Discovering the Eternal in the Natural World


This article will examine the ideas of life, death, and nature in the poetry of Dylan Thomas and R.S. Thomas. These two poets have, despite being contemporaneous Welsh writers, very different poetic voices, but there are several points of similarity. One of those is the concept of "natural mysticism" - a term used explicitly by R.S. Thomas and explored implicitly by Dylan Thomas. It should be pointed out that "natural mysticism" has a different intended meaning to that of "plain" mysticism. Whereas mysticism does not value the sensory world and seeks a union with a transcendent reality, god, or absolute, ‘natural mysticism’ finds that union with a transcendent reality through an intense union with the natural world.


In R.S. Thomas' poem 'Circles', he writes:


"But a dream finds him and builds in him

And death comes and eats up the dreamer's

Brood. And still it is out of a man

Death is born: so before death

Man is, and after death

There is more man, and the dream outlasts

Death, and the dreamer will never die" (Thomas, p.245)


What is perpetuated, beyond the grasp of death, is both the dream and mankind the dreamer. Doubtless, many who read that poem will find the sentiment expressed – of a shared dream evading mortality – quite appealing. This dream, in which humanity jointly participates, can be thought of in several ways: as an artwork, as the aspiration of humanity to improve as a species, as the continuing identity of humankind, and so on. However, if one is allowed to be presumptuous, perhaps not every reader will have thought through the selflessness of that immortality. At least for the modern western mind, the continued existence of a dream has a romantic appeal but when it is appreciated that that continued existence will be unknown to ourselves (because that self will have been extinguished), the appeal is perhaps diminished.

Fig 1. Nature (Gardner, 2018)


Most minds are, in a literal sense, selfish; or, at least, self-centred. A mind not brought up to believe in something approximating to a Buddhist paradigm, involving a cycle of rebirth and a selflessness, may hold these things as an ideal but it is questionable how many can truly rejoice in a continuance in which they, as individual and conscious selves, will be unable to participate in after their own death.


Dylan Thomas writes in 'And death shall have no dominion':


"Dead men naked they shall be one

With the man in the wind and the west moon;

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

Though they go mad they shall be sane,

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Though lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion" (Thomas, p.73)


Though not the identical, there is this same idea of the immortality of both the man and of the abstractions he gives birth to: thoughts can outlive the man who can outlive death. Inevitably, the idea of love is even more emotive than the idea of a dream. To an extent, even the self-centred mind is brought up, partly through an artistic tradition but also a religious one, to believe in a love that is, or can be, greater than the persons experiencing it. However, arguably, at least in so far as profane love is concerned, the problem remains as to how selflessly one can celebrate this persistence. There may be admiration for this joyful idea but, one suspects, there will be regret that we ourselves shall not be there for all time to see it, let alone enjoy it.


There are two further considerations to be taken into account when thinking about this concept of 'eternity': one was mentioned above, namely the religious and the entropic. Since R.S. Thomas was an Anglican priest and Dylan Thomas said his poems were "written for the love of Man and in Praise of God" (Thomas, p.19) clearly the religious aspect cannot be discounted. However, many of R.S. Thomas' religious views, especially those outside his clerical duty, were far from conventional and the religious spirituality of Dylan Thomas is even harder to pin down, let alone categorize.

Fig 2. Dylan Thomas (Reiss)


One might say that a solution to the enervating and cheerless fact of entropic negation may only be found in religious faith. That, although, neither deity nor afterlife can reverse entropy, they do offer the faithful the means to survive it. Nonetheless, the ultimate fact of entropy is perhaps too pedantic a problem for this examination of poetry and an 'eternity' that lives as long as life itself should be sufficient for most. After all, we do not normally read poetry and question its relevance for several billion years hence should, as seems likely, earthly life not continue for so long.


During his life, in addition to his natural mysticism, R. S. Thomas's religious beliefs seem to have grown to be increasingly Kierkegaardian and therefore to have involved a great deal of subjective interpretation and necessary doubt, not to mention poetry, all aspects of Kierkegaard's religious views. At the same time, Dylan Thomas's spirituality, for want of a better term, seems to have conflated art, the natural world, and an unstructured religious feeling. These positions are not the same but neither are they entirely dissimilar.


Dylan Thomas writes in the poem 'The force that through the green fuse drives the flower':


"The force that drives the water through the rocks

Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams

Turns mine to wax

And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins

How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks." (Thomas, p.9)


Fig 3. Mountain Spring (Thalpha, 2009)


What is being described here seems to be a force that combines man and the natural world. Not only does there seems to be no separation between the two but the same animation that 'drives' nature impels mankind. Therefore, there is no such thing as an inanimate object in this world. The poem speaks of water, rock, vegetation, and the wind as elements that we are joined to and, more importantly, it reminds us that we are made of the same stuff. The only other living creature in the poem, aside from man and flora, is the worm; a reminder that in death we shall return to the stuff we are made of in a cycle initiated in birth.


Ironically for a poem, the poet repeats five times that he is 'dumb to tell'. Although there is a clear implication that an intellectual description of this involvement of man and nature would be inadequate, the main inarticulacy seems to be between man and nature. Although springing from the same fountain head, man cannot bring himself to the attention of nature: the tongue needed is missing. One may conjecture that it is consciousness, rationality, and even the desire for expression itself that creates this bifurcation between two parts of the same world.


A contrasting thought is given in R.S. Thomas's poem 'Suddenly' where:


"He addresses me from a myriad

directions with the fluency

of water, the articulateness

of green leaves: and in the genes,

too, the components of my existence"


and in which


"I listen to the things

round me: weeds, stones, instruments,

the machine itself, all

speaking to me in the vernacular

of the purposes of One who is." (Thomas, p.426)


Although God is clearly the animating force here, as well as being the provider of a mutually comprehensible vocabulary, the similarity with Dylan Thomas's poem is evident. Here too, the elemental components combine with man and so too there is nothing inanimate in this world, even the mechanical has a voice and is comprehensible.


However, we should not confuse this with the language of conscious reason or logic. Instead, we should see it through the lens of the beautiful image in 'The Reason' that concludes:


"learning we are here

not necessarily to read on

but to explore with blind

fingers the word in the cold,

until the snow turn to feathers

and somewhere far down we come

upon warmth and a heart beating."

(Thomas, p.27)

Fig 4. Snowdrift (Baxter, 2008)


Dylan Thomas's poem 'In Country Sleep' whilst being concerned with the immanence of death, nonetheless speaks of such things as the 'Pastoral beat of blood through the laced leaves!', 'Illumination of music!..Music of elements, that a miracle makes!/Earth, air, water, fire, singing into the white act', and 'A hill touches an angel! Out of a saint's cell/The nightbird lauds through nunneries and domes of leaves' (Thomas, p.173-8). In the midst of mortality, there is a mystical vitality. Life, though it entails death, is also its opposite. Not only that, but there is a life to be discovered that is not ordinary but as shockingly powerful as death.


These concerns over an eternity that only thumbs a ride with us until the next generation are shown to be beside the point. That eternal presence in the world is life itself and if we do not attend to it, Dylan and R.S. Thomas, seem to suggest, we ignore the true vigour of life and all that is vibrant in the world. To regret the fact that we must relinquish it at death and, thus, not see the story unfold, is a misplaced sorrow. Instead, their poetry reminds us, we should realise that the eternal is something we may touch during the impermanence of life. Though we may not keep a hold of it, to not grasp it all would be a worse fate. The idea that in life we are in death is two-pronged: on the one hand, yes, life begins the countdown to death but, perhaps more worryingly, we may anticipate death by failing to live.


"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."

(Thomas, p.511)


References:


Thomas, D. M. (2010). The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: Original Edition. New Directions


Thomas, R. S. (1993). Collected Poems 1945-1990. Phoenix.


Thomas, R. S. (1992). Mass for Hard Times. Bloodaxe Books Limited.


Image references:


Baxter, W. (2008). Drifting snow by a Drystane Dyke. Geograph. Sourced from https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/725988


Gardner, A. (2018). Tree Tunnel-Halnaker. Sourced from https://live.staticflickr.com/1970/30482976877_29603f2351_b.jpg


Reiss, F. Dylan Thomas Sourced from https://www.chicagotribune.com/resizer/MzBOl4vQ6-3UStmURUG-_WyqjW0=/fit-in/800x533/smart/filters:fill(black)/arc-anglerfish-arc2-prod-tronc.s3.amazonaws.com/public/U7J3H4IFGRBIJBDCES4H7Y76PM.jpg


Thalpha. (2009). A waterfall on the Stanisoara River in the Retezat Mountains. Sourced from

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/52/Retezat_Mountain_-_Spring_Waterfall_02.JPG/800px-Retezat_Mountain_-_Spring_Waterfall_02.JPG?20100905093246

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Oliver Nicholson

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