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”: http://rsthomas.weebly.com/index.html

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.