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The Ancients of the World

R. S. Thomas


The Ancients of the World

R. S. Thomas


Poem introduction

For the poet, apart from the one or two critics that do not talk nonsense when discussing poetry, there are only other poets to learn from. This is sensed I suppose by the people who come to one with their repetitive question "Can you tell me who influenced you?". Agreement on that seems to be more unanimous than on what poetry is or what is poetry. However, since we have no contacts with poets unborn most of us serve our apprenticeship to older and former poets, both imitating them on the way to discovering our own voice and experimenting with their technique. Certainly it was so with me. After the usual juvenilia when I began to write more seriously, as I like to think, I was much attracted by assonance and dissonance - the kind of feeling for vowels which one gets in "then nightly sings the stirring owl" or in Yeats's "the horns sweet note and the tooth of the hound". An early poem written under this influence and which also reflects my interest in Welsh mythology was this one called 'The Ancients of the World':

The Ancients of the World

The Ancients of the World

The salmon lying in the depths of Llyn Llifon
Secretly as a thought in a dark mind,
Is not so old as the owl of Cwm Cowlyd
Who tells her sorrow nightly on the wind.

The ousel singing in the woods of Cilgwri,
Tirelessly as a stream over the mossed stones,
Is not so old as the toad of Cors Fochno
Who feels the cold skin sagging round his bones.

The toad and the ousel and the stag of Rhedynfre,
That has cropped each leaf from the tree of life,
Are not so old as the owl of Cwm Cowlyd,
That the proud eagle would have to wife.


from Collected Poems 1945-1990 (J M Dent, 1993), by permission of the publisher, a division of The Orion Publishing Group. Recordings used by permission of the BBC.

Recordings