R. S. Thomas

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R. S. Thomas
Photographic portrait of an unsmiling, elderly man looking side on into camera. The hair he has is white and collar length. He wears a brown jacket, blue collared shirt and red tie. He appears to be seated and in front of a bookcase.
Thomas, in his eighties.
Born Ronald Stuart Thomas
(1913-03-29)29 March 1913
Cardiff, Wales
Died 25 September 2000(2000-09-25) (aged 87)
Pentrefelin, Wales
Nationality Welsh
Occupation Poet, rector

Ronald Stuart Thomas (29 March 1913 – 25 September 2000), published as R. S. Thomas, was a Welsh poet and Anglican priest who was noted for his nationalism, spirituality and deep dislike of the anglicisation of Wales. John Betjeman, in his 1955 introduction to Song at the Year's Turning, the first collection of Thomas’s poetry to be produced by a major publisher, predicted that Thomas would be remembered long after he himself was forgotten. M. Wynn Thomas said: "He was the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn of Wales because he was such a troubler of the Welsh conscience. He was one of the major English language and European poets of the 20th century."[citation needed]

Life[edit]

R. S. Thomas was born in Cardiff, the only child of Thomas Hubert and Margaret (née Davis). The family moved to Holyhead in 1918 because of his father's work in the merchant navy. He was awarded a bursary in 1932 to study at Bangor University, where he read Classics. In 1936, having completed his theological training at St. Michael's College, Llandaff, he was ordained as a priest in the Church in Wales. From 1936 to 1940 he was the curate of Chirk, Denbighshire, where he met his future wife, Mildred (Elsi) Eldridge, an English artist. He subsequently became curate at Tallarn Green, Flintshire.

Thomas and Mildred were married in 1940 and remained together until her death in 1991. Their son, Gwydion, was born on 29 August 1945. The Thomas family lived on a tiny income and lacked the comforts of modern life, largely through their own choice. One of the few household amenities the family ever owned, a vacuum cleaner, was rejected because Thomas decided it was too noisy.[1]

For twelve years, from 1942 to 1954, Thomas was rector at St Michael's Church, Manafon, near Welshpool in rural Montgomeryshire. It was during his time at Manafon that he first began to study Welsh and that he published his first three volumes of poetry, The Stones of the Field (1946), An Acre of Land (1952) and The Minister (1953). Thomas' poetry achieved a breakthrough with the publication, in 1955, of his fourth book Song at the Year's Turning, in effect a collected edition of his first three volumes, which was critically very well received and opened with Betjeman's famous introduction. His position was also helped by winning the Royal Society of Literature's Heinemann Award.

St Hywyn's Church at Aberdaron where Thomas was vicar from 1967 to 1978.
A reading of To a Young Poet by Thomas.

Thomas learnt the Welsh language at age 30,[1] too late in life, he said, to be able to write poetry in it. The 1960s saw him working in a predominantly Welsh speaking community and he later wrote two prose works in Welsh, Neb (English: Nobody), an ironic and revealing autobiography written in the third person, and Blwyddyn yn Llŷn (English: A Year in Llŷn). In 1964 he won the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. From 1967 to 1978 he was vicar at St Hywyn's Church (built 1137) in Aberdaron at the western tip of the Llŷn Peninsula.

Thomas retired from church ministry in 1978 and he and his wife relocated to Y Rhiw,[2] in "a tiny, unheated cottage in one of the most beautiful parts of Wales, where, however, the temperature sometimes dipped below freezing", according to Theodore Dalrymple.[1] Free from the constraints of the church he was able to become more political and active in the campaigns that were important to him. He became a fierce advocate of Welsh nationalism, although he never supported Plaid Cymru because he believed they did not go far enough in their opposition to England.

Thomas was nominated for the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature[3] the winner of which was Wislawa Szymborska.

Thomas died on 25 September 2000, aged 87, at his home at Pentrefelin near Criccieth. He had been ill with a heart condition and had been treated at Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor until two weeks before he died.[4][5] After his death an event celebrating his life and poetry was held in Westminster Abbey with readings from Heaney, Andrew Motion, Gillian Clarke and John Burnside. Thomas's ashes are buried close to the door of St. John's Church, Porthmadog, Gwynedd.

Beliefs[edit]

Thomas believed in what he called "the true Wales of my imagination", a Welsh-speaking, aboriginal community that was in tune with the natural world. He viewed western (specifically English) materialism and greed, represented in the poetry by his mythical "Machine", as the destroyers of community. He could tolerate neither the English who bought up Wales and, in his view, stripped it of its wild and essential nature, nor the Welsh whom he saw as all too eager to kowtow to English money and influence.[6]

This may help explain why Thomas was an ardent supporter of CND and described himself as a pacifist but also why he supported the Meibion Glyndŵr fire-bombings of English-owned holiday cottages in rural Wales. On this subject he said in 1998, "what is one death against the death of the whole Welsh nation?"[4] He was also active in wildlife preservation and worked with the RSPB and Welsh volunteer organisations for the preservation of the Red Kite. He resigned his RSPB membership over their plans to introduce non-native kites to Wales.

Thomas's son, Gwydion, a resident of Thailand, recalls his father's sermons, in which he would "drone on" to absurd lengths about the evil of refrigerators, washing machines, televisions and other modern devices. Thomas preached that they were all part of the temptation of scrambling after gadgets rather than attending to more spiritual needs. "It was the Machine, you see", Gwydion Thomas explained to a biographer. "This to a congregation that didn’t have any of these things and were longing for them."[1] Although he may have taken some ideas to extreme lengths, Theodore Dalrymple wrote, Thomas "was raising a deep and unanswered question: What is life for? Is it simply to consume more and more, and divert ourselves with ever more elaborate entertainments and gadgetry? What will this do to our souls?"[1] Although he was a cleric, he was not always charitable and was known for being awkward and taciturn. Some critics have interpreted photographs of him as indicating he was "formidable, bad-tempered, and apparently humorless."[1]

Works[edit]

Evans

Evans? Yes, many a time
I came down his bare flight
Of stairs into the gaunt kitchen
With its wood fire, where crickets sang
Accompaniment to the black kettle’s
Whine, and so into the cold
Dark to smother in the thick tide
Of night that drifted about the walls
Of his stark farm on the hill ridge.

It was not the dark filling my eyes
And mouth appalled me; not even the drip
Of rain like blood from the one tree
Weather-tortured. It was the dark
Silting the veins of that sick man
I left stranded upon the vast
And lonely shore of his bleak bed.

"Evans" from Poetry for Supper (1958)

Almost all of Thomas's work concerns the Welsh landscape and the Welsh people, themes with both political and spiritual subtext. His views on the position of the Welsh people, as a conquered people are never far below the surface. As a cleric, his religious views are also present in his works. His earlier works focus on the personal stories of his parishioners, the farm labourers and working men and their wives, challenging the cosy view of the traditional pastoral poem with harsh and vivid descriptions of rural lives. The beauty of the landscape, although ever-present, is never suggested as a compensation for the low pay or monotonous conditions of farm work. This direct view of "country life" comes as a challenge to many English writers writing on similar subjects and challenging the more pastoral works of contemporary poets such as Dylan Thomas.

Thomas's later works were of a more metaphysical nature, more experimental in their style and focusing more overtly on his spirituality. Laboratories of the Spirit (1975) gives, in its title, a hint at this development and also reveals Thomas's increasing experiments with scientific metaphor. He described this shift as an investigation into the "adult geometry of the mind". Fearing that poetry was becoming a dying art, inaccessible to those who most needed it, "he attempted to make spiritually minded poems relevant within, and relevant to, a science-minded, post-industrial world", to represent that world both in form and in content even as he rejected its machinations.[7]

Despite his nationalism Thomas could be hard on his fellow countrymen. Often his works read as more of a criticism of Welshness than a celebration. He himself said there is a "lack of love for human beings" in his poetry. Other critics have not been so harsh. Al Alvarez said: "He was wonderful, very pure, very bitter but the bitterness was beautifully and very sparely rendered. He was completely authoritative, a very, very fine poet, completely off on his own, out of the loop but a real individual. It's not about being a major or minor poet. It's about getting a work absolutely right by your own standards and he did that wonderfully well."[4]

Thomas's final works commonly sold 20,000 copies in Britain alone.[1]

Books[edit]

  • The Stones of the Field (1946) Druid Press, Carmarthen
  • An Acre of Land (1952) Mongtomeryshire Printing Co, Newtown
  • The Minister (1953) Mongtomeryshire Printing Co, Newtown
  • Song at the Year's Turning (1955) Rupert Hart-Davis, London
  • Poetry for Supper (1958) Rupert Hart-Davis, London
  • Judgement Day, Poetry Book Society, 1960
  • Tares, [Corn-weed] (1961) Rupert Hart-Davis, London
  • The Bread of Truth (1963) Rupert Hart-Davis, London
  • Words and the Poet (1964, lecture) University of Wales Press, Cardiff
  • Pietà (1966) Rupert Hart-Davis, London
  • The Mountains (1968) illustrations by John Piper, Chilmark Press
  • Postcard: Song (1968) Fishpaste Postcard Series
  • Not That He Brought Flowers (1968) Rupert Hart-Davis, London
  • H'm (1972) Macmillan, London
  • Selected Poems, 1946-1968, Hart-Davis MacGibbon, 1973, St. Martin's, 1974.
  • What is a Welshman? (1974) Christopher Davies Publishers, Swansea
  • Laboratories of the Spirit (1975) Macmillan, London
  • Abercuawg (1976, lecture) Cyngor Celfyddydau Cymru
  • The Way of It (1977) Ceolfrith Press, Sunderland,
  • Frequencies (1978) Macmillan, London
  • Between Here and Now (1981) Macmillan, London
  • Later Poems, 1972-1982 (1983) Macmillan (London)
  • A Selection of Poetry (1983) edited by D. J. Hignett, Hignett School Services
  • Poets' Meeting (1983) Celandine
  • Ingrowing Thoughts (1985) Poetry Wales Press, Bridgend
  • Neb (1985) (Welsh, third person autobiography), Gwasg Gwynedd, Caernarfon
  • Destinations (1985) Celandine
  • Poems of R. S. Thomas (1985) University of Arkansas Press
  • Experimenting with an Amen (1986) Macmillan, London
  • Welsh Airs (1987) Seren, Bridgend
  • The Echoes Return Slow (1988) Macmillan, London
  • Counterpoint (1990) Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
  • Blwyddyn yn Llŷn (1990) (in Welsh)
  • Pe Medrwn Yr Iaith : ac ysgrifau eraill ed. Tony Brown & Bedwyr L. Jones, (1990) (essays, in Welsh) Christopher Davies Publishers, Swansea
  • Cymru or Wales? (1992) Gomer
  • Mass for Hard Times (1992) Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
  • Collected Poems, 1945-1990 (1993) Dent
  • No Truce with the Furies (1995) Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
  • Autobiographies (1997, collection of prose writings) Phoenix Books, London
  • Residues (2002, posthumously) Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
  • Collected Later Poems 1988-2000 (2004, posthumously) Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
  • Uncollected Poems ed. Tony Brown & Jason Walford Davies (2013, posthumously) Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Dalrymple, Theodore, "A Man Out of Time: A life of poet R. S. Thomas entertains and illumines", a review of The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R. S. Thomas, by Byron Rogers, in City Journal, 6 November 2006, accessed 30 December 2006.
  2. ^ "R S Thomas" at st-hywyn.org.uk
  3. ^ R S Thomas nominated for Nobel prize at independent.co.uk
  4. ^ a b c Wales loses its most sustained lyric voice Hermit-like poet RS Thomas dies aged 87 at www.guardian.co.uk
  5. ^ BBC News Wales: RS Thomas - Wales' s outspoken poet
  6. ^ Brown, Tony. R. S. Thomas. Univ of Wales Press, 2006.
  7. ^ Westover, Daniel. R. S. Thomas: A Stylistic Biography. University of Wales Press, 2011.

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