Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Justin Wintle’s “Furious Interiors: Wales, R.S. Thomas & God”: Book Review

This controversial biography takes an unconventional approach to this Welsh poet who wrote prolifically (a thousand published poems at the time of this 1996 study) but sparely. Famously, he railed in eloquent English against the anglicization of Cymru. Learning its language beginning in his late twenties, he found himself unable to create but a couple of poems in it. He chose it for much of his mature prose, in which his purported autobiography became a cryptic record of his bitterness at man’s depredations of the harsh beauty of his land. Working on behalf of the Established Church as an Anglican vicar, he often refused to address those he met on his daily birdwatching walks if they hailed him in English. Yet, he knew his own tensions and faced his own contradictions in verses that remain of a remarkably high quality– much more than his Romantic or Victorian predecessors’ total output. He apparently belittled Wintle, and the author begins his investigation by relating a pub crawl that turns in the wee hours to ponder the poet’s impact. (As Wintle critiques Byron Rogers’ interviews of Thomas, we can now compare Rogers’ “Man Who Went Into the West” biography, the authorized study published a decade later!)

Half of the results in 450 pages of narrative only take us up to Thomas around fifty, with a hundred poems down. The book, wisely, does not move entirely chronologically. It circles around its avian-loving, human-suspecting, divine-doubting subject cautiously. Wintle, with a background covering Southeast Asian conflicts, engages Thomas by taking on the microcosm– his readings of such creations as “The Lost” about language loss, Iago Prytherch’s début as “A Peasant,” “Abercuawg” compared to Yeats’ “Curse of Cromwell,” and the Ann Griffiths pair of poems turn engrossing as they burrow into the disquiet beneath surfaces that at first appear calm, gnomic, or mundane. Wintle knows that any reader of Thomas needs much help. The meanings that lurk demand explanation to those of us unschooled in, say, early Welsh saint’s lives or metrics, let alone Kierkegaard, John Jenkins and Derrick Hearne, Dafydd ap Gwilym, Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess,” or Nonconformity and Antidisestablishmentarianism. Contained within this study, exegeses on Ned Thomas’ “The Welsh Extremist,” prospects for devolution under Westminster vs. independence under Brussels, and the development of philosophical and theological ontological and epistemological debates all sparkle.

Parts did prove wearying, and it’s difficult to sustain the intensity that Thomas demands of his readers; Wintle appears to sense this. A welcome respite appears when he visits the vicar’s former living at Aberdaron and talks to the locals. Wintle received opprobrium for his methods, but I defend his integration of the personal quest into the literary research: the interplay of the two nourishes and stimulates him and us. We need a break from the concentrated seminar. Wintle, if the poet will not speak with him, speaks to those who did– or did not– talk with Thomas. These informants reveal a guarded, prickly, but predictably unpredictable and sometimes kind and exemplary figure: as we would expect, a man no less contradictory than us.

Thomas accumulates verses. “Celtic gestalt,” Wintle speculates, fragments cohesion: “splintering of the mother-lode into a thousand inter-coded messages."
(300) “Whatever Thomas acquires as a poet is put into a constantly expanding retrieval system,” and the poet– this book appeared a few years before Thomas’ death– continues to revise and alter and rework his material. Today, it’d be akin to a blog or a database that constantly’s tinkered with, perhaps a Welsh wiki!

(Posted to Amazon US and British Amazon today; next up: Rogers' "Man Who...")

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