R. S Thomas was a Welsh poet and priest, born in Cardiff in 1913.
He was educated at the University of North Wales in Bangor, and he was ordained as a priest in 1937. He was rector of Manafon (1942-54), vicar of Eglwysach (1954-67), and vicar of St Hywyn, Aberdaron (1967-78).
He published his first volume of poetry, The Stones of the Field, in 1946, and came to attention outside Wales with the publication of Song at the Year’s Turning (1955). His later volumes deal with pastoral themes and the nature of God and demonstrate an intense love of Wales and its people. His Collected Poems 1945-1990 appeared in 1993.
He died in 1997. I interviewed him in 1995.
Robert Graves said that poetry is not a science but an act of faith. Have you also found it to be so?
I can’t answer that because I just try to write poetry. I follow the argument wherever it leads and sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it fails.
Is there a sense in which you can compare the idea of yourself as a poet with your vocation as a priest?
Oh, yes, I’ve never had any difficulty with that, because I think Christ was a poet and the New Testament is poetry. The parables are metaphors really, and I’m very keen on metaphor. It was obvious that the disciples didn’t always understand what Christ said. He was asked to explain, just as some people ask a poet to explain.
And yet your own entry into the priesthood seems to have been less of a calling and more to do with the fact that your mother believed it was the road to a good job…
Not so much a good job; it was more that she had been brought up by a relation who was a cleric so that she acquired an admiration and fondness for the priesthood, and she obviously had these secret ambitions for me. I was at a malleable stage in my teens and I didn’t raise any resistance. God moves in mysterious ways.
But it was not really a true vocation…
Well, what is a true vocation? Take the story of Samuel. The Lord came and called, and Samuel didn’t understand – he had to be told three times that the Lord was calling. So I’m not to be drawn on that one.
But had you not become a priest, what road would you have chosen, do you think?
I would have been in prison, I expect. I would have been adrift. The devil finds work for idle hands.
Your father was often away at sea, and your mother seems to have been the dominant figure in your life. Is that how you remember your early life?
Yes. I think she was very possessive and there was a lack of the fatherly hand, but I have come to realize that she gave me quite a good deal of freedom. As long as I didn’t get in her way I was free to roam and do more or less what I liked.
Did you miss your father?
No, I don’t think so. He had to give up his job on the sea and take a shore job because unfortunately he became deaf. So I wasn’t able to converse with him freely. With my own son, we’re able to talk to one another, and I sometimes wish I could have had the same opportunity with my father, but it’s not that I actually missed him.
Was your love of Wales something that was born and bred in you or was it acquired gradually?
I was born in Holyhead, which is a terrible little town, but all around was the sea and in the distance were the mountains of Wales. When I started my ministry, I had to go to the English border because I didn’t speak the Welsh language. There was a kind of vacuum. Although I was glad to leave home and gain my freedom, I realized that I had lost my native background, and from that moment I began a gradual return to Welsh Wales.
What makes you love Wales so much?
In a world where the big men have so much to say, it is a small country, and I agree with Schumacher: small is beautiful. I always champion the small man, the small country. It is a country of extreme beauty – the industrial south has spoilt it, of course – but for its size it’s a lovely little country. And I love it in a way that possibly many other Welsh people don’t.
How would you describe your feeling for the country and its language? Is it just an extreme form of patriotism, or is it much more complex and far-reaching than that?
We have a very old literary tradition. It’s an older literary tradition than the English one, and I am fired at this I just love my country, and when English people accuse me of being fanatical or extremist, I say to them, ‘I am a patriot and I love my country as you love yours.’
I read somewhere that you have always been rather uncomfortable with Anglicanism…is that true?
Not the Anglican communion, but I do realize that there are truths in other religions, Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism. I wouldn’t wish to say that the only gate into the kingdom is Anglicanism. Of course the Church of Wales is disestablished and disendowed and it sometimes lands you in an entanglement to try to explain to Welsh people in Welsh that the Anglican church is not English. The Church in Wales is a part of the Anglican communion, and on the whole the tendency is to follow Canterbury, but we have our own prayer book, and our own governing body which means we can make certain doctrinal and other constitutional amendments.
Have you ever experienced anything which might be called a crisis of faith?
Continually. The crisis is ongoing. Obviously you come up against problems, and things happen which are very testing. For example, a little girl was murdered the other day. If I were still with a parish, no doubt some of my parishioners would ask me how I equate a loving God with this sort of thing. But I never cease to believe in God.
How would you answer your parishioners in the case you mention?
Freedom is the only answer. God has taken the great risk of giving them freedom rather than compelling people to be good. He has chosen to risk their not being good, freedom being more important than compulsion. We have free will. The man who murdered the little girl has misused his God-given freedom.
Do you believe in heaven and hell?
I don’t believe in heaven and hell. I leave it to God. God will decide. I try to be humble in this; I’m not going to say I’m sure that I’m going to heaven, or I’m afraid of going to hell, because it’s out of my hands. I leave it to God. And that is faith – at least that is my faith. Trust is a better word; I trust that this great presence in the universe, if He so disposes, will assign me an appropriate destiny, whether it’s oblivion, or whether it is a continuing existence in some other form. I can’t do anything about it.
Some of your poems in the last twenty years or so have dealt with what might be called the godlessness of modern times. Sometimes it seems it is your sense of the absence of God which served to confirm your faith in him. How would you explain this paradox?
I can’t explain it. I don’t know whether in earlier Christian times people played with this idea, but it has come more to the fore in recent Christian thought. It’s a nebulous, elusive concept and I can’t say very much about it, except that the idea of the unknown God, the absent God, is one I use in my poetry.
In your collection Counterpoint you address some of the dilemmas caused by an ancient faith in a modern world. Can you tell me something of the difficulties as you see them?
I dare say I would have been burned at the stake in the old days because many of my views are heretical. I dislike hymns intensely, I dislike the revisions that have taken place in the liturgy. I’ve been a country priest all my life, dealing with semi-educated or uneducated people, and so my conception of the priesthood is rather different from what it would have been if I’d been amongst sophisticated and educated people. I deplore some of the changes that have taken place under liturgical revision, and as you know there are all kinds of lunatic fringe Christians these days who believe in a godless Christianity. In my poems I rather derive that kind of thing. Where I talk about the creed, and write ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty’, and put in brackets, ‘Is he married?’ – this is not because I’m an unbeliever but because I resent some of the misinterpretations that have been put upon Him, and the narrowness of the theologians. Being a poet I naturally claim a certain amount of latitude.
But do the poems help you to resolve some of these problems?
In some of my more abstract poems I follow the argument to see if I can resolve it in some way, but to be honest I sometimes end up with a different answer like many other poets. I always say my chief end is to make a poem; I don’t set out to write a Christian poem, or orthodox poem, just a poem, and if I am more or less convinced that it is a good poem than I’m satisfied.
As you look around the world in the late twentieth century, are you very much aware of God’s presence? Do you see him in the former Yugoslavia, for example?
This is why I am such an enemy of technology and the machine in my poetry because people are very greedy, they clutch at all the latest technological inventions, they will have all these things. The result is we are flooded by news from all over the world as it’s gathered, and this news is based mainly on sensationalism. At this very moment somebody somewhere is almost certainly doing a fine and self sacrificing act, but you hear nothing about it on the media. But if somebody does something evil or nasty we get to know about it, and in this way we are being browbeaten into thinking that it is a godless world, that God is not at work. The noise that is being made in Yugoslavia and other parts of the world is drowning out the still small voices.
You are a declared pacifist and having felt uneasy with the church’s tacit support of war, praying for victory, and so on. How have you been able to reconcile your own position with that of the church?
I just mind my own business, through living out in the bush I wasn’t called to stand and fight in a metaphorical sense. Had I been in large parishes there would have been sons going off to war and parents wanting me to pray for them, but living out in the country I was spared that on the whole. I’ve never prayed for victory, and if somebody asked me to pray for Johnnie, I would say that to ask for him to be spared would be at the expense of some other person’s son. Praying to God for victory means that God sides with a certain country. The English have always been assured of the justice of their cause but in Wales ours is a defensive nationalism, not an offensive, aggressive nationalism. We simply struggle to preserve, and we have been subjected to aggression ever since the Normans came into the picture.
How can a pacifist stop war? Doesn’t one have to fight to combat evil?
Not necessarily. People attack pacifism at a very late stage. Supposing that pacifism had been put in practice from a very early stage, there would be far less war. Pacifism is an embracing philosophy, it does away with greed, ambitions, all these things. However, I accept your point to the extent that I’ve always said that even if Wales got its freedom, we would still have to keep a small standing army, because as you say there are always evil forces, but we’ve got to eliminate those. In God’s world there is endless time; it’s human beings that are impatient and want quick results.
There is an argument which says that pacifists trade on other people’s willingness to sacrifice themselves in the fight against evil…don’t others pay the price for the pacifist conscience?
Pacifists don’t make war, they don’t cause war. Pacifism can only apply to your own self and your own actions. I acknowledge what is called the pacifist fallacy. If some evil person rushes in and attacks my children or my wife, I should refuse to fight him in order to be really true to myself. But whether I’d have the courage not to attack him is another matter.
Your declared pacifism would seem to sit uneasily with your widely reported support for the sometimes violent campaign against English settlers in Wales.
I’m not on record as ever having supported them, I’ve never incited people to be violent in Wales; I have said that I understand why it happens, but if I am reported to have supported violence then I have been libelled. I have never given my support to violent campaigns because violence breeds violence, and this is inconsistent with pacifism.
Yet I understand that at a meeting of the Covenanters of the Free Welsh in 1990 you told the audience: ‘I deplore killing, but what is the life of one English person compared to the destruction of a nation?’ would you still defend that sort of remark today?
But isn’t that tantamount to inciting people to violence?
I don’t think so. It’s being quite reasonable. We have to be on the defensive in Wales because we are a small country of two and a half million people living alongside an English nation of fifty-five million people. When we talk about the death of one English person, we mean a physical death. But Christ said, ‘Don’t fear those that have the power to destroy the body, fear those that have the power to destroy both the body and the soul.’ And when you’re dealing with a nation, you’re dealing with a spiritual concept, and there’s no doubt that the soul of Wales, the identity of Wales, has been eroded and is being eroded further all the time. That is why I said that.
Paul Wilkinson, Professor of International Relations at St Andrews University, has said that this targeting of individuals in arson attacks is ‘a sort of ethnic cleansing, Celtic style, and smacks of the methods once used by the British National Party and the National Front’. How do you react to that?
I think it’s rather extreme language. We have a quarrel with the English because we see things differently. And because we don’t have an independent press or broadcasting network, we are propagandized and indoctrinated by English-based media, based on English ways of thinking. In the eyes of the English, the English can do no wrong; it’s the other countries that are extremist, other countries that are nationalist, other countries that are terrorist – the English wouldn’t ever do these things. Well, we know very well from the last war that they do do these things, and I often try to remind people of this fact.
You have frequently suggested that the ‘immigrants’, by which you mean English incomers to Wales, should be ostracized by the community they live in and be made to feel unwelcome…
I didn’t use the word ‘ostracized’, but cold shoulder, yes, I would stand by that. The English have done a lot of damage. Historically we would have been a poor country, and English tourism has been the means of a little extra revenue, but instead of being able to be proud and welcome these people to our country on our terms, we have eaten humble pie. We do anything for the sake of these people’s welfare and wellbeing, and this is inconsistent with a proud and independent nation.
I understand your wife was English…how did she view your attitude?
She was a painter and she was more concerned with other things. It wasn’t her problem, it was my problem, and I didn’t expect her to go out campaigning with me. We discussed it, of course, and in all fair mindedness I have to say there are good English as well as bad, but I resent terribly the takeover by England of a small country like Wales. My wife was more concerned with her own identity as a painter. Painters and musicians are not challenged by these things; they are not dependent on the language the way writers are. Now I’m living with somebody who is an Irish Canadian. Her language is English, and she’s able to speak to everybody, it’s no problem to her, whereas I feel under a certain restraint from having to speak English to all these people that come flooding in at this time of year. She’s being more Christian than I am, but she hasn’t got the problem that I have.
The vicar who became your successor in the parish is an Englishman, and was an appointment which didn’t exactly meet with your approval. And yet I understand the church has remained vacant for some fifteen years after you retired. Is it really better to have a vacant church than an Englishman in the pulpit?
There was no need to have had a vacant church. I offered to stay on; it was the church’s doing, not mine. In the church you can retire voluntarily at sixty-five or compulsorily at seventy, so six months before I reached sixty-five I wrote to the Bishop of Bangor and asked him what his plans were. He began to waffle and say that they would have to charge an economic rent for the house we occupied, and all that kind of nonsense. I wrote straight back and said that I would be retiring in six months’ time. He then had the parish vacant for fifteen years. It was his fault. He could have had me there.
I understand your desire to protect the Welsh culture and language but their survival is surely an organic thing and cannot be imposed by nationalistic behaviour.
I take exception to the word nationalistic because of its association with national socialism. But there are hopeful signs in Wales; there’s an increasing interest in the language, and the primary schools are doing very good work. There are signs that Welsh will continue to be spoken in the next century. This is not imposed but voluntary.
Do you think Wales will ever become an independent country?
No. People don’t want it. The media exercises so much control with the result that, apart from a few honourable exceptions, the Welsh people have now lost the ability to think wisely and deeply about these matters. I’ve now retired into my shell more or less.
Moving on to poetry, T. S. Eliot, a poet whom you admire, said that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. Do you agree?
Yes, but he really didn’t know what that meant. With poems it is really an argument of despair. In my case it’s a result of my having ministered in so many of these less educated parishes, to simple people. I’ve always tried to make myself understood and this has stopped me from being a booby dazzler as a poet. But at least you are on the side of people who say that great art is simple at heart.
I imagine you are unhappy with labels such as ‘the best living religious poet’, or ‘the greatest living Welsh poet’. How would you prefer to be described?
I’m against any use of the word ‘great’. My aim all along has been to write a good poem. I don’t resent the description ‘religious poet’ because I think my work has grown more religious as I’ve got older, but I’m not in the stakes of being put up as the best poet now writing and all that sort of rubbish.
Despite the literary labels, the fact remains that you are not widely read as a poet, and your reputation seems to rest more on your controversial character rather than your literary output. Is that a source of irritation to you or disappointment perhaps?
Poetry is unfortunately a minor art in the present century. There are a whole lot of new art forms blossoming in the late twentieth century and we just have to be patient and let things work themselves out and maybe the poem will come back into its own. Poetry has been the glory of the English cultural life, it has been a very great art form, as it was earlier in Wales. I deplore the shallowness and tricksiness of contemporary English poetry, and I think possibly poets have asked for the contempt with which they are treated.
What would you say is the point of poetry for you?
It’s a manipulation of language. Words are fascinating, they have a life of their own, and there is a kind of personal agony whereby you wrestle with words; sometimes words get the better of you and sometimes you get slightly the better of words.
Wouldn’t you say that part of the business of a poem and indeed the measure of its success is its ability to help others glimpse what you yourself have seen?
I think so, yes. A successful poem should operate on more than one level. You can buy a modern novel, and you will never read it again, but poetry should be read over and over again. It must lead people to see that there was more in this poem than emerged in the first reading.
You have attracted a lot of enemies in your time. Does that bother you?
Well, I never met any. It is shadow boxing. I would expect to have made enemies, because I have been trying to stand up for a misjudged and abused nation. On the other hand, in all fairness, I have also received letters from English people who say they agree with me and understand my point of view. It’s always nice to be praised and unpleasant to be castigated, but you can’t spend your time worrying about these things.
Is it one of the felicities of old age, do you think, that you stop worrying about these things?
No, I think it’s the felicity of being a poet. A poet is one of the few free people that there are. I’m not a politician, I don’t have to worry about my standing in the polls in case I lose the next election or do damage to the party. I am a free man, and I suppose this partly arises from having been a priest. The church offers a certain amount of freedom; as a priest I wasn’t responsible to anybody, I was simply given a stipend and left to be the priest in a certain parish, and to preach the Gospel as I saw it.
You have quite a reputation for being angry sometimes. Where does all the anger come from?
Now you’re telling me things I don’t know. I hope I have not been unnecessarily angry. However, I do think the attitude of certain English people makes one angry, as does the attitude of some Welsh people. I get angry at the servility which my countrymen have shown on occasions and I get angry with the superiority that the English display in their dealings, not only with Wales, but with most other countries. But I wouldn’t say I was an angry man.
You say that you have always been something of a loner. How important was marriage and the companionship of a wife?
I am an old man and my time in the church was before all these economic messes and the group parishes where the poor priest is rushed off his feet. I belong to the generation that had one church and a little congregation, so I was able to proceed in a leisurely way. Both my wife and I preferred the quietness of the country which small parishes offered. The need for a wife’s counselling and comforting didn’t really arise to the same extent as if I had been a busy town priest. And her vocation was to be a painter, so we went our own separate ways really. She preferred to stay in and paint, whereas I used to like to go out and wander about. These are the differences which arise from the pattern of life one has lived. The lone element is obviously there in me.
Would you have been able to live without a woman?
Probably not. I think poets are quite erotic. Female beauty naturally appeals to a poet, so I would have certainly ended up with somebody, I dare say.
Where do you stand on the business of women priests?
I can see no practical or philosophical or theological objection, but it doesn’t seem to work out in practice as far as I’m concerned. Most of the women I know don’t want them. Of course I’m speaking out of very narrow experience, but certainly in the country parishes the people would not want a woman priest. I would lose an argument with a well-trained defender of the woman priesthood, but there is certainly a gut reaction which is not happy with it.
Is your religious faith becoming stronger as you get older?
I can only say that I never lose my faith in God. I don’t think atheism is a sustainable creed, so I’m never really tempted to become atheistic in any way. I’ll not say my faith is deepening but I hope I have acquired a kind of acceptance, a resignation really, in the face of the enormous questions that beset us. God will dispose as he sees fit.
Looking back over your life, do you get a sense of a job well done?
Oh Lord, no. One is tinged with the pessimism of poets like A. E. Housman. There is a kind of life-denying part in one’s make-up, a kind of nihilistic approach to life. But I don’t think it is a permanent thing; it comes now and again, and the whole thing seems a ghastly sort of bungling in some way. And one recognizes one has been part of this bungling.