In Praise of “The Return” by R. S. Thomas


The Return

Taking the next train

to the city, yet always returning

to the place on a bridge

over a river, throbbing

with trout, whose widening

circles are like the mandala

for contentment. So will a poet

return to the work laid

on one side and abandoned

for the voices summoning him

to the wrong tasks. Art

is not life. It is not the river

carrying us away, but the motionless

image of itself on a fast-

running surface with which life

tries constantly to keep up.

Current discussions of poetry usually avoid the old idea of “imitation” or “mimesis,” but that avoidance may have a downside of blinding us to the value of certain poems that ostensibly address themselves to the world the poet shares with the reader. On the other hand, it may be asked why should we discuss poems so traditional that they may be assumed to be about worlds no longer relevant to most readers. That’s an assumption that works at an unconscious level — like “prejudice” in general —  so it may be worthwhile to make an account of one of these old fashioned poems.

One sort of “imitation” that we do find in the R. S. Thomas poem cited above is a use of syntax to “follow” or “express”  the the meaning of the sentences. There’s a problem of validation here, since the  interface between style and substance is always problematic, they are always somehow already intertwined. But here  the way the syntax grips and pushes off the line endings gives one a visceral sense of the inertias involved in the return. The “mimesis” is of a mind deeply set in its ways.

Another aspect of mimesis that is always potentially relevant involves the structure of the poem — its dialectics.  The flow of imagery and concept in time goes on transparently as in conversation until it doesn’t — the introduction of a new image or concept will require adjustments in the whole environment of the poem. “Art is not life. It is not the river . . .” Which in turn prepares a space for the final image of the poem. The “charge” of this move, which I’d put down to “double relativity” lifts the poem into the imagination.

What I mean by “double relativity” is as follows. Can we say that the poem “imitates” a motion of consciousness towards something other beyond itself? This transformational moment depends on an expansion of values from the first scenario in which the habits of the commuter are judged in light of the “return” to the place on the bridge. Then THAT comparison yields to a comparison of the “place on the bridge” to the place of composition and participation, an awkward but perhaps justifiable way, given what is at stake,  to put what is suddenly on the horizon in this poem.

“The motionless image of itself” is, like many uses of the phrase “of itself,” obscure. Rereading the sentences allows one to proceed with some confidence that the “itself” is “art” which is not life, not the river. It is an image that appears on the “surface” of life (the river)

First the comparison of the place on the bridge to a state of mind via the phrase “mandala of contentment.”  I love the sense here that such a gorgeous phrase is, in this poem, a  kind of throw-away, structurally speaking, as we shall see. “Contentment” as temptation! (This is a poem by a priest, after all, and R. S. Thomas no less!)   Then we are led to a comparison between that and the work left undone. But that situation requires a further distinction, between “doing the work one abandoned” and reconsideration of life itself in light of the “motionless image” beyond it yet reflected on the “fast-running surface” of the river. That is not all: the judgement made by the relation includes an insight: life constantly tries to keep up with the surface on which the image of art appears. Life, relative to art . . . So even the mimesis of this poem senses its limits.

Thus “double relativity.”  Double relativity is a feature of Daoist philosophy, where everything is dependent on the Dao, which itself is no-thing. The phrase appears in a new work by William Desmond. In the chapter of The Intimate Universal (U. Columbia 2016), Desmond writes: “We see the double relativity of a metaxu, the self-relating, singular happening, in a field of communication where selfing is doubled over with being in relation to what is other” (83). The italicized Greek word “metaxu” — which can mean both with and beyond and was used by Simone Weil to refer to the power of human works to communicate spiritual truth –refers to the double reference in an image that relates both “with” and “above” its syntactic environment. The poem as “metaxu” refers to the sense of a dimension beyond the “mimetic.” This beyond, however, acknowledges a source of energy otherwise unaccounted for. “The motionless image” recalls the original image of the mandala, as an expression of the  commuter’s retreat to the contemplation of the boiling life of the trout in the river, but contrasts to “contentment”  a more perplexed, participatory image in keeping with the disjunction “art is not life.”

Thomas knew how to make an “image” of what can’t be represented. Yes, he was a priest. Yes, he was a poet. The tension is a topic of gossip; given a poem such as this, the conflict of values assumed by the two callings only inhibits our enjoyment of the poem the priest made for us.  The lamination of the image of the “mandala of contentment” and this more tense orientation creates in the reader a “space” between the images, a liminal space given its meaning by the “supernatural” or ‘hyperbolic” appearance of this motionless image.  It is a moment of “porosity” or flow-through between the finite world, richly evoked by the poem, and the unnameable origin to which the poem returns. And to which the reader may well understand herself to have returned as she comprehends the open wholeness of this lovely poem by R. S. Thomas.


Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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