How Did I Coax R. S. Thomas Out of Hiding?

RS Thomas Welsh poet May 1993 1993

R.S. Thomas at the Maybank Hotel, Aberdyfi, Cymru, May 1993.

The answer to my title question is: By being who I am.

It’s well known that R. S. Thomas used sour wine to dress his comments about England and the English. And when English-speakers showed up at his door – reporters, perhaps — he spoke Welsh to keep them at bay.

I do not speak Welsh, and my stammering assaults on Llŷn elicited efforts from Thomas, patient ones, to help me pronounce the name of his much-loved peninsula.

So why did Thomas come out of hiding for me?

Thomas may have decided to do so, because I’m an American. Perhaps McEllhenney, my Scots-Irish surname, helped. Whatever made the difference, he responded positively to my second letter.

He agreed to meet me at a B&B on the Llŷn peninsula in August of 1992. During our conversation, I did not flaunt but also made no effort to hide the things I thought we had in common. That, I think, is the portion of truth underlying Richard Holloway’s comment about me.

Holloway, the author of Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt, wrote this endorsement for the back cover of my book A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R. S. Thomas and His Poetry: McEllhenney’s “gift for friendship clearly warmed the flinty heart of the Welshman and coaxed him out of hiding.”

“Gift for friendship”: that’s an aged wine that pleases the nose, but is not to be gulped down.

I’m not a natural schmoozer, so I work at friendship by learning a lot about the other person and then by nudging points of contact into what I say.

Thomas was a priest of the Church in Wales: I’m an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church. He served forty years in parish ministry: so did I. His ‘call’ was prosaic, not poetic: mine, too.

No blinding light struck me down on the Lancaster road. My pastor asked me, Sunday after Sunday, “Have you decided to be a minister?” He thought I had “gifts” for ministry, and the more I thought about it, I was inclined to agree. So when a high school essay called for writing about some career, I selected the ministry, and ended the essay by saying “That’s why I’ve chosen the ordained ministry.”

Thomas tells us that his mother broached the idea that he should be a priest of the Church in Wales. “So,” he writes, “when she saw that her son had no strong objection to the idea of being a candidate for Holy Orders she secretly rejoiced and persuaded her husband to agree to the idea. And the son accepted that he would have to start learning Greek . . . .”

Thomas, when he and I were talking in November of 1994, characterized his call to the priesthood by quoting Jesus’s words about the kingdom of heaven being “like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind” (Matthew 13:47).

Thomas was a hyphenated species of fish: “I was trained to be a priest,” he continued, “I wanted to be a poet.” A poet-priest.

I nodded: I was trained to be a pastor, I wanted to be a pastor-theological thinker-writer.

That point of contact helped me coax Thomas “out of hiding.”

It also helped that I’d been reading Thomas’s poems for twenty years. So I could slip quotes into our conversations.

Which is what I did in the course of an over-dinner conversation. Thomas remarked that “interest in poetry was waning and poetry would disappear.” Responding, I said, “Why so fast, mortal?” He managed a mere hint of a smile of recognition.

Two decades before that exchange, Thomas wrote a poem in which he declared religion dead:

The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; . . .
……….Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
can say.

God gets the last word:

……….        But a voice sounds
In my ear: Why so fast,
mortal? . . .
…………………             You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.

That poem is titled “The Moon in Lleyn” – yes, not Llŷn; Thomas Anglicized the Welsh spelling, and the poem appeared in a book published by Macmillan, a quintessentially English publishing house  in London.

Poetry and prose of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“So when she saw” – “No-One,” Autobiographies, 35.

“The last quarter of the moon” – “The Moon in Lleyn,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 30-31.

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One thought on “How Did I Coax R. S. Thomas Out of Hiding?

  1. Those are alluring glimpses of the poet-priest and his admirer, the pastor-theological thinker-writer. My acquaintance withe former is feeble and non-existent with the latter. I am hoping to improve on that count.

    Incidentally, I love these lines:

    “Who put that crease in you soul,
    Davies, ready this fine morning
    For the staid chapel, where the Book’s frown
    Sobers the sunlight?”

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