Thursday, 13 August 2009

The playful ogre

One of the books I've been reading on holiday is Byron Rogers' biography of RS Thomas, which I somehow missed when it was published in 2006. It's a great success, seeming to capture him more than the earlier one by Justin Wintle, which set out as a quest in search of the man and poet but whose quarry ultimately proved too elusive.

This must be partly down to Rogers being as familiar with Thomas's context and some of his subject matter as the poet himself: he's a Welsh-speaking son of a Carmarthen farming family. What's more, Wintle was too straightforwardly ingenuous. Rogers, on the other hand. has a sidelong, mischievous approach, anecdotal and full of asides, ironies, and sly observations; fully aware of the absurd. It seems to catch a crafty, taciturn Welshman, it's best to set on him a crafty, garrulous one.

It's an amusing book with some vignettes that threaten to tip over into the fully comic (incredibly, a BBC producer who'd spent time with Thomas claimed he'd met three truly funny men in his life: Lenny Bruce, Ken Dood...and RS Thomas). Rogers had known Thomas for many years, another strength.

Some characteristic themes emerge. His houses are always cold, literally close to freezing (when he and his artist wife rented out their retirement cottage, all the new tenant had to do to get a new council house was invite social services to inspect his current dwelling). Rogers quotes from an earlier interview he'd conducted with the poet, who was generous with his time and tolerant of the published article's detractions:

'The house is cold, even austere. Cold pastels, pale waxed wood, the white skulls of sheep and dogs laid on a bleached oak chest, [his wife] Miss Eldridge's pale fantasies in oil and watercolour, and, in one of the drawing rooms, the feathers and bodies of dead birds which both Thomases have picked up, and preserved, so a burglar might think himself in the house of a taxidermist with an artistic bent. In one of his poems Thomas had written about the 'strict palate' and the 'simple house', but after a half-hour of trying to be Heathcliff I asked whether we might have the second bar of the electric fire. He smiled, which is to say his lips curved suddenly downward. 'My wife always says people would freeze in our house'.

A pretty good cameo of Thomas, that. Austereness, to the point of mild sado-masochism, leavened somewhat by humour. Capable of personal kindnesses – sometimes to painstaking lengths – but with regular displays of misanthropy, that ran deep.

He was also much more artfully self-conscious in the construction of a persona than one would have guessed (that house could have come out of World of Interiors). Even something of a fake: he spoke English (his first language) with an implausible cut glass accent, originally adopted to annoy Welsh nationalist students at Bangor; he seemed to feel most comfortable socialising with the English upper middle classes and was a snob; he sent his reluctant son off to an English boarding school and didn't bother that he never learnt Welsh. These all seem highly unlikely revelations to anyone who's read the poetry, which is quoted throughout. A regular reminder that art is mysteriously capable of utterly transcending personality.

Perhaps one of the most striking conclusions to be drawn from the book is that this determinedly taciturn, undemonstrative and non-tactile clergyman was quite probably one of the greatest love poets of recent times. Rogers reckons the poem below, written about his first wife shortly after her death, 'as delicate and lovely as anything in the English language', making a parallel with Hardy. There's something about its delicate interweaving of the natural and the human that reminds me of Esenin (peasants, nature, narod, God: is Thomas a Russian poet?):

'We met
under a shower
of bird notes.
Fifty years passsed.
Love's moment
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
'Come' said death,
choosing her as his
partner for
the last dance. And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird's grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.'

(The Sunday Times printed this poem in 1995, on his nomination for the Nobel Prize; he requested the £100 fee be paid to his soon-to-be second wife, as 'compensation'.)


Gadjo Dilo said...

Lovely poem. I'm a big fan of Thomas's poetry but cannot bear to look upon the visage of the man as, though I've never read any biography of him and may be doing him a diservice, I get a feeling of what a shit-poor dad he may have been. Amazing, the transcendent power of poerty.

jonathan law said...

The Rogers book is one of the two or three funniest biographies I've ever read -- something I was hardly expecting, given the subject. (I'd previously read most of Thomas's poetry and his very odd autobiography, in which he refers to himself stiffly in the third person throughout.)

There is, I think, a plan to issue a volume of all Thomas's love poetry: don't suppose it'll emulate the success of Birthday Letters but it would certainly make a fine book. The marriage seems to have worked, in its way, but it is indeed the son you feel for.

The Rogers passage you quote reminds me of that famous but still shocking photo of the aged Thomas glaring berserkly through an open window -- mad hair like some inflamed prophet in a Blake engraving and smiling that delightful upside-down smile.

Anonymous said...

We 'did' Thomas at school many years ago - i must overcome that and actually read the poems some day, as i love all those i've stumbled upon, on blogs etc. He seems to have been a first-rate curmudgeon.

Brit said...

Wonderful poem, though £100 in 1995 seems a mite stingy.

Talking of Birthday Letters.... bloddy hell it's good, isn't it?

Brit said...

Bloddy, bloddy good.

Gaw said...

Gadj: I dunno, I think he could have had an alternative career as a model - that bone structure. He was, though, a totally shit Dad.

Jonathan: Rogers refers to 'that' photo, quite rightly, as the 'Welsh ogre' one. It's going to be interesting to see how Thomas's reputation develops, love poem collection and all. BTW I'm always on the look out for good bios so if you feel like recommending your other 'funniests' I'd be grateful.

Elb: I suspect you would relish this bio. Some great little scenes, some of which might even be described as Lumberesque.

Brit: His second wife was, contrastingly, something of a bon viveur. I suspect it went on booze and fags.

I'm ashamed to say I've got a nice copy of B'day Letters (a b'day present) which I've hardly opened. I will do so now.

Bunny Smedley said...

I, too, own an unread, virtually unopened copy of the Birthday Letters - put off, almost certainly unfairly, by the author's reputation (not a great dad, not a great husband) - but based on the recommendations here, perhaps that should change, the list of good poets who were also obviously likeable people being rather a short one ....

Gaw said...

Bunny: I can't think of a great poet who was also mild, pleasant, doting, uxorious, etc. but then I'm not that familiar with poets' bios. However, the last one I read, AN Wilson's of Betjeman, portrayed the nation's favourite teddy bear as a near-monstrous father, generally disregarding his son and referring to him as 'it'. It upset the poor boy for life.