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.

Thomas had a gift for cutting himself off from those closest to him. He became a priest both to please his mother and to get himself out of her territory in pebble-dashed Holyhead. He developed his cut-glass English accent at theological college in Bangor to distinguish himself from his provincial fellow students. That accent and that job would ensure some degree of social isolation in a Nonconformist nation, but Thomas encouraged it by ministering in the manner of an 18th-century country parson, spending his day pondering the ways of God and bird-watching and carefully avoiding his parishioners until official visiting time in the evening. After he began to turn his sermons against England and its military-industrial complex – embodied locally by the arrival of tractors and fridges – he espoused a Welsh eco-nationalism so strict it had no place for corrupt, mechanised South Wales, bilingual Welsh-speakers or telegraph poles. When he finally moved back to properly Welsh Aberdaron on the Llyn peninsula, he refused to speak English to tourists, but his Welsh was so academic and literary that many locals could scarcely understand him. His campaign against the invasion of holiday caravans put him at odds with his parishioners, who were glad of the income the tourists brought. Increasingly admired by students and poetry-lovers, he would respond to their letters and visits with scorn, or refuse to admit them at all. He would berate his parishioners for missing church, and then write poems in which God is avoiding him:

Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil.

(‘In Church’)

This solitude produced four memoirs and more than a thousand published poems, with one volume still to come, Rogers assures us. What makes his account of Thomas’s life different from those jealously self-protecting autobiographies, though, or the socio-biographical approach of Justin Wintle’s Furious Interiors (1996), are the many testimonies from Thomas’s family, a more exacting test of character than any self-scrutiny the poet could come up with. ‘He found it difficult to focus on anything that wasn’t himself,’ his former daughter-in-law remarks, recalling that Thomas had welcomed his grandson, but could rarely stand to play with him for long. His son, Gwydion Thomas, is angrier about his father’s remoteness. ‘With my parents, it wasn’t just the pram in the hall which was the enemy of promise. My parents didn’t want the pram anywhere in the house.’ Certainly, Thomas seems to have found fatherhood difficult: ‘How can no one be a father to someone?’ he had wondered in Neb, a sentence that might have been intended to imply awe at his new responsibility, but sounds like the voice of a man who wants to be let off the hook. Evidently the common bond of Welsh nationalism was a bit too common, for Thomas never taught his wife or son Welsh, and packed Gwydion off to an English public school to prevent him spending time with his friends, the children of the ‘peasants’ Thomas was writing about in his silent hours of study. When the boy later fell in love with a girl from a local comprehensive, his father feared that the rector’s social position was being compromised, and dragged them apart. This was the act of ‘an insufferable snob’, in the words of a tight-lipped email to Rogers from the girlfriend, signed ‘Sue Griffiths, PhD’.

But in all accounts of Thomas’s domestic life the word that occurs most frequently is ‘silence’: huge, desolate silences filling the mornings and afternoons, gathering and building like the rolls of dust under the furniture (the Thomases threw out the vacuum cleaner because it was too noisy). In the poems, those silences tend to be associated with prayer in lonely churches, but his family make it clear that they were part of everyday life. ‘He and Elsi had this very odd imposed way of behaviour,’ their grandson Rhodri recalled. ‘“We’re both very nice middle-class artists, and I’m a vicar.” It was impossible to be relaxed about them, they weren’t normal, they wouldn’t allow themselves to be relaxed. So there were these huge silences . . . But small talk was vulgar. And a lot of life is vulgar.’ Parish visits could be agonising for both guest and host, and many people remember Thomas refusing to let them in when they visited in turn, or pretending to be out.

Rogers is careful to balance the stories of abrupt rudeness with many accounts of Thomas’s awkward, humorous kindness. He never traded on his fame, was generous with royalties and encouraged young Welsh poets. He was also a good comforter of the sick, dying and desperate. As both son and grandson suggest, Elsi played her part in these silences. She seems to have been more sociable, well-travelled and practical than her husband, but she never exhibited her work after their marriage, apart from one public mural admired by Stanley Spencer. Perhaps she sacrified her career to her husband’s poetry, or his inability to do the washing-up, but she disliked public exposure even more than he did. Of Christmas 1986 she wrote: ‘I adore being alone, and Ronald adores being alone, so we decided to be alone together, but felt a bit guilty about being so indulgent.’ In retirement, they had moved to a cottage so damp that all her pictures had to be put in plastic bags, and so cold that she had to work with her feet in a cardboard box, badly burning herself when she put an electric fire in the box as well; she had ripped out the central heating they had installed, on the grounds that she ‘didn’t like the way the radiators looked’. After her death, Thomas surprised everyone by moving out of the cottage to begin a more sociable relationship with a former parishioner. The book’s unexpectedly happy ending shows the octogenarian living cheerfully in sin and queuing for lottery tickets at Tesco.

For most of his life, however, Thomas was an unsociable man stuck in a job that was supposed to be sociable. Rogers explains that his book began as an attempt to understand the difference between Thomas’s kindness to him as a young writer, and the withering indifference he faced when he returned to do an interview for the Daily Telegraph. The unfortunate consequence is that the book’s breezy, loquacious narrative sometimes seems to be more to do with Rogers than with Thomas. But self-consciousness is perhaps an inevitable consequence of Thomas’s awe-inspiring silences, which seem to have turned a lot of visitors in on themselves; some angry, some desperately talking to cover over the gaps, all anxiously wondering what they had done to deserve such an absence of welcome.

One possibility is that Thomas thought it good for them. Rogers does not pay much attention to the poet’s religion, but it is uncomfortably obvious that Thomas treated those who called in the same way that the God of his own unanswered prayers treated him:

Why does silence
suggest disapproval? The prattling
ceased, not suddenly but,
as flowers die off in a frost
my requests thinned . . .
What are the emotions
of God? There was no admiring
of my restraint, no suggestion even
of a recompense for my patience.

(‘Silence’)

If any of those whom Thomas rejected recognised themselves in this poem, they might have found some comfort in realising how dissatisfied Thomas was himself. God evidently has no interest in turning prayer into an exchange that would give the poet’s ego a foothold, allow it to preen itself on self-denial. Ceasing to prattle may suggest that Thomas wants to put away childish things, but his praying self is clearly still miffed – the phrase ‘frosty silence’ is hovering behind the flower simile – and unsatisfied with grown-up isolation. Ironically, the effect of God’s silence is to make Thomas’s praying self scold itself into not feeling disappointed. His more theological readers tend to justify God’s silences in the poems as their author’s faithful attempt to expel all egocentric reductions of divine otherness to human terms, fearing to ‘confer features on a presence/that is not human’ (‘Hebrews 12.29’).

Yet one of this biography’s more disturbing implications is that a more subtle anthropomorphism was at work, with God’s distance standing in for Thomas’s own incapacity to relate to those who needed him:

Father, I said, domesticating
an enigma, and as though
to humour me you came.
But there are precipices
Within you.

(‘The Echoes Return Slow’)

The current archbishop of Canterbury has politely referred to this as a Kierkegaardian theology of ‘post-ethical divine regard’, which rejects images of cuddly benevolence in order to emphasise God’s terrifying irreducibility. Elsewhere, Thomas has images of God as virus, predator or, in the resurrection’s ‘radiation’ and chill ‘after-draught’, as the nuclear holocaust he had joined CND to protest against. The idea that God’s presence is knowable only through his absence may indeed cancel out the possibility of self-importance in prayer, but for Thomas this might also have been God’s ultimate ethical justification for not being around when he was wanted.

Thomas’s submerged Anglophilia suggests that his political dream of an independent, monolingual Wales may have taken the extreme form it did precisely in order to make it safely impossible to attain. He seems at first to have associated Welsh nationalism with narrow-minded Nonconformity, but changed his mind, though not his accent, when he discovered a fast vanishing way of life among the rough hill farmers of his first parish. Yet for all their mud-sodden realism, the ‘Iago Prytherch’ poems he wrote at this time are clearly the work of someone trying hard to convince himself that he might have much in common with ‘an impotent people,/Sick with inbreeding’ (‘Welsh Landscape’). Trying to overcome the shy pastor’s fear of silent working men, the poems keep their distance by making an aesthetic spectacle out of authentically untamed living:

Men of bone, wrenched from the bitter moorland,
Who have not yet shaken the moss from your savage skulls
. . . your speech has in it
The source of all poetry, clear as a rill
Bubbling from your lips: and what brushwork could equal
The artistry of your dwelling on the bare hill?

The colonial overtones of ‘savage skulls’ perhaps explains why, when Thomas addresses Prytherch as a model for a revitalised Wales, the phrasing is Kipling’s:

If you can till your fields and stand to see
The world go by, a foolish tapestry
Scrawled by the times, and lead your mares to stable
And dream your dream, and after the earth laws
Order your life and faith, then you shall be
The first man of the new community.

The politics of perfect Welsh self-rule were a natural partner for Thomas’s anti-industrial ecologism, since both are instances of his belief in the poet’s organic imagination, in which there are no exterior dependencies or mechanical tyrannies. But just as his own poems were written in a language that would be prohibited in his ideal nation, so his vision of nature’s all-absorbing system never sat comfortably with his own sense of self-preservation:

All my life I tried to believe
in the importance of what Thomas
should say now, do next . . .
Impossible dreamer!
All those years the demolition
of the identity proceeded
Fast as the cells constituted
themselves, they were replaced. It was not
I who lived, but life rather
that lived me. There was no developing
structure. There were only the changes
in the metabolism of a body
greater than mine, and the dismantling
by the self of a self it
could not reassemble.

(‘In Context’)

The poem is trying to find spiritual development in natural decay, but the bitter echo of St Paul to the Galatians (‘it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me’) is meant to bring to mind the opening of Paul’s sentence, ‘for I have been crucified with Christ’, without any of Paul’s confidence that he has been given another, better life as a result.

‘My father was an actor’ is Gwydion Thomas’s laconic explanation of the gap between the private man and his public role. But the comment does not imply that we now read the poems only as the work of a hypocrite. Thomas himself was uncomfortably aware that the moments of spiritual honesty he so wanted were liable to be staged by someone who was always unhappily aware of himself. In one of his best poems, ‘Kneeling’, Thomas is ‘waiting for the God/To speak’ in an empty church:

The air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

In the sun’s spotlight, the would-be humility of ‘prompt me’ – the desire to pray using God’s words – is inseparable from the dramatic pause before the crowd of witnesses. As the echoes of St Augustine’s request for chastity ‘but not yet’ suggest, that moment of theatrical suspense is a delicious, addictive indulgence, the actor admiring his own power to hold centre stage without a word. At one point in his late memoir, A Year in Llyn, Thomas misquotes Nietzsche to the effect that ‘only as an aesthetic phenomenon is eternal life justified’: salvation itself can only be grasped from the vantage point of the tragic actor-spectator.

Rogers’s biography will make it impossible to give Thomas the kind of praise he was secretly after, the praise that would find in his spare, exposed poems a single-minded honesty of vision, however comfortless and lonely. His pared-down lines no longer sound as though he were slicing away all self-deceit; those famous line-breaks now seem more like theatrical pauses, halting mid-sentence to let the echo reverberate round his empty church:

The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

(‘In Church’)

‘Untenanted’ is borrowed from Edward Thomas’s ‘Blenheim Oranges’, which Thomas had included in his 1964 Faber selection of his namesake’s work. The war poet had despairingly seen his empty self in a decaying, shut-up house, ‘dark and untenanted’ since the war began, and it is typical of R.S. Thomas’s talent for isolation that the word makes the bare cross an image less of resurrection than desolation. But it is also typical of his life’s quest to write prayers which, however lonely they claim to be, are always counting on someone to hear them.