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Wising Up, Dressing Down

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R.S. Thomas

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R.S. Thomas

Edward Mackinnon's third collection, 'Heartland Germany'

Edward Mackinnon's second collection, 'Killing Time in Arcadia'

Edward MacKinnon's first collection, 'Wising Up, Dressing Down'

R.S. Thomas’s Adjectives

The obituaries of R.S. Thomas, who died in 2000, invariably spoke of his “bleak poetry”. Indeed, “bleak” and similar adjectives provide a suitable starting-point for an examination of Thomas’s work.

Let us look some of these adjectives (the nouns they describe in the poems are given in brackets):

bleak (farmsteads, bed, face), bare (hill, moor, flight of stairs, floor, knuckles), gaunt (sky, houses, kitchen), cracked (hulk, doors, lips, nails), gnarled (hands, thighs), pale (leaves, face, body), stark (farm), bald (hills, stone), hard (sky), stern (soil), dank (walls, hand of age), mouldering (quarries), crude (earth), bitter (moorland), savage (skulls), smirched (snow)

All these adjectives, suggestive of austerity, harshness and decay, appear in R.S. Thomas’s poetry of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. They describe the landscape, its dwellings and its inhabitants. During these decades the poetry is mainly about the land- and humanscape of Wales that Thomas celebrates and laments. Thereafter his poetry becomes more abstract and philosophical, his concern with religious faith more self-orientated. And these typical adjectives tend to disappear from the poems.

The rural Welsh landscape that the poetry describes is harsh, its inhabitants – hillside farmers – unprepossessing and uncouth. There is a love-hate – or more accurately a fascination-revulsion –relationship between the priest-poet Thomas and his parishioners, the “men of the hills” with their “sweaty females”, “curt and graceless” people whose “spittled mirth” is “rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks/ of the gaunt sky ....”. They “affront, bewilder, yet compel” the poet’s gaze. Though almost bestial in his lack of refinement, the hill farmer portrayed by Thomas is a “prototype”, “a man like you”, a lean, spare creature whose “strength is a mockery/of the pale words in the black Book”.

The decline of these people’s way of life that the poet laments is captured in the metaphor of people and farm dwellings trickling down the hillsides (though rather than the more common “hillside” the poet emphasises the elemental presence of the landscape by using “hill’s side”/ “hills’ side”):

“the holding where Puw lived/Once, wrapping the language/About him, watching the trickle/Of his children down the hill’s side” (Loyalties);
“the smashed faces/ Of the farms with the stone trickle/Of their tears down the hills’ side” (Reservoirs)

“Wrapping the language about him” – as well as depopulation, then, Thomas is addressing the issue of the Welsh language. This is at the heart of his concern with the national question.

Wales is “a dead nation”, with “the smell of decay”, “a place where it is lovely to die”; the English are “elbowing our language into the grave we have dug for it”. The tone becomes increasingly bitter: “Anything to/ sell? cries the tourist/to the native rummaging among/the remnants of his self-respect”.

So much – in brief! – for the first phase of R.S. Thomas’s poetry. As for the second phase, from the 1970s until his death in 2000, including his prolific last decade that accounts for a third of his oeuvre, I will be even briefer.

As already stated, this poetry is more abstract and philosophical and less concerned with the people of “the bald Welsh hills”.

In a poem from the 1980s that describes a Welsh landscape, Moorland, we still find “the bare earth”, but otherwise the physical world is “beautiful and still”. The picture is no longer one of scarcely relieved harshness. Nor is it peopled any more. Instead the poet describes a bird of prey, a harrier. The creature is “hovering over the incipient/ scream, here a moment, then/not here, like my belief in God”. A poem about the Welsh landscape is now more “metaphysical” and more self-referential. But a certain bleakness is still in evidence. And beauty too.

It seems that R.S. Thomas was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature but lost out to Seamus Heaney. Hmmm ..... Philip Roth has also been ignored by the Nobel committee. Too bleak perhaps?

[My essay on Sorley MacLean also contains a brief comparison between MacLean and R.S. Thomas.]