from The Electronic Telegraph, Dec 4, 1999
RS Thomas, widely acknowledged as our greatest living poet, has a reputation for being a difficult recluse. But when Graham Turner tracked him down to a remote part of Wales to talk about the role of the poet in the modern age, he found him willing to discuss frankly his failings as a writer, father and husband, as well as his vexed relationship with God
THE Rev R S Thomas may be our greatest living poet, but he has none of the trappings of celebrity. Now 86, he lives in a cottage in an unremarkable Welsh village: no pub, no post office, no shop. He has no forthcoming book to plug. No claque of PR harpies hovers about him, bartering minutes of his time in return for column inches. He writes about things that seldom feature in the celebrity universe: eternity, the soul, immortality, God.
Poet, priest and pacifist: 'I'm always ready to confess the things that are lacking in me and particularly this lack of love for human beings'Thomas was not even easy to find. Only by enlisting the sleuthing skills of the North Wales police did I manage to track him down. Since he has the reputation of being not merely reclusive but also cantankerous, I wondered nervously if our conversations would yield anything more than a series of gruff and perfunctory answers, revealing little about this allegedly forbidding figure who has nonetheless produced verse of sublime beauty and poignancy.
My fears proved to be entirely groundless. Thomas turned out to be a man of stark honesty and the most unexpected opinions. A priest of the Church of Wales for 41 years, he has little time for either hymns or prayer, and not all that much for his fellow man. He is full of wry humour and erudition, and entirely free of pretentiousness.
When I arrived at the cottage, Thomas was out seeing the doctor after a spot of heart trouble. They couldn't receive me in the sitting room, apologised his second wife Betty, a lively Canadian related to Lord Longford: it was a disaster area of damp patches and displaced furniture, so it would have to be the dining room.
She offered me tea and poured a generous slug of brandy into her own. "I'm completely unlike the wife I should be for my husband," she said, lighting up a king-size Raffles. "Our views are often poles apart. For example, he's strongly against war, whereas I'm all for it!"
When Thomas himself returned, muttering about tablets, he reported that the doctor had asked whether he was under any strain. Yes, he'd replied, my wife, and a ripple of mischievous amusement flitted across the hawk-like face.
For the moment, his muse is silent after producing more than 1,500 poems over the last half-century. "I have not," he confessed, "written anything of any significance for two or three months now. I'd like to be able to say I was working on a major poem that will shortly appear in 12 books, but I can't. Mind you, I've been very lucky, because I've been able to remain a lyric poet into my old age, whereas most of them are played out by the time they are 30 or 40.
"Nobody knows whether Dylan Thomas would have written much more. He'd probably done his best work when he died [at the age of 39].
"So far as I'm concerned, I don't know whether I've got writer's block or if it's simply old age, and to what extent the sexual drive is bound up with it. Poetry does tend to come when you're young and sexually potent. When you're old, the sex drive is a little bit of dead beanstalk, so that may have something to do with it.
"The muse is a bitch and you can't browbeat her, but if you can't do anything else - and, as my wife will tell you, I can't even put a nail in a wall - all you've got is your poetry. You want to convince yourself that you can still do it. 'Concocting the old heroic bang,' as Ted Hughes once put it.
"The age I've reached, I'll never be able to climb a hill again, and that isn't the end of the world but, if I can't write a poem, I'm getting near the end of it. I read every morning, something of substance, philosophy or theology, people like George Steiner and Paul Tillich, just to keep the mind ticking over. If an idea came, I'm certainly ready to pursue the mosquito."
Did he, I wondered, actually enjoy writing poetry? I told him that I had once talked to L S Lowry, who had seemed a thoroughly benign old man until I asked whether he enjoyed painting, upon which he became positively incandescent. "Enjoy it?" he had exploded. "I hate it! I hate the canvas, I hate the paint, I hate the whole darn thing!" Why do it then? "Because I have to," Lowry had muttered resignedly.
Thomas was not sure about enjoyment either. "There is a kind of satisfaction in completing a job," he said, "but there are awful pitfalls too. I've written the occasional poem and been bowled over by my own genius but then, when I read it again next morning, wondered what the hell made me think it was any good. So I can't say 'yes' to you, though I have sometimes felt that, as Chamberlain said after he'd been to see Hitler, 'God knows. I did my best!' "
But why did the Almighty make such frequent appearances in his verse? Thomas looked dumbfounded. "I believe in God," he retorted baldly, as if there was nothing more to be said. Coleridge had once remarked that he regretted never meeting Shelley because he would have been able to laugh at his atheism.
Very well, but what sort of God? "He's a poet who sang creation," replied Thomas, "and He's also an intellect with an ultra-mathematical mind, who formed the entire universe in it. The answer is in a chapter of Augustine's Confessions, where it says, 'They all cried out with one voice, He made us'."
But did he also love God? "I've been much influenced," said Thomas, "by the American poet Robinson Jeffers, who says somewhere, 'the people who talk of God in human terms, think of that!' George Herbert, the 17th-century divine and poet, must have been a dear man, but when he speaks about the touch of the Lord pressing against his soul, I simply can't conceive of God in that way. As for Gerard Manley Hopkins and the sort of endearments he uses, it's almost as if he has a sexual relationship with God. No, loving God is too much of a human construct. What there must be is awe.
"I feel much more at home with Wordsworth's vision of Snowdon in The Prelude, where he says, 'It seemed to me the type of a majestic intelligence . . . the emblem of a mind that feeds upon infinity'."
As I discovered, Thomas often shies away from the idea of love, human or divine. That does not prevent him from writing about God with great tenderness as well as awe, for example in his poem The Other, a copy of which, inscribed on slate, stands in the gaunt village church of St Hywyn, Aberdaron, where he was parish priest for 11 years.
There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl calling
far off and a fox barking
miles away. It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village that is without light
and companionless. And the thought comes
of that other being who is awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.
Thomas is only too ready to admit that he is, in many ways, an odd sort of priest. "God moves in a mysterious way," he murmured, "and putting a dog collar on R S Thomas was very mysterious indeed."
As he'd always freely admitted, he went on, his own vocation had come in a hand-me-down sort of way from his mother, who'd always harboured a desire that her son should become a cleric. "I wasn't under any pressure but, by the time I'd been through the training, if I'd been convicted of rape and unfrocked, what else would I have been fit to do?" He made it sound like an inescapable life sentence.
Having become a priest (in 1937) and discovered that he wanted to write poetry, he made a beeline for obscure and often remote country parishes. "I accepted the privilege that rural parishes offered, that nobody would want me to visit them either in the morning or in the afternoon, because of farm work. So I studied and wrote in the morning, walked in the afternoon and did my parochial visiting in the evening.
"I found a certain comfort in telling myself that nobody else wanted such parishes. The majority of the clergy in those places were as miserable as sin. They had no empathy with country life, they were like politicians in that they longed for preferment."
Did he himself not want preferment? "Good God, no! I always thought there was something wrong with a chap's head if he wanted to become a bishop. Think of taking on Birmingham! How can you believe you're fit to be spiritual father to three million Brummies?
"No. I've always sought out lonely places. I don't wish to be autocratic because there are those who find association with other human beings both a solace and an enrichment but, mercifully, there has always been an eremitical element in Christianity. I wouldn't want to go as far as being shut up with my own excreta in some little place in the Egyptian desert, but Jesus himself did withdraw into the wilderness.
"I just feel closer to God in lonely places. Wordsworth, too, you'll remember, got greater satisfaction from walking among the fells than in meeting tiresome people like Southey. It does also have a Celtic connection. St Columba and St Cuthbert both heard God speaking to them in the solitude; whereas other people claim to hear God speaking on the Underground - always provided that the points are working. There's no reason why a priest should be expected to spend all his time out among people. He's a man of study and prayer."
Not that Thomas has very much taste for prayer. He'd never, he confessed, been any good at meditation. "At theological college, the first hour was given over to it, but it was quite beyond me. Whenever I tried it later, it always turned into an effort to write poetry. One of the things that leaves me completely cold is the prayer "Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." After you've said it for the 556th time, something is supposed to happen to you. By then, I'd have gone to sleep anyway.
"I find prayer the most difficult aspect of religion. With the Lord's Prayer, I even have difficulty with the word Father ["Is he married?" Thomas asks in the Credo section of his poem Mass for Hard Times]. Bishops send me their booklets on prayer and I write back politely, but I've found them all completely useless. No, the nearest I can come to prayer is to leave it all to the force of creative good, which is what God is."
As if that were not heterodox enough, Thomas is not overly fond of hymns either. A fastidious wordsmith himself, he dismisses virtually all of them as "fourth-rate poetry set to third-rate music. Apart from the odd one by George Herbert, I really can't take them. Even 'who sweeps a room as for Thy laws makes that and the action fine' is really rather prosy."
And the Wesleys? Thomas shook his head and smiled, as if I were trying to provoke him. Of course he'd had to suffer a great many hymns in his time, that was part of the penance of being a parish priest, but he'd never breathed a word while he was doing the job. That would have caused irreparable damage.
And then there were those big manual organs, which were the nearest thing to hell so far as he was concerned. "A six-manual organ with the organist indulging himself in great chords that thunder through the church! Is that music, is that holy music? The thing I'd have liked best would have been a small choir who could sing plainchant, and then just to say the words of the Prayer Book for their sheer beauty."
In 1940, Thomas married Elsi Eldridge, a talented English painter. When she died, more than half a century later, he wrote a poem called A Marriage, which is surely one of the most lyrically beautiful in the English language.
under a shower
Fifty years passed,
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young:
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
'Come,' said death,
choosing her as his
the last dance. And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird's grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.
Yet, only three years later, he told an interviewer that he was alone even when he was living with Elsi. How did he account for the apparent contradiction? "I'm a loner," replied Thomas, "and my first wife was also a loner. We didn't have our meals separately or anything stupid like that, but we did sleep in separate rooms.
"My present wife says Elsi must have been frigid and, although that is partly a technical term, we never indulged in the effusive emotional displays other people go in for. After I'd been away for a fortnight's holiday alone, I'd open the door and just say, 'Well, here we are.' Sometimes I wrote a poem in an hour, while she'd take days over a painting, so she didn't have the time to spare."
But had he loved Elsi deeply? "I don't think I'm a very loving person," said Thomas. "I wasn't brought up in a loving home - my mother was afraid of emotion - and you tend to carry on in the same way, don't you? I suppose my son Gwydion [a college lecturer, now retired] could say he was the victim of the same lovelessness. I tended to leave it to Elsi to give him that more demonstrative affection." Thomas added that he didn't know where his son was. He wasn't even sure what he'd been a lecturer in.
"I'm always ready to confess the things that are lacking in me," he went on, "and particularly this lack of love for human beings. If you said that that is a dimension of my work which disqualifies me from being a poet of great significance, I'd agree with you. There is a kind of narrowness in my work which a good critic would condemn."
On the other hand, said Thomas, he had been done an injustice by being labelled a simple poet. "Wallace Stevens once said that poems should resist intelligence, and John Carey [the Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford] has complained that mine don't offer any such resistance. Oxford dons! They're given works of demolition to carry out, so they have to cast around for targets."
But surely, I said, it was a very strange priest who did not love people? "It's Corinthians, chapter 12," responded Thomas, "where Paul talks about the diversity of gifts but the same spirit. Obviously all the people who built cathedrals could just rejoice in their gift, and you could say the same of poets. 'Poems are made of words,' as the French poet Mallarmé said to Degas - and it is wonderful what words can do."
His own poetic preference, apart from "the master, Shakespeare", was for people such as Donne, Wordsworth at his best, T S Eliot, Wallace Stevens. As for Ted Hughes, there was nothing more damning you could say to a poet than that you liked his early work best, but it was Hughes's early pyrotechnics, which showed such empathy with animals, that pleased him most. He says Auden was a master craftsman but had no depth "and I'm not sure of the value of what he was saying".
All manner of tensions have played their part in moulding Thomas's character and verse. Early in his ministry, he had "the sudden revelation" that Wales was his true spiritual home, and learnt to speak the language. Then, to his intense frustration, he found that he could not write satisfactory poetry in Welsh. One of the founders of Plaid Cymru, Saunders Lewis, reassured him. "Never forget," he told Thomas, "that art is born out of tension." Thomas excuses himself for having married an English girl by saying that "there were a lot of them about!"
He remains a nationalist and a republican. For him, the Prince of Wales is not Charles but Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, the last Prince of an independent Wales, who was assassinated in 1282. The possibility of Welsh independence, he admits, no longer preoccupies his mind. Nor does he make much of his pacifism. "It's only a qualified thing, because it's never been tested. If someone tried to rape my wife, would I just stand by? I don't know."
What does make him hot under the collar is the feeble state of poetry in Britain today. "Just look at the situation," he said, "the technological smugness, the awful atheism, the political sleaze. Pope or Dryden would have exposed it all mercilessly and Dante would have scourged these people. All we've got is Larkin putting in a little chip now and again with lines such as 'bespectacled grins celebrating the latest takeover', but he wasn't a great poet.
"No, the spiritual element has gone out of contemporary English writing. My self-imposed task, as an advanced stick-in-the-mud in an advanced technological age, has been to see whether you can still use words like God, immortality and the soul in a meaningful way. If you've got somebody else's heart, lungs and kidneys and you're even playing with the idea of men bearing children, can you still produce meaningful poetry about God and eternity?" He left the question hanging uncomfortably on the Welsh air.
As we made our farewells, I said I hoped his ticker would behave itself. "Living on tick," he replied with a smile. The muse may have departed, but the wit remains.