The old man comes out on the hill
and looks down to recall earlier days
in the valley. He see the stream shine,
the church stand, hears the litter of children’s voices. A chill in the flesh
tells him that death is not far off
now: it is the shadow under the great boughs
of life. His garden has herbs growing.
The kestrel goes by with fresh prey
in its claws. The wind scatters the scent of wild beans.
The tractor operates on the earth’s body. His grandson is there
ploughing: his young wife fetches him
cakes and tea and a dark smile. It is well.
(Note: I’ve always liked this poem, just as I’ve always admired RS Thomas for his clarity and his strength. I first encountered this poem years ago, when one of my teachers invited me to take part in a reading of poems on the theme of Autumn. Now Autumn is almost over for the year, this poem came to mind the other day. Looking at it closely again, though, I think that in literal terms it makes more sense for me to read it as taking place in late summer, or at least that period of slow wind-down as summer blends into autumn. Either way, I think we’re invited into the world of a man who in symbolic terms has personally reached the season of winter, which strengthens the poem’s juxtaposition of life and growth in the outer world with the man’s inner feeling that his life is soon to be over. The wisdom of this poem for me, however, is that it isn’t seen as a cause for panic or overwhelming sadness. Instead it’s presented as part of the general pattern of things. “To every thing there is a season” as the Good Book says, something Thomas perhaps referred to in his sermons over the years.)