Book extract part 4: Letters from Wales – Sam Adams on R.S Thomas
We are pleased to be publishing a selection of letters from the newly published volume by Sam Adams which gathers together some of his columns for the poetry magazine PN Review. Here he profiles fellow poet R.S.Thomas.
I thought in my last letter, with its closing critique of our prying cult of celebrity, I had written as much as I would wish to write for a while about R.S. Thomas. But I had not then read the recent biography of the poet by Byron Rogers, The Man Who Went Into The West (Aurum, 2006).
At a time when literary biographies are typically heavyweight, almost day-by-day accounts of their subjects, this manages to reveal R.S. in all his complexity without wearying the reader with exhaustive detail.
There is not an ounce of solemnity in the book and, though I can envisage a reaction in some quarters against what might be perceived as undue levity in the unfolding of the story, I prefer to think of it as lightness of touch that will commend it to the general as much as to serious students of the man and his work.
If you have previously seen R.S. as ‘the ogre of Wales’, you will find here evidence of eccentric asceticism, extraordinary solitariness within marriage (to Elsi, who, as Mildred Elsie Eldridge, had been one of the brightest young artists of the late 1930s), failure to connect with others, including his own son, and antipathy to contemporary life amply to support your opinion.
If you were previously an admirer of his subtle intellect and straight-speaking honesty, his granite principle and, above all, his poetry, here too you will find vindication of your views.
He was an unusual vicar: he disliked all hymns and had no small talk for parishioners, preferring to hide behind hedges to avoid meeting them and even to vault the churchyard wall rather condole with the bereaved.
But then again he performed his pastoral duties religiously, sat with the sick and dying, wrote in parish magazines, urged backsliders to attend services, preached hundreds of sermons.
John Ormond, himself a poet of real stature (who has had nothing like the recognition he merits), and an outstanding BBC film-maker, interviewed him in 1972 for R.S. Thomas, Priest and Poet.
I remember it well as I was given the job of approaching Ormond to ask if a transcript of the broadcast could be made available for publication in Poetry Wales, and having obtained it, of writing an introduction that appeared with it in an R.S. Thomas special number (Vol.7, No.4, Spring 1972).
I read it then, as I do now, with astonishment at the interviewee’s readiness to speak about his first encounters with hill farmers, the physical paradigms of Iago Prytherch, and with a frankness that, at the time, probably gave his bishop qualms about the unorthodox nature of his belief, when I knew him to be the most obdurately taciturn of men.
Ormond told me it had been far from easy but he had managed it by joining R.S. watching seabirds from a cliff top near Aberdaron. For a long time they sat together in silence before he risked a question: did the poet-priest seek out lonely spots to think?
The seabirds wheeled, the wind blew, the tide began to turn and, at last, R.S. admitted that in such places he did indeed think. Ormond tried again: what was it that he thought about? A pause ensued during which the tide receded a fair way down the shore, then, ‘Oh, this and that.’
However slow and halting the initial exchange, Ormond won his trust and with marvellous tact obtained from him a more complete statement of his poetic and religious philosophy than he had ever confessed before, and worth repeating now:
‘I’m a solitary, I’m a nature mystic; and silence and slowness and bareness have always appealed … God, reality, whatever it is, is not going to be forced, it’s not going to be put to the question, it works in its own time … The message of the New Testament is poetry. Christ was a poet, the New Testament is a metaphor, the Resurrection is a metaphor … My work as a poet has to deal with the presentation of imaginative truth. Christianity also seems to me to be a presentation of imaginative truth.
‘Of course, I’m using the word imagination in the Coleridgean sense, which is the highest means known to the human psyche of getting into contact with the ultimate reality … one has been blessed with these sudden glimpses of eternity … glimpses of this eternal ultimate reality which one gets in Wales when the sun suddenly strikes through a gap in the clouds and falls on some small field and the trees around.
‘There’s a kind of timeless quality about this, one feels. Well this is eternity, if only one could lay hold on it … I firmly believe this, that eternity is not something over there, not something in the future; it is close to us, it is all around us and at any given moment one can pass into it; but there is something about our mortality … that makes it somehow difficult if not impossible to dwell, whilst we are in the flesh, to dwell permanently … in what I would call the Kingdom of Heaven. But that it is close and that … we get these glimpses of it, is certainly my most deeply held conviction.’
R.S. Thomas didn’t shirk the duties that earned him a meagre living from the Anglican Church, which in return allowed him the time to practise his true vocation.
Towards the end of his life, in his last parish at Aberdaron and especially in retirement in a cottage named ‘Sarn’ overlooking Porth Neigwl or ‘Hell’s Mouth’ at the tip of the Llyn peninsula (leased to him for life by friends), he was at last socially at ease in a remote Welsh-speaking community.
Even then there was a curious epilogue. After the death of his wife of almost fifty-one years, in 1996 he remarried. Betty Vernon, like him an octogenarian, had three previous husbands to her credit, smoked and swore and drank. They travelled widely and were happy together.
And he continued to write prolifically to the end. The exuberant Betty told Rogers that she had burned three bags of poems after he died, claiming, ‘We had a very close understanding, and I can judge poems. He just churned them out.’
There were plenty left for Wynn Thomas to bring out the posthumous Residues (Bloodaxe, 2002), and they continue to turn up unexpectedly in odd corners and between the pages of secondhand books.
In the second half of the twentieth century Wales had in R.S. Thomas the foremost religious poet of the Anglican persuasion (a denomination surely supple enough now to accommodate a nature mystic without demur), and the foremost Nonconformist poet in Roland Mathias.
They were very close contemporaries (Thomas was born in 1913 and Mathias, happily still with us, in 1915) and had much in common.
Both played rugby, Mathias a good deal more successfully, both were great walkers, at home on mountain and moor, both were pacifists, Mathias coming to that determination earlier and sticking to it despite prison, while R.S. later became active in CND.
They knew one another, of course, and had (have) a lifelong mutual friend in Raymond Garlick, first editor of Dock Leaves/The Anglo-Welsh Review, whose correspondence from Thomas is extensively quoted by Rogers.
Garlick persuaded Thomas to review Mathias’s third book of poems, The Roses of Tretower. He might have taken on the job with gritted teeth, for as a rule he didn’t write reviews or commit time to literary criticism.
In any event, the review (in Dock Leaves No.8) begins inauspiciously – ‘Mr. Mathias is one of the younger members of the, by this time, rather tatterdemalion school of Anglo-Welsh writers’ – and goes on to censure the ‘younger’ poet (by two years) for being stylistically ‘Protean’, for having fallen under the influence of Dylan Thomas, and for ‘rather contorted’ lines that raise the ‘vexed question of intelligibility’.
He has praise for language used ‘in a taut and robust way’ and those poems that have a connection with Wales, but there is no acknowledgement of the many poems in the book that have Christian themes or allusions – a curious omission for a practising poet and Anglican cleric.
Mathias, one of the finest critics of his time, regularly reviewed Thomas’s books and wrote an important article about his poetry. While admiring the other’s great strengths as a poet, he cannot disguise his disappointment at the absence of clear religious and moral guidance in what is, after all, the work of a priest.
That R.S. appeared unsympathetic to Nonconformist faith did not help. Both visited, at different times, and wrote poems on ‘Maesyronnen’, a sadly dilapidated 300-year-old chapel in Radnorshire.
While Mathias is inspired by the evangelical spirit that spread forth from one of the historic homes of Puritanism and confirmed in his faith, Thomas sniffs ‘the stale piety mouldering within’ and is more interested in birds singing among the rafters.
Mathias’s religious conviction was not easily won, nor is it held without rigorous self-interrogation (one of the mainsprings of his finest poetry), but in the end it is always there.
He is at one with the founding fathers of his faith, though doubting his capacity to live up to their exacting standards. No wonder he has found it difficult to come to terms with R.S.’s failure clearly to profess his religion.
‘I should have liked,’ he wrote in a review of Thomas’s H’m, ‘to feel that through the struggle of a poet who is also a priest (and who wasn’t quite so glib about equating the two functions) I was being shown something that might be my struggle too.’
The argument could never be concluded, but we must regret that, because of the stroke he suffered in 1986, Mathias did not have the opportunity to discuss Thomas’s later writings, such as his prose contribution to Britain: A World by Itself (Aurum, 1984), which is quoted by Rogers.
Entitled ‘A Thicket in Lleyn’, it is, I think, more moving than the poem of the same name, which, I admit, I had forgotten. The narrative is the same: the poet enters a spinney where the trees are October bare, but just then leaved with tiny birds, goldcrests on their migration route.
He enters so quietly that they perceive and accept him as no more than another tree and for a moment, before they fly on, the ‘other realities’ of his human existence are somehow suspended and he is elsewhere, ‘part of the infinite I AM’.
I don’t know whether Mathias read this, but if he did, I am sure he must have been spellbound by its description of mystical experience, as I was last week.
Sam Adams will be in conversation with Dai Smith and Emma Schofield at Hay Festival on Friday 2 June 2023, 2.30pm, tickets available here.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.