It is not easy to know exactly what is going on in this poem, but I take it to be essentially a poem of yearning and alienation, by a man who has a foot in two worlds, human and preterhuman, but is not entirely at home in either – ‘neither outside nor in’. Clearly the poem focuses on an intense spiritual experience, though as often with Thomas it is hard to align this with the religious orthodoxy that might be expected given his calling as a parish priest. So he has no power to pray, and he acknowledges that the universe knows nothing of him and cares nothing for him – this is not your normal Sunday sermon material. I think Thomas’s problem is that while his vocation may commit him to the idea of a personal deity who looks out for us and listens to our prayers, his intellectual honesty compels him much more in the direction of the physicists’ god, of Einstein’s metaphorical ‘Old One’, the mysterious source of order in the universe, the elusive and uncaring creator of all those exquisite calibrations that underwrite our existence. The result in Thomas is a cognitive dissonance that is painful for him but fruitful for us when it results, as here, in a poem vibrant with a cold clarity and a passion that even unbelievers may bow to.
Do you want to know his name?
It is forgotten. Would you learn
what he was like? He was like
anyone else, a man with ears
and eyes. Be it sufficient
that in a church porch on an evening
in winter, the moon rising, the frost
sharp, he was driven
to his knees and for no reason
he knew. The cold came at him;
his breath was carved angularly
as the tombstones; an owl screamed.
He had no power to pray.
His back turned on the interior
he looked out on a universe
that was without knowledge
of him and kept his place
there for an hour on that lean
threshold, neither outside nor in.