R. S. Thomas

The Ley of the Land: R. S. Thomas’s places

A textual mapping of Wales. What would R. S. Thomas have made of that? Well, he would have wanted to know which language was being used, of course. He shared the vision expressed in one of Waldo Williams’s great poems, when he wrote of his beloved Preseli Mountains: ‘Dyma’r mynyddoedd. Ni fedr ond un iaith eu codi/ A’u rhoi yn eu rhyddid yn erbyn wybren cân’ ‘Here are the mountains. Only one language can raise them/ And set them in all their freedom against a sky of song.’ That was written years before Bruce Chatwin popularised the aboriginal idea of song-lines, but isn’t that exactly what Waldo is talking about?

And aren’t several of R.S.’s familiar poems of his early, Manafon, period, full of a frustrated search for exactly such a song-line, that he was convinced only the Welsh language could carry? He’d come to Manafon partly to learn Welsh. He did indeed learn Welsh when he was here. But he also learnt, immediately upon arrival, that there was no-one there who could speak Welsh to him. Modern, contemporary Manafon therefore could not speak directly to him at all as a poet. No wonder his Iago Prytherch is repeatedly represented as a kind of elective mute. Indeed, Iago Prytherch is a perfect synecdoche of R. S.’s Wales: the name is Welsh, like so many of the place names of modern Wales, but the modern person, like the modern place, is not Welsh speaking. Both person and place are for R. S. thus silently imprisoned within the names that are theirs but that they cannot authentically claim through speech.

It was here in Manafon that he learned a painful truth: to map modern Wales was largely to record the disjunction between names and places, between names and people. ‘Have we not seen,’ he wrote in ‘Abercuawg, ‘Rhydlafar becoming Red Lava, Penychain become Penny-Chain, Cwm Einion becomes Artists’ Valley, Porthor becomes Whistling Sands.’ Even when he reached Aberdaron he sardonically noted that his beloved Porth Neigwl had become Devil’s Mouth! And he added in his Abercuawg Lecture, ‘There are still a few Branwens in Wales. Did I not hear the name once and turn, thinking she might steal my heart away? Who did I see… a girl to whom Wales was no more than a name, and a name fast becoming obsolete.’ It must, he wistfully imagined, be so different in England. ‘Rose Cottage, because it had/ Roses. If all things were as/ Simple!….It was registered in the heart/ Of a nation, and so, sure/ Of its being.’

Manafon was no Rose Cottage. But its Welsh name did have the power to speak to him and thus to call, or sing, this otherwise barren place into authentic being. Almost as soon as he began to learn Welsh, he must have learnt that Manafon means just that – a Man, or place, near an afon, or river. Hence, his beautiful description of the church – his church – in an early poem: ‘built of the river stone, brittle with light.’ The Church is, for him, a Welsh Llan, a sacred building deliberately placed, like so many of the humble churches of the Celtic Saints, near a source of water, the mysterious spiritual element so beloved by the Celts.

And Manafon church spoke to him, too, in another way. Because as he learnt Welsh, so he began to ‘place’ himself, so to speak, on the ancient map of Welsh-language culture. He came to locate himself as rector of Manafon, with reference not to the contemporary parish, but with reference to its past, the past he found most sympathetically embodied in one of his eminent predecessors as Rector, Gwallter Mechain, whose given name was Walter Davies. He’d been a significant member of that golden generation of early nineteenth-century Welsh Anglican clerics who had pioneered a scholarly revival of Welsh-language culture. And Thomas honoured him for providing that culture with historical resources sufficient for the making of a modern nation. He had, or so Thomas paradoxically stated in a commemorative poem, succeeded in lighting ‘Welsh/ confidently on its way backward to an impending future.’ Yet his Manafon parishioners had been as deaf to his message and as blind to his vision as Thomas’s Manafon parishioners of a later age had been deaf and blind to his own exhortations.

‘For Wales, see landscape’, could be taken as the motto of many English visitors across the past two centuries and down to our very own. For this, R. S. sought to substitute another aphorism: ‘For Welsh landscape, see history.’ You’ll all remember famous instances in his poetry of the very different kind of textual mapping of Wales that then resulted, as in these lines from ‘Welsh Landscape’: ‘To live in Wales is to be conscious/ At dusk of the spilled blood/ That went to the making of the wild sky,/ Dyeing the immaculate rivers.’ I like that quietly disquieting pun in the word ‘dyeing,’ as I relish the wit in his use of blood, rather than the watercolours of English romantic painters, for colouring the map of river and sky in Wales a lurid red. And as the poem proceeds, it is again the Welsh language that alone can provide this landscape with the depth that is its history: ‘There is the language for instance,/ The soft consonants/ Strange to the ear, / There are cries in the dark at night/ As owls answer to the moon’. The syntax here allows for two interpretations. The most obvious is that he is referring to two different features of Wales, first to the language, and secondly to the history-haunted landscape. But he could also be understood to suggest that the language is itself a history-haunted landscape; that in the ‘soft consonants’ of Welsh the foreign ear may suspect it hears ‘cries in the dark at night/ as owls answer the moon.’ The Welsh language is, for R. S. Thomas, its own strange, historic landscape of vowels and consonants. And it is that that makes it consonant – forgive my own pun – with the Welsh physical landscape itself.

The deep fusion of language and landscape is a repeated trope in Thomas’s poetry. It is made explicit, for instance, in his poem ‘Welcome’, where incomers to Wales are warned they can penetrate the country geographically very easily but must nevertheless ‘stop at the bar/ The old bar of speech.’ To penetrate to this country’s heart, it is necessary to travel elsewhere and otherwise, ‘Past town and factory/ …back/ To the cold bud of water/ In the hard rock.’ And as the context makes plain, that ‘bud of water’ is the wellspring of the Welsh language itself, as the ‘hard rock’ is the bedrock of Welsh-language culture. Modern linguistics would make short work of exposing the Romantic fallacy of such a naïve misconception of language. But my concern here is to identify some of the key enabling myths and seminal tropes that give this poetry its potency.

In another celebrated poem, R. S. pointedly reads the modern Welsh landscape not as harmoniously consonant with the Welsh language but as dissonant from it and thus doomed to dereliction. You’ll all recall the poem, ‘The Welsh Hill Country’:

Too far for you to see
The moss and the mould on the cold chimneys,
The nettles growing through the cracked doors,
The houses stand empty at Nant-yr-Eira,
There are holes in the roofs that are thatched with sunlight,
And the fields are reverting to the bare moor.

‘Nant-yr-Eira’, a lovely name indeed: ‘Snow stream’. To neglect the language of the place is, for R. S., to neglect the place itself. This is his Welsh equivalent of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, where decay of language also memorably results in the desolation of place.

And then, you’ll remember, the poem ends like this: ‘There’s a man still farming at Tŷ’n y Fawnog,/ Contributing grimly to the accepted pattern,/ The embryo music dead in his throat.’ ‘Tŷ’n y Fawnog’: no Welsh-speaker of Thomas’s generation could possibly have heard that name without a pricking up of ears. It would have immediately brought to mind Wales’s greatest iconic painting, mass reproduced by the Leverhulme company as the brand image of its Sunlight Soap. Many of you, too, will surely remember it. It’s Curnow Vosper’s ‘Salem’, that picture of an old woman in Welsh costume, complete with tall chimney hat, making her stately way to her pew in a chapel where the faithful are already sitting, devoutly deep in prayer. Corny, yes. But undeniably effective – and appearing, in 1908, when Welsh Nonconformity, following the ’04-’05 Revival, was still aglow with self-satisfaction.

Decades later, and not long before R.S.’s poem ‘The Welsh Hill Country’ was written, the popular Welsh-language writer T. Rowland Hughes wrote what became a beloved poem about Vosper’s painting, that included the following lines:

Mor felys, wedyn, yw eich byd di-sôn
Sian Owen, Tŷ’n y Fawnog, Wiliam Sion!
How sweet, then, is your private world
Sian Owen Tŷ’n-y-Fawnog, Wiliam Sion!

Thomas would have known these widely remembered lines, I’m sure, and would have intended them to provide the cultural sub-text of his poem. The allusion buried in his lines about the nameless man still farming at Tŷ’n y Fawnog thus turns them into both an elegiac comment on what has become of Vospor’s thriving rural Nonconformist culture and into a kind of lesson on what, for R. S., it really takes to read the landscape of modern Wales and to map its distinctive features. Any true description of that landscape has to take the form of what Clifford Geertz memorably called ‘thick description’. It’s a description that involves inscription – the writing back into landscape of its cultural message. The failure of the modern Welsh to accomplish this inscription renders them, in Thomas’s eyes, little more than tourists in their own country.

I have, then, been concerned with outlining, simply and crudely, key features of what might be called R. S. Thomas’s Manafon condition – a condition that only worsened during those unfortunate and unhappy years he subsequently spent at Eglwys-Fach. But what then of his final – and to me, great – period at Aberdaron and at Rhiw? ‘He belongs there, on a peninsula’, wrote John Tripp, ‘an inset/ off the main map.’ So how did the map of Wales appear to him, as viewed in and from the remote peninsula of Llŷn? Well, that’s a different, very complicated, story, and I have time left only to signal one key adjustment I feel he ended up making to his Manafon vision.

It’s to be found conveniently encapsulated in a lovely, quiet poem about the primitive Elizabethan stone cottage ‘Sarn Rhiw’, that became his home following his retirement (460).

So we know
she must have said something
to him – what language,
life? Ah, what language?
Thousands of years later
I inhabit a house
whose stone is the language of its builders.

We’re back, then, with stone – the stone that reconciled R. S. to that otherwise alien church of his at Manafon, because it was river stone, and therefore could be credibly seen as an incarnation of place, as viewed in deep time. However, he viewed that Manafon stone not as a manifestation of an enduring local social collective, but as consolatory counterweight to his social isolation. Not so, I feel, his identification with the stone boulders in his cottage at Rhiw. Architects sometimes talk of buildings as being ‘in idiom’, by which they mean that they are in keeping, in terms of design and materials, with the distinctive features of their locality. But, of course, ‘idiom’ is more familiarly used to indicate figures of speech distinctive to a given language, and therefore peculiarly resistant to translation. What R. S. senses in the stone structure of his cottage is its idiomatic character, the way it speaks the language of its builders, and is therefore uniquely expressive not only of a distinctive physical locality but of a distinctive human community sustained across time. And in identifying with those boulders, he is identifying also with the past builders, as he never could do at Manafon. He even sees his own life as contributing to the future life of his cottage, as permeating the ancient stone walls, so as to seep out into the lives of future inhabitants: ‘In April,/ when light quickens and clouds thin,/ boneless presences/ flit through my room.// Will they inherit me/ one day?’

So what had changed? More than I could possibly mention here, except for one important feature. Too little attention, I feel, has hitherto been paid to one of the most important sources of the ever more inclusive, unorthodox, and perhaps even post-Christian character of Thomas’s spirituality during the last two decades of his life. That source is the early retirement he took as priest in the Church in Wales. Early, I stress, because that fact has been consistently overlooked and its implications ignored, although he himself highlighted it. He retired early, because he had become alienated by the liturgical and other reforms that were being implemented by his church. Legend has it he burned his cassock on the Aberdaron beach to celebrate his freedom.

One crucial result of alienation and consequent retirement was the increasingly extra-mural turn Thomas’s spirituality took, deepening his sense not of the church but of the Llŷn peninsula as sacred space – sacred both because of its sublime geological antiquity, and because, as Dorian Llywelyn has pointed out in his important volume Sacred Place, Chosen People, ‘the patina of generations’ experience of the sacred in one particular location may render that place sacred, perceived as being open in some special way to the transcendent.’ Such locations may be found along the lines of medieval pilgrimage that criss-cross Europe, and as R. S. knew, one such pilgrimage route ran, like a mystical ley line, through Llŷn to Enlli (Bardsey).

Sensitive to Llŷn’s sacredness, R. S. repeatedly imaged the region as a liminal locality, ‘a bough of land between sea and sky with the clouds for apple-blossom, white by day, pink toward evening. This is where he had crawled out, far as he could go, repeating the pilgrimage of the saints.’ And there he lived in ‘A four-hundred-year-old-cottage, that remembered centuries of Welsh tenancies… It was a sounding-box in which the sea’s moods made themselves felt.’ You’ll notice that here, at the last, he celebrates the union, through communion, of place and people as he never could do in Manafon.

Can we, then, meaningfully map the places of Thomas’s poetry on to the physical map of Wales? Self-evidently not. Because his Manafon can never be the Manafon to which the map directs us. Nor can that map ever disclose to us the location of his Llŷn. And there’s one further, final complication. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth, a zany noir spoof of Raymond Chandler, Malcolm Pryce has his private eye, Louie Knight, buy a ticket to Nantyronen that includes ‘admission to the Iago Prytherch home-stay.’ Having reached his destination, he is guided by signs such as ‘You are now entering Iago Prytherch Country,’ and ‘The bald hills’, and so reaches the hovel (‘Warning: spittled mirth’) where Iago himself huddles. Parody of this order is an inverted tribute to the power of R. S. to recreate the landscape of Wales in the very image of his obsessions. We cannot ever place his poetry on any Welsh map because important parts of that map have already been occupied and thus re-placed by his poetry. For some of us he has forever altered the lie of our land.


M. Wynn Thomas is Professor of English and Emyr Humphreys Professor of Welsh Writing in English at CREW (Centre for Research into the English Literature of Wales), Swansea University.