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Friday, 6 February 2009

R.S. Thomas : Metaphor and Simile

R S Thomas

When R.S. Thomas makes one of the voices in his radio poem ‘The Minister’ utter the words “Oh but God is in the throat of a bird”, is he speaking metaphorically (the bird as the figurative voice of God in nature), analogically (the poet hears the bird and compares his appreciation of this natural sound to his yearning for God) or literally (he actually hears God speaking through the bird)? A silly question? Perhaps. Figurative language often crosses the boundaries of such categories as metaphor and simile (not to mention their respective sub-classes) and the poet could well be said to mean something of all three. But the question is worth asking if only to tease out both the porosities in usage and the integrity of definition in these tropes.

Here is a complete poem by R. S. Thomas:

The Moor

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.

The poem begins with a simile: “like a church” and continues with another: “like a cap in the hand”. The first is a straightforward comparison; the second seems to be stretching towards metaphor. But always the poem remains close to natural imagery. The moistening of the eye at first seems sentimental, but is then explained by the wind. In spite of the moor being like a church, the poem goes on to list various ways in which it is not like a church. By the final line the transition from simile to metaphor is complete. The elision of ‘as’ in “[as] generously as bread” seems to underline this.

This movement from simile to metaphor is often a movement from direct perception of nature to the transformation of this by the imagination. Before illustrating the point further it is worth noting several poems by Thomas (himself an Anglican priest) in which churches themselves feature. Typically, here, the poet confronts a God that does not make himself felt. The church is a far lonelier place than the moor. It is a “stone trap” for God than cannot contain him (‘The Empty Church’). In the poem ‘In Church’ he asks is it a place where “God hides from my searching?” The church walls are “the hard ribs / Of a body that our prayers have failed to animate”. Here the poet finds himself “nailing his questions / One by one to an untenanted cross”. An actual plain cross that he is looking at, or a metaphorically empty one? Well, both.

This is the dominant theme of many of the ‘empty church’ poems. Religion is a search for a presence which is defined by its absence:
…..for religion
Is like that. There are times
When a black frost is upon
One’s whole being, and the heart
In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

(The Belfry)

But the same poem hopes that prayers may be “… warm rain / That brings the sun and afterwards flowers”. The natural imagery is significant. In another poem, silent kneeling leads to a vision of

….. love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.

(In a Country Church)

Here the startling image, combining natural and supernatural elements, seems to transcend the direct perception of nature (though he might be looking at a stained glass window or a gilded cross). This cross is tenanted, but its suffering body is metaphorically transformed by the natural image of fruit. Notice, too, that the balanced oppositions “dark … blazing”, “winter tree … fruit” are transformative, showing the process of the imaginative faculty.

These examples all come from fairly early in Thomas’s long career as a poet. Later his speculations about the nature and character of God became more metaphysical. But nature – or Nature – remained at the heart of his personal experience of divinity. In ‘A Thicket in Lleyn’ he stands “caged” while birds around him are free. He is “netted …in their shadows” as if, even beyond the bounds of the church, he also is caught in the trap for God that it sets. But then he proposes an escape:

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.


For Thomas, like Coleridge, it is the imagination that creates God from natural imagery. Life’s tree is “deciduous”; what is sought is eternal. This seems to me a particular consequence of apprehending a remote God through nature. Its dominant mode is metaphor. Simile, and some other intermediate tropes such as metonymy, seems better suited to the expression of presence which might be felt by one who perceives gods as immanent in nature. But that is a discussion for another time.




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