond thought and language itself:

There were days,

so beautiful the emptiness

it might have filled,

its absence

was as its presence; not to be told

any more, so single my mind

after its long fast,

my watching from praying.

The poet directs our thoughts toward imagining a moment so beautiful that it manages to bring presence and absence together into itself. Here, in this absent presence, the world itself becomes seen through. It’s a moment when paradox is paradoxically held and made sense of. All simply is. Distilled in restful ease the self can now be whom it was made to be. Solitary, at one with nature, with self, with God. The ‘long fast’, has been the time of turning the mind away from distraction and watching the ‘grey waters only.’ But the promise of this moment also teases us by its evasiveness. And we learn that the journey to it has spoken just as truly. There will always be the inevitable days of monotony and ‘continuous waving / without meaning.’ It’s into this very space, whether we are alert to it or not, that the ‘rare bird’ will come. The poem Sea-watching is as much about faith as it is about God’s grace of prayer at work in us.

by Carol O’Connor



Sea-watching by R.S.Thomas

from Laboratories of the Spirit, 1975 Collected Poems: 1945-1990

Phoenix Giants, 1993


No-one by R. S. Thomas

In Autobiographies: R.S.Thomas

A Phoenix Paperback, 1997

page 99