Thomas, R(onald) S(tuart) (Vol. 13)
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.)
W. Moelwyn Merchant
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...
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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.
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.
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.
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....
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