Center top: an announcement – “RS Thomas, Vicar of St Hywyn, 1967-1978.” Below to the right: a case containing three CDs of Thomas reading his poems. On the left side of that shelf: the recently released R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems. Below that volume: a stack of Thomas’s Collected Poems 1945-1990. And my book in the center: A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R. S. Thomas and His Poetry.
Twenty-one years ago, when I sauntered around Saint Hywyn’s Church with Thomas, it was all but impossible to find any evidence that “one of the few outstanding poets of the twentieth century” had been the parish priest there. Yes, the chandelier designed by his wife, Elsi, was hanging in the nave. Yes, the poet nominated, a few years later, for the Nobel Prize for Literature was standing beside me. But if strangers had entered the church to kill time until the pub opened, they would have picked up no hint that the church was to become, in the twenty-first century, a magnet for spiritual and literary pilgrims.
And when these pilgrims arrive, the book that began that day as a dim glow in the back of my mind, is now there for them to page through, perhaps to purchase.
I confess that I grin whenever I look at the picture of Saint Hywyn’s bookshelf provided by Sue of Aberdaron, who has led me into the temptation of pride.
There will be more in future blogs about Saint Hywyn’s as a pilgrimage destination. For now, let me begin to unpack this post’s title.
It’s natural to assume, when you note my usual way of identifying Thomas as a poet-priest and a doubting-believer, that priest-Thomas is the believer, that poet-Thomas is the doubter.
As a priest, Thomas had been trained to uphold in his century the centuries-old tradition of Christian belief. He was ordained to lead people into the presence of God, to baptize, to preside at the Eucharist, to invoke God’s blessing on marriages, to speak words of peace and hope at funerals.
As a poet, he responded to the nudges of the Muse – in Henri Matisse’s term, to the poétique of the moment – and the Muse is nothing if not contemporary.
The world that was contemporary for Thomas, the world of the second two-thirds of the twentieth century, was a doubt-infested world – a world in which the credo of many people was: “God is dead.” God had suffocated in the gas-filled trenches of the First World War, had been cremated in the gas-ovens of the Second World War.
So Thomas the priest must have embodied the “believer” half of “doubting-believer,” and Thomas the poet must have embodied the “doubter” half.
Yes, to a certain extent, but no . . . . even an emphatic no!
For Thomas’s belief was strengthened by the poet in Thomas, while Thomas’s doubt was augmented by the priest in Thomas. Nature invigorated his belief in God, the Bible and the church may have sapped it.
What do I mean?
Stay connected for this coming Sunday’s blog.
Quote used in this blog:
“one of the few outstanding poets of the twentieth century” – Belinda Humfrey and Anne Price-Owen, David Jones: Diversity in Unity, viii.