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Van Gogh’s Ear V – RS Thomas, the Clint Eastwood of the Spirit

By Darran Anderson.

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RS Thomas was many things but a barrel of laughs was not one of them. He had a seemingly permanent scowl and foreboding air that, as was often-commented, seemed to fit his thin undertaker-style frame. An ordained Anglican priest, he tended to parishes in the dark interior and storm-lashed peninsulas of Wales, the weather and remoteness matching and amplifying his stern character. He was fond of bird-watching, much less so of human beings. An unapologetic Luddite, he banned electrical appliances from his home and delivered rambling diatribes from his pulpit against such things as televisions, microwave ovens and fridges, all of which he saw as the devil’s work. His depiction of Wales was never likely to make it into a tourist brochure (his is a country of inbreeding, rotting carrion and endless rain). Yet he proudly counted himself as a nationalist, refusing to vote for Plaid Cymru as they recognised English authority and advocating the burning of holiday homes, whose absentee owners were pricing locals out of existence in their own land. So remarkably contrary was his nature, that it comes almost as an aside that RS Thomas happened to be one of the 20th century’s finest poets.

“He got very far as a poet, a loner taking on the universe, a kind of Clint Eastwood of the spirit,” Seamus Heaney commented, having pipped him to the Nobel Prize for Literature (it’s doubtful Thomas would have wanted it nor was it likely the committee would really have given it to so volatile a figure, shortlisted or not). Heaney’s description of the poet is a striking and an apt one. You can see Thomas as this silent drifter on the Welsh hills (“Lord, I was not as most men / when they were working, fighting, drinking / I was in the greenwood, thinking / thought to the bone” – Pharisee), casting a cold eye on the world, not callously but with a bitter clarity that comes when you realise that noone can be trusted, not even yourself. Forever overshadowed by his gifted namesake Dylan Thomas, there is no easy way in or quick fix to Ronald Stuart’s work, no Under Milk Wood-style radio play, no quotable Do not go gentle into that good night-type villanelle. Trying to tackle his Collected Poems, a great stone tablet of a book, is a daunting task, like one of those spiritual retreats where someone pays to be starved and flayed on a daily basis in the pursuit of transcendence. Instead, short bursts of his verse are best to appreciate its thundering effects.

RS Thomas despised Wales. At least, it appears that way reading his poetry. But then it was his Wales to despise. As a black hole is the result of an imploded star, a nihilist is just an imploded romantic, dragged into misanthropy by the sheer weight of disappointment. Thomas hated Wales because he loved it intensely or at least loved what it could or should be. They’re two sides of the same coin. Wales, his version of Wales, was a place wracked by “the bladed wind” (Man and Tree), whose people were built from “bare racks of bone” (A Labourer), a land plagued by “the fluke and the foot-rot and the fat maggot” (The Welsh Hill Country). Then there’s the all-out demolition job of Welsh Landscape. It’s hard to think of a poem that is more inappropriately anthologised than this, a poem that seethes with vitriol. I’ve seen it in half a dozen collections and its inclusion alongside the pastoral poetry of Spenser or the Lake Poets is like placing a corpse in the middle of a beauty pageant. It is incredibly powerful because of this. This is poetry as warfare, words as weapons, the magnificent bile and fire of Thomas bursting from every syllable as he surveys his homeland,

“brittle with relics
wind-bitten towers and castles
with sham ghosts;
mouldering quarries and mines;
and an impotent people,
sick with inbreeding,
worrying the carcase of an old song”

Nowhere is Thomas’ tangled web of nationalistic feeling more evident than in A Priest to His People, a hilariously caustic polemic from the pulpit (“men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales / with your sheep and your pigs and your ponies, your sweaty females / how I have hated you…”) against his countrymen, against his own church and himself and the whole stinking world. Yet there is an unmistakable hint of affection in there, buried beneath great archaeological layers of malice but still there. It was shame, in his view, that kept Wales a subject nation. He chastised his countrymen for supposedly forgetting the cause of self-determination, for selling out and deserting, always insinuating that the Welsh were to blame for accepting their colonisation, “elbowing our language / into the grave that we have dug for it” (Reservoir). Yet even this harsh poem demonstrates a dark magical side to Wales, “there are cries in the dark at night / as owls answer the moon / and thick ambush of shadows / hushed at the fields’ corners.”

As a Welshman, Thomas was a mass of contradictions. Yet he was a genuine patriot. Not in the fact he saw the English establishment as philistines (though he most certainly did, mocking “the processions / that go nowhere; the medals / and gold braid; the government’s yearly awards” and “democracy the tip / the rich and the well-born give / for your homage”). Or that he viewed his fellow Welsh particularly well (though he did praise the fact they were “sharp / of bone and wit that is turned / as a knife against us” in Expatriates). Rather it was the fact that he was more critical of the Wales even than her enemies, paradoxical though it might seem, that marked him out as a true patriot. To believe that you cannot hate and love something at the same time is an illusion, a hangover from the either/or, good/evil philosophy of Manichaeist thought. You can and you do, his verse suggests. For it seems the true calling of the patriot to avoid all the smug jingoistic assumptions that keep a place inert and stagnant and instead see the faults of a place as clear and deep as taking an X-ray of a nation’s psyche and then strive ruthlessly to tell them so, so that it may change for the better. It’s a belief related to fallibilism and the Socratic method, by which all belief must be constantly questioned and hammered into shape, and one which applies not only to Thomas but a great many writers (James Joyce had earlier summed up this calling, “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”). It’s not pretty and it’s a thankless task but it’s a vital one.

Complex though his relation to his country was, Thomas was a fearsome advocate. He lamented the theft of his language (“England, what have you done to make the speech / my fathers used a stranger at my lips” – The Old Language). Learning Welsh too late, he became a master of the Master’s tongue, to use it against them (as Joyce and Wilde had before him). Primarily though, he sought to resist attempts to impose cultural amnesia on the natives by stirring up what was forgotten. Professor M. Wynn Thomas has called him “a troubler of the Welsh conscience,” the asker of difficult questions, the pain-bringer, uncovering “the concealed wounds / of history in the comfortable flesh” (The Patriot) because Thomas knew this was the only way to stir action and initiate change. Desperate measures were called for.

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Thomas was to concentrate his feelings into one character: Iago Prytherch. A peasant whose primitivism (or realism) Thomas despises (“there is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind”) but whose resoluteness, whose ability to endure, Thomas cannot help but begrudgingly admire, “remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars / enduring like a tree under the curious stars.” Here is a man as strong, ancient and mute as granite, compared to we of the laughable post-modern world; the hollow men, the men of straw as TS Eliot had us. Prytherch is a man absented from the contrived veneer of civilisation that tries to separate us from the earth and death (to our benefit and loss). Haunted by the archetype, Thomas comes back to him again and again (nearly two dozen times), sometimes as a target for his ire, sometimes to gain some comfort (“Were you ever young, Prytherch…” “You served me well, Prytherch”). Sometimes Iago responds, “I am Prytherch. Forgive me. I don’t know / what you are talking about…” (Invasion on the Farm). Thomas’ opinion of his creation waivers continually back and forth. His thoughts are a battlefield. In one poem Thomas is generous, the next unforgiving. Sometimes he is both at the same time. In Affinity Thomas turns viciously on the reader (and by implication himself) as one not fit to judge the solitary farmer, as one who can offer no better alternative, “Ransack your brainbox, pull out the drawers / that rot in your heart’s dust, and what have you to give / to enrich his spirit or the way he lives?” Though he is scathing and inconsistent, the passion with which Thomas wields his poetic scythe is itself revitalising amidst the gentile shrubbery of much of the poetry of his contemporaries and ours.

The point of Prytherch is that he is unaffected, untainted by the modern world and all its glibness and weaknesses (as demonstrated in the blistering A Peasant). Unlike us, he had never been disconnected from the earth, from the seasons, from the natural process of death. Prytherch bears no neuroses. In a sense, he was born from Thomas’ extreme aversion to the modern world. “Over the creeds / and masterpieces our wheels go,” Thomas mocked in No Answer. In Young and Old, he derided the aircraft that tried to “domesticate the huge sky.” Thomas was a man suspicious, even superstitious, of electricity, of mass communication, of materialism, of all the trappings of supposed progress believing that it not only took us further away from essential truths but that it created fresh hells of its own. Promising some distant Utopia, the scientists, “with their hands full / of the gifts that destroy” (The Hearth), lead us instead to the “nuclear winter” of Formula and the “silicon angels” of Aubade.

Similarly, the ultra-rational explanations of the world seems to never bring comfort, reducing life to “nodes and molecules / pushing against molecules and nodes” (At It). It is a world-view that takes no account of the existence of the human soul, “there is nothing in me / but cells and chromosomes / waiting to beget chromosomes / and cells” (Bravo!). Thomas is just as withering when facing capitalism. In The Interrogation, he recounts the evil done by finance, “the broken bank balances” and “the haemorrhage of… figures.” He continues in Eheu! Fugaces to lambast a world where “Lorca / was innocent and died / young” while “Francis the emperor… lived / on, setting his hand / to barbed treaties.” In Thomas’ world, as our own, the meek never inherited the world as Christ had promised and matters needed to be taken into our own hands but never were. Redemption was forever postponed.

Thomas’ relationship with God was a fraught one. He freely admitted so, “there are times / when a black frost is upon / one’s whole being, and the heart / in its one belfry hangs and is dumb” (The Belfry). There comes reading his work the extraordinary realisation that here is a clergyman, who at times, does not believe in God, “Is this where God hides / from my searching?” (In Church). The image of an absentee God is a recurring one, “he will not come any more / to our lure” (The Empty Church), I “play my recording/of his silence over/and over to myself only” (Revision), “prayers like gravel / flung at the sky’s / window” (Folk Tale). This is a God who does not answer. Yet, this is by no means the priest’s most derisive accusation towards his creator. In Burgos, he paints his deity as a parasite, “shadowless as the God / who made that country and drinks its blood.” In Echoes, the Christian God is a petulant one, “the obstinacy / of its refusal to answer / enraged him.” In The Island, Thomas gives us a cruel malevolent God; “and God said, I will build a church here / and cause this people to worship me / and afflict them with poverty and sickness.”

Unorthodox to the end, Thomas admitted in interviews that a few centuries earlier and the Inquisition would have condemned him as a heretic (implying, along the way, that Christ himself was a poet and the possessor of heretical beliefs in his day). The act of writing itself is arguably a heretical act, in the sense that all great literature is fuelled by doubt, by the questioning of dogma, doctrine and infallibility. Thomas was no monk to be locked away with a vow of silence. In terms of faith, as with nationality, he was a born troublemaker. Thomas takes this to its logical conclusion, following the heretical truth at the heart of all fiction, the fact that the writer is a makeshift God, a usurper, a creator of worlds, expressly imagining himself as such in Making; “and having built it / I set about furnishing it / to my taste: first moss then grass…”

Initially, it seems Thomas’ Bible was solely the Old Testament, a hellfire and brimstone world where Cain slew his brother, Lot’s wife is turned to a pillar of salt and Job is forever tormented (all of which you could imagine happening in the elemental scrubland and mountains of Thomas’ landscape). The pledge of love, redemption and justice for the poor that Christ offered seems an honourable mirage at best. At worst, hope is almost a curse in this land, an affront, making life harder to endure with the false prospect of deliverance, “and in the book I read / God is love. But lifting / my head, I do not find it / so” (Which). In the true sense of a prophet (that is a voice in the wilderness), Thomas raged against this inequity and against God’s silence and inaction, and it led him at times to doubt everything. “I have abandoned / my theories, the easier certainties / of belief. There are no handrails to / grasp” he admits in Balance. In Pre-Cambrian, he laments, “what I need / now is a faith to enable me to out-stare / the grinning faces of the inmates of its asylum.” Faith, for Thomas, was not something you just had but something that you had to fight for, and with, and which was as cold, elusive and distant as the stars.

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This unfulfillment at the centre of his being perhaps made Thomas the cantankerous person, the puritanical preacher but also, in a way, the major poet he was. It goes some way to explaining the almost total pessimism of his writing but also its great strengths. In Country Child, he surveys the waste of a rural life, “so the days will drift into months and the months to years… the crumbling house, and the whisperers on the stairs” (the latter recalling the French phrase L’esprit de l’escalier meaning that moment when you think of a perfect riposte but it is too late to say it). Life is deferred, wisdom arrives too late to help and something else ends up in life’s place; the killing of time, the endless cycle of routine.

What’s undoubted is that RS Thomas was a pessimism-wracked poet. It is not the inertia of the depressive though. His was a pessimism so total you suspect, he would have willingly staged his own Götterdämmerung from his Welsh retreat if he could, harbouring a secret Millenarian desire to end it all with a bang rather than a whimper. It’s there in the lengthy tragedy of Twm in The Airy Tomb, the harrowing The Mill (“It was I it ground”) the incredible yet morbid Death of a Peasant (“I remember also the trapped wind / tearing the curtains, and the wild light’s / frequent hysteria upon the floor”), the masterpiece of remoteness and death Evans (“I left stranded upon the vast / and lonely shore of his bleak bed”), Meet the Family where he introduces John One, John Two and so on (“You have seen that face before / leaning out of the dark past / tortured in thought’s bitter blast”) and perhaps his greatest work the debased On the Farm. There’s the grimness of say watching a Young Tory convention, there’s the grimness of a Daily Mail headline but no one out-grims RS Thomas at his best and bleakest. All of these poems have a feeling of overbearing claustrophobia, of suffocation and conversely Thomas’ overwhelming need to do something rather than nothing, even if it is to destroy it all. Again the fallen romantic becomes the nihilist.

At times, the hatred turns inwards. In Reflections, reproduced on the album sleeve of the Manic’s similarly bleak This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, Thomas confronts the furies that dwelt in his mirror as he aged (“Your face approaching ever so friendly / is the white flag they ignore / there is no truce with the furies… “). This self-doubt led him to title his autobiography Neb; the Welsh for nobody. Through the sheer consistency of his pessimism, Thomas created his own genre; Welsh Gothic. Or you could say his own territory: Thomas-land, a place built from his recurring sentiments and images, a place of deathbeds, winds, hearths, bones, falcons, kettles, stone, stars, rain, ploughs, cold, blood and seas, a Hobbesian environment of predator and prey with death as a cosmic joke by God at all our expenses. This consistency of mood and imagery inevitably leaves RS Tomas open to parody and bathos (“You remember Davies? He died, you know…”) but though it would be extremely easy to construct a poem from the building blocks he used, none could deliver the epiphanies or the sting in the tail as say the final line of On the Farm delivers.

While Thomas is open to accusations of oppressive negativity and a profound lack of humour in his writing, moments of beauty and truth can nevertheless be glimpsed through the cracks; “an orchard of stars in the nights unscaleable boughs” (Country Child), “he would lift idly his hand / and softly the small stars’ / orchestra would begin / playing over the first bars / of the night’s overture” (The Conductor), “the salmon lying in the depths of Llyn Llifon / secretly as a thought in a dark mind” (from the Ted Hughes-influencing The Ancients of the World). Sometimes beauty and bleakness are intertwined; “the quarries of grey rain” (Walter Llywarch) or “the sky’s ruins, gutted with fire / of the late sun, smouldering still” (Hireling).

Neither is this loner poet entirely an intellectual island. There’s his fulsome tribute to his forbear William Butler Yeats (“the amazing / and labyrinth paths of his own impenetrable mind”), containing an admission of kinship yet distance (“too shy of his scornful anger / to presume to pierce the dark, inscrutable glasses”). As a poet, Thomas addresses Kant (Green Categories), Shelley (Song at the Years Turning), Wallace Stevens, Degas, Picasso and a host of painters. He finds kindred existential spirits in Søren Kierkegaard and the firing-squad convert Dostoyevsky (pondering the puzzle that is Ivan Karamazov). In Taste, Thomas even gives a run-down of who he admires and who he dismisses from the ranks of literary greats, “Dryden I could not abide / nor the mincing fratricide / of Pope.”

On occasion, Thomas broke free of the prison he’d built for himself in terms of subject matter, dreaming up a shipwreck in The Survivors, Red Indian visions in the remarkable Omens (“Over the steaming entrails / he saw the first white man come with his guns and jails”) and the moon landings in Astronauts. Old age was confronted with an always honest mix of stark frustration and resignation; trying to ambush mirrors in Looking Glass, writing withering put-downs to aspiring poets (Unposted) and confronting mortality in the heart-breaking A Marriage.

In the end, you get the impression that deep down Thomas was conscious of how he was seen and of how he was, it was an armour, “his first defence against a material world.” Lore begins typically with “the slow poison / and treachery of the seasons” but counters “Miserable? Kick my arse! It needs more than the rain’s hearse… to pull me off / the great perch of my laugh.” Whether the laugh was directed towards himself, towards us or life and death in general, only Thomas knew.

“Dreams clustering thick on his sallow skull.” What is the measure of a man who can write such a line? Should we admire him, pity him or fear him? RS Thomas was a contrary soul. He does not sit easily in the mind, in Welsh culture, in theology or the poetic canon. In a world of wimp poets and fence-sitters, this is his saving grace. He was one who would never be tamed, who did not fit in and so blazed his own trail and we are a poorer world without him.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is an Irish writer and 3:AM’s poetry editor. He recently completed a novel entitled The Ship is Sinking and his poetry chapbook Tesla’s Ghost is forthcoming this year from Blackheath Books.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 8th, 2009.