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R. S Thomas

Recognized as one of the leading poets of modern Wales, R. S. Thomas writes about the people of his country in a style that some critics have compared to that nation’s harsh and rugged terrain. Using few of the common poetic devices, Thomas’s work exhibits what Alan Brownjohn of the New Statesman calls a “cold, telling purity of language.” James F. Knapp of Twentieth Century Literature explains that “the poetic world which emerges from the verse of R. S. Thomas is a world of lonely Welsh farms and of the farmers who endure the harshness of their hill country. The vision is realistic and merciless.” Despite the often grim nature of his subject matter, Thomas’s poems are ultimately life-affirming. “What I’m after,” John Mole of Phoenix quotes Thomas explaining, “is to demonstrate that man is spiritual.” As Louis Sasso remarks in Library Journal, “Thomas’s poems are sturdy, worldly creations filled with compassion, love, doubt, and irony. They make one feel joy in being part of the human race.”

The son of a sailor, Thomas spent much of his childhood in British port towns where he and his mother would live while his father was away at sea. His early education began late and was only sporadically pursued until his father found steady work with a ferry boat company operating between Wales and Ireland, and the family was able to settle in the Welsh town of Caergybi. After graduating from school Thomas studied for the Anglican priesthood, a career first suggested to him by his mother. As he recounts in his article for the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (CAAS), “Shy as I was, I offered no resistance.”

In 1936, Thomas was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church and was assigned to work as a curate in the Welsh mining village of Chirk. In 1937 he became an Anglican priest. The post in Chirk was the first of a series of positions he was to hold in the rural communities of Wales. Between 1936 and 1978, Thomas served in churches located in six different Welsh towns. These appointments gave him a firsthand knowledge of Welsh farming life and provided him with a host of characters and settings for his poetry.

Although he had written poetry in school, it was only after meeting Mildred E. Eldridge, the woman who was to become his wife, that Thomas began to write seriously. At the time they met she had already earned a reputation as a painter, and, as Thomas remarks in his article for CAAS, “this made me wish to become recognised as a poet.” He began to compose poetry about the Welsh countryside and its people, influenced by the writings of Edward Thomas, Fiona Macleod, and William Butler Yeats.

Perhaps Thomas’s best known character is Iago Prytherch, a farm laborer who appears in many of his poems. Thomas describes him in the poem “A Peasant” as “an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills.” Writing in British Poetry since 1970: A Critical Survey, Colin Meir explains that Prytherch epitomizes Welsh hill-farming life and “is seen as embodying man’s fortitude.” A. E. Dyson, in an article for Critical Quarterly, finds that Prytherch, being a farmer, is “cut off from culture and poetry, and cut off too … from religion…. Yet [he] has an elemental reality and power in his life which is in part to be envied.”

Prytherch is a kind of archetypal rural Welshman, standing as a symbol for his people. As Knapp remarks, Prytherch “represents the Welsh peasants in all their aspects throughout [Thomas’s] poetry.” According to Dyson, Prytherch is also used by Thomas as a symbol for humanity itself. His hard labor in an unyielding landscape, though representative of Welsh farmers, also exemplifies the hardships common to all men. “It seems then,” Dyson states, “that in finding in the Welsh peasants a ‘prototype’ of man, Thomas is making a universal statement…. This pared-down existence, in a land of ruined beauty belonging to the past, is more human than any educated sophistication. Or perhaps one should say, it is more truly symbolic of the human predicament…”

Although he had already published three books of poetry, Thomas did not gain widespread recognition as a poet until the appearance of Song at the Year’s Turning: Poems, 1942-1954. This volume, brought out by a major publisher and with an introduction by poet John Betjeman, introduced Thomas to a national audience and “caused quite a stir,” according to W. J. Keith in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The collection’s poems, marked by a spare and controlled language, earned Thomas widespread critical praise. With each subsequent volume his reputation has increased.

Like the Welsh countryside he writes about, Thomas’s poetry is often harsh and austere, written in plain, somber language, with a meditative quality. Runcie describes Thomas’s style as consisting of “simple words and short nouns, nouns of such authentic meaning that they rarely need modifiers, moving as beats at a controlled pace in stress accent metre—a constant technique to effect a constant tone, his own inexhaustibly haunting tone that lingers like sounds in a darkness.” Writing in Eight Contemporary Poets, Calvin Bedient also notes this spare style, claiming that “Thomas puts little between himself and his subject…. His poems are ascetic…. To seem at once lean and sensuous, transparent and deeply crimsoned, is part of his distinction.” Thomas reveals his stylistic intentions in Words and the Poet: “A recurring ideal, I find, is that of simplicity. At times there comes the desire to write with great precision and clarity, words so simple and moving that they bring tears to the eyes…”

Since the late 1950s, Thomas has focused on “matters of greater importance to man at the close of the 20th century,” notes a critic for the Economist. “His pursuit of an elusive God and the general crises of faith; the dehumanizing effect of the machine; the scientific world view and the challenges it poses to the poet.” In a review of Counterpoint William Scammell of the Times Literary Supplement remarks: “Few creature comforts are offered to the reader of R. S. Thomas’s later verse. The language tends to be flat, plain and declarative…. The conceptual mix is one of Christian myth, scientific terminology and late-twentieth-century scepticism.” Acid rain, black holes, and noxious chemicals are set against biblical images and symbols. The result, according to Scammell, is “often like someone in a hurry to set down a scheme of first and last things…” (Thomas’ biography is interesting, but lengthy. If you wish to read it all, go to Poetry Foundation.)

I found this poem very fitting for the historical time we’re living through in the US right now. Though the poem is about a young girl having been evacuated to stay with a family in the country during WWII as so many children were, I felt it could just as easily be one of the immigrant children whose parents can’t be found… What will become of them?


The Evacuee

She woke up under a loose quilt
Of leaf patterns, woven by the light
At the small window, busy with the boughs
Of a young cherry; but wearily she lay,
Waiting for the siren, slow to trust
Nature’s deceptive peace, and then afraid
Of the long silence, she would have crept
Uneasily from the bedroom with its frieze
Of fresh sunlight, had not a cock crowed,
Shattering the surface of that limpid pool
Of stillness, and before the ripples died
One by one in the field’s shallows,
The farm woke with uninhibited din.

And now the noise and not the silence drew her
Down the bare stairs at great speed.
The sounds and voices were a rough sheet
Waiting to catch her, as though she leaped
From a scorched storey of the charred past.

And there the table and the gallery
Of farm faces trying to be kind
Beckoned her nearer, and she sat down
Under an awning of salt hams.
And so she grew, a small bird in the nest
Of welcome that was built about her,
Home now after so long away
In the flowerless streets of the drab town.

The men watched her busy with the hens,
The soft flesh ripening warm as corn
On the sticks of limbs, the grey eyes clear,
Rinsed with dew of their long dread.
The men watched her, and, nodding, smiled
With earth’s charity, patient and strong.

(I was fascinated with the barrenness of this picture..)


Picture Sources:
Thomas 1 — BBC
Thomas 2 — Dreaming Beneath the Spires