There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches. So I have gone
up the salt lane to the building
with the stone altar and the candles
gone out, and kneeled and lifted
my eyes to the furious gargoyle
of the owl that is like a god
gone small and resentful. There
is no body in the stained window
of the sky now. Am I too late?
Were they too late also, those
first pilgrims? He is such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive.
There are those here
not given to prayer, whose office
is the blank sea that they say daily.
What they listen to is not
hymns but the slow chemistry of the soil
that turns saints' bones to dust,
dust to an irritant of the nostril.
There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock: the events
are dateless. These people are not
late or soon: they are just
here with only the one question
to ask, which life answers
by being in them. It is I
who ask. Was the pilgrimage
I made to come to my own
self, to learn that in times
like these and for one like me
God will never be plain and
out there, but dark rather and
inexplicable, as though he were in here?
R. S. THOMAS (1913-2000)
R. S. Thomas was a Welsh priest-poet, in my opinion one of the finest poets of the 20th century writing in English. His early poems dealt with the bleak existence of Welsh hill farmers. His later more metaphysical work explored questions of God, belief and the nature of human existence. Thomas was a passionate Welsh republican who spoke out on political issues such as holiday homes, the Welsh language and nuclear disarmament.
The island location of this poem Pilgrimages is Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli) which is one and a half miles long, less than half a mile wide and lies off the tip of the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales. I have been there in the "small boat" Thomas mentions and seen the "stone altar" he describes. It is hauntingly beautiful. It has been a place of pilgrimage since Christianity's early days.