More Than a Curmudgeon

R.S. Thomas is frequently characterised as a misanthropic ogre. On the centenary of his birth, the publication of his humane Uncollected Poems belies this misplaced view

The most engaging entries in Richard Burton’s recently published diaries (Yale, 2012) are also the most barbed. A particularly withering assessment is reserved for his fellow Welshman, the priest-poet R.S. Thomas:

R.S. Thomas is a true minor poet but I’d rather share my journey to the other life with somebody more congenial. I think the last tight smile that he allowed to grimace his features was at the age of six when he realised with delight that death was inevitable. He has consigned his wife to hell for a long time. She will recognise it when she goes there.

It is something like this view that pervades whatever public consciousness of Thomas can be said to exist: the cantankerous curmudgeon who eschewed refrigerators and vacuum cleaners; the dour, nationalistic Church in Wales vicar who gave implicit approval to the defacing of English-owned Welsh property. According to his son Gwydion, when invited to lunch by Burton and his then wife Elizabeth Taylor, Thomas engaged the actress in conversation about flatfish. This was not a man, so the stories tell us, with a gift for small talk or social sensitivity.

Uncollected Poems, a new volume marking this year’s centenary of his birth, contains little-seen work previously only printed in journals and magazines. The poems here span more than 60 years of Thomas’s life, from his mid-twenties through to his astonishingly fertile last decade, and in so doing they provide an opportunity to sidestep Burton’s portrait. To be sure, Thomas was no bon vivant, but the prevalent caricature of the poet fails to acknowledge and even threatens to mask the quality of his verse.

There are contact points a-plenty between the poetry in this volume and that of Thomas’s existing publications. Iago Prytherch, the hill-farming everyman of the early collections, makes an appearance and there is much wider thematic common ground: nature, Wales and Welshness, the search for God through both in- and extrospection. The later poems in particular explore the dissonant counterpoint of machinery and spirituality that is familiar from Thomas’s middle-aged output onwards. “The computer is unable / to find God,” he complains as he tries to write on a word processor: “where a poem in his honour / should emerge, all in bud / like a birch tree, there is only / the machine’s repetitions, / parallel tramlines of prose / never to come together in praise.” 

However, for all that the Uncollected Poems illuminate the Collected (Phoenix, 2000; Bloodaxe, 2004), they also stand independently. There are some attempts here at Welsh language verse, there are surprising poems written in earnest about contemporary social concerns including homelessness and apartheid, and there are also early and late-period instances of the love poetry that, it is too often forgotten, laces Thomas’s work. Most eyebrow-raising perhaps is the lust that occasionally rears its head: “Over the glass / Rim a momentary fencing / Of eyes. Touché, touché: / This is my own blood, / Rich as mahogany, / She is drinking.’

As a Welshman writing in English, Thomas’s relationship with the language in which he wrote was inevitably complex, even strained. Yeats is the obvious point of reference here, and indeed the early poems owe a fairly direct debt that goes beyond mere abstractions of style and voice: it is difficult not to think of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” when the 27-year-old Thomas writes of “the long-treasured riches that somewhere / in the deep heart are stored.” However, Thomas felt English more uncomfortably on his tongue than did W.B., and his style gradually matures to an igneous, prose-like register, puritanically stripped of anything that might suggest ease; a linguistic hairshirt that for all its discomfort remained inescapable. Thomas tells of the Welsh writer Saunders Lewis “taking my hand in both / his and soothing my quarrel / with my English muse with: / ‘But all art is born out of tension’.” The poetry here, chronologically ordered, speaks arrestingly of the developing prominence of such tension in Thomas’s style, and it is here that the volume’s value comes to light.

What the Uncollected Poems remind us is that to focus on Thomas’s rejection of consumerism, secularism and technological progressivism is to ignore the positive impulses that provoked these suspicions: a love of mankind in the raw, a deep sense of respect for the wild, living world in which he made his way and an understanding of God as an agent giving clarity to both — albeit a clarity that could only stutteringly be perceived. Thomas’s struggle with these three compass-points and his understanding of the impossibility of equilibrium between them is the essence of his verse, a profound poetry that transcends his supposedly ogreish demeanour.

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