“Pieta” by R.S. Thomas

A reflection by Professor of English Christopher Benson.


Pieta of Tubadzin (circa 1450)

When I read Jay Parini’s excellent biography, Robert Frost: A Life, he included this unforgettable quotation by Frost:

“It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound, that he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly. It has not to wait the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but that we knew at sight that we never could forget it. There was a barb to it and a toxin that we owned at once.”

As soon as I read “Pietà” from the Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, I took “an immortal wound, that [I] will never get over.”


Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon,
Remote witnesses
Of the still scene.

And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Sombre, untenanted,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.

Thomas has lodged this poem inside me to stay. In a single indelible moment, he captures the entire purpose of the Incarnation, bringing together the cradle of Advent and the cross of Lent: Jesus was born to die, and all creation witnessed the Christ-event but none more affectionately and agonizingly than his mother. Mary was the cradle at the birth and death of her son. Cosmic harmony is at work as the wooden cross “aches for the Body” of the woodworker: his crucifixion begins to liberate creation, which “has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom. 8:22).