God can only be present in creation under the form of absence - Simone Weil
In his introduction to Thomas’s collection, Song at the Year’s Turning: Poems 1942–1954, the Poet Laureate John Betjeman wrote that "the 'name' which has the honour to introduce this fine poet to a larger public will be forgotten long before that of R S Thomas.” His literary executor, Professor Meurig Wynn Thomas, described him as “the Alexander Solzhenitsyn of Wales” and he was in fact eventually also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996 but lost out to Seamus Heaney. Forty years earlier Kingsley Amis said of Thomas’s work that it "reduces most modern verse to footling whimsy." whilst Amis’s friend, Philip Larkin, who, being of a cantankerous disposition himself one might have imagined would have more empathy, merely referred to him in his letters, rather uncharitably, as “our friend Arsewipe Thomas.” The papers nicknamed him the “Ogre of Wales” and it was a title he was perfectly capable of living up to. He even lived in a cave for a while, well it “was practically a cave made of four-foot-wide boulders, and here he wrote poetry 'with mould on his shoulders'. He ate baked potatoes with nothing on them, possibly preceded by a single glass of elderflower sherry.”
His 1500+ poems make him the most prolific British poet of the post-war period and yet I would not expect that many people to know him nowadays even though he only died ten years ago.
We all have different sides to our characters but I can imagine few people more conflicted than Ronald Stuart Thomas: the kindly misanthrope, the God-questioning priest, the fiercely Pro-Welsh CND supporter who glossed over nothing in his fiercely critical portraits of his parishioners. He was born into an Anglicised middle-class family in Cardiff but you’d never know that to listen to him: he spoke with a cut-glass English accent and didn’t learn to speak Welsh until in his late thirties when, in 1942, he became rector of Manafon, a predominately Welsh-speaking community; he never found he was able to write poetry in Welsh although he did produce several prose works, including his 1985 autobiography written in the third person. It was entitled Neb, which means "Nobody".
"There is no such thing as an Anglo-Welshman . . . you have to make a stand, and that is the stand I have chosen to make," he said, which is curious when, although educated in Wales himself he made sure his son, Gwydion, received a private education in England. I mentioned that he was a priest. He was a priest in the Church of Wales but don’t let the name deceive you. It is an Anglican Church, an established church, yes, but also a minority one especially in the rural provinces where he served and had to compete with “numerous rival, nonconformist churches and chapels. Thus, professionally, in his priestly role, Thomas was an outsider in Wales.”
He was a painfully shy man from all accounts who would dive behind a hedge rather than pass the time of day with one of his parishioners and yet delivered blood-and-thunder sermons from his pulpit, one of his favourite topics being the evils of domestic appliances; he refused to allow even a refrigerator in his house but didn’t seem to see the contradiction in his owning a Mini Clubman. They did send off for a vacuum cleaner once. "Makes a lot of noise, doesn't it?" Thomas remarked, and it was never used again. His son said:
As a vicar’s son I was obliged to attend church and to listen to him drone on about the evils of fridges. . . . [I]t was the Machine, you see. And washing machines. And televisions. This to a congregation that didn’t have any of these things and were longing for them.”
Thomas was married to his first wife, the English artist Martha Elsi Eldridge, for fifty-one years until she died in 1991. He was an unpublished poet when he met Elsie, but she already had the makings of a successful artist. After winning the Royal College of Art's Prix de Rome’s travelling scholarship and selling several paintings at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition she was poised for international success but instead chose to retreat with him to a succession of small cottages in ever more remote parts of North Wales; he ended his days living at the end of the Llŷn Peninsula, in one of the wildest and most isolated and most westerly parts of Wales. It was to be a curious marriage. Despite being the recipient of some of the finest love poetry (see ‘A Marriage’) she also had to endure his long silences. "There were, of course, weeks when nobody said anything in our house," their son is reported to have said. He also never demonstrated affection to her publicly.
Whilst getting on perfectly well, they seem to have lived somewhat separate lives, for she liked to stay at home and paint, whilst he liked to be out an about in the countryside, particularly bird watching, which was his greatest passion in life. There were no newspapers in their house, still less a television, and virtually no heating. Thomas himself was clearly something of a recluse, but his wife was a very private person as well. When she died a journalist asked him whether he missed his wife 'I suppose so' he replied. 'Was he lonely?' 'I was lonely when I was with her', he said.
One might imagine that the poetry written by a priest would be very God-centric and yet Thomas leaves much of his proselytising for the pulpit. In so many of his poems God is missing. This confuses many people.
A lot of people seem to be worried about how I combine my work as a poet and my work as a priest. This is something that never worried me at all. . . . [A]ny form of orthodoxy is just not part of a poet’s province . . . A poem must be able to claim . . . freedom to follow the vision of poetry, the imaginative vision of poetry. . . . And, in any case, poetry is religion, religion is poetry. The message of the New Testament is poetry. Christ was a poet, the New Testament is a metaphor, the Resurrection is a metaphor; and I feel perfectly within my rights as priest and as preacher as one who is to present poetry; and when I preach poetry I am preaching Christianity, and when one discusses Christianity one is discussing poetry in its imaginative aspects. The core of both are imagination as far as I’m concerned. . . . My work as a poet has to deal with the presentation of imaginative truth.
I’m no longer a religious person but I once tried to be and one of the things I struggled with was how I saw God. I read in the Bible:
For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.
This is something Thomas believed too, that evidence of God’s existence was all around us:
I take my place
by a lily-flower, believing
with Blake that when God comes
he comes sometimes by way
of the nostril.
which makes me think that people must model God on the world they see before them. Thomas looked for God in the bleak beauty of the Welsh countryside and I guess he found a bleak God there; there’s very little “God is love” to be found in his poetry. Nature is there in his poetry – for “Nature” you might want to read “God” – but he’s not someone that jumps to my mind as a nature poet, no babbling brooks nor hosts of golden daffodils.
Thomas finds the God of nature elusive, but when He reveals Himself, he does so through the natural world. God’s reflection, His shadow, and His echo exist in the Welsh hills. His influence there is both a presence and an absence (and, at times, an absence that is like a presence).
Wanting to see God is one thing. Expecting to see him is another. Actually “seeing” (as with the eyes of faith) something else. Thomas looked but didn’t always see:
I emerge from the mind’s
cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and
the Lord is in none of them.
I have heard the still, small voice
and it was that of bacteria
demolishing my cosmos. I
have lingered too long on
this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards
the light. To look forward? Ah,
what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.
I am left alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What
to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?
Elijah steps out of a literal cave and looks for God in the wind, in an earthquake and in fire but that’s not where he finds him. There is no doubt that Thomas is looking for God but the final image of him in the role of Michelangelo’s Adam with his hand stretched out waiting for that spark to bring faith to life is a rather sad one.
Despite the different tense, I see a similar situation with him smelling the lily and waiting to connect with the divine, to perceive God’s reflection in the natural world. I wonder if faith can exist without doubt. I don’t think so. Doubt has to be there as an option, an alternative.
Most of the time though it is not a “still, small voice” that he hears but nothing but:
that is his chosen medium
and frequently we have an image of the priest alone in his church:
There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
Thomas saw his role as a poet as being a translator, taking the silence and making it bearable:
There was a frontier
I crossed whose passport
was human speech. Looking back
was to silence, to that
wood of hands fumbling
for the unseen thing. I
named it and it was
here. I held out words
to them and they smelled
them. Space gave, time was
eroded. There was one being
would not reply.
So he tries to make him reply, to tell him his name. In the poem ‘The Combat’ Thomas uses as his metaphor the time when Jacob wrestles the angel, most likely the archangel Michael, also known as the Logos or the Word since he most often acts as God’s spokesman. After the struggle Jacob wants to know the angel’s name but he’s told it is too wonderful for him to understand. When Thomas talks about not knowing God’s name I have no doubt that he knows that it is often rendered as Yahweh or the Latinised Jehovah in many translations. That’s not the issue here. He wants God’s name to mean something to him personally. It’s like the names Franz Kafka or Adolf Hitler – these names mean something more than simply identifying a literary and an historical figure.
The image of the hand seeking and the quest for God’s name are brought together in the poem ‘The Hand’, the opening poem in Laboratories of the Spirit:
It was a hand. God looked at it
and looked away. There was a coldness
about his heart, as though the hand
But the hand wrestled with him. ‘Tell
me your name,’ it cried, ‘and I will write it
in bright gold.’
Up until now the poems I’ve quoted from all reveal a man searching. One might even go as far as to talk about a man whose faith is in crisis. I’m not sure how I would feel about a priest standing in a pulpit espousing the word of God knowing that he was still searching for ‘Him’. It wouldn’t fill me with confidence. You expect a man of God, so called, to have that under his hat by then. You expect to be able to go to that man and ask him perhaps not to prove to you there’s a God but at least to prove why he believes there is one.
There are other poems by Thomas that make one wonder though. Apparently the idea of becoming a priest was not his, it was his mother’s. His father was an officer in the merchant navy and so spent a lot of time away from his family affording his wife plenty of time to indoctrinate her son.
As he'd always freely admitted . . . 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.
His mother was certainly a major influence not only in his religious development but his emotional one too:
I don't think I'm a very loving person. 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 could say he was the victim of the same lovelessness. I tended to leave it to Elsi to give him that more demonstrative affection.
One of his earliest poems (1955), a paradigmatic one as far as much of his religious poetry goes, is this one:
In a Country Church
To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.
Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long,
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.
In 1972 we have this striking piece:
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.
And in 1978 he returns with a similar piece to ‘In a Country Church’:
The Empty Church
They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more
to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illuminated walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?
The Bible says, “Seek and you will find,” and yet here we have a man who has spent his entire life seeking and finding only where his God may have been. This is a major obstacle for so many. How can they see the one that is invisible? I suppose the real question when it comes to Thomas’s religious (and seemingly antireligious) poetry is: Is this some kind of poetry therapy? Beckett did not believe in God and yet his works (Waiting for Godot especially) are replete with Judaeo-Christian imagery because they were familiar to him (and would be to his public). It’s much easier to get someone to believe in God by not ramming religion down their throat, if that was his purpose in publishing his writing bearing his mind what he wrote about his reasons for writing it in the first place.
I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I think Thomas had a fairly unique approach to finding God. Via Negativa is Latin for “by way of what is not”, better known today as Apophatic theology.
Apophatic theology—also known as negative theology—is a theology that attempts to describe God by negation, to speak of God only in absolutely certain terms and to avoid what may not be said. In Orthodox Christianity, apophatic theology is based on the assumption that God's essence is unknowable or ineffable and on the recognition of the inadequacy of human language to describe God. – Orthodox Wiki
In simple terms then: God is the creator but all we have is the creation; it’s like reading my poems and trying to discern what I’m really like. This is why Thomas’s God is presented as a deus absentia, an absent god or perhaps merely a hidden one, a god who is always one step ahead of his followers in any case. (Is it too obvious here to mention Thomas’s own frequently absent father? And even when his father did return he became more and more distant as he grew increasingly deaf.)
I said that Thomas could be viewed as a translator but really what he’s attempting to do is translate the untranslatable. This is a philosophy more akin to Hinduism than Christianity:
In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Yajnavalkya is questioned by his students on the nature of God. He states, "It is not this and it is not that" (neti, neti). Thus, God is not real as we are real, nor is He unreal. He is not living in the sense humans live, nor is he dead. He is not compassionate (as we use the term), nor is he uncompassionate. And so on. We can never truly define the Divine in words. In this sense, neti-neti is not a denial. Rather, it is an assertion that whatever the Divine may be, universally or personally, when we attempt to conceptualize or describe it, we limit our transcendent experience of "it." – Wikipedia
When I first wrote that I had assumed that I was reading into Thomas’s poetry more than he perhaps intended but this is not the case. In interview he said quite plainly:
[W]e have been brought up on a Bible to believe that God is a Being, whereas the slightly more impersonal approach of Hindu thought, and Buddhistic thought for that matter, does give me a feeling that this is more what I am after.
It’s easy to misread a lot of Thomas’s writings. Take the kneeling for example. My first thought was that he was kneeling in prayer but perhaps not. He’s never had very much taste for prayer or 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. [Compare his poem ‘Kyrie’ here.]
I find prayer the most difficult aspect of religion. With the Lord's Prayer, I even have difficulty with the word Father. 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.
You would also do well to compare Thomas’s poem ‘Kneeling’ here.
“‘God moves in mysterious ways’ he often said ‘and putting a dog collar on R S Thomas was very mysterious indeed.’” He died when he was 87. The year before he gave an interview to The Telegraph where he was asked pointedly why “why the Almighty made 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.” Belief in God is not the end but the beginning though. Thomas believed in a god but what kind of god? Since God refused to talk to him what else was left to Thomas the poet other than to put words into God’s mouth?
And God said, I will build a church here
And cause this people to worship me,
And afflict them with poverty and sickness
In return for centuries of hard work
And its walls shall be hard as
Their hearts, and its windows let in the light
Grudgingly, as their minds do, and the priest’s words be drowned
By the wind’s caterwauling. All this I will do,
Said God, and watch the bitterness in their eyes
Grow, and their lips suppurate with
Their prayers. And their women shall bring forth
On my altar, and I will choose the best
Of them to be thrown back into the sea.
And that was only on one island.
There is something of a repetitiveness to Thomas’s religious poetry. He asks the same – or similar – questions over and over again. I get that. I don’t see it as a fault. I tackle the same themes again and again because I always feel I can do a bit better the next time, nudge that bit closer to the truth.
His religious poetry was not what first drew me to Thomas. As with most poets I’ve encountered it was a single poem, one we were handed out as school, ‘On the Farm’. This had a similar effect on me to ‘Mr. Bleaney’ and is a poem that always unsettles me. It is typical of the poems of his middle period which deal with the Welsh peasantry he spent so much time with. Maybe I’ll talk about Iago Prytherch, Walter Llywarch, Job Davies, Evans and Cynddylan on his tractor some other time though.
John Pikoulis Martin Roberts, ‘R.S. Thomas's Existential Agony’, Poetry Wales, Vol. 29, No 1 (July 1993)
Greg Hill, R S Thomas: Metaphor and Simile, Hill’s Chronicle
Ephraim Radner, Passing Through Hard Facts: The Poetry of R.S. Thomas
R S Thomas website
Poetry Foundation R S Thomas page (contains links to several poems)
 Feb. 20, 1962, letter to Robert Conquest: “Our friend Arsewipe Thomas suddenly was led into my room one afternoon last week, and stood there without moving or speaking: he seems pretty hard going. Not noticeably Welsh, which is one comfort.” (See also Patrick Kurp, ‘I’m Tempted to Let Him Rot’.)
 Mark Jarman, Praying and Bird Watching: The Life of R S Thomas: “One widely published photograph of him, leaning out of the half door of his last home, Sarn, in Aberdaron, on the Lleyn Peninsula, led him to be dubbed ‘The Ogre of Wales.’”
 Mildred Elsie – she dropped the final ‘e’ from her middle name after getting married in deference to her husband's Welsh aspirations and he called her ‘Elsi’.
 Rt Rev Lord Harries of Pentregarth, ‘Christianity and Literature: The paradoxes of R S Thomas’ – transcript of a lecture given in Gresham College on 5th March 2009
 Romans 1:20, New Living Translation
 R.S. Thomas, ‘Retired,’ Mass for Hard Times, p.23.
 1 John 4:16 – God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
 Daniel Westover, ‘A God of Grass and Pen: R.S. Thomas and the Romantic Imagination’, North American Journal of Welsh Studies, Vol. 3, 2 (Summer 2003)
 1 Kings 19:12 – And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
 R.S. Thomas, ‘Threshold,’ Between Here and Now, p.110
 R.S. Thomas, ‘The New Mariner,’ Between Here and Now, p.99
 R.S. Thomas, ‘In Church’, Collected Poems, p.180
 R.S. Thomas, ‘One Way,’ Between Here and Now, p.95
 Judges 13:17 – He replied, "Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding." New International Version
 Matthew 7:7 – Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you, New International Version
 Hebrews 11:27 – By faith Moses left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.