‘In a dissolving / world what certainties / for the self, whose identity / is its performance?’
('The Echoes Return Slow')
In this new study of R. S. Thomas, Tony Brown (co-director of the R. S. Thomas Study Centre at Bangor University), draws on the life and work to explore the poet’s insecurity of identity and profound sense of inauthenticity – feelings that haunted Thomas throughout his life and were repeatedly expressed in his poetry and prose. Brown’s chronological approach and lucid writing make his academic study highly accessible, and his argument throughout is strongly backed by quotations from Thomas’s writing. The analysis is psychologically perceptive and Brown makes particularly good use of Freud’s theory of the uncanny (unheimlich) to elucidate aspects of the poet’s personality. Adding to a burgeoning body of work on Wales’s greatest poet of the twentieth century, Brown takes us beyond the ‘hard image’ and what Rowan Williams has recently referred to as ‘the mythology [...] of misanthropic Welsh priest-bards framed against a grey sky, glaring at an absent God and a corrupted world’.
Brown divides his study into clear, chronological chapters which trace Thomas’s geographical journey: from Holyhead to Manafon (embracing the shorter periods spent in Chirk, Hanmer and Tallarn Green), Eglwys-fach, Aberdaron and, finally, retirement to the cottage of Sarn-y-plas. By constructing the book in this way, Brown can elucidate the connection between Thomas’s changing social and environmental surroundings and both the development of his poetic style and the struggle with his sense of self and of belonging.
Following the move to Manafon in 1944, the rural lyricism and genteel tones of Thomas’s poems of the 1930s underwent a rapid shift to the more flinty register of ‘A Peasant’, the first poem about Iago Prytherch. Thomas became increasingly aware of the discrepancy between his romantic notion of the rural Welsh ‘peasant’, closer to the earth and therefore closer to God, and the reality of a life of harsh toil, more likely to destroy than to develop the spirit. His perception, and its reflection in the poetry, was once again reframed following the move to Eglwys-fach in 1954, when Thomas came to appreciate the rootedness, patience and resilience of Iago Prytherch and the Montgomeryshire hill farmers and the authenticity of their struggle.
Brown stresses the deep irony of Thomas’s move to Eglwys-fach: the poet had been seeking a vacancy in a rural, Welsh-speaking area in the hope of finding a sense of authenticity, both in himself and in the community. But Eglwys-fach village, with its population of former tea-planters and ex-army officers, was an island of English snobbery and middle-class values. Whether it was being highlighted by the authentic struggle of the farmers or mirrored in the mannered inauthenticity of the English middle class, Thomas’s own sense of inauthenticity and ‘homelessness’ was exacerbated. The poetry developed a new note of bleak social satire, and a stark and unrelenting tone as the poet turned in on himself.
With the move to Aberdaron, at the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula, in 1972, Thomas’s poetry once again changed direction, in both style and content. Thomas began to use new forms in his poetry, which he saw as ‘being apter for new subject matter and new thinking’. It would be comforting to see a familiar life path emerging: the romanticism and idealism of youth turning into the self-questioning and growing cynicism of mid-life, to be followed by a quieter spirituality and perhaps acceptance in the twilight years. But in Aberdaron Thomas was still struggling with the Machine, and with his own fundamental insecurities and sense of ‘being unhomed’.
Retirement to Sarn-y-plas in 1978 finally freed Thomas from the role of vicar and its attendant ‘play-acting’ and inauthenticity – ‘The pretences are done.’ The retirement years saw Thomas very much in the public eye, courting controversy with his open support of Meibion Glyndwr’s arson campaign, but also quietly developing a spirituality drawing on the mystical traditions – political and spiritual expressions of personal authenticity that would not have been possible within the constraints of the Church. When Elsi died, the man who’d said, ‘I don’t think I’m a very loving person’, wrote a series of poems of remarkable lyrical beauty in her memory. Here at last, perhaps, was the reconciliation of the heimlich/unheimlich of Freud’s uncanny.
Suzy Ceulan Hughes
It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgment should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Gellir defnyddio'r adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatâd Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.
Tony Brown is Senior Lecturer in English, Director of the Humanities Research Centre and co-Director of the R. S. Thomas Study Centre at the Bangor University. He has edited many books including The Collected Stories of Glyn Jones (UWP, 1999) and Glyn Jones’s The Dragon Has Two Tongues (UWP 2001).
Tony Brown provides an introduction to R. S. Thomas’s life and work, as well as new perspectives and insights for those already familiar with the poetry. His approach is broadly chronological, interweaving life and work in order to evaluate Thomas’s poetic achievement. In addition to presenting a full discussion of Thomas’s poetry, and its movements over time between personal, spiritual and political concerns, Tony Brown also examines Thomas’s contribution to the culture of Wales, not just in his writing but also his political interventions and activism on behalf of Welsh language and culture.