Yesterday was one of those days that can’t be wasted — bright winter sunshine, long shadows on crisp all-day frost — a day for adventure.
We have been reading the poems and the entertaining biography, by Byron Rogers, of the Welsh poet, R S Thomas, referred to by Philip Larkin as Arsewipe Thomas whose personality was as fascinating as his poetry which was, though marvellously constructed, at times, patronising and judgemental of the Welsh ‘peasant’ (a strange concept in itself in the second half of the twentieth century).
Thomas’s enigmatic personality has intrigued me since I saw him speak in an interview on the television about Wales and the Welsh language, never had I seen someone’s subject so at odds with his delivery! His words were contradicted by all the non-verbal elements of his speech.
Thomas’s identity seemed caught between two cultures and isolated by ‘intellect’, education and calling. He was ordained in the Church of Wales, the Welsh branch of the Episcopal Church, essentially the Church of England, viewed with suspicion by many Welsh, the majority of whom attended Non-conformist Chapels.
He was an Anglican priest who had adopted an affected upper class accent though he was born in Cardiff and brought up in Holyhead, North Wales, but he felt Welsh to his core, learned Welsh as an adult and was an outspoken nationalist.
Yesterday in the sunshine, we went in search of clues to his persona, not with much expectation.
We visited his church in Manafon, not far from here —
He was not the first poet to have had the living, the heritage board listed a whole bibliography of bardic priests — R.S. was only the last of many — did that egg him on to write in Welsh — his poetry in the Welsh language never seems to have made the grade which must have frustrated him.
The church was locked but the situation was idyllic with its rectory on the riverside, surrounded by meadows and tall trees.
R.S. Thomas wanted to see the beauty of this landscape reflected in the true Welsh people but they disappointed him seeming brutalised by the harshness of their lives.
You failed me, farmer. I was afraid you would
The day I saw you loitering with the cows.
Yourself one of them but for the smile, […]
For this I leave you
Alone in your harsh acres, herding pennies […] (Valediction)
Apart from poetry, Welshness and a preoccupation with the darkness of other people’s minds, oafs and yokels (The Country Clergyman), R.S. Thomas was a bird watcher — I suspect like an old boss of mine who expressed interest in a trapped bird, flapping itself to a frenzy against a closed sky-light — when I asked if he would like me to get the pole and open the window, he said, ‘Oh no, I shouldn’t bother, I can see now, it’s only a starling!’
The starlings yesterday in Manafon were making their presence felt if only by weight of number. A vast murmuration had settled on tall trees near the church, the wide valley thronged with their chatter. You could have swept them up from the ground.
We drove in a wide arch through the Banwy valley, skirting snow capped Snowdonia, to Eglwys Fach (Little Church) Thomas’s next parish, arriving at dusk, another church dedicated to St Michael and I am reminded of the lines
A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness, (The Chapel)
This was a Welsh speaking area close to the bird reserve at Ynys Hir but a lot of the parishioners were middle class English ex-pats. In the church yard there are stones inscribed with names that are not Welsh —
Come to Wales
To be buried: the undertaker
Will arrange it for you. We have
The sites and a long line
Of clients going back….
It ends… Dirt cheap, a place where
It is lovely to lie. (Welcome to Wales)
The church was locked — whether to keep God in or keep him out — one cannot tell.
They laid a stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
and thought he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there… (The Empty Church)
R.S. Thomas spent a lot of time waiting for God, but then… The meaning is in the waiting. (Kneeling) Possibly he was looking in the wrong place. In his quest he moved ever Westward.
On the next irresistible day perhaps we will follow him to the far west and the Lleyn peninsula.