Byron Rogers, THE MAN WHO WENT INTO THE WEST: The Life of R.S. Thomas, Aurum Press, London, 2006
For calm before bedtime I had picked up Penguin Modern Poets 1, a landmark in publishing and my own life, to relax with Elizabeth Jennings who was the filling between Lawrence Durrell and R.S. Thomas. Yet restlessly and with a feeling bordering on tasting forbidden pleasures, it was Thomas that I read before sleep. Then the next day I was lent this biography, and by Saturday morning I had finished it.
Something there is that works mysteriously with books and connections between writers and readers. My response to this book has to be oblique and personal. But it can be said that Rogers is a fine writer, that he is considerate of the reader and provides fluency of observations as rests between stopping points where one moves from the horizontal mode to that of vertical reflection. As a whole, the book is structured extremely carefully despite the plethora of randomly assembled bricolage his researches and own involvement uncovered. Like the Thomas households and the remains of their days, binbags full of writings, shoeboxes full of mummified mice and animal skulls, one brown envelope containg a dead prawn, the piles of often bizarre and wonderful details texture the underlying currents of life narratives: not one narrative, several, and of more than one person and more than one body, culminating in an exposition of Thomas’s unadorned humanity and love, and his relationship with God, or rather God’s presence in absence. Then a crazy, life-drenched coda of the poet’s last years, almost a resurrection in its capturing of a life lived backwards from bleakness to light. Though finally becoming ‘part of a community which disappeared’ (culmination of a search for Wales that did not exist but like God pulled him ever on), and part of pacifist campaigning, local campaigning, Nationalist politics (in a peripheral sense), and though all this is interesting, it is his poetry that matters most, and his poetry is part of a greater, final community. The couple of Ronni and Elsi (“A stranger couple would be hard to find outside of fiction,” one witness remarks) makes for a deep and unsentimental story of two who rarely seen to touch, loved the more not less because they lived together alone. This latter is brought from the poems of R.S. and the diaries of Elsi; the rest, the more gaudy aspects of strangeness, his infamous rudeness and arrogance, his emulation of the English upper middle classes, disdain, contempt, and so on are all there in the commentaries; so, too, the many, many accounts of his kindness, his wicked humour, his endurance, his patience and so on.
Some of the details astounded me. That he was a life-long needer of Valium, for instance, chronically shy. That his second wife (of whom I had never heard), “A smoking, swearing,drinking/fox-hunting female”, was attracted to him because he was “such a good-looking man, really sexy” (they lived in sin as octagenarians). But I need to know none of this, for most of all the book confirms, or rather goes some way, to explain my attachment to his poetry. And also, I no longer feel quite so guilty in having mixed feelings about Wales.
I’ve done the trips to Aberdaron, one of the 30,000 incoming tourists each year R.S. so despised. I have sat on a cliff reading his poems while looking over to Bardsey Island, trying to feel spiritual and deep. But last time I went there – I had borrowed a car – all plans to camp and commune with deeper reality evaporated into the sunday sun. Caravans, bungalows, commercial enticements, a dour gaggle of church-suited Walians clutching black-cased bibles (though R.S. would have approved of the black), roads too efficient, Spars too common… I couldn’t wait to get away. And that dislike I have always had of Wales (despite youthful joys in Rhyl, timid ascents of Snowdon and lustful nights in Abergele) is simply that of my dislike for everywhere else, yet hardened by contrast with the doom-chorded sentimentalised histories of the place. Anyway, the mind is its own place, and Thomas is not for me, the great Welsh poet. He is much beyond Wales, and the Man who went West travelled further than the edge of the Lleyn.
There was another man who made metaphor of the West, the American poet Robinson Jeffers. He who built by hand Tor Tower on the edge of the ‘final Pacific’ and turned his back on the dead East (a collection after a visit to Europe was entitled ‘Descent to the Dead’). Since I had, long ago written a thesis on Jeffers, I had assumed that the similarities I saw with Thomas were largely generic. yet nine months before his death, in an interview, Thomas was talking of God when he said, “I’ve been much influenced by the American poet Robinson Jeffers, who says somewhere, ‘the people who talk of God in human terms, think of that!’” So, these connections I mentioned earlier between readers and writers and readers, matrices of coincidence, gifts ,and maybe inflections of love, have steered me now on a new course of exploration, and I can tell you some other poets we share.
In mornings it was Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard ( only a non-poet could argue they are philosophers), twin stars sharp with brilliance of intellect and contempt for turgid human constructions of the Divine or the Mysterious or the All. In passing, the biography gives away that Thomas judged his own work poorly against such a touchstone as Le Bateau Ivre: Rimbaud, that shatterer of human bounds and bonds yet master of the form of words. And Stevens, Wallace Stevens, perhaps the more important of all the poets to Thomas’s own formal project, Stevens the ultimate crafstman, artisan, and oblique carrier of the ungodded God, at once the Imagination, Coleridge’s primary imagination – there is a beautiful, wonderful description by Thomas of his own mystical rapture ‘alive with goldcrests’ – and the secondary imagination, of which Thomas wrote, in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Religious Verse, “The nearest we can approach to God, he appears to say, is as creative beings.”
This has been such a wonderful experience for me, this almost holy, that I doubt my words are to be trusted as a recommendation just now. But I think it is worth risking an enthusiastic affirmation, not only of the book, the writer and the poet but of the call of wonder and the timeless gift of sharing.