‘Lost in the world’s wood / ... under naked boughs / The frost comes to barb your broken vows’ – RS Thomas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
As we move from celebrating Christmas and the New Year to facing the stark realities of the year ahead, my choice of a Christmas poem this morning [3 January] is ‘Song at the Year’s Turning,’ written in 1955 by the Welsh priest-poet RS Thomas, and the title poem of the collection that brought him to the attention of the wider world beyond his own Wales.
The Revd Ronald Stewart Thomas (1913-2000) is one of most important Welsh poets of the 20th century, alongside Dylan Thomas. This priest poet writes about his own people in a style that can be compared with the harsh and rugged terrain they inhabit.
John Betjeman, in his introduction to Song at the Year’s Turning (1955), the collection of Thomas’s poetry that brought him to the attention of the wider literary world – and that includes this morning’s poem – predicted Thomas would be remembered long after Betjeman was forgotten. Professor M. Wynn Thomas said: “He was the Alexander Solzhenitsyn of Wales ... He was one of the major English language and European poets of the 20th century.”
Saint Michael’s College, Llandaff, where RS Thomas trained as an ordinand (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2007)
RS Thomas was born in Cardiff in 1913, and his family moved in 1918 to Holyhead, where his father worked with a ferry boat company operating between Wales and Ireland. He studied classics at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, and studied theology at Saint Michael’s College, Llandaff, before being ordained deacon in the Church in Wales in 1936 and priest in 1937.
Between 1936 and 1978, he would serve in parishes in six different towns, acquiring first-hand knowledge of farming life and becoming familiar with a host of characters and settings for his poetry. As a curate in the mining village of Chirk in Denbighshire (1936-1940), he met his wife, Mildred (Elsi) Eldridge, an English artist. They married in 1940, and for all their married life, until Elsi died in 1991, they lived on a tiny income and lacked the comforts of modern life, largely by his choice.
From 1942 to 1954, he was the Rector of Manafon, near Welshpool in rural Montgomeryshire. There he began to study Welsh, although he later said he learnt Welsh too late in life to write poetry in it. At Manafon he published his first three volumes of poetry, The Stones of the Field, An Acre of Land and The Minister.
In 1954, he became Vicar of Saint Michael’s, Eglwysfach, in Cardiganshire (1954-1967). A year later, he achieved wider recognition as a poet and was introduced to a wider audience with his fourth book, Song at the Year’s Turning: Poems 1942-1945 (1955), a collected edition of his first three volumes, introduced by John Betjeman.
In the 1960s, he worked in a predominantly Welsh-speaking community and he later wrote two prose works in Welsh, Neb (Nobody), an autobiography written in the third person, and Blwyddyn yn Llŷn (A Year in Llŷn).
From 1967 to 1972, Thomas was the Vicar of Saint Hywyn’s, Aberdaron, at the western tip of the Llŷn Peninsula in Gwynedd, with Saint Mary, Bodferin. The Llŷn Peninsula is the point in Wales that is closest to Ireland. Finally, he was Rector of Rhiw with Llanfaelrhys (1972-1978). He retired in Easter 1978, and he and his wife moved to Y Rhiw, a beautiful part of Wales. However, their cottage was unheated and the temperature sometimes dropped below freezing.
In retirement, he became more active in politics and campaigns, and he was a strong advocate of Welsh nationalism, although he never supported Plaid Cymru. He was a keen supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and described himself as a pacifist. But he also supported the fire-bombings of English-owned holiday cottages in rural Wales, arguing: “What is one death against the death of the whole Welsh nation?”
His eightieth birthday was marked by the publication of Collected Poems, 1945-1990. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, but that year the prize went to Seamus Heaney.
When he died in 2000 at the age of 87, his life and poetry were celebrated in Westminster Abbey with readings from Seamus Heaney, Andrew Motion, Gillian Clarke and John Burnside. His ashes are buried close to the door of Saint John’s Church, Porthmadog, Gwynedd.
Spiritual questioning and cultural scepticism
The beauty of the landscape is ever-present in the poems of RS Thomas, marked by spiritual questioning and cultural scepticism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Bishop Richard Clarke has described him as “a rather terrifying Welsh Anglican clergyman who evidently scared the living daylights out of his parishioners but who was also, and unquestionably, one of the greatest poets in the English language over the past century.”
Thomas was not always charitable and was known for being awkward and taciturn, to the point that he was even accused of being “formidable, bad-tempered, and apparently humourless.” Indeed, he admitted himself that there is a “lack of love for human beings” in his poetry.
When he began to write about the Welsh countryside and its people, Thomas was influenced by Edward Thomas, Fiona Macleod, and WB Yeats. Fearing that poetry was becoming a dying art, inaccessible to those who most needed it, “he attempted to make spiritually minded poems relevant within, and relevant to, a science-minded, post-industrial world,” to represent that world both in form and in content even as he rejected its machinations.
His earlier works focus on the personal stories of his parishioners, the farm labourers and working men and their wives, challenging the cosy view of the traditional pastoral poem with harsh and vivid descriptions of rural lives. The beauty of the landscape is ever-present, but it is never a compensation for the low pay or monotonous conditions of farm work.
As his poetry develops, Thomas moves from the first impact of rural life on a young curate to a more introspective examination of his own agonies and difficulties. His later poetry is marked by spiritual questioning and cultural scepticism.
Thomas’s poetry is often harsh and austere, written in plain, sombre language, with a meditative quality. He uses simple words and short nouns, in a spare, ascetic style that reflects his disenchantment with the modern world and the scientific age. His poems are filled with compassion, love, doubt, and irony. Despite the often grim nature of his subject matter, his poems are ultimately life-affirming.
Thomas the priest poet
As a priest, Thomas imbues his poetry with a consistently religious theme, often speaking of the lonely and often barren predicament of the priest, who is as isolated in his parish as Iago Prytherch – an archetypal rural Welshman found in many of his poems – is on the bare hillside.
He believes one of the important functions of poetry is to embody religious truth, and his work expresses a religious conviction uncommon in modern poetry. Archbishop Rowan Williams – also an acclaimed Welsh priest poet – says Thomas, like Soren Kierkegaard, was a “great articulator of uneasy faith.”
An early poem, ‘In a Country Church,’ from Song at the Year’s Turning (1955), announces some of the themes that would dominate his later poetry:
To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.
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.
The opening stanza is a powerful image of silence. The only sounds come not from words but from the wind, not from the wings of angels but of bats. While there is no word from God, the poet gropes for a signal of grace and wrests from the silence a vision of a wintry image of love and crucifixion – perhaps a divine response.
Thomas returns to this theme in ‘In Church,’ a poem from his collection Pieta (1966):
Often I try
To analyze the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
In this poem. Thomas confronts the paradox of presence and absence, faith and doubt. DZ Phillips, in RS Thomas: Poet of the Hidden God, reads the last lines as a realisation that the poet-priest “has to die to his old questions. It is only by dying to the old questions that wonder can come in at the right place.”
“... and throw/ on its illumined walls the shadow/ of someone greater than I can understand?” – RS Thomas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
But did he feel lonely, isolated, or even trapped in parish ministry? He writes, in ‘The Empty Church’:
They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more
to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illumined walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?
Thomas has been described as “not a poet of the transfiguration, of the resurrection, of human holiness,” but as “a poet of the Cross, the unanswered prayer, the bleak trek through darkness.”
For Tony Brown of the University of Wales, Thomas’s emphasis remains on the cross, trusted and finally understood as “the ultimate demonstration of love defeating time and mortality.” Rowan Williams concludes that “God, for Thomas, is both the frustration of every expectation and the only exit from despair. And that God is encountered only in the embrace of finitude.”
“Light’s peculiar grace/ In cold splendour robes this tortured place” – RS Thomas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Song at the Year’s Turning by RS Thomas
Shelley dreamed it. Now the dream decays.
The props crumble; the familiar ways
Are stale with tears trodden underfoot.
The heart’s flower withers at the root.
Bury it then, in history’s sterile dust.
The slow years shall tame your tawny lust.
Love deceived him; what is there to say
The mind brought you by a better way
To this despair? Lost in the world’s wood
You cannot stanch the bright menstrual blood.
The earth sickens; under naked boughs
The frost comes to barb your broken vows.
Is there blessing? Light’s peculiar grace
In cold splendour robes this tortured place
For strange marriage. Voices in the wind
Weave a garland where a mortal sinned.
Winter rots you; who is there to blame?
The new grass shall purge you in its flame.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.