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A tale of two Thomases – a blog for St David’s Day

March 1, 2014

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Diversity of surname isn’t exactly a strength of the Welsh and it’s no surprise that two of its greatest poets are both called Thomas. Furthermore they were born within 18 months and 50 miles of each other. There of course, for the most part, the commonality ends.

The elder, R.S. Thomas, an introverted cleric who lived into the 21st century, the younger, Dylan Thomas, a hell raising celebrity whose life was tragically cut short in 1952 before he had even reached the age of 40.

Both warrant being considered great poets with reputations in both the land of their birth and beyond. Dylan Thomas, for me, is in the tradition of the medieval Welsh bards such as Dafydd ap Gwilym. He has a mastery of language and of the form of verse of which is worthy of the ancient bardic tradition and was, as well, a wonderful performer. His personal life bears some resemblance too with his drinking, his scrapes and love affairs. Dylan himself could have a character in a modern-day version of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poem “Trafferth mewn Tafarn” (Trouble in the Pub).

R.S., by contrast, I think of as an inheritor of the tradition of Welsh ascetics, fierce figures such as St David, settled in their lonely Llan (or monastic cell), communing with nature as much as they did with their fellow-men. There are stories about R.S. but of a very different character to those about his fellow poet.

Of course both wrote in English but for both the Welsh language had some importance. Dylan Thomas, despite coming from a Welsh speaking family, did not speak the language himself. Nonetheless his poetry appears to be influenced by the sounds and forms of the ancient traditions of Welsh poetry. R. S. Thomas learnt Welsh as an adult but to his own disappointment was, after a small attempt, never confident enough to express himself as a poet in Welsh although he did write prose works in the language. As poets the use of English as a medium has increased their appeal, given further resonance in Dylan Thomas’ case, by the fame he developed in life and death in America.

Both wrote about the countryside of Wales. “Fernhill”, Dylan Thomas’ beautiful poem about the family farm in rural Carmarthenshire where he spent childhood summers was something which R.S. Thomas admired and, indeed, felt he could have written himself.

Both wrote about their fellow countrymen. At times R.S. Thomas appears to be more interested in the ideal of the Welshman rather than in any of the flesh and blood examples of the species he encountered in his clerical duties. Iago Prytherch, the Welsh peasant he describes in an early poem sets the scene. He has a frustration with ambition of the modern Welsh describing them in one poem as

“A people…..quarrelling for crumbs under the table, or gnawing the bones of a dead culture.”

He is equally contemptuous of those “Bosworth blind” Welshman who have been tempted to leave Wales for the riches on offer on the other side of the Severn.

Dylan Thomas’ sharpest portraits of his countrymen of course come in “Under Milk Wood”. Although no lover of what he saw as the smugness and hypocrisy of chapel goers he is, in general, more generous with the famous plea in the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ prayer:

“We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst”

Both poets are, in my view, at their best in dealing with spiritual matters. In R.S. Thomas’ case that is perhaps no surprise but, despite a surface contempt for religion, Dylan Thomas is equally comfortable in describing issues of the soul and few can fail to be impressed with the metaphysical resonance of poems such as “And Death shall no dominion”, especially when read by Richard Burton.

Despite their differences and ambiguities both poets are definitely worth the celebration which has accompanied their centenary years and are both warrant being seen as some of the best poets of the 20th century. Despite writing in English both can been seen as very Welsh poets who, in their different ways celebrate the virtues and vices of that small land of “beirdd a chantorion” (singers and poets). So while it’s a fun subject for an evening’s discussion with Welsh friends I find it hard to choose my favourite Thomas.

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