R.S. Thomas,
edited by Anthony Thwaite,
The Poetry of R.S. Thomas
(Everyman, 1997)

Welshman R.S. Thomas's poetry is marked by several enduring themes; most striking is his fascination with the harsh, bleak landscape of rural Wales and how this has shaped the character of her people. His work also displays huge compassion for the old and weak, his grief at his wife's death, his own struggle over God's existence and his despair at the Welsh people's complicity in allowing their language and culture to decline over the last century.

Thomas was hailed by the wider world as one of the purest and most consistent poets of the last century. Because of his sometimes-brutal portrayal of his fellow countrymen, Thomas found it hard to earn the Welsh people's respect during his lifetime. Born in Cardiff, he trained for the clergy in Llandaff and Bangor, teaching himself Welsh in order to communicate with his remote rural parishioners in their native tongue. However, all his poetry was written in English, and this small volume is a perfect example of the breadth of his work.

Thomas's style is brutally direct, even bitter -- he is unsparing in his desire to describe things as he sees them. In "Reservoirs," he condemns the Welsh people's cultural suicide: "Where can I go, then, from the smell/Of decay, from the putrefying of a dead/Nation? I have walked the shore/For an hour and seen the English/Scavenging among the remains/Of our culture, covering the sand/Like the tide and, with the roughness/Of the tide, elbowing our language/Into the grave that we have dug for it."

In "A Priest to His People," he hits even harder at the amorality and the atheism that surrounds him: "Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales/With your sheep and your pigs and your ponies, your sweaty females/How I have hated you for your irreverence, your scorn even/Of the refinements of art and the mysteries of the Church." Yet Thomas" concern for his parishioners, particularly the old, the lonely and the weak, consistently shines through. In "The Airy Tomb," Tomos' unremarkable life and lonely death are described with astonishing compassion: "No, no, you must face the fact/Of his long life alone in that crumbling house/With winds rending the joints." In "Death of a Peasant", the description of death in isolation is even more starkly matter of fact (and thereby more moving): "You remember Davies? He died, you know/With his face to the wall, as the manner is/Of the poor peasant in his stone croft/On the Welsh hills."

Thomas's portrayal of landscape in "The Welsh Hill Country" is bluntly honest, and he tears to shreds the picture postcard image beloved of the tourist: "Too far for you to see/The fluke and the foot-rot and the fat maggot/Gnawing the skin from the small bones/The sheep are grazing at Bwlch-y-Fedwen/Arranged romantically in the usual manner/On a bleak background of bald stone." His struggle with his spiritual beliefs was never more evident than in "The Absence," in which he writes: "It is this great absence/that is like a presence, that compels/me to address it without hope/of a reply."

Whichever of R.S. Thomas's poems you choose to read, you will be struck by their sheer honesty and directness, and you cannot fail to be moved by the devastating impact of his words.

- Rambles
written by Debbie Koritsas
published 22 November 2003

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