Wednesday 21 November 2012

RST Enjoys a Mitcham Cabbage

More than once I have written about the magical experience of finding myself among goldcrests - notably here. So I was especially delighted to find, towards the end of Byron Rogers' life of R.S. Thomas (I've just finished it - what a book!), that the poet too had this experience, and wrote of it (in a 1984 anthology, Britain: A World By Itself) far better than I ever could. On an October day, Thomas had come upon an isolated clump of bare trees, walking towards it so quietly that his approach had gone unnoticed. Stepping inside, he had, it seems, 'the one mystical experience of his life'...

'It was alive with goldcrests,' he writes. 'The air purred with their small wings. To look up was to see the twigs re-leafed with their small bodies. Everywhere their needle-sharp cries stitched at the silence. Was I invisible? Their seed-bright eyes regarded me from three feet off. Had I put forth an arm, they might have perched on it. I became a tree, part of that bare spinney where silently the light was splintered, and for a timeless moment the birds thronged me, filigreeing me with shadow, moving to an immemorial rhythm on their way south.
  Then suddenly they were gone, leaving other realities to return: the rustle of the making tide, the tick of the moisture, the blinking of the pool's eye as the air flicked it, and lastly myself. Where had I been? Who was I? What did it all mean? When it was happening, I was not. Now that the birds had gone, here I was once again...'

That is poet's prose, and when Thomas sticks to description it is quite wonderfully evocative - the purring air, the twigs re-leafed, those needle-sharp cries (and beaks), the seed-bright eyes, the tick of the moisture - but the more he takes off into speculation about the meaning of the experience (citing Coleridge on 'the primary Imagination' and 'the infinite I AM'), the less convincing he becomes. Never mind - he had his taste of eternity in that clump of trees, and no one has ever written more vividly about that heart-lifting experience of being among goldcrests.


  1. A Thicket in Lleyn by RS Thomas

    I was no tree walking.
    I was still. They ignored me,
    the birds, the migrants
    on their way south. They re-leafed
    the trees, budding them
    with their notes. They filtered through
    the boughs like sunlight,
    looked at me from three feet
    off, their eyes blackberry bright.,
    not seeing me, not detaching me
    from the withies, where I was
    caged and they free.
    They would have perched
    on me, had I nourishment
    in my fissures. As it was
    they netted me in their shadows,
    brushed me with sound, feathering the arrows
    of their own bows, and were gone,
    leaving me to reflect on the answer
    to a question I had not asked.
    'A repetition in time of the eternal
    I AM.' Say it. Don't be shy.
    Escape from your mortal cage
    in thought. Your migrations will never
    be over. Between two truths
    there is only the mind to fly with.
    Navigate by such stars as are not
    leaves falling from life's
    deciduous tree, but spray from the fountain
    of the imagination, endlessly
    replenishing itself out of its own waters.

  2. Thanks Dave. Yes, this incident meant so much to RST that he wrote about it in poetry and - more unusually for him with this kind of encounter - prose. It seems to have been, in a sense, his one religious experience - not a great record for a clergyman (or is it?)...

  3. It's one of the most enjoyable bios I've ever read (better than the Wintle one). At The Bright Hem of God by Peter J Conradi has good passages on Thomas and provides some interesting context to his poetry - RS spent a number of years in Radnorshire (the subtitle of the book is Radnorshire Pastoral).