R.S. Thomas’s Existential Agony

From Poetry Wales
R.S. Thomas's Existential Agony

                 He looked over

the world’s edge and nausea

engulfed him.

      (The Echoes Return Slow, p. 49)

We have all, perhaps, heard enough about Prytherch, but what about Evans?

Evans? Yes, many a time

I came down his bare flight

Of stairs into the gaunt kitchen

With its wood fire, where crickets sang

Accompaniment to the black kettle’s

Whine, and so into the cold

Dark to smother in the thick tide

Of night that drifted about the walls

Of his stark farm on the hill ridge.

It was not the dark filling my eyes

And mouth appalled me; not even the drip

Of rain like blood from the one tree

Weather-tortured. It was the dark

Silting the veins of that sick man

I left stranded upon the vast

And lonely shore of his bleak bed.


The movement is down the purgatorial steps into the dark where the living man drowns and has added to his pains the responsibility for the man he has left behind him in bed. This image of Evans dying in his Welsh hill-top farm is an archetypal statement of the modem malaise and R.S. Thomas’s finest contribution to the literature of existentialism. Nothing alleviates Evans’s expiry, neither the visit of the man (who might be his priest) nor the echo of the Christian crucifixion in the weather-tortured tree; it remains only “Weather-tortured”, incapable of yielding a meaning from the sacrifice. As so often in Thomas’s poetry, the metaphors point not outward to some transforming purpose but inward towards the physical universe: the night reminds him of the tide, the rain of blood, the veins of rivers, a bed of a shore perhaps the same shore that Sophocles heard long ago in the Aegean:

     the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery;…

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full,…

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar

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