Navigation – Plan du site

Rhythm, Composition, Syntax and Semantics in R.S. Thomas’ “No”, “Kneeling” and “Via Negativa”

Rythme, composition, syntaxe et sémantique dans “No”, “Kneeling” et “Via Negativa” de R.S. Thomas
Tomasz Wisniewski
p. 81-92


L’objectif premier de cet article est de proposer une analyse sémiotique de trois poèmes de R.S. Thomas. Ce matériau de recherche permet de 1— mettre au jour l’utilisation idiosyncratique de procédés poétiques, 2— d’illustrer la juxtaposition fonctionnelle de plusieurs unités de composition (comme le pied, l’hémistiche, le vers, la strophe, la phrase, le texte dans son intégralité), et 3— de souligner les tensions paradigmatiques et syntagmatiques à l’œuvre entre les divers niveaux textuels particuliers, et à l’intérieur de ces mêmes niveaux. Plutôt que de se concentrer sur l’interprétation unifiée de poèmes particuliers, cet article se concentre sur la complexité de fonctions attribuées à des unités de composition individuelles. L’analyse fonctionnelle des relations qu’entretiennent rythme, composition, syntaxe et sémantique dans les poèmes de R.S. Thomas y est traitée comme la base d’interprétation de ces mêmes poèmes. L’arrière-plan méthodologique de cet article se fonde sur des écoles de critique littéraire d’Europe Centrale et d’Europe de l’Est, telles que le formalisme russe, l’école de Prague et la tradition structurale polonaise, et la sémiotique de Tartu.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 Jerzy Limon has consistently insisted on searching for methods of meaning creation rather than on t (...)

1Prior to my presentation of a more illustrative examination of selected aspects of R.S. Thomas’ three poems, I find it necessary to explain my methodological position. Based on Central Eastern European formalist, structural and semiotic studies, my approach to literature is strictly text-oriented, and in this way it merges with the dictum proposed by George Steiner: “The critic [I would add the scholar] lives at second hand. He writes about. The poem, the novel, or the play must be given to him; criticism exists by the grace of other men’s genius. [. . .] These are simple truths (and the honest critic says them to himself in the gray of morning). But we are in danger of forgetting them, because the present time is peculiarly charged with autonomous critical energy and prestige” (Steiner 1970, 3). I am going to scrutinise those fragments of “No”, “Kneeling” and “Via Negativa” which are characterised by a functional tension between rhythm, syntax, composition and semantics. In other words, my primary objective is parallel to that suggested, in a slightly different context of a theatrical performance, by Jerzy Limon1—I intend to “serve” the poetic text (I insist on the adequacy of this old metaphor), not necessarily the poet, in detecting the textual methods of creating meaning, which means that in the present analysis I intentionally put aside more general (content-oriented) interpretative objectives.

2In this study rhythm is definitely of primary importance and all my observations originate in this aspect of the text. Simultaneously, though, I show due respect to the concept of a supercode, which has been characterised by Andrzej Zgorzelski as a strictly literary code superimposed, in a given text, upon the grammar and lexis of a natural language. Zgorzelski’s assumption that “each literary supercode is different [. . .]. We do not know these supercodes before we start reading [. . .]. Hence each literary text does not demand the recognition of its code, but the reconstruction of the rules of its supercode directly from the text” (Zgorzelski 10) is crucial for my argumentation—and my general approach to literature. Zgorzelski adds that “some of the new rules, creating a supercode, are often used in particular kinds of literary text, and are not entirely unique as far as their principles are involved. [. . .] As a kind of rule, they are common, but their application in each case is really unique (different signs combined according to the same rule in different works)” (Zgorzelski 10).

  • 2 I understand the rhythm as a sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables, which are segmented int (...)
  • 3 I allude here to George Steiner’s concept of four stages of a hermeneneutic process (1. “axiologica (...)
  • 4 Semiosphere is understood in Lotman’s terms: “By analogy with the biosphere (Vernadsky’s concept) w (...)

3It should be stressed at this point that there is a practical relevance of the above statements for the functional analysis of rhythm. First, rhythm, as one of the principal aspects of a poetic text, actively participates in establishing a set of unique rules which constitute a supercode.2 Second, Zgorzelski’s focus on the individual, original, idiosyncratic nature of an artistic text results in an extreme promotion of the “axiomatic trust”3 in the autonomy of a particular text. Thus, of course, no analysis of the supercode can avoid diminishing historical and contextual (or extra-textual) perspectives. But this is done for the clearly defined objective—so as to scrutinise certain functional aspects of the semiosphere of the particular poem.4

  • 5 For the definition of Roman Jakobson’s understanding of the communicative process see Jakobson 62-9 (...)
  • 6 Lotman’s awareness of a restrictive application of any textual analysis facilitates the dialogue be (...)

4Which aspects of the poem are crucial for the meaning creation? What are the objectives of particular devices? What should be perceived as the dominant and which deviations of textual norms are decisive for the aesthetic value of the poem? Are any attempts at de-automatisation of the poetic conventions to be observed within the supercode? Because these and similar questions remain in the centre of our attention, we soon learn that marginal, one may say subversive, notions are of primary importance here. Third, we return, unavoidably, to Roman Jakobson’s insistence on the dominant role of the aesthetic function in poetry5—the literary text draws our attention to itself, to the principles which decide about its shape, about the idiosyncrasy of its supercode. So, for me, in this article, it is important to remember that even though written by the same author, by R.S. Thomas, the poems in question—“No”, “Kneeling” and “Via Negativa”—should not be treated as expressions of a unified vision of the poetic world (in fact, the poems do generate three independent speakers). Finally, I want to stress, and agree with, Yuri Lotman’s reservation concerning the restricted validity of any analysis of a literary text: “We presuppose that we are dealing with a certain part of a text” (Lotman 1976, 10) (in my article with functions ascribed to the rhythm); and—another quotation—“The ability to observe implies in equal degree the ability both to notice something and not to notice it” (Lotman 1976, 12) (as will soon become clear, my selection of the analysed aspects makes me “blind” to some other aspects of the text).6 Yet, I strongly believe that my close attachment to textual signals allows me to follow the semantics of a poem, to voluntarily participate in a literary process of communication, to pursue the meanings ascribed to a supercode, to learn something new, to put at risk my own vision of the world, rather than to impose my personal views, my ideology, upon the text.

5Having established the methodological framework for my paper, I now want to concentrate on the role of rhythm within the semiosphere of the poems. Concise, selective and illustrative, my argumentation concentrates on five issues which are of central importance, namely: 1. the intentional juxtaposition of the composition and the syntax, which is correlated with; 2. the semantics of enjambment; and, in turn, with; 3. the prominence of end-stopped lines; next, I deal with; 4. the role of the caesura and the first hemistich. This train of thought leads me to; 5. an exemplification of the rhythmic equivalence on the syntagmatic and paradigmatic dimensions of the text. The conclusive part refers to the interpretative (i.e. complementary to the presented analysis) context provided by Jean Ward in her recent monograph Christian Poetry in the Post-Christian Day: Geoffrey Hill, R.S. Thomas, Elizabeth Jennings.

  • 7 When analysing R.S. Thomas’ poems, I refer to Thomas, 1999 (“Kneeling”, page 199; “No”, page 184 an (...)

6There is one striking feature which links together “No”, “Kneeling” and “Via Negativa”—the juxtaposition of the composition and the syntax. What is extremely significant is that, for R.S. Thomas, this petrified convention is not merely a semiotic system (as it is in much of twentieth-century poetry) but functions as a crucial device in the process of meaning creation. The clash between composition and syntax becomes here a constructional principle and as such it is exposed not only by a clear dominance of the run-on-lines but also by the peculiar syntactic segmentation, which ignores the boundaries of the line. In fact, the majority of sentences finish here after an opening foot, a first hemistich, in a caesura. This is probably most striking in “Kneeling” where the graphic division into two compositional units (ll. 1–11a as opposed to 12b–16—here and henceforth the line numbers as in the appendix), supported by the shift from the descriptive to the expressive, is made in the middle of the line: “For the message./Prompt me, God”; (ll. 11–12).7 The principle of the two-dimensional segmentation of the text (the composition vs. the syntax) is overcome only twice (l. 7 of “No” and, more elaborately, in the two final lines of “Kneeling”), which suggests semantic prominence of end-stopped lines (I will return to this device later).

  • 8 When speaking about the semantics of enjambment I would like to refer to interesting examples taken (...)

7In “Via Negativa”, the principle of enjambment applies to every single line, the natural exception being the final one. The compositional segmentation of the poem in lines is additionally weakened by the dominance of unstressed, unrhymed line endings and by frequent phonemic links between an ending of one line and a beginning of the subsequent line—this is how alliteration functions in lines 1–2 (“than/That”) and in lines 12–13 (“people/And places”); this is the role of assonance in lines 8–9 (“the echoes/We follow”) and consonance in lines 9–10 “just/Left”. I see at least two consequences of such an insistent weakening—which does not equal annihilation—of the final pause in a line. De-automised as it is, the line ending suspends the rhythm of the poem, raises the reader’s expectations concerning the pace of the utterance, and thus sharpens the reader’s sense of anticipation. Besides, it remains of some importance that the principle of enjambment proves a fertile source for multivocality for both the endings and the beginnings of a line.8

8It is quite telling that the semantics of enjambment, in—notably—“Via Negativa”, regularly refers to an opposition between the anticipated non-being and what is present and known. The most striking example of such a dichotomy, strengthened by the appearance of the only rhyme in the poem (“absence-silence”), can be seen in lines 2–4 where “that great absence” and “the empty silence” are juxtaposed with “In our lives”, and “Within”. Similarly, in lines 6–7 we come across “the interstices/In our knowledge”, and then, in lines 7–8, “darkness/Between stars.”

9Because of the main purposes of this article, however, I want to concentrate yet in more detail on what is happening to the rhythm under the governance of enjambment and, therefore, our attention focuses now on the passage limited by lines 8b and 12a. Let me then quote the fourth and the fifth sentences of “Via Negativa”:

His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm.

10Notwithstanding an immense complexity of this passage, I intend to narrow down my scrutiny to, in fact, two monosyllabic words—“just” and “find”, whose semantic potential is, in my view, astounding.

  • 9 See John 20: 25.

11Now, iambic grounding of the fifth sentence puts “find”—the final syllable of the eleventh line—in a stressed position, which disregards the supercode rule of unstressed endings. Additional prominence is given to “find” by the duration of its diphthong, stressed by intra-line assonance of “side” and “find”, as well as the semantic potential of the diphthong [ai] which was set in the first line by the invigorating equivalence between “why” and the first person singular. What I am trying to say is that all of the above factors stress the unusual—within the supercode of “Via Negativa”, of course—stressed ending of the eleventh line and in this way endow “find” with increasing prominence. Persistent biblical allusion (“our hands in his side”),9 hierarchical stratification of the world (“we/people” vs. “He/Christ/God”), actively participate, I argue, in the process of creating meanings within the enjambment of rhythmically atypical lines 11–12. Anticipatory hopes of the lyrical ego to “find” the wound in His side alive (i.e. to confirm the accurateness of the Christian model of the world) are expressed through the rhythmic suspension of “hoping to find”—and at this point the question arises: “to find what?” Before the textual answer is given (“to find It warm”) there appears, for an instant, a hiatus endowed with enormous semantic capacity.

12A similar hermeneutic process can be observed between lines 9 and 10, where another monosyllabic word—“just”—is endowed with an unexpected prominence. In spite of the supercode rule of an unstressed line ending, “just” is given some stress. The enjambment, employed here in a syntactically unexpected position and enforced by the consonance of “just”/“Left”, promotes the compositional value of “just”. The rhythmic suspension of the clausula, acquires autothematic, if not autotelic, dimension—the reader faces the textual strategy of experiencing anticipation. The composition of the poem is analogic to the footprints which have been just—pause—left. The composition reflects “the interstices—pause—in our knowledge” and “the darkness—pause—between stars”.

13When discussing “Via Negativa”, I have attempted to explain the semantics of enjambment and its decisive role for the supercode. The role of run-on-lines in the two remaining poems is equally elaborate but at this stage of my argumentation, I would like to counterbalance the device with the contradictory one. The end-stopped-lines constitute the compositional framework for “Kneeling”: it begins with “Moments of great calm”, and finishes with a most unconventional, in the observed material, unity between the line and a sentence: “The meaning is in the waiting.”

14The sound orchestration within the final line is striking. On the one hand, the internal grammatical rhyme of “the meaning” and “the waiting” immediately imposes strong equivalence of these disyllabic words containing the only two long syllables within the line (notably, “mean” and “wait” are strongly contrasted with otherwise short vowels of “the”, “-ing”, “is”, “in”). As it seems, on the metrical level the line alludes to amphibrach dimeter, the second foot being less regular than the first one. It is most striking, however, that the internal rhythm (and rhyme) of this highly autonomous line yokes together “meaning” and “waiting”. This reminds us of the role of anticipation which is ascribed, as I have argued, to the semantics of enjambment in “Via Negativa”. Of course, the two poems significantly differ (in “Kneeling” one needs to take into consideration, for example, an equivalence of the following motifs: “meaning”—“waiting”-s (of ll. 4, 10 and 16)—“something”—“ringing” and “kneeling” itself), but—these poems—operate within analogous fields of associations, even if at various textual levels.

15Now, in “No”, the compositional role of the end-stopped-line serves different purposes. Line 7 divides the text into two main compositional units: lines 1–7 (4 sentences) and lines 8–15 (1 sentence). The division is further strengthened by the segmentation of the presented “narrative” (unit one—“the act of violence inflicted on the singer”; unit two—“the consequences of the act”). In short, then, semantic, syntactic and compositional dimensions of “No” strongly support the break of the text into two parts. But in this case, the rhythm serves the opposite purpose—the organisation of the rhythm in lines 7 and 8 turns out to be decisive for the integration of the text. As we see “Him to retch, and none knew why” of the seventh line is nicely balanced by “But he rested for one long month”, of the eighth. If I am right when saying that the phonemic links between “retch” and “rested”, the main stresses in the first half-lines, are as clear as the rhythmic equivalence between the strongly stressed second hemistichs (“and none knew why”—“for one long month”), then yet another type of the relationship between rhythm, composition, syntax and semantics is functional in the poems of R.S. Thomas (I will refer to this parallelism as syntagmatic equivalence).

16There is yet much more. When discussing the clash between the compositional and the syntactic segmentation, I suggested that quite frequently syntax places a strong caesura within the line. In “Kneeling”—to take again this intriguing example—the beginning and the ending of the text (ll. 1, 2, 3 together with 14 and 16) do not demarcate caesura as convincingly as the remaining ones, as suggested by a comparison of line 1 (“Moments of great calm”) with, say, line 6 (“for silence; the sun’s light”). In other words, it is not only enjambment but also caesura, which participates in the meaning creation in these poems.

17For my illustrative purposes I would like to use the opening hemistich of line 7, which is the only case of the employment of a dactylic foot in this position. The ambiguity of “Ringing me” originates here in the repetition—in a stressed and an unstressed position—of the crucial syllable in the poem (kneeling/meaning/waiting/something/ringing). Not by chance is it contrasted here with the tense [i:] of “me” (not even closed by a consonantal sound). So, in spite of its immediate connotation of the visual “halo” aound the figure of the speaker (“he sun’s light ringing me” imposed by God (the biblical reading of “he sun’s light” is definitely alluded to), the phrase in question (“inging me” preserves its onomatopoeic character—God makes the priest, but in the world of “Kneeling” also the poet, sound like a bell, resonate, speak His words. This metaphorical ambiguity is further confirmed in lines 13–15: “When I speak,/Though it be you who speak/Through me, something is lost.”

18The example of “Ringing m” must suffice for the whole spectrum of ways in which textual detail ascribed to the caesura becomes prominent for the semantics. Notably, unconventionality of rhythm in this case (once again, this is the only employment of dactyl in the opening hemistich), reinforces the compositional role of the analysed detail.

19What I am left with is the rhythmic equivalence on the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes. I can only indicate some analytical mechanisms imposed by the text upon the reader in this way. In fact, I have already mentioned the syntagmatic equivalence of lines 7–8 in “No” where the rhythm certainly provides justification for the sequence of the otherwise conflicting lines. Also the paradigmatic dimension of “No” abounds in examples of equivalence in the rhythm pattering. Let me just compare the rhythm of lines 5 and 10: “Consented. So the Thing came” and “For gladness, and the Thing stood” and its echo in lines 13 (“And touched him, and the wound took”) and 15 (“The poetry from his cracked lips”). Arguably, comparative analysis of these paradigmatically equivalent lines proves productive (it is striking, for example, that in lines 5 and 10 there appears the enigmatic motif of “the Thing”).

20I insist that the argumentation which has been concisely reported in this paper should be perceived in a more general context of approaching R.S. Thomas’ poetry, and I would like to place my argumentation in the context of Jean Ward’s Christian Poetry in the Post-Christian Day. There are at least three straightforward analogies between her extensive interpretation and my detailed, if fragmentary, scrutiny. First, Ward provides further justification for the semantics of enjambment and its close association with “the meaning” and “the waiting”. This is particularly visible in her discussion on the negative and positive ways of prayer: “While emphasising God’s unknowability and inaccessibility to the human intellect, it nevertheless stresses that He reveals himself to the experience of the contemplative who waits on him humbly and in silence” (Ward 136). Second, Ward emphasises that in his poetry, R.S. Thomas is very much aware of the restrictions of the intellectual cognition: “An essential characteristic of the mystical way outlined by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing is the rejection of the way of the intellect as a means of approaching God. While Thomas’ poetry shows a fascination with the life of the mind in very many different forms, he has always emphasised limitations” (Ward 137). This observation turns out supportive for my attempts at exploring textual nuances of Thomas’ poems—the poems are not only to be intellectually understood but also to be aesthetically experienced. Third, it has been one of the principal objectives of this paper to illustrate the variety of ways in which functionality of syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations within particular supercodes is operative. In R.S. Thomas it is not enough to concentrate on a particular textual layer—his method of meaning creation necessitates a scrupulous confrontation of rhythm, composition, syntax and semantics. Ward expresses an analogous observation in the following way:

Admittedly, trying to interpret Thomas’ work is like trying to catch a shadow. The poet resists attempts at definition; in the time it takes to focus on some aspect of his work, he seems to move away somewhere out of view, just like the “absence” or “presence” which might be God, and which he so frequently tries to describe in his poems. (Ward 142)


And one said, This man can sing;
Let’s listen to him. But the other,
Dirt on his mind, said, No, let’s
Queer him. And the first, being week,
Consented. So the Thing came
Nearer him, and its breath caused
Him to retch, and none knew why.
But he rested for one long month,
And after began to sing
For gladness, and the Thing stood,
Letting him, for a year, for two;
Then put out its raw hand
And touched him, and the wound took
Over, and the nurses wiped off
The poetry from his cracked lips.
Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.
“Via Negativa”
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

Haut de page


Jakobson, Roman, Language in Literature, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

Lotman, Yuri, Analysis of the Poetic Text, New York: Ardis, 1976.

Lotman, Yuri, Universe of the Mind, London: I.B. Taurus, 2001.

Steiner, George, Language and Silence, New York: Atheneum, 1970.

Steiner, George, “Translation as condition humana”, Harald Kittel et al., Übersetzung—Translation—Traduction, Berlin: Offprint, 2004, 1–11.

Thomas, R.S., Collected Poems: 1945–1990, London: Phoenix Giant, 1999.

Haut de page


1 Jerzy Limon has consistently insisted on searching for methods of meaning creation rather than on the meanings themselves. Most recently this view was expressed in a discussion at the Blending Media. Art in Theatre/Theatre in the Arts conference (Gdańsk, 1st–5th September 2009).

2 I understand the rhythm as a sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables, which are segmented into feet by pauses of various degree (stronger—weaker) and origin (e.g. syntax, composition and intonation). In this article, the rhythm is treated as an autonomous semiotic dimension of the text which is not limited by the metrical restrictions (I do, of course, understand the necessity and relevance of the metrical analysis). Thus, the rhythm is perceived as a textual dimension which strives for idiosyncrasy rather than uniformity (the latter being the domain of the meter). The interrelations between the rhythm and the meter are seen as of semiotic character and parallel to those between a concrete structure/syntagm (rhythm) and an abstract system/paradigm (meter).

3 I allude here to George Steiner’s concept of four stages of a hermeneneutic process (1. “axiological trust”, 2. “intrusion”, 3. “translation” and 4. “reiteration”) (Steiner 2004).

4 Semiosphere is understood in Lotman’s terms: “By analogy with the biosphere (Vernadsky’s concept) we could talk of a semiosphere, which we shall define as the semiotic space necessary for the existence and functioning of languages, not the sum total of different languages; in a sense the semioshpere has a prior existence and is in constant interaction with languages” (Lotman 2001, 123).

5 For the definition of Roman Jakobson’s understanding of the communicative process see Jakobson 62-94.

6 Lotman’s awareness of a restrictive application of any textual analysis facilitates the dialogue between a number of methodological and theoretical approaches to literature.

7 When analysing R.S. Thomas’ poems, I refer to Thomas, 1999 (“Kneeling”, page 199; “No”, page 184 and “Via Negativa», page 220).

8 When speaking about the semantics of enjambment I would like to refer to interesting examples taken from the other discussed poems by R.S. Thomas. In lines 2 and 3 of “Kneeling” (“an altar/Of wood”) the distribution of sounds depends largely on the reader’s decision whether to read it syntactically (with a linking “r”) or compositionally (without it). A similar phonemic duality can be observed in lines 5 and 6 of “Via Negativa” where the duration of the final vowel sound intentionally varies between its syntactic and compositional reading—“Seeking, not in hope to/Arrive or find”.

9 See John 20: 25.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Tomasz Wisniewski, « Rhythm, Composition, Syntax and Semantics in R.S. Thomas’ “No”, “Kneeling” and “Via Negativa” », Études britanniques contemporaines, 39 | 2010, 81-92.

Référence électronique

Tomasz Wisniewski, « Rhythm, Composition, Syntax and Semantics in R.S. Thomas’ “No”, “Kneeling” and “Via Negativa” », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 39 | 2010, mis en ligne le 11 février 2016, consulté le 27 juin 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.2807

Haut de page


Tomasz Wisniewski

University of Gdańsk.
Dr Tomasz Wiśniewski is the author of a monograph Kształt literacki dramatu Samuela Becketta (The Literary Shape of Samuel Beckett’s Dramatic Works, Universitas, 2006), a co-editor of the special Samuel Beckett issues of a literary bimonthly “Topos” and several articles on contemporary drama and poetry. He organised the conference Samuel Beckett: tradition — avant-garde (Olsztyn, 2008) and the festival Back to the Beckett Text (Gdańsk, 2010). Since October 2008, Dr Wiśniewski has been working for the Department of Literary Studies in the Institute of English at the University of Gdańsk, Poland.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +