There is a much reproduced image of the great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas towards the end of his life. A gaunt and angular figure leans defiantly out over the half-gate of his cottage on the Llyn peninsula, wild of hair, curmudgeonly and altogether unwelcoming. The photograph, taken after Thomas’s retirement as vicar of the fishing village of Aberdaron and relocation to nearby Rhiw, reveals a man at war with the world — and with himself too. Tourists passing through the Welsh-speaking region who asked him for directions encountered the baffling response: ‘No English’. He would return indoors to relish the joke with his monoglot English wife Elsi.
She shared his hatred of the machine age. And so she ripped out the ‘unaesthetic’ cottage radiators, and indoors got inhospitable too. Byron Rogers, in his funny and moving biography The Man who Went into the West (2006), tells us of times when the temperature reached only one degree above zero, even with a fire on, how water oozed down the walls and mould grew on the poet’s shoulders. Elsi, a gifted painter, worked with her feet inside a cardboard box containing an electric stove, burning herself severely on occasion. She died in 1991.
Thomas did not end his life in asceticism, however. He moved around 1994 to be near Betty Vernon who became his second wife two years later, into a comfortable cottage outside Presteigne, on the mid-Welsh border. Here and elsewhere until his death in 2000 he would wear tweed jackets and cavalry twills like the retired English brigadier class for whom, despite all his impassioned Anglophobia, he reserved such strange respect, and whose cold formality he shared. He had a cut-glass English accent. Betty, a Canadian cousin of Lord Longford’s, hunted the fox.
This, the centenary of Thomas’s birth, is a good moment to celebrate his extraordinary poetry and remember his strange life. Three new volumes announce the occasion. Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies of Bangor university have performed a valuable service in rescuing 178 works now published as Uncollected Poems. Thomas’s huge influence over the literature of Wales emerges clearly in David Lloyd’s Imagined Greetings, which collects some 50 works by other poets that dialogue with Thomas and his world. But perhaps most significant among the new publications is R.S. Thomas: Serial Obsessive by M. Wynn Thomas, a professor of literature at Swansea university. The subtitle is unlikely to win the poet new admirers: the obsessions include Wales, the self, his mother ‘and, of course, God’.
Each competing R.S. Thomas — poet of Welsh nationhood and of Christian doubt — appeals to different audiences. And what makes both constituencies eager to claim him as their own is simply that he is one of the 20th century’s great poets, his best work universal in its appeal and concerns. Plainly put, he gets to the heart of things.
Born in Cardiff on 29 March 1913, Ronald Stuart Thomas was the only child of a merchant seaman father and a mother for whom he reserved considerable bitterness. He feared that he inherited her lovelessness, transmitting it to his son, who described him memorably as ‘a man incapable of love, and full of love’.
He studied classics at Bangor, trained at St Michael’s Theological College (Llandaff), was ordained deacon in 1936 and priest the following year, and in 1942 took up the rectorate of Manafon in Montgomeryshire. This was a place of isolated hill farmsteads and of a gentle-spoken Welsh, the second language in which he was to make himself fluent enough to write his prose Autobiographies, while his poetry, to his intense regret, had to be penned in English.Thomas never spoke Welsh with his only child, Gwydion, whom he sent to be educated at an English public school.
Engagement with the stark life of rural mid-Wales inspired his first collection, The Stones of the Field (1946). Here he invented the figure of Iago Prytherch — Iago is Welsh for James — a stubborn survivor with whose significance he wrestled for years. He first appears in ‘A Peasant’ in 1942, ‘Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills, / Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud …’
Here was a harsh portrait of a Montgomeryshire hill-farmer, and a contemplation that helped rescue Thomas from his early penchant for pastoral: he started to find his unique voice. Prytherch, vacantly leaning in the evenings to gob into the fire, is an improbable hero. He stands against English gentility and the strident materialism of the modern world and Thomas confers on him his own fierce integrity.
One of Thomas’s Manafon parishioners who could (as it were) be Iago himself — recalled the quality of Thomas’s sermons thus: ‘He do pitch the hay too high in the cratch [the rack for livestock fodder] for the likes of we.’ Thomas could seem strangely ill-suited to his pastoral role. After conducting one funeral he vaulted the churchyard wall to avoid the mourners; on another occasion, a parishioner who commented that it was a nice day met with a disobliging, ‘We can see that.’
Iago, too, is strikingly untypical. The mid-Welsh hill-farmers who have been my neighbours for 38 years assuage their necessary solitude with quick wit, wry humour and a careful addiction to gossip: wholly unlike Thomas’s desolate personification.The solitary Iago is his author’s alter ego and Thomas a true poet not of belonging, but of estrangement, who declared himself contented with his own company ‘like the Celtic saints’. His poetry speaks to all who feel alone, estranged and in awe on the planet.
He won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1964, and produced a volume of verse every two to three years thereafter: more than 20 in all. In 1996 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Welshness competed with God for his attention. Thomas was hostile to dissenting ‘misery and mortification’, an Anglican in a country where Anglicanism is the religion mainly of a ruling-class minority. He worshipped a God who refused to address or console him, leaving his yearning baffled. ‘The Empty Church’ plays with the fabulous image of God as a monstrous moth:
They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Less celebrated but surely the equal of his religious verses and explorations of Welshness are Thomas’s lyrical nature poems. The glory of west Wales, Thomas wrote, is its changeable weather. It blows in off the Atlantic accompanied by rapidly passing effects of light and shade that hold the attention and compel aesthetic awe. ‘The Small Window’ starts:
In Wales there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only. A hill lights up
Suddenly: a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn…
This is marvellously recognisable, and hurt only by the side-swipe Thomas takes at the incomers (doubtless English) who crowd and dirty the view. If his poems sneer at the English, they censure the Welsh ferociously too for their collective cowardice as ‘an impotent people /Sick with inbreeding, /Worrying the carcase of an old song’ (‘Welsh Landscape’).
Any account of his range would be incomplete without some mention of his love poetry. From one who could be so bleak, his tender epitaph to Elsi, ‘A Marriage’, is wonderfully understated and very moving.
under a shower
Fifty years passed,
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
‘Come,’ said death,
choosing her as his partner for
the last dance, and she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no heavier than a feather.