The `greatest living poet of the Celtic world'? There is a strong lobby to get a Nobel prize for R S Thomas, but few people know much about this firebrand Welsh nationalist (who writes in English). A new biography reveals some hard facts
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The fishing village of Aberdaron at the tip of the Llyn Peninsula has long been popular, during the summer months, with English tourists. Campers and caravanners, bikers and hikers have all made the slow journey there to walk along the beach or to gaze across the dangerous waters at the beautiful bird sanctuary of Bardsey Island. On holiday in nearby Abersoch, escaping the yacht club crowd, I used to visit myself, although unaware then that one of the great poets of the English language, R S Thomas, was not only living in Aberdaron but giving weekly audiences, in his capacity as rector.

Perhaps it was just as well I didn't know, and didn't try to seek Thomas out. Those who did were given short shrift - like the Englishwoman who approached him after matins to express regret that the service hadn't included a prayer for the Queen and was told "Lady, be thankful that you had a service in a foreign language at all." English tourists, with their "yellow hair", "ritual murder of vowels" and appalling enjoyment of ice creams, were anathema to Thomas. But then his Welsh parishioners didn't fare much better. He couldn't forgive them for selling out to the "Elsan culture" of the Brummie-accented, holiday-cottaging, Saxon invaders.

R S Thomas - 83, retired from the clergy, but still going strong as a poet - has since moved to Anglesey. But when Justin Wintle interviewed the people of Aberdaron for Furious Interiors: Wales, R S Thomas and God, his distinctly unauthorised new biography, he found they had a sharp memory for the ways of their former vicar. They recalled his bird-watching, his firebrand Welsh nationalism, his habit of blocking up the roads by driving his white Mini at walking pace and never letting anyone overtake. Less benignly, they called him a hypocrite, a man who wrote poems in English while berating anyone else who spoke it, a man who deified the Welsh language but sent his own son to an English public school. Most damning of all, Wintle quotes a letter printed in a local paper attacking Thomas's "aloof" and "uncharitable" treatment of his people.

This is the crux of the Thomas problem. His poems of hills and hill farmers reach out far beyond the Welsh border. His sullen art makes the craft of his more famous namesake, Dylan, look like fluff. He may never win the Nobel Prize, but with the death last month of Sorley Maclean he's arguably now the greatest living poet of the Celtic world. Yet something about Thomas is rebarbative. His poetry has a stony integrity, but is there also - to adapt a phrase of Yeats - too much of stone about his heart?

Born in Cardiff, Thomas grew up resenting his mother's anglicised and genteel background. He felt poisoned by her "infected milk", perhaps even believing it a factor in his contracting meningitis. He blamed her, too, for the misfortunes of his pure-born Welsh father, a navy man who had to retire early:

My father was a passionate man,

Wrecked after leaving the sea

In her love's shallows.

Wintle provides several more unpleasant examples of his subject's matricidalism and Old Testament misogyny. With Elsi, nee Mildred Eldridge, a painter and his wife for 40-odd years, RST was presumably more for- giving, despite the fact she was English and upper-class. But the poems about her are few and discreet, and their cup scarcely runs over with kindness. "As hopes grew that the war would soon be over, the Rector's wife expressed a desire to conceive," Thomas writes in his auto-biography, which (the impersonal third person aside) is a curiously joyless way of introducing the birth of their only child. After Elsi died, Thomas (like Hardy) was more generous, writing a poem in celebration of her "bird's grace". But when asked about love a couple of years later, he replied: "I don't know what love is. It was never one of my priorities."

Love not being one of his priorities may have been why Thomas trained as a priest: shy with girls, and a loner, he looked to the cassock to give him a respectable place in life. His long years as a vicar were spent in a number of different parishes, all, needless to say, in Wales. He had no interest in "getting on" within the Church. He wanted only to preach and write poems and sometimes both at once. His verse, even when it isn't hectoring, reads as if delivered from the pulpit. "Consider this man", "Study this man", "Look at this village boy" - many poems begin with such sermonising imperatives, and resound with a pared, Biblical vocabulary.

As he visited the old and infirm among his flock, Thomas came to see the universe as a harsh, lonely place - the cross "untenanted" and God "that great absence / In our lives, the empty silence / Within". Man's lot is one of pain and struggle, he felt, and to express this he invented Iago Prytherch, a composite of the hill farmers he knew. Tender wouldn't be quite the word for Thomas's depiction of Prytherch, with his vacant mind, sour clothes, cracked nails and aimless grin. But Thomas looked upon him as a friend and kindred spirit, and as a source of inspiration, too: "the man / who more than all directed my slow / Charity where there was need".

Since there's a stark beauty about Thomas's descriptions of Prytherch, "ploughing cloudward, sowing the wind / with squalls of gulls at the day's end", he naturally didn't accept the criticism that his portrait was de haut en bas. One Welsh hill farmer whom Justin Wintle met took another view, greeting the mention of Thomas's name by gobbing pointedly on the ground.

In politics, too, Thomas can sound brutal. Though ostensibly a pacifist, he recognises, from observing the natural world, that "one of the eternal rules of that world is that life has to die for life". In his commitment to Welsh Nationalism, he speaks of "winnowing and purifying the people", a phrase that might have sounded unexceptional in 1946 but 50 years on has nasty overtones of ethnic cleansing. He flirts with imagery of the Welsh as the Chosen People who must cast off "the English yoke". But his description of "a people taut for war" is about as laughable as his triumphalist vision of them rising "to greet each other in a new dawn".

Where exactly God fits in this scheme of things isn't clear. The overwhelming sense of His absence might, in many another poet, be called atheism. But while Thomas admits to doubt, characterising himself as "too pusillanimous to deny God" and visionary only in his "perception of an horizon / beyond the horizon", he never lets up his interrogation. The silence of the infinite spaces terrifies him, but fills him with awe and reverence, too. In the late poems, God becomes Thomas's only theme. This makes them less rewarding than the early: as a subject, God can't help but lack the palpability that Prytherch had.

The English-born Justin Wintle is aware he'll be accused of lacking certain essential qualifications as Thomas's biographer, despite the fact he lives in Wales and has mastered the Welsh language. But his book will surely confound the sceptics. It may be garrulous, long on background and short on literary-critical insights. But it's entertaining and informative, and has the quality of a quest, as if Wintle were learning on the hop. His historical discursions - everything you ever wanted to know about Plaid Cymru, rector-writers, Anglo-Welsh literature, and the development of modern theology - are models of the short essay.

At times, like Peter Ackroyd writing Eliot's biography, he suffers from being denied simple facts about his subject: for example, he speculates that Bishop John Robinson's bestselling Honest to God may have been an influence, but since he doesn't know whether Thomas has read it he's forced to conclude, rather lamely, that he "can scarcely have been unaware" of the book. On the other hand, the unofficial status of his biography leaves him free to be independent and sharp-minded. The result is protective of the poetry, but not the man. Much as he admires Thomas's art, and even his passion for Wales, he also shows the worst of him - the surliness, the intransigence, the lack of simple generosity.

Before he moved from Aberdaron, Thomas lived in a cottage in nearby Rhiw, overlooking Hell's Mouth, one of the wildest shores in Britain. That's how I'll always think of him: as a black mole on the upper lip of Hell's Mouth. His poetry knows about pain, and he's a pain himself. But the land will be poorer when he ceases to watch over it.

! `Furious Interiors: Wales, R S Thomas and God' by Justin Wintle, published by HarperCollins, pounds 20.