R. S. Thomas

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Ronald Stuart Thomas (29 March, 1913 – 25 September, 2000) (published as R. S. Thomas) was a Welsh poet and Anglican clergyman, noted for his nationalism, spirituality and deep dislike of the anglicisation of Wales. He was the best known Welsh poet of his day.

In 1955, John Betjeman, in his introduction to the first collection of Thomas’s poetry to be produced by a major publisher, Song at the Year's Turning, predicted that Thomas would be remembered long after Betjeman himself was forgotten. Kingsley Amis, in 1956 said of Thomas’s work that it "reduces most modern verse to footling whimsy." On the other hand, Philip Larkin in letters referred to him as "Arsewipe Thomas."[1]

Professor M. Wynn Thomas said: "He was the Alexander Solzhenitsyn of Wales because he was such a troubler of the Welsh conscience. He was one of the major English language and European poets of the 20th century."


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Beliefs
  • 3 Works
  • 4 Publications
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links


R. S. Thomas was born in Cardiff, the only child of Huw and Margaret. The family moved to Holyhead in 1918 because of his father's work in the merchant navy. He was awarded a bursary in 1932 to study at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, where he read Classics. In 1936, having completed his theological training at St. Michael's College, Llandaff, he was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church in Wales. From 1936 to 1940 he was the curate of Y Waun, Denbighshire, where he met his future wife, Mildred (Elsi) Eldridge, an English artist. He subsequently became curate at Tallarn Green, Flintshire.

They married in 1940 and remained together until her death in 1991. Their son, Gwydion, was born born August 29, 1945. The Thomas family lived on a tiny income and lacked the comforts of modern life, largely by the poet's choice. One of the few household amenities the family ever owned, a vacuum cleaner, was rejected because Thomas decided it was too noisy.[1]

For twelve years, from 1942 to 1954, Thomas was rector at Manafon, in rural Montgomeryshire. It was during his time at Manafon that he first began to study Welsh and that he published his first three volumes of poetry, The Stones of the Field, An Acre of Land and The Minister.

Thomas' poetry achieved a breakthrough with the publication of his fourth book Song at the Year's Turning, in effect a collected edition of his first three volumes, which was critically very well received and opened with Betjeman's famous introduction. His position was also helped by winning the Royal Society of Literature's Heinemann Award.

He learnt the Welsh language at age 30[1], too late in life, he said, to be able to write poetry in it, and the sixties saw him working in a predominantly Welsh speaking community. He wrote two prose works in Welsh, Neb (Nobody), an ironic and revealing autobiography written in the third person, and Blwyddyn yn Llŷn, which translates as A Year in Llŷn. In 1964 he won the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.

He retired from the church in 1978, and he and his wife relocated to "a tiny, unheated cottage in one of the most beautiful parts of Wales — where, however, the temperature sometimes dipped below freezing", according to Theodore Dalrymple.[1]

Free from the constraints of the church he was able to become more political and active in campaigns that were important to him. He became a fierce advocate of Welsh nationalism, although he never supported Plaid Cymru because he believed they did not go far enough in their opposition to England.

In 1996 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lost out to Seamus Heaney. After his death at age 87, an event celebrating his life and poetry was held in Westminster Abbey with readings from Heaney, Andrew Motion, Gillian Clarke and John Burnside.

Although he was a clergyman, he wasn't always charitable and was known for being awkward and taciturn. Some critics have interpreted photographs of him as indicating he was "formidable, bad-tempered, and apparently humorless".[1]


Thomas was an ardent supporter of CND and espoused a brand of Christian Pacifism, although he did, in principle, support the fire-bombing of English-owned holiday cottages in rural Wales. On this subject he said "what is one death against the death of the whole Welsh nation?"

He was also active in wildlife preservation and worked with the RSPB and other, Welsh, volunteer organisations for the preservation of the Red kite. Typically he resigned his RSPB membership over their plans to introduce non-native kites to Wales.

The poet's son, Gwydion, a resident of Thailand, recalls his father's sermons, in which he would "drone on" to absurd lengths about the evil of refrigerators, washing machines, televisions and other modern devices. Thomas preached that they were all part of the temptation of scrambling after gadgets rather than attending to more spiritual needs. "It was the Machine, you see," Gwydion explained to a biographer. "This to a congregation that didn’t have any of these things and were longing for them."[1]

Although he may have taken some ideas to extreme lengths, Theodore Dalrymple has written, Thomas "was raising a deep and unanswered question: What is life for? Is it simply to consume more and more, and divert ourselves with ever more elaborate entertainments and gadgetry? What will this do to our souls?"[1]


Almost all of Thomas' work concerns his twin passions, the Welsh landscape and the Welsh people. Underlying these twin themes are the politics. Even simple, lyrical descriptions of a hillside or a field can be read as a political statement. His views on the position of the Welsh people, as a conquered people are never far below the surface. His religious views, as might be expected from a clergyman, are also present in his works.

These concerns mark out his work as particularly distinctive and, perhaps, an easy subject for satire. The reader, though, is left in very little doubt as to the poet's sincerity and commitment. His earlier works focus on the personal stories of his parishioners, the farm labourers and working men and their wives. He shatters the cosy view of the traditional pastoral poem with harsh and vivid descriptions of life as it was lived in the valleys.

The beauty of the landscape, although ever-present, is never suggested as a compensation for the low pay or monotonous conditions of farm work. This direct view of country life comes as a challenge to many English writers writing on similar subjects. It might even be seen as a challenge to his more famous contemporary Dylan Thomas.

His later works were of a more metaphysical nature, more experimental and focusing more upon his spirituality. Laboratories of the Spirit (published in 1975) gives, in its title, a hint at this change in subject matter. Thomas described this shift as an investigation into the adult geometry of the mind.

He also experimented with publishing poetry alongside original artworks by other artists.

Despite his nationalism Thomas could be hard on his fellow countrymen. Often his works read as more of a criticism of Welshness than a celebration. He himself said there is a "lack of love for human beings" in his poetry. Other critics have not been so harsh. Al Alvarez said: "He was wonderful, very pure, very bitter but the bitterness was beautifully and very sparely rendered. He was completely authoritative, a very, very fine poet . "

Thomas' final works commonly sold 20,000 copies in Britain alone.[1]


  • The Stones of the Field (1946)
  • An Acre of Land (1952)
  • The Minister (1953)
  • Song at the Year's Turning (1955)
  • Poetry for Supper (1958)
  • Tares, [Corn-weed] (1961)
  • The Bread of Truth (1963)
  • Words and the Poet (1964, lecture)
  • Pietà (1966)
  • Not That He Brought Flowers (1968)
  • H'm (1972)
  • What is a Welshman? (1974)
  • Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)
  • Abercuawg (1976, lecture)
  • The Way of It (1977)
  • Frequencies (1978)
  • Between Here and Now (1981)
  • Ingrowing Thoughts (1985)
  • Neb (1985) in Welsh, autobiography written in the third person
  • Experimenting with an Amen (1986)
  • Welsh Airs (1987)
  • The Echoes Return Slow (1988)
  • Counterpoint (1990)
  • Mass for Hard Times (1992)
  • No Truce with the Furies (1995)
  • Autobiographies (1997, collection of prose writings)
  • Residues (2002, posthumously)
  1. ^ a b c d e f g h [1]Dalrymple, Thomas, "A Man Out of Time: A life of poet R. S. Thomas entertains and illumines", a review of The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R. S. Thomas, by Byron Rogers, in City Journal, November 6, 2006, accessed December 30, 2006
  • Brown, Tony. R.S. Thomas (Writers of Wales series). Cardiff: Univ. of Wales P., 2006. ISBN 0-7083-1800-2
  • Morgan, Barry. Strangely Orthodox: R.S.Thomas and his Poetry of Faith. Llandysul: Gomer, 2006. ISBN 1-84323-682-6.
  • Morgan, Christopher. R.S. Thomas: Identity, environment, and deity. Manchester: Manchester U. P., 2003. ISBN 0-7190-6248-9
  • Rogers, Byron. The Man Who Went Into The West, The Life of R. S. Thomas. London: Aurum Press, 2006. ISBN 1-84513-146-0
  • Some poems
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