A good friend of mine initially piqued my interest in the poetry of R.S. Thomas, but I never seemed to be able to find a copy of his works when I was looking for one. Yet in one of those happy coincidences that seem to happen most often when I’m book shopping, I was poking through the poetry shelves in Daunt Books when a minor book landslide nearly sent several volumes toppling onto my head. After a moment’s flailing, I stemmed the book-fall…and the book I ended up using to hold back the deluge was the collected poems of R.S. Thomas. I couldn’t just leave it on the shelf after all that, could I?
Collected Poems 1945-1990 and Collected Later Poems 1980-2000 by R.S. Thomas
Ronald Stuart Thomas was a Welsh clergyman who spent his working life in a number of rural parishes, and much of his poetry centres on religion, rural Wales, and the exploration of Welsh national and cultural identity. He was a fervent proponent of the Welsh language and Welsh culture, not least because he grew up speaking English and regretted the fact that he only came to learn Welsh as an adult. His outspoken views occasionally sparked controversy, most notably when he publically praised the arsonists who destroyed English holiday-homes in Wales in the 1980s. And there is a good deal of anger and resentment in his poetry, as well as frustration and sadness, as shown for example in the opening lines of ‘The Old Language’:
England, what have you done to make the speech
My fathers used a stranger to my lips,
An offence to the ear, a shackle on the tongue
That would fit new thoughts to an abiding tune?
It borders on cliche to describe his writing style as ‘flinty’ or ‘bitter’, but it’s a very apt description. The crisply lyrical quality of his poetry makes it wonderful to recite aloud, and its memorable sound and images even inspired a bit of gentle parody by another excellent Welsh poet, Harri Webb. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but I think parody runs a close second at times.
The first Collected Poems isn’t the complete corpus of Thomas’s work. His Collected Later Poems covers his last five collections of poetry, and also includes several poems and fragments that he had written but not published before his death in 2000. There are a few points that bear mentioning with regard to this second collection. ‘The Echoes Return Slow’, the first section of the book, is an autobiography done in short snatches of stream-of-consciousness prose followed by brief poems. These later poems seem to have a more religious turn than those from his earlier collection. Most of the poems have a strongly Christian theme, musings on man’s relationship with God and how to make sense of religion and faith in a world where both are often tested. Compared to the first collection, there are certainly fewer rants (so to speak) about the decline of Wales and Welsh culture and language. And though I enjoy Thomas’s writing style, with its alternating crisp tones and slow, languid musings, I have to say that I prefer the poems of the first collection. Thomas’s poetic voice comes through more strongly, I think, in his writings about the Welsh people. But both volumes are collections of moving and thought-provoking poems by a very remarkable poet, and I’m glad I have a nice compact collection of his work.