Kevin Saving on
The Man Who Went into the West
This is a biography written by an eccentric, about an eccentric - and none the worse for that. Byron Rogers has chosen to commemorate his acquaintance - Ronald Stuart Thomas would seem not to have possessed many 'friends' - the poet, priest and Welsh Nationalist, R.S.Thomas. Some years ago this reviewer was comfortably ensconced in the (now defunct) 'Red Lion' at Litchborough, when Mr Rogers announced that his next book would treat of all the ways in which the Welsh were superior to the English: he was teased that it would then have to be a very slim volume. Far from being disheartened, the author has elicited here his very own, peculiar insight into the life of an uncharacteristic yet militant Welshman -a 'pacifist' who believed that the survival of the Welsh language was worth 'the death of one Englishman'; a 'patriot' unable to write, in Welsh, the poetry which so beset him; and an Anglican minister contemptuous of his own, Welsh, congregations.
Born in Cardiff in 1913 (as we eventually discover on page 63) R.S.Thomas thus slightly pre-dated his even more notorious Swansea namesake, Dylan. Despite an upbringing in Holyhead and an education at Bangor university, 'R.S.' spoke with a 'posh', 'English' accent. After his priestly apprenticeship at the theological college of st. Michael's, Llandaff, Thomas descended upon a series of increasingly remote, increasingly Westerly parishes, taking his patient, bemused, artist-wife, Elsi, with him. And that, as they say, is that. There is a wonderful photograph reproduced here, taken of Thomas at Sarn on the Lleyn peninsula, some years after retirement from his last incumbency at Aberdaron: the poet protrudes, waste-upward, from the half-door of his icy, cliff-hewn cottage -wild of hair, forbidding of countenance, his whole appearance more than faintly malevolent.
A late-developer, Thomas would make his name with the 'hill-farmer' poems featuring the quasi-mystical 'Iago Prytherch' ('listen, listen, I am a man like you'). His reputation progressed by a process of accretion from his first collection, The Stones of the Field (1946), through his collection of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry (1964) until his late short-listing, four years before his death, for the Nobel prize for literature in 1996, (swagged that year by a Mr Heaney). Opinions differ as to the quality of the man's achievement: his own (second) wife, Betty, felt that he 'churned' poems out (there are over 1,500 of them). His only son, Gwydion, whom he'd sent -in spite of everything - to an English boarding school, feels that his father was an 'actor' with just the one note: 'Me, Me, Me'. Though these caveats should be noted, R.S.Thomas' best work has a way of insinuating itself into the memory. No one, surely, since Thomas Hardy can have written so poignantly or so lyrically about an ambivalent marriage (ended only by Elsi's death in 1991):
'We met/ under a shower/ of bird-notes./ Fifty years passed,/ Love's moment/ [...] She was young;/
I kissed with my eyes/ closed and opened/ them on her wrinkles./ 'Come' said death [...] 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.'
Thomas himself left a number of strangely impersonal autobiographies, perhaps the best-known of which is Neb (meaning 'Nothing' or 'No One') in Welsh (1985). A previous biography, much derided by its subject, (Furious Interiors: Wales, R.S.Thomas and God), appeared in 1996. This present book, which fleshes-out the misanthropic legend, represents something of a return-to-form for Rogers, whose previous work, The Last Englishman, (on the novelist J.L.Carr), appeared decidedly under-cooked.
A two-year delay between publication and review can, in this case, be best explained by the reviewer's miserly reluctance to fork-out the £16.99 necessary to purchase a diminutive volume of slightly over 300 pages: Thomas might even have approved this parsimony. Anyone interested in the poetry of a complicated clergyman - someone unafraid to conduct a bleak life staring into the abyss - could do far worse than to borrow, as I did, this quirkily perceptive publication from their local library.
Kevin Saving © 2008