RS Thomas

RS Thomas

Last updated: 11 November 2008

Ronald Stuart Thomas is one of Wales' most commanding literary figures, with a writing career that spanned five decades and produced over 20 volumes of poetry.

RS Thomas was a man of confusing ambiguity and contradictions. He was a fervent supporter of the Welsh language and nationhood, with a deep resentment of the anglicisation of Wales - causing outrage when he publicly praised arsonists who firebombed English-owned holiday homes in Wales in the late 1980s and early 1990s - yet he spoke English in a cut-glass Oxford accent, married an English woman and sent his son to an English boarding school.

Born in Cardiff in 1913, Thomas' family settled at Holyhead in Anglesey five years after his birth as his father's occupation in the Merchant Navy entailed travel during his early years. Thomas read Classics at the University College of North Wales in Bangor before receiving theological training at St. Michael's College in Llandaff. In 1936 he was ordained as a clergyman into the Anglican Church in Wales and served his first curacies in north east Wales, at Chirk, Denbighshire and at Hanmer in Flintshire.

It was while as a rector at Manafon, Montgomeryshire (where he served between 1942 and 1954) Thomas began learning the Welsh language and published his first three volumes of poetry: The Stones of the Field (privately printed, 1946), An Acre of Land (1952) and The Minister (1955).

Song at the Year's Turning (1955), in effect a collected edition of his first three works, quickly followed and gained acclaim. It included a preface written by John Betjeman, who wrote: "The name which has the honour to introduce this fine poet to a wider public will be forgotten long before that of RS Thomas." This praise was echoed, with the Royal Society of Literature bestowing the Heinemann Award in recognition of Thomas' collection.

In 1954 he moved to Cardiganshire, becoming vicar of St Michael's Church in Eglwys Fach. He stayed here until 1967, in which time he wrote the volumes Poetry for Supper (1958), Tares (1961), The Bread of Truth (1965) and Pietà (1966). In 1964, Thomas was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.

Having searched for a truly 'Welsh' environment in which to live, Thomas next moved to Aberdaron in Caernarvonshire in 1967. What is a Welshman? was published in 1974, but Thomas wrote nothing further about Wales until 1987, when Welsh Airs was published.

Thomas retired in 1978 to Sarn Rhiw, a cottage in the grounds of Plas yn Rhiw, set above Porth Neigwl on the Llyn Peninsula. His retirement spawned Between Here and Now (1981) and Ingrowing Thoughts (1985), and it was here that he wrote Neb (1985), his autobiography written in Welsh and the third person. Of his later works, Mass for Hard Times (1992) was dedicated to late wife Elsi after her long fight with ill health ended.

In 1996, at the age of 83, Thomas was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, though he lost out to Seamus Heaney, who later provided Thomas' eulogy at a tribute in Westminster Abbey. Thomas returned to Anglesey with his second wife, Elisabeth Vernon, in his final years.

RS Thomas died at Pentrefelin in September 2000, acclaimed as one of the greatest writers of poetry in English in the second half of the twentieth century. His ashes were buried in the grounds of St John's, Porthmadog, Gwynedd. His legacy lives on, helped by the R.S. Thomas Study Centre at Bangor University, set up following his appointment to an Honorary Professorship in the Welsh Department.

Selected bibliography

  • The Stones of the Field (1946)
  • Song at the Year's Turning (1955)
  • Ingrowing Thoughts (1985)
  • Neb (1985)
  • Mass for Hard Times (1992)

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