Rowan Williams discovers the man behind the myth in a superb collection of critical essays; a man as 'unignorable as a creaking door'
RS Thomas would have been 100 years old last week. One of the sharpest ironies about his legacy is that what many people remember is not so much the poetry itself as the mythology: the fierce, dour and misanthropic personality immortalised in photographs and interviews, the lavish use of words like "craggy" and "recluse", with vague allusions to hills, sheep and inarticulate Welsh farmers.
Mind you, the poetry too can be mythologised. Every self-respecting preacher wanting to make a point of the difficulty of talking about God will reach for the poems of the 70s in particular; and this time the words and images will be of cold stone churches and silence and waiting.
Poets share some responsibility for the myths they generate, and some take a good deal of trouble to nourish their growth. RS's near-contemporary, Dylan Thomas, gleefully burnished his image as a young Bohemian genius, and Yeats, one of his poetic heroes, certainly took his own mythic persona very seriously.
Perhaps it should not surprise us that, judging from studies of RS in the years since he died in 2000, he, too, took some relish in feeding the myth, playing up to the stereotypes for all he was worth. If in his last years he showed some signs of a gentler tone in his poetry, he seems to have become more savagely ironic about how he was perceived. Give the public what it wants: they like the idea of misanthropic Welsh priest-bards framed against a grey sky, glaring at an absent God and a corrupted world, so let them have it. There is a time-honoured Welsh tradition of poker-faced amusement at the expense of the conquerors, and a good deal of RS's public face in his last decade or so had more to do with this than with the things that mattered most to him.
Which is not to say that what lay beneath the mythology was benign. The anger and the sporadic cruelty and contempt were real: an anger at the ease with which a historic culture could be betrayed and trivialised by those who should have defended it, a contempt for both Welsh and English who had colluded in this. And the religious poetry, too, cannot be boiled down to any simple formulae of contemplative passivity: RS's God is often as mindlessly savage as the owl sweeping down on its prey (a metaphor he uses more than once) – or else he looks on the earth with icy detachment or, worse, with a completely uncompassionate fascination. And RS as a religious poet looks back with an echoing mixture of fascination and repugnance.
There are – to borrow a well-worn phrase of his own – "moments of great calm", but these earn their poetic force just because they are mixed in with the horrified fascination, the ferocious protests and the almost parodic fables of a cruel or cold deity, a vivisector (has anyone explored, I wonder, the parallels between RS and Patrick White, whose novel, The Vivisector, is a relentless unveiling of art as cruelty?).
M Wynn Thomas, in a newly published collection of his superb critical essays on RS, notes that the poet's religious commitments became steadily more "Buddhist" in character – in the sense that what he is evoking is ultimately (to take a very powerful image from the poetry) looking into the mirror and seeing a stranger behind your eyes; dissolving the ordinary perceptions and expectations of subject and object, cause and effect. Yet at the same time, as Wynn Thomas observes, the inescapable image of the cross keeps returning as a sort of benchmark of what makes any talk of God possible – the affirmation of some kind of conviction that something "other" touches us in the middle of suffering. There is no way of reducing this to a systematic theology, but it is a good deal more than agnosticism, however far RS travelled from what most would regard as orthodoxy.
Wynn Thomas reproduces in his book a picture by Wil Rowlands – one of several pieces commissioned and exhibited as responses by visual artists to RS's work – which shows a bare small-windowed bedroom, with a plain cross – the "bone-like crossed sticks" of one of his very late poems – on the table and the hint of remote stars outside, beyond the window's crossbars. This is unmistakably RS's religious framework, always impatiently shrugging off anything simply consoling. Dennis Potter's unforgettable phrase that religion is "the wound not the bandage" might have been coined to describe this.
But it should remind us that one of RS's lifelong passions was for the visual arts, and Wynn Thomas's discussions insist that we fail to read him adequately if we don't take seriously the poems he wrote in response to various artworks, a significant proportion of his output. Wynn Thomas leads us through his engagements with the impressionists and the increasing enthusiasm for surrealism; and he correlates this, very plausibly, with RS's growing acknowledgment that the artwork, in words or pigment, is a thing in itself, not an illustration. If it is a kind of category mistake to look for the stories behind the pictures (and some of RS's earlier poems about paintings read a bit like this), then we have to ask whether it is any more sensible to look for the story behind the poems.
In other words, beware of reading the poems just as the deposit of a psychological history. That they are this is past doubt; and Wynn Thomas rehearses the fairly familiar account of RS's own complex psyche, his fears of intimacy, his almost obsessional picking away at his mother's inadequacies; the impenetrable oddity of his first marriage, with its fusion of distance and a kind of spare and wordless trust; the deeply unhappy and frustrated relationship with his son.
But the poetic achievement is outside this: no poetry is simply the description of a state of mind or psyche. Like a painting, especially a radically non-representational painting, it introduces something new into the world. That is why it is always some kind of political act, and why the furious expression of RS's political frustrations does not add up to a message of despair or quietism. The speaking of anger changes something (Wynn Thomas has some good pages on parallels with Denise Levertov's poetry, with its religious and political concerns, both like and unlike RS's preoccupations).
What his exact stature is as a poet is a pointless question; there is not much to be said for league tables here. But he is as unignorable as a creaking door – the steady, deceptively bare and subtly calculated idiom, the apparently odd but endlessly suggestive line-breaks, the whole idiom sustained decade after decade, doggedly, and yet with so many surprises. The centenary promises well, with Wynn Thomas's book leading the way and some unpublished material about to appear. RS may have connived in the mythology, but he deserves to be liberated from it and to be read afresh for the serious, alarming and enlarging writer he is.