Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"There Were Fathoms in Her Too": R. S. Thomas and Women

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"There Were Fathoms in Her Too": R. S. Thomas and Women

Article excerpt

   What was the heart's depth?
   There were fathoms in her,
   too, and sometimes he crossed
   them and landed and was not repulsed. (CP 459)

THIS extract is taken from the poem "He and She," a poem originally featured in R. S. Thomas's volume Destinations in 1985, but also one of thirty-eight poems reprinted in the Phoenix paperback pocket-book "R. S. Thomas: Love Poems" in 1993. While a collection of love poems by R. S. Thomas would seem somewhat of an anathema, (the collection itself opens with the assertion "I am the farmer, stripped of love" from the rather ascetic poem "The Hill Farmer Speaks"--CP 31), there is certainly in the poem "He and She," restrained though the tone of its speaker may be, some intimation of tenderness on the poet's part, and in the allusion to the more existential, spiritual 'fathoms' of woman, also a rare spark of recognition, for "There were fathoms in her, / too," admits the speaker. "He and She" remains one of the rare instances in which Thomas bridges the gap, so to speak, between himself and his female counterpart, but not without some characteristic scepticism from the outset--he is not accepted warmly--he is rather "not repulsed." To conclude such an intimate poem with the very mention of repulsion, reminds the reader that we are yet again in the rather unforgiving realm of a poet whose preconceptions of women are tinged with deep-rooted fear and anxiety, and whose relations with the opposite sex are nebulous to say the least. And yet for whom the 'fathoms' or the fathoming ('fathom' being a word Thomas frequently equates with the female subject) of women is a cause of constant fascination.

Many of his critics have discussed Thomas's ambivalent attitudes towards the women who constituted his domestic life. There is, of course, the much-discussed relationship with his mother, whose possessiveness, especially in his early life, left him with very little sense of autonomous identity. One constantly encounters his mother within the poetry as a dominating, oppressive force who is viewed as having predetermined Thomas's fragmentary identity, not least in terms of cultural unity. "She claimed me," he venomously spouts in the poem "Welsh" (CP 129), blaming his genteel, Anglicized upbringing for his lack of a solid Welsh identity, and also for his inability to speak Welsh. While he may have suffered "No hardship; / Only the one loss" it is a fundamental loss that remains with him throughout his life. In the poem "I" (CP 251), he once more gives his reader some intimation of his mother's gaze on him throughout life, "her eyes / Cowed me ... I escaped, but never outgrew / The initial contagion." The "contagion" here can be viewed as twofold--for while he seems to be referring to the ways in which he has been "contaminated" by Anglicization, he may also be "infected" with a wariness of women in general, afraid of being duped by the duplicitous "cowing" of female eyes.

Barbara Prys-Williams, in her study of Thomas's autobiographical writing, has noted that in moving on to assume another role--that of husband rather than son--Thomas was poignantly aware of the constraints placed on his masculinity by his wife's demands. In becoming a father, Prys-Williams argues, his identity experiences another shift: "The child is born and there is a sense, reinforced in other poems, that Thomas has been moved from centre stage." (1) Writing in The Echoes Return Slow, Thomas sees this as being brought about by uniquely female needs, by stating, of the decision to have a child, that "the desire of a woman re-asserted itself for someone to cherish beside the beloved." (2) The stress here is furthermore on "the desire of a woman," in opposition to which he seems powerless: "the male, so different from the female" (ERS 40). Such an assertion presents the reader with an almost simplistic view, as Thomas posits a rather one-dimensional binary as a means of viewing complex familial negotiations. …

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