Born in Cardiff, the Welsh poet-priest R.S. Thomas (1913 – 2000) wrote hundreds of reflective poems of sensitivity and intelligence from the 1960’s on, but his far more memorable and distinctive work comes out of the 1940s and ‘50s in a mode of “stark naturalism”—to use a phrase from one of Thomas’s poems—depicting the often lonely and harsh conditions of farm life in rural Wales.
It is a style that exemplifies poetic craft—clarity, compactness, momentum, force, and significance— and it is a style he seems to have achieved without apprenticeship.
Poems of Encounter
Many of these poems—published in small press collections titled The Stones of the Field, An Acre of Land, Song at the Year’s Turning, and Poetry for Supper— are portraits, but portraits in which the poet’s response to his subject is as important as imagery. In this way they partake of the tradition of the travel encounter of Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper.” Across these early books, these portraits set up a dialogue between the poet-priest and his often spiteful and sly parishioners.
Sometimes, the Welch farm laborers rouse the poet’s moral and aesthetic outrage, as when, addressing a farmer, Thomas writes that though “The hills had grace, . , / so that I thought, // . . . that you yourself / Wore that same beauty. . .// I know now. . .// . . . that your uncouthness has / No kinship with the earth”. The peasant Iago Prytherch has “something frightening in the vacancy of his mind./ His clothes, sour with years of sweat/ And animal contact, shock the refined.” This poem, “A Peasant” opens vividly:
Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,
Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,
Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.
Docking mangels, chipping the green skin
From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin
Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth
To a stiff sea of clouds that glint in the wind—
So are his days spent, his spittled mirth
Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks
Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week.
Vivid Pictures of Rural Life
Remarkably, Thomas’s portraits create a varied, complex picture of a rural community as poem follows poem and as the Anglican priest-poet’s perceptions and relationships in the community change: As his engagement deepens, so too do his portraits. Laborers are given voice as in “The Hill Farmer Speaks.” Here is the final stanza:
The hens go in and out at the door
From sun to shadow, as stray thoughts pass
Over the floor of my wide skull.
The dirt is under my cracked nails:
The tale of my life is smirched with dung:
The phlegm rattles. But what I am saying
Over the grasses rough with dew
Is, Listen listen, I am a man like you.
Strikingly Modern Conception
Thomas acknowledges the essential humanness of his subjects, even as they spit and hawk, and even as his Sunday school pupils put live mice in his desk drawer or leave dead fowl on his windowsill. I have said that Thomas’s relationship with his community is not fixed, but evolves as his engagement deepens. Although a very, very different poet, Thomas shares with C.H. Sison a willingness to admit errors that others will not divulge; Thomas goes further: he admits and revises his bias and gladly sees with fresh eyes. He argues fiercely with his Anglican religious tradition, but within it, he articulates a startling modern conception of human potentialities beyond caste and class—ideas that resonate with the I-Thou ideas of Martin Buber.
I have taxed your ignorance of rhyme and sonnet,
Your want of deference to the painter’s skill,
But I know, as I listen, that our speech has in it
The source of all poetry, clear as a rill
Bubbling from your lips: and what brushwork could equal
The artistry of your dwelling on the bare hill?
[“A Priest to His People,”]
Thomas is not merely a regional poet, though his subject is regional: he might even stand comparison with the great Robert Frost, not only by the level of his craft, but in the ways he expands the use of poetic dialogue. One of the most powerful pieces in these early books is a long dramatization that calls to mind Frost’s great dialogues in North of Boston. The distinctiveness of Thomas’s early style is dissipated in decades of later, meditative poems, sensitive and clear, but lacking in the speed, force, and suggestiveness of this poet-priest’s addresses to his rural parishioners, lacking, too, the significance of these compact treasures. Maybe the good folk got hold of his books and raised a cry against such gossip. Fortunate for us we have it in these poems.
Zara Raab, June 2, 2021