An RS Thomas for every day of the year
RS Thomas 1913-2000 My favorite poet
after his death ...
A decade after his death, interest in RS Thomas has increased He explored the borderlands of faith and nationhood in his life's work. And a decade after his death, RS Thomas remains a towering figure on the poetic landscape, experts and admirers said yesterday. Welsh poet Grahame Davies said that in the 10 years since his passing on September 25, 2000, interest and appreciation of the clergyman-writer has only increased.
Thomas' earlier works documented the clash between a poet's romantic vision and the harsh realities of rural life, but his later poems presented a spiritual struggle which resonates in any era.
Mr Davies said: "The critical attention he has received has grown to a phenomenal degree. In the later work you find someone whose powers are undiminished and whose questioning is as intense as when he was a young man and there is something profoundly inspiring about that." Former First Minister Rhodri Morgan agreed that respect for the Welsh poet is increasing, saying: "He's probably more admired and rated more highly now than he was during his lifetime."
Claiming readers did not have to share Thomas' pessimism about Wales' embrace of modernity to appreciate his work, he said: "I'm a great lover of his poetry although I don't agree with his analysis of things in Wales, but you don't have to."
In person, Mr Morgan said, the poet's warmth was striking.
He said: "I met him several times, usually in television studios. He was an amazingly nice man.
"The crusty old curmudgeon who locked himself away – he certainly didn't come over that way. He was absolutely charm itself."
First Minister Carwyn Jones also saluted Thomas' legacy, saying: "RS Thomas was one of Wales' most notable poets. He has, without doubt, left a lasting mark on Anglo-Welsh literature."
This admiration crosses the political divide.
Conservative AM David Melding said: "I think RS Thomas' finest religious works will be read in 300-400 years, just as we read the metaphysical poets like John Donne now. And I think that just as they brought this psychological apprehension of the reformation and religious experience directly to the public, I think it's RS Thomas' grappling with doubt and the desolation of a possibility of a life without God is what he will be most remembered for."
John Pikoulis, a literature expert at Cardiff University, said it was rare for a poet's reputation to improve in the years after his or her death.
Claiming that a decline in respect normally followed a passing, he said: "It seems to be one of the laws of nature and then takes some time to recover. One thinks of TS Eliot – he received enormous prestige during his lifetime and then suffered something of an eclipse. That hasn't happened with RS Thomas."
He also credits Thomas with being "the first great poet of the 20th century" to engage with the consequences of the scientific revolution. However, he is glad Thomas did not venture into active politics, saying: "He'd have been hopeless as a politician because he himself had so many conflicts within him."
Thomas clashed with Plaid Cymru politician – and now Presiding Officer – Dafydd Elis-Thomas, who nevertheless has fond memories of the poet. He said: "I can only bow down before his religious poetry which is undoubtedly the best thing in the English language since the metaphysicals. We can say that."
Archbishop of Wales Barry Morgan has written about Thomas' work and remains an ardent fan.
He said: "The poetry of RS Thomas captivates and thrills those who come across it with its sheer intensity and beauty. "In my opinion he was the greatest Anglo-Welsh poet of his time. I hope this anniversary of his death will spark renewed interest in his work and inspire a new generation of readers."
Sep 25 2010 by David Williamson, Western Mail
I am not notably frivolous, but whenever I read R. S. Thomas's poetry, or his biography, I cannot help but reflect that, like the majority of mankind, I have spent most of my life chasing false gods. Thomas had a similar effect on others: John Betjeman, in his introduction to Thomas's first collection of poems published by a major publisher (in 1955), said that Thomas would be remembered long after he, Betjeman, was forgotten. And Kingsley Amis, writing a year later, said of Thomas's work that it "reduces most modern verse to footling whimsy." These tributes bring to mind Joseph Haydn's words to Mozart's father, on receipt of the six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to him: "I swear before God, and as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer known to me, either in person or by name."
Ronald Stuart Thomas was one of the most extraordinary literary figures of the twentieth century. He was born in 1913 and died in 2000. He was an Anglican priest in remote Welsh parishes for all of his working life. He wrote in English and spoke in the accents of an upper class Englishman (which he was not by birth). While English titles of nobility impressed him, he was a strong, even fanatical, Welsh nationalist, who learned Welsh at 30 and sometimes pretended not to speak English. Though a Christian, he was by no means always charitable. He was known for his awkwardness and taciturnity; most photographs show him as formidable, bad-tempered, and apparently humorless.
He married an artist, with whom his relationship was, from the point of view of ordinary mortals, very strange. They hardly spoke; no one ever saw them touch; their lives were mostly parallel but occasionally intersecting. They lived on a tiny income, lacking the comforts of modern life. Almost the only household gadget that Thomas ever owned was a refrigerator, which he soon rejected because it made too much noise. On his retirement from the church, they moved to a tiny, unheated cottage in one of the most beautiful parts of Wales—where, however, the temperature sometimes dipped below freezing.
Thomas was extremely prolific, writing more than 1,500 poems. Though modernist in form and concerned with the deepest levels of human existence, his poems have immediate emotional impact. Their language is simple, their resonance profound. By the end of his life, his new collections would sell 20,000 copies in Britain—a huge number for a man whose first book was printed at his own expense by a small printer above a fish-and-chip shop in Carmathen, and reassurance that it is not only the trite or the trivial that sells well. Even though his life was not outwardly eventful and does not merit (if any life does) one of those giant literary biographies fashionable nowadays, a man like Thomas is of great interest and significance.
This biography (A Man Out of Time)—written by a native speaker of Welsh, who, as a student, first met Thomas in 1960, when the poet's fame was only recent—is of precisely the right length: the reader does not have to set aside too great a proportion of his own life, or abandon all other pursuits, to read it. The author has remembered that the purpose of a biography of a poet is to illuminate his work, and this it successfully does; and because his subject is both strange and brilliant, the book is highly entertaining.
Is there any single theme that underlies Thomas's life and work, and reconciles his contradictions? I think one can find it in an essay he wrote in 1946 for a small Welsh nationalist magazine. "Are not three-quarters of our modern ills," he asked, "due to the fact that we have forgotten how to live . . . ?" And we have forgotten how to live because we have worshiped wealth and physical comfort, and turned our back on God. To this modern soullessness, and to modernity's destruction of the Welsh countryside by roads and housing projects and vacationers, Thomas's political response was Welsh nationalism, with its intense preoccupation with the past. For him, England represented modernity and therefore all that was soulless, superficial, mechanical, materialistic, vulgar, and vapid. Observation of the beauties of the natural world, particularly the landscape and bird life, was for him a spiritual exercise, a reminder that, if we would but heed it, God has given us all that we need for a fulfilled life. No one could say that he did not attempt to live by his creed.
Thomas carried his hatred of the modern world to seemingly absurd lengths. The biographer interviewed his only son, who clearly did not care much for his father (he now lives in Thailand with his Thai wife, surely not the destiny a Welsh nationalist would have wished for him). His son said, "As a vicar's son I was obliged to attend church and to listen to him drone on about the evils of fridges." "Fridges?" asked the biographer, disbelievingly. "He didn't."
"Oh yes, he did, it was the Machine, you see," the son replied. "And washing machines. And televisions. This to a congregation that didn't have any of these things and were longing for them."
It is easy to laugh at this (and the poet Philip Larkin referred to R. S. Thomas in his letters as Arsewipe Thomas). But in fact Thomas was raising a deep and unanswered question: What is life for? Is it simply to consume more and more, and divert ourselves with ever more elaborate entertainments and gadgetry? What will this do to our souls? In an early poem, Thomas describes a Welsh hill-farmer, triumphant with his new tractor: Click on April 18
We may, of course, dispute whether there ever existed that "old look" of spiritual harmony, when man was completely at one with the tasks he had to perform in order to wrest a hard living from the earth. But at the very least the poem points out that progress as represented by the tractor also involves loss, in this case a severe loss, and that an accretion of more and more tractor-like appliances (refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, and so forth) does not constitute the good life. For, once we have all these things, the questions still arise: "What now?" and "How should we live?" "Why should more of the same satisfy us?" Underlying all Thomas's poems is an examination of man's existential needs, and a fear that man has misunderstood them utterly, so that his whole personality is deformed. That is why Thomas always seems so intensely individual, always in a minority of one, even in his marriage. He has the intensity of a prophet and the mastery of a poet—remarkable attributes in the latter half of the twentieth century.
The author of the biography is funny without being irreverent. He demonstrates that Thomas himself had a wintry wit, and he also conveys his depth of character. He understands that, his outward froideur notwithstanding (he often appeared to prefer birdwatching to human company), Thomas was a man of the deepest feeling, something that our age of flamboyant self-expression might have difficulty understanding or even believing.
The account of the death of the poet's wife in 1991 is extremely moving. She had long been ill. Her bedroom in their small cottage—which had no amenities, apart from a view so beautiful that it stops my heart to think about it—was reached by a ladder. He brought her home from the hospital when it was apparent that she could not recover, and carried "her up the steps himself as he might a bride," though he himself had just had an operation for a hernia (he was 78 at the time, she 82). She died four days later.
After her death, he wrote love poems of the greatest possible tenderness:
She left me. What voice colder than the wind out of the grave said: "It is over?" Impalpable, invisible, she comes to me still, as she would do, and I at my reading. There is a tremor of light, as of a bird crossing the sun's path, and I look up in recognition of a presence in absence. Not a word, not a sound, as she goes her way, but a scent lingering which is that of time immolating itself in love's fire.
And, even more tenderly: Click on March 27
This is all the more remarkable since, according to the poems that Thomas wrote over the years, their marriage was not out of a storybook. Indeed, he and his wife had contracted it almost coldly, without expectations of romantic bliss:
I saw her, when young, and spread the panoply of my feathers instinctively to engage her. She was not deceived, but accepted me as a girl will under a thin moon in love's absence as someone she could build a home with for her imagined child.
Fifty years after their marriage, he wrote:
Cold hands meeting, the eyes aside as vows are contracted in the tongue's absence. Gradually over fifty long years of held breath the heart has become warm.
I doubt that any marriage could be more uncongenial to the modern sensibility than this one: a mere calculation on one side that grows into undemonstrative, but deep, emotion. It is precisely because this kind of relation is so uncongenial or alien to us that it serves as something worth reflecting upon.
Thomas was a deeply serious man: serious, not solemn or merely earnest. He struggled to find God to the end of his life, not in the happy-clappy born-again sense but as the search to find a meaning for existence:
For me now there is only the God-space into which I send out my probes. I had looked forward to old age as a time of quietness, a time to draw my horizons about me, to watch memories ripening in the sunlight of a walled garden. But there is the void over my head and the distance within that the tireless signals come from. And astronaut on impossible journeys to the far side of the self I return with messages I cannot decipher . . .
Few lived more intensely than Thomas, though he rarely left the tiny compass of North Wales. All his relationships were intense, though undemonstrative. He hated his mother bitterly, for reasons not entirely clear (but I suspect for her ordinariness). Yet he allowed her at the end of her life to live with him and his wife.
We made her live on, not out of our affection for her, but from a dislike of death.
This honesty has the quality of flayed skin, but reconciliation comes at the end:
The ambulance came to rescue us from the issues of her body; she was delivered from the incompetence of our conscience into the hospital's cleaner care. Yet I took her hand there and made a tight-rope of our fingers for the misshapen feelings to keep their balance upon.
Few lives, certainly of contemporary figures, cause us to look inward as intensely as does that of Thomas. This short biography is the best possible introduction to his work.
--- Theodore Dalrymple from the City Journal.
Ronald Stuart Thomas (29 March 1913 – 25 September 2000) (published as R. S. Thomas) was a Welsh poet and Anglican clergyman, noted for his nationalism, spirituality and deep dislike of the anglicisation of Wales. He was one of the most famous Welsh poets.
In 1955, John Betjeman, in his introduction to the first collection of Thomas's poetry to be produced by a major publisher, Song at the Year's Turning, predicted that Thomas would be remembered long after Betjeman himself was forgotten.
Professor M. Wynn Thomas said: "He was the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn of Wales because he was such a troubler of the Welsh conscience. He was one of the major English language and European poets of the 20th century."
Wikipedia the free encyclopedia (Link to Wiki page).
RE: The Poem 1940
from Highbeam Research
LATE in his period as curate at St. Mary's Church, Chirk, his first clerical appointment (1936-40), R. S. Thomas collected together the typescripts of the poems he had been writing up to that date as Spindrift: Poems & Prose Poems. (1) Whether Thomas ever sent the fifty-seven-page collection to a publisher is unclear; the poems themselves are very much apprentice pieces, not much developed technically from the poems he had been writing as a student at university in Bangor. Born of the long walks he took in nearby Dyffryn Ceiriog, the poems and "prose poems" are without exception lyrical evocations of the natural world, suffused with the unfocused romantic longings of the narrating voice, who wanders alone (almost every poem contains a first-person pronoun), often at Evening or at dusk: "... the mystic hour, / When whitely shone the unknown flower, / and darkling wings had swept away / the last pale streamers of the day ..." ("Strumblegilfin"); "In the strange stillness of that hour / Between day and night, / There blooms a flower, / Tremulous with the light / Of the first star ..." ("The Immortal Hour"). Inevitably, such lyrical sentiment often topples into sentimentality: "Beauty was born when a little wave / Lost himself in a dark sea cave, / And there in the silence his cries awoke / The voices of the numerous long-lost folk" ("Beauty"). In his autobiography Neb, Thomas sees these "tender, innocent lyrics" as being in the manner of the Georgians, "the background to his reading among the poets," especially Edward Thomas (Autobiographies 44-5). Unsurprisingly, these poems rarely achieve the precision of Edward Thomas, and are indebted more to the lesser Georgians, as well as to Thomas's reading of the Romantics, especially Keats: "But yester eve I found a maid at rest, / Beside a half reaped field of corn reclined, / Pale, listless violets drooping on her breast ..." ("Sonnet"). The poetic register of these poems is both derivative and dated ("behold," "o'er," "thou art," "cometh"). It is more than evident that even by the late 1930s, as the poet himself admits, "The more 'modern' English poets, such as Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, Pound, and Eliot had not yet broken through to his inner world to shatter the unreal dreams that dwelled there" (Autobiographies 45).
Given the occasional existence of such imaginary "maids" in Spindrift, one must approach the poem simply entitled "Sonnet" with some caution:
I never thought in this poor world to find
Another who had loved the things I love,
The wind, the trees, the cloud-swept sky above;
One who was beautiful and grave and kind,
Who struck no discord in my dreaming mind,
Content to live with silence as a cloak
About her every thought, or, if she spoke,
Her gentle voice was music on the wind.
And then about the ending of a day
In early Spring, when the soft western breezes
Had chased the melancholy clouds afar,
As up a little hill I took my way,
I found you all alone upon your knees,
Your face uplifted to the Evening star.
The poem shares many of the stylistic characteristics of the other poems in the collection: its formality of structure, the first-person narrator, the rural setting, even, in the sestet, the time of day. But here, however sketchily, the woman is characterized and there is some sense of a relationship between her and the narrator, a relationship of shared interests and attitudes. We note, too, that the woman is "Content to live with silence as a cloak"; it is a characteristic to which we shall return, for it is possible that this is the young poet's first poem to the woman who was to become his wife.
R. S. Thomas met Mildred Elsie Eldridge, who became known in her married years as "Elsi," at Chirk. She was "lodging fairly close by" he says, rather vaguely, in Neb (Autobiographies 43); in fact they had rooms in the same house, "Bryn Coed" (the address which appears on the title page of Spindrift) (Rogers 105). Elsi was then teaching art at Oswestry Grammar School, some ten miles away. But she was already, as Thomas indicates in Neb, "a recognised artist with experience of art school in London and also of Italy" (Autobiographies 45). In fact, Eldridge, a Londoner, had between 1930 and 1934 studied at the Wimbledon College of Art and then at the Royal College of Art, where she won a travel scholarship which took her to Italy to study further; it was a trip which included a visit to Bernard Berenson at his art-filled home at I Tatti. By the time Thomas met her in 1937, her work was well known in the London art world and included a one-woman show at London's Beaux Arts Gallery, which had been well reviewed in the national press. (2) Elsi, clearly, represented a world very different from that of her future husband's more limited horizons: Holyhead, Bangor, and theological college: "She was quite eccentrically dressed, she loved long waisted skirts of red flannel, shirts Hamlet might have worn, and great black cloaks" (Rogers 42). Indeed the bohemianism which contrasted so dramatically with the provincial bourgeois respectability of his family life in Holyhead, the values from which he was already seeking to emancipate himself, may have been part of Elsi's attraction (cf. Brown 2006, 7-9).
R. S. Thomas and Elsi Eldridge were married in Llanycil, on the shore of Bala Lake on 5 July 1940. Among his unpublished manuscripts is a poem simply entitled "July 5th":
This is still recognizably the world of Spindrift--the soft, caressive landscape, the half lights of "eventide" and dawn, and the derivative phrasing. As Byron Rogers points out, Edward Thomas is clearly present here, specifically the poem, "To You, Helen," which also catalogues the gifts he wishes he could give to his own wife and ends with the offer of himself (Rogers 49-50). At the same time, there is greater freedom of line length in "July 5th" than in the Spindrift poems (or in "To You, Helen") and this, with repeated use of enjambment, does convey a certain expansiveness of feeling: "And all the spells of the sea, and the new green / Of moss and fern and bracken." One notes, too, the loosening of rhyme in "bracken ... stricken," though the image itself is less than original. The concluding image of "myself made clean" is simple, and suggestive of the emotion behind it, even if it is hard to see how the young curate could be anything else than "clean" in a moral sense. The poem ends on a gentle but firm closing rhyme which is at the same time an expression of incapacity, in part echoing "And You, Helen" ("And myself, too, if I could find / Where it lay hidden and it proved kind") and in part suggestive of a sense of inhibition which will recur in the poems to Elsi.
For all the differences in their background, there would seem to have been much that drew the young curate and the artist together. As the early "Sonnet" had suggested, Elsi was herself drawn to the natural world and, according to her husband, "She shared my inner dissatisfaction with modern society. We dreamed of breaking away, and going to live in a cottage 'on water and a crust'" (Davis 6). In the same passage, Thomas writes of how he "lost [his] head" over the evocation of the peasant life of the Scottish islands in the late Victorian romantic writing of "Fiona MacLeod" (William Sharp), a simple life, close to the rhythms of the natural world, more rooted and more authentic than the life Thomas felt he was currently living; the same longing took him in this period to the Gaeltach of the West of Ireland in search of Yeats's Celtic twilight. (4) In fact, the copies of MacLeod which he read were Elsi's and before they were married they had travelled in her little Austin 7 to the Scottish Isles in search of a life like that imagined by Sharp. (5) Thomas had, indeed, it seems, found a woman who "struck no discord in my dreaming mind."
In fact, although he was twenty-seven when he married, Thomas was still developing imaginatively; he was, as we have seen, relatively unfamiliar with the world of literature. Elsi, four years older, was not only more experienced in the world of art but had read more widely: "Before I had time / to complete myself, I let her share / in the building," he writes later, in "Careers" (CP 181). Indeed, the very fact of her being an artist, and a successful one, seems to have confirmed Thomas in his own determination to succeed as a poet: "She had already exhibited her work in galleries in London, and he too yearned to prove himself in his field" (Autobiographies 45). It is pointless to speculate as to quite how Thomas's vision of the world might have developed without Elsi, but it is evident that, through the years of a long marriage, though their medium of expression was different and they each maintained the integrity of their own artistic activity, interests and attitudes were shared and mutually reinforced, with Elsi's "share / in the building" being a far from passive one. Gwydion Thomas has suggested that "when R. S. met Elsi he was visually illiterate. Elsi opened his eyes to detail and colour, to shape and form" ("Quietly as Snow" 45); from his long rural walks birdwatching, Thomas would often bring home dead birds and animals which became the subjects of Elsi's detailed studies of the natural world, including many water color sketches which view the same bird from a variety of angles, with separate detailed studies of head, wings, feet, etc. (In old age, she writes in her autobiographical memoir, "Most people only glance at things ... …
My chief aim is to make a poem. You make it for yourself firstly, and then if other people want to join in then there we are.
R. S. Thomas (1913-2000) teemed with contradictions: a passionate advocate of Welsh nationalism he wrote in English and sent his son to boarding school in England; an undemonstrative man he composed the most tender elegies for his wife; a man of devout faith who all his life experienced the elusiveness of God; a poet who hardly ever left the narrow confines of north Wales but who at his death was hailed as a major European poet. This "troubler of the Welsh conscience" (Professor M. Wynn Thomas) was born in Cardiff, the only child of Huw, a captain in the merchant navy, and Margaret. In 1918 the family moved to Holyhead for his father's work. Thomas grew up in an English-speaking household, only learning Welsh when he was thirty, a major cause of regret as he didn't feel fluent enough to write poetry in his native tongue. He studied Classics at the University College of North Wales, Bangor and then undertook his theological training at St. Michael's College, Llandaff, being ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church of Wales in 1936.
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The Poetry Archive (Click here for complete article)
Obituary 9/27/2000 BST
by Byron Rogers
God Does Not Want To Frighten People
He was the strangest bundle of contradictions. This was the poet who wrote, of country clergymen, that they were "Toppled into the same graves/ With oafs and yokels," but was a country clergyman himself, the oafs and yokels the ancestors of his own parishioners. "I suppose that did shock the bourgeoisie," said RS Thomas, who has died aged 87.
A poem started, "Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales/ With your sheep and your pigs and your ponies, your sweaty females/ How I have hated you ..." - and the man who wrote that was such an extreme nationalist he could not support Plaid Cymru because it recognised the English parliament.
If he was a puzzle to his English-reading public, just think how much more so he was to his own countrymen, for this was a Holyhead man, the product of the town's schools, who spoke the English language without the trace of a Welsh accent - spoke it, in fact, with all the coldness and weariness of its own ruling class. For almost half a century, he was married to an English woman, and when I asked him once if she had not objected to his banging on about her race, he said, "Amor vincit omnia." His son went to an English boarding school.
He was in Who's Who, but, at one point, that would have told you more about the private lives of the old Soviet leaders. There was a name, "THOMAS, Ronald Stuart", followed by the reason for its inclusion - "poet" - but, after that, just a list of church livings and of books, also an address, for he was a vicar, after all. But there was no record of parents, marriage, fatherhood, not even a date of birth. In old age, he relented and supplied most of these, even throwing in his Queen's medal for poetry but, unlike the gardening, fishing, motoring princes of his church, never did add "recreations". There was only one, birdwatching, and this was there in the poems - just as everything else was there in the poems.
It is the dilemma of the lyric poet that his material is his own life, his commodity intimacy. So Thomas Hardy, in old age, sent up a smokescreen against future biographers by guardedly writing an autobiography, which he then got his wife to publish after his death under her own name. RS Thomas wrote his in Welsh, and called it Neb - nobody.
There was mischief in this, for the answers his admirers sought were in a language they could not understand. But it also reflected the bitterness which danced attendance on him as he grew old, that he had learnt his native language too late in life to write poetry in it. "All those words, and me outside them."
To adapt what someone said of de Gaulle, Thomas had one illusion, Wales, and one hate, the Welsh, who had been born into a tradition they neglected, and which he, like a tramp at Christmas, was doomed to stand outside. He said once that there had been no personal influences on his life, no guiding schoolmaster or tutor - and little contact later with anyone who could be considered his peer. He took no newspapers, entertained no friends. He was the loneliest man I ever met.
It was partly the loneliness of the country priest, cut off by his cloth and learning, but a lot more was deliberate. He felt so cut off from the modern world, with its cult of personality, that, in the autobiography, he referred to himself throughout in the third person - as "the boy", "RS", "the rector" - as though watching himself, often with startled interest, from space. He could take this sense of distance to hair-raising lengths, as when, asked whether he felt lonely after the death of his wife, he said he sometimes felt lonely when she was alive. It is one thing to encounter bleak honesty in the poems, but quite another to encounter it in conversation.
"It was difficult to talk to Mr Thomas," a reporter wrote disgruntledly. "He makes it almost obsessively clear that he does not suffer fools, or foolish things, easily."
He would not have recognised the self-portrait of the autobiography, of a figure encased in innocence, who accommodated the ambitions and needs of others. Thomas's mother, a domineering and possessive woman, thought the priesthood a safe career; he became a priest. His wife wanted a child ("the possibility of this had not entered his mind") - and the child was, born, "with his huge hunger," wrote the poet who could also start a poem, "Dear parents/ I forgive you my life."
He was a sea captain's son, read Latin at University College, Bangor, where he also played rugby - the forbidding initials stemmed from the team lists, which contained more than one Thomas - was ordained, and married the painter Elsi Eldridge, then an art teacher at Oswestry high school. They had one son, Gwydion, a lecturer in education, who never learnt Welsh, unlike his father, who did so at the age of 30.
The relationship between Thomas and his country was a strange one. It began and ended in Holyhead, so what lay between was an odyssey - from Chirk, his first curacy, on the border, to Manafon, a border parish, to another in mid-Wales, and to the last, at Aberdaron, at the western edge of Wales. This should have been a progression into the heart of Welshness, only it wasn't; there was much black comedy about the odyssey.
Those who knew only the public figure of his later years, with his bitter pronoucements on English incomers - "the cantankerous clergyman," "the fiery poet-priest" - would have been startled to meet him in his beginnings, the curate trudging dutifully towards his weekly lesson with a copy of Welsh Made Easy under his arm. But then, there was also comedy about the later years, when, in the Welsh heartland, he met English pensioners in their holiday homes ("an Elsan culture/ Threatens us"). It was this which produced the public figure, when the press picked up the chance remark that he could understand the motives of those who burnt down these cottages.
There were many interviews then, and many photographs of a wild, gaunt face against the sky, or scowling over the half-door of the 16th-century cottage to which he had retired. Controversy surfaced again when he was nominated for the Nobel prize in his 82nd year, for it had been largely forgotten that this ogre was also the finest living lyric poet, ironically, in the English language.
Acclaim came late. Thomas was 42 when Rupert Hart-Davis brought out Song At The Year's Turning, before which there had been just one book, printed at his own expense, and a few poems in magazines. John Betjeman contributed a preface, in which he wrote, "The name which has the honour to introduce this fine poet to a wider public will be forgotten long before that of RS Thomas."
There were some generous reviews, Kingsley Amis calling him "one of the best half-dozen poets now writing in English," and, by the time Selected Poems appeared 20 years later, an anonymous reviewer in the TLS was starting to use words like "major poetry". Suddenly, nobody was making the old charge, that Thomas was a "limited" poet.
Yet it was easy to see why it had been made. He wrote about the hill farmers he had met in his first parish, a people and a way of life very few of his readers would have encountered. He wrote about religious faith, when, for many, this would have held only an historical interest. He attacked modern life, modern technology, the English encroaching into Wales and the Welsh responsible for the decay of their own culture and language.
There is no comfort in any of these poems. "Too far for you to see/ The fluke and the foot-rot and the fat maggot/ Gnawing the skin from the small bones./ The sheep are grazing at Bwlch-y-Fedwen,/ Arranged romantically in the usual manner/ On a bleak background of bald stone." The hill farmer, at one moment a cosmic symbol of endurance is also greedy, joyless, physically repugnant.
There is no comfort in the religious poetry either, and no answers. One, called Earth, begins: "What made us think/ It was yours? Because it was signed/ With your blood, God of battles?" Yet there is a grim compassion for the hill farmer, and there is the odd abrupt burst of lyricism, when the poet is caught off-guard by the beauty of the natural world.
But the tone is inevitably the bleak, ruthlessly honest note Thomas now made his own. There is also a hardness about his rhythms, and a clarity about his words and images ("Who put the crease in your soul, Davies?") that preserved him from the misanthropy and the ranting into which some of his attitudes could have betrayed him.
Later, he added God to his dramatis personae, a cold figure indifferent to His creation, and there were small collections with titles like H'm, in which the main emotions seemed to be weariness and disgust. "Just souring old age," said Thomas. "My mother used to ask my father, 'Haven't you a good word to say about anybody?' He thought for a long time and said 'No'."
But it was an industrious disgust, for he wrote on and on, and it was startling to be reminded of just how many small collections there had been when the Collected Poems appeared, a volume of 500 pages, of near-Victorian dimensions. In old age, the poems were increasingly abstract, God increasingly absent - though much addressed - so the bursts of lyricism were winter sunlight. This is on the death of his wife:
I met him when I was 17. He suggested we have tea in a hotel on the seafront at Aberystwyth, but in summer there are many clerical collars in Aberystwyth. A fat man in specs passed, and I hoped it would not be him, then a cheerful chap with a pipe, and I hoped it would not be him either. But then a third man came, a tall, lean athletic man bent against the wind - and it was the face of the poems.
When I wrote about it later, I used adjectives like "hard" and "severe", and had the phrase "almost predatory". By return of post came a letter from Thomas, in which he signed himself "Nimrod". That sense of humour, faint and dry, and so baffling to the young, was the strangest of all his contradictions.
He is survived by his son and his second wife, Elisabeth Vernon. The Rev Ronald Stuart Thomas, priest and poet, born March 29 1913; died September 25 2000
Obituary from guardian/co.uk
Some of his books
by RS Thomas , Jason Walford Davies
ISBN 0460876392 (0-460-87639-2)
Autobiographies: ISBN 0753801132 (0-7538-0113-2)
Between Here and Now
by RS Thomas
ISBN 0333326296 (0-333-32629-6)
A Blackbird Singing
ISBN 0948714271 (0-948714-27-1)
Softcover, Gwasg Gregynog Limited
A Choice of George Herbert's Verse
by George Herbert, RS Thomas
ISBN 0571081894 (0-571-08189-4)
ISBN 0753811006 (0-7538-1100-6)
Collected Poems 1945-1990
ISBN 1842124552 (1-84212-455-2)
More editions of Collected Poems 1945-1990:
Collected Poems, 1945-1990: ISBN 0753811057 (0-7538-1105-7)
Collected Poems, 1945-1990: ISBN 0460860801 (0-460-86080-1)
Collected Poems, 1945-1990: ISBN 0460861131 (0-460-86113-1)
Collected Poems: R S Thomas
ISBN 0460872664 (0-460-87266-4)
Collected Poems : R S Thomas
Cyfres y Cewri: 6. Neb
ISBN 0000179906 (0-00-017990-6)
Cymru or Wales? (Changing Wales)
The Echoes Return Slow
Experimenting with an Amen
The far side of the cross: The spirituality of R.S. Thomas
Frequencies: ISBN 0333237129 (0-333-23712-9)
by RS Thomas
ISBN 0333138074 (0-333-13807-4)
ISBN 0333136306 (0-333-13630-6)
by RS Thomas
ISBN 0907476406 (0-907476-40-6)
ISBN 0907476449 (0-907476-44-9)
Laboratories of the Spirit
by RS Thomas
ISBN 0333185102 (0-333-18510-2)
Laboratories of the Spirit:
ISBN 0333185110 (0-333-18511-0)
ISBN 0333370554 (0-333-37055-4)
ISBN 0333345606 (0-333-34560-6)
Miraculous Simplicity: Essays on RS Thomas
ISBN 155728265X (1-55728-265-X)
Not That He Brought Flowers
by RS Thomas
ISBN 0246985801 (0-246-98580-1)
The Poems of RS Thomas
by RS Thomas
ISBN 0938626477 (0-938626-47-7)
The Poems of RS Thomas:
ISBN 0938626469 (0-938626-46-9)
Poets' Meeting: George Herbert, R. S. Thomas,
and the Argument With God
by George Herbert, RS Thomas , William J. McGill
ISBN 0786416939 (0-7864-1693-9)
R. S. Thomas
by Anthony Thwaite, RS Thomas
ISBN 0753816539 (0-7538-1653-9)
R. S. Thomas Selected Poems
by RS Thomas
ISBN 0907476694 (0-907476-69-4)
R. S. Thomas: [selections]
ISBN 0582341981 (0-582-34198-1)
RS Thomas: Ysbrydoliaeth Llyfr I Gyd-Fynd Ag Arddangosfa,
Mehefin 1995 = Inspiration a Book to Accompany an Exhibition, June 1995
by RS Thomas , Oriel Plas Glyn-y-Weddw
ISBN 0863813275 (0-86381-327-5)
by RS Thomas , B. Hall
ISBN 0750610530 (0-7506-1053-0)
Selected Poems, 1946-1968
by RS Thomas
ISBN 0906427967 (0-906427-96-7)
ISBN 0246107758 (0-246-10775-8)
by RS Thomas , Sandra Anstey
ISBN 0907476279 (0-907476-27-9)
The Way of It
by RS Thomas , Barry Hirst
ISBN 0904461203 (0-904461-20-3)
ISBN 090446122X (0-904461-22-X)
by RS Thomas
ISBN 0907476759 (0-907476-75-9)
ISBN 0907476724 (0-907476-72-4)
What Is a Welshman
by RS Thomas
ISBN 0715400673 (0-7154-0067-3)
Young and Old
by RS Thomas
ISBN 0701004924 (0-7010-0492-4)
ISBN 0701150041 (0-7011-5004-1)
Welsh - ABC Neb
by RS Thomas , Jason Walford Davies
ISBN 0860741249 (0-86074-124-9)
Blwyddyn Yn Llyn
by RS Thomas
ISBN 0860740609 (0-86074-060-9)
ISBN 1857993543 (1-85799-354-3)
ISBN 1852246480 (1-85224-648-0)
Collected Later Poems, 1988-2000:
ISBN 1852246472 (1-85224-647-2)
Collected Poems 1945-1990
ISBN 1842124552 (1-84212-455-2)
ISBN 1852241160 (1-85224-116-0)
ISBN 1852241179 (1-85224-117-9)
ISBN 1857996771 (1-85799-677-1)
Mass for Hard Times
by RS Thomas
ISBN 1852242299 (1-85224-229-9)
ISBN 1852242280 (1-85224-228-0)
No Truce with the Furies
ISBN 1852243619 (1-85224-361-9)
ISBN 1852243600 (1-85224-360-0)
The Page's Drift
ISBN 1854111000 (1-85411-100-0)
ISBN 1854110934 (1-85411-093-4)
R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose
by RS Thomas
ISBN 1854111043 (1-85411-104-3)
ISBN 1852245956 (1-85224-595-6)
ISBN 1852245964 (1-85224-596-4)
Wales : A Problem of Translation:
The 1996 Adam Lecture,
Given on 8 February 1996 at King's College, London
ISBN 189774708X (1-897747-08-X)