R. S. Thomas Essay - Critical Essays


R. S. Thomas’s output—more than twenty-five volumes of poetry—was substantial. However, Thomas was careless of his own compositions, reluctant to explain difficult passages, and revised very little. Most of his poems were less than thirty lines. He wrote no long poems, although he did create several sequences.

In many ways, it is best to see each small poem as part of one grand, lifelong work. There is never any great philosophical statement, but many detailed observations of life, the cycle of the seasons, the ordinary people he met in his parishes, their joys and griefs, and moments of religious or philosophical insight. Although he was a priest, his faith was more one of uneasy questionings, with black humor substituting for a theology. In real life, he preached the doctrines of his church; but as a poet, he looked enigmatically at each attempt to portray God. As a nature mystic, he is nearer to Ted Hughes, a contemporary from northern England, than to any tradition of religious poetry. Although he was a provincial poet, unashamedly Welsh, his perceptions and questions are universal, with a probing of modernism. Paradox was his hallmark, both in real life and in his poetry, with an ironic perception of his own persona and speaking voice. His poetry is imagistic and Romantic.

Recognition came comparatively late for Thomas. His first two volumes were printed at his own expense. Through the influence of friends, his first acclaimed volume, Song at the Year’s Turning, was published by a small but reputable London publisher, Hart-Davis. That volume proved to be typical of the poetry he published over the next fifteen years, giving him national standing as a poet of Wales, its people, culture, and landscapes.

After his removal to Aberdaron, where he found a truly Welsh milieu, he no longer felt the need to write on obviously Welsh matters. He turned to theological issues, as in H’m. On his retirement, he continued to develop poems on his own spiritual journey, intermixed with autobiographical memories, starting with Laboratories of the Spirit and Frequencies. Longer sequences began to develop, for example a series of meditations on famous paintings in Between Here and Now, and especially in The Echoes Return Slow and Counterpoint. The latter probably represents his most coherent attempt to state a philosophical/religious viewpoint. He continued producing poetry until his death.

Song at the Year’s Turning

Song at the Year’s Turning, published in 1955 when Thomas was already forty-two years old, is the volume that brought him to the attention of the general public....

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