Who put the 'S' in RS Thomas? The poet himself

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The Independent Culture

They are among the best-known initials in poetry, but R S Thomas made them up, according to a new biography of the late, great Welsh poet and priest.

At least, a young Ronald Thomas added the name Stuart to his moniker "because of all the other Ronald Thomases who might be lurking in a Welsh playground", it is claimed.

Byron Rogers, a friend of the firebrand writer who died six years ago, recounts the story in The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of R S Thomas, which was published yesterday.

It may not have been simple vanity, the poet Raymond Garlick counterclaims in Thomas's defence, but "for euphony" - the sound upon the ear. But by the time Thomas reached Bangor University, where dozens of Thomases hoped to be included in the university rugby team, the expanded name had been abbreviated to initials which stuck.

As Rogers observes: "What the effect on the poems and on his reading public might have been had he signed them Ron or Ronald Thomas is best left to psychologists."

Thomas was born in 1913 to an Anglicised middle-class family in Cardiff, spoke in an upper-class English accent and wrote in English. But he was a stout defender of the Welsh language which he taught himself. He never felt able to produce poetry in Welsh.

As a clergyman in remote parishes, his work became synonymous with bleak and beautiful portraits of his rural community. In later life, his poetry evolved into a 20th-century form of metaphysical poetry.

He wrote more than 1,500 poems, but the biography reveals there were dozens more.

Rogers portrays the poet as the "Ogre of Wales", as he was known, whose life included eccentricities and contradictions. Despite a love of his country and a lifelong search for a Wales of his dreams, he sent Gwydion, his only son, to an English public school and never passed on Welsh to his wife or son.

Touchingly comical stories which illuminate Thomas's character include the central heating system he tore out of his ancient cottage for aesthetic reasons, leaving him and his wife to live in near-freezing conditions.

Rogers met the poet when he studied at Aberystwyth, where Thomas was vicar of Eglwys Fach. The biography was written after Rogers' insistent requests to Thomas's son.

Rogers said: "He was a bizarre, eccentric and curious man, but also the greatest lyric poet of my time. Gwydion said he could never put himself in anyone else's mind, except God's."

Betty Thomas, his second wife and widow, burnt three bags of poems after he died. "I thought they were lousy poems," she said. However, in the years since, shoe-boxes full of poems have turned up at his home.

There has been one collection since his death, Residues, published in 2002, and so many "new" poems have emerged, a collection is planned for next year.