I visited the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas in 1997. The visit turned out very differently from what I had expected, and I wrote an account soon afterwards. Here it is again for those who missed it when it appeared in the magazine PN Review.
August 1997 was an exceptionally hot month, and on one of its hottest afternoons I found myself following a faint footpath across rough sheep-pasture in the north-west corner of Anglesey, heading for Llanfairynghornwy.
I was in a state of trepidation, and not at all sure I was doing the right thing. The sweat induced by a slow progress uphill, over the acres of long dry grass, through rusted iron gates and over stiles built into dilapidated grey stone walls, did nothing to raise my confidence as the horizon shimmered and the village came into view, straggling along the side of a low hill. I plodded on in a spirit of grim determination.
For several years I had come with my family every summer to stay on a farm at Cemlyn, not far from Cemaes Bay. It was, in good weather, a quietly marvellous place. The sea was five minutes’ walk away. The roads were tiny and led only to other farms, or petered out by the shore, so cars were a rarity. A lighthouse, spectacular at sunset, blinked on the horizon in one direction; in the other, gently rolling fields stretched away to the skyline, dotted with sheep and the occasional house or ruined, enigmatic stone farm building. Seals groaned and hooted in chorus from the rocks, or lolled in the shallow offshore waters, occasionally lifting a round, doglike head to return one’s gaze, relaxed and supercilious. Children could be left to run wild over the fields or seashore whilst the adults did pretty much the same at a slower pace.
And every year, at some point during our visit, the farmer in whose house we stayed would tell me, as if for the first time, that I should visit R. S. Thomas, who, he said, lived nearby. Thomas, he would continue, was seen occasionally at the local church – a tiny ancient stone building, dedicated to an obscure Celtic saint, overlooking the sea from a nearby headland. Thomas had even taken the service there on occasion. Every year I would consider the suggestion and decide against following it. Not that I was at all reluctant to meet Thomas. On the contrary, I’d admired his poetry since I’d first encountered it at school. The notion of meeting him face-to-face was an attractive one. But it was also daunting. I had heard that Thomas was reclusive, that he didn’t like the English, and that he resented them above all as holiday-makers in his country. I would embody, I thought, everything he most disliked. In any case there was no obvious way of testing the water. No one seemed to know his address, though they could describe the house, and his telephone number was (of course) ex-directory.
I’m not sure what changed my mind. Partly, I suspect, the encouragement of my wife, generally braver about these things than I am myself. Also, perhaps, some intuitive sense that the years were passing, that the opportunity might not recur – followed (as in so many of life’s less comfortable situations) by the reflection that, at worst, the person concerned could only tell me to go to hell.
And so I found myself at last in Llanfairynghornwy, turning right at the village church and taking the road over the brow of the hill. The house was easily recognisable: a large former farmhouse with a traditional Anglesey courtyard, the various buildings converted into separate dwellings. There was a view towards the sea, about a mile away, and a large garden, evidently well-watered since it showed no sign of desiccation. An open hatchback was parked in the courtyard and a white-haired woman was unloading bags of shopping.
As I approached she turned towards me. It struck me that she was beautiful, and I was startled by the intensity of her pillar-box-red lipstick, a perfect match for the cardigan she wore despite the heat. There was now no turning back so I introduced myself and asked if R. S. Thomas lived here. I also presented my one small visiting card, in the form of a suggestion that Mr Thomas might remember an enthusiastic review of his Later Poems which I had once written for the T.L.S. It was, of course, the right house. The lady disappeared inside, and I could hear her calling ‘Ronald!’, followed by sounds of muted conversation.
Then Ronald loomed at the door, instantly recognisable: craggy face, white hair, towering height. He wore a blue shirt and grey trousers (as with many elderly men, the trousers somehow seemed to extend a long way up) and a tie exactly the shade of deep red favoured by traditional Labour Party supporters. If he was inwardly cursing my intrusion, he gave no sign of it. His welcome was subdued but unambiguous, and he asked me to come in. I had expected a Welsh accent, but he spoke with an almost exaggeratedly perfect English enunciation recalling BBC radio broadcasts from the 1940s and ’50s. The old phrase ‘cut glass’ floated into my head. I followed him along a passage (his walk a little shaky, a little shuffling, but his bearing very erect) into a cool, attractive sitting-room with stone walls, hefty exposed wooden beams, large windows and antique furniture, including some sofas covered with a sumptuous, satiny Chinese print fabric – Sanderson or the like. There were a great many books, and half of one wall was taken up entirely with the brown spines of something (periodical or vast reference work?) called British Birds.
Thomas seemed interested in the fact that I knew Professor Brian Cox, editor of the Critical Quarterly and my former boss, evidently an old friend, so we made conversation about him and other mutual acquaintances. Any tension rapidly dispersed. The lady in red was introduced to me as Betty: I assumed her to be Thomas’s wife, only learning long afterwards that they lived together as unmarried friends. She soon disappeared, returning with a tea tray loaded with, amongst other things, a rectangular lemon-iced sponge cake, cut into precise squares. (It was a very good cake, and when I said so Thomas looked gratified. ‘I made it myself,’ he confided, ‘in an off moment.’)
I suppose he asked me what I was doing in the area; at any rate I mentioned that I’d taken my son to fish from the old breakwater at Holyhead the previous day. Thomas immediately produced extensive information about which parts of which breakwater were the best for fishing. ‘My father worked on one of the Holyhead ferries,’ he said, ‘so I had a marvellous childhood. I could ride on the ferry-boats whenever I wanted.’ Holyhead, he said, was now very run down and had terrible drug problems, ‘but then it’s the same everywhere, isn’t it?’ Lately, after living for a long time in the Lleyn Peninsula, he had, as a keen ornithologist, moved to Anglesey for the birds. ‘But the birds are not nearly as interesting here as in the Lleyn. Though we do go down to Cemlyn occasionally, if there’s an unusual bird there…’
Holyhead is a strangely Irish town, its buildings and general atmosphere strongly coloured by the daily traffic with Dublin. I asked Thomas if he he’d had much contact with Irish writers in his youth. His eyes lit up and he explained that at the beginning of his career he’d been ‘taken up’ by Seamus O’Sullivan, editor of the Dublin Magazine, and had spent a good deal of time in Dublin. ‘O’Sullivan was an oldish man then, but still something of a dandy. Good clothes, close-cropped silver hair, attractive to women. And every so often he would produce a poem and show it round, saying “What do you think of this? I wrote it the other day…” But everyone knew that it had been in a drawer for twenty years. It was very sad. He couldn’t accept that he was no longer writing poems. Sheer vanity.’ O’Sullivan had advised Thomas to try the New English Weekly, ‘and that,’ he said, ‘is where my first poem appeared.’
Was Thomas himself, I wondered, still writing poems? ‘Still writing,’ he said, ‘but whether anyone else would call them poems is another matter. Anyone,’ he added, ‘can be pardoned for writing rubbish, but there’s no excuse for publishing it!’ Such aphorisms came from time to time throughout the afternoon; another was ‘Never believe what a man says in his poems. Art is art because it’s not nature, that’s my belief.’
I was curious to know what Thomas, as a uniquely gifted master of the short free-verse line, would think of William Carlos Williams. It turned out that he liked ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’ but was dismissive of the shorter poems, and had no time for ‘frippery like “Red Wheelbarrow”‘. He couldn’t really imagine, he said, how people could write poetry at a typewriter, ‘let alone a computer’. Williams, he thought, must have been ‘a very odd man.’
In current British and Irish poetry he saw no value whatsoever; or at any rate, ‘nothing of any significance.’ ‘Heaney?’ I ventured. ‘A better prose writer than a poet,’ was the reply. The only poet of any substance, he thought, was Geoffrey Hill. He asked me if I’d seen Hill’s latest book, Canaan. I said I’d read a few of the poems in Agenda and hadn’t much liked them, so I’d avoided looking at the book itself for fear of disappointment. ‘I’m afraid you were right,’ said Thomas. ‘But he has been very ill lately, he’s had heart trouble and so on, and I suppose it’s affected his poems. But his publishers should have noticed the lapse in quality even if he didn’t.’
Thomas had recently met Czeslaw Milosz at the house of Dennis O’Driscoll, a mutual friend, and they’d got on well. Thomas thought Milosz ‘a very nice man’. (‘A very physically powerful man too,’ Betty added.)
Since I was then working with Kathleen Raine on Temenos Academy Review I asked Thomas if he knew her. Not really, he said. He’d met her at Vernon Watkins’s memorial service. He didn’t greatly like her poems, though there were ‘a few good ones’. He had included four of them in his Penguin Book of Religious Verse. He had heard her speak on some occasions, and been mildly amused at her self-esteem; he claimed to have heard her refer to herself as ‘the world’s leading Blake scholar’.
Betty had a good deal to say on the associated subject of Gavin Maxwell, author of Ring of Bright Water, for whom Kathleen Raine had cherished an unrequited passion (chronicled in The Lion’s Mouth, the third volume of her Autobiographies). Betty had, it seemed, lived with her first husband next door to Maxwell, and had had to look after ‘the blessed otters’ when he was away. They had been a huge handful. ‘And,’ she said, ‘don’t believe half of what Gavin said about them in his books.’ I asked whether she had been bitten (otters are ferocious biters, and the broadcaster Terry Nutkins, a former Maxwell protégé, lacks a finger to prove it). ‘No,’ said Betty, ‘but then my husband was a hunting man and he wasn’t going to stand any nonsense from a couple of otters.’ That seemed to settle it.
Betty also knew the explorer Wilfred Thesiger (‘A very nice, genuine man,’ put in Ronald). Gavin Maxwell had, said Betty, conceived a notion that he would like to go to the Arabian ‘Empty Quarter’ with Thesiger, so they had met in London to talk about it. Ten minutes had been long enough to convince Thesiger that under no circumstances would he go to the Empty Quarter or any other place on earth with Maxwell. ‘Thesiger,’ Thomas summed up, ‘had nothing of the playboy in him. Whereas Maxwell…’
Somehow we got on to the subject of poetry readings. Thomas was wary of Performance Poets. He wouldn’t, he said, want to read on the same platform as one of them (an unlikely scenario, it seemed to me, though I didn’t say so), ‘those people who use drums and jazz and things, I think I should come off very much the worse, very discomfited.’ Ted Hughes he thought a good reader, of ‘plainness and intensity’. He found himself irritated, he said, by ‘poets who end the last line with “thank you very much” as if it were the last words of the poem. W. B. Yeats used to do that. Are they anxious to get away?’ (‘Or maybe just polite,’ Betty put in.)
Thomas said he had travelled to read at a festival at Cley in Norfolk, agreeing to go partly because it is a famous bird-watching site. One section of the audience turned out to be made up of local fishermen and the like, and ‘afterwards one of them came up to me confidentially and said, “Now you’re a real poet, you are.” I was very pleased at that.’
Betty said that even now and despite his lack of gimmicks, teenagers in Thomas’s audiences seemed enthralled by him. ‘You do have to rehearse to go on the reading circuit,’ said Thomas. ‘Ronald’s training for the ministry has probably helped there,’ added Betty.
In due course the conversation turned to the question of what work I was doing. I said I was editing De Quincey’s complete writings, and also Graves’s The White Goddess. Rather to my surprise both Thomases turned out to be enthusiastic about De Quincey. ‘Especially,’ said Ronald, ‘”The Flight of the Kalmuck Tartars”‘. Betty asked how my eyes were standing up to the work, adding that ‘one thing about poetry is that you don’t have to bother so much with footnotes’. I pointed out that some poets – Southey for example – had used a great many. Was there a correlation: the more footnotes, the worse poet? Thomas cited David Jones as a counter-example, ‘though some of his could have been better omitted. It’s annoying to find a reference to Llangollen and then a note saying “pronounced Thlangothlen” or something like that. You’d be better off without that kind of thing; but then David Jones was always very meticulous.’
As for Robert Graves, Thomas thought him ‘a good poet and a good influence’. John Crowe Ransome, also a good poet, ‘came entirely from his [Graves’s] work.’ Graves had written too much, Thomas thought, but considering the period when he had lived, yes, he had done well. (I was unable to get elucidation of this tantalising remark about the ‘period’.) Asked what he thought of The White Goddess, Thomas said he’d never read it. ‘More Kathleen Raine’s department than mine,’ he added, whereupon Betty hazarded the suggestion that perhaps Kathleen Raine had been one of Graves’s ‘mistresses’. Ronald rejected this idea firmly. ‘I don’t think so. No, Kathleen Raine was a bluestocking; and Graves, like Yeats, preferred them…’ The sentence was left unfinished, but its drift was clear enough.
Betty mentioned that she was trying to fill gaps in their collection of Thomas’s own books. They lacked, especially, copies of his first three volumes (The Stones of the Field, An Acre of Land and The Minister), and also ‘a little book for children’ (which I cannot identify). Booksellers, she said, offered his early books at around £150 ‘and they won’t reduce them, even for the author, even without the jacket.’ ‘Well,’ said Thomas, ‘they’re not in the bookselling trade for love.’
It was getting towards evening so I left soon afterwards, with invitations from the Thomases to visit again. I never did, though we exchanged one or two letters and Thomas sent a good poem for Temenos Academy Review (where, through no fault of mine, it failed to appear). Within a few months the Thomases left Anglesey for another part of Wales, and some two years after that R. S. Thomas died.
To me, that afternoon at Llanfairynghornwy is still a bright and happy spot in memory, and I remain deeply grateful to the poet and his remarkable companion. Nothing of great significance, perhaps, was said or done. Still, an encounter between a famously ‘cantankerous’ Welsh Nationalist poet and a holidaying Englishman arriving unannounced on his doorstep might have been expected to turn out rather differently. Since his death, R. S. Thomas’s reputation as a poet has shown no sign of sagging, nor do I believe that it will. His integrity and independence have never been doubted. But it seems worthwhile putting on record that his virtues also included generosity, hospitality, wit, and the baking of excellent cakes.