Friday, February 18, 2011

'A Marriage' by R.S. Thomas (1992)

            A Marriage
We met
                                    under a shower
                        of bird-notes.
                                    Fifty years passed,
                        love’s moment
                                    in a world in
                        servitude to time.
                                    She was young;
                        I kissed with my eyes
                                    closed and opened
                        them on her wrinkles.
                                    ‘Come,’ said death,
                        choosing her as his
                                    partner for
                        the last dance. And she
                                    who in life
                        had done everything
                                    with a bird’s grace,
                        opened her bill now
                                    for the shedding
                        of one sigh no
                                    heavier than a feather.

I took a long time to get to R.S. Thomas. I must admit I was largely prejudiced by his occupation as a vicar in rural Wales, assuming (tamely) that he wrote pastoral poems with a vaguely uplifting religious message as a consequence. When I opened the pages of his selected poems my lazy stereotyping was rapidly dismissed, and I have come to think of him as one of the greatest metaphysical poets of all ages, in a time when there are very few at work. The extraordinary thing is how short most of his poems are, yet the standard is so consistently high; even poems that don’t appear to be going anywhere then just suddenly open up with a single phrase or sentence.

Thomas is not a poet given over to easy emotion but he has, nonetheless, written some moving love poems and ‘A Marriage’ is one of the best of them. I love the way he uses the innocent image of the young man closing his eyes to kiss his young wife then opening them on her old age. It is an amazingly simple device but startling in how it reveals both the passage of time and the endurance of their marriage. Heartbreaking also, given that the poem is, finally, about his wife's death, she... 'no heavier than a feather'.


  1. You've made me want to read Thomas again as I've never got too involved in his writing. This really is an astonishing poem and that moment of closing and opening the eyes will stay with me.

  2. There is a really lovely selection of Thomas' poetry from Everyman. I think that's where I first encountered this piece. There was also a pocket edition of his love poems, though I can't quite recall who published that. Yes, it's a really lovely moment: the opening and closing of his wife's eyes. Thomas was a rather austere man, but there's a very entertaining biography of him, 'Furious Interiors' by Justin Wintle.

  3. It´s a lovely poem. I have that Everyman edition and must read R.S. again.

  4. Thanks Mike. I think it's the last poem in that edition. In the meantime I've remembered that the small pocket edition of love poems was published in the Penguin 60 series to mark their anniversary, at a very reasonable 60p. I think he was the only contemporary poet chosen. Might be hard to find now, but again a very nice introduction to RS.

  5. Truly heartbreaking. A poem about, either, kissing with one's eyes open or dying first.