In an Empty Church

Peter Howarth

  • The Man who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas by Byron Rogers
    Aurum, 326 pp, £16.99, June 2006, ISBN 1 84513 146 0

‘A creative artist has to be painfully honest with himself,’ R.S. Thomas declared in his autobiography, Neb:

He has to look as objectively as possible at his creations. What is the point of pretending that his poem is a good one if it is not? But can the same honesty be expected of other people? Are not so many of life’s activities a means of escaping from self-knowledge? How many people could persevere, if they knew in their hearts they were quite unimportant . . . No, the world, including the majority of the members of the Church, is still not converted, because they do not believe Jesus Christ when he says: ‘Woe unto you when all men speak well of you!’

It is hard to know which is the most self-deceptive implication here: that the poet’s ‘honesty’ is free from worldly estimation, that he has come to terms with his own unimportance, or that he is unpopular because he tells the truth. Byron Rogers’s biography, The Man who Went into the West, punctures such fantasies to present Thomas as a man whose isolation sprang less from integrity than from a social ineptness that damaged his family, friends and ministry, though it also sponsored some remarkable poems.

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