By Byron Rogers (Aurum Press, 320 pp., £16.99)
I am not notably frivolous, but whenever I read R. S. Thomas’s poetry, or his biography, I cannot help but reflect that, like the majority of mankind, I have spent most of my life chasing false gods. Thomas had a similar effect on others: John Betjeman, in his introduction to Thomas’s first collection of poems published by a major publisher (in 1955), said that Thomas would be remembered long after he, Betjeman, was forgotten. And Kingsley Amis, writing a year later, said of Thomas’s work that it “reduces most modern verse to footling whimsy.” These tributes bring to mind Joseph Haydn’s words to Mozart’s father, on receipt of the six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to him: “I swear before God, and as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer known to me, either in person or by name.”
Ronald Stuart Thomas was one of the most extraordinary literary figures of the twentieth century. He was born in 1913 and died in 2000. He was an Anglican priest in remote Welsh parishes for all of his working life. He wrote in English and spoke in the accents of an upper class Englishman (which he was not by birth). While English titles of nobility impressed him, he was a strong, even fanatical, Welsh nationalist, who learned Welsh at 30 and sometimes pretended not to speak English. Though a Christian, he was by no means always charitable. He was known for his awkwardness and taciturnity; most photographs show him as formidable, bad-tempered, and apparently humorless.