Books: Wrestling with angels - R.S Thomas

The Welsh poet R S Thomas has become a controversial figure: Welsh nationalist, god- seeking, irascible, often apparently misanthropist, but a talent that has won wide acclaim. What will Autobiographies, published next month, tell us about this contradictory man?
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Since the poetry of R S Thomas steers clear of personal revelation, resembling that of the Metaphysicals in the way it works out ideas through structures of interwoven metaphor, his Autobiographies, a collection of four autobiographical pieces, seems to offer to satisfy the modern reader's voyeuristic curiosity about the private lives of artists. Of course in the end what you get is what R S (as he styles himself) chooses to give. Fascinating stories full of gaps, silences, elisions and omissions. At certain moments the keyhole is blocked so that we can't peep through. We're invited to guess, instead.

The clues are tantalising. Here are four versions of what makes a Welsh nationalist write his poetry in English, of why an often absent God can inspire the presence of austere but haunting poetry, of how a clergyman who, by his own admission, is often irritated by human caprice, can yet struggle to esteem his country parishioners, of what makes up the talent of a poet so gifted that his supporters lobby for him to be awarded the Nobel Prize.

Autobiography as literary form has a long history. There's the confessional sort, which, when self-consciously addressed to an audience of peers, can provoke great compassion and solidarity in the reader and let you feel admitted into intimacy with another soul. Revelation, testimony, witnessing and secret-spilling: Margery Kempe did it brilliantly in the 14th century, also her sisters in the 20th, particularly those drawing on feminist practices of consciousness-raising, and Freudian ones of unconsciousness- raising: Marie Cardinal, Vera Brittain and Simone de Beauvoir, to name but three. When the narrative too obviously addresses a more powerful other, a priest or analyst or parent, it can become masochistic, begging for forgiveness, embarrassing. We're eavesdropping rather than being invited to listen. This kind of autobiography turns too much towards self-justification, the airbrushed invention of a good self rather than the tolerant display of warts and all.

Now that historians acknowledge the value of the lives of ordinary people, the 20th century has seen a great flowering of the genre, particularly perhaps by women. Though it must be said that now, when women can acquire social and political status more easily than in the past, they too can write memoirs as self-serving and boring as any former general or cabinet minister. At the same time, many men, oppressed by the heroic ideal nourished by humanist visions of the integrated self, are breaking down and telling all in a frank style unimaginable a hundred years ago. You'd have to go back further, to the Romantics, to find the roots of R S Thomas's text, which draws on a nature spirituality akin to that of Coleridge and calls up images of the lonely questing hero out of Goethe and De Quincey. This stress on solitude and apartness clashes interestingly with Thomas's commitment to the communality implied by Welsh nationalism. These paradoxes make for gripping reading.

These four separate pieces offer four different takes on Thomas's life, as though he were saying, with Virginia Woolf, that's not it ... that's not it ... The first version, "Former Paths", offers a condensed version of the life. It opens with a chosen memory, told in the third person, of a little boy from Liverpool playing, just after the first world war, on the beach of the Wirral Peninsula in Cheshire and gazing towards Wales, the land of his birth. At six, he moved to Holyhead, where his father worked on the ships sailing between Wales and Ireland. Friendships with local children opened up "a place of magic and enchantment" as they explored the nearby seashore:

"A special experience, sometimes, was sneaking out into the darkness and standing under the stars with the sea wind moaning around the silent house ... A great thing was to be able to descend to some small beach far from everywhere, with the cliffs rising like a wall around us, and feel that no one had ever stood there before ... After a summer day like this it was a crown on everything to be able to walk home through the dusk that was full of the smell of the grass and the honeysuckle, with the nightjar singing incessantly in the bracken. The skin would be stinging where the sun and salt water had flayed it, but a glass of cold water before going to bed tasted marvellous, and the white sheets would be smooth and wholesome."

Religious vocation is mentioned laconically in passing, as the backdrop to scenery glimpsed from the train window on journeys home from theological college in Llandaff. Equally abrupt is the arrival of his wife: "Having been curate of Chirk, between Wrexham and Oswestry, for four years, I decided to get married. The vicar did not want a curate who was married, therefore somewhere else to live had to be found."

The Thomases ended up in Manafen, in Montgomeryshire, and R S was able to embark on his great adventure of getting to know and identifying with Welsh people through the process of learning Welsh and visiting his parishioners. He had to confront "the conflict that exists between dream and reality. I was a little bourgeois, well-bred, with the mark of the church and library on me ... I now found myself amongst tough, materialistic, hardworking people, who measured one another by the acre and by the pound ... I remember the solitary beings in the fields hoeing or docking swedes, hour after hour. What was in their minds, I wonder? The question remains unanswered to this day."

Perhaps the same as in his own: the visions afforded by nature. These seem to have come to him charged with intensity: "There was a large ash tree at the entrance to the rectory lane that would be completely yellow by November. One autumn the leaves remained on it longer than usual. But there came a great frost one night, and the following day, as the sun rose, the leaves began to fall. They continued to fall for hours until the tree was like a golden fountain playing silently in the sun; I shall never forget it."

This short memoir is much amplified by the more famous one, "Neb", first published in Welsh in 1985. As the translator, Jason Walford Davies, points out in his introduction, neb means both "no one" and "someone". To use it to describe yourself may be, as Davies considers, a nod towards the kind of Christian humility considered apt in an Anglican clergyman, but, as he also says, the word simultaneously indicates a sense of self-worth, an acknowledgement of talents that must not be buried. More important, perhaps, is the grim irony that questions the value of Welshness itself. In this sense, calling yourself neb "emphasises the sheer Welsh otherness of this major English-language poet. It prompts us to wonder just how visible Wales is from centralising London or distant New York, to ask whether the culture of Wales is important, or just importable."

R S Thomas not only calls himself neb but also refers to himself as he. This does not seem to me to have much to do with avoiding immodesty. It's a device, instead, of stepping back and pretending detachment, for avoiding having to own certain feelings inside the self. It lets him write about how he coped as a child with solitude: "Slowly, he would realise that he was on his own. And yet, was he? A house is not a dead thing. It is given to sighing, squeaking, and whispering. He would listen. Wasn't there someone upstairs?... He would shout. No answer. He would climb the stairs, step by step, and having reached the top would listen again. Suddenly he would leap forward a step or two, thundering with his feet and shouting 'Boo!' Nothing. No one."

That's the beginning of neb: the terrors the child projects outside himself in order to conquer them by not believing in them. Later on there's a wonderful story about the small boy seating an effigy at the top of the stairs to frighten his mother when she finally gets home, making her scream. He wonders innocently why he did it. Surely he was giving her his anger and fear; definitely something.

The idea of nothingness and of no one is of course central to Thomas's poetry, which so often searches for the hidden or fugitive God. In the end it seems quite reasonable to me that Him Up There does not indeed exist. The problem is with the Christian's concept to God rather than with God. Thomas's beautiful poems wrestle with angels, as Tobias did, but they're the angels of the imagination rather than the Church. The small boy alone in that dark, mysterious house at night was beginning to hone his creative powers by summoning whispers and strange visions. These return very powerfully in the prose, which continually acknowledges how nature is full of numinous and bliss-inducing presence, even if Thomas can't allow himself to call this God. At times he reminds you of Gerard Manley Hopkins, manfully fighting his own paganism, slapping it down in the interests of serving a colder Church.

And yet, out of this split between nature and temporality on the one hand, and on the other the life of the spirit and the imagination, which he thought of as eternal, he created his best poetry. He's Wordsworthian too, in seeking to rescue what's been wronged or spoiled by false notions of progress, yet without lapsing into sentimentality. Holding up his mask of apparent detachment, of nothingness, of third-person distance, he writes with great passion and commitment about the landscape he lived in and loved.

"Neb" describes a vanished world that recalls Housman on glorious boyhoods: "Some days in the summer he and his friends would swim in Porth Gof Du, with not a single living soul there to disturb their merriment. How they would sing as they walked over the heath with their swimming costumes under their arms!" At times the style (of the translation rather than the original Welsh perhaps) seems so simple and modestly biblical that it's faintly irritating: "That very moment he foresaw the seasons before him, with the weather turning from rain to shine and from heat to snow. And so it came to pass." This can sound like affectation sometimes and make you long for a rude or aggressive joke to rough up the docility. Most of the jokes are unintended: "As hopes that the war would not last long increased, the rector's wife expressed her desire to have a child. He had not thought seriously about the possibility. How can anyone be a father to someone? But so it was, and one morning in August 1945, after a night of thunder, he stood in a room in a hospital in Newtown to gaze at the bit of flesh lying in a cradle next to his mother's bed."

Yes, you want to shout: clearly a miracle. The poet's distinctive attitude also comes across in his account of the foreign trips he was "forced" to make after winning a couple of literary prizes. "Until now he had held that Wales was sufficient for him, and that he did not wish to go anywhere else." He allows himself to accompany his friend Bill to Spain, however, which calls out particular reactions: "The beauty of some of the villages was quite treacherous, Grazalema especially so. But they were warned before arriving not to touch the local cheese because of the goats' milk in it." He admits: "In taking their tents with them it was as if they had agreed to remain out in the heart of the countryside and to turn their backs on the culture of Spain ... But R S was like that. Even though he was very fond of music and art, he would never be comfortable in academic and learned company. It was a certain shyness, along with a poor memory, that made it difficult for him to enjoy himself in a literary gathering."

This shyness, which perhaps encouraged him to write of "he" rather than "I", is torn aside when it comes to being able to feel solidarity with those disdainful of privilege and those fed up with English domination. Once he's fighting on behalf of the Welsh, he's away, the vulnerable "I" happily submerged in the angry "we". The nationalistic, militaristic, snobbish English arouse his contempt and his plain words.

The third of these autobiographical pieces, "The Creative Writer's Suicide", first delivered as a lecture in 1977, links this nationalistic passion to the personal struggle each poet has with language. It's a profound and sorrowful meditation grappling with the paradox of being a Welsh poet who writes in English; betrayal balanced against inspiration. The final piece, "A Year in Llyn", is marked by the poet's love of birds and of the landscape, which is both God's creation mucked up by humanity and the source of undying joy: "I have not succeeded all that well, I know. How shall one describe one's sweetheart? Instead of enumerating her virtues, one after the other, like one of the Poets of the Gentry ... one cannot say much more than 'Oh, she is the most beautiful of all maidens'." This simplistic equation of women (who hardly feature in the text) with nature is the prelude to some final paragraphs that descend into blandness, a great pity after the fire and ferocity that have gone before.

! 'Autobiographies' by R S Thomas is published by Weidenfeld at pounds 20 on 5 May.

THOSE OTHERS

A gofid gwerin gyfan

Yn fy nghri fel taerni tan.

Dewi Emrys

I have looked long at this land,

Trying to understand

My place in it - why,

With each fertile country

So free of its room,

This was the cramped womb

At last took me in

From the void of unbeing.

Hate takes a long time

To grow in, and mine

Has increased from birth;

Not for the brute earth

That is strong here and clean

And plain in its meaning

As none of the books are

That tell but of the war

Of heart with head, leaving

The wild birds to sing

The best songs; I find

This hate's for my own kind,

For men of the Welsh race

Who brood with dark face

Over their thin navel

To learn what to sell;

Yet not for them all either,

There are still those other

Castaways on a sea

Of grass, who call to me,

Clinging to their doomed farms;

Their hearts though rough are warm

And firm, and their slow wake

Through time bleeds for our sake.

(1961)

! From R S Thomas: Collected Poems 1945-1990, Phoenix pounds 9.99

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