Thursday, December 27, 2007

Byron Rogers' "The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas" Book Review

Rogers has the advantages that, a decade earlier, Justin Wintle did not. Rogers met Thomas at 17, and had interviewed him and kept in touch with him for decades. With the help of Thomas’ colleagues, parishioners (first-hand recollections from those at Eglwys Fach and Aberdaron gain citation at length), and detractors, Rogers traces the same terrain as Wintle. Yet, with much of the path already blazed, Rogers takes detours as he tracks Thomas’ life across from Holyhead to Bangor to the English border and then back into Welsh Wales, such as it remains today. For, this characterizes the pain of Thomas’ quest. The title’s well chosen, for it shows the futility and nobility of his life’s journey.

In 1942, appointed rector of what Thomas presumed a Welsh-speaking village, “he was starting the long trek into his inheritance,” but after being born (of collier families on both sides, Rogers learns: a lineage Thomas took pains to ignore; he also adopted an exaggerated Oxford accent at theological college to antagonize his Welsh-speaking tormenters!) in 1913 Cardiff, “a man for whom the hinterland had been something glimpsed from train windows, this priest of the Border was about to become a Welsh-speaking Welshman and, all faery realms forgotten, a poet in the English language, whose first book was to be published from a room above a chip shop.” (123) In the very Welsh town where Rogers was raised! (He writes of Wales in “The Bank Manager & the Holy Grail, also reviewed by me on Amazon.)

This familiarity with cultural and critical touchstones enables his study to move more efficiently through the contradictions of Thomas’ personality, poetry, and philosophy that appeared to confront verities of faith and pieties of love with ruthless precision. His own wit appeared dry to a few and dessicated to many; incredible rudeness mixed with increasing shyness for many who met him. This acting ability, according to his long-suffering son, Gwydion, rarely faltered as he became more celebrated for his poetry in his middle age and more reviled for his strident support of anti-nuclear and pro-national campaigns. He inveighed against technology, anglicization, and the erosion of the natural and linguistic heritage of the land of his fathers.

A congregant at Eglwys Fach, Joy Neale, is quoted: “It is very difficult when someone is a priest and then for many becomes for many a god in his own right.” (209) His poetry shifted from a Wordsworthian analysis of the hill-farmer archetype, Iago Prythwerch, into a Coleridgian movement towards integration of the creative act with the intimation of the divine. As he lost his vocation as an Anglican vicar, unable to countenance the Queen or the “iconoclasm” of the Established Church towards the Welsh language he gained fluency in as an adult, he entered, in such collections as 1972's “H’m,” powerful evocations titled fittingly “Via Negativa” and “Balance” as he traversed the bridge across the bottomless depths of despair, reading Kierkegaard. He turned towards Wallace Stevens in his youth, and Geoffrey Hill in his later years: like these demanding poets, his own verse tackles enigmatically if with verbal gnomons and historical resonance, the demands of mortality upon the prescient and the participant.

In his later years, he escaped Aberdaron’s retirees, English military men and returned colonials, for what he hoped would be a refuge. But at the end of the land, next to the fearful sea off Llŷn peninsula, he found again a Welsh bastion succumbing to holiday-makers and second-home owners. Unable to afford to live there, the young left. The long-resident farmers abandoned their tiny plots. Bucolic communities were overwhelmed by incomers of a foreign language and ethos.

This drove him first into torment and then transcendence. His activism increased in the 1980s after he retired to nearby Sarn– a barrow-like residence where, his wife Elsi recorded, a New Year’s 1987 temperature indoors of 33 F/ 1.8 C without comment. She, a former Slade standout in London’s bohemia between the wars, had turned, it seems, increasingly like her husband. Loners, they rarely spoke, at least in the presence of outsiders. They ate mutton four ways four suppers a week, regaled one visitor with a baked potato as the sole entreé, and tore out at the troll-like burrow at Sarn, in their eighties, the central heating for its affront to their aesthetics. Still, Rogers knows that the two of them, despite their shared pose as middle-class artistes determined to shock the natives, were at least occasionally aware of their shenanigans, however deadpan their revelation could be to others. Rogers too understands their humanity persisted, and parts of his biography moved me in their exposure of a guarded, awkward, self-made intellectual’s chosen exiles among his few parishioners–who from the accounts and letters Rogers shares, gave as good as they got from the media’s “ogre of Wales.”

He knew his failings. Next to the door of the church at Aberdaron, he kept a lobster pot. This to remind him of when he had not been able to comfort one of his charges, who then had committed suicide. His duties as a vicar appear to have been light, by necessity or choice, but he did confront death’s entrance either suddenly or gradually, and his occupation exacted perhaps stammering words or awkward gestures for those grieving simply because he lacked the social graces for small talk and since he knew, in the honesty rare in a vicar, of how little his words mattered in the face of the eternal vastness that dwarfed and crushed human hope and platitudes.

In 1988, a late poem, the vicar, a decade after resigning his last assignment, may still have fumbled towards acceptance. Scorned for his support of those who chose arson to discourage holiday homes, Thomas learned how the media turn on a celebrity, even a poet, when as white-maned and grim as he. Elsi wasted away, Thomas labored on; he wrote perhaps hundreds more poems near his death. Thomas gives us a sleepless speaker: “And the thought comes/ of that other being who is awake, too,/ letting our prayers break on him/ not like this for a few hours,/ but for days, years, for eternity.” This verse is copied on slate at Aberdaron church.

Wintle prepares well for Rogers: both biographies mesh smoothly. Wintle scoured the poems themselves to capture clues into their author, who refused to talk with him. Rogers favors posthumous publication and the cooperation of the poet’s family and friends. He studies correspondence that, if in scattered and one-sided fashion, was retrieved. Gwydion brought but a few shopping bags of bird’s skulls, receipts, ephemeral letters, and detritus to Rogers. This refuse, all that could be found salvaged from Sarn, inspired Rogers to write this book.

Of note: Elsi’s artistic talent. This earned but cursory mention in Thomas’ elliptic and waspish autobiographies and recorded comments. The endpapers of my hardcover display two of the six panels she painted, by herself, 95 feet of “The Dance of Life” at Oswestry’s Orthopaedic Hospital; these merited praise of Stanley Spencer. Rogers earns praise for his attention which he restores to the fragments that survive (after being stored in a shed at Sarn to be covered in turkey dung) of her work. If she had not chosen to accompany Thomas on his decades-long excursion not only across Wales but into the soul’s darkness and the austerities of an enigmatic marriage, I wonder what a critical biography she would have been afforded today.

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