Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

R. S. Thomas: The Anglican Compromise

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

R. S. Thomas: The Anglican Compromise

Article excerpt

RS. Thomas (RST) was both a poet of international renown and a clergyman. A forthright campaigner against what he saw as the .submerging of Welsh culture and language beneath an English tide, he also developed a reputation for religious verse which stretched the envelope of faith almost to breaking point. (1) This focused attention on the supposed conflict between his roles as priest and poet. This essay argues that the conflict between his acerbic Welsh nationalism and his calling to the specifically Anglican ministry of the Church in Wales, with its burden of English language and culture, was as great a tension for him, but one which is overlooked. It asks why RST did not choose to exercise his ministry in the more acceptable context of a Welsh-speaking Nonconformist denomination, finding the answer partly in his fierce desire for intellectual freedom and in his aesthetic appreciation of the Anglican heritage.

RST was a clergyman and a major poet whose dominating concerns were Welsh cultural nationalism and humanity's relationship with God. International recognition came in 1995 when he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His life was shot through with contradiction, which in his hands became the fertile soil in which much of his poetry was rooted. (2) He inhabited a space between two cultures, the English into which he was born and the Welsh to which he aspired. "Invitation" (H'm) finds him weighing the attractions of traditional Welsh rural society against the rich opportunities of English commerce, and failing to make a choice. This was a painful position which left him a compromised campaigner, feeling that he existed outside Welsh-language culture. RST's cultural hero, Saunders Lewis, reminded him that art is born of such tensions. Christopher Morgan concludes that the young RST took these words to heart and through his poetry deliberately explored "that tension of 'inbetweenness,'" not seeking resolution but probing the quality of "woundedness" (4). RST's many contradictions and his frequent sharp criticism of his fellow countrymen ensured that he remained "an outsider in Wales" (Davis 19): if Morgan is correct, it could not have been otherwise.

RST developed a reputation as an unsentimental campaigner for Welsh identity, particularly against encroaching anglicization--both linguistically and culturally. At the same time, he was all too aware of the inconsistency of his own position as a Welshman creating English-language poetry, and this undoubtedly sharpened his zeal. Deep into retirement, two published lectures (both in English) reveal that this was still on his conscience (Thomas 1992; Thomas 1996). Anglo-Welsh authors are roundly condemned in his essay "The Creative Writer's Suicide." Elsewhere, he contends that so-called Anglo-Welsh literature is a "no-man's land" which contributes to English culture: for a Welsh-language writer to write in English is "suicide"; "they have sinned against their own nation" (Thomas 1952, reprinted in Anstey 1986 52). RST must have questioned, in his secret heart, whether leading worship in the "thin language" was not at least equally as critical to the very survival of the Welsh nation. Yet, he continued to commit both atrocities (as he saw them) on a weekly, if not a daily, basis.

RST was not just implacable towards English holidaymakers and incomers, or towards Anglo-Welsh writers. In "Those Others" (Ta) he writes, "Hate takes a long time / To grow in, and mine / Has increased from birth." "Hate" is a strong word, and one which some would not expect from a clergyman. The reader is shocked to find.

   This hate's for my own kind,
   For men of the Welsh race
   Who brood with dark face
   Over their thin navel
   To learn what to sell.

The crime of these Welsh-speakers is their willingness to make a living from tourists: in RST's eyes that, with the related necessity of speaking English, undermines the already-fragile culture. …

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