I’m obviously not orthodox,” said the Welsh poet and priest R.S. Thomas, who died in 2000.
He wasn’t kidding. In his autobiography, Neb, he wrote that the apostles “believed that the risen Christ had appeared to them” and “sought to transmit their vision to future ages through the medium of words.” This sort of liberalism seems to be what Thomas had in mind when he said, “the Resurrection is a metaphor.” (Then to hell with it, Flannery O’Connor retorts.)
“I don’t know how many real poets have ever been orthodox,” he told an interviewer. For Thomas, poetry occupies a zone beyond orthodoxy: “Any form of orthodoxy is just not part of a poet’s province. … A poet must be able to claim … freedom to follow the vision of poetry.”
The God who haunts Thomas’s poetry is a hidden God, known by his absence. “In a Country Church” shows “one kneeling,” but “no word came / only the wind’s song.” Wings stir above, “bats not angels, in the high roof.” In another poem, Thomas wonders whether the church is “where God hides / From my searching?” In “The Empty Church,” another worshiper keeps kneeling in desperate hope that one of his prayers “will ignite yet.”
But these poems of divine absence leave us suspicious about Thomas’s profession of unorthodoxy. After kneeling “long” in the country church, the worshiper “saw love in a dark crown / Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree / Golden with fruit of a man’s body.” What Thomas sometimes calls the “untenanted cross” becomes the burning bush, the tree of life bearing winter fruit, a light shining from the void.
The “Empty Church” is empty because God knows it’s a “stone trap,” where worshipers entice “him with candles, / as though he would come like some huge moth / out of the darkness to beat there.” The Lord visited before but “burned himself,” and so “He will not come any more / to our lure.” God refuses to be manipulated by pious trickery. His absence is an sign of his Godness.
Thomas was a national as well as a religious poet, but his nationalism is the farthest thing from nostalgia. He rebukes himself for being disappointed when real peasants don’t conform to his expectation of Wordsworthian rusticity. The result is brutal honesty about the land he loves. In “Welsh Landscape,” he writes:
There is no present in Wales,
And no future;
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts;
Mouldering quarries and mines;
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcase of an old song.
The peasant Iago Prytherch appears in numerous poems, his “frightening … vacancy” of mind evoking a complex response of revulsion, admiration, and empathy. Because Twm, the dim-witted peasant of “The Airy Tomb,” “also is human,” he poses an “inscrutable riddle” to the hypocritical reader “at ease in your chair” waiting for a happily-ever-after that never comes.
The one thing Welsh peasants have going for them is direct contact with nature, but they don’t make anything of the opportunity. The poet addresses a farmer in “Valediction”:
You stopped your ears to the soft influence
Of birds, preferring the dull tone
Of the thick blood, the loud, unlovely rattle
Of mucous in the throat, the shallow stream
Of neighbours’ trivial talk
Modernity further separates Welsh farmers from nature. Cynddylan rides a tractor, “a new man now, part of the machine, / His nerves of metal and his blood oil.” He drives to his fields like a “knight at arms” who empties “the wood / of foxes and squirrels and bright jays.” All round his roaring tractor “birds are singing,” but they open their “bills wide in vain” (“Cynddylan on a Tractor”).
England shares blame for the decay of old Wales. The Welsh language “has in it / The source of all poetry, clear as a rill / Bubbling from your lips” (“A Priest to His People”), but England’s incursions have made “the speech / of my fathers a stranger at my lips / An offence to the ear” (“The Old Language”). Tourists pour into Wales to see sheep “Arranged romantically in the usual manner / On a bleak background of bald stone.”
Some of Thomas’s most arresting poetry emerges from the clash of his religious and his nationalist impulses. In a small poetic drama, “The Minister,” a young pastor comes to an isolated farm community with dreams of sparking a revival. His idealism is soon dashed: “I began a Bible class; / But no one came / … I opened the Bible and expounded the Word / To the flies and spiders, as Francis preached to the birds.”
The priest confronts a rich farmer, Davies, about his adultery, but Davies warns him to “keep your nose / In the Black Book, so it won’t be tempted / To go sniffing where it’s not wanted.” Eventually, the young priest capitulates:
I knew it all,
Although I never pried, I knew it all. …
I knew and pretended I didn’t.
And they knew that I knew and pretended I didn’t.
They listened to me preaching the unique gospel
Of love; but our eyes never met. And outside
The blood of God darkened the evening sky.
William Davis has said that many readers assume that Thomas the priest is orthodox and are surprised when his poetry is not. The reality is the opposite. Thomas’s beliefs were loose at best, but in its evocation of the “extraordinary nature” of God, its power to shatter every “comfortable, conventional, simplistic view of God,” its scathing exposure of our evasions, resistance, inattention, and cowardice, his poetry is more orthodox than he let on. Like words of a prophet, Thomas’s invective “spurts like a flame of fire” to melt the “coldness of your stare” (“A Priest to His People”).
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.