A poet of few words
Biography: A chatty biography of a reticent man reveals too little of the artist behind the work.
Byron Rogers has written a noisy biography of a silent man. So quietly did the Welsh poet, RS Thomas (1913-2000), live that he might have taken a vow of silence at his ordination in 1936 as a priest of the Anglican communion. His rather unforgiving and unforgetting son, Gwydion Thomas - an only child who had been shipped off, from the age of eight, to English boarding schools of the "fagging and flogging" kind - reportedly remarked that "there were weeks when nobody said anything in our house".
Visitors were unwelcome. Frugal breakfasts in the cold vicarage were eaten without a sprinkling of conversation. The family stereo received only two airings in all - maybe the very idea of extra "speakers" in the house was off-putting. The vacuum cleaner was buried away - dust to dust - because it was noisy. Even hymns in church were regarded as creating the devil of a racket.
Thomas's silences could unnerve those who met him. He "suddenly was led into my room one afternoon last week, and stood there without moving or speaking", a bemused Philip Larkin recalled in 1962. A bird-watcher who shared an expedition to the island of Ramsey with Thomas felt fortunate not to be stranded with him on a desert island: "We hardly had a conversation the whole time we were there." Married compatibly to Elsi Eldridge, a talented painter (he remarried, in old age, after her death), Thomas read, wrote and reflected each morning and spent his afternoons bird-watching or grass-cutting; his parishioners, the old and ailing ones especially, were visited by him in the evenings.
Born the year before Dylan Thomas, his more famous namesake, RS Thomas had a weakness for chocolate; and he baked sponge cakes and bread, made fudge and tooth-breaking toffee - scarcely the stuff of Dylan-like legends of bibulous boisterousness in literary Fitzrovia. But there were moments of turbulent priesthood when, allowing his uncompromising pacifism to be overwhelmed by exasperated Welsh nationalism, RS lent what seemed like tacit support to arson attacks on English holiday homes in Wales. And angry stories abound of the unclubbable priest-poet who, hostile towards the summer influx of English-speaking tourists, would drive his Mini Clubman at a disruptively slow pace along the lanes of the Lleyn Peninsula where he ministered. An English barmaid who had settled in Lleyn told a previous RS Thomas biographer, Justin Wintle, that she knew the vicar "mainly from the rear . . . The rear of his car, that is".
Although not without colour, choler or controversy, therefore, RS Thomas's life occupied an entirely different realm (and his poetry an entirely different register) from Dylan Thomas's; never, poetically or personally, were the twain to meet. As if fearful that he has been palmed off with the wrong Thomas - the quiet man rather than the roaring boy - Byron Rogers fills RS Thomas's silences with a torrent of chatter; the biographer's chummy, colloquial tone, while undeniably entertaining, becomes as wearing as a hyperactive child on a journey of 300 pages. With more than a slight touch of the dramatic, he highlights the contradictions inherent in the Welsh nationalist poet with the upper middle-class (or is it elocution class?) English accent; the champion of the Welsh language who wrote his poetry in standard English and sent his son to school in England; the aloof vicar who alienated many among his flock in remote rural parishes and once "vaulted" over the churchyard wall after conducting a funeral service.
RS Thomas was well aware of his own personal inconsistencies and - as his friend, the Welsh-language poet Bobi Jones, suggested - this "tension" proved creative and was the source of much of his artistic power. Given to unsparing self-interrogation, Thomas (ringing the changes on his obsessions: God, love, science, technology, Wales, rural life) made poems which anticipate and eloquently deflect every charge that could be laid against their author. Whether presenting a man's-eye view of God or a God's-eye view of man, his poetry was as passionate in its yearning as it was icy in its detachment. He pared down his thoughts to short, plain-spoken, lapidary poems - pebbles chipped from the Precambrian rock.
AS A MASTER of metaphor, whose poems usually turn on an imagistic axis, Thomas felt at home in the Christian context of parables and symbols; he loved the King James Bible and was scandalised that the modern liturgy addresses God so "matily" (not unlike the way Byron Rogers approaches Thomas himself, one is tempted to add). Thomas worried endlessly at the images of the cross and the empty tomb, at notions of time and eternity. For him, the resemblance between things was imbued with religious implications. As he told Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show: "I can't think of a more direct access to meaning and eternity than metaphor . . . the ability to see all things as one." He could be a doubting Thomas too, asking hard questions, but never doubting that there was something out there worth questioning. The hallmark of his work, and of his contemplation of God and man alike, was a total - if sometimes brutal - directness and frankness. In his honesty, he was indeed truly consistent.
Byron Rogers's lively biography will be enjoyed most by those who like their poets eccentric to the point of caricature and who don't object to the inner life - albeit essential to the poems - being played down. His book is a trove of biographical trivia. For instance, we are twice (which is more than once too often by my count) treated to Gwydion Thomas's earth-shattering insight that his father, out walking, was a "great pee-er in fields"; but Thomas père's greatness in the literary field is obfuscated in certain respects. Rogers's emphasis is on the man who, in the course of a number of parish transfers, moved increasingly further west in search of the "old, unchanged Wales". The crucial literary narrative - the story of Thomas's courage, dedication and extraordinary independence as a poet - tends to be lost somewhere among the hill farms and bird sanctuaries.
Thomas's superb early collections were printed at his own expense; he was aged 42 (and had been rejected at Faber by TS Eliot, one of the select few modern poets he admired) before his work was placed with a small commercial press in London and published with an introduction (awarded a no-stars "almost drivel" rating from Thomas himself) commissioned from the unlikely figure of John Betjeman. Despite a few tantalising meetings with other important poets - including that sudden apparition in Philip Larkin's office (left unexplained by Rogers) and a providential encounter (about which Rogers is uncharacteristically silent) with the great Nobel laureate, Czeslaw Milosz - Thomas had, beyond Wales, no significant literary friendships and no sustained contact with his poetic peers. He was a supreme loner.
Press photographers, Rogers reminds his readers, liked to portray the scowling RS Thomas as "the Ogre of Wales". "Hold that scowl," you could almost hear them plead, as his Fr Jack glare loomed above the half-door of his dank 17th-century retirement cottage near Hell's Mouth Bay. Anyone privileged to have known how charming and funny Thomas could be in private will recall the distinctive trembling of his thin lips, like a shift in railway points, which signalled that a joke was about to come travelling down the line. Rogers's giddy, gossipy book shows something of the smile behind the scowl but too little of the artist behind the poems.
Dennis O'Driscoll received the 2006 O'Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the Center for Irish Studies in Minnesota. His Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations will be published in October
The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of RS Thomas By Byron Rogers Aurum, 326pp. £16.99