How to discover the poet?

18 December 2006

The Man Who Went Into the West: The life of R. S. Thomas
Byron Rogers

A detailed biography turns David Scott back,instead, to the poems

H’MMM . . . I really enjoyed one of Byron Rogers’s previous books, which was a delightful canter through the life of one of England’s lovable eccentrics; but his The Man Who Went Into the West, the life of the poet-priest R. S. Thomas, is altogether more complex and disturbing. I wondered why that should be.

Inevitably, it was something to do with Thomas’s character. Many people will know him only through his poems, and will feel that that is all they need to know. This book, although attentive to the poems at key points, and very helpfully so, is more concerned to wonder at his strange, troubled, politically incorrect life. The account of this is very readable, but in the end, I felt, it was at a tangent to the essence of the poet.

There are painful reports from Gwydion, Thomas’s son, and some revealing photographs of Thomas standing never quite close enough to Elsi, his wife, to indicate much physical affection on his part. We learn many interesting details of his calling as a parish priest. Yet all these details are easy to misconstrue; and biography seems now to become part of that compulsion to know more than we need. It is the struggle with the poems that, in the end, is going to feed us and satisfy us, because they are the carriers of his soul.

The reminiscences, the family history, the apparent aloofness, the coldness (personal and meteoro-logical), are all there, but the accounts given of Thomas often cancel each other out. Some people liked the pews that he painted black; some didn’t. Some thought him relaxed and friendly; others thought him rude. Some described him as a recluse; others, who went for long walks with him and shared his love of birds, found him companionable.


The fact that his life made a circle round the edge of Wales becomes the guiding metaphor of the book. There is a map to help us — Holyhead, Bangor, Chirk, Manafon, Eglwys-Fach, Pwllheli, Aberdaron, all skirting the geographical centre of Wales as Thomas himself skirted its language. He chose to write in English. The bullying he experi-enced at college was on account of his Englishness.

Poets and 20th-century priests live on the edge. Sometimes that is felt as being on the edge of society; at other times on the edge between the spiritual and the natural worlds; and at times as living on the edge of despair. All these three aspects of liminality went some way to shaping R. S. Thomas, and Rogers’s book helps us understand that.

The lasting tribute, of course, will be the poems; and as a result of this book I found myself going back to them with a renewed confidence. One person can’t be everything.

R. S. Thomas was a poet, and if the book takes us back to the poems, then the story will have done its work.

The Revd Canon David Scott is Rector of St Lawrence and St Swithun, in Winchester.

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

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