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Welsh poet R.S. Thomas was an ardent Welsh nationalist and advocate for independence. Although a native English speaker he learned and conversed in Welsh, although he never felt fluent enough to use it for his poetry. Yet in spite of his nationalist beliefs, his poems often painted bleak and highly critical pictures of Welsh people. Consider, from "On the Farm":

There was Dai Puw. He was no good.
They put him in the fields to dock swedes,
And took the knife from him, when he came home
At late evening with a grin
Like the slash of a knife on his face.

There was Llew Puw, and he was no good.
Every evening after the ploughing
With the big tractor he would sit in his chair,
And stare into the tangled fire garden,
Opening his slow lips like a snail.

Or from "A Peasant":

So are his days spent, his spittled mirth
Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks
Of the gaunt sky perphaps once a week.
And then at night see him fixed in his chair
Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.
There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.

Or from "A Welsh Landscape":

An impotent people
Sick with inbreeding
Worrying the carcase of an old song

How did Thomas reconcile his nationalistic sentiments with these extremely dim views of the Welsh people?

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    I know nothing about this guy or his works, but maybe he was trying to say that the Welsh people were so useless and "impotent" because of their oppression by the English?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 14, 2017 at 14:07
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    Also, who ever said nationalism made sense?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 14, 2017 at 14:07
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    I don't entirely understand the assumption behind the question, is it a given that Nationalism and a desire for your country to be independent should blind you to and gag you regarding realities of the people?
    – Spagirl
    Feb 15, 2017 at 11:34
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    It's certainly not uncommon to find nationalist writers who wrote dark material about their homeland, from JM Synge to Irvine Welsh. Political beliefs don't always coincide with artistic sensibility.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 17 at 20:53

2 Answers 2

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Thomas’s biographer Byron Rogers speculated that the bitter contempt exhibited in some the poems was provoked by the loneliness and alienation of the poet. After studying at university in Bangor and being ordained as an Anglican priest, Thomas took up the living of the remote parish of Manafon in Powys. Whatever romantic notions the young man had about life on Welsh hill farms must have been rapidly dispelled.

The loneliness is everywhere in the poems. Partly that of the priest in the lonely parish, cut off by his learning and his cloth, it is also the result of personal choice. ‘I had one or two friends at Bangor, but we didn’t keep in touch after. I haven’t got any now.’

Byron Rogers (2006). The Man Who Went Into the West, p. 8. London: Aurum.

Thomas’s subjects were not just his fellow countrymen, but his own parishioners and neighbours, and his insensitivity to them seems quite extraordinary. Perhaps he thought that ‘Iago Prytherch’ and ‘Llew Puw’ did not read or listen to poetry.

In 1998, forty-four years after he had left the village and two years before his death. R. S. Thomas came back to Manafon. […] But there was something even more remarkable about the visit. He had come to read his poems. ‘I had heard him read before,’ said Dr Glyn Tegai Hughes, who was there that night. ‘It was at Gregynog, and he said they would be in two sections, first the poems about Wales, then those about God. There would, he went on, be an interval. During the interval a very young girl got up and said, “What would you like to happen to Wales, Mr Thomas?” He said, “Send the English back, then concrete everything over.” “But what would you have to write about then, Mr Thomas?” He said, “This is probably a good time to go on to the second part.”

‘But the Manafon reading, that was an unusual event, at least that is how I remember it. There was certainly a feeling among some of the people there, it wasn’t just my feeling, that he owed some explanation to the people of Manafon.’ […]

The only thing was, his audience were the children of people whose half-witted grins1 he had described; he had talked about the frightening vacancy of their minds,2 mentioned their skulls,3 laughed at the hill-farmers of his parish on their brand-new tractors,4 and shown his readers around poverty-stricken home after poverty-stricken home.5 Some of those poems he read.

‘It was insensitive, you might say,’ said Hazel Boulton. ‘One of the poems he chose to read was about a man dying with his face to the wall.6 His people were in the church that night.’

Rogers, pp. 172–173.

1.,2. ‘A Peasant’ 3. ‘A Welsh Testament’ 4. ‘On The Farm’ 5. for example, ‘Evans’ 6. ‘Death of a Peasant’

The question asks, “How did Thomas reconcile his nationalistic sentiments with these extremely dim views of the Welsh?” Thomas’s response, “Send the English back, then concrete everything over” suggests that the answer might be that his nationalism was rooted in hatred of the English rather than love of the Welsh.

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    There's obviously a lot more to be said about Thomas's dislike of the Welsh, but I find it quite unpleasant to investigate, so someone else will have to do it! May 9, 2020 at 13:45
  • What you've researched is good enough for me. Thanks for casting light on a long standing query about one of my favourite poets. May 9, 2020 at 14:03
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Byron Roger's biography is funny as it is ruthless. He relied on Thomas's son for the biography. Things he said about his father were hurtful, if not odd, though I am sure he was wounded by Thomas's second marriage.

But Thomas seemed to identify the English with modernity in the same way a native would view a coloniser. His Wales was Eden before the Fall. It was hilly and damp, green and wet, the last one spot, except for the West of Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland (where he went bird watching) where the past hadn't vanished in the British Isles. He was very English in style, but of an upper class variety, and somewhat out of sync with his countrymen. This duality and contradiction might explain his nationalism.

This kind of contradiction is found in people, especially writers: Catholic intellectuals in Vietnam who loved the Confucian classics but saw Buddhism as a threat. Or slavophiles who spoke French better than Russian and insisted mother Russia was unique and non-western. Or the Syrian Christian Arabist poets who saw in the Quran the essence of Arab identity. Or the black Nationalist poet Amri Baraka married to a white woman. Thomas was among these sorts of people, and this tension proved creative.

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