Praying and Bird Watching: The Life of R. S. Thomas

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Praying and Bird Watching: The Life of R. S. Thomas

IT IS REMARKABLE TO FIND A CONTEMPORARY POET who can honestly claim a kinship with Robinson Jeffers, without wishing to make Jeffers or himself into someone less austere or less forbidding. Jeffers' descendants have included William Everson who embraced a Christianity that Jeffers could not, Gary Snyder who has seen Jeffers as an environmentalist like himself, and Czeslaw Milosz who was attracted to his moral rigor but repelled by his philosophy of inhumanism. It is hard to take Jeffers pure; he has to be diluted by some humanity. So it is remarkable that a Welsh Anglican priest and poet, after spending a lifetime in the windtorn, rocky parishes of his country, claimed a kinship with Jeffers. But so Ronald Stuart Thomas' biographer Byron Rogers reports toward the end of his fragmented, tonally odd, and finally unsympathetic life of R. S. Thomas.1 Rogers quotes a 1999 interview, in which, asked if he loved God, Thomas said, "'I've been much influenced ... by the American poet Robinson Jeffers, who says somewhere, 'the people who talk of God in human terms, think of that!'" Considering the life as Rogers tells it, but also as Thomas himself tells it in several autobiographical essays, one understands the claim. The poetry helps, too. For Jeffers God could never be grasped in human terms, and that this attitude influenced a modern poet-priest is notable. One wishes Rogers himself had known more about Jeffers; if he had, he might have better understood his subject.

The Welsh poet R. S. Thomas was born in Cardiff, in southern Wales, in 1913, the son of a merchant seaman, and died in 2000, while living at the end of the Lleyn Peninsula, in one of the wildest and most isolated and most westerly parts of Wales. His happiest childhood memories were of living in Holyhead, in northwestern Wales, and his life seems to have been governed by a desire to re-create the experience of growing up on the Irish Sea, in an area known for its migratory birds. When he died in his late eighties, he had been retired from the Anglican clergy for over twenty years, but during his time as a priest he had served a handful of small parishes in Wales, moving ever westward in search of native Welsh speakers, birds, and the sea. In his own autobiography, written in Welsh and called Neb or "No One," he refers to his ecclesiastical career as insignificant. But from 1946, when he self-published his first volume of poetry, until the last book to appear during his lifetime in 1995, he published over two dozen individual volumes and collections of his poetry, several prose memoirs, and edited anthologies of country verse, religious verse, and selections of Edward Thomas, George Herbert, and Wordsworth. By the end of his life, he was closely and even notoriously associated with Welsh nationalism and declined to condemn the burning of English summer homes by arsonists in the Welsh countryside. He was of the generation of Dylan Thomas, in fact a year older than Dylan, but seems in his person and his poetry to have been the more famous Welshman's opposite. Where Dylan is ecstatically lyrical, R. S. is stoic and flinty. Where Dylan extends the music of the English lyric to meet his own rich, baritone voice, R. S., who spoke with a cut-glass English accent all his life, prefers the direct, dry utterance that is reminiscent of no one so much as late Robinson Jeffers. Where Dylan can never be mistaken as American, R. S. sounds as if he has channeled an American music via the stormy Gulf Stream that curved past his cottage door. And where Dylan lived a life of excess and died of it, R. S.'s life was as ascetic as Thoreau's, albeit with the longevity of an Aaron Copland or Robert Frost. When he died, many considered R. S. Thomas the literary equal of Dylan Thomas. What the biography makes clear is that there is very little to tell, for it is a life with few events and a determined avoidance of glamour and the spotlight, with an insistence on privacy that makes Philip Larkin seem like a party animal. …