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About the Author
M. Wynn Thomas is professor of English and director of the Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales, both at Swansea University, UK.
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R. S. Thomas
By M. Wynn Thomas
University of Wales PressCopyright © 2013 M. Wynn Thomas
All rights reserved.
In 1942, the enterprising and arrestingly exotic M. J. Tambimuttu edited Poetry in Wartime, which the publishers Faber claimed to be 'unique in that it is not an anthology of war poems', but a collection (including the work of Brenda Chamberlain, Alun Lewis, Lynette Roberts, Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins) of the best poems written since the beginning of war – some of which are also 'war-poems'. The distinction is an important one, pointing up the complexity of the relationship between literature and war, another facet of which is the inevitable inflection of any work produced during wartime by the special conditions that enter, however insensibly, or indirectly, into the very marrow of its making. When Dylan Thomas entitles his 1937 poem 'I make this in a warring absence', he is referring primarily to his wish for a 'peace' in his turbulent relationship with his wife Caitlin; 'an armistice of a moment, to come out of the images on her warpath'. But the image is rootedly expressive of the time in which it was written, when memories of the Great War haunted a young generation uneasily eyeing the ever grimmer circumstances that, passing for 'peace' in contemporary Europe, ominously threatened to turn the two decades since 1918 into a mere 'armistice'.
Thomas's poem was included in Keidrych Rhys's groundbreaking 1944 anthology Modern Welsh Poetry. Among its thirty-seven mostly young contributors were conscientious objectors like Pennar Davies, Glyn Jones and Roland Mathias; First World War veterans like Wyn Griffith and David Jones; home-front writers like Lynette Roberts, the Argentinian incomer suspiciously eyed as a spy at Llan-y-bri, and Brenda Chamberlain, who from her Llanberis cottage helped with mountain rescue of wrecked aircrew; and serving soldiers such as the reluctant combatant Alun Lewis and the wholly unlikely Vernon Watkins. Several of them were to produce warrelated volumes that have been forgotten but would bear revisiting – Brenda Chamberlain's remarkable The Green Heart (1938) and Nigel Heseltine's The Four-Walled Dream are as undeservedly neglected as the wartime poetry of T. Harri Jones and Harri Webb.And because of the range of contributors, Rhys's volume itself deserves to be better appreciated as a valuable record, such as perhaps poetry alone could offer, of the otherwise elusive sensibilities and modalities of wartime Wales. Here, for instance, a survivor of Mametz stands aghast in Wyn Griffith's 'farewell to ... all remembering': 'If there be time enough before the slaughter/ Let us consider our heritage/ Of wisdom' (MPW, p. 53). A young Nigel Heseltine is devastated by the venerable T. Gwynn Jones's refusal, in August 1939, to countenance the awarding of the main prizes at that year's National Eisteddfod at Denbigh: 'An old man speaking of poetry/ Gave us no crown no chair/ No father no mother no voice/ For tomorrow// For tomorrow death' (MWP, p. 66). And a similar need (sometimes desperate, always urgent) for an adequate, answerable 'voice', a language to make sense of direst experience, is to be felt in most, if not all, of this poetry. It is what prompts Ken Etheridge to fulminate against indulgence in 'the lechery/ Of much used metaphors', and to plead 'Let us be clean in language' (MWP, p. 42). And it leads many to reconnect themselves to Wales, either by finding appropriate symbolic language in Welsh myth, or by grounding themselves, Antaeus-like, in Welsh land, in Welsh communities, and within the continuities of Welsh history. As Keidrych Rhys's case demonstrates, mobilisation could result in a newly palpable realisation that 'I'm not English', 'My roots lie in another region'; so that, in an intense, reflexive effort of cultural recovery, 'I try to remember the things;/ At home that mean Wales but typical [sic]/ Isn't translated across The Channel' (MWP, pp. 112–13).
The rural landscape and community life Rhys thus recuperates was at that time being experienced somewhat ambivalently by his wife, Lynette Roberts: 'To the village of lace and stone/ Came strangers. I was one of these', writes Roberts, implicitly associating herself, after a fashion, with evacuees (MWP, p. 115). She, however, was a refugee of a very different kind, in search of her ancestral roots and attempting, in the process, to recall a Welsh people alienated from their own historical origins and ignorant of their authentic cultural inheritance. Hers was therefore a wartime enterprise closely paralleling that attempted, through the Caseg Broadsheets, by Brenda Chamberlain and Alun Lewis, to whom Roberts addressed her 'Poem from Llanybri', inviting him to visit. The poem itself seeks to reenact ancient social customs and poetic conventions, and to discover the kind of English that alone can vouch for the distinctively Welsh locality, and authoritatively speak for it. It becomes what Tony Conran would later call 'a gift poem' – a poem that is offered as a gift, as if it were a proffered piece, a real substantial token, of the landscape itself. 'I will offer you/ A fist full of rock cress fresh from the bank' (MWP, p. 116). But it is her own insuperable alienation from this place that comes through in 'Lamentation', a poem which, in properly insisting that the anguish of miscarriage can exceed even that caused by a local air-raid, is a rare reminder of how 'normal', quotidian life will always continue to furnish experiences as searing as those that war may bring. The poems in the collection also remind us of other continuities between pre-war life and wartime experiences. In industrial south Wales, war followed hard upon the heels of a decade and a half of economic crisis and social devastation. This is indicated in Huw Menai's case, through the juxtaposition of a poem on the terrible siege of Stalingrad with others on the mental torment of working underground: 'Where shall the eyes a darkness find/ That is a menace to the mind/ Save in the coal mine, where one's lamp/ Is smothered oft by afterdamp?' (MWP, p. 95).
All the important writers of the time – from Dylan Thomas to Alun Lewis, and from Emyr Humphreys to Idris Davies – are included in Rhys's Modern Welsh Poetry. And yet it is with a start that one comes upon R. S. Thomas in this company. Rarely has he been regarded a wartime poet, let alone as a 'war poet'. And to read two of his poems in this context is to be bewildered, disorientated, discomfited. 'Iago Prytherch his name' (MWP, p. 130): what on earth is Thomas's celebrated 'ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills' doing in this company? And who would have expected Thomas's chronically absconding God to make his absent presence first known here, as 'the voice that lulled/ Job's soothing mind to a still calm/ Yet tossed his heart to the racked world' (MWP, p. 131)? Could it somehow be, against all probability, that the early R. S. Thomas, too, was a war poet?
The answer, as we shall see, is yes; and to read a signature poem of Thomas's such as 'A Peasant' in the context of this collection is to begin to notice that his early poetry shares several of its central concerns with the poetry of his 'wartime' generation of (mostly) young Welsh poets. Writing under duress, they sought for new forms, new themes, and above all a new language adequate for expressing their situation. As their Wales became luridly back-lit by the glare of conflict, they found that everything they had previously unconsciously valued about their country – the land, the people, the communities – was rendered newly precious, sharply silhouetted by the fires that threatened to consume them. The antiquity of Wales, whether suggested by myth and legend or embodied in the ancientness of rocks and mountains, became for them the warrant of survival; even the devastations that pre-war Wales had endured – the dreadful depression years commemorated by Idris Davies and Huw Menai, the decline of Welsh rural and upland communities angrily mourned by R. S. Thomas – were now paradoxically metamorphosed into proofs of invincible endurance. And, with eyes rawly exposed to the ubiquity of violence, these poets could look differently even upon the most conveniently tranquil and reassuring scenes:
When birds and brittle leaves come down
When trees and grass freeze out their blood
And fishes die in floods of rain,
This is the time for Death.
A mouse is spiked on blades of grass
A sparrow swings from the gibbet of a twig. (MWP, p. 103)
It is by bearing features such as these in mind that we may best prepare ourselves for understanding important aspects of R. S. Thomas's groundbreaking first collection, The Stones of the Field(1946).
There we are stopped in our tracks by passages like this:
Nor shot, nor shell, but the fused word,
That rocks the world to its white root,
Has wrought a chaos in the mind,
And drained the love from the split heart;
Nor shock, nor shower of the sharp blows,
That fall alike from life and death,
But some slow subsistence within,
That sinks a grave for the sapped faith.
Here, surely, is a poem that – with its self-conscious sonorities, declamatory rhetoric, dramatic off-rhymes and impacted images – could almost pass for one by Dylan Thomas? Or that would not be out of place in Raiders' Dawn, that disturbing first volume by Alun Lewis, whose language is so fraught with violence and from which several poems were extracted for Rhys's Modern Welsh Poetry? And yet, this is 'Propaganda' by R. S. Thomas, one of those short lyrics he effectively disowned by choosing not to reprint them in his later, mature collection Song at the Year's Turning. That these poems have been overlooked by critics is understandable since, by omitting them, Thomas presumably meant to indicate that they were only apprentice pieces and that the early growing points of his distinctive, authentic talent lay elsewhere – in the farmer poems (including those about Prytherch) that were also included in The Stones of the Field.
But those discarded early lyrics are not, I feel, entirely without interest or indeed without significance. They seem to bespeak a 'chaos in the mind', a sensibility under stress. And the affinity between 'Propaganda' and certain poems by Dylan Thomas and Alun Lewis is, in my opinion, one that is worth noting – not because of any suggestion of influence but because it dramatically highlights a shared social experience. All three writers were living through a period when, as Yeats put it, 'mere anarchy' had been loosed upon the world – and it was Yeats himself, of course, who showed younger poets in his poetry how to construct a language strong enough to convey the brutalities of breakdown. R. S. Thomas, in his turn, showed he had learnt lessons from the master by writing Yeatsian poems in the early 1940s like the following, 'On a Portrait of Joseph Hone by Augustus John':
As though the brute eyes had seen
In the hushed meadows the weasel
That would tear the soft down of the throat
And suck the veins dry
Of their glittering blood ... (CP, p. 15)
It is with a poem like this very much in mind that I would like to suggest that The Stones of the Field might usefully be read as war poetry. Obviously I do not mean that the coll ection directly addresses the subject of war. What I do mean is that the poetry frequently comes from an imagination fearfully alerted by war to the ferocities of existence: 'Your love is dead, lady, your love is dead;/ Dribbles no sound/ From his stopped lips, though swift underground/ Spurts his wild hair'. Indeed, there is a terrible Jacobean relish about such lines, that shows how R. S. Thomas, like Alun Lewis, understood how sexually arousing and sensually heightening the experience of violence and disaster could be.
So much has been written, not least by R. S. Thomas himself, about the move to Manafon that precipitated the Iago Prytherch poems, and a rite de passage it clearly was, involving the rude awakening of an innocent, sentimental, cosseted, romantic bourgeois to the harsh and sometimes cruel facts of life on the upland farms. But what the critics seem to have consistently overlooked is one of the reasons for the move, as R. S. Thomas recalled it in his autobiography Neb. He is remembering the period he spent from 1940 to 1942 as a curate at Hanmer, in Flintshire border country:
By now the war had started in earnest, and although there was not much risk locally, the parish was in the path of the German planes as they aimed at Merseyside. Every night, when the weather permitted, the planes came across on their way in and they soon began to get on the curate's nerves, not so much because of the fear but because of despair and hopelessness at the thought that they were on their way to drop their evil loads on helpless women and children ... Although Merseyside was about twenty miles away as the crow flies, as he stood at the door with his wife listening to the sound of bombs in the distance and watching the flame lighting the sky, he felt an occasional puff of air going through his hair and lifting his wife's skirt. Sometimes the Germans would drop a few bombs in the area, after seeing a light somewhere perhaps, but without harming anyone, thanks to the open character of the land. One night he happened to be looking through the window when he heard a bomb screaming on its way down quite near. He waited for the explosion, but nothing happened. The following day it was discovered that the bomb had plummeted to earth a yard or two away from a zinc-roofed cottage, where an old couple was living. They were sleeping soundly at the time, not realising anything unusual was happening! The curate decided to build a defensive wall against the wall of the parsonage opposite the place under the stairs, as a place to shelter in, should more bombs start to fall. One night when he was leaving the church that was next door to the house he heard a terrible explosion quite near. He ran in and urged his wife to come to shelter under the stairs, and there they were for hours, while the enemy aircraft circled above their heads. They heard afterwards that there were Italians as well as Germans, and that they were having difficulties in trying to get near Merseyside. Several bombs were dropped in the area that night, and the hill-country was set on fire in the neighbourhood of Minera. Seeing the flames, they started to drop bombs there too, and some shepherd that was living near the moorland got the fright of his life. The curate so hated to think about the damage that was occurring almost every night, and so longed for the hills in the distance (Moel Famau could be seen clearly enough towards the north-west) that he decided to learn Welsh, in order to come back to Wales.
It took more than forty years for R. S. Thomas to reflect directly on these events in a poem. It was in The Echoes Return Slow (1988) that he at last confronted feelings whose repressed presence had, it now seems, covertly influenced the poetry of The Stones of the Field. He admitted that he had known 'the instinctive fear// of the animal that finds/ the foliage about its den/ disarranged and comes to know/ it can never go there again' (CLP, p. 20). The implications of such experiences for Thomas's understanding of his own character will be considered in chapter 6. But at this point it is worth noting how, in recalling that 'the wind that [had] ruffled/ [his wife's] skirt came/ from no normal direction', Thomas was registering a profound reorientation of his psychic existence (CLP, p. 20). The shock wave from the bomb had shaken him to the foundations of his inner being, creating a fundamental sense of mistrust and insecurity. It was this 'animal' experience of 'instinctive fear' that, in actual, historical, reality prompted him to try to make his home safe, best he could, and to construct a sanctuary for his wife and himself under the stairs. And it was also the same fear of the animal, which finds its very den has been disturbed, that perhaps led him half-admiringly to associate the Manafon upland farmers with 'The land's patience and a tree's/ Knotted endurance' (CP, p. 12).
In his wartime poetry he invests Prytherch and his kind with a power of survival that makes them more reassuringly trustworthy than any 'cwtsh dan stâr' ('the place under the stairs'). Moreover, baffled and pained though R. S. Thomas chronically is by Prytherch's 'uncouth ways', he is also ambiguously attracted to his unselfconsciousness. And this attraction, usually explained in terms of Thomas's reaction against his urban bourgeois background, can also be seen in a new light – the light of the Merseyside bombing, as it were – if we remember what Thomas reveals about his wartime self in The Echoes Return Slow. The portrait he there paints is of a lonely, isolated, figure tormented by the unceasing arguments he was having with himself. He even half-envied the men of action, who had gone to war with promptness and conviction: 'Yes, action has its compensations. What does one do when one does not believe in action, or in certain kinds of action? Are the brave lacking in imagination? Are the imaginative not brave, or do they find it more difficult to be brave? What does a man do with his silence, his aloneness, but suffer the sapping of unanswerable questions?' (CLP, p. 21). Full consideration of the implications of these comments must be postponed until chapter 6, but it is clear that through the 'unimaginative' figure of Prytherch he was able at once to articulate his inner doubts aloud and also to imagine a human experience proof against 'the sapping of unanswerable questions'. When reading his wartime poems we should, I feel, bear in mind the revealing picture of his wartime self that R. S. Thomas gave us for the first time in The Echoes Return Slow: 'Casualty of the quarrel with strong men, bandaging himself with Yeats's sentence about the quarrel within, he limped on through an absence of sympathy. His poetry was bitter' (CLP, p. 22).
Excerpted from R. S. Thomas by M. Wynn Thomas. Copyright © 2013 M. Wynn Thomas. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents
1. War Poet
2. For Wales, See Landscape
3. The Disappearing Clergyman
4. Son of Saunders
5. Family Matters
6. The Leper of Abercuawg
7. Irony in the Soul: R. S.(ocrates) Thomas
8. ‘Time’s Changeling’
9. ‘The fantastic side of God’
10. Transatlantic Relations
11. ‘The fast dipping brush’
12. ‘The brush’s piety’