R. S. Thomas: A Stylistic Biography

R. S. Thomas: A Stylistic Biography

by Daniel Westover


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R. S. Thomas (1913–2000) is the most recognizable literary figure in Wales. His controversial politics and public personality made him a cultural icon and, since his death, have led to debates about his cultural significance. Yet such debates have too frequently marginalized the poetry itself, producing a potentially flawed understanding of his work. This study argues that Thomas’s reputation must be grounded in poetry, not personality. Accordingly, the author traces the poet’s development over six decades, analyzing his various prosodies and demonstrating how Thomas’s tensions and anxieties manifest themselves in the continually shifting style of his poems.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780708324134
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 12/15/2011
Series: University of Wales Press - Writing Wales in English Series
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Daniel Westover is an award-winning poet and literary critic specializing in the English-language poetry of Wales. He is currently assistant professor of modern British literature at East Tennessee State University.

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R. S. Thomas

A Stylistic Biography

By Daniel Westover

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2011 Daniel Westover
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2412-7


Origins of a Style, 1936–1943

The waters strive to wash away
The frail path of her melody,
This little bird across the lake
That links her gentle soul with me.

O wind and wave thou wilt not break,
Uncouth and lusty as thou art,
The light thread of this golden song
That shines so deep into my heart.

Hard as it may be to believe, these quatrains – with their easy rhymes, archaic diction and unvarying iambic tetrameter – are an early, untitled composition by R. S. Thomas. Sent to a publisher for consideration, they were rejected, and it is not hard to see why. In 1939, the likely year of submission (three years, it is worth noting, after the publication of Michael Roberts's Faber Book of Modern Verse), the dust had long since gathered on the Georgians, the last group of poets to tolerate diminutive descriptions like 'frail path' and 'little bird', yet these were the very poets R. S. Thomas was imitating at the time. Even if these quatrains had been penned during the decade of Edward Marsh's anthologies, they would not have been very impressive. The poem's diction – the pronoun 'thou', the adjectives 'uncouth' and 'lusty', the use of poetic apostrophe (particularly with the accompanying 'O') – was outmoded by 1912, let alone 1939; adjective-noun pairings like 'gentle soul' and 'golden song' were long since clichés; and the predictable, but ultimately vacuous, last line would have caused almost any critic, seventeen years after the publication of The Waste Land, to cringe. As Thomas later became aware,

You will take seriously those first affairs
With young poems, but no attachments
Formed then but come to shame you.
('To A Young Poet', BT, p. 11)

In truth, these 1939 quatrains represent a body of early work that the mature R. S. Thomas may have wished had never seen the light of day. However, the young Thomas sent his imitative quatrains into the world, and one is glad of it, for it would not do to begin a developmental study of his prosody by examining the relatively mature writing he produced in Manafon during the 1940s and 1950s even if critics have often painted that work, particularly those poems featuring Iago Prytherch, as the genesis of R. S. Thomas. For example, John Powell Ward begins his book-length, chronological study of Thomas's career with a discussion of the 'great many poems on the Welsh peasant and hill farmer', even going so far as to call Song at the Year's Turning (1955) Thomas's 'first book'. Ward's treatment of Thomas's poetry was pioneering, and it retains its relevance even in the face of newer scholarship, but his narrative does not begin at the beginning. While Song at the Year's Turning was Thomas's first volume to be published in London and, therefore, the first to exact attention from English critics, it was in reality his fourth published book. In fact, Thomas was publishing in respected journals as early as the late 1930s. His earliest offerings, to be sure, are derivative and unsophisticated when compared with poems written at Manafon, but that fact is itself important to an understanding of his work. For example, Dilys Rowe, in her review of The Stones of the Field(1946), shrewdly points out how 'The poetry ... in these days of head-long half-clothed rushes, comes decorously into print, poised and far advanced in a poet's development'. Of course, with Thomas's career now whole, one can see that The Stones of the Field was far from the apex of his progression, but Rowe was right: R. S. Thomas's style had developed significantly by 1946.

In analysing Thomas's poetic development, one quickly becomes aware that the style of his poems was tied to the changing substance of his emotions. In fact, one does not need to read much R. S. Thomas to ascertain that the primary catalysts for his stylistic development were anxiety, resentment and a perpetual sense of instability, amounting to what we will call a 'troubled muse'. 'Hate takes a long time / To grow in', he writes in Tares (1961), his first post-Manafon volume, 'and mine / Has increased since birth' ('Those Others', p. 31). These lines point to an inner conflict that has been a lifetime in the making. Tony Brown and M. Wynn Thomas write of 'the tensions ... that hurt R. S. Thomas into verse'. Sources of 'hurt' and 'hate' evolved and expanded over the years, taking in a number of related issues, including an insecure sense of self, an antipathy to the dehumanizing modern world and a complex relationship with an impersonal God. But much of the conflict that 'made' R. S. Thomas was manifestly affecting him years before he arrived in Manafon, and it was also affecting his style. Manafon was his first stylistic destination, an important one, but one of many at which the poet arrived, and from which he would write, before eventually setting off again.

By initially focusing on the years Thomas spent as a curate in the English-speaking border parishes of Chirk, Denbighshire (1936–40) and Hanmer, Flintshire (1940–2), one does not wish to understate the jolt Manafon and its resident hill farmers gave his sensibilities or the developments they prompted in the poetry. But something happened on the road to Manafon, something that, between 1939 and 1942, knocked the Georgianism out of R. S. Thomas and simultaneously '[created] a fundamental sense of insecurity and mistrust' within him. That interim, neglected though it may be, is fruitful ground. The origins of R. S. Thomas the stylist, the prosodist, in short the poet of originality, are there for the finding.


When I was a child,

innocent plagiarist,
there was dew on the early-morning
mushroom, as there is not now. (ERS, p. 75)

Reading R. S. Thomas, one comes to realize that a shadow of lost innocence casts itself on much of his writing. The childlike trust he placed in nature and in God felt the sting of war and the accompanying drone of modernity in the 1940s, and the resulting wounds never really healed. Indeed, much of his work can be seen as a search to re-establish that lost innocence and sense of unity, a longing for that which is simple and ultimately unselfconscious. In the 1920s and 1930s, however, Thomas was not yet weighed down by 'the new world, ugly and evil' ('no Through Road', SYT, p. 115). He was still 'ignorant of the blood's stain' ('Song for Gwydion', AL, p. 9). Living in rural Wales, he avoided much of the shock of modernity of which Britain and its literary landscape felt the impact in the early part of the twentieth century. Writing of his youth and adolescence, Thomas points on several occasions to a particular experience – that of mushroom gathering – to symbolize what he saw as a purer time:

One of the most enjoyable times of the year in Holyhead was the mushroom-picking season ... those early mornings were full of magic. Have you ever touched cold mushrooms, wet with dew, smelt their freshness, and tasted them? ... They have a vaguely cheesy taste ... which disappears in the frying-pan, no matter how careful you are.

From an early age, Thomas found his inspiration in the natural world, and in both poetry and prose these dew-touched mushrooms are a microcosm of that world: fresh, ripe, unspoiled, but also vulnerable and elusive. Such 'mornings full of magic' bring to mind Hopkins's 'Goldengrove' and Dylan Thomas's 'green and golden' days. But golden groves 'unleave', and, as Dylan Thomas reminds us, 'the sun ... is young once only'. In this retrospective prose passage from The Echoes Return Slow (1988), R. S. Thomas articulates an inevitable loss. His innocence was to 'disappear in the frying-pan' of the 1940s. That final phrase – 'no matter how careful you are' – is significant. Thomas grew up away from industry and technology. He deliberately lived and worked in rural parishes rather than towns. But there was no avoiding modernity. Welcome or not, it would dry the magic from those cold mornings, and it would demand poetic expression.

Thomas's early style mimics writers whose work reflects a similar innocence. His early exposure to poetry was limited to F. T. Palgrave's Golden Treasury and the obligatory Georgian verses he studied at school in Holyhead. For its part, The Golden Treasury, first published in 1861 and periodically updated in various editions, was an old-fasioned anthology even by the 1920s. It is not clear which edition R. S. Thomas would have encountered, but from 1909 to 1929 The Golden Treasury, no longer edited by Palgrave (who died in 1897), remained more or less unchanged in its various editions so that, for example, the only post-1900 poet to be included in the 1923 edition was Algernon Swinburne (1837–1909), hardly a Modernist. Thus, while his familiarity with The Golden Treasury gave Thomas a solid background in accentual-syllabic prosody (Shakespeare, Milton and Keats were prominently featured in every edition), it also confined his exposure to the particular breed of poems favoured by Palgrave, who unabashedly excluded any poem that was 'too long, unrhymed (or written in heroic couplets), narrative, descriptive, didactic, humorous, erotic, religious, occasional, or overly personal'. These exclusions limited the anthology to short songs and nature lyrics that, by the time R. S. Thomas was being influenced by them, should have seemed antiquated. In an audio recording, Thomas speaks about his introduction to poetry, and of his first attempts at writing it:

In the late twenties, at a time when I should have been in touch with what Eliot, Joyce, and Pound were doing, I was receiving my ideas of poetry via Palgrave's Golden Treasury, and through such Georgian verse as was compulsory reading for my examinations in English. I was also a confirmed open-air nature lover so that such verses as I then achieved myself were almost bound to be about trees and fields and skies and seas. no bad thing if I had been familiar with the poets who knew how to deal maturely with such material ... But my efforts were based on the weaker poems of Shelley and the more sugary ones of the Georgians.

Thomas mentions the late 1920s but in fact his work of the late 1930s still reflects these outmoded influences. not that he was unwilling to update his poetry – as he later phrased it, to 'move with the times' as 'life puts on speed' ('Movement', BT, p. 35) – but owing to a lack of stylistic models that could show him how to 'deal maturely' with his love of nature, Thomas's poetry of the late 1930s, rather than moving with the style of the times, was still lagging behind it.

Even when Thomas did become aware of Eliot, he was not yet ready to embrace the unfamiliar style and ideas. In a conversation with Molly Price-Owen, he reports:

When I was a curate [at Chirk] the sort of people that represented the upper middle class ... were beginning to talk about T. S. Eliot but sort of saying 'I can't make head or tail of him', and this kind of thing and I suppose I was inclined to leave him there. It wasn't until much later that I came to appreciate his vision.

One should also point out that while he was a curate, Thomas was not in touch with literary circles, as he might have been had he been in London, and his degree was in classics (specifically Latin), not English. Indeed, the congested, stress-heavy quality of his early lines can in some measure be attributed to his extensive reading in ancient forms. Later on, in the 1940s, when Thomas was attempting to separate himself from his English, middle-class background, Eliot may have represented exactly that from which he was trying to distance himself. By that time Thomas was also engaging with what he saw as characteristically Welsh prosody and, as will be discussed in the next chapter, the influential work of Irish poets Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh. All of this took his work away from contemporary currents in English poetry.

As we examine Thomas's work of 1939, much of which is unpublished or uncollected, we find evidence of his outdated models. One poem of note – one of the six unpublished, untitled 1939 holograph poems held in the national Library of Wales – begins as follows:

A blue snake in the valley ran
The river down from Llyn-y-Fan,
And rustled with the autumn breeze
Among the braziers of the trees.

Apart from the presence of a Welsh place name, there is nothing here that is characteristic of the mature R. S. Thomas, and the verse is imitative. In fact, reading the second couplet, one cannot help but recall Pope's mockery of clichéd technique: 'Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze, / In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees'. And the influence of The Golden Treasury, particularly Shelley, is evident. The metre, with the exception of one incidental substitution in the first line, is a singing iambic tetrameter, the quatrain consisting of two exact-rhyme couplets. The adjectives dutifully fill out the syllable count, and every attempt at emotional colouring relies on nature: a running, rustling river; a rustling breeze in blazing trees. Everything rests comfortably on the surface; nothing is internalized. Shelley at his best was not similarly external, but he certainly could be at times. Here is a similar passage from Shelley, collected in The Golden Treasury:

The sun is warm, the sky is clear,
The waves are dancing fast and bright,
Blue isles and snowy mountains wear
The purple noon's transparent might.

While the rhyme scheme here is slightly different, the tone, the easy rhymes, the 'transparent', surface-level nature description, the filled-in metre that strictly adheres to a syllable count, even the smooth enjambement between the third and fourth line, form the mould from which the Thomas quatrain is cast.

The next stanza of Thomas's poem, equally unremarkable in its own right, nevertheless proves interesting in a developmental context:

The hills reached up and sometimes drew
The clouds' attention as they flew,
And mushroom plentiful the sheep
Grazed on the hillsides green and steep.

The iambic tetrameter is constant (the exception being a routine trochaic substitution in the first foot of the fourth line) and the chiming endrhymes predictable. But such rhyme is appropriate to the poem's worldview. In 'Words and the Poet' (1964), Thomas suggests that exact rhyme is 'the sign of an ordered world of pattern into which things fall as inevitably and satisfactorily as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle' (SP, pp. 53–4). While Thomas's mature work reflects a world where life's 'puzzle' cannot be neatly assembled, this poem reflects a world that is unthreatened. In fact, it is telling that those flocks perched on a green, idyllic hillside are compared to plentiful mushrooms, Thomas's recurring symbol of innocence.

Yet the poem, for all its formal stability, is not entirely without discord. The third and final stanza abruptly and unexpectedly changes the tone.

But one came by and frowned to see
How colourful the world would be;
With horny hand he rubbed away
My frail attempt to paint the day.

One should not make too much of this stanza, coming as it does almost as an afterthought. One could argue that the mysterious, rough hand that wipes out a potentially ideal world prefigures an enigmatic God who, in much later poems, intentionally seeds the world He creates with discord, germs and even brutality. But this connection is tenuous and premature. A better connection, considering the relationship Thomas is making between poetry and landscape painting, is with his poems from the 1950s and 1960s about Welsh landscapes, which often juxtapose 'the golden landscape / of nature' and 'the twisted creatures / Crossing it' ('The Observer', NBF, p. 11), and which reveal Thomas abandoning 'a watercolour's appeal / To the mass' in favour of 'the poem's / Harsher conditions' ('Reservoirs', NBF, p. 26). Perhaps, then, the most significant aspect of this element of discord is its early presence. Although docile in comparison with the chaotic poems that followed hard upon them, Thomas's poems of the late 1930s do begin to reflect a hint of uneasiness, an awareness that the world is more than little birds and dew-misted mushrooms. The impact of that awareness on Thomas's style, although slight at first, would grow exponentially over the course of the next few years.

In his prose autobiography, Neb, R. S. Thomas writes of his years in Chirk: 'It was here, for the first time, that he came face to face with the problem of pain' (A, p. 43). In another of the 1939 holograph poems, also untitled, 'the problem of pain' finds expression as 'the pale faces of / The poor, the weary, the outcast', and the poem contrasts the 'smooth grace' of nature's 'slow water' with the 'dark waters' of the city, which 'may be / the ultimate deception' to those who hear their 'seductive' song. Thomas, it would seem, was beginning to discover that nature imagery can be internalized, and that it can disturb. Tony Brown points out how Thomas's unease 'was to be expected: a young man, fresh from theological college and in an unfamiliar area, confronting for the first time the emotional and spiritual demands of ministering to ordinary parishioners'. Brown also points to other factors – including Thomas's pacifism in the face of impending war (and his disillusionment that the Church in Wales would not condemn militarism) and a growing discontent with international capitalism (an attitude partially influenced by his reading of Hewlett Johnson, the 'Red Dean' of Canterbury) – as being partially responsible for his unease. 'Such conflicts in belief', writes Brown, 'must have caused the young curate to reflect deeply on the values of the Church in which he had just begun to serve and on the nature of his role within it', and the resulting anxiety 'ultimately amounted to what might, in existentialist terms, be defined as a sense of inauthenticity, the sense ... of not being in secure possession of one's own identity'. Barbara Prys-Williams is more blunt as she describes Thomas's 'weak and fitful sense of his own selfhood' and 'his inability to have any clear sense of who he is'.


Excerpted from R. S. Thomas by Daniel Westover. Copyright © 2011 Daniel Westover. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents

General Editor’s Preface

1. Origins of a Style, 1936–1943
2. A Style Emerging, 1943–1955
3. A Style Defined, 1955–1972
4. A Style Developed, 1972–1988
5. A Style (Un)Refined, 1988–2000

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