November 20, 2006


A Man Out of Time: A life of poet R. S. Thomas entertains and illumines: a review of The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R. S. Thomas, by Byron Rogers (Theodore Dalrymple, 6 November 2006, City Journal)

I am not notably frivolous, but whenever I read R. S. Thomas’s poetry, or his biography, I cannot help but reflect that, like the majority of mankind, I have spent most of my life chasing false gods. Thomas had a similar effect on others: John Betjeman, in his introduction to Thomas’s first collection of poems published by a major publisher (in 1955), said that Thomas would be remembered long after he, Betjeman, was forgotten. And Kingsley Amis, writing a year later, said of Thomas’s work that it “reduces most modern verse to footling whimsy.” These tributes bring to mind Joseph Haydn’s words to Mozart’s father, on receipt of the six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to him: “I swear before God, and as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer known to me, either in person or by name.”

Ronald Stuart Thomas was one of the most extraordinary literary figures of the twentieth century. He was born in 1913 and died in 2000. He was an Anglican priest in remote Welsh parishes for all of his working life. He wrote in English and spoke in the accents of an upper class Englishman (which he was not by birth). While English titles of nobility impressed him, he was a strong, even fanatical, Welsh nationalist, who learned Welsh at 30 and sometimes pretended not to speak English. Though a Christian, he was by no means always charitable. He was known for his awkwardness and taciturnity; most photographs show him as formidable, bad-tempered, and apparently humorless. [...]

This biography—written by a native speaker of Welsh, who, as a student, first met Thomas in 1960, when the poet’s fame was only recent—is of precisely the right length: the reader does not have to set aside too great a proportion of his own life, or abandon all other pursuits, to read it. The author has remembered that the purpose of a biography of a poet is to illuminate his work, and this it successfully does; and because his subject is both strange and brilliant, the book is highly entertaining.

Is there any single theme that underlies Thomas’s life and work, and reconciles his contradictions? I think one can find it in an essay he wrote in 1946 for a small Welsh nationalist magazine. “Are not three-quarters of our modern ills,” he asked, “due to the fact that we have forgotten how to live . . . ?” And we have forgotten how to live because we have worshiped wealth and physical comfort, and turned our back on God. To this modern soullessness, and to modernity’s destruction of the Welsh countryside by roads and housing projects and vacationers, Thomas’s political response was Welsh nationalism, with its intense preoccupation with the past. For him, England represented modernity and therefore all that was soulless, superficial, mechanical, materialistic, vulgar, and vapid. Observation of the beauties of the natural world, particularly the landscape and bird life, was for him a spiritual exercise, a reminder that, if we would but heed it, God has given us all that we need for a fulfilled life. No one could say that he did not attempt to live by his creed.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2006 5:35 PM
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