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Thomas, Ronald Stuartfree

(1913–2000)
  • T. J. Hughes

Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913–2000)

by John Hedgecoe, 1966 [at Eglwys-fach]

© John Hedgecoe; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Thomas, Ronald Stuart (1913–2000), poet and Church in Wales clergyman, was born at 5 Newfoundland Road, Gabalfa, Llandaff, Cardiff, on 29 March 1913, the only son of Thomas Hubert Thomas (d. 1965), merchant seaman, and Margaret, née Davies. From the age of five he lived in Anglesey, and later brilliantly evoked his childhood, during which he acquired his love of the natural world among the cliffs and beaches of Holy Island, in his autobiographical pieces Y llwybrau gynt ('Former paths'; 1972) and Neb ('No one'; 1985). His mother was the main figure in his early life, guiding him towards the respectable, secure vocation of priesthood. Later he described her as over-protective and sometimes difficult, but he also recalled her tears in the night before he left home for college. His father, working on the ships that crossed the Irish Sea, remains a shadowy figure in Thomas's work. There are glimpses of him as an older man, fishing in the river by the rectory in Manafon, pointing out the constellations, calling birds by the wrong names, but his most striking intervention came from a distance, by letter, when he recognized, in the fine language of his son's correspondence, a nascent poet.

Studying classics at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, Thomas acquired his cognomen RS while in the rugby team, but later depicted himself there as shy: studying quietly in his room, taking long solitary walks through the open country, and failing to find a girl who would accompany him. He met her in his mid-twenties—Mildred (Elsi) Eldridge (1909–1991), an English painter whose reputation was already established—and their marriage lasted for more than fifty years from 1936. The poetry he addressed to her is among his most intense and moving work.

Moreover, in the development of his own vivid eye, his use of the themes and subject matter of paintings, and perhaps above all in the recognition of the permanent power of transient moments, his poetry became profoundly affected by a life shared with a painter. They had one son, Gwydion, who also features in his poetry. The man so often portrayed as an impersonal figure, and so famously guarded on personal details, brought all four key relationships—father, mother, wife, and son—into the body of his work, sometimes with a searing candour. The heart laid bare in such poems as 'The Way of It' is breathtaking.

By the time of his marriage Thomas was working as a curate in Chirk near the English border, having trained in Llandaff at St Michael's Theological College. He was ordained deacon in 1936 and priest in the following year.

At Chirk, then a mining district, and subsequently Hanmer, from 1940, Thomas took his first practical steps in his new role: sermons, visits to the homes of the sick, evenings at the local branch of Toc H. He felt out of place, however, in the flatlands of Maelor Saesneg, and longed for the deeper landscapes to the west. The opportunity came in 1942 to take up the rectorate of Manafon in Montgomeryshire, a place of isolated hill farmsteads with the church and rectory below in the hollow. Here he came face to face with the stark rural life of mid-Wales and with the men and women who persisted in it. His frank engagement with them—half repelled, half honouring—was the spark of his first published poetry, and of a play for radio, The Minister.

Thomas's first collection, The Stones of the Field, was privately printed just after the Second World War. Along with selections from two subsequent volumes, this work reached a wider public in 1955 under the title Song at the Year's Turning. An introduction by John Betjeman, and the subsequent bestowal of the Heinemann award of the Royal Society of Literature, recognized the arrival of a major new poetic voice (now forty-two years old). The people of the hill farms were embodied in the imagined figure of Iago Prytherch, with whose life and meaning Thomas wrestled over many years and a considerable body of poetry—and in so doing he wrestled with the limitations of his own perspective and character. Like Baudelaire, one of the community of poets named in his work, when he skewered a target—a Welshman, Wales, a God who will not signal—he most revealed his skewered self.

In response to Saunders Lewis and his call for national revival, Thomas emerged as a convinced defender of Welsh culture and language. He felt acutely the sense of exclusion from much of his own culture because of his ignorance of the native tongue, 'all those good words, and I outside them', as he said in the poem 'Welsh'. With difficulty and over some years he became fluent in Welsh, moving from first tentative greetings to passing farmworkers to the day of his first public address in his father's tongue at the hilltop chapel of Penarth. This strong feeling for the national culture and its plight brought a new theme to his poetry, and jolted his verse forward to the fully formed style for which he became best-known, in one of his first great poems, 'Welsh Landscape' (1952). The public image of a severe and righteous poet-prophet, which was to stay with Thomas, owed much to the success with which the blunt lines, and the voice of authority in mourning, were met. Nostalgic for the sea, he moved in 1954 to be vicar of Eglwys-fach, near Aberystwyth, but again had to recognize a real local community whose ordinary lives were insufficiently preoccupied with striving toward their new vicar's vision.

As well as the appearance every two or three years of another volume of his own, Thomas began to take on a role as a selector and introducer of the verse of others, among them The Batsford Book of Country Verse, The Penguin Book of Religious Verse, and a selection of the poetry of Edward Thomas, the introduction to which is a typical demonstration of R. S. Thomas's brief, clear prose and his recognition of a man with similar impulses to his own. The growth of his reputation was reflected in the award of the queen's medal for poetry in 1964.

The work and themes of this first twenty years, frequently anthologized over subsequent decades, were those for which Thomas became famous, and they formed the dominant image of him. But by the mid-1960s Thomas had moved on. These changes were greatly fostered by the more congenial environment surrounding him in his next post as vicar of Aberdaron, at the western end of the Llŷn peninsula, from 1967 to 1978. Here the Welsh language was the means of daily intercourse, migrating birds of great variety and fascination to him passed by in spring and autumn, and the ever-changing sea swept against the edges of the churchyard.

Since Manafon days Thomas's life had taken on a regular pattern of study or writing poems in the morning, long walks in the afternoon, and visiting parishioners in the evening. Neither the career ladder nor the literary circuit ever materially distracted him. It was the walks which perhaps gave most to his writing. Astonishing evocations of the natural world began to appear more often—the changing weather, landscape, bird life—in poems of lyricism and wonder which were inseparably entwined with his pursuit of the nature of God.

Thomas was testing his relationship with God in new ways, searching for the signs of his presence, the meaning of his absence, the possibility of his non-existence, trying to see the world through God's eyes. The religious poetry which emerged ranks with the finest written in English. By the time of Laboratories of the Spirit (1975) and Frequencies (1978) there is an inescapable, exhilarating sense of his having been lifted to new insights, which bloom again in the work of the 1980s and 1990s. God, with whom Thomas establishes what might be called working terms, is approached again with awe and asserted against the gaps in science and the inadequacies of technology and materialism.

The theme of the machine, which had made an early comic entrance in the 1950s with 'Cynddylan on a Tractor', was re-announced with new intent. Thomas rebutted the connection between technology and progress and the modern emphasis on proofs and certainties. He preferred instead the world of poetry, mystery, and faith, and suggested (like Jesus) that wisdom lay in stepping aside from the onward hurry, to live in the illuminated present. 'The Bright Field' (1975) and 'Afon Rhiw' (1992) are among these testaments.

Thomas retired in 1978 to Sarn Rhiw, a cottage in the grounds of Plas yn Rhiw, set high above the great bay of Porth Neigwl with the mountains of Merioneth in the distance. He began to take stock of his life and, perhaps unexpectedly, emerged as a more public figure. His public expression of sympathy with Meibion Glyndwr in setting light to the holiday homes of the English in Wales led to controversy, but it was his lecture in 1976 at the national eisteddfod, 'Abercuawg', which had set out his vision for Wales most cogently. In this he argued that Wales should be a nation moved by a striving for a freedom and an ideal rooted in its own culture, language, and landscape, confident in the truths that they hold, and therefore resistant to internationalizing influences. Internationalizing influences in Wales usually meant the English, who thus remained the target of particular barbs. Blwyddyn yn Llŷn ('A year in Llŷn'; 1990), a vivid prose account of the changes in the natural world through the yearly cycle, is interrupted so frequently for this purpose that the reader can feel assailed by Thomas's insistence and anxiety. At his own account too, passing tourists who happened to ask him for directions encountered the apparently baffled response 'No English'. He would relish the moment, returning indoors to his English wife.

Thomas supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, speaking at rallies and dispatching numerous letters to the press. He had always been a pacifist, seeing no other credible position for a Christian priest to take, but he thought the arrival of nuclear weapons and the associated arms race exemplified man's absurd situation when overreached by his own scientific prowess.

Meeting Thomas in later years, strangers might recall a wild-haired, angular man; parishioners a figure more in communion with the hills than with them—but friends describe a deep thinker and lover of language, lit up by a sense of humour not without mischief, and with a real concern for those in difficulty. When he failed, as he felt, to help a troubled fisherman encountered on the beach, he kept a lobster pot in full view from the pulpit to remind him.

At Sarn Rhiw also Thomas wrote Neb, his autobiography, which clarified the coherence of his life and work. He portrayed the physical journey of his life as an oval: from Holyhead to Chirk, returning through Manafon, Eglwys-fach, to the Llŷn, within sight of Anglesey. It was a life engaged with enriching the same few themes encountered early, getting to comprehend them truly, not a life of endless search for the new. His work and his life, as a priest in rural parishes, were thus profoundly integrated, sharing the pattern for living which his poetry presented. A telling aspect of its style, and the detached and critical eye with which he regarded himself, was the way he referred to himself in the third person, as the boy, the rector, and so forth, emerging only as RS when he found himself more fully on his return to Welsh landscapes.

Following the death of his wife after very considerable ill health, Thomas produced personal poems of great power, 'A Marriage' and 'No Time' among them. The volume dedicated to her memory, Mass for Hard Times (1992), bursts with the energy and gift of a master still growing in his powers, and paved the way for his last restless volume, No Truce with the Furies (1995). In 1996, at the age of eighty-three, he was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature. It only remained to complete his circuit back to the haunts of childhood, to live again in the northern corner of Anglesey, with a new Canadian-born wife, Elisabeth Agnes (Betty) Vernon (b. 1916), whom he married on 17 August 1996, and who brought him new and unexpected happiness.

R. S. Thomas died at Pentrefelin, on 25 September 2000, acclaimed as one of the greatest writers of poetry in English in the second half of the twentieth century. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in the grounds of St John's, Porthmadog, Caernarvonshire. Thomas—in his themes, imagery, and stature—links back through the Welsh poetic canon to his great fourteenth-century predecessor Dafydd ap Gwilym. In his troubled, elegiac tone he reaches back still further, to Aneirin and the origins of the language. Yet while he translated the Welsh subject matter, he left behind its main poetic form, rejecting a route explored by an earlier Welsh-born poet-priest, George Herbert. His achievement took the one and a half thousand-year Welsh aesthetic tradition, centred as it had always been on the essence of relationships between God, the natural world, and the people, to a greater national and international readership, through the medium of English poetry.

Sources

  • R. S. Thomas, Neb (1985)
  • R. S. Thomas, Y llwybrau gynt (1972)
  • The Independent (27 Sept 2000)
  • Daily Telegraph (27 Sept 2000)
  • The Guardian (27 Sept 2000)
  • R. S. Thomas, Autobiographies (1997)
  • M. Stephens, ed., The Oxford companion to the literature of Wales (1986)
  • private information (2004)
  • memorial evenings organized by the Welsh Academy at Bangor and Cardiff, Jan 2001

Archives

  • NL Wales, corresp. and literary papers
  • U. Wales, Bangor, corresp. and papers
  • NL Wales, corresp. with Dafydd Elis-Thomas
  • NL Wales, corresp. with Emyr Humphries

Likenesses

  • M. E. Eldridge, pencil and watercolour, 1941, NPG; repro. in W. M. Merchant, R. S. Thomas (1979)
  • J. Hedgecoe, photograph, 1966, NPG [see illus.]
  • M. Roberts, photograph, repro. in R. S. Thomas, Selected prose, ed. S. Anstey (1983)
  • W. Rowlands, oils, priv. coll.
  • W. Rowlands, sketch, priv. coll.
  • K. Williams, pencil and wash (with wife), priv. coll.
  • K. Williams, pencil sketch, NL Wales