The man who went into the west

by Chris Bertram on September 3, 2007

I have very little time for blogging at the moment, so I’m going to abandon a plan I had to write an extended post about Byron Rogers’s “The Man who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas”: . Thomas, referred to by Larkin as “Arsewipe Thomas” was, as most of you probably know, one of the very best poets in the English language in the twentieth century. He was also an Anglican vicar in a Wales where most of the population was chapel and a fierce advocate for the Welsh language despite speaking a variant so academic that his parishioners struggled to understand him. He sometimes refused to speak English at all (except through an interpreter), yet he wouldn’t let his own family learn Welsh and couldn’t write a decent poem in his adopted language. His son tells of being packed off to boarding school in the hated England and of listening to sermons in which Thomas denounced fridges and vacuum cleaners as the paraphenalia of modernity. He barely showed any affection for his talented artist wife but after he death composed supremely tender love poems. With her he lived a life of dour austerity in sub-arctic temperatures, but then he remarried a fox-hunting reactionary and was seen queuing for lottery tickets at Tescos. He was a priest with distinctly unorthodox views about the nature of the deity (of whom he had an almost Newtonian conception). He carried out the duties of a vicar with conventional conscientiousness, but felt awkward talking to parishioners and once vaulted over the churchyard wall after a funeral service to avoid conversation with the bereaved. He had a reputation for grim humourlessness with some, but at least one person compared him to Lenny Bruce and Ken Dodd. And then there’s his feeling for nature and landscape … I could go on and on about this extraordinary man with many many personas and a capacity for repeated personal reinvention. But you should buy the book, you really should.



dsquared 09.03.07 at 11:30 am

anyone familiar with RST’s work will appreciate Harri Webb’s wonderful parody: “Ianto Rhydderch, Tch Tch”:

One day while I was docking swedes
With a slow moronic grin
And all my ancestors’ misdeeds
Wrought their sour death within.

Suddenly there came into view
A figure gaunt and tall.
He said, Forgive me naming you.
I made no sound at all.

He carried on at tedious length
About my life so grim,
It took all my idiot peasant strength
To be polite to him.

At last he ceased and strode away,
The cold Welsh rain came down,
In puddles in that barren clay
I watched my country drown.

Then, indistinguishable from mud,
I started my old car,
The sickness of my tainted blood
Inclined me to a jar.

And oh what festering itch of sin
Brought this damp thought to me
As I fuddled in a squalid inn:
Un bain’t much help to we.


Chris Bertram 09.03.07 at 1:05 pm

Daniel, This “piece”: about Rogers book’s success in winning one award and its failure to make the shortlist for another has Rogers remarking:

“The judges must have appreciated the classic Welsh pattern – in his lifetime, every Welshman at some time or another turns into a giant rabbit.”

When is your metamorphosis due?


Glyn Morgan 09.03.07 at 1:07 pm

RST lived about thirty miles away from where I went to high school. Our English teacher invited him to come and talk to us about poetry. “I never travel in Winter,” was his reply. Another invitation was sent. “I never travel in Summer,” was the next reply. I never did get to hear him speak. I always thought he was a good poet, if not really my cup of tea. But, like most poets, he was an embarrassing idiot when it came to politics. His writings on Welsh nationalism belong in a compendium of the dangerous absurdities to which cultural nationalism so often leads. (W. B. Yeats deserves at least a couple of chapters in this compendium.) Still, when all is said and done, RST was a better poet than Dylan, his vastly overrated Welsh namesake.


dsquared 09.03.07 at 2:04 pm

nibble nibble nibble.


thag 09.03.07 at 2:23 pm

I should read more, but from your brief bio, this guy makes Arthur Miller look like an ideal family man.


chris y 09.03.07 at 2:33 pm

Comparing Lenny Bruce and Ken Dodd is thought provoking, even before you bring Thomas into it.


Chris Bertram 09.03.07 at 2:40 pm

Yes the claim was not that Bruce and Dodd were alike, but that Thomas, Bruce and Dodd were the three funniest men that Jon Gower (a BBC journalist) had ever met.


Cryptic Ned 09.03.07 at 3:19 pm

“most of the population was chapel “?


Doug 09.03.07 at 3:27 pm

8: It makes sense in Welsh, promise.


Doug 09.03.07 at 3:27 pm

9: Which is up there with saying of things in Polish or Hungarian, “It’s pronounced just like it’s spelled.”


Mrs Tilton 09.03.07 at 3:33 pm

Ned @8:

“chapel” = dissenters or nonconformists, i.e., members of a denomination other than the (formerly) established Anglican church. (Dissent is usually some form of methodism in Wales, I believe.) Anglicans had churches, dissenters mere chapels.


mollymooly 09.03.07 at 6:13 pm

RCs also had “chapel”s, at least on the Ordnance Survey of Ireland’s maps. Not used in the Welsh attributive sense, though.


ejh 09.03.07 at 6:26 pm

The book was reviewed at some length in the LRB, but unless you’re a subscriber who can read it online you’ll need to beg somebody who is to email it to you.

Or try your local library of course.


Chris Bertram 09.03.07 at 10:40 pm

After reading the LRB review I had to order it, immediately.


ejh 09.04.07 at 7:17 am

I thought you’d read it already?


des von bladet 09.04.07 at 8:30 am

May I propose a possible timeline?

* Once upon a time;
* CB reads LRB review of book;
* CB orders book;
* CB reads book;
* CB blogs about book;
* ???
* Profit


Chris Bertram 09.04.07 at 8:32 am

Yes Des has timeline correct, apart from the “profit” bit. True, I do earn Amazon referrer fees if anyone follows the link and orders the book (or anything else) but I undertook a long time ago to donate those to Oxfam.


ejh 09.04.07 at 8:46 am

Ah, OK, I managed to form the impression that the reading of the review was subsequent to my mentioning it. Watson to Des Von Bladet’s Holmes.

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