R.S. Thomas,
(Phoenix, 1997)

Welsh poet R.S. Thomas passed away late in 2000. In this book, a series of autobiographical essays published originally in Welsh (as Former Paths, The Creative Writer's Suicide, No-One and A Year in Llyn) Thomas takes us from the beginning of his long life almost to the end.

Thomas, one of the century's most accomplished and acclaimed poets in English, a Nobel nominee in 1996, preferred Welsh in almost every aspect of his life save for the poetry that made his name known outside his parish. Sadly, he did not feel he could write poetry in his national language.

Having learned Welsh after the age of 30, he was able to write prose (including these works) in Welsh but considered writing poetry in Welsh as "the creative writer's suicide." This was one of several ironies in the life of Thomas, an Anglican priest in one of the Welshest parts of Wales -- a Welsh nationalist who sent his son to private school in England.

Thomas spent the early part of his life moving around Wales moving from ministry to ministry, ever deeper into Welsh-speaking Wales. By mid-life, he had mastered the language and resolved to give English speakers the same treatment that Welsh speakers received in England (and even in parts of Wales), that of mute incomprehension. Living in Aberdaron, on the tip of the Llyn, where strangers still greet each other in Welsh, he made the language his last stand.

Besides being an observer and participant in politics, Thomas offers his reflections on religion and on nature in these four pieces that make up an autobiography. He's a pantheist, a vicar who thought reverence for the creation was more likely to come in a quiet secluded spot than in a church or chapel; a pacifist, but one ready to accept violence as a last resort to assure the survival of Wales as a nation.

Strangely, these Autobiographies reveal a man detached from his own family and himself. He refers to himself in the third person as "the vicar" and writes more passionately about the birds he watches than about the birth of his own child.

But his passion for his country comes through most of all. As the Western Mail, the national daily newspaper of Wales, wrote in his obituary, "His was the inner voice which reminded us of the loss we would all have to bear if we took the less demanding, less contentious course of allowing the Welsh language and its culture to be overwhelmed by the forces generated by modern society."

Last fall our family paid a visit to Aberdaron and to the little parish church, which today also serves as a memorial to R.S. Thomas. It is one of the most remote and beautiful villages in all of southern Britain, a place of both inspiration and isolation. Only in such a place could someone live so untouched by the forces of modernity, as is described in these works.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 1 February 2003

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