Visions of rural life
At the beginning of one of the sections of The Shepherd’s Life James Reebanks has placed a poem by Welsh poet-priest R. S. Thomas titled The Country.
About living in the country?
I yawn; that step, for instance–
No need to look up–Evans
On his way to the fields, where he hoes
Up one row of mangolds and down
the next one. You needn’t wonder
What goes on his mind, there is nothing
Going on there; the unemployment
Of the lobes is established. His small dole
Is kindness of the passers-by
Who mister him, who read an answer
To problems in the way his speech
Comes haltingly, and in his eyes reflect
Stillness. I would say to them
about living in the country, peace
Can deafen one, beauty surprise
No longer. There is only the thud
Of the slow foot up the long lane
At morning and back at night.
Some firsthand reports of R. S. Thomas describe him as a cantankerous man. I offer a positive assessment of that kind of disagreeableness, at least in the personality of a rural Anglican priest like Thomas. A stern demeanor might make room for other visions, such as the hopes and dreams of the people being served, and the sacramental vision of God which Thomas promoted on behalf of the people.
Sweet and engaging personalities can get in the way of the business at hand, such as the sacraments. Thomas’ poems for the most part are disagreeable too. There is nothing sweet or soothing about them. The drudgery of rural work wears on the human mind and the human spirit. There is nothing inherently sweet or happy about rural life.
Reebanks takes William Wordsworth to task for romanticizing the Lake District of England.
In the preface to his Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth famously described poetry as the “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…collected in tranquility.”
Reebanks objects to idle assessments of his ancestral home district, which to him and to his family is home and a place of hard, traditional, outdoor work.
Wordsworth’s view of poetry could not be further from Thomas’ cold-eyed approach. As a priest of the Church of England, Thomas had a job to do in a rural place: to bring his people into the green pastures of God’s grace.
Reebanks is a busy rural shepherd. Thomas was a faithful rural priest and poet. In the first half of the 19th century Wordsworth surveyed the “rural” territory of human emotions, reflecting their reactions to an attractive landscape, something new and experimental when he thought of doing that.