Tuesday 26 March 2013


So, it's 100 years since the birth of R S Thomas, the greatest English-language poet of the post-war 20th century (although a bitter critic of English culture). Whether R S is the equal of the best poet of the early 20th century - Thomas Hardy - is a moot point. Hardy wins easily on structure and form but R S Thomas arguably explores deeper truths. I have previously put them head to head here. In 1999 we nearly lined up R S through a local contact in Criccieth to judge a Hafal poetry competition but sadly it didn't come off and he died soon after.

I have an odd habit of getting up very early on Sundays and sometimes listen while out walking to Radio 4's "Something Understood" - a religious programme usually presented by Mark Tully. However, it is infuriatingly bad, an unholy (ho ho) mix of woolly Christianity and even woollier spiritualism. I don't say this because I am not religious (though I am not) but I can tell the difference between something rigorously argued and something...well, woolly.

So it was good this Sunday to hear a contrastingly excellent programme on Radio Wales (not known for great programmes I'm afraid) in the series "All Things Considered" in which R S's life and poetry were celebrated with a particular attention to his faith. If you are interested it can be found on this link.

Like a lot of people I enjoy Thomas because his poetry isn't airy fairy but about very concrete stuff. But this programme, which included contributions from the Archbishop of Wales, demonstrated convincingly how R S's observations of nature informed his understanding of God, not least through the cycle of renewal and resurrection demonstrated by the seasons of the year. There are some great clips of RS himself talking very precisely and succinctly about his beliefs.

I particularly liked the way he suggests that, in contrast to the natural world on Earth, cosmological physics, for example the apparently endless and mechanical system of the Universe, is not so much a matter of celebration as an object of fear. How honest that is, the point being that physics no doubt offers a true enough explanation of the material world but it offers nothing but a label of insignificance to mankind, notwithstanding all the obvious (and so dull) guff churned out about the wonders of science by Dawkins, Grayling and co. How shallow and insignificant these shrill "philosophers" appear beside the giant Thomas.

R S Thomas is notorious for a frigid humourlessness but I do think I can detect an acute, satirical sense of fun in the poet, admittedly buried deeper than space.