The sign commanded: “Give Blood.”
R. S. Thomas harrumphed: “We Welsh have given enough blood to the English.”
Thomas, my wife, and I had just walked through the main hall of the University of Wales, Bangor, where Thomas studied Classics from 1932 to 1935. He liked, he said, the university’s old buildings, but not the tacked-on modern “excrescenses.”
Thomas turned his glare from the “excrescences” to a sandwich board promoting a student blood drive: “We Welsh have given enough blood to the English.”
For centuries, the young men of Wales gave their blood in the fighting of England’s “fool wars”: “We were,” Thomas writes,
. . . a people wasting ourselves
In fruitless battles for our masters,
In lands to which we had no claim,
With men for whom we felt no hatred.
The next time Thomas brought up England, there was a twinkle in his eye. As we walked down towards the tennis courts, he recalled that he’d been going that way back in the 1930s, on a day when many students were lined up to greet the Prince of Wales – “it was before that American woman, Mrs. Simpson, nabbed him.”
The students cheered Thomas.
Let the sham Welsh, he thought, cool their heels waiting for the scion of the English House of Windsor. Thomas would play lawn tennis, which – Thomas could never escape irony – was invented, in 1873, by an Englishman, Major Walter Wingfield, and first played at a garden party in Wales.
Thomas, Nancy, and I continued our walk down from the university into the heart of Bangor, where we visited the Cathedral of St. Deiniol. As we were looking round the nave, Thomas grumbled about the English labels on the carvings. When I pointed to some in Welsh, he snarled, “Afterthoughts.”
Always, I think, there was an element of the gentleman protests too much about Thomas’s pro-Welsh, anti-English screeds. After all, learning Welsh was an afterthought for him, too. His birth language was English. He learned Latin and Greek before he began, in his late twenties, learning Welsh.
But, because Thomas insisted that poetry can only be written in the language sucked in with one’s mother’s milk, he lamented:
I can’t speak my own
Language – Iesu,
All those good words;
And I outside them.
There’s truth, if not the whole truth – and the whole truth of Thomas eludes us – in saying that Thomas was always outside. In Wales, he seemed like a man who spoke posh English as he decried the attitudes and behavior of the people of Wales. In England, he appeared to be a masterful positioner of English words in the praise of all things Welsh.
The Thomas he wanted to be, he never was; and the Thomas he didn’t want to be, he was.
He was always giving Welsh blood to the English, and his use of Welsh was always an afterthought.
Poem by R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“fool wars” – “The Parlour,” Welsh Airs, 40.
“We were a people wasting ourselves” – ”Welsh History,” Welsh Airs, 9.
“I can’t speak my own” – “Welsh,” Welsh Airs, 19.