An Awkward Sod for God | An Assessment of R.S. Thomas on the 13th Anniversary of His Death

Poet R.S. Thomas 1994

R.S. Thomas in 1994

Today, the thirteenth anniversary of R. S. Thomas’s death, is a good time for reflecting on his legacy.

After my last visit with Thomas, in November of 1994, I drove on to his theological college, where I talked with the college’s head, John Rowlands, about how Thomas was viewed in Wales at large and in the Church in Wales, of which Thomas was a priest.

Rowlands said the general Welsh attitude was “Who will rid us of this turbulent priest?” While among his fellow churchmen, Thomas was often dismissed as eccentric and pessimistic, as a doom and gloom poet.

Speaking for himself, Rowlands compared Thomas to John the Baptist, saying that both men were voices crying out in the wilderness (Mark 1:3) of cultures that were under the heel of invading powers. In the case of John’s country, Palestine, the invader was Rome, whose officials worshiped the emperor as a god.

In the case of Thomas’s Wales, the invader was England, but England understood as a symbol for a culture dominated by technology, consumerism, and the worship of greed as a god.

Rowlands then said that Thomas was a prophet who was not without honor except in his own country (Mark 6:4).

Recently, during an interview on BBC’s HARDtalk, Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, said that prophets are “awkward sods.”

For me, R. S. Thomas is an awkward sod for God – the preeminent religious poet of the twentieth and, I predict, the twenty-first centuries.

He speaks as a poet-prophet between two groups eager to be rid of him as a turbulent poet-priest. On the one side are unbelievers who refuse to hear him because he believes in God; on the other are believers who refuse to hear him because he often expresses doubts about God.

The first group, people more likely to read serious poetry, look for poets who do not bother them with God-talk.

This past Sunday, strolling along Nassau Street in Princeton, a magnet drew me into Labyrinth Books, where I stood delighted in front of the largest poetry selection I’ve seen for years. But not one book by R. S. Thomas.

I’m certain that if I were to stop in at one of the “Christian” bookstores in my area, I’d not find one book by R. S. Thomas.

Yet John Rowlands predicted, in 1994, that Thomas would be read for years to come. And I still agree.

I think there are soft edges of the two groups described above – edges that are breaking away and becoming spiritual pilgrims once more.

Thomas’s last parish, Saint Hywyn’s in Aberdaron, was an age-old pilgrimage destination – a tiny port where pilgrims boarded boats to carry them across a treacherous sound to the island of Bardsey, where, according to legend, the dust of twenty thousand saints is mingled with the soil.

Thomas refers to Bardsey in these lines:

There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, . . .

Thomas made that treacherous boat trip many times while he lived in Aberdaron, but he questioned whether Bardsey would ever again attract pilgrims. In fact, however, the island and Saint Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron are now doing just that, largely because of Thomas and his poetry.

But in one of his poems written while he lived in Aberdaron, Thomas places pilgrimage in a larger context:

  . . . In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. . . .

A growing number of people are, I think, becoming readers of Thomas’s poems, because a growing number of people are becoming unsatisfied with the thoughts of thinkers with final thoughts on both sides of the God-question.

These people of the middle way between doubt and belief are seekers at ease with endless seeking, for they know that not reaching a goal keeps them open to life’s suddenly moments – times when an unexpected revelation becomes, in Robert Frost’s words, “a momentary stay against confusion.”

For many persons in his day, Thomas may have been a prophet without honor in his own country, simply an awkward sod who sounded as if everything machine-like gave him heartburn; who gave atheists fits because he believed in God, and who gave theists fits because he often stormed at God “with the eloquence / of the abused heart.”

But for an increasing number of people, Thomas is an awkward sod for God, a poet-pilgrim leading other pilgrims who know . . .

It is too late to start
For destinations not of the heart.

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“There is an island there is no going” – “Pilgrimages,” Frequencies, 51.

“In cities that” – “The Moon in Lleyn,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 30-31.

“with the eloquence” – “At It,” Frequencies, 15.

“It is too late to start” – “Here,” Tares, 43.

Who Supplied R.S. Thomas with Barbed Arrows? England Did.

welsh flag and british union jackOften in my blog postings I’ve traced the trajectory of the barbed arrows that R. S. Thomas shot over Offa’s Dyke into England, all the while neglecting to say that he was using re-barbed arrows – arrows the English had been lobbing into Wales for centuries.

Many English children were weaned on this rhyme:

Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief;
Taffy came to my house
And stole a piece of beef.

No wonder kids grow up prejudiced.

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1, the Welshman Glendower speaks some Welsh words, and Hotspur says, “Now I perceive the devil understands Welsh.”

Centuries later, R. S. Thomas responds:

Even God had a Welsh name:
We spoke to him in the old language; . . .

In 1905, British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith said: “I would sooner go to hell than to Wales.”

Perhaps he got his druthers.

One of the characters in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall (1928) opines: “I often think that we can trace almost all of the disasters of English history to the influence of Wales.”

Perhaps, then, England should’ve kept its bloody nose out of Cymru.

In 1998, A. A. Gill identified the Welsh people as “loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls.”

Well, now, ain’t that nice.

In 2010, an associate editor of The Spectator magazine described the Welsh as “miserable, seaweed munching, sheep-bothering pinch-faced hill-tribes.”

By comparison, Thomas shot spatterings from a paintball gun at the English.

Wales has been called “England’s first colony.” It was defined by Offa’s Dyke around 790, largely ruled by Norman lords after 1066, invaded by Edward I in 1282, and annexed to England during Henry VIII’s reign in the middle of the sixteenth century.

Thomas observes:

To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went to the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses. . . .

Thomas saw the situation of the Welsh as being similar to that of the Native Americans, who were viewed by their European conquerors and colonizers as savages unworthy of being the proper occupants of a rich land; as pagans, and as a cultureless people.

The Native Americans resisted, of course, were ruthlessly punished, and penned up in ‘reservations’ for daring to defend their land, their spirituality, and their culture.

Perhaps the anti-English attitude of Thomas that most galled the English was his refusal to condemn the firebombing, from 1979 to 1994, of unoccupied English-owned holiday cottages in Wales.

“Wales has been dominated by England for 400 years,” Thomas reminded Gareth Parry in 1993. “People get all worked up if there’s any suggestion of violence . . . this is what is so ridiculous.”

“I always take this position, you must confront the English with the fact of the matter; they are the most unashamedly nationalist people in the world.”

Of all people, Americans should understand what Thomas is saying: They celebrate the dumping of tea chests laden with English property into Boston’s harbor.

Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“Even God had a Welsh name” – “Welsh Testament,” Tares, 39.

“To live in Wales is to be conscious” – “Welsh Landscape,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 63.

The prose quotes are from an article by Gareth Parry titled “Poet-priest with fire in the belly,” published in The Guardian, Monday, March 29, 1993.

A Celebration of R.S. Thomas | All Saints Church, Princeton, September 21st

Poet R.S. Thomas 1994

R.S. Thomas in 1994

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of R. S. Thomas. He was born in Cardiff, Wales, on March 29, 1913.

Although there have been many celebratory events in Wales, the first one that I know of in the United States is scheduled for September 21st at All Saints Episcopal Church in Princeton, New Jersey.

This web site describes the program and provides registration details for the event titled “Anglican Words and Music: A Celebration of R. S. Thomas”:

The celebration will conclude with a service of Choral Evensong, including the world premier of a new “Anthem for St. David of Wales” by Paul Mealor, Welsh composer of “Ubi Caritas” for the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton; recently, Novello and Co., a major music publisher, accepted the anthem for publication.

You’ll see that I’m lecturing on “R. S. Thomas as I knew him.” The full title is “R. S. Thomas as I Knew Him: Poet-Priest of the Hyphenated Way.”

Some of my thoughts have been tried out in blogs. Here’s one I’m working on:

R. S. Thomas faulted his mother for infecting him with the English language that he sucked in with her breast milk.

His tone is sour as he writes about being born in an Englishified Wales:

                 . . . I was
born into the squalor of
their feeding and sucked their speech
in with my mother’s
infected milk, so that whatever
I throw up now is still theirs.

Thomas believed that great poetry can only be written in one’s birth language. Since his was English, whatever poems he threw up belonged to the English, because the poems were written in their tongue.

Less bitterly, he asks:

Why must I write so?
I’m Welsh, see:
A real Cymro,
Peat in my veins.
I was born late;
She claimed me,
Brought me up nice,
No hardship;
Only the one loss,
I can’t speak my own
Language – Iesu,
All those good words;
And I outside them, . . .

Eventually, Thomas did get inside the words of the Welsh language, far enough inside to converse in Welsh, preach in Welsh, publish prose writings in Welsh.

But . . . not to write poetry in Welsh.

But . . . he told me, in 1992, “I prefer French poetry to Welsh.”

The same day, he talked about the pretty Welsh girls who were his nurses while he was hospitalized for hernia surgery: “But when they spoke, they mixed in English words with their poor Welsh.”

But . . . the most startling but of all: In November of 1994, as Thomas, my wife, and I walked through the main building of his university college, he remarked that the classics department in his day emphasized Latin, not Greek, authors. “I never cared for the Romans,” he said; “I much preferred the Greeks.” Later, he put classics aside to concentrate on learning Welsh – a decision he now “regretted.”

At age 81, Thomas “regretted” the time he devoted to learning the language that he had faulted his mother for denying him his birthright use of.

The truth about R. S. Thomas is never simple and therefore, to use the German word, he is Jedermann.

You and I, whether we’re willing to admit it or not, have brain circuitry through which contradictions surge, and, in Thomas’s words, probably referring to himself: “A mouth thoughts escaped / from unfledged.”

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“I was / born into the squalor of” – “It hurts him to think,” What Is a Welshman?, 12.

“Why must I write so?” – “Welsh,” The Bread of Truth, 15.

“A mouth thoughts escaped” – “A Life,” Experimenting With an Amen, 52.

“I Was Skivvy to RS That Evening” | Another Take on R. S. Thomas

Entrance Drive of Carreg Plas

Entrance Drive of Carreg Plas

In the course of planning my visit with R. S. Thomas, scheduled for August of 1992, I wrote and told him that I’d booked a room at Carreg Plas. He responded, saying that he didn’t know it, and anyway it was probably run by Englishmen who were perfectly happy in the United Kingdom of England, Wales, and Scotland.

Not wanting to get off to a cranky start with Thomas, I wrote back and asked him to suggest a Welsh-owned B & B. No, he answered, best stick with your plans. The Welsh have skivvied for the English for so long that they don’t know how to properly manage things themselves.

It was my first experience of being caught in the collision of contradictions that was R. S. Thomas.

The day I arrived at Carreg Plas was blue-sky warm, and so was the welcome I received from Barbara and David. Immediately, they served me a pot of tea with cakes; then showed me to my room, the Aberdaron, chosen, I felt sure, because they knew I was there to meet R. S. Thomas, the former vicar of St. Hywyn’s Church, Aberdaron.

In the evening, David made certain that I had dinner companions, then served Barbara’s delicious roast chicken dinner, followed by apple pudding with custard and whipped cream.

The next morning, about 11:30, R.S. parked his white VW hatchback in front of Carreg Plas, went into the lounge with me, and enjoyed the coffee that David and Barbara served. The English couple could not have been more hospitable to the prickly Welshman, and my recollection is that his response was gracious.

St Hywyn's Churchyard Abe

St Hywyn’s Churchyard and Aberdaron Bay

That afternoon, Thomas took me to his stone-cottage home and then to the Church of St. Hywyn in Aberdaron. Back at Carreg Plas, there was tea for us in the lounge. When Barbara’s dinner was ready, David seated us and served a fish savory, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, two kinds of potatoes, several veggies, and a pudding with fresh fruit.

Clearly, the English couple had accorded me – Thomas, too – gracious Welsh hospitality. And, needless to say, I didn’t tell them what Thomas had said in his letters . . . .

Until . . . .

Twenty-one years later my book A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R. S. Thomas and His Poetry reached Aberdaron, carried there by a friend, an Episcopal priest in New Jersey. She gave the book to a woman named Sue, who has achieved remarkable success in her efforts to make Aberdaron and St. Hywyn’s Church a pilgrimage destination for lovers of Thomas’s poetry.

And Sue did something for which I am grateful – grateful, because it helps me paint a more rounded portrait of Thomas, and because it allows me to say thank you to David.

Sue showed my book to David of Carreg Plas, who is now the treasurer of St. Hywyn’s Church.

David read the exchange of letters between R.S. and me, told Sue that he remembered when I had invited Thomas to Carreg Plas for dinner, and said, “I was skivvy to R.S. that evening.”

Later, he said that “R.S. was indulging his usual hobby horse, which he was trotting out.”

R.S. had a number of hobby horses; this one being his vision of a Welsh-speaking Wales – a Wales in which people were still rooted in the natural world and steeped in Welsh history and poetry.

It was a view through nostalgia-tinted eyeglasses. But Thomas was clear-eyed in his recognition of what would be lost if the world’s small countries with their distinctive languages and cultures were to pass away.

Writing to me on October 6, 1995, he said: “There is a conference of minority cultures in Barcelona in November, where I will be part of the Welsh delegation.” The delegates acknowledged the significance of small-country cultures to the development of Western civilization; also the contemporary importance of developing dialogue among them, while simultaneously preserving their particular tongues and traditions.

In my blog next Sunday, I’ll propose a reason for why R.S. dug his spurs with almost cavalry-charge intensity into his Welsh hobby horse.

For now . . .

I’m sorry, David (if you get to read this blog), that R.S.’s venting of his anti-English spleen reached you after all these years. (I’ve often wondered what he said about this American when I was not within earshot.) But I’m grateful for the opportunity to say a hearty thank you for the hospitality that you and Barbara showered on me . . . and R. S. Thomas . . . on August 12, 1992.

“A Succession of Duds” | R.S. Thomas’s Memories of U.S. Presidents

With one exception, R. S. Thomas never talked with me about American politics.

The break in that rule came on November 9, 1994, the day after the mid-term elections during President Clinton’s first four years in office. Television’s nattering heads were agog with the Republican “sweep” that launched Newt Gingrich’s firecracker career, which prompted Thomas to refer to recent U.S. presidents as “a succession of duds.”

How many “duds,” I wondered, does it take to make a “succession”? “Recent” certainly included Clinton and the first Bush. What about Reagan? Ford? Carter? Thomas didn’t say, but surely Reagan was on his list. For President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher saw things through the same eyes, and Thatcher was, for Thomas, “The Iron Lady [who] became / rusty.”

Rusty things are, of course, duds.

From Thomas’s perspective, Thatcher and Reagan must have appeared twinned in dud-ness. Both were bellicose: the prime minister with her Falklands War, the President with his Star Wars Missile Defense.  That militarism would have got right up pacifist Thomas’s nose, and he would have been caustic in his rejection of the greed-is-good, trickle-down economics favored by both leaders.

But . . .

But there’s irony here as there is irony almost everywhere in Thomas’s life. Thomas was well known, and often angrily dismissed, for his insistence that the Welsh people needed to become more defiantly, even more bellicosely, Welsh. But the Welsh, when given an opportunity to vote for some measure of “home rule,” turned it down. Then along came the Iron Lady, and the Welsh, deeply alienated by her English chest thumping and her bugger-the-poor policies, voted in favor of a separate Assembly to legislate on matters pertaining to Wales.

What Thomas, the poet laureate of resurgent Welshness, failed to achieve, the rusty English prime ministerial dud, helped bring about. And wasn’t there a soft chuckle in the heavens?

Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“The Iron Lady became” – “Not Blonde,” Mass for Hard Times, 24.

“I Can’t Offer Much in the Way of Hospitality” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

Welsh hospitality mattered to R. S. Thomas: It was an integral part of the Wales he loved.

Medieval Welsh lords welcomed traveling bards to their tables, as the bard Iolo Goch was welcomed at Sycharth by Owain Glyn Dŵr, which moved the bard to praise

. . . Sycharth with its brown beer,
Meat from the chase, fish from the weir.

R.S. Thomas in 1992

R.S. Thomas in 1992

Why there would be no such welcome for this American non-bard, Thomas felt it necessary to explain.

During the early months of 1992, letters passed back and forth as Thomas and I worked out the details of my August visit. Writing on March 8th, Thomas agreed to my proposed dates and got in a dig at the English: “I will make a note of August 11 and 12. This peninsula will be overrun with English visitors then, so you won’t hear much Welsh.”

With that, he turned to hospitality: “I hope I remembered to say that the reason I can’t offer much in the way of hospitality is that my wife died a year ago this month.”

Elsi Thomas was hospitalized in early March 1991; when R. S. brought her home, he carried her up the steep stairs to her bedroom, where she died on March 10th. Decades earlier, at the time of their nineteenth wedding anniversary, Thomas had written:

Nineteen years now
Keeping simple house,
Opening the door
To friend and stranger.

When I visited Thomas on August 12, 1992, he opened the door to this stranger, and led me up to the room where Elsi had died, which was, I had the impression, very much as she had left it.

But that was after Thomas made up for his inability to offer me home hospitality by giving me lunch at the Woodlands Hall Hotel. There was nothing specifically Welsh, however, about the food: poached salmon with prawns, carrots, broccoli, and green beans; Blue Nun Liebfraumilch.

Two years later, in November of 1994, Thomas offered my wife and me hospitality in the welcoming home that he and Betty Vernon had made for themselves at Llanfairynghornwy on the island of Anglesey. On the hearth, a real fire, which Thomas from time to time during drinks poked into warmer life. Betty served Welsh lamb with mint sauce and currant jelly, roasted potatoes with gravy, and the quintessential Welsh vegetable leeks cooked with tomatoes. For afters, there were nods to the non-Welsh: slices of Mediterranean oranges served in a tangy syrup with cream, Brie from France, and Double Gloucester, an English import.

It was Welsh hospitality, but Betty was English.

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“Of Sycharth with its brown beer” – “The Tree,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 56.

“Nineteen years now” – “Anniversary,” Tares, 18.

“Rage Against The Machine” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

Promenade of Llandudno, Wales

Promenade of Llandudno, Wales, November 1994

A saturated November wind washed Nancy’s face and mine as we strolled along the promenade of Llandudno, a seaside resort in north Wales. As we approached the bandstand, I could see that something had been scrawled in black ink on its Plexiglas enclosure. Close up, it commanded, “Rage against the machine,”

R. S. Thomas must have been here, I thought; if not with the spray can, then with the attitude that pressed its nozzle.

Two days later, our driver, Thomas himself, pointed out electricity-generating machines, modern windmills, on the island of Anglesey, saying that he preferred them to the nearby nuclear power station, but wished they didn’t disfigure the landscape. He especially disliked the “swaying / pylons with their metal / hair bickering towards England.”

As Thomas saw it, England had brought industrialization, the Machine, to Wales. Now, England expected the Welsh to use the Machine – windmills and power lines – to supply England with electricity.

Inverting the Bible story of the three Magi of the East traveling westward to the manger of Bethlehem, Thomas has a Welsh Magus of the West traveling eastward to the manger of England:

. . . Drove his course on
by the star in the east.
Arrived finding

the machine in the manger;
not one of the three
gifts he presented
restored to him but the myrrh.

The machine and its English tenders kept the expensive gifts the Welshman brought, gold and frankincense, but returned the myrrh to him, so that he could use it for the burial of all things traditionally Welsh.

According to Thomas, it was “the insatiable greed” in human beings – their lust for riches; their inordinate desire to appropriate another’s possessions – “that gave birth to machines and aeroplanes and missiles and all the technology of the contemporary world.”

“Rage against the machine.”

Poems and Prose of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“swaying / pylons with their metal / hair” – “Perspectives, Later Poems 1972-1982, 169.

“Drove his course on” – “Welshman’s Epitaph,” Welsh Airs, 42.

“the insatiable greed” – “No-One,” R. S. Thomas: Autobiographies, 108.