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Thomas, R(onald) S(tuart) 1913–
A Welsh poet and a clergyman, Thomas writes in English of his rural parishioners and their somber homeland. The ordinary and bleak are made universal and tragic by his austere and passionate concern. (See also CLC, Vol. 6.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1703
The poetry of R. S. Thomas conveys the prime impression of a single force directed to one carefully limited theme, the isolation of the natural rhythm of man's life ("Rhythm of the long scythe") in the natural order, seen with irony, occasional bitterness, with urbane control of word and metric, and a tautness of mind, the fruit of a particular urbanity. Indeed, there is especial irony in attributing this urbane quality to a poet who so passionately repudiates the urban.
For all the complexity of Thomas's tone and attitudes, it seemed that his craft had declared itself in full stature in the first volume, The Stones of the Field, in 1946, and then for nine years, through An Acre of Land (1952), the long broad cast poem, The Minister (1953) to the first collected edition, Song at the Year's Turning in 1955, had done no more than amplify the few original themes, turning them over, handling them with the deftness of a surgeon, revealing a few more strands of their texture but demonstrating no conspicuously new powers. And we should have been quite content with another thirty years of this detached compassion, united to a self-critical craftmanship as great as any shown in English verse to-day. But Poetry for Supper, published in 1958, and the few poems that have appeared in the journals since, are different in tone and range from the earlier works. The same subjects are treated and with the same attitudes, but the emotional range has greatly increased; the ironic comment has deepened (and with a lancing bitterness rarely heard before), while the compassion is wider. Above all R. S. Thomas has become more explicit in statement; while he forces no acceptable conclusion, makes no assumption of dogma, the credal implications always present in his work are now less allusive in statement. (p. 341)
No more than the rest of us who spoke two languages from our infancy has Thomas been able to escape the tensions of a minority culture; his integrity has always forced him to see the burden and to refrain from using the 'Welshness' as a saleable asset, but it has not before "A Welsh Testament" been expressed with such unsentimental clarity which sets aside both deprecation and pride:
All right, I was Welsh; does it matter?
I spoke the tongue that was passed on
To me in the place I happened to be.
There are alienations within and without: within, of the stultifying Puritanism which crams God "Between the boards of a black book"; without, of the curious tourist gaze…. The alien demand, "You are Welsh, they said; Speak to us so," emphasises the exhibit status of the "rare portrait by a dead master" until the "museum" of his setting, the theatrical rôle…. Yet though the label has been repudiated, the fact has always been totally accepted, the dual ministry of parson-poet to a Welsh country community. (pp. 341-42)
The themes now expressed with such tautness have been present from the beginning. The titles of the first two volumes of his verse imply the most constant tension in his work, the gulf which separates the clerisy and the peasant. The first title (The Stones of the Field) adopts the core of Job's awareness, through his dereliction, of unity with subhuman creation: "for thou shalt be in league with the stones of the field", a community, even a complicity with the harshnesses which condition the life of his rural community. The second title quotes the sixteenth-century poet, Siôn Tudur [concerning] … dependence on that acre of land … which Thomas in his pastoral ministry knows to be the foundation (all too often the bed-rock) of his parishioners' lives. With few exceptions, this is the terrain to which he confines his poetry, an even sharper limitation than that self-imposed by Wordsworth or Robert Frost. Within this accepted limitation he works out the rhythms of the Church's sacraments and the dumb rejection by the peasant of all the grace and art with which the poet-priest confronts him.
It would be convenient—and absurd—to describe the relation between priest and peasant in these poems as 'ambivalent', absurd because there are no simple antitheses in these poems, of pastoral acceptance over against disgust and rejection. The poems would be dramatically interesting if this antithesis were their mainspring. But if an 'attitude' is to be defined here at all, it is of total acceptance, recording grace and shame in the lives of his parishioners, with the understanding, neutral charity and compassion of a confessor; yet more active than a confessor's, who channels grace, himself not necessarily more moved than a catalyst. (pp. 342-43)
The union of harsh understanding and ironic compassion in The Stones of the Field had, in An Acre of Land, crystallised out into separate components (perhaps the source of the second volume's success—the disparate elements were more comprehensible than the integrity of their jarring union). There is certainly a growing awareness of the nature of his pastoral concern as an Anglican priest in the Welsh hill-country. His priest's vocation is never obtruded in the verse; there is rarely a theological statement in his writing, but I doubt if the verse would exist at all—it would certainly not have this ascetic spareness—but for his cure of souls. The essential document is the early poem, "A Priest to his People"…. The relationship implied [in this poem] has room for neither sentimental hatred nor for facile admiration—nor even for the neutrality of tolerance…. [The] priest's condemnation of his "curt and graceless" people nonetheless acquiesces in the pagan substratum of their strength…. For all its complexity, this poem read in isolation is only a partial statement of his priestly concern. It has to be read with the later "Death of a Peasant":
You remember Davies? He died, you know
With his face to the wall, as the manner is
Of the poor peasant in the stone croft
On the Welsh hills
and with the two poems, "Country Church" and "In a Country Church", separated by many years of writing. The first church, Manafon, the place of his ministry at the writing of The Stones of the Field, is realised as a stone chalice or font:
The church stands, built from the river stone,
Brittle with light, so that a breath could shatter
Its slender frame, or spill the limpid water,
Quiet as sunlight, cupped within the bone.
The manner of this well-wrought conceit, admirable in its repose, is almost wholly lacking in the mature spirituality of the later poem. To the worshipper kneeling in this country church no word came in the presence of the "grave saints, rigid in glass"; but, wordless, this country worshipper has his dream of the rood:
Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man's body.
This is the same vision, but seen after the Deposition in the presence of the hills which "crowd the horizon" in the more recent poem "Pieta" (published in The Listener but not yet collected):
And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid's arms,
a conjunction of moments compassed rarely, and, in painting rendered with this complexity only in Bellini's companion pieces of Nativity and Pieta. The hills of the poem's opening lines are, I suspect Welsh, not Palestinian in form, and the affirmations, even the revulsions, in Thomas's work become more than ever wedded to a passionate but unillusioned concern for Wales…. "The Welsh Hill Country" is no tourist's paradise … and there is sharp rejection of the nonconformist-druid romanticism, the Eisteddfod's bogus compensation for the loss of liturgy and rite, which is our inept reply to the tragedy which Thomas declares in The Minister…. (pp. 345-48)
Poetry for Supper gathers all the earlier speaking-tones in an authoritative maturity. The perspective is widened to take pride in "Athens, Florence"…. He is now relaxed enough to talk of his craft; in the earliest poems there was constant alertness and a disconcerting shift of reference and tone …, but his craftsmanship is now a matter of meditation, or moral choice, which can include condemnation of the poetaster as his only epitaph…. (p. 348)
R. S. Thomas is (always has been) classical, sophisticated, ironically aware of a European culture counter-posed against the peasant who is his pastoral care. Yet Iago Prytherch, all inarticulate, is seen as a possible companion for Kant…. The final relationship is reserved for one of the closing poems, "Absolution", in which the rôles of peasant and priest are reversed: "Prytherch, man, can you forgive?" The poet …, having experienced the peasant's endurance, receives his 'absolution',
With the slow lifting up of your hand
No welcome, only forgiveness….
["The Country Clergy" reveals] an equal compassion for the priest in his spiritual isolation, and, taking death seriously, for the peasant and the sophisticate, tumbled into a common grave. The poem moves to a serene close, content with no immediate understanding of the priest's fulfilment, for
… God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.
The final concern of … Poetry for Supper, is not in fact for work and its results and rewards, but rather for direct affirmation. In the fragment of an allegory, "The Journey" there are encounters with those "whose eyes declare: There is no God" and with those of the same creed, "whose hands are waiting for your hand". The poem concludes not with any concern for doing, for consolation or attempt to convince.
But do not linger,
A smile is payment; the road runs on
With many turnings towards the tall
Tree to which the believer is nailed.
The strenuous intelligence of this parson-poet would appear to have a suitable point of rest in that closing identification of the believer with the crucified Christ; it would be dangerous in fact to expect any point of rest at this moment in the work of an exploratory mind which is as astringent in renouncing easy attitudes for itself as it is compassionately ruthless in analysing his neighbours. (pp. 348-51)
W. Moelwyn Merchant, "R. S. Thomas," in Critical Quarterly, Winter, 1960, pp. 341-51.
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[Laboratories of The Spirit] has that rare combination of personal honesty and high artistic achievement which isn't so common: even the best "confessional" verse is, by its nature, often more than a little dishonest. And a poetry which consists so largely of statement refuses critical comment. Insofar as Thomas's book has a dominating theme it is formulated at once in the opening lines:
Not as in the old days I pray,
God. My life is not what it was.
The style says everything here, its sparseness allowing every nuance to register. The poet speaks of himself but he addresses his maker—and God the Creator plays the largest role in this book. When Thomas mentions a place explaining that:
I often call there.
There are no poems in it
The statement bears its weight of meaning exactly; in a brief poem we learn about a whole way of responding. Everything holds—evil is not outside, it is part:
There is no meaning in life,
Unless men can be found to reject love.
However we feel about Thomas's version of it, we recognise a central truth in his work: that life, however appalling is whole, is unified…. [This] is a marvellous book. (p. 602)
Peter Washington, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 8, 1975.
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R. S. Thomas is a religious poet, but what gives power to his writing is not his faith, but his fight to keep that faith alive. He is a modern puritan, with a gift for spiritual drama. He sees tragedy, not pathos, in the human condition, even now. He is one of the rare poets writing today who never asks for pity.
For these reasons, R. S. Thomas's poems have a flinty edge—an arrogance, even—that will not be popular with the sentimental. The evil that man has brought about on earth is part of the 'mixed things' of his making. 'I let you go,' God says in one poem, after having created the human hand, 'but without blessings.'
Thomas can be crabbedly ungenerous. Nevertheless, those contemporary poets Thomas unfairly mocks in his poem, 'Taste' [from Laboratories of the Spirit]—'the congestion at the turnstile of fame'—ought to be more in awe of him than they are. For R. S. Thomas has hammered strong poems out of granite while most of them have been experimenting with clay. (p. 484)
Anne Stevenson, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Anne Stevenson), April 15, 1976.
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R. S. Thomas's ['Frequencies'] continues to wrestle with the paradox of his need for God and the impossibility of knowing or accepting him. Or perhaps wrestling is the wrong word for poems as clear, steady and well made as these. 'Frequencies' suggests wave-bands, searching for a radio station through static; his images are often scientific, as cells and chromosomes and electrons represent both the anti-God advances of reason, and the perfection of design which implies God. One image constantly recurring is the mirror; in his last book, Laboratories of the Spirit, it sometimes reflected what he sought…. Through the poems we also see his seldom-full church, friends and parishioners, the stones and sea of Wales, history and a bleak future; Christ appears less than before. Thomas is not a poet who would … airily use 'bloodstream' in a poem mentioning Christ and mean nothing in particular by it. Every image counts, and he often manages to convey with amazing lucidity and strength the possibility of faith and honesty coexisting in a rational man. (p. 24)
Emma Fisher, in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), April 1, 1978.
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The poems [in Frequencies] have become a cumulative succession of brief, intense engagements between need and silence; again and again they attempt an imaginative synthesis of "the interior / that calls", "the verbal hunger / for the thing in itself" and "untenanted space", "the darkness between stars".
As for Eliot, whose "vacant interstellar spaces" R. S. Thomas's universe recalls, "each venture is a new beginning" and a central theme of Frequencies is the inadequacy and failure of vocabularies….
Frequencies is a profound collection with a beautiful gravity of utterance capable of absorbing its intermittent lapses into portentousness and abstraction. R. S. Thomas's strength has always been in his deployment of metaphor, and when he relies on plain statements of position he can teeter on the brink of the absurd…. As always there is a suspicion that some of the characteristic neat encapsulations come a trifle too easily ("time's face", "the mind's shelf", "the mind's tools", etc. though there are far fewer of them than in the earlier work), and there is also the sermonizing tendency to point up analogies. In "Fishing", for example, although there is some marvellous imagery ("the hook gleams / the smooth face creases in an obscene / grin") it is cramped by an explanatory framework: "Often it seems it is for more than fish / that we seek." But these are small faults to set beside R. S. Thomas's power, at his best, to involve his reader, passionately, in the riddle of existence. Despite his own use of the word "confrontation", and although he is sometimes ready to storm at God "as Job stormed, with the eloquence / of the abused heart", his debate with "ultimate reality", which could so easily flounder in abstraction, is infinitely more complex than that:
Face to face? Ah, no
God; such language falsifies
the relation. Not side by side,
nor near you, nor anywhere
in time and space….
and an apt emblem for the subtlety with which an unpara-phrasable meaning penetrates the fabric of many of these poems is that of the human mind seen as "a spider spinning its web / from its entrails … swinging / to and fro over an abysm / of blankness". In fact it comes as no surprise to find that this image is a redeployment of one which appeared in a poem, "The Listener in the Corner", from R. S. Thomas's previous volume The Way Of It. Increasingly, without seeming repetitious in any slack way, his figures appear to be becoming counters manipulated in a passionate game of definition. It is almost as if he were attempting to crack God's code by restricting his own, and it gives those poems where abstractions are kept to a minimum a remarkable and immediate metaphysical intensity.
There remains, of course, the question "where next?", since, in essence, Frequencies does not (cannot) go beyond Laboratories of the Spirit and The Way of It except in the brilliance of its refinement…. [With] a poet as important and exciting as R. S. Thomas there is always a particularly keen sense of anticipation. One knows that he will go on asking the same fundamental questions, because he is a writer incapable of trivia, but the shape they take as poetry may still—judging by his present power—hold even greater surprises than when Iago Prytherch vacated the stage for God.
John Mole, "Signals from the Periphery," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 2, 1978, p. 608.