I was planning to call this blog ‘The Moon In Lleyn’ (the title of an R S Thomas poem) but a fellow Welsh blogger beat me to it so, having a particular penchant for sunsets, I’ve come up with my own variation.
Last year was the centenary of the poet’s birth in Cardiff (on March 29) although the celebrations were slightly lower key than those organised for Dylan Thomas this year. Despite being considered one of the most important modern Welsh poets writing in English by many, R S Thomas’s long life as a frugal Anglican vicar has not captured the public imagination in the same way as Dylan’s too-short gregarious, alcohol-fuelled writing career.
Most people who sat O levels in Wales in the 1970s will have studied R S Thomas at some point; it was from his lines that I learnt the meaning of the word ‘unprepossessing’.
R S Thomas (Ronald Stuart, if you’re wondering) carried on writing for several decades after I sat my English Literature exam, however much of the poetry I studied would have been written while he was living in Aberdaron on the westerly tip of the Llŷn Peninsula. An Anglican priest as well as a poet, Thomas had already won the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry when he became the vicar at St Hywen’s Church in Aberdaron in 1967.
Thomas was not brought up as a Welsh speaker but learnt it as a young man, which probably explains why his poems are written in English. He did, however, conduct the majority of his sermons in the Welsh-speaking Aberdaron in the language, occasionally preaching in English during the summer months when there were holidaymakers about.
I still recall the wonderfully named Iago Prytherch, a farm labourer representing Everyman, who featured in several poems (it was probably he whom Thomas described as unprepossessing). I can see now, however, that as a teenager living in industrial south east Wales, in a large town (now a city), I didn’t really ‘get’ his themes.
Mostly, he wrote about the Welsh people and their bleak, rural lives, particularly the harshness of the environment and the monotony and drudgery of a farm labourer’s existence. He abhorred material greed and what he saw as the Anglicisation of his country. I don’t recall hating his poetry but it simply didn’t have the romance of Alexander Pope’s ‘Eloise to Abelard’.
Thomas remained at St Hywen’s until his retirement in 1978 so when we arrived in Aberdaron 36 years later, Harri and I were both keen to take a little look around ‘his’ church.
There’s no denying the church and its graveyard command a spectacular, if rather exposed, position over the bay. The poet who wrote relentlessly about the bleak landscape of the Welsh hills had a rather more picturesque view during the decade he spent here.
We wandered inside but didn’t stop long as we had a 15-mile day ahead of us. My attention was immediately attracted by two oddly shaped stone pillars at the far end of the church. Closer inspection revealed that they were the tombstones of two Christian priests of the late 5th or early 6th century and ‘were found in the valley of the headwaters of the river Saint, near Gors Farm, Mynnydd Annelog’.
The information next to the tombstones reveals that the reference to ‘many brethren’ on the right-hand stone suggests that they came from the cemetery of a religious community or monastery. It continues:
“It is likely that the religious community at Aberdaron was the successor to the one at Anelog and that both had close links with Bardsey Island.
The stones are natural water-worn boulders, the lettering is careful and sophisticated, with usual abbreviations. The men who inscribed these tombstones probably spoke Latin as well as ancient British (pre Welsh) and lived within the world of Christian classical culture.”
Reading these words, I couldn’t help but reflect, as R S Thomas once did, how materialism has seeped into every corner of our lives to the point where it frequently replaces our spirituality. Sadly, it seems to be consumerism which drives us nowadays – the modern day religion of the western world. Too often our worth is assessed by our income and status, our pecking order on the corporate ladder, rather than any cultural distinction or sense of what we can bring to the lives of others.
As he gazed at the landscape around him, R S Thomas understood better than anyone that even non-believers crave a spiritual dimension to their lives. And standing among the graves of those who once lived and breathed in this small Llyn coastal village, my eyes feasting on the natural beauty surrounding me, it wasn’t difficult to feel in harmony with the world.