Poem Of The Week - A Peasant - R.S. Thomas
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,
Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,
Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.
Docking mangels, chipping the green skin
From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin
Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth
To a stiff sea of clods that glint in the wind-
So are his days spent, his spittled mirth
Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks
Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week.
And then at night see him fixed in his chair
Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.
There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.
His clothes, sour with years of sweat
And animal contact, shock the refined,
But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.
Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season
Against siege of rain and the wind’s attrition,
Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
Not to be stormed even in death’s confusion.
Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,
Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.
When John Milton wrote his now famous poetic coda, 'They also serve who only stand and wait', he is commonly held to have been referring to his, by this point, near total blindness. The spark of creative genius, however, would not flee along with his sight: alone, in darkness, Milton would continue to fulfil an existential impulse to contribute, and in so doing, to serve his god. Amongst other interpretations, the poem is a declaration of identity and parity, of self-worth in an unforgiving world.
R S Thomas' own life was a kind of endurance course, a testament to the virtue of stoicism. To some extent misplaced in the guise of Anglican vicar, the peripatetic poet ministered to a disparate rural flock throughout the old county of Montgomeryshire, and later, the Lleyn Peninsula in north west Wales.
Sometimes at odds with his vocation - he had occasional periods of doubt - his 'calling' held the rickety bridge of good intentions together.
The vicar was a taciturn figure not naturally given to humour or even fellow feeling, and the received impression of some of his parishioners must have been one of having been cheated by god in some way.
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The warmth he perhaps could not muster for Iago Prytherch in life, is played out in Thomas' poem 'A Peasant', whose title in one breath detaches object from subject, and makes an irony of the stoical admiration poet/vicar clearly feels for the simple, mind-vacant farmer. Iago resembles Wordsworth's 'Michael', as virtuously wedded to his landscape as almost to be a part of it.
And Thomas finds immense value in this unbreakable connection: the 'half-witted grin' that might convey idiocy were it not a token of the 'stark naturalness' which is a simple embodiment of the farmer, instead conveys little more than the 'smile' of a dog, as instinctive and inconsequential a gesture as the docking of mangels.
The poem is self-explanatory: a simple paean to an uncelebrated life as led against a backdrop of agrarian markers which are understood intuitively by the protagonist. They are details of a life, as certain and tangible as the seasons, and as predictably dour as the leaden sky through which the sun rarely breaks. Thomas' perfect metaphor melds sun with man anthropomorphically:
'his spittled mirth
Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks
Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week'.
The poet's sense of place and purpose may dictate the metrical heft of the verse, whose rhyme scheme and consonantal vigour suggest both endurance, and, by strength of will in a dark place, human continuity. Iago Prytherch will return to that which made him, and for that reason he is as deathless as stone.
Poem Of The Week - A Peasant - R.S. Thomas, 3rd January 2018, 15:30 PM