On the Farm There was Dai Puw. He was no good. They put him in the fields to dock swedes, And took the knife from him, when he came home At late evening with a grin Like the slash of a knife on his face. There was Llew Puw, and he was no good. Every evening after ploughing With the big tractor he would sit in his chair, And stare into the tangled fire garden, Opening his slow lips like a snail There was Huw Puw, too. What shall I say? I have heard him whistling in the hedges On and on, as though winter Would never again leave these fields, And all the trees deformed. And lastly there was the girl: Beauty under some spell of beast. Her pale face was the lantern By which they read in life's dark book The shrill sentence: God is love. R.S. Thomas.
Early June with the sun shining, trees, blossoms , birds’ nest and song how easy it is to see Nature as genial and a blessing. “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here” went the Max Ehrmann poem ” Desiderata”. Popular in the sixties it sounded ever so romantic!
Wordsworth in a poem like “Tintern Abbey” treats Nature as a blessed power which when contemplated can have a redemptive effect on us. In his famous “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” he states his aim to “use language such as men do use” particularly those whose speech has been shaped in rural settings such as the Lake District. It would be simplistic to say that Wordsworth’s attitude to the rural enviromnent is idealistic. He shows the reality of rural poverty and suffering unforgettably in poems like The Ruined Cottage, Michael The Thorn and rural stoicism in a poem like “Resolution and Independence”; yet there is nothing in Wordworth I can think of that presents the rural character so bleakly as the poetry of the Welsh priest R.S. Thomas, featuring the lives of the Welsh peasantry and small farmers living in the Welsh uplands representative of the endurance and fortitude of people who have lived there for generations.
This is the stark environment in which Thomas worked as a priest, serving from 1936 to 1978 in six different Welsh parishes. What ever Thomas is as a poet he is not romantic.
“On the Farm” presents (we presume) three brothers and one sister. Two brothers are “no good” and the third worse even than that. There is nothing attractive about any of them or their lives. The poem exposes their blatant mental vacancy: two of them with little or no ability to do productive work, one debilitated by the work he does do so he is unfit for anything else.
In the final stanza we are made aware what Thomas is doing. The sister as “lantern” gives a light which rescues the brothers from darkness. In her they could read what otherwise they would be incapable of understanding. For “life’s dark book” is unreadable to them, only she can represent it in person:
And lastly there was the girl: Beauty under some spell of the beast. Her pale face was the lantern By which they read in life's dark book The shrill sentence "God is love".
What she represents is the meaning of the book otherwise “dark” to them: ” God is love”. The phrase is shrill because to make sense to them, to get through to them, her voice has no doubt become shrill to overcome thir obdurate emptiness but nevertheless she gives the love they need.
It reminds me- on a small scale- of Dickens’ great novel Little Dorrit -possibly the greatest novel in the language -in which Amy Dorrit alone brings to her father incarcerated in prison and her empty-headed brother and her vain sister, both with their “mind -forg’d manacles”- the love without which they would be as nothing.
Thomas is right: you cannot romanticise the peasant life he shows. Nature of itself cannot redeem the empty mind, the universe does not save them; what alone has the possibility to get through and give them lives to live is signified by a sister who shows them by action and “shrill voice”the love, which is the love of God.