Why the Most Famous Welsh Poet Writes in English
Markham, Rosemary, Contemporary Review
TO a poet, words are volunteers. R. S. Thomas has said that he writes to satisfy 'my own personal quest for enlightenment. I work out in a poem my way towards the truth', ('Language, Exile, a Writer and the Future', talk given by R. S. Thomas to the Welsh Union of Writers in 1987, transcript in The Works, issue No. 1, 1988). Poetry being so crucial -- an incarnation of the soul, as he quotes from Wordsworth in the same talk -- then his writing in English is an enterprise his psyche allows if not commands, otherwise it would come up with measures impairing the vital current. It would send out directives making it impossible for him to write in English. The directives, though, are the other way.
Welsh is not invited into the kitchen of his inner self -- to turn upside down one of his own illustrations. Welsh is all right for campaigns and meetings, and it can sit in the front parlour, 'a vacuum/ I found myself in, full of echoes/ of dead languages', (Pluperfect). So Thomas on occasion, in one of his several personas (role-playing is a recurring theme), sits with it, complaining that his work in English is a wound the English have inflicted, (see discussion following talk). But 'recuperating endlessly' (Aleph), he knows this wound is partly self-inflicted. It is the symptom of a basic inner condition, an accord with the situation. God 'has the universe/ to be abroad in', (The Presence) and he has the English language, the nearest he can get to universally 'worrying the ear/ of the passer-by' (The New Mariner). In fact, for poetry, his resistance to Welsh must be quite strong, he being an inspirational rather than a systematic poet.
He has always been his own puzzle, 'lonely', (The Word); complex, 'This that I am/ now -- too many labourers', (Careers); and conscious of 'his quarrel with himself', (Echoes Return Slow, p.112). In consequence, his work has tension, as Saunders Lewis remarked, while the focus of his anger, irony, puzzlement or interest slides about. The poetry up to the late sixties (Selected Poems 1946-1968 is a representative selection), records phases of near-aggressive Welsh nationalism oscillating to hate that 'takes a long time/ To grow in, and mine/ Has increased from birth;/ . . . This hate's for my own kind,/ For men of the Welsh race', (Those Others). He likes the Welsh when they contribute to the recommending character he makes out of them -- high cheek-boned, poetical, with a long history. But there is a big contraction in his sympathy when he sees them acquisitive, sick with inbreeding, or of course not answering in Welsh when he has addressed them in it. The tone of some of his appraisals of 'these Weishies' can be very cynical.
Being 'not sure of where I belonged', (Echoes Return Slow, p.29 -- this volume, first published 1988, contains poems and prose-poems from every period), Thomas some fifty years ago attempted to find a position by working among Welsh hill farmers whom he saw as participatory in divine law. This tall, questing cleric went about their fields and farms, his very physique somehow asserting itself in the poetry. A dilemma was their non-reactive behaviour: 'Blind? Yes, and deaf, and dumb, and the last irks most', (Enigma), no glib tongues boasting ancient country lore nor disclosing embryonic thought. Thomas yearned for conversation but was thwarted. Worse, modern life had these farmers clinging to a doomed lifestyle. Their position was being eroded. He recorded and so acknowledged this social change and in this way, as well as by himself writing in English, he implicitly challenged the adequacy of sitting tight in the Welsh language and old ways.
At the same time, emotionally, he resisted change. He willed himself into being Wales-orientated because he enjoyed and enjoys having a flag to fly and because he is always searching for specificity of identity. But he is so catholic in his tastes and inclinations that he swells and spreads out like a tidal wave beyond any sort of limitation. …