Monday, 12 April 2010
A Negative Arthur?
I have commented before about the way the figure of Arthur is available as an image of cultural continuity for writers in Wales, for instance the use of it made by David Jones. But if something can be used as a positive, it can also be used as a negative. Consider this early poem from R.S. Thomas:
A Welshman to Any Tourist
We’ve nothing to offer you, no deserts
Except the waste of thought
Forming from mind erosion;
No canyons where the pterodactyl’s wing
Casts a cold shadow.
The hills are fine of course,
Bearded with water to suggest age
And pocked with caverns,
One being Arthur’s dormitory;
He and his knights are the bright ore
That seams our history,
But shame has kept them late in bed.
There are a number of interesting things about this as a poem, the ambiguous phrase ‘waste of thought’, the imagery of the cold shadow of the pterodactyl’s wing , the metaphors employed in the references to Arthur. But the thing which is most striking about it from the outset (‘We’ve nothing …’) is its negativity. The general sense of absence is compounded by the stinging rebuke of the final line. Just at the point where it does strike a positive note (‘the bright ore’) the metaphor changes and the poem is brought to a devastating conclusion.
This is in line with many other statements by this poet about Wales, and indeed about his religion. He worshipped an ‘absent God’ and nailed questions to ‘an untenanted cross’. Theologically this is often explained by the absence of God defining the need for his presence. Could the same be said about national identity? If Arthur, the ‘once and future king’ can be adapted out of the legendary history of post-Roman Britain into a lost leader who has no grave because he only sleeps to rise again in the hour of need; and if such a story can survive the Middle Ages and persist, even if only as an ironic denial, is this in itself an affirmation of its potency?