“My chief aim is to make a poem. You make it for yourself firstly, and then if other people want to join in then there we are,” said R. S. Thomas. We’re half way through his centenary year: a Welsh poet who did not write poetry in Welsh.
He was born in Cardiff and trained as a priest at St Michael’s in Llandaff, which I passed every day on my walk to school. Like so many of us southerners, he was alienated from his own language; a Welsh person who could not speak Welsh, until he learnt it aged 30, as he gradually moved north through the country. That was too late for him to be able to write poetry in Welsh, although he wrote prose, like his autobiographies Neb (Nobody), and Blwyddyn yn Llŷn (A Year in Llŷn).
As an Anglo-Welsh writer, R. S. Thomas felt he had to choose whether to write in English or ”commit suicide as a true writer.” This made him “neither one thing nor the other. He keeps going in a no-man’s land between the two cultures.” He first tried to express himself in Welsh in the Welsh-speaking church of the Manafon parish where he learnt it. “I remember the evening: the chapel with its oil lamps, the wind blowing outside, and about twenty local farmers and their wives, come to listen to this freak – an Englishman who had learnt Welsh. Then off I went for about three quarters of an hour, like a ship being blown this way and that by the wind.” (Selected Prose 180, 143).
R. S. Thomas made his nationalist feelings clear in his Welsh Testament, which you can hear him reading here. The Poetry Archive is right to note how strange it is to hear these words in an upper class English accent, “but perhaps it’s only a true reflection of this complex man that whilst his words express his unity with Wales, his accent points to his alienation from it.” R. S. Thomas was a difficult read, and far from tourist-friendly.
He was the antithesis of his contemporary Anglo-Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, whose centenary year has just begun. Dylan was from the Other City, Swansea, and his Under Milk Wood was made into a film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Dylan’s English sounded so rolling and vowel-filled and southern; it even rhymed, even if it also wasn’t always cheerful. He’s reading Do not go Gentle into that Good Night here.
Choosing between the two Thomases is easy for me; I’m from Cardiff, not Swansea. R. S. goes much deeper. He describes how it feels to be born into a place where you don’t speak the language, where the past is never left behind:
A Welsh Landscape
To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.
You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales.
There is the language for instance,
The soft consonants
Strange to the ear.
There are cries in the dark at night
As owls answer the moon,
And thick ambush of shadows,
Hushed at the fields’ corners.
There is no present in Wales,
And no future;
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts;
Mouldering quarries and mines;
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcass of an old song.