R.S. Thomas and the Problem of Welsh Identity

By Jeffery Alan Triggs

Picture of R.S. Thomas's Church at Aberdaron
R.S. Thomas's Church at Aberdaron

Click here for the longer version of this essay.

One aspect of R.S. Thomas's work which is particularly difficult for Americans to fathom is his relation to Welsh nationalism. This rather arcane issue is complicated even further because Thomas is an Anglo-Welsh poet, the guiding spirit of what is known as the Anglo-Welsh movement. Throughout his career, Thomas has been faced with the difficult choice of writing poetry in what he considers a foreign language, or committing creative suicide by hobbling his possibilities of expression. The resultant tensions in his work are sometimes overlooked by English critics, who would rather welcome Thomas as a distinguished ''colonial'' contributor to their own literature, and who thus concentrate for the most part on his celebrated movement in later years toward more inward, spiritual, and therefore more international themes. And yet even Thomas's later religious poetry should be understood in the context of his distinctly national concerns.

In order to facilitate our understanding of this problem, it will be helpful to consider first two passages by T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, which are quite well known in America. The first is Eliot's famous discussion in Notes towards the Definition of Culture of what he termed the ''satellite cultures,'' Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Somewhat predictably, the well-meaning American turned classicist, royalist, and Anglo-Catholic, comes up with a sly defense of the status quo in Britain. Admitting that ''any vigorous small people wants to preserve its individuality''(128), Eliot goes on to argue that by influencing the stronger culture, the satellite ''plays a larger part in the world at large than it could in isolation''(129). Without England, the satellites ''cut themselves off from Europe and the world''(129). Furthermore, ''it is of great advantage for English culture to be constantly influenced from Scotland, Ireland and Wales''(129). Eliot's argument is very neat: by offering what Thomas has called a ''blood transfusion'' to ''the ageing body of English literature'' Selected Prose 52), the Welsh may help themselves by helping the English. On the other hand, the demeaning sense of second-class status, of being part of Europe, for instance, only through the medium of England, persists. Thomas himself looks on Anglo-Welsh literature not as a means of magnifying Welsh influence through English culture, nor as a charitable contribution to English culture, but ''as a means of rekindling interest in the Welsh-language culture, and of leading people back to the mother-tongue'' (Selected Prose 53). This somewhat paradoxical hope that the Anglo-Welsh movement might ''simply be a phase in the re-cymrification of Wales'' (Selected Prose 33) has been an important part of Thomas's thinking all through his career. To this day he maintains that Anglo-Welsh poets are writing in a foreign language.

We may appreciate how sharply Thomas feels the sting of being under the sway of a foreign language when we consider the famous scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where Stephen Dedalus and the Jesuit dean argue about the lamp. What the Englishman calls the lamp's ''funnel'' is known to Stephen only as a ''tundish''. For a few awkward moments, a ''language barrier'' comes between them. The dean's amused condescension of the dean about this ''little word''1 now stirs up one of Stephen's many epiphanies. Reflecting that the man to whom he was speaking was ''a countryman of Ben Jonson,'' he goes on to consider:

—The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language. (189)
As the representative of a ''satellite culture,'' Stephen feels that English can only be for him ''an acquired speech,'' and he chafes inwardly under its sway. I would suggest that a quite similar chafing underlies all of R.S.Thomas's work, and that for him the necessity of writing poetry in English is not so much an opportunity to enjoy the stage of Europe as a tragic fate. ''Let nobody imagine,'' he has written, ''that because there is so much English everywhere in Wales it is not a foreign language'' (Selected Prose 181).

Thomas is quite clear about this in an article published in 1978 entitled ''The Creative Writer's Suicide.'' In it he struggles to elucidate the difficult choices facing all writers in Wales and particularly the Anglo-Welsh:

This devilish bilingualism! O, I know about all the arguments in favor of it: how it enriches one's personality, how it sharpens one's mind, how it enables one to enjoy the best of two worlds and so on. Very likely. But to anyone in Wales who desires to write, it is a millstone around his neck. (Selected Prose 173)
The Anglo-Welsh writer, according to Thomas, faces the choice of writing in English or ''committing suicide as a true writer'' (Selected Prose 180). Unlike the writer of Welsh, whose main concern must be to save the culture of his nation from extinction, the Anglo-Welsh writer ''is neither one thing nor the other. He keeps going in a no-man's land between the two cultures'' (Selected Prose 180). Obliged for various reasons to write in English, he cannot help ''contributing to English culture, and deserves the strictures of his fellow-Welshmen on that account. If he endeavours to make his work more Welsh, he either gains the hostility of his English readers or loses their interest'' (Selected Prose 180). Even when the Anglo-Welsh writer learns Welsh, it is unlikely that he will know Welsh well enough to write poetry in the language. This is Thomas's own situation: as it were exiled in English, he is constantly aware of insuperable barriers between himself and what should be his mother tongue. His solution, if one can call it that, has been to write poetry in English and sermons and other prose pieces in Welsh, and it may be seen that these latter are notably more nationalistic in tone than the poems. Yet such a distinction is too easily made.

It is a critical commonplace to note a sharp division between Thomas's earlier and later poetry, beginning with H'M (1972) and Laboratories of the Spirit (1974). The earlier and more frequently anthologized poems deal very prominently with peasants of the Welsh hill country and naturalistic scenes of village life in Wales. These stern portraits tend to be so brutally honest that one is tempted to wonder about Thomas's own statement that in these poems he ''wanted to propagandize, on behalf of the small farmer in his fields''(Lethbridge 42). The chief virtue Thomas seems to give these farmers is a radical innocence in the face of their corrupters, the English industrialists and tourists. Typical is the pathetic character known as Iago Prytherch, who cannot understand the English of the tourists gazing at him in his field and who confesses to being ''alone, exposed / In my own fields with no place to run / From your sharp eyes'' (''Invasion of the Farm,'' Selected Poems 37). The nationalist motive behind poems like this seems obvious enough, and it is interestingly with these early poems that Thomas is still largely represented in Anglo-Welsh anthologies (See Bianchi 85). English critics, on the other hand, have made much of Thomas's movement in his later poetry toward more inward, spiritual themes. Many of these poems center on the search for an absent or a silent God. The scenes are no longer obviously those of Wales, but seem to suggest an inward landscape. When language is at issue in such poems, it is not obviously the problem of the Welsh and English languages, but the problem of the inadequacy of human language for addressing or communicating with God, as in ''Waiting'':

Face to face? Ah, no
God; such language falsifies
the relation. Nor side by side,
nor near you, nor anywhere
in time and space. (Later Poems 111)
One of Thomas's chief concerns in his later poems has been what he calls ''the duplicity / of language, that could name / what was not there'' (''Code,'' Later Poems 144). God, whose ''chosen medium / of communication'' Later Poems 145) is silence, stands above the fray of languages, in which the poet cannot help but be embroiled. Yet language remains our most intimate means and hope of sounding for God. Thomas's solution is not to deny his human perspective and answer silence with silence, but to advance ''with all his vocabulary / intact to his final / overthrow by an untruth'' (''The Vow,'' Later Poems 188). We should keep in mind that for Thomas ''all his vocabulary'' involves both Welsh and English, as well as the silence which seems to be God's own language. Indeed, there may be a significant analogy between Thomas's frustrations with earthly languages and his frustration in trying to interpret the silent language of God.

What I mean to suggest is that there is some danger in accepting a facile separation of Thomas's Welsh or ''regional'' pieces and his later ''spiritual'' poetry. In an interesting prose meditation entitled ''Two Chapels'' (1948), Thomas distinguishes an Anglicized Welsh chapel, Maes-yr-Onnen, from a more native Welsh chapel, Soar-y-Mynydd. Visiting the first chapel, he has ''a glimpse of the spirit of man,'' while in the second he sees ''the soul of a special type of man, the Cymro or Welshman'' (Selected Prose 46). Given a choice between the two, Thomas notes that he would prefer Soar-y-Mynydd on the grounds that ''a nation that is fighting for its survival cannot afford to change its soul for some obscure spirituality no matter how excellent that may be from the individual's point of view'' (Selected Prose 47). Though he is ''ready to admit the value of the spirit,'' he warns that the spiritual is often held up ''as something opposed to ideas of nationalism'' (Selected Prose 47). The spiritual finds its special place in the towns, and ''especially the towns in England,'' which according to Thomas ''are not characteristic of Wales; they are evidence of foreign influence'' (Selected Prose 47). ''Two Chapels,'' of course, is an early piece, but its motives and tone are consistent with Thomas's most recent efforts in prose. How then are we to account for his shift toward more spiritual poetry?

Thomas has not really become less national as he has explored more spiritual themes. Rather, he seems to have become more comfortable with his own Welshness, and thus has felt freer to explore other areas in his poetry. As he once put it in a radio interview:

When I started writing, Anglo-Welsh literature had come into existence, and I think every writer belonging to that school felt a certain necessity to tell the world ''I am a Welshman''... By the time I reached Llŷn I felt I had come home, I had achieved my aim—I changed my subject matter but became more of a Welshman, a straightforward Welshman, speaking Welsh every day... there was no need for me to write like a Welshman. (Quoted by Ned Thomas 16)
This passage touches on the central insecurity of Thomas as an Anglo-Welsh writer, the struggle to establish a truly Welsh identity while using English as his primary language. As we have seen in ''The Creative Writer's Suicide,'' this insecurity has continued to trouble Thomas even in the period of spiritual poetry. A passage in the autobiographical piece from 1972, ''The Paths Gone By,'' gives us some idea of its intensity.

In the early 1940's, Thomas took over the parish of Manafon, a town near the English border where ''most people spoke with a Shropshire accent using a strange admixture of Welsh idioms'' (Selected Prose 139). Thomas speaks of himself at the time as ''a proper little bourgeois, brought up delicately, with the mark of the church and the library on me'' (Selected Prose 138). In the hill country around Manafon, however, he began to experience the ways of the Welsh hill farmers who would provide so many of his early subjects and to become versed, as it were, in country things. Thomas began to study Welsh with a neighboring minister. His first effort to express himself publicly in Welsh was an address at the Welsh-speaking minister's chapel:

I remember the evening: the chapel with its oil lamps, the wind blowing outside, and about twenty local farmers and their wives, come to listen to this freak—an Englishman who had learnt Welsh. Then off I went for about three quarters of an hour, like a ship being blown this way and that by the wind. (Selected Prose 143)
Thomas's self-deprecating reference to himself as a ''freak—an Englishman who had learnt Welsh'' conveys his uneasy sense of being an outsider in his own culture. (One might note that this sense of himself as an outsider informs much of the early poetry.) The ''foreign'' language here is the language he feels should be his mother tongue. Thomas's effort since then has been to remake himself into a true Welshman; that is, one in full possession of his native culture. Even his career as a minister suggests a gradual movement from English speaking parishes like Manafon to Welsh speaking Aberdaron near the tip of the remote Llŷn peninsula.

As I suggested above, Thomas's concern with the frailties of human language as a vehicle of discourse with God may well have its origin in his own ambiguous position as an Anglo-Welsh writer in the no-man's land between Welsh and English. What is clearly announced in the prose of the period finds its way indirectly into poems whose ostensible theme is purely religious. In his most recent volumes, Experimenting With An Amen (1986) and The Echoes Return Slow (1988), a new element may be detected. Thomas seems to be turning now to explicitly autobiographical subject matter, the sort of thing he once reserved for prose. The Welshness is again making itself felt in his poetry alongside the spirituality. The Echoes Return Slow is almost wholly given over to autobiographical meditation. One of these poems considers Thomas's efforts to realize in the fullness of its particulars the soul of the country he once gazed at in wonder from the windows of an English train:

What had been blue shadows on a longed-for horizon, traced on an inherited background, were shown in time to contain this valley, this village and a church built with stones from the river, where the rectory stood, plangent as a mahogany piano. The stream was a bright tuning-fork in the moonlight. The hay-fields ran with a dark current. (Echoes 24)

The next sentence, however, closes the poem on a troubling note that we might consider characteristic of the Anglo-Welsh self-doubter: ''The young man was sent unprepared to expose his ignorance of life in a leafless pulpit'' (Echoes 24). For Thomas, this is not simply a confession of his ''callow youth''; ignorance of life, in this instance, comprehends particularly ignorance of Welsh life, its customs, its language, and what one might call its fate. To a large degree, Thomas's real calling has been to recover this fate and to position himself in Wales. Only then could he begin to position himself before God.

''Sarn Rhiw'' is a beautiful little poem about the medieval cottage overlooking Cardigan Bay near Aberdaron, where Thomas has lived since his retirement:

So we know
she must have said something
to him—What language,
life? Oh, what language?

Thousands of years later
I inhabit a house
whose stone is the language
of its builders....

In the fire
of an evening I catch faces

staring at me. In April,
when light quickens and clouds
thin, boneless presences
flit through my room.

Will they inherit me
one day? What certainties
have I to hand on...? (Experimenting 26)

Early in his career, Thomas wrote that ''You cannot live in the present, / At least not in Wales'' (''Welsh Landscape,'' Selected Poems 16). ''Sarn Rhiw,'' in its subtler way, treats this same notion, taking it a step further. Here Thomas senses not only the intersection of past and present, of daily life and history, but the intersection of human time and divine timelessness, the interplay of human endeavor and divine will. Once again, the concern is language in its various forms: the pre-human language of the earth and the creating God, as well as the builders' ''language'' of stones. These are the difficult, acquired languages with which Thomas must contend in contemplating his surroundings. As in ''Welsh Landscape,'' Thomas is haunted by the presence of the past, the faces staring at him from the fire, the ''boneless presences'' waiting to ''inherit'' him. Though the bay eventually ''breaks / into a smile as though meaning / were not the difficulty at all,'' ''Sarn Rhiw'' is not glibly comforting. The generations are bound together in a chain of inheritance, but Thomas wonders if his will not prove the weak link. Certainly the Welsh language has been under its greatest pressure during Thomas's lifetime. Underlying all this is the idea that no man can (or should) escape the fate of his culture. And for Thomas, such a culture is at once universal, involved with the deity, and particular, rooted in one human place. The cottage in Rhiw, the place Thomas has marked out as the end of his quest for Wales and Welsh identity, unites the spiritual with the local, the timeless with the timeful, and manifold identity with the personality of one man.


1 Ironically, the OED entry for ''tundish'' indicates that the word has a long and honorable tradition in English, and was used by no less a countryman of Ben Jonson than Shakespeare himself: click here to see the entry in full.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Thomas, R.S. Experimenting With An Amen. London: Macmillan London Limited, 1986.
——. Later Poems: 1972-1982. London: Macmillan London Limited, 1983.
——. Selected Poems: 1946-1968. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books Ltd., 1986. (First published by Hart-Davis, MacGibbon Ltd., 1973.)
——. Selected Prose. Ed. Sandra Anstey with Introduction by Ned Thomas. Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan: Poetry Wales Press, 1986.
——. The Echoes Return Slow. London: Macmillan London Limited, 1988.

Secondary Sources

Bianchi, Tony. ''R.S. Thomas and His Readers.'' Wales: The Imagined Nation: Studies in Cultural and National Identity. Ed. Tony Curtis. Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan: Poetry Wales Press, 1986: 71-95.
Eliot, T.S. Christianity and Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. Chester G. Anderson. New York: The Viking Press, 1968. (Originally published 1916.)
Lethbridge, J.B. ''R.S. Thomas Talks to J.B. Lethbridge.'' The Anglo-Welsh Review 74 (1983): 36-56.
Thomas, Ned. ''Introduction.'' Selected Prose by R.S. Thomas. Ed. Sandra Anstey. Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan: Poetry Wales Press, 1986.

Copyright © 1989 by Jeffery Triggs. All rights reserved. This essay was first as a paper at the MLA Convention, 1989 (Session on Exile and Language).