You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales.
from ‘Welsh Landscape’
The first poem I ever read by R S Thomas was nearly forty years ago. It was ‘On the Farm’:
On the Farm
There was Dai Puw. He was no good.
They put him in the fields to dock swedes,
And took the knife from him, when he came home
At late evening with a grin
Like the slash of a knife on his face.
There was Llew Puw, and he was no good.
Every evening after the ploughing
With the big tractor he would sit in his chair,
And stare into the tangled fire garden,
Opening his slow lips like a snail.
There was Huw Puw, too. What shall I say?
I have heard him whistling in the hedges
On and on, as though winter
Would never again leave those fields,
And all the trees were deformed.
And lastly there was the girl:
Beauty under some spell of the beast.
Her pale face was the lantern
By which they read in life's dark book
The shrill sentence: God is love.
I have no idea what the teacher had to say about it but I have never been able to shake the uncomfortable feeling I get when I read it. It’s set in Wales but with a slight readjustment, a name change here and there, and it would work just as well in Arkansas or West Virginia. The teacher may not have even told us that Thomas was Welsh because I know she told us nothing about Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin or Wilfred Owen; everything I learned about their lives I had to learn for myself afterwards and some of it I wish I hadn’t.
I have mixed feelings about needing to know stuff about a writer or an artist or a composer to appreciate their work. Yes, knowing that R S Thomas was Welsh enhances the experience but the simple fact is he’s talking about poor folk, peasants if you want a more romantic term, and there are peasants the world over. I know nothing about Arkansas or West Virginia but I read the poem to my wife and asked her where in America it could be set and those were her first choices.
So I never knew that a priest had written this. That would have certainly affected my reading of the piece. If only to confuse me. If God is love, as the Bible tells me so, then what have the Puws to do with God? In an article in Poetry Wales, John Pikoulis says this:
It is an uncomfortably ironic moment. If God is love, then the Puws are his Forsterian 'ou-boum'.
The echo in a Marabar cave is entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. 'Boum' is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or 'bououm', or 'ou-boum,' — utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce 'boum'. Coming at a moment when [Mrs. Moore] chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur: 'Pathos, piety, courage — they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.' If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same — 'ou-boum.'.
I’ve read this over several times but I’m still not sure what Pikoulis is getting at exactly. What proof do the Puws have that God is love? If I’m reading it right then everything around is an expression of God’s love whatever its form, be it deformed like the trees or the minds of the men or perfectly formed like the girl who I have always assumed was their sister. As Patrick Kavanagh might put it: “God's truth is life - even the grotesque shapes of his foulest fire.” I’ll come back to him. They are all evidence but the evidence is meaningless as the voice that said, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again,” which the Jews heard as thunder.
I couldn’t articulate it at the time what struck me about this poem was exactly the same thing that had struck me about ‘Mr. Bleaney’, although if I’m being honest I have no idea which one I heard first. It’s the sense of being led by the poet up to a precipice of understanding and being left. I didn’t understand ‘On the Farm’ when I first read it and I have little doubt that any explanation from the teacher would have been inadequate, superficial at least. This is less a criticism of her and more a criticism of the education system at the time.
So I was left and “[w]hat does a man do with his silence, his aloneness, but suffer the sapping of unanswerable questions?”
The next time I expect I ran across R S Thomas it would have been in an anthology of 20th century verse. I remember once I’d left school plodding through various collections trying to find poets to connect with. ‘Evans’ was the next poem to strike me:
Evans? Yes, many a time
I came down his bare flight
Of stairs into the gaunt kitchen
With its wood fire, where crickets sang
Accompaniment to the black kettle’s
Whine, and so into the cold
Dark to smother in the thick tide
Of night that drifted about the walls
Of his stark farm on the hill ridge.
It was not the dark filling my eyes
And mouth appalled me; not even the drip
Of rain like blood from the one tree
Weather-tortured. It was the dark
Silting the veins of that sick man
I left stranded upon the vast
And lonely shore of his bleak bed.
When I first read that I assumed it was a doctor leaving Evans’ house, going down the stairs and out the door into the night. Knowing what I know of Thomas now I can see that it’s more than likely this was a pastoral visit and it’s Thomas himself that’s leaving. His visit has brought the man cold comfort. I never noticed the religious symbolism but I doubt I was looking for it. It was a poem just like ‘Mr. Bleaney’. Bleaney is not the true subject of the poem even though he’s pretty much all the narrator talks about and Evans is not the true subject here, not really; he just happens to be the poor sod lying on his deathbed facing eternity.
The poem is Beckettian. I didn’t make the connection at the time. Had I then I might have made more of an effort to learn more about him. Sadly years went by without me stumbling across more than a handful of poems and it was only after his death that I began reading him. And what do you know, apart from the Puws and Evans there were others, Walter Llywarch, Job Davies and one in particular: Iago Prytherch.
If you’re not Welsh then a name like Iago Prytherch sounds exotic; it’s not. Iago apparently is simply a cognate of James. Welsh surnames are relatively few in number, but they have an inordinately large number of spellings. Prytherch is a variant of Prothero. So it’s a fairly common Welsh name, a suitable name for the common man because Iago is not one particular person. He makes his first appearance in 1942 in one of Thomas’s earliest poems and we’re left in no doubt as to what Iago Prytherch is because he writes “this is your prototype” this “ordinary man” and for twenty years he kept finding his way into Thomas’s poetry.
Thomas was to write more than twenty poems about Iago Prytherch, a character who can easily be (and has often been) seen simultaneously, as his protagonist and antagonist, his personal persona, even as a kind of alter ego.
Iago was “an amalgam of some farmers [he] used to see at work on the Montgomeryshire hillsides." Manafon wasn’t Thomas’s first parish. He first served in the border parishes of Chirk and Hanmer and probably had as romantic a view of Wales as most non-Welsh do, rolling hills populated with male voice choirs. Manafon really opened his eyes. It was “a rite de passage it clearly was, involving the rude awakening of an innocent, sentimental, cossetted, romantic bourgeois to the harsh and sometimes cruel facts of life on the upland farms.” And with those eyes wide open he presents a very unromantic portrait of the Welsh countryside and the people dwelling in it. Iago is not a noble peasant (a character type that runs through most of E M Forster’s work, coincidentally), no; nor is he a poet fallen on hard times (like Beckett’s Estragon). He even admits his ignorance:
I am Prytherch. Forgive me. I don't know
What you are talking about; your thoughts flow
Too swiftly for me; I cannot dawdle
Along their banks and fish in their quick stream
With crude fingers. I am alone, exposed
In my own fields with no place to run
From your sharp eyes. I
from ‘Invasion on the Farm’
Like most things he cared about Thomas is often ambivalent when it comes to Iago. At times we have him presented as a dimwit:
Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire,
There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind
from ‘A Peasant’
and yet when you start to compare all the ‘Iago Prytherch’ poems what one is forced to realise is that this is less of an extended character study that a continual reassessing of his common man persona. By 1961 we have a very different picture of the man:
And Prytherch – was he a real man,
Rolling his pain day after day
Up life's hill? Was he a survival
Of a lost past, wearing the times'
Shabbier casts-off, refusing to change
His lean horse for the quick tractor?
Or was a wish to have him so
Responsible for his frayed shape?
Could I have said he was a scholar
Of the fields’ pages he turned more slowly
Season by season, or nature’s fool,
Born to blur with his moist eye
The clear passages of a book
You came to finger with deft touch?
From a brainless peasant he’s suddenly become a Welsh Sisyphus rejecting progress, rejecting the present in favour of a better past. Thomas’s view of the common man did change over the years. In 1955 he published what basically amounts to an apology:
Prytherch, man, can you forgive
From your stone altar on which the light’s
Bread is broken at dusk and dawn
One who strafed you with thin scorn
From the cheap gallery of his mind?
Thomas had arrived in Manafon an intellectual, a bit of a snob. His son maintains that he continued as one throughout his life, nevertheless, as he continued his journey westward (stopping only when he reached the sea) he did mellow somewhat and maybe that’s what we see in the poetry. Who says a man can’t change his mind?
For all his life Thomas was bitterly opposed to mechanisation. We see Cynddylan on a tractor in the poem of the same name but not poor Iago. And yet Thomas could see the future. He knew that there was no way the Iagos of this world were going to stand on their own. Finally he would have to sell up and work for someone else:
But look at yourself
Now, a servant hired to flog
The life out of the slow soil,
Or come obediently as a dog
To the pound’s whistle. Can’t you see
Behind the smile on the times’ face
The cold brain of the machine
That will destroy you and your race.
from ‘Too Late’
Twenty-five years later in this simple poem it’s clear that Thomas believes we have seen the last of Wales’s Iagos:
And the machines say, laughing
up what would have been sleeves
in the old days: ‘We are at
your service.’ ‘Take us’, we cry,
‘to the places that are far off
from yourselves.’ And so they do
at a price that is the alloy in
the thought that we cannot do without them.
I can understand why Thomas may not be as popular as his countryman of the same name, Dylan Thomas – everyone loves a rogue – but, for me, he’s the finer poet, not that Dylan Thomas is a bad poet; far from it.
Although Thomas’s poetry is rooted in Wales it has a universal appeal because the issues he talks about are ones people can relate to the world over. Iago Prytherch may be Thomas’s everyman but he has a literary predecessor: Paddy McGuire, in Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’:
Clay is the word and clay is the flesh
Where the potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move
Along the side-fall of the hill - Maguire and his men.
If we watch them an hour is there anything we can prove
Of life as it is broken-backed over the Book
from ‘The Great Hunger’
During his lifetime, Kavanagh earned the reputation of a “peasant poet,” an epithet he disliked because it failed to acknowledge the originality and quality of his verse, but rather focused on his being a self-taught poet from rural Ireland. When I think of the word ‘peasant’ I think of those idealised posters from the era of Russian Communism, men and women with heads uplifted staring into the distance. Communism preached equality for all but in reality its working force was very poor and the way it coped was by asking its people to change their attitude towards their poverty. I see Thomas in a similar light. He expected the peasants in his congregation who sometimes fell asleep during his sermons out of pure exhaustion to learn to be happy with their lot in life:
is not with the machine;
it is a turning aside,
a bending over a still pool.
“Without the peasant base civilisation must die,” wrote Kavanagh, “only one remove from the beasts he drives.” Thomas wrote something similar: “moving through the fields ... with a beast’s gait” and
The day I saw you loitering with the cows,
Yourself one of them but for the smile
All of which makes me feel in many ways Thomas was a bit naïve. You can’t turn your back on progress and hope it will go away. I’m also not entirely convinced that Wales was as important to him as people might imagine. He was concerned with bigger issues. The English intrusion was symbolic of the modern world’s intrusion into the pastoral. It was a convenient cause. This does not mean he wasn’t passionate because he clearly was. In fact he’s infamous as being the pacifist who appeared to condone the fire-bombing of English holiday homes by the Sons of Glyndŵr ("Even if one Englishman got killed, what is that compared to the killing of our nation?"). Statements like that obviously muddy the waters.
He embraced Welshness as a buttress against modernity. It was a means to a greater end. It was not the natural response of a native to a threat to his or her cultural habitat, but rather the more complex response of a cultured individual seeking a barrier to perceived barbarism. The central text for this anti-modern attitude in his work is his lecture Abercuawg, his most extended transcendental vision, where he expresses doubt as to whether a modern world would be worth sacrificing for.
Thomas writes hard, uncharitable poems. He also writes direct, accessible poetry. Yes, there are layers and a religious upbringing may help you with the subtext but even a superficial reading of his poetry can be inspiring. Certainly if you want to learn how to write poetry he should be on your list of poets to study. Before anything else he was a poet. You can see that here in the opening to this poem:
I often call there.
There are no poems in it
for me. But as a gesture
of independence of the speeding
traffic I am a part
‘There are no poems in it / for me’ says everything. It’s at the forefront of his mind. Why should I go to Llananno? There are no poems to be found there. Clearly this is his first consideration before anything else. Am I going to get a poem out of this experience? If not, in what other way can I justify it? He had a gift. He was well aware of it. And I’m sure he would have considered it a sin to have such a gift and not make the most of it. Perhaps that’s what he was on about in this late poem. He doesn’t state explicitly that he’s talking about his ability to write and that makes it the better poem because everyone has their gift. The ‘You’ in the poem could be God, it could be your parents; it doesn’t matter.
Some ask the world
and are diminished
in the receiving
of it. You gave me
only this small pool
that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
me with sourceless light.
P.S. After posting my last article on Thomas, Davide Trame (who most of you will know from his comments on various sites as Tommaso Gervasutti because that's the name of his blog) contacted me to express his appreciation for the article since R S Thomas is probbaly his favourite poet. He included the following poem which I thought I'd share here:
In the relentless words at target
of a mind accurately kneeling,
acutely staring at the infinity of a face
advancing and receding,
you can see me too in my darkness,
in my pulsing silence. I jump for joy
because you have bared
the gnawed bone of my being
that is shining now thin and true,
the shout of a nerve in tune
with the grinding jewel
of your persistence.
A selection of poems online: poetryconnection.net
 Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and will glorify it again." The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. – John 12:28-29 (New International Version)
 R.S. Thomas' Collected Later Poems 1988-2000, p.21
 The Oxford Dictionary of Surnames gives 'Iago' as Welsh form of 'Jack', either (1) from Fr. Jacques < Lat. Jacobus or (2) from "a pet form of John, fr Low German and Dutch Jankin < Jan + the dim.sufix -in (The loss of the nasal was a regular development in Low Ger.)
 R S Thomas, 'Abercuawg', R.S.Thomas Selected Prose, edited by Sandra Anstey, p.126
 ‘The Last of the Peasantry’, Collected Poems: 1945-1990, p.66
 Grahame Davies, ‘Resident Aliens: R. S. Thomas and the Anti-Modern Movement’,
Welsh Writing in English: A Yearbook of Critical Essays 7 (2001-02): p.50-77