Recently I had the honour of visiting the church where the poet R.S.Thomas spent time preaching. Reading through his poetry whilst immersed in the body of the whitewashed stone building where he questioned his life’s work as a minister of God put me closer to his words and their meaning.
This little blog post is not a biography, but a tribute from the heart and pen of someone who thinks she understands.
The church of Saint Hywyn in Aberdaron is a deep grey sturdy building standing solidly on the cliff. Its exterior shouts of defiance in the face of many a winter storm. Built by a people who need nothing fancy to proclaim their faith, and who do not regard humility as weakness, the church was created to endure rather than impress.
It almost didn’t endure – it was in such a state of disrepair that a new church was built in Bodernaby. However, the people came back to St Hywyn’s and the restoration work was completed.
Internally, the space is bigger than the outside suggests. Once through the big door, it envelopes the spirit in a blanket of peace. The air moves freely – it gladly gives of itself to replenish the bodies of those who enter its space. It accepts the exhalation, soothing the troubles that are breathed into its midst. Then it hands us back the same experiences, wrapped in the gift paper of detachment. We can reopen our worries and see them through the eyes of God. What or whoever you deign God to be.
How insignificant so many of our petty concerns are.
As for the bigger ones, it helps just to feel that someone – or something – has listened.
The poet R.S.Thomas – his truth
Whilst in this forgiving space, 1967 to 1978, the poet R.S.Thomas felt free to document his crisis of faith. His doubts about his ministry, his doubts too about those who came to listen are more than a grumpy old man moaning about his arthritic knees on frosty mornings. These are the deep questions that keep people awake at night – whether they know it or not.
Maybe the church of St Hywyn feels accepting and forgiving because of R.S. Thomas’ musings. Perhaps he opened the doors to a realm where such existential doubts are welcomed. They are seen as the workings of a healthy mind rather than heresy to be crushed by shame.
Crushing an enquiring mind either destroys it or cracks open the seed pods to allow the bitter mixed aroma of clarity and confusion to overwhelm.
Poets like R.S. Thomas present the world to us with a refreshingly new perspective. Not sugary-sweet, not wordy, but brutally honest and open.
He saw the harshness of the natural world. And yet he fought against the rise of consumerism – white goods and modern devices were a distraction, the temptation away from spirituality and towards decadence and laziness. He practised what he preached – he lived apart from society in a frugal manner.
His search for meaning is inspiration to those who have similar questions. Not necessarily about faith in God or the church but concerning meaning in life. Is there one – does there need to be one.
Why do we seek meaning in life?
Why do human beings seek a meaning for their short lives? They spend much of their time on this earth either spiritually asleep or rushing towards the exit without looking around them. Where is the meaning in that?
The hours Thomas spent contemplating life and God in this church would have received no response from the stone walls. They would have heard his words, absorbed his thoughts with that stoic strength born and bred into the Welsh people and their country. But there would have been no comment.The walls would not have judged. But neither would they have crumbled in shock.
The poet R.S.Thomas offers no answers in his poetry. He passes eloquently painted comment about faith and life in general. He sees nature and the passing of the seasons with an eye not many are blessed with. But his questions are not anyone else’s questions. All R.S. Thomas did was to allow his own to words to fly freely to whoever may need them.
Maybe he just accepted a lack of meaning in the end. Or perhaps he found his.
Then came politics!
He also questioned Welsh national issues – the watering down of the Welsh into a dilute “British” seems to have troubled him greatly.
Undoubtedly, this bothers each of the nations which have been dropped into the British melting pot. Naturally, as a consequence, causing age-old enmity and tensions to resurface. And, of course, there will be rumblings in each county whose accents and customs are being discarded into antiquity by the modern fad to be someone you are not.
Britain will consist of a muddled assimilated group of people who have forgotten their roots and who therefore have no affinity to their ancestors. But they’ll know which mobile phone provider group they belong to. See…Thomas was right.
My Suffolk ancestry
I am from Suffolk. My heritage is farming and fishing. Not that I do either! Goodness knows where this desire to write comes from! Maybe it haunted my ancestors but was buried beneath the need to earn a living?
My Suffolk accent is strong enough for me to be mistaken for an Australian. (There’s another story). But the Suffolk folklore and dialect words are disappearing into the mists of time. It is sad that my children would have barely understood their own great grandparents.
But – it seems that my maternal grandfather’s family name is actually Norman in origin. His family roots, now deeply embedded in Suffolk soil, stem from invaders! Suffolk you see has been subject to invasions and immigration for millennia. That creates my own crisis of identity…
R.S. Thomas style.
Suffolk…a gentle land of gentler people. Softly rolling lips between flat plains speak with a burred tongue. The sea licks at the edges and nibbles away a beach at a time – But no-one complains, no-one acts. Indeed, Suffolk apologises for being in the way and moves over Inch by inch, cliff by cliff, So as not to cause offence. Farmers till the land, fishermen harvest the water The same as it has always been, An age-old life and death passed down without question By folk who do not threaten the thrones of the lofty - Doffing caps and averting eyes, Lest they commit the sin of aspiration and hope. No mountains here to cast a shadow across the land, No rocky outcrops to hide the sun and send shivering breezes. Yet dark mists lurk in the hearts of the gentle Suffolk folk, Distant memories that trouble their souls in that elusive space between wake and sleep. For these decent, inoffensive people Carry the ghosts of those who invaded this unguarded land And of those too who were crushed. The ghosts of those who lost the fight against the attackers, And those who turned a blind eye, allowed the raid, Rose a glass with them, laid with them…. Within the mind of Suffolk folk is a patchwork of guilt As vibrant as the little square fields and meadows which bore witness to the bloodshed Or the shame of the capitulation. A battle raging still – For they are descended from those who conquered, The subdued and those who chose to look away. That uneasy intermingling of “them” and “us,” Living the same life, in the same mind, same body, The same blood that was spilled in battle Or spread beside the hearths of an accepting people. To hate the invading hoard is to hate one’s own kin, To loathe the vanquished is to feel the grandfathers’ shame. For we are the sons and daughters of both. Blood boiled in the mixing pot of history, cooled across the centuries And left to settle as the taste of self-hatred diminishes Into a bland dish of denial.
Back to Wales-
The scenery around Aberdaron is amongst the best our island has to offer. The Llyn peninsula seems to the poet to be a place of magic and harsh reality, undoubtedly the stuff great poems are born from. Of course, to the Welsh folk it is a place of hard work, grinding out an existence from the hills and water. The scenery did not bring them bread until tourism was born.
I can understand Thomas’ deep desire to keep Wales Welsh. Despite his criticisms of the Welsh people’s slide towards Anglicisation and consumerism, he was deeply rooted in his country. On each visit, I try to absorb a little more of the necessary language so I can understand without needing the English translation. It’s the least I can do.
I would like to do similar with by own dialect – to demand its use. But I fear for us simple Suffolk folk that that ship has sailed. A ghost ship, masts hung with sheets upon which are painted the language of my kin-folk. Dwoile, mauther, marn’t – slowly fading in the setting of the Suffolk sun. The last call to the button boy of “blust boi, y duzzy fewel, get yo dow-en afore y fall” dies on the evening air.
I wish R.S. Thomas has been from Suffolk to defend our language and culture! Sure, we have John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough…but a painting will never replace a few well chosen words!
Take care my beauties…Trudi