R. S. Thomas

R. S. Thomas

by Tony Brown

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At his death in 2000, R. S. Thomas was widely considered to be one of the major poets of the English-speaking world and had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  An outspoken Welsh nationalist, he was also for many years a priest in the Anglican Church in Wales.  At the same time his later poetry, considered by many as amongst the finest

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At his death in 2000, R. S. Thomas was widely considered to be one of the major poets of the English-speaking world and had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  An outspoken Welsh nationalist, he was also for many years a priest in the Anglican Church in Wales.  At the same time his later poetry, considered by many as amongst the finest religious poetry written in the twentieth century, is frequently a profound and anguished search for an elusive God in our contemporary world of globalized consumerism and technology.

Tony Brown's study discusses the whole range of R. S. Thomas's writing — his poetry of the life of hill farmers in mid Wales, his often vigorous and controversial political poetry, and his later poetry of spiritual searching — and sees Thomas's perspective as consistently that of the outsider, isolated and unsure of his own identity, seeking a way of life where he could feel at home and culturally secure.  As well as providing a valuable introduction to R. S. Thomas's writing, Tony Brown's reading of Thomas's life and work also provides a range of new perspectives and insights, many based on uncollected or unpublished material, for readers already familiar with the poetry.

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University of Wales Press
Publication date:
University of Wales Press - Writers of Wales Series
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

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R. S. Thomas

By Tony Brown, Meic Stephens, R. Brinley Jones

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2006 Tony Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78316-377-9


From Holyhead to Manafon

    Those Others

    A gofid gwerin gyfan
    Yn fy nghri fel taerni tân

       Dewi Emrys

    I have looked long at this land,
    Trying to understand
    My place in it — why,
    With each fertile country
    So free of its room,
    This was the cramped womb
    At last took me in
    From the void of unbeing.

    Hate takes a long time
    To grow in, and mine
    Has increased from birth;
    Not for the brute earth
    That is strong here and clean
    And plain in its meaning
    As none of the books are
    That tell but of the war

    Of heart and head, leaving
    The wild birds to sing
    The best songs; I find
    This hate's for my own kind,
    For men of the Welsh race
    Who brood with dark face
    Over their thin navel
    To learn what to sell;

    Yet not for them all either,
    There are still those other
    Castaways on a sea
    Of grass, who call to me,
    Clinging to their doomed farms;
    Their hearts though rough are warm
    And firm, and their slow wake
    Through time bleeds for our sake. (T 31–2)

'Those Others' was published in 1961, by which time R. S. Thomas had left Manafon, the first parish where he had served as priest, and left the hills of Montgomeryshire, the landscape of the poems which had established his reputation as a poet in the 1950s. He was now vicar at St Michael's, Eglwys-fach, not far from Aberystwyth. In many ways it is a poem in which the poet takes stock of his situation. It anticipates the political polarities of much of the work which was to follow in the 1960s: Thomas's vigorous distaste, amounting to hatred, for those who were willing to market Wales as a commodity for tourists, to sell Wales, its natural beauty, its history and its culture to tourists from England, and his assertion of the need for stubborn resistance to the intrusive world of consumerism and market values which he saw such tourism as representing. For an emblem of that resistance, of another, truer way of life, the poet looks back, as he does so often in the poetry of the 1960s, to the beleaguered hill farmers of Montgomeryshire, the last remnants of what Thomas sees as an older, truer way of life, rooted in the rhythms of Welsh rural life.

The epigraph from Dewi Emrys, added to the poem when it was collected in Tares (1961), focuses the cultural struggle that the poem engages: 'With the pain of a whole people / In my cry like the fervency of fire'. As Jason Walford Davies has recently pointed out, Dewi Emrys's poem, 'Yr Alltud' ('The Exile'), published in the 1940s, concerns a Welshman forced abroad for avenging the theft of his family's land; the poem vividly evokes the doomed farms, the displacement of the native hill farmers and the inexorable destruction of a whole way of life. Thomas himself had seen the evidence of that displacement, the ruins of the abandoned farms, as he had walked the hills of Montgomeryshire. But this is not the only personal element in the poem, and not perhaps the only resonance that Dewi Emrys's poem has. For 'Those Others' is an autobiographical, as well as a cultural, taking stock, though the two are manifestly deeply intermeshed. For if Dewi Emrys's poem gives voice to an exile, Thomas's poem begins with the experience of being brought inside ('took me in'), of being born, or reborn, into a new identity, associated with the authentic life of the earth and emblematized by the life of the hill farmers. Their way of life, in other words, has deeply personal, not just cultural, resonance for the poet: they are rooted in a place, and know the truth of who they are. (In the poem's original version, their hearts are 'Warm / And true'.)

This is not to say, though, that 'Those Others' indicates that the sense of identity into which the poet feels he has been reborn is a secure one; indeed the image given of the hill farmers' 'clinging' to the place where they belong, suggests the contrary and we are aware anyway of the poet's isolated distance from them (they 'call to me'). What one senses, in fact, is not an escape from the 'void of unbeing' into an assured sense of self but an underlying awareness of continued vulnerability. In The Echoes Return Slow, an autobiographical sequence that is by turn revealing and deeply enigmatic, Thomas, writing of his period at Eglwysfach, recalls

    An obsession with nothing
    distinguished him from his co-
    thinkers. [...]
       It was
    a mental property, inherited
    on his coming of age; the
    recessive thought that,
    when progress is about
    to be guaranteed, returns one
    to the void. (ERS 49)

Barbara Prys-Williams, in seeking to analyse the personal tensions in Echoes, argues that Thomas appears to be someone with 'a weak sense of self' and she comments on how at some points in the sequence 'he embodies the very nebulousness he is experiencing in the self by allowing the poem itself to drift spatially':

    In a dissolving
    world what certainties
    for the self, whose identity
    is its performance? (ERS 33)

The notion of identity as something which we perform rather than securely inhabit, in a contemporary world lacking the shared social and cultural values which in previous generations made individual identity less problematic, is scarcely unique to R. S. Thomas, but he seems to have experienced this insecurity of identity with particular acuteness: 'Certainly it has come to me many times with a catch in the breath that I don't know who I am', he writes in an autobiographical essay. The very title of his autobiography, Neb ('Nobody', or 'Anybody'), is symptomatic of this same insecurity and there are in the book moments when Thomas recalls similar disturbing episodes in which the everyday sense of self is disrupted in a moment that is a kind of negative epiphany:

[T]here was something unreal about his attempts to take part in college activities. [...] 'Who does he think he is?' was the murmur he would hear from time to time. But he didn't know who he was. He was no-one. Sometimes during a dance he would go outside and look through the windows at the merry crowd inside, and see it all as something unreal. (A 38)

It is a scene, one might argue, that is emblematic of R. S. Thomas's relation to the life in which he has found himself: detached, looking on, or looking in from outside, aware of himself as an outsider, deracinated, and seeking some sense of involvement in a way of life which would give him a sense of belonging, a place which would allow him to be, to realize himself fully, emotionally, imaginatively and spiritually, a place which would give him a sense of home. It is a longing which haunts Thomas's writing, from the attempt to locate himself within Welsh culture –

    I can't speak my own
    Language — Iesu,
    All those good words;
    And I outside them. ('Welsh', BT 15)

– to the long struggle to end his spiritual aloneness and feel himself at one with the 'ultimate reality', which is God:

       There was a hope
    he was outside of, with no-one
    to ask him in. (ERS 49)

The process of seeking a new sense of belonging to which Thomas looks back in 'Those Others' ostensibly has its beginning when, during his time as a curate at Tallarn Green in the parish of Hanmer, Flintshire (1940–2), Thomas looked westward:

And from there, some fifteen miles away, I saw at dusk the hills of Wales rising, telling as before of enchanting and mysterious things. I realised what I had done. That was not my place, on the plain amongst Welshmen with English accents and attitudes. I set about learning Welsh, in order to be able to return to the true Wales of my imagination. (A 10)

That last, richly ambiguous phrase is of course a crucial one; his construction of the 'Wales' to which he was to 'return' was to be a deeply personal one, born of his own emotional and imaginative needs. It is evident that the years of Thomas's curacy first at Chirk (1937–40) and then at Hanmer (1940–2) were years of emotional unease and restlessness. In part this was to be expected: a young man, fresh from theological college and in an unfamiliar area, confronting for the first time the emotional and spiritual demands of ministering to ordinary parishioners, people in spiritual crisis or, more often, facing serious illness ('It was here, for the first time, that he came face to face with the problem of pain', A 43). But there seem also to have been other tensions: as the international political situation darkened in the late 1930s, the young curate was reading the work of Hewlett Johnson, the 'Red Dean' of Canterbury, and he sympathized with Johnson's view that much of the blame for the European crisis could be laid at the feet of international capitalism. In a letter accompanying some poems sent at this time to the recently-founded Welsh Review, Thomas tells the editor, 'As a clergyman I am naturally of a pacifist and rather 'Left' tendency and cannot think that the long trail of guilt leads back to one person or government only.' But such views were not popular and his vicar quickly instructed him not to 'preach such stuff'. As Thomas notes in his autobiography, 'It was this that opened his eyes to a fact of which he would later become more and more aware: the Church was not willing to condemn war, only to exhort young men to do their "duty" then pray for them'; to him it was clear that Christ was a pacifist, 'but not so the Church established in his name' (A 44). It was only after the war that Thomas was publicly critical of the Church in Wales, attacking its lack of opposition to militarism as well as its lack of leadership in matters of Welsh national identity. But such conflicts in belief must have caused the young curate to reflect deeply on the values of the Church in which he had just begun to serve and on the nature of his role within it, adding to his unease at Chirk.

It was an unease which ultimately amounted to what might, in existentialist terms, be defined as a sense of inauthenticity, the sense, again, of not being in secure possession of one's own identity, of who one is, being instead defined and 'moulded by external influences, whether these be circumstances, moral codes, political or ecclesiastical authorities'. Or, one might add, domestic or familial influence. In a revealing late poem Thomas writes:

       How old was he, when he asked
    who he was, and receiving
    no answer, asked who they
    were, who projected images
    of themselves on an unwilling
    audience. They named him, adding
    the preliminary politeness, endorsing
    a claim to gentility he did not
    possess. The advance towards Christian
    terms was to an understanding of the significance
    of repentance, courtesy put under greater
    constraint; an effort to sustain the role
    they insisted that he had written.
    Who reaches such straits flees
    to the sanctuary of his mirror for re-assurance
    that he is still there, challenging the eyes
    to look back into his own and not
    at the third person over his shoulder. ('Roles', EA 12)

While this is a poem from the 1980s, it looks back precisely to issues that it seems likely Thomas was confronting at Chirk about the choice of life he had made: how real had been that choice, and thus how authentic was his present life? The resort to the mirror for reassurance of identity at a time of self-alienation and self-questioning is a motif that is revealingly recurrent throughout Thomas's work; in a perceptive examination of this motif, Katie Gramich has recently related it to allusions to the myth of Narcissus and pointed out that psychoanalytic theorists have suggested that what has been called 'negative narcissism' can be related to 'anxious self-dissatisfaction' and internalized resentment against parental strictures. As Gramich points out, Thomas's relationship with his mother, to judge from his various comments about her, was a complex one: 'she was the boss. My father being much of the time at sea, it was to her I was answerable' (MS 3). Clearly, her only child was, especially in the father's absence, the focus of Margaret Thomas's affection, and emotional needs: the night before he left home in Holyhead for University in Bangor, he awoke to find his mother desperately 'kissing him over and over' (A 36). Clearly in such a relationship, the mother's views about her son's future career are going to have considerable influence, especially when the son seems to have had no clear ambitions of his own: 'My mother, early orphaned and brought up by a half-brother who was a vicar, fancied the Church. Shy as I was, I offered no resistance' (MS 3). The son went to Bangor to study Classics on a Church in Wales scholarship and, acutely aware of financial pressures at home – his father's increasing deafness meant that he could no longer go to sea – Thomas worked single-mindedly at his studies in order to graduate. After only a year's theological study at St Michael's College in Llandaff, Cardiff, instead of the usual two, he was ordained and took up his post at Chirk. It was perhaps not surprising that it was only then, facing the challenges of his ministry, that he begins to question the nature and values of the life he was now living.

Manifestly many of those values also had their roots in his upbringing as his mother's son. Brought up herself as a child of the vicarage, Margaret Thomas clearly sought to run a home which conformed carefully to ideals of bourgeois respectability, whatever the financial realities ('endorsing / a claim to gentility he did not / possess'); as a young child Thomas had been sent 'to some kind of school where the "nice" people of the town sent their children' (A 29) and as he grew up it seems likely that it was his mother who ensured that he 'moved in refined circles' (A 36). Those circles were like his own home and education, English-speaking. For this generation English was the language of social advancement, Welsh the badge of the uncultured and backward-looking. Thus R. S. Thomas's decision at Tallarn Green to learn Welsh in order to return to the 'true Wales' of his imagination represents a rejection of the values of his upbringing, a rejection born of his growing sense of inauthenticity, his increasing scepticism towards the conformism of English bourgeois respectability and the identity it had created for him. But such rejection is not easily achieved; in the uncollected 'Autobiography' Thomas writes that he had studied:

    to become the rat
    that will desert
    the foundering vessel
    of their pride; but home
    is a long time sinking. All
    my life I must swim
    out of the suction of its vortex.


Excerpted from R. S. Thomas by Tony Brown, Meic Stephens, R. Brinley Jones. Copyright © 2006 Tony Brown. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Tony Brown is Reader in English and co-director of the R. S. Thomas Study Centre at the University of Wales, Bangor.

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