The Poetry of R.S. Thomas

Taken near Porthmadog, where Thomas remains.

I am living in Wales and the poetry of R.S. Thomas has taught me more of what it is to be Welsh than any history book.

He lived most of his life in this area of Northern Wales and wrote about the people and land that surrounds us.  His poems speak of the fresh earth, the mist filled valleys, the bleak winters and aching beauty of the landscape; they are sparse and sometimes bitter.  This was to Thomas ‘the true Wales of my imagination’ although his later poetry was more metaphysical in nature.

Thomas was a spiritual man and believed in a free Wales (free of England that is); a Welsh speaking land, living in tune with the natural world.  He was a vicar for most of his life and lived in an almost ascetic manner.  He bemoaned the use of even basic technology like a washing machine or electric iron.  Thomas believed that materialism and greed would destroy communities and erode culture, epitomised by the English ‘invasion’ of Wales.  He condoned the fire-bombing of English owned holiday cottages but considered himself a pacifist and supported the CND.

Strangely, Thomas only learnt to speak Welsh later in life, spoke with a posh English accent and sent his son to private school in England.

A complex character and a brilliant poet.

The forest meets the shoreline, Portmeirion.

I have selected a couple of my favourites here:

A Welsh Testament

All right, I was Welsh. Does it matter?
I spoke a tongue that was passed on
To me in the place I happened to be,
A place huddled between grey walls
Of cloud for at least half the year.
My word for heaven was not yours.
The word for hell had a sharp edge
Put on it by the hand of the wind
Honing, honing with a shrill sound
Day and night. Nothing that Glyn Dwr
Knew was armour against the rain’s
Missiles. What was descent from him?

Even God had a Welsh name:
He spoke to him in the old language;
He was to have a peculiar care
For the Welsh people. History showed us
He was too big to be nailed to the wall
Of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him
Between the boards of a black book.

Yet men sought us despite this.
My high cheek-bones, my length of skull
Drew them as to a rare portrait
By a dead master. I saw them stare
From their long cars, as I passed knee-deep
In ewes and wethers. I saw them stand
By the thorn hedges, watching me string
The far flocks on a shrill whistle.
And always there was their eyes; strong
Pressure on me: You are Welsh, they said;
Speak to us so; keep your fields free
Of the smell of petrol, the loud roar
Of hot tractors; we must have peace
And quietness.

Is a museum
Peace? I asked. Am I the keeper
Of the heart’s relics, blowing the dust
In my own eyes? I am a man;
I never wanted the drab role
Life assigned me, an actor playing
To the past’s audience upon a stage
Of earth and stone; the absurd label
Of birth, of race hanging askew
About my shoulders. I was in prison
Until you came; your voice was a key
Turning in the enormous lock
Of hopelessness. Did the door open
To let me out or yourselves in?

Forest Dwellers
Men who have hardly uncurled
from their posture in the
womb. Naked. Heads bowed, not
in prayer, but in contemplation
of the earth they came from,
that suckled them on the brown
milk that builds bone not brain.
Who called them forth to walk
in the green light, their thoughts
on darkness? Their women,
who are not Madonnas, have babes
at the breast with the wise,
time-ridden faces of the Christ
child in a painting by a Florentine
master. The warriors prepare poison
with love’s care for the Sebastians
of their arrows. They have no
God, but follow the contradictions
of a ritual that says
life must die that life
may go on. They wear flowers in their hair.
Listen and read more R.S. Thomas poetry here.

From the Portmeirion Peninsula

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