The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R. S. Thomas, by Byron Rogers (Aurum Press, 320 pp., £16.99)
I am not notably frivolous, but whenever I read R. S. Thomas’s poetry, or his biography, I cannot help but reflect that, like the majority of mankind, I have spent most of my life chasing false gods. Thomas had a similar effect on others: John Betjeman, in his introduction to Thomas’s first collection of poems published by a major publisher (in 1955), said that Thomas would be remembered long after he, Betjeman, was forgotten. And Kingsley Amis, writing a year later, said of Thomas’s work that it “reduces most modern verse to footling whimsy.” These tributes bring to mind Joseph Haydn’s words to Mozart’s father, on receipt of the six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to him: “I swear before God, and as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer known to me, either in person or by name.”
Ronald Stuart Thomas was one of the most extraordinary literary figures of the twentieth century. He was born in 1913 and died in 2000. He was an Anglican priest in remote Welsh parishes for all of his working life. He wrote in English and spoke in the accents of an upper class Englishman (which he was not by birth). While English titles of nobility impressed him, he was a strong, even fanatical, Welsh nationalist, who learned Welsh at 30 and sometimes pretended not to speak English. Though a Christian, he was by no means always charitable. He was known for his awkwardness and taciturnity; most photographs show him as formidable, bad-tempered, and apparently humorless.
He married an artist, with whom his relationship was, from the point of view of ordinary mortals, very strange. They hardly spoke; no one ever saw them touch; their lives were mostly parallel but occasionally intersecting. They lived on a tiny income, lacking the comforts of modern life. Almost the only household gadget that Thomas ever owned was a refrigerator, which he soon rejected because it made too much noise. On his retirement from the church, they moved to a tiny, unheated cottage in one of the most beautiful parts of Wales—where, however, the temperature sometimes dipped below freezing.
Thomas was extremely prolific, writing more than 1,500 poems. Though modernist in form and concerned with the deepest levels of human existence, his poems have immediate emotional impact. Their language is simple, their resonance profound. By the end of his life, his new collections would sell 20,000 copies in Britain—a huge number for a man whose first book was printed at his own expense by a small printer above a fish-and-chip shop in Carmathen, and reassurance that it is not only the trite or the trivial that sells well. Even though his life was not outwardly eventful and does not merit (if any life does) one of those giant literary biographies fashionable nowadays, a man like Thomas is of great interest and significance.
This biography—written by a native speaker of Welsh, who, as a student, first met Thomas in 1960, when the poet’s fame was only recent—is of precisely the right length: the reader does not have to set aside too great a proportion of his own life, or abandon all other pursuits, to read it. The author has remembered that the purpose of a biography of a poet is to illuminate his work, and this it successfully does; and because his subject is both strange and brilliant, the book is highly entertaining.
Is there any single theme that underlies Thomas’s life and work, and reconciles his contradictions? I think one can find it in an essay he wrote in 1946 for a small Welsh nationalist magazine. “Are not three-quarters of our modern ills,” he asked, “due to the fact that we have forgotten how to live . . . ?” And we have forgotten how to live because we have worshiped wealth and physical comfort, and turned our back on God. To this modern soullessness, and to modernity’s destruction of the Welsh countryside by roads and housing projects and vacationers, Thomas’s political response was Welsh nationalism, with its intense preoccupation with the past. For him, England represented modernity and therefore all that was soulless, superficial, mechanical, materialistic, vulgar, and vapid. Observation of the beauties of the natural world, particularly the landscape and bird life, was for him a spiritual exercise, a reminder that, if we would but heed it, God has given us all that we need for a fulfilled life. No one could say that he did not attempt to live by his creed.
Thomas carried his hatred of the modern world to seemingly absurd lengths. The biographer interviewed his only son, who clearly did not care much for his father (he now lives in Thailand with his Thai wife, surely not the destiny a Welsh nationalist would have wished for him). His son said, “As a vicar’s son I was obliged to attend church and to listen to him drone on about the evils of fridges.” “Fridges?” asked the biographer, disbelievingly. “He didn’t.”
“Oh yes, he did, it was the Machine, you see,” the son replied. “And washing machines. And televisions. This to a congregation that didn’t have any of these things and were longing for them.”
It is easy to laugh at this (and the poet Philip Larkin referred to R. S. Thomas in his letters as Arsewipe Thomas). But in fact 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? In an early poem, Thomas describes a Welsh hill-farmer, triumphant with his new tractor:
Ah, you should see Cynddylan on a tractor.
Gone the old look that yoked him to the soil;
He is a new man now, part of the machine,
His nerves of metal, and his blood oil.
The clutch curses, but the gears obey
His least bidding, and lo, he’s away
Out of the farmyard, scattering hens.
Riding to work now as a great man should,
He is the knight at arms breaking the fields’
Mirror of silence, emptying the wood
Of foxes and squirrels and bright jays.
The sun comes over the tall trees
Kindling all the hedges, but not for him
Who runs his engine on a different fuel.
And all the birds are singing, bills wide in vain,
As Cynddylan passes proudly up the lane.
We may, of course, dispute whether there ever existed that “old look” of spiritual harmony, when man was completely at one with the tasks he had to perform in order to wrest a hard living from the earth. But at the very least the poem points out that progress as represented by the tractor also involves loss, in this case a severe loss, and that an accretion of more and more tractor-like appliances (refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, and so forth) does not constitute the good life. For, once we have all these things, the questions still arise: “What now?” and “How should we live?” “Why should more of the same satisfy us?” Underlying all Thomas’s poems is an examination of man’s existential needs, and a fear that man has misunderstood them utterly, so that his whole personality is deformed. That is why Thomas always seems so intensely individual, always in a minority of one, even in his marriage. He has the intensity of a prophet and the mastery of a poet—remarkable attributes in the latter half of the twentieth century.
The author of the biography is funny without being irreverent. He demonstrates that Thomas himself had a wintry wit, and he also conveys his depth of character. He understands that, his outward froideur notwithstanding (he often appeared to prefer birdwatching to human company), Thomas was a man of the deepest feeling, something that our age of flamboyant self-expression might have difficulty understanding or even believing.
The account of the death of the poet’s wife in 1991 is extremely moving. She had long been ill. Her bedroom in their small cottage—which had no amenities, apart from a view so beautiful that it stops my heart to think about it—was reached by a ladder. He brought her home from the hospital when it was apparent that she could not recover, and carried “her up the steps himself as he might a bride,” though he himself had just had an operation for a hernia (he was 78 at the time, she 82). She died four days later.
After her death, he wrote love poems of the greatest possible tenderness:
She left me. What voice
colder than the wind
out of the grave said:
“It is over?” Impalpable,
invisible, she comes
to me still, as she would
do, and I at my reading.
There is a tremor
of light, as of a bird crossing
the sun’s path, and I look
up in recognition
of a presence in absence.
Not a word, not a sound,
as she goes her way,
but a scent lingering
which is that of time immolating
itself in love’s fire.
And, even more tenderly:
under a shower
Fifty years passed,
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed her with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
“Come” said death,
choosing her as his
the last dance. And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.
This is all the more remarkable since, according to the poems that Thomas wrote over the years, their marriage was not out of a storybook. Indeed, he and his wife had contracted it almost coldly, without expectations of romantic bliss:
I saw her,
when young, and spread the panoply
of my feathers instinctively
to engage her. She was not deceived,
but accepted me as a girl
will under a thin moon
in love’s absence as someone
she could build a home with
for her imagined child.
Fifty years after their marriage, he wrote:
Cold hands meeting,
the eyes aside
as vows are contracted
in the tongue’s absence.
over fifty long years
of held breath
the heart has become warm.
I doubt that any marriage could be more uncongenial to the modern sensibility than this one: a mere calculation on one side that grows into undemonstrative, but deep, emotion. It is precisely because this kind of relation is so uncongenial or alien to us that it serves as something worth reflecting upon.
Thomas was a deeply serious man: serious, not solemn or merely earnest. He struggled to find God to the end of his life, not in the happy-clappy born-again sense but as the search to find a meaning for existence:
For me now
there is only the God-space
into which I send out
my probes. I had looked forward
to old age as a time
of quietness, a time to draw
my horizons about me,
to watch memories ripening
in the sunlight of a walled garden.
But there is the void
over my head and the distance
within that the tireless signals
come from. And astronaut
on impossible journeys
to the far side of the self
I return with messages
I cannot decipher . . .
Few lived more intensely than Thomas, though he rarely left the tiny compass of North Wales. All his relationships were intense, though undemonstrative. He hated his mother bitterly, for reasons not entirely clear (but I suspect for her ordinariness). Yet he allowed her at the end of her life to live with him and his wife.
We made her live
on, not out of our affection
for her, but from a dislike of death.
This honesty has the quality of flayed skin, but reconciliation comes at the end:
The ambulance came
to rescue us from the issues
of her body; she was delivered
from the incompetence of
our conscience into the hospital’s
cleaner care. Yet I took her hand
there and made a tight-rope
of our fingers for the misshapen
feelings to keep their balance upon.
Few lives, certainly of contemporary figures, cause us to look inward as intensely as does that of Thomas. This short biography is the best possible introduction to his work.