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.