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.

And yet this grudgingness, we English will contend, has served the poet pretty well. The bare simplicity of Thomas’s poetic speech has, we’ll affirm, been one of his great strengths. For him, though, ‘bare and simple’ has been as close as he could get, in English, to honouring his anti-Englishness. Even the faintest tremor of luxuriance might give the folks back home the wrong idea: the idea that here is a writer who relishes linguistic treachery. Thus Thomas gives his English foe the minimum, and we applaud. We say: if only D. Thomas had been similarly grudging now and then! But D.T. was, of course, South Wales. The South, as viewed by R.S. and his allies in the North, has long ago, and irredeemably, sold out to English money and machines.

Over the years, Thomas’s language guilts have had a central, undermining influence on his career – or, rather, his careers: as poet, as Welshman and as priest. In poetry-career terms, certainly, he has staked out a kind of no man’s land, or call it a ‘nobody’s land’: he has felt obliged, it seems, to stand aloof from his ‘in English’ contemporaries, as if he might be tainted, further tainted, by their anthology-companionship, their co-poets’ appreciation of his plight. He is talked of as frosty and austere. And only rarely has he felt able to indulge the full range of his responsiveness to the ‘in English’ poetry of the past. Usually, when he has revealed links to the English past, there has been some Christian vicar or nature study slant: he has edited selections from Wordsworth and George Herbert and compiled a Penguin Book of Religious Verse. Out of church, he has kept fairly silent, confining his enthusiasms to co-Celts like Yeats and Mac-Diarmid and to the odd American, like Wallace Stevens. Thomas’s favourite Larkin poem, he says, is ‘Faith Healing’. (Larkin, of course, referred to Thomas as ‘Arse’ or ‘Arsewipe’. The two of them met once, and Thomas – said Larkin – ‘stood there without moving or speaking: he seems pretty hard going. Not noticeably Welsh, which is one comfort.’)

In politics, although Thomas has been vehement in his attacks on the loathed English, he has never quite won over the most hardline of his nationalist comrades. OK, some of these will say, he has to write his poetry in English, but why has he not rejected all those English prizes, in particular the Queen’s Medal? Why has he seemed to nurture his English reputation with appearances on radio and TV, and in English periodicals? Why, when he speaks English, does he sound so thoroughly non-Welsh? Why did he choose to educate his son at English schools? And why, if the Welsh language means so much to him, has he not spent more time translating the great English poets into Welsh – or, come to that, the great Welsh poets into English?

Thomas has, of course, been well aware of such critiques – sometimes he has levelled them against himself. The trouble is that, although Thomas loves Wales and its language, he finds it hard to scrape up much affection for the Welsh. His anti-English ravings of the late Sixties, early Seventies were presumably sincere but they always sounded a bit forced and shrill – not least because, as Thomas saw it, the Welsh themselves bore a large slice of the blame for their own subjugation:

      I have walked the shore
For an hour and seen the English
Scavenging among the remains
Of our culture, covering the sand
Like the tide and, with the roughness
Of the tide, elbowing our language
Into the grave that we have dug for it.

‘That we have dug for it’. Is it the ‘we’ more than the ‘they’ that angers Thomas? From Prytherch onwards, he has found it hard to conceal his contempt for Welsh stupidity and feebleness, as evidenced by most of his parishioners. But is it their unculturedness that irks him rather than their political inertia? After all, the Prytherchs rarely showed up at his church, and they knew nothing of George Herbert. In later years, the rustics who used to stare blankly at their mountain livestock can be found staring blankly at TV, or listening to ‘pop’. In several of his poems, and repeatedly in his memoirs, Thomas acknowledges his own ‘affectedness’ and bookishness, and tries his best to warm to other people. But these compatriots of his, whose souls are in his charge, get on his nerves: they don’t respond with sensitivity to the glories of Welsh landscape, they allow themselves to be denatured by a barbaric Anglo-US culture. Even if Thomas did write his poems in Welsh, who would read them? How, in truth, can such sunken creatures be expected to ‘Rise up, you Welsh!’ Most days Thomas would rather go bird-watching or whisper imprecations to an absent God than attempt to stir such oafs into the ‘direct action’ called for by the nationalist cause. Not that Thomas himself altogether approves of the bombing of EIIR postboxes: after all, he is a pacifist from way back – a Welsh Nationalist pacifist. It’s not easy being R.S. Thomas, as he keeps reminding us.

Really, though, it’s other people he can’t stand. Reflecting on his often solitary boyhood, Thomas writes in Neb:

He was yet to discover Maeterlinck’s story, describing how, while descending from a mountain in the Alps, he saw below him a glorious valley under the summer sun. And to crown everything, there was a crowd of people out in the fields harvesting the hay. But as he came within earshot of the people, he found that they were quarrelling amongst themselves, using the dirtiest and most unseemly language. An extremely relevant parable, as the boy later learned.

Thomas’s memoirs are full of types – yokel types, squire types, country-cottage types, low-church types and so on – but there are hardly any individuals. When individuals do appear they tend to represent a type. Thomas admits that he was never a greatly ‘distinguished’ parish priest. He visited the sick, went through the Sunday motions, had scant patience with the ritual and abhorred the hymns. He knew himself to be disliked by many of his flock – or flocks, since he moved churches several times, ostensibly in search of a Welsh-speaking parish but usually to suit his personal convenience: as he has pointed out, his moves kept edging him closer and closer to the Llyn peninsula, where he grew up and where he now lives in retirement. Thomas, though, seems to have rather thrived on his unpopularity: why else would he paint his church pews black, drive slowly in the middle of the road, tick off locals he caught ordering their groceries in English? Wintle’s biography is not short of spooky-vicar anecdotes, and we often get the feeling that for Thomas the only good church is an empty one.

Thomas was, it seems, attached to his merchant-sailor father, who became deaf in old age (Wintle acutely makes a link between the boy Thomas attempting to talk to his deaf father and Thomas the priest attempting to ‘get through’ to God), but the parent who really interests him is his mother: an anxious, over-bearing shrew, as he describes her. In fact, Mother comes in for several lashes, both in the memoirs and in certain of the poems: she killed her sailor husband’s sense of romance, she failed to teach her son Welsh and then sent him to theological college for reasons more to do with status and money than with faith. She is to blame, finally, for Thomas’s ‘in English’ poems and for his probably wrong choice of a career. As a boy, even as a youngish man, Thomas seems to have been scared of her. When, at the end of her life, she could no longer take care of herself, Thomas refused to take her in. He tells us this unblinkingly, as if he’s sure that we will understand.

On the whole, though, we have to search long and hard here for symptoms of soft-heartedness. Thomas speaks fairly coldly of his only son and says nothing much about his wife, to whom he was married for some fifty years. He once addressed a poem to this wife, telling her

           because time
is always so short, you must go by
now without mention, as unknown
to the future as to
the past, with one man’s
eyes resting on you
in the interval of his concern.

In the memoirs, there are few such intervals. Indeed, there is one somewhat chilling sequence when Mrs Thomas, a painter by profession, falls seriously ill and loses her sight. Her husband writes:

While she was in hospital in London, in order to raise her spirits and give her something to look forward to, R.S. arranged a vacation for both of them in Mallorca in October 1972. They went under the auspices of a company that arranged bird-watching holidays, and the two had to take a night-flight from Heathrow. What a new experience it was to look down on the Continent at night through the small window of the aeroplane!

What do we make of a wordsmith, Welsh or English, who can speak at such a time of ‘looking forward’ to a bird-watching holiday, who can tell of what a thrill it was to peer down at the Continent by night? The trip to Mallorca is described in full by Thomas, with acerbic side-reflections on the Spaniards’ bird-threatening use of pesticides, but we wait in vain for news of his sightless wife’s reaction to her treat.

In fact, the strongest pages of these memoirs are those that have to do with Thomas’s bird-watching. This really is a passion – and once again Wintle seems on the mark when he connects Thomas on the look-out for rare birds with Thomas the God-seeker on his knees. In each case, it is a long and passive quest, not always worth it, but for Thomas patience and faith can come to seem like virtues in themselves. Best of all, though, watching out for God and praying for just one glimpse of a tawny owl are each of them deeply solitary undertakings: no craven Welshmen, no all-conquering tourists, no TV, no pop, no wife, no child, no mother, no poems to be written in a foreign tongue. On bird-watch or on God-watch, true happiness for Thomas is when he can say, with all his heart: ‘Nobody’s here.’

Justin Wintle’s biography was not authorised by Thomas: indeed large chunks of it are given over to accounts of Wintle’s rebuffed overtures. Wintle did not expect Thomas to co-operate, but – being a bouncy kind of guy – he was not to be put off. And this opposition of temperaments does give his book a plot: the upbeat, with-it, ‘seven-eighths English’ biographer pitted against the unworldly Welsh curmudgeon. Friction ensues (at any rate in Wintle’s head) and by the end there is a truce, with Wintle settling for liking the poems far better than he likes the poet. And, as I’ve said, he comes up with some worthwhile insights. He does have the habit, though, of over-exhibiting his ‘intellectual’ credentials. If the topic is religious doubt, say, we can be sure that Wintle will soon be zapping us with five pages of A-Level rundown on the ‘background’. Thus we get, repeatedly, this kind of thing: ‘Hume may be regarded as the father of philosophical atheism. His assault on religion was twofold. First he sought to show that ...’ Also, running through the book, there is a too determined jokiness, an insistent watch-my-speed: ‘This is not an address to Chloe or Amaryllis in the shade (or, these days, the shed).’ Still, Wintle has done a great deal of research and trudged more than a few Welsh mountainsides, and on the whole his book is far more entertaining than might readily have been expected, given its dour subject. Certainly in terms of readability, Furious Interiors has the edge on Thomas’s own telling of the Thomas life. But then Thomas, we feel pretty sure, would not at all object to this disparagement, however much he might object to Wintle’s book.