Late one sleepless night last week, I wandered downstairs in search of something to read and picked up a volume of R.S. Thomas’s Collected Poems. I’ve had it on my shelf for fifteen years or so, I should think, but his verse still has an austere sparseness that I find intimidating. Reading a few of his poems sent me, inevitably to google, and to this review by Theodore Dalrymple of a biography of the great man.
Thomas was, it seems, a rather strange man. A Christian with no great love of humanity, a priest whose poetry represented a God who often seems distant, absent, even cruel. Of course, he was also Welsh. So much of Wales is a land whose beauty is disclosed at arm’s length, ever reminding you that it was here before you and will be after you, untamed and defiant. One does not become friends with Snowdonia. So, also, Thomas’ work does not invite you but rather dares you to approach and follow to an unyielding encounter with reality. Yet, as you read his spare verse, sometimes almost prose rearranged on the page, one feels a cold wind freshen the heart, removing the warm fug of triviality that so often encases it.
By no means evangelical, Thomas’ spiritual life seems to have been more wrestle than blessing; one wonders if God ever touched his hip. Yet, the depth of his poetry exposes how banal so much evangelical writing is. We, who possess so many of the answers to the questions Thomas plaintively asked, trade mainly in gauche enthusiasm and trite platitudes. Our conviction, of course, is that profundity must be sacrificed for clarity. We will not be understood unless we speak in the demotic and the colloquial. This, I fear, is an educated man’s prejudice. The idea that weighty thoughts only occur to those who have had the kind of lengthy, often expensive, education that we have. Yet, Thomas’ poetry rarely uses esoteric vocabulary, is not packed with classical allusions, (or at least I’ve missed them if it is), and manages never to patronise while it speaks simply of the raw matter of human life and emotion. Of course, the other Christian whose writing had this quality was C.S. Lewis, one of the most eminent academics of his age and yet most widely read. Perhaps we are not as well educated as we think.
Thomas pursued his life as a poet alongside his vocation as priest, latterly in a West Wales parish more full of birds than people. Few evangelical ministers will time, inclination or ability to publish poetry while they bear the responsibilities of the pastorate. Yet, each week they must stand before the people of God and use their words to portray Christ in all his excellencies. Is it too much to ask that some of those words have the gilt of poetry upon their edges, better to divide joint and marrow?