For a number of years, I taught a two-week course at a study center in the West Village of New York City, just a few steps away from the White Horse Tavern. It’s touristy now, but back in the day it was where another Welsh poet surnamed Thomas, Dylan Thomas, boozed himself into the long dark.
Sometime before Dylan died, he admonished his dying father: “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
While Dylan admonished his father, R. S. Thomas admonished the people of Wales: Do not go gentle into that cultural night. / Rage, rage against the dying of Welsh light.
Yes, I know that my version messes with Dylan’s rhythm and sounds, but perhaps it will help us hold onto one of R.S.’s passions – the rescuing of traditional Welshness from the floodwaters of modernity.
Because of those waters, there were places in Wales that Thomas shunned:
There are places in Wales I don’t go:
Reservoirs that are the subconscious
Of a people, troubled far down
With gravestones, chapels, villages even;
The serenity of their expression
Revolts me, . . .
One of Thomas’s unvisited reservoirs was Llyn Celyn, which was formed by flooding the valley of the River Tryweryn – all to assure a steady rush of Welsh water through English pipes.
The submerging of the village of Capel Celyn – with its chapel, school, post office, houses, and farms – was, as the water authorities saw it, an unfortunate consequence of making certain that Liverpool did not run dry. A matter of collateral damage.
Thomas saw it as a matter of cultural vandalism.
The serene expressions on the faces of such reservoirs as Llyn Celyn are, for Thomas, the smile of modernity as it flows over tradition. And the remains of Capel Celyn at the bottom of the reservoir are the ruins of traditional Welsh life – of villages that scarcely merit the title of “village”:
Scarcely a street, too few houses
To merit the title; just a way between
The one tavern and the one shop
That leads nowhere and fails at the top
Of the short hill, eaten away
By long erosion of the green tide
Of grass creeping perpetually nearer
This last outpost of time past.
So little happens; the black dog
Cracking his fleas in the hot sun
Is history. Yet the girl who crosses
From door to door moves to a scale
Beyond the bland day’s two dimensions.
Stay, then, village, for round you spinsOn slow axis a world as vastAnd meaningful as . . . .
I’m cutting Thomas short to allow you to create your own conclusion, and to allow me to say: Thomas yearned for villages to stay.
Villages, he thought, needed to keep their place in Wales, for villages are close to the soil, which allows village people to follow “a green calendar.” “Here all is sure,” Thomas says of a village; “Things exist rooted in the flesh, / Stone, tree and flower.”
People in villages live, not in isolation, but in community. Yes, a community of gossip, but also a community of mutual support and love. A community of continuity, singing the old songs, dancing the traditional dances, retelling the twice-told tales.
The loss, then, of any Welsh village was, for Thomas, the loss of the place that offered the best model for the future of human life.
After all of modernity’s urban experiments, of Le Corbusier’s houses as “machines for living in,” of the cookie-cutter apartment complexes of improvers and despoilers, it just might be the Welsh village, with its hodgepodge of cottages and old trees, that offered the best model for the future of Welsh life.
You may accuse Thomas of playing truant from the twentieth century, of romanticizing the village. But if you do, take note that he was in good company: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Vita Sackville-West, E. M. Forster, among many others. Now called Romantic Moderns, they participated in a back-to-the-village movement. All because they feared that idolizing the new, the modern, was to court cultural night; to acquiesce in the dying of traditional light.
Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“There are places in Wales I don’t go” – “Reservoirs,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 26.
“Scarcely a street, too few houses” – “The Village,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 98.
“a green calendar” – “Green Categories,” Poetry for Supper, 19.
“Here all is sure” – “Green Categories,” Poetry for Supper, 19.