Out of the Hills
Dreams clustering thick on his sallow skull,
Dark as curls, he comes, ambling with his cattle
From the starved pastures. He has shaken from off his shoulders
The weight of the sky, and the lash of the wind’s sharpness
Is healing already under the medicinal sun.
Clouds of cattle breath, making the air heady,
Remember the summer’s sweetness, the wet road runs
Blue as a river before him; the legendary town
Dreams of his coming; under the half-closed lids
Of the indolent shops sleep dawdles, emptying the last
Tankards of darkness, before the officious light
Bundles it up the chimney out of sight.
The shadow of the mountain dwindles; his scaly eye
Sloughs its cold care and glitters. The day is his
To dabble a finger in, and, merry as crickets,
A chorus of coins sings in his tattered pockets.
Shall we follow him down, witness his swift undoing
In the indifferent streets: the sudden disintegration
Of his soul’s hardness, traditional discipline
Of flint and frost thawing in ludicrous showers
Of maudlin laughter; the limpid runnels of speech
Sullied and slurred, as the beer-glass chimes the hours?
No, wait for him here. At midnight he will return,
Threading the tunnel that contains the dawn
Of all his fears. Be then his fingerpost
Homeward. The earth is patient; he is not lost.
“As you began, so you shall continue” Holderlin
“Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
till they reached a city to dwell in.”
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2)
That is the first poem from R.S. Thomas’ first published volume The Stones of the Field (1946).
I’m currently working my way through all Thomas’ poems and they are often so rich there is a felt need to *do* something with them. And well, I’m going to try and blog a little about the richest ones here. “Modern reading”, says Ivan Illich, “is an activity performed by commuters or tourists; it is no longer that of pedestrians and pilgrims.” This will be a pedestrian affair, perhaps even, if we are blessed, a pilgrimage.
What a worthy beginning to a Thomas-pilgrimage this poem is. Already here, at the very start, are so many central themes which will preoccupy him; the spiritual character and status of Welsh country folk, the depth of God’s presence in pitiless yet beautiful nature, the rape of traditional welsh culture and life by the Mammon-Machine, even the value and role of poetry-as-spiritual-fingerpost.
The diction is heavier than most of what comes after; the clauses and adjectives filling up the stanza’s tankard. And yet, even here the last four lines break into that painfully simple metaphysical clarity that marks his best verse, and which is his signature.
‘Dreams’ is the first word, ‘lost’ the last. The lost dream of welsh rural rootedness, and the (initially hidden) spiritual authenticity that accompanies, it is perhaps Thomas’ foundational theme, yes. But this poem itself takes place in a kind of dreamscape, a dream quality permeates its movement and symbols. The characters and places and landscape are all archetypal. Which means “Out of the Hills” provides a broad and spreading critical foundation from which to begin an ascent of all that is to come from Thomas’ tongue.
A Pilgrim for All People
Narratively, the poem is itself a little icon of a mid-century pilgrimage to a modern mecca. Or rather, an anti-pilgrimage; a Pilgrim’s Regress. Biographically and thus perhaps primarily—given the works precedence and dream quality—the pilgrim embodies Thomas. Both where he sees himself and his nation as coming from, but also the place he feels himself perpetually in danger of descending to.
As we set out on this journey—the poem’s and the oeuvre’s—the closer one is to Thomas culturally, geographically, chronologically1—the more concentric circles of identity one shares, the stronger the bond can be with the work and its meaning.
The archetypical quality mentioned above comes through here, the symbols working at many levels of abstraction. Corporately the anti-pilgrim can be read as both an embodiment of Wales or the modern West. Individually as an everyman; a welshman or a modern. As we emerge into the 21st century this mythical welsh cattle-herder is us all: buffered but haunted by enchantment, incredulous and starved because of it, fiercely independent but enslaved to Mammon. In the wayward herder we cannot but recognise ourselves and our times.
The reader finds themselves spoken to in the poem, taken into confidence; we stay with Thomas in the hills rejecting the city of the plain, and the broad path thereto. In the closing lines we are instructed, in words which must surely be addressed to himself as much as us. We are addressed in the office of poet, poet-prophet and poet-preacher, unsurprising given the author’s profession at the time.
The reader is therefore cast from the outset here as elder brother and prodigal, saint and idolater, redeemed and sinner, shepherd and lost sheep, poet and reader, preacher and congregant. This is the life long “duality of Christian experience”—simul justus et peccator—which is present in the deepest sources of the protestant spiritual tradition.
Out of the Hills: A Modern Pilgrim
And so we meet this mythic labourer as he has “shaken from off his shoulders” obedience to a personal transcendent God: “the weight of the sky”. And yet, the “dreams” of enchantment—the felt need for a transcendent order2—still “cluster” on the surface of his now diseased materialist mind; his “sallow skull”. The earth he leaves behind is barren, “starved pastures”, just as our legacy will be the deserts of an ecocide of unfathomable proportions. We meet him—just as we meet ourselves when we begin seeking— spiritually starved, ravenous for the sustenance he has cut himself off from.
For all this, he is a “dark” figure, the price of his new freedom, brooding and unhappy, whose sweetness in life comes from remembering past summers. And yet, there is still some solace left to him in nature’s vitality, “the medicinal sun”, the prevenient grace of the father he has cast off3.
And so this rather modern figure, one I am claiming is, in fact, an image of our modern selves, comes “ambling” into frame in 1946. Curiously the path he walks is also a river; the chaos he finds himself immersed in as he journeys, certainly, but perhaps also a baptism of sorts, but not the Christian one—he is in pursuit of another saviour. “We follow him down”, out of the dark mountains, like Nietzche’s madman, swept by nature’s fury, a fury we have unleashed, washed with our dreams and our most prized possessions, into the urban setting, valley-town, the “legendary” town, Vanity Fair.
Into the Shadow: Vanity Fair
“The shadow of the mountain”, of God’s mountain, the Zion of reverence, and the Sinai of moral law, “dwindles” as we enter the indolent, drunken, darkness of Mammon’s fair. The snake in us all, that old serpent the Devil, the old lizard-brain, “the scaly eye”, sheds—”sloughs”—the responsibilities imposed by the mountain, and by nature’s bracing but comprehensive meeting of our needs; its “cold care”.
Here is a place that kills those who do not spend, a place were the darkness of the Dark Night—the still world of silence and darkness and absence—is perpetually and “officiously bundled out of sight”. Where the lights never go out, but the lights of consciousness and human will never quite shine bright, the eyes of the souls “half-closed”, the mind of man “dawdling”.
Entering its ‘indifferent streets” we swell with the freedom of our independence, “the day”—whose true owner, “the medicinal sun”, we met but lines before—is now ours. Nature’s bounty, “the music of what happens” is replaced by the “chorus of coins” which sing “as crickets” in the herders tattered pockets; his broken cisterns4.
Its song was the web
They were caught in, men and women
Together. The villages were as flies
To be sucked empty.
A tear. Enough, enough,
He commanded, but the machine
Looked at him and went on singing5
The poet ponders whether we should follow this pilgrim. Descend ourselves and witness the peculiar disintegration of his selfhood on Mammon’s altar, the inane perversion of a formally sane and solid soul, the pollution of the world with his “sullied”, slurried, chaotic speech. His tongue now adding to the chaos he moves amongst; the “limpid runnels” flowing into the river-road of the previous stanza.
Participation in the market perverts selfhood, “the soul’s hardness”, speech, but also time as well. The soft drunken orgy of impotence and appetite culminates with the medium of intoxication usurping the “medicinal sun’s” role, the “beer-glass” now chiming away the hours.
The Midnight of Return and the Brown Brink
But the second stanza’s central question is answered in the negative; “Shall we follow him.. no”. The reader is decided for, we will witness but we shall not follow, we shall wait. We shall wait for the re-entry. An apocalyptically tinged “midnight” of return, “the dawn” of the Sun’s second coming. There is a biblical certainty here, “he will return”; God’s people always do.
But, by then he will be as a rich man who must “thread the eye of a needle”6, an eye, a tunnel with a now terrifying light dawning at its end, for “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”7. That heavy weight, “the weight of the sky”, will once again have to be engaged. No apologies are offered here for the reality of Isaac’s fear8, how refreshing.
Our sister Gaia, ransacked, electrocuted, fouled, burned—seared; bleared, and smeared—”at the brown brink (and oh how this is given new meaning given our pollution!) eastward” always, it seems, “springs”9. She undoubtedly strikes her roots in our father’s life deeper than we, and she therefore shares some of his fortitude and much of his patience. And she too, it seems, will wait, even to the the brink, perhaps, who knows, on past it. A claim that has much to speak to the optimism and despair in current discussions of the climate emergency.
So long as the hills stand (and the hills bat last), for Thomas, no man, it seems, can be considered lost.
The Fingerpost: Crossed Wood, Strange Tree
And what of me? What is my ministry and my task as I stand here with Thomas in the hills? I—as poet and as Christian—am to be as a fingerpost. A faithful, traditional, time-honoured, human scale, convivial, organic, road-side technology. A thing created from the local soil and sunlight and water, rooted in the local ecosystem across slow time, a thing whose peculiar instantiation is derived from local cultural tradition, and, perhaps most importantly, a thing who receives its ultimate form at the hands of a Carpenter.
My life (or my poetry, but for Thomas I get the sense redeemed life is a form of poetry, and poetry a form of redeemed life) is to be a continual faithful, dependable, pointing to the “the tall city of glass”10, at all times, in all weathers.
A true city does exist, filled with true laughter, true speech, and true beer, but one must go through midnight to get there, even a midnight which strikes at midday. The beer-glasses usurpation of time is radically dismissed.
A herder has already come out of the Nazarene hills, one who does not sell nor forget his care in the city, but comes back out to the hills, outside the city—just like our herder will—to be stretched across the great Fingerpost; a cosmic crossroads to which all the roads of history must eventually run.
The mythic herder earns his symbolic keep as saint and sinner, modern and yokel, saviour and proselyte. But the positive vocations of saviour, saint, and mammon-abstainer fit through the prism of poet. And each sheds light as Thomas contemplates the vocation in and through all these gathered paradigms. This vocation as a herder of people is envisaged as equally incumbent upon the poet as upon the pastor. A duty which must be discharged, a responsibility with real spiritual stakes.
The Road-side Crucifixion of a Poet
A fingerpost is such a beautifully simple image. But the fact it does triple duty as paschal typology, road technology, and russian doll symbol (the word itself is a symbol, of a symbol, of a symbol, of a symbol—a fingerpost of a word!), gives it congested meaning, to say the least.
An actual fingerpost will give the herder the direction he must travel “to reach a city to dwell in”, but in its ultimate office there is a profound sense in which the fingerpost is itself the way: “There is.. no route to God which does not pass under the cross”11.
And to be a fingerpost oneself is no innocuous symbol, no benign calling. The only definitive sign this world knows of is crossed wooden beams as an instrument of human torture. It is “to accept crucifixion by the destructiveness of the world”; the painful death of all our clustering dreams of self-sufficiency and all our maudlin attempts to buy escape.
It is to follow the master in becoming a witness by means of faithful suffering. This poem is a call to suffering, to the illustrious vocation of road-side crucifixion.
As poet just as much as saint. “The final control and measure and irritant in Christian speech”12 remaining the Cross; by it all Thomas’ future words will be measured, through it the slurred and sullied speech of pilgrim can still be redeemed.
And so that is where we are left as we begin our pilgrimage, standing in the hills, looking into the valley, refusing to capitulate ourselves to the gods on the throne of the 20th century, but tasked with waiting for our brothers and sisters, bearing our fingerposts in order to be fingerposts, as Mammon spits them out and they tentatively take their routes back into the hills and the deserts back off even them.
- Traditional, conservative, pastoral, celtic, mid-century, home nation, anglican etc.
- perhaps he will become a Jungian.
- “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” Matthew 5:45
- Jeremiah 2:13
- From Other—perhaps Thomas’ most famous poem—published in H’m (1972).
- Matthew 19:24
- Hebrews 10:31
- “So Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac” Genesis 31:53
- “God’s Grandeur”, Gerard Manley Hopkin
- “Emerging”, Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)
- The Wound of Knowledge, Rowan Williams