Frown by Frown

Ian Hamilton

  • Autobiographies by R.S. Thomas
    Dent, 192 pp, £20.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 460 87639 2
  • Furious Interiors: Wales, R.S. Thomas and God by Justin Wintle
    HarperCollins, 492 pp, £20.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 00 255571 9
  • Collected Poems 1945-90 by R.S. Thomas
    Phoenix, 548 pp, £9.99, September 1995, ISBN 1 85799 354 3

R.S. Thomas’s four autobiographies (four memoiressays, really) were written in Welsh, and the most substantial of the four – first published in Wales a dozen years ago – was titled Neb, which means ‘nobody’: as in ‘a nobody’ or ‘nobody very special’. And this fits with our uncertain view of Thomas these past four decades. Has this poet been too humble? Or has he been too proud? Is he to be admired for self-effacement or chastised for self-absorption? Over the years, Thomas has asked himself such questions many times, and his replies have been as non-definite as ours.

According to Thomas’s eccentric but industrious biographer, Justin Wintle, a complete tally of the R.S. Thomas oeuvre would add up to some twelve hundred poems, not all of which appear in his 500-page Collected Poems. These figures come as a surprise. Thomas, after all, has never been thought of as abundant. Nor is he. The truth is that for long stretches – and the work does divide neatly into stretches – he has written the same poem over again, several times. First there were the startlingly sour Prytherch poems – still for me the ones that matter most – then the Welsh Nationalist phase, then the deus absconditus prayer-bout, then the vague musings about God as cosmic scientist, then the poems inspired by paintings, and so on. The drift throughout has been away from the carefully wrought individual poem towards a kind of open-ended ruminative jotting.

Thus, faced with this huge Collected Poems, we are hard pressed to name single Thomas poems that succeed as others of his don’t. There are very few star items. The impact is by way of dogged, frown by frown, or prayer by prayer, accumulation. The work comes at us in clumps. And in this we can perhaps identify a genuine effacement of the self. As with their author, each poem is proffered as a nothing very special, a not quite. Spare, colourless and repetitious, Thomas’s work has made up for its lack of vigour by the unembarrassed steadiness with which it focuses on this or that obsession, so long as the obsession lasts. Again just like the author, as self-presented in these memoirs, here is an art that simply goes about its business, nothing fancy. The business has been humble, sometimes dismal, often futile, but – as Thomas might in certain moods retort – somebody (a nobody-somebody) had to do it.

But then again, perhaps somebody didn’t have to do it. Thomas’s attitude to his own verse-making, as to several other aspects of his life and personality, and to most aspects of the modern world, has rarely been far from the reproving. This much we can gather from the verse, but there is a powerful strain of misanthropy in these curt and candid memoirs, especially in those composed in the third person, with Thomas referred to as ‘R.S.’ or ‘the rector’ or ‘the vicar’. If these essays were fictions, we would surely reproach the author for his ungenerous, and superficial, treatment of the hero. Does the poor rector have to be so dreary and resentful, we might ask, and so hard on himself?

For R.S. Thomas, the poetry of R.S. Thomas has never been able to shape up to requirements, could never quite be work that he might publicly take pride in. After all, it is ‘in English’, and Thomas has time and again insisted that all Welshmen worthy of the name should write in Welsh. His own inability to do so (he has tried, he says, and failed) has been for him a constant discomfiture – a source, sometimes, of shame. And, sure enough, we can detect a grudgingness in his deployment of the English tongue, the tongue – as he would say – of his political oppressor.

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