NWR Issue 101

A Turbulent Priest

Some years ago an influential study was published under the title Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Writers of the past rely on us to grant them a new lease of life on earth. In return, we require them humbly to serve the needs of our present, vastly different though it may be from theirs. The question ‘Is RS Thomas Our Contemporary?’ is therefore very likely to be the one implicit in most of the celebrations marking this the centenary of his birth. Time’s provincials as we are, any suggestion that he is no longer ‘fit for purpose’ is likely to seal his fate for the foreseeable future.

But great writing of the past has more to offer us than a mirror to our narcissistic preoccupations. It possesses a mysterious power to bear living witness to experiences significantly different from our own yet undeniably human. It is thus a storehouse of human potentialities that, as Raymond Williams wisely observed, we would be well advised to cherish, if only because ‘we can never be sure in advance’ what our needs may be in the future. However, Williams added, we need help to appreciate this harvest of the past, because ‘like new ways of seeing, old ways must be actively learned.’

Although it’s only a dozen years since he died, ‘RS’ has more of the past in him than we might suppose. Who would have thought that he was born a year before the Great War? Or that he was older by one year than Dylan Thomas, who began his slow fade into history almost half a century before RS’ passing? And how many today realize that RS Thomas was actually seven years older than the church he was faithfully to serve as priest for over forty years? How many, moreover, remember that he chose to retire a few years before his time? Ever but a ‘turbulent priest’, he had never really forgiven the disestablished Church in Wales, still newly ‘independent’ when he was ordained, for its failure to break decisively with the Anglocentric British state of which it was no longer an official organ.

That failure on its part was for him acutely manifest in its failure to reconnect, after a century of anglicised estrangement, with its original Welshness. Introducing Thomas for the first time to ‘mainstream’ English writers in 1955, John Betjeman implicitly portrayed him, for all his ‘peculiar Welshness’, as essentially an English country priest, the latest in a genial line of parson poets stretching back to George Crabbe. He was, in fact, nothing of the sort. Rather, he was consciously the heir of the Hen Bersoniaid Llengar (Old Literary Clerics), and therefore of the visionary company of bishops, vicars and rectors who, ever since the Tudor foundation of the Church of England, had helped engineer the survival of the Welsh-language culture native to their country.

These were revered, and not merely reverend. Over time, their names and their deeds came to assume for him the form, and to serve the purpose, of a kind of cultural rosary: William Morgan and his magisterial Welsh Bible; the first Welsh hymnal of Edmwnd Prys; Vicar Prichard with his popular homiletic verses; that masterpiece of mythic Welsh historiography, Drych y Prif Oesoedd, by Theophilus Evans; the searing visionary satire of that most tragic of literary parsons, Goronwy Owen; Gruffydd Jones and his pioneering education work with Sunday schools; Ieuan Brydydd Hir’s heroic salvage operation, tramping the country to rescue what little survived of medieval Wales’ golden treasury of barddas; ‘Carnhuanawc’, cultural guru to Lady Charlotte Guest and ‘true begetter’ of her [:Mabinogion].

And when RS Thomas first became rector of Manafon in 1942 it must have seemed as if Providence itself, no less, had ordained him to reanimate this glorious tradition. Because who had preceded him in his holy office at that very spot a century and a half earlier but Gwallter Mechain (baptised plain Walter Davies), poet, editor, antiquary, amateur scholar, and prominent member of the group of ‘Hen Bersoniaid Llengar’. But disillusionment swiftly followed, as RS began to register that his new parish was as anglicised in outlook as it was English in speech – and in both these respects a microcosm of the Church in Wales of his time.

Beautiful though it is, ‘Country Church (Manafon)’ is an early distillation of his disappointment, to be movingly felt in the quiet paradox of a building he sees as sturdily ‘built from the river stone’ and yet ‘Brittle with light, as though a breath could shatter / Its slender frame, or spill the limpid water / Quiet as sunlight, cupped within the bone.’ There is the unmistakeable hint of the communion cup in that final image. And communion there certainly was, for him, to be experienced there – communion not only between man and God but also between himself and the ancient Celtic origins of ‘his’ church. Because in emphasising how the building has, in its elemental simplicity, been ‘river fashioned / With so smooth care’, he is converting it from an ‘English’ parish church to an indigenous Llan in a tradition stretching back to the Celtic saints of the earliest Christian centuries. But no sooner has he accomplished this miracle of cultural transposition than he finds the reality of the contemporary parish of his care breaking in on his dream. This is a building threatened by its hostile current surroundings: ‘no friendly God has cautioned / The brimming tides of fescue for its sake.’

Contemporary Manafon could have made no sense of Gwallter Mechain, even had it ever heard of him. And so, when RS made his distant predecessor the subject of a poem decades later, he made of it an implicit elegy for his own younger dreams, for his Church and for himself. His Mechain, too, lived on the very edge of his nerves, as believer, as priest, and as cultural nationalist. ‘He was high up, as / they called it, the peasantry / perpendicularly glancing, / unable to scale him.’ RS accompanied him on his ‘weekly climb / into the crow’s nest of his pulpit, / telling them of the glimpsed land, // trying to believe in it / himself.’ And his Pisgah vision could only be regarded as a kind of cultural oxymoron, as he lit ‘Welsh / confidently on its way backward / to an impending future.’

By the time that poem was published, in 1990, RS was through as a priest of the Church in Wales. Behind him lay the spiritual wreck of his Eglwys-fach experience. Expecting the parish to be as Welsh as its name, he had found there only a community of English settlers whose retired military top brass dominated both secular and religious affairs. The black comedy that resulted is chronicled with memorable unfairness in The Echoes Return Slow. But at the heart of it lay his tragically deepened cultural alienation from his church. This he found easiest to focus by writing not about Eglwysfach but about St David’s.

In sentiment, his poem ‘A Line from St David’s’ rhymes interestingly with an uncollected radio talk he broadcast in the later 1960s. And both chime with letters and articles of the time in the church weekly, Y Llan, that make it clear that the soi-disant mother church and national cathedral of Wales had become the epicentre of cultural revolt. The English visitor, it is made clear by outraged correspondents, will find in the tranquillity of the cathedral nothing to disturb her cultural peace. The church is a Welsh-free zone, a safe haven. For a Welsh-speaking visitor, the experience is likely to be as culturally wounding as it may nevertheless still be spiritually uplifting.

That St David’s conducted a service to celebrate the anniversary of the publication, in 1567, of the first Welsh New Testament and Book of Common Prayer, but did so almost entirely in English, understandably provoked a barrage of incredulous criticism. And young ordinands at Bangor further objected to the panoply of military banners on display, the Church Militant in all too literal a sense for their liking. It was, of course, RS’ own pacifism – and guilt at his perceived failure to make it publicly known during World War Two – that aggravated his tense relations with the Eglwysfach military, who seemed to him to treat the disestablished Welsh church as still a state organ of British establishment militarism.

Across the carefully calibrated pastoralism of the St David’s scene lovingly invoked in ‘A Line from St David’s’ falls the shadow of the heavy post-war militarization of the countryside adjacent to the cathedral. Trecwn, Castlemartin, Brawdy – there were key Cold War sites littering the area, and German panzers to be seen on manoeuvres. Local protest had been in vain. For RS, it was the post-war postscript to pre-war Penyberth. And still his church had said nothing. In fact, in his poem the surrounding countryside pointedly upstages the cathedral, which gets almost as little a look-in as does Tintern Abbey in Wordsworth’s famous poem. It appears only in the implied distance, its ‘bubble of stone / ...still unpricked by the mind’s needle.’ That distance is the measure of Thomas’ spiritual and cultural unease at the condition of his church.

What fills the foreground is the glorious, spiritually haunted landscape of a virtually peninsular Pembrokeshire. But access to that can come only ‘by way of Plwmp’. The use of a name that can sound nothing but comical to an English ear is pointed – only once we have fully registered, and thus appropriately respected, the ‘foreign’, thoroughly Welsh, character of this region are we admitted to its bounty: the ‘hawkweeds in the hedges’, ‘larks, too, like a fresh chorus / Of dew.’ And in this setting it is not David’s church but Dewi himself, ‘the water drinker’, whom we meet. For RS, the saint’s legacy is to be found not enshrined in the stone mausoleum of ‘his’ cathedral, but secreted in ‘the wall lettuce in the crevices / green now as when Giraldus / Altered the colour of his thought / By drinking from the Welsh fountain.’

‘Giraldus’ – Gerald de Barri, Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald the Welshman (ll46–1223), born in Manorbier to the local Norman warlord and his Welsh wife, the legendary beauty Nest. He is remembered not only for the journeys he chronicled in classically vivid Latin but for his long and bitter struggle, supported by the Welsh princes, to free St David’s from the suzerainty of Canterbury and to have himself consecrated archbishop by the Pope. His failure to convince Rome he attributed to his defiant identification with the Welsh and his championing of their national cause. No wonder RS regarded him, too, like Gwallter Mechain, as his alter ego: a heroic martyr to the cause of establishing in Wales a truly national church, freed of English rule.

In 1968, Glyn Simon was ordained Archbishop of Wales, and his inaugural address heralded a profound shift in the church’s attitude towards Wales and the Welsh language, given pungent practical expression by the visit he paid to the Welsh-language protester Dafydd Iwan in prison. But it was too late for RS Thomas, shortly to settle into his final parish at Aberdaron, on the very tip of what was still the overwhelmingly Welsh-speaking Llyn peninsula. He was, for
the first time, reasonably happily reconciled to his parishioners, except for the minority who complained at his scorning of English and refusal to pray for Queen and Country. But, alas, ‘Revision was in the air. Language was out of date; too formal. God was available for conversation. Bishops were overawed by the theologians. What committee ever composed a poem?’ It was change enough to prompt his translation ‘from a parsonage to a cottage’ in 1978.

No longer confined by duty to religious orthodoxies, he steadily widened and deepened that peregrine search for spiritual understanding first manifest in the remarkable ‘game-changing’ volume H’m (1972), in which he began to take his new bearings as a soul, following his arrival in Llyn. This uncanny peninsula’s ancient rocks required of him a reorientation of self in time, just as its elongated land-mass, resembling a great bough liminally suspended between sea and sky, prompted a reorientation of self in space. As for its oldest churches, they were threaded together by the medieval pilgrimage route leading to Ynys Enlli, the island of Bardsey, fabled resting place of twenty thousand saints. It was as if this landscape were electrically charged by some mysterious spiritual ley line running its entire length. And then, seemingly omnipresent, was the sea, the infinite sea. This, so to speak, was RS’ natal element. Son of a sea captain, he had been raised in the ferry port of Holyhead, had pined for the sea in landlocked Manafon, but had returned at the last to live within its sight and its sound.

This was the sacred landscape of RS’ late, great, extra-mural imagination. It was in its spirit, and frequently out of its very elements, that he wrought the symbolic language of his final spiritual searches. The comparison with that other great Welsh visionary poet, Henry Vaughan, the Silurist, is compelling. Effectively excluded by the Puritan ascendancy from his beloved Church, Vaughan fashioned, in the luminous poetry of Silex Scintillans, his alternative spiritual vocabulary of rite, symbol, religious calendar and liturgy out of the natural world of his locality, the beautiful valley of the Usk, frequently infusing its features with a Hermetic mystery and intensity.

Thomas can be seen doing the same in such lovely, simple texts as the twinned prose and poem that celebrate an unorthodox Christmas in The Echoes Return Slow. Here it is the raw elements that honour the Nativity, as RS marvels at ‘the coming of three waves from afar, who fall down, offering their gifts to what they don’t understand.’

night it has snowed

foam on the splintering
beaches, but the dawn-
wind carries it away, load
after load, and look,

the sand at the year’s
solstice is young flesh
in a green crib, product
of an immaculate conception.

Rumour in Aberdaron still has it that RS ceremonially burned his cassock on the beach the day he retired from the priesthood. Perhaps indeed he did. What is certain is that from that day onwards Llyn became for him the launch pad of the spirit, as it took off to explore new immensities of spiritual possibility, some of them to be found only in religions culturally distant from Christianity. In one of his final interviews, RS even went on public record to confess ‘I wouldn’t say that I’m an orthodox Christian at all.’

And yet.... My very last encounter with him terminated with his excusing himself and turning in early, to be certain of making morning service the next day. And Aled Jones Williams, RS’ own parish priest at the time of his death, has movingly recorded how he was always able to deduce, from the hands held out by parishioners to receive the bread and communion cup, how deep they were in faith. RS Thomas’ hands, he testifies, were always and unmistakeably those of a devout believer.

M Wynn Thomas is Professor of English and Emyr Humphreys Professor of Welsh Writing in English at CREW, Swansea University. A Fellow of the British Academy and Vice President of the Learned Society of Wales, he is the author of more than twenty books on American poetry and on the two literatures of Wales, the latest being RS Thomas: Serial Obsessive (University of Wales Press, 2013), reviewed in NWR 100.

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Gerallt Llewelyn


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