Hating Iago

Jeff Nuttall admires the astonishing energy of RS Thomas
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Collected Poems 1945-1990

Phoenix Giants, pounds 9.99

No Truce with the Furies

Bloodaxe, pounds 7.95

by RS Thomas

RS Thomas cannot accurately be described as a hellfire Welsh minister from central casting: the precision and the heady audacity of his metaphors, the seamless, unostentatious surety of his metre and his crafty rhymes obviate that. But his role as a priest is germinal. His creativity was first ignited by his work in a country parish in west Wales. He comes to this community of dour farmers stupefied by work and bleak weather, whom he represents through the persona of "Iago Prytherch", armed with his passionate Christianity and his love of poetry, and he proceeds to get his literary teeth into the conflicts and tensions of the situation.

The poet loathes Prytherch for his brutish simplicity ("Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales/ With your sheep and your pigs and ponies, your sweaty females,/ How I have hated you for your irreverence, your scorn even/ Of the refinements of art and the mysteries of the Church"). The Christian recognises Prytherch's quality. The parson apologises to his parishioner for using him to win literary laurels. The priest admonishes the poet for the indulgences of art, the poet loathes the priest for his Puritanism...

These Shakespearean passions are generated while the coastal landscape feeds the poet with metaphors that can make the flesh prickle ("the moon/ That amber serpent swallowing an egg"; "stealthily hoarding the last light from the sky/ In his soul's crannies"). These are the themes that produce his most brilliant poetry. He returns to them throughout the 45 years of writing represented in Collected Poems: 1945-1990.

Other themes and conflicts occur. He loathes the predatory English, but he bitterly admonishes the Welsh for their own cultural suicide ("an impotent people/ Sick with inbreeding/ Worrying the carcass of an old song"). He is defensive of the Welsh language but aware that a people who base their identity on a language which, like Bantu, Eskimo or Romany, nobody else speaks, are embracing a detrimental isolation.

Thomas has a near-Lawrentian loathing of industrialisation, seeing the machine as the enemy of God, but none of these themes strikes deeper music from his soul than when dealing with thedisappearing world of the hill farmer. All this places him in the shadow of the Apocalyptics, but there are also echoes of MacNeice's religious poems. Falling short of the euphoric flights of Dylan Thomas and the resonant despair of George Barker, he yet avoids the tea-stained ennui of the Movement. His work lies in unresolvable conflicts. He distrusts his century, even the poetry, which he describes as a "faceless, formless amoeba/ with the secretions of its vers libre."

All of which seems neatly summed up in the title of his latest book - No Truce With The Furies. Thomas is a prolific poet. In the 68 poems of this most recent volume there is much confrontation with the God whom he no longer preaches but with whom he obdurately wrestles as though - in the desert created by thetriumph of Mammon, with Prytherch in the geriatric ward and the old agrarian conflicts struck sterile by electro- technology and inept politics - it were his task to ease the loneliness of an abandoned deity by continuing to pester at his ambiguities.

In such grim circumstances the work is not so glamorous. Even some cliches creep in. Truth is dredged up from "bottomless fathoms". A blind child stares into "the depth of love". The old power flickers fitfully when he returns to nature. A traveller knows "from the rustle/ of unseen water/ falls he has come home." A snake has "doll's eyes". Then,right at the end of the collection, there is a burst of ludic alliteration. What is the tone here? Is the grim vigil over? Has the lonely deity released him? Is it senility? Is it possibly the literary equivalent of Rembrandt's last cackling self-portraits? Why is the minister dancing in the ruins of his churchyard? The answer comes in the last stanza of the last poem:

But east of Zion

there is Zen, that zone

where zeal can become

zest. On zany thermometers

then, the readings of the zeitgeist are never at zero.

This is an astonishing flood of energy at the close of a career of sobering tenacity, illustrating the very nature of energy - something I think this tormented spirit will be happy to have achieved at last.