ESSAY M Wynn Thomas

NWR Issue 101

A Turbulent Priest

Some years ago an influential study was published under the title Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Writers of the past rely on us to grant them a new lease of life on earth. In return, we require them humbly to serve the needs of our present, vastly different though it may be from theirs. The question ‘Is RS Thomas Our Contemporary?’ is therefore very likely to be the one implicit in most of the celebrations marking this the centenary of his birth. Time’s provincials as we are, any suggestion that he is no longer ‘fit for for purpose’ is likely to seal his fate for the foreseeable future.

But great writing of the past has more to offer us than a mirror to our narcissistic preoccupations. It possesses a mysterious power to bear living witness to experiences significantly different from our own yet undeniably human. It is thus a storehouse of human potentialities that, as Raymond Williams wisely observed, we would be well advised to cherish, if only because ‘we can never be sure in advance’ what our needs may be in the future. However, Williams added, we need help to appreciate this harvest of the past, because ‘like new ways of seeing, old ways must be actively learned.’

Although it’s only a dozen years since he died, ‘RS’ has more of the past in him than we might suppose. Who would have thought that he was born a year before the Great War? Or that he was older by one year than Dylan Thomas, who began his slow fade into history almost half a century before RS’ passing? And how many today realize that RS Thomas was actually seven years older than the church he was faithfully to serve as priest for over forty years? How many, moreover, remember that he chose to retire a few years before his time? Ever but a ‘turbulent priest’, he had never really forgiven the disestablished Church in Wales, still newly ‘independent’ when he was ordained, for its failure to break decisively with the Anglocentric British state of which it was no longer an official organ.

That failure on its part was for him acutely manifest in its failure to reconnect, after a century of anglicised estrangement, with its original Welshness. Introducing Thomas for the first time to ‘mainstream’ English writers in 1955, John Betjeman implicitly portrayed him, for all his ‘peculiar Welshness’, as essentially an English country priest, the latest in a genial line of parson poets stretching back to George Crabbe. He was, in fact, nothing of the sort. Rather, he was consciously the heir of the Hen Bersoniaid Llengar (Old Literary Clerics), and therefore of the visionary company of bishops, vicars and rectors who, ever since the Tudor foundation of the Church of England, had helped engineer the survival of the Welsh-language culture native to their country.

These were revered, and not merely reverend...

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