The enigmatic R.S. Thomas.
Bangor is a university town, situated on the Menai Straits, the narrow stretch of water that separates the mainland from Anglesey and that was (and still is) spanned by the first suspension bridge in the world, built by the great engineer Thomas Telford.
It must be admitted that the twentieth century has not been kind to Bangor, at least architecturally. It is not so much that the architects and builders have constructed in deliberately bad taste; it is more that aesthetic considerations have simply not entered their minds at all. A kind of raw functionalism, which has spread like a fast-growing fungus, now overwhelms evidence of an earlier and more refined sensibility.
In the town, Welsh mingles on the streets with the unmistakable and increasingly nasal tones of modern middle-class English as spoken by the students. Their haunts express in full their downward cultural aspiration, and they are careful to appear scruffier than anyone would who put on normal clothes, while being also careful to distinguish themselves socially from the packs of lower-class youths who roam the streets in the tribal costume of the American ghetto underclass.
North Wales has changed since I visited in the final days of the Nonconformist chapel culture, which regarded sensuous pleasures such as eating well, or even eating at all on Sundays, as of the devil. Now there are restaurants with Michelin stars, and gastronomically, at least, the region has been multi-acculturated. A Welsh-speaking friend of mine told me how she had gone recently to a Chinese restaurant with her mother, where they conversed in Welsh. The waiter approached them: he was Somali and asked them what they wanted in fluent Welsh. A Welsh-speaking Somali waiter in a Chinese restaurant: Stalin may have wanted socialism in one country but here was globalization in one restaurant.
North Wales is not free of literary associations, of course. Bertrand Russell and Arthur Koestler lived quite near where my wife and I took a cottage, and the young runaway Thomas de Quincey stayed for a time in Bangor, until he had a ridiculous quarrel with his landlady, who had formerly been a servant of the Bishop of Bangor. Swift and Yeats must have passed through North Wales innumerable times on their way to Ireland, and I must say that Holyhead, from where the boats cross the Irish Sea, does not seem to have changed much in atmosphere since the Dean's day:
Lo here I sit at holy head With muddy ale and mouldy bread ...
It was so awful that it made him eager to reach Ireland:
I never was in haste before To reach that hateful slavish shore ...
As for Yeats, I doubt that he ever paid very much attention to North Wales.
But the tutelary literary, spirit of modern North Wales is the great poet R. S. Thomas, who died aged eighty-seven in 2000. (1) He was a strange figure, an Anglican priest who was a Welsh nationalist, fierce to the point of condoning violence and even murder, an angry man who half-believed in God without appearing to like Him very much, a lyric poet who had few illusions about the harshness of nature, a man who wrote his poetry in his mother-tongue, English, but sometimes refused to speak it to visitors who knew no Welsh (the great majority of them, after all), to pay them back for the persecution, or rather petty humiliations, that Welsh-speakers had suffered over the years, even though it was highly unlikely that any of them were personally responsible for those humiliations. He made generalizations about the English that, if he had made them about practically any other group, would have landed him in court on a charge of incitement to racial hatred, while he berated the Welsh for their insufficiently militant nationalism, supinely preferring their own individual material advancement and comfort to the cause. He was like an Old Testament prophet, who waxed exceedingly, though somewhat indiscriminately, wrathful. Humanity didn't please him.
One feels that an evening with him might have been a rather uncomfortable experience, like sitting on a porcupine while trying to pretend that you hadn't noticed. And yet I think that his rage, the consequence of deep disappointment with his fellow-men for their failure to see what was important in life, and live accordingly, was also the source of, or at least essential to, his poetic greatness.
His hatred of the modern world inspired him. The suburban mess--kitschy but comfortable inside, utterly hideous in its externals--was fast destroying not only the landscape but also the culture that he valued, and the character of the people. It is difficult entirely to disagree: there are many formerly beautiful places in North Wales, for example, whose beauty has been comprehensively destroyed by parks full of mobile homes, where people come from the North of England to take their holidays. Retirees have constructed their mean bungalows to ruin many a prospect; in summer, droves of people arrive and demand all the vulgar, noisy, and worthless amenities that they have left behind in towns and cities.
Personal independence has given way to bureaucratic control as the state extends its grip to even the tiniest details of life. For the last eleven years of his clerical career, until 1978, in the course of which he neither sought nor was awarded preferment, Thomas was vicar of the Church of St. Hywyn, in Aberdaron. Founded in the twelfth century, St. Hywyn is built over-looking a beautiful little bay with a perfect beach. When you walk along this beach with only a couple of gulls for company, and the gray-green-blue sea washing waves nearby, sounding like a chant, and the simple stone church above you on a little bluff, and the little island of Bardsey a few hundred yards out to sea, a place of pilgrimage by Christians nearly a millennium and a half ago, you cannot help but think how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable are your city-bred ways and your so-called sophistication, and that Thomas had it right: depth requires attachment to place and an intense, limitless appreciation of its beauties.
The church was closed to visitors when I went there because of restoration work. A notice at the gate said that
We are sorry that access to this church is severely restricted at this time due to Health and Safety Regulations.
In modern Britain, faith, hope, and charity have given way completely to health, safety, and regulation (and regulation is the greatest of these). Here was living proof of the justice of Thomas's dyspeptic view of modernity.
The next Anglican church on the heart-breakingly beautiful Llyn Peninsula, incidentally, was utterly and terminally deserted, but it had the following notice on the heavy rusty gate that came off its hinges in my hands:
Adders nest in this churchyard. People walking here do so at their own risk.
Evidently, Anglican premises in Wales are dangerous places these days.
R. S. Thomas's hatred of modernity and all its works slides into bitter misanthropy and a severe limitation of human sympathy. He hates the sinner at least as much as he hates the sin, or perhaps his nationalism is not so much the consequence of love of Wales as of hatred of the England that represents what he most hates.
He is intolerant of human weakness, in what strikes me as a most un-Christian way. In his autobiography, which he wrote in the Welsh that he started to learn at the age of thirty--or, as the translator puts it in his introduction to the book, "he recovered his Welsh," a locution that only a narrow nationalist with a tendency to racism would use--and that is entitled Neb, or No One, he derides the tombstones of the dead as vainglorious, exhibitionist, pompous, and redundant. (Interestingly, his autobiography is written in the third person, as Jonathan Swift's autobiographical fragment was.) He has no truck with the idea that the prospect of a tomb to be visited by surviving relatives, at least for a few years, and that will long testify to the deceased's having once lived, might serve to comfort and console the dying and all those who know not just in their minds but in their hearts that they have to die. The Rev. Thomas presumably thought that the hope of immaterial immortality ought to be enough for them, though actually he was unsure about its reality himself, and that the heavy, slate tombs of Wales were to him a sign of the flock's insufficient faith.
Yet only a man without much common feeling could fail to be moved by some of the tombs in the very churchyard where he was the vicar for eleven years. Consider the following:
Underneath are interred the Remains of two Infant Children of Griffith Jones by Catherine his Wife viz. John died July 16 1817 aged 4 months Owen died February 5 1833 aged 2 years
Next to it is another tomb:
Underneath are interred the Remains of Jane Daughter of Griffith Jones by Catherine his Wife Who departed this Life On the 16th day of December 1831 Aged 18 years
And next to that tomb another:
In Memory of John Son of Griffith Jones by Catherine his Wife Who was unfortunately drowned by the melancholy Wreck of the Monk Steamer on The Caernarvon Bar The 7th day of January 1843 Aged 13 years
Griffith Jones himself died the following year. The tombs are sober, and their very sobriety surely speaks eloquently of the huge burden of grief, borne with dignity, of which they are the material evidence. And surely also the curiosity of any person with human sympathy is aroused by the wreck of the Monk Steamer.
In fact, it was on its way from North Wales to Liverpool with a cargo of 140 pigs, two cows, 400 pounds of butter, and twenty people. Unseaworthy from the first, it struck a storm and broke up. There were six survivors, among them the owner of the butter (a Birmingham provision merchant). The Caernarvon and Denbigh Times for Saturday, January 14, 1843, reported:
Of the animals on board, six pigs and one of the cows managed to swim ashore. The carcases of the remainder were strewn with the butter along the beach.... The practice of "wrecking," so prevalent along the western coast of Great Britain (of the eastern we cannot speak knowingly) was in this instance carried on to an extent beyond description. Some of the details are too disgusting to be reprinted--it is to be regretted that the iron hand of the law is not grasping some of these desperate marauders and inhuman wretches.
R. S. Thomas could not say of himself, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
Yet it wouldn't be true, either, that Thomas was unfeeling: on the contrary, he was deeply passionate. His response to the beauty of the world, of its creatures, is that of a mystic:
A message from God delivered by a bird at my window, offering friendship. Listen. Such language! Who said God was without speech?
But behind that flower is that other flower which is ageless, the idea of the flower, the one we smell when we imagine it, that as often as it is picked blossoms again, that has the perfection of all flowers, the purity without the fragility.
Yet his faith is never rock-solid. Surely a man who has spent his life as a priest and could write the following at the age of seventy-three has lived in a state of unrelenting mental and emotional tension:
Lived long; much fear, less Courage. Bottom in love's school Of his class ... Good on his knees, yielding, Vertical, to petty temptations. Doubtful Of God, too pusillanimous To deny him.
The birds that brought him faith also brought him doubt:
... the harrier occurs, materialising from nothing, snow-- soft, but with claws of fire, quartering the bare earth for the prey that escapes it; hovering over the incipient scream, here a moment, then not here, like my belief in God.
His God--if and when he exists--is not always a comfortable being, but like the white tiger in a zoo:
It was beautiful as God must be beautiful; glacial eyes that had looked on violence and come to terms with it.
At the same time, existence is good, if we would but see it aright:
I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field for a while, and gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the pearl of great price, the one field that had the treasure in it. I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess it. Life is not hurrying on to a receding furore, nor hankering after an imagined past. It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
But, as usual, Thomas removes our certainty about his (and our) having seen all heaven in a grain of sand:
A life's trivia: commit them not to the page, but to the waste-basket of time. What was special about you? Did you write the great poem? Find the answer to the question: When a little becomes much?
Men did not live up to his standards. They ran after the transitory and failed to notice the eternal glory that surrounded them. This tendency has accelerated with modernity. His Welsh nationalism was a reaction against the seduction of the Welsh by a trashy, sensationalist culture (speaking of himself, with a melancholy sense of his own impotence, he wrote, "You made war, campaigning upon the piano/ that would surrender to the television"):
In Wales there are no crocodiles, but the tears continue to flow from their slimed sources.
All this beauty, and all the pain of beholding it emptied of a people who were not worthy of it.
His disgust with the modern world finds its apogee in Prague, a city to which the British now go to get either drunk or married (or, of course, both), and whose medieval center has been invaded and occupied by cheap commercialization. It is one of his last poems:
Went to Prague: oh, yes saw marriages in the spring flowering under a dead sky. Heard the clock in the tower anticipating the cuckoo. The Gestapo had vanished, but the uniformed buildings were still there haunting us with the story of the man turned into an insect. I imagined it like the ghost of Europe crouched in a corner listening to the passers-by, its food the nothing they were doing with their freedom.
Modern Man knows not how to live, which is why his freedom is a burden to him, and why he is so ugly and painful to behold. (I saw this daily in my work in a British hospital.) Another of Thomas's last poems begins:
I am a millionaire. My bedroom is full of gold light, of the sun's jewellery. What shall I do with this wealth? Buy happiness, buy gladness, the wisdom that grows with the giving of thanks?
Is he holding Man up to an impossible standard? Although Thomas says that he should not hanker after an imagined past, he thinks that men, or at least some men, were better in that past. At the beginning of his career, he served in hill-farm parishes where life was hard as hard, and yet the people were of substance and character, uninfected as yet by the grosser tastes of modernity. Suddenly we see that Thomas's misanthropy is disappointed love, not freestanding hatred, and that he feels passionate sympathy for his fellow-beings:
And courage shall give way to despair and despair to suffering, and suffering shall end in death. But you who are not free to choose what you suffer can choose your response.
He describes "Farmers I/knew, born to the ills of their kind, scrubbed bare/ by the weather," and how they die:
Proudly they lived, watching the spirit, diamond-faceted, crumble to the small, hard, dry stone that humanity chokes on. When they died, it was bravely, close up under the rain-hammered rafters, never complaining.
A magnificent early poem, published in 1946, called "The Airy Tomb," describes with infinite sadness and infinite admiration the life of Twin (Tom in Welsh), who "was a dunce at school" to whom "books and sums were poison." At fourteen, he left school to help his father on the small hill farm, where he "took to the life like a hillman born" and "His work was play after the dull school." "Shamed by the pen's awkwardness," his "eyes found a new peace/ Tracing the poems, which the rooks wrote in the sky."
But his parents died, leaving him alone, and he never married, working the farm to the end:
For Twin was true to his fate, That wound solitary as a brook through the crimson heather. Trodden only by sheep, where youth and age Met in a circle by a buzzard's flight Round the blue axle of heaven: and a fortnight gone Was the shy soul from the festering flesh and bone When they found him there, entombed in the lucid weather.
My wife and I sat on the beach at Aberdaron, watching our little dog, though old, run for joy--a joy we shared--and read R. S. Thomas under the blue axle of heaven.
But long--as another great poet put it--it could not be. A few days later, we had an angry argument over a trifling thing in the center of Bangor. And then we saw something that shamed us into reconciliation: an old lady, nearly blind, was being led into a shop by her middle-aged mentally handicapped son, to whose welfare she had almost certainly devoted three-quarters of her life. She clutched the hem of his coat; it was obvious that they had not much money. What would happen to him when she died? Here was a thought one could not bear to keep in one's mind.
How vulgar, trifling, and stupid seems all the self-infliction of the world, when life is tragic enough, tragic in its very essence, without it. Perhaps, indeed, our modern vulgarity is a way of trying to avoid tragedy, and to avoid the conflicts and contradictions that R. S. Thomas so well and so beautifully expressed, in his life and his work: our joy and our sorrow, our hope and our despair, our meanness and our generosity, our ecstasy and our degradation, our understanding and our incomprehension, our faith and our disbelief. In a time of the deepest superficiality, if I may put it thus, he comes like a prophet crying in the wilderness.
(1) Collected Later Poems: 1988-2000, by R.S. Thomas; Bloodaxe Books, 368 pages, 1995.
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|Date:||May 1, 2006|
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