With God where the cuckoos sing

Furious Interiors: Wales, R. S. Thomas and God by Justin Wintle, HarperCollins, pounds 20
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It's an impertinence to say so, but I think I understand R. S. Thomas. He is an undoubted poetical genius and an Anglican priest, I am a flibbertigibbet prose-writer and a pagan pantheist, but we have things in common. Like many other Welsh persons, from Dafydd ap Gwilym to Saunders Lewis, we long ago both reached the conclusion, or perhaps the device, that we could glimpse the divine in the matter of Wales - not Wales as it is today, but a Wales with its language unthreatened, its landscapes unspoilt, its people still serene in their own beliefs and loyalties.

It was, in short, an existentialist Wales that we envisioned. Both of us, in our different ways, set out to restore it if we could, to protect what was left of it. We both became, in fact, what Justin Wintle characterises in an untypical moment of sneer as "Welsh nationalists, or patriots, or whatever else they choose to call themselves".

Not only Welsh people, of course, cherish this enchantment - I have heard Egyptians talk of their country in similar trance - but in Wales it is perhaps more intoxicating because of our circumstances. Ours is a place of constant torment, torn by doubt. Is it necessary to speak Welsh to be properly Welsh? When is violence, or even unpleasantness, justified to protect Welshness? Is it racist to want to keep English people out, when they are perverting the national character? Should we aim at an entirely Welsh-speaking enclave in the north-west, and let the rest go hang? What is Welshness, anyway?

At one level of his art, R. S. Thomas is the laureate of these torments. He did not learn Welsh until he was a grown man, he writes all his poetry in English, but his dream has been of an entirely Welsh-speaking society restored to its old simplicity. Wintle skilfully and sympathetically explores this preoccupation, as expressed in Thomas's verse as in his life, and in doing so exposes many a nerve in the sensibilities of people like me. R. S. Thomas says things we are ashamed of thinking.

He detests the vowel-sounds of Birmingham immigrants, and so do we. He hates tourism in almost all its forms, together with electric pylons and all manifestations of the game-show-and-lottery civilisation. He despises Welsh people who do not stand up for their language and their history, but fawningly knuckle under. He believes it is perfectly justifiable to be nasty about the English or to the English - if it will make them go away. When he looks through a Welsh window and declares the beauty outside to be "for the few and chosen", not for the crowd that "dirty the window with their breathing", we know just what he means.

We are perhaps ashamed, but Thomas never is. He is defending not merely his country and his culture, but his God. He is like one of the old fighting saints, born to martyrdom. If it is hypocritical for a Christian to live by saeva indignatio, then Christ was a hypocrite too, when he toppled the tables in the temple. Thomas apparently prefers the word "Christ" to the word "Jesus": it is more flinty, more ice-like.

As one might imagine, he himself was not universally appreciated as a parish priest, holding the forthright opinions that he did. But he was assiduous in visiting the sick and the poor, however remote their farms and cottages (though perhaps a little more assiduous, it is sneakily suggested, if they happened to be Welsh-speaking). His poems are often considered, especially by English readers, as essentially nationalist works of almost incongruous beauty; but English readers do not understand the nature of our patriotism or nationalism, or whatever we choose to call it.

Nor, I think, does Justin Wintle. His analyses of Thomas's art are percipient, and learned, and often beautifully expressed, but by the nature of things he does not share their sense of yearning and despair. He spends much time, somewhat embarrassingly recalled, in the company of the sort of English-speaking Welshmen who call each other "boy" and talk a lot about getting pissed ("What an arsehole", says one of these friends about R. S. Thomas, "what a total arsehole"). He reports with apparent approval the responses of Welsh-speaking Welshmen who resent Thomas's more outrageous kind of patriotism. Wintle lives in Pembrokeshire, knows a great deal about Welshness and Welsh history, but patently does not experience the transcendental sense of longing that is contained in the old Welsh fancy of "Abercuawg, where the cuckoos sing" - an aspiration-land, a dream, a Kierkegaardian Wales of our imaginations.

I admired this book without much liking it. I thought it was fine when it bore itself as literary criticism, often in line-by-line glossings of the poems, and fair and sensible when it turned to history or politics. But I disliked something prying about it, something almost tabloidy, when it set out to be biography. Thomas did not want a biography written and, so far as I can tell, Wintle has never met him. The book depends upon second-hand information and speculation, and this leads it into inquiries that seem to me distasteful.

"How much was true and how much false?" Wintle himself asks once. "How much tittle-tattle, and how much justified resentment?" A biographer should not be asking such questions towards the end of his book; and it is not enough to suggest, as Wintle does on the next page, that none of it much matters "compared with what he has written".

As I happens I agree, but in that case, there is not much point in writing a biography that depends so much upon hearsay. Wintle seems to me dead right, though, in the order of his sub-title - Wales, R. S. Thomas, God. I do not doubt that the course of this poet's art has taken him from Abercuawg through self-examination to the profoundest revelations of all. R. S. Thomas dismisses the idea of himself as a mystic, on the grounds that his encounters with the divine have not been direct, but filtered through poetry. But I do not for a moment doubt that this great and disconcerting artist, as he looks through that grubby small window and picks up his pen to write, has seen the unseeable. For to us pantheists art itself, like Abercuawg, is God.