Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Man Who Went into the West

The Man Who Went into the West by Byron Rogers, Aurum, 2006
My first book of RST's poems was purchased in Chepstow, the Welsh equivalent of the far east. Any further east and you will find yourself in the broad, murky depths of the River Severn, or worse, in England. My wife and I left the children with Grandma in Newport and headed for the delightful Tintern Abbey, pausing at Chepstow to browse the bookshops. There it was, R. S. Thomas, Selected Poems, Everyman Library. I was captivated with the unblinking pastoralia of the Iago Prytherch poems and fascinated by Thomas' religious verse. The Chapel is probably my favourite, as RST captures a the moment when a preacher caught fire and the godly sang their amens "fiercely, narrow but saved/in a way that men are not now". There was also the honesty and tenderness of his family poems. I then progressed to his Collected Poems 1945-1990, Phoenix and the posthumously published Residues, Bloodaxe Books. But, I kept on wondering, who was the man behind the poems?
Byron Rogers knew RST personally and he writes of his subject with insight, whimsical humour and sometimes, exasperation. Thomas was a man of great contradictions. He affected a cut glass English accent, to annoy the Welsh speaking students at Bangor college. But then he taught himself Welsh and moved further and further into the west of Wales, seeking escape from all things English. RS came to the Welsh language too late to write poetry in Cymraeg. His fame as an English language poet only served to deepen his Anglo-Welsh frustrations. He was a pacifist and founder member of the Dwyfor branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. But he sympathised with Welsh radicals, 'the Sons of Glyndwr' who burnt English holiday homes. When faced with the possibility that the arson might result in an English fatality, he asked, 'What is one death against the death of the whole Welsh nation?'
Thomas was an unlikely clergyman. He could be aloof and distant. But he visited the sick of his various parishes and some spoke warmly of his humanity and concern. However, RST often seemed more interested in bird watching and poetry than in pastoring God's flock. I wanted to know more about the poet's theological beliefs. Rogers tell us that Thomas felt it his duty to teach the faith of his Church (The Anglican "Church in Wales"). But his private beliefs were more sceptical. He understood the resurrection of Christ as "metaphor" rather than an historical event. He disliked the Nonconformist's intimacy with the Almighty. He experienced God as an absence rather than a personal and present reality in Christ.
For me now
there is only the God-space
into which I send out
my probes.
'The New Mariner'
But has not God come to be with us in Christ? Can we not draw near to him?
The Thomas household was somewhat eccentric. He and his English painter wife, Elsi ripped the central heating out of Sarn, their last home for aesthetic reasons. This left them toughing out chilly west Wales winters in near zero temperatures. They bought a vaccuum cleaner, only to chuck it out because they could not stand the noise. But the couple seemed to be well suited to their somewhat isolated, silent existence. Ironically, RS sent his only child Gwydion to an English boarding school, much to his son's distress. When his first wife died, RS, who disapproved of his son's early girlfriends, "lived in sin" with Betty Vernon before he made an honest woman of her when they married.
Rogers ably charts the development of Thomas' poetry from its early beginnings to later maturity. Poems are often cited and analysed in the text. He draws on diverse sources from interviews with family and friends to RS's own autobiographical writings to paint a vivid picture of "The Ogre of Wales". As an English speaking Welshman myself I sympathise with RS's identity crisis. But where he went deeper into the west, I ended up going east to preach the gospel to the English. My primary identity is that of a child of God, not a son of Wales. That said, I will reflect on R. S. Thomas' poems with greater understanding as a result of reading this engagingly written biography.

No comments: