Biographers: they can go to hell: R S Thomas, one of our greatest poets, has lost his muse, but he can cope with that. He just doesn't want anyone raking over his life

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST biography of the reclusive retired priest whom many regard as Britain's greatest living poet has just been commissioned - but, true to form, R S Thomas refuses to have anything to do with it.

'I haven't given my consent, so if it goes on it will be entirely without my co-operation,' he said last week. 'I don't want people's fingers poked into my life. I don't know what they can unearth. I've never murdered anybody or robbed a bank.'

He has already seen off Justin Wintle, the English biographer. Biographers come high on Mr Thomas's list of dislikes. Others are critics, tourists, politicians, and people generally.

The planned biography, provisionally entitled Furious Interiors, is to be published by HarperCollins. It was commissioned by Philip Gwyn Jones, one of those who consider Thomas the greatest British poet now writing.

'Because he's Welsh and he's placed himself on the margins and is wilful, obdurate and publicity-shy, his work has been overlooked,' Mr Gwyn Jones said, 'but he is one of the few living poets addressing the major themes - particularly the relationship between man and God and themes of guilt, sin and redemption.'

R S Thomas is a retired parson of the Church in Wales who spent his career ministering to isolated Welsh parishes - notably Aberdaron on the Llyn peninsula, described as 'the remotest village in all Wales'.

Christianity has not modified his malice. He recalls with glee how he outwitted a previous biographer. 'Some chap, some nonentity, who said he was a professional biographer, wanted to write about my life. I fobbed him off . . .'

At the age of 81 the poet is upright and in full control of his faculties. His occasional plaintiveness and punctilious courtesy contrast with his cutting tongue, studied boredom and disdain for modern society. He lashes out one moment, but the next catches up his shaking hands and presses them against his cheeks in a curiously vulnerable gesture.

After his wife's death, three years ago, he has washed up in a hamlet on Anglesey, where he rents a whitewashed cottage in the shadow of a power station.

'I got fed up with Llyn,' he said. 'They opened a Butlins at Pwllheli and the people from it were footloose all summer. They mooched around waiting for the evening's entertainment.'

He pronounces his words precisely, mischievous and petulant, resentful of an interview that takes him away from his morning's writing. But his muse has deserted him. In a lecture 30 years ago, he said: 'It is as though the more one woos words, the more desperately in love with them one grows, the more coquettish and refractory they become; whereas a certain insouciance or aloofness in the writer will often bring them fawning about his feet.' Now his power seems gone: 'I can't write anything of worth any more. My muse has become arthritic or rheumatic.'

We sit in a sunless conservatory at the back of the house and he delivers this insight, as others, without emotion. 'I have come to terms with it,' he explains.

His poetry has always had a constricted compass: the identity of Wales, the hill farmers of Llyn, man's relationship with God, nature's bleakness.

'My ambition has always been to make poetry out of experience, and mine has been particularly narrow. I was never ambassador to Singapore. I haven't mingled with bishops of Members of Parliament and surgeons and all those people,' he says without regret.

'Those people' is his favoured term for implying disdain. He refers fastidiously to 'those Thatcher people' but when asked about John Major he is more trenchant. 'Who's John Major? He's pushed up by the Tory politicians to act a part. I've no opinions about John Major.'

He does have opinions about modern poets, but they are equally ruthless. 'It's hardly poetry,' he snaps. 'I don't think it's poetry, it's dull and the cardinal sin of a poet is to be dull.'

He adds: 'Shakespeare explored almost the whole gamut of human feelings and reactions and he did it with the vocabulary of his time. What fresh areas are we going to explore? We're waiting for the genius to come forward and show it can be done.'

Thomas is an expert at mischievously avoiding questions, admitting no more than that some of his own poetry is 'all right' even while comparing himself with Thomas Hardy. Of fame, he remarks: 'I've never come up against it, living in the bush.' Asked if he wishes to be remembered, he claims: 'I don't mind at all. It's quite immaterial.'

This may not be true. His isolation in the country has been a way of avoiding challenge, or perhaps failure. But his obsessional love of the countryside and language is bound up with his hatred of modern life. 'I think the soul of modern man is becoming shallow - for technology and showmanship, showbiz and the media, the channel after channel of television. We've lost our passion, we've lost our depth.

London is therefore anathema to him, being both English and progressive. 'Cities are terrible places. Evil. I smell evil the moment I get off the train. I'm sure people form their own little enclaves, little villages all over London and make neighbours and hold drinks parties and tittle-tattle the same as the peasantry. Everything is a charade, a play-act papering over the enormous chasms.'

It is ironic that much of his life has been about papering over a chasm - the fact that he writes in English, his first language. This, for a fierce nationalist, has been his Achilles' heel. But not, he says, his greatest regret. He hates dramatisation. Asked if he misses his wife, he says mildly: 'I suppose so.' Is he lonely? 'I was alone when I was living with her.' How does he like being called a great poet? 'That would be false.' What has he striven for in his life? 'I haven't striven for anything much. I'm completely unambitious.'

As we leave to drive to Holyhead he sees us off with the friend who is staying with him. 'Terrible place,' he spits. 'Fourteen thousand people jammed on a rock.' His friend says: 'Oh, it's rather nice.' Thomas stands there grimly, his body shaking in vehement contradiction, saying nothing. 'You can turn left for Cemaes,' he tells us stubbornly. 'Or right - for hell.'

(Photograph omitted)

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