16 April 2016

Anglican spirituality and poetry:
(5): RS Thomas (1913-2000)

Saint Michael’s College, Llandaff, where RS Thomas trained as an ordinand (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In this tutorial group, we are looking at poets who have had an interesting influence on Anglican piety, prayer, theology and self-understanding. In November, we looked at TS Eliot. In December, we looked at John Betjeman. In January, we looked at the poet John Milton (1608-1674), who once considered ordination as an Anglican priest and later became a leading Puritan. In March, we were introduced to George Herbert (1593-1633), a Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest.

This morning, our selected poet in the Revd Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913-2000), who published as RS Thomas. He was a Welsh poet and an Anglican priest and was known for his nationalism, spirituality and deep dislike of the Anglicisation of Wales.

RS Thomas was one of the major English language and European poets of the 20th century.” He has left us with a body of work that is slowly being recognised as among the best and most important religious poetry of the 20th century. Archbishop 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.”

Other Welsh Anglican poets must include, of course, George Herbert (1593-1633), Henry Vaughan (1621-1697) and Archbishop Rowan Williams. The great Welsh poets of the 20th century also include Dylan Thomas.

RS Thomas was a man of contradictions: he was a passionate advocate of Welsh nationalism yet wrote in English and sent his son to boarding school in England; he was an undemonstrative man, but composed the most tender elegies for his wife; he had a devout faith, yet throughout his life experienced the elusiveness of God; he was a poet who hardly ever left north Wales, yet at his death was hailed as a major European poet.

His first collection of poetry with a major publisher, Song at the Year’s Turning, was published in 1955. John Betjeman, in his introduction to this collection, predicted that Thomas would be remembered long after he himself was forgotten.

Ronald Stuart Thomas was born on 29 March 1913 in Cardiff, the only child of Thomas Hubert (‘Huw’) Thomas, a captain in the merchant navy, and Margaret (née Davies). The family moved to Holyhead in 1918 because of his father’s work in the merchant navy. The forbidding initials came from rugby team lists in a school where Thomas was a popular surname.

In 1932, he was awarded a bursary to study at the University College of North Wales, in Bangor, where he read Classics. He was an ordinand at Saint Michael’s College, Llandaff, His training at Saint Michael’s placed him within the Tractarian tradition of Anglicanism. He was ordained a deacon in the Church in Wales in 1936 and was ordained priest in 1937.

From 1936 to 1940, he was the curate of Chirk, a mining village in Denbighshire, where he met his future wife, Mildred ‘Elsi’ Eldridge, an English artist. Although he had written poetry in school, it was only after meeting Elsi that he began to write seriously. And so he began to write poetry about the Welsh countryside and its people, influenced by the writings of Edward Thomas, Fiona Macleod and William Butler Yeats.

Later, he was the curate-in-charge of Tallarn Green, Flintshire. As the curate of Hanmer, he was the assistant to the Revd Thomas Meredith-Morris, grandfather of writer Lorna Sage. Later, Byron Rogers described this as a “crossing of paths of two of Wales’s strangest clergymen.” However, Thomas never wrote much about his times as a curate.

Elsi and RS Thomas in 1940

RS Thomas and Elsi Eldridge were married in 1940 and they remained together until her death in 1991. Their son, Gwydion, was born on 29 August 1945. The Thomas family lived on a tiny income and lacked the comforts of modern life, largely through their own choice. One of the few household amenities the family ever owned, a vacuum cleaner, was rejected because Thomas decided it was too noisy.

For 12 years, from 1942 to 1954, he was the Rector of Saint Michael’s Church, Manafon, near Welshpool, a rural parish in Montgomeryshire. There he began to study Welsh, although he said that learning Welsh at the age 30 was too late in life to write poetry in it. There too he published his first three volumes of poetry, The Stones of the Field (1946), An Acre of Land (1952) and The Minister (1953).

His poetry achieved a breakthrough in 1955 with the publication of his fourth book, Song at the Year’s Turning. This collected edition of his first three volumes was introduced by Sir John Betjeman. It was critically very well received and won him the Royal Society of Literature’s Heinemann Award.

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.

‘Lost in the world’s wood / ... under naked boughs / The frost comes to barb your broken vows’ – RS Thomas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the 1960s, he worked in a predominantly Welsh-speaking community and he later wrote two prose works in Welsh, Neb (Nobody), a revealing autobiography written in the third person, and Blwyddyn yn Llŷn (A Year in Llŷn). In 1964 he won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.

From 1967 to 1978, he was the Vicar of Saint Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron at the western tip of the Llŷn Peninsula. He retired from ministry in 1978 and he and his wife moved to Y Rhiw. There they lived in “a tiny, unheated cottage in one of the most beautiful parts of Wales, where, however, the temperature sometimes dipped below freezing.”

RS Thomas is recognised as one of the leading poets of modern Wales. He wrote about the people of Wales in a style that some critics have compared to the country’s harsh and rugged terrain.

He was the poet who wrote that country clergymen were:

Toppled into the same graves
With oafs and yokels

But he was a country clergyman himself, and the oafs and yokels the ancestors of his own parishioners. “I suppose that did shock the bourgeoisie,” he said.

A poem started:

Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales
With your sheep and your pigs and your ponies, your sweaty females
How I have hated you ...

There is no comfort in any of these poems:

Too far for you to see
The fluke and the foot-rot and the fat maggot
Gnawing the skin from the small bones.
The sheep are grazing at Bwlch-y-Fedwen,
Arranged romantically in the usual manner
On a bleak background of bald stone.

There is no comfort in the religious poetry either, and no answers. One poem, ‘Earth,’ begins:

What made us think
It was yours? Because it was signed
With your blood, God of battles?

In retirement, he become politically active. He became a strong advocate of Welsh nationalism, although he never supported Plaid Cymru, claiming the party did not go far enough in its opposition to England.

He was an ardent 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. He could tolerate neither the English who bought up Wales and, in his view, stripped it of its wild and essential nature, nor the Welsh whom he saw as all too eager to kow-tow to English money and influence. He was also active in wildlife preservation.

RS Thomas was nominated for the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. Instead the winner was Wislawa Szymborska; the winner the previous year was Seamus Heaney.

RS Thomas died on 25 September 2000, aged 87, at his home in Pentrefelin, near Criccieth. He was survived by his second wife, Elizabeth Vernon. An event celebrating his life and poetry took place in Westminster Abbey with readings by Seamus Heaney, Andrew Motion, Gillian Clarke and John Burnside. His ashes are buried close to the door of Saint John’s Church, Porthmadog, Gwynedd.

Thomas wrote over 1,500 poems in his life and although there were developments in subject and style – from the early poems rooted in the physical realities of place to the more abstract and metaphysical investigations of his later work – his poetry was consistent in its seriousness of purpose. His final works commonly sold 20,000 copies in Britain alone.

Most of Thomas’s work is about the Welsh landscape and the Welsh people, and his view of the Welsh people as a conquered people is never far below the surface.

In ‘The Ancients of the World,’ his haunting litany of the beasts of Welsh mythology looks back to bardic tradition, but the language he uses suggests a cold and deathly legacy. ‘A Welsh Testament’ sees Thomas on more overtly political form speaking in contemptuous tones to those English tourists who want to turn his country into a “museum.”

However, he is also resentful of the limitations of a life lived with

the absurd label
of birth, of race hanging askew
About my shoulders.

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 never becomes a compensation for the low pay or monotonous conditions of farm work. His direct view of “country life” challenges many English writers on similar subjects and challenges the more pastoral works of contemporary poets such as Dylan Thomas.

In RS Thomas’s eyes, the modern world with its technological conveniences was a dangerous distraction from our spiritual existence. Sometimes this aversion to the 20th century could take on Luddite-like proportions – his son recalled sermons in which he railed against fridges and washing machines. But he also practised what he preached, living an extremely ascetic life.

Thomas’s later works, such as Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), were more metaphysical, more experimental and focused more overtly on his spirituality.

“A lot of people seem to be worried about how I combine my work as a poet and my work as a priest,” he once told the BBC. “This is something that never worried me at all.”

He went on to insist, echoing Matthew Arnold, that “in any case, poetry is religion, religion is poetry” and “Christ was a poet, the New Testament is a metaphor, the resurrection is a metaphor” – explaining metaphor as “an attempt to convey an experience of a kind of new life, an eruption of the deity into ordinary life, a lifting up of ordinary life into a higher level.”

At other times, Thomas acknowledged, “I’m obviously not orthodox, I don’t know how many real poets have been orthodox … I find it very difficult to be a kind of orthodox believer in Jesus as my Saviour and that sort of thing.”

As a priest, Thomas imbued 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 Prytherch is on the bare hillside.” as Meir writes. He is not a poet of the transfiguration, of the resurrection, of human holiness. Instead, he is a poet of the Cross, the unanswered prayer, the bleak trek through darkness, and his theology of Christ, in particular, seems strange against any known traditional norm.

Yet throughout his career, Thomas showed no desire to leave the priesthood and continued his priestly functions administering the sacraments, preaching the word, including, at one church, delivering a sermon in Welsh once a month.

A cluster of recurring images, symbols, and metaphors mark Thomas’s religious poems: silence, prayer, kneeling, waiting, watching, empty churches, a wound, the pierced side of Jesus-God-the natural world, a bare tree – and the cross, repeatedly described by Thomas as empty or “untenanted.”

RS Thomas seemed to cultivate a reputation for being not always charitable and for being awkward and taciturn. Some critics have interpreted photographs of him as indicating he was “formidable, bad-tempered, and apparently humourless.”

Although at times he may have taken some of his ideas to extreme lengths, Theodore Dalrymple said he “was raising a deep and unanswered question: What is life for? Is it simply to consume more and more, and divert ourselves with ever more elaborate entertainments and gadgetry? What will this do to our souls?”

His influence as a poet has had a considerable impact on spirituality. At the centenary of his birth, the Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan, who knew him as a poet and a priest, paid tribute to him:

“RS Thomas continues to articulate through his poetry questions that are inscribed on the heart of most Christian pilgrims in their search for meaning and truth. We search for God and feel Him near at hand, only then to blink and find Him gone. This poetry persuades us that we are not alone in this experience of faith - the poet has been there before us.”

Although a fervent Welsh Nationalist, he appears to have preferred the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, even in its Welsh translation, over the 1966 prayer book of the Church in Wales, which came into use during his final year at Eglwys Fach.

In retirement he found that he could no longer bring himself to go to Holy Communion on account of liturgical changes in Wales. However, one of his successors at Aberdaron indicates that Thomas always retained the bishop’s permission to officiate and occasionally did so at Llanfaelrhys when no one else could be found.

His primary objection was to the priest facing the people, arguing he should be leading the people towards God from the eastward-facing position: “It is to God that the mystery belongs.”

Over time he appears to have had some sympathy with the theological explorations of Bishop John Robinson in his 1963 book Honest to God, on one occasion going as far as to describe the Resurrection as a “metaphor.”

However, in a letter to a theological student in 1993 he denied he held similar views to the non-realist Cambridge theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt: “I believe in revelation, and therefore one cannot describe all one’s insights as entirely human.”

His main influence appears to have been the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and his “leap of faith.” But he also appears to have been concerned with the limitations of religious language in an era that was becoming post-Christian in the face of science and philosophy.

His sermons and practice as a priest do not seem to have been in any way heterodox, even if in retirement he was to write to his long-term friend the poet Raymond Garlick to give him “the address of a retired Christian.”

He himself said there is a “lack of love for human beings” in his poetry. But for all his much-vaunted crabbiness, he was well regarded by parishioners, was a listener and counsellor, and was a devoted visitor to the sick.

Thomas is mostly interested in God’s silence or absence, the deus absconditus or hidden God, and what that means for forging an identity in the modern world. What language might be used to address such a God in a meaningful way? As Archbishop Rowan Williams has written, RS Thomas was – like one of the poet’s spiritual mentors, Soren Kierkegaard – a “great articulator of uneasy faith.”

The Revd Ronald Stuart Thomas: born 29 March 1913, Cardiff; deacon, 1936, priest, 1937; curate of Chirk, Denbighshire, 1936-1940; curate-in-charge, Tallarn Green, Hanmer, Flintshire, 1940-1942; rector of Manafon, Montgomeryshire, 1942-1954; Vicar of Saint Michael’s, Eglwysfach, Cardiganshire, 1954-1967; Vicar of Saint Hywyn, Aberdaron, Gwynedd, with Saint Mary, Bodferin, 1967-1978; Rector of Rhiw with Llanfaelrhys, 1972-1978. Died 25 September 2000 aged 87 in Pentrefelin, near Criccieth.

Select bibliography:

The Stones of the Field (1946)
An Acre of Land (1952)
The Minister (1953)
Song at the Year’s Turning: Poems, 1942-1954 (1955)
Pieta (1966)

Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)
Mass for Hard Times (1992)
No Truce with the Furies (1995)
Collected Poems, 1945-1990 (1993)
Collected Later Poems (2004, posthumous)

The beauty of the landscape is ever-present in the poems of RS Thomas, marked by spiritual questioning and cultural scepticism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘In a Country Church’ (Song at the Year’s Turning, 1955):

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.

‘In Church’ (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)

‘The Empty Church (1978):

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 illuminated walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

He wrote his is on the death of his wife:

We met
under a shower
of bird-notes.
Fifty years passed
love’s moment
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
“Come,” said death,
choosing her as his
partner for
the last dance. And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.

‘The Coming’ alludes to the Good Friday story:

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

‘The tall Cross / Sombre, untenanted, / Aches for the Body / That is back in the cradle / of a maid’s arms’ ... A float in the Good Friday procession in Barcelona last month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In the poem ‘Pieta,’ he writes:

Always the same hills
Crown the horizon,
Remote witnesses
Of the still scene
And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Sombre, untenanted,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
of a maid’s arms.

Sometimes the failure belongs to God, as in the poem ‘Nuclear’:

It’s not that he can’t speak;
who created languages
but God? Nor that he won’t;
to say that is to imply
malice. It is just that
he doesn’t, or does so at times
when we are not listening, in
ways we have yet to recognize
as speech

The absence of God also means Thomas at times rejects any easy sacramental sense of God’s presence in the natural world, as he writes in ‘Threshold’:

I emerge from the mind’s
cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and
the Lord is in none of them.

I have heard the still, small voice
and it was that of the bacteria
demolishing my cosmos. I
have lingered too long on

this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards
the light. To look forward? Ah,

what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What

to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?

In one of his best known and loved poems, ‘Kneeling,’ we find RS Thomas possessed by a great calm, waiting in a stone church before the wooden altar, bathed, haloed, in a summer light, thronged by the spirits waiting, like him, for the message.

But because there is a mystery in God which no finite being can fully comprehend, the message even though it comes from God, will lose something in its transmission. So, although RS Thomas knows, as we all do, that words must be found in the end to convey the message, the poet wants to remain for a while in that waiting time, meaning soaking into him in the calm which pervades the stone church:

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great rôle. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a tutorial group with MTh students on 16 April 2016.

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