R. S. Thomas: A Dour Poet Having Fun

Don’t remember when I read it . . . Did I save it? . . . If so, where?

At least, I know perfectly well why I recalled the typo in the listing of the title of one of R. S. Thomas’s books.

It was the chance discovery that Harper Lee was once identified as the author of To Kill a Hummingbird.

I smiled, remembering that Thomas’s No Truce with the Furies was somewhere titled No Truce with the Fairies.

The typist may, subconsciously, have wanted to soften RS’s opponents, perhaps seeing fairies as more benign than furies.

Or was the typist hinting at homophobia in RS?

Two of his short poems could be used to support that hint. The first appears in No Truce with the Furies (1995):

In queenlier times
the quaint was the known quantity
the knight was in quest of.
In the age of the quark
the queer’s quandary is
that he is not quite.

The second poem was published two years after RS died:

Aladdin? Alas.
A lad in a lass.
Alas for Aladdin,
a lass with a lad
in or, alas, a lass.

Are we to understand these poems as statements of a poet-priest’s position on the question of homosexuality?

The poems are effervescences of RS’s mind. Exuberances of his Muse. What happens when you’ve downed too many pints of Guinness.

RS was simply having fun with words, their sounds, their sounds spread across his rhythms, their rhymes.

For the sequence of poems titled “Anybody’s Alphabet,” he wrote 26 poems, each featuring words that begin with one of the letters of the alphabet. Because there are relatively few “q” words – only 22 pages of them compared with 370 pages of “p” words in my massive two-volume Oxford Dictionary – finding interesting “q” words for every line of even a six-line poem is challenging . . . and fun.

The second poem is an updated example of “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Say “Aladdin? Alas” fast, faster, as fast as your tongue can run . . . and your tongue will soon trip over itself.

Which is the fun RS had in mind for your tongue.

What these two short poems show us, then, is not a poet-priest stating his position on homosexuality.

They show us one of the all-time great poets of God, of doubt and belief, entertaining us with a word-circus. They show us a man often depicted as only dour, breaking out into a broad grin.

Having fun.


R.S. Thomas quotes used in this blog:

“In queenlier times” – “Anybody’s Alphabet,” No Truce with the Furies (1995), 90.

“Aladdin? Alas.” – “Aye!. There’s the rub.” – Residues (2002), 29).


6 thoughts on “R. S. Thomas: A Dour Poet Having Fun

  1. This is a side of RS that I knew existed, he has written about the joy of playing with words, however, didn’t realise that he’d published some of his musings. I shall use this to enlighten others, when I hear them trot out the paraphrases that he was a ‘dark’ man writing ‘dark’ poetry

    • Thanks, Susan; I wrote this post to help counter the gloomy perceptions of RS. They are, of course, based on biographical facts and many of his poems. But not all of the facts, not all of the poems; therefore the dour, stony-faced RS is a half-truth.

  2. RS was entertaining us with a “word-circus!” What an inspired phrase. One that doesn’t allow us to strap him into strait jackets of interpretation.

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