Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Man who went into the West

Before I end my current train of thought, I'd like to comment briefly on Byron Rogers' biography of R.S.Thomas, The Man who went into the West. I finished reading it yesterday, and as usual after enjoying a book so much, I feel bereft. It was totally absorbing, so that I had to ration myself into reading it in relatively short bursts and not stay awake half the night to finish it.

Many biographies begin with the birth of the subject - or even of his parents - which is often so far from the character of interest to the reader that boredom can set in long before the subject's adult life is reached. But on page 4 of his "Introduction", Rogers quotes extensively from something he had written 30 years ago, giving what he calls "a snapshot" of Thomas when he interviewed him, aged 62, and then going back fifteeen years earlier, when Rogers was only 17, to describe "a very tall, lean athletic man, his face quite unlike any other I had ever seen. It had no spare flesh, so that afterward I remembered cheek bones, forehead, chin; ... The face was hard, severe, almost predatory. ..... The face was the face of the poems."

As Andrew Motion comments in his review of this book, "Looked at from one angle, the result is a jumble: impressionistic, prone to repetition, confusing about precisely what happened when, and excessively self-referring. From another point of view, it is engagingly high-spirited and daring." He is right, of course, but it is that very jumble that engages, and the repetition which you can't help noticing actually reinforces links in a way which a more ordered biography might not. But what shines from this book is the author's fondness personally for the poet and his poetry; an understanding which communicates to anyone who has felt their guts contract at one of Thomas' extraordinary last lines. Mix this closeness with the personal reminiscences of not only parishioners - for we had some of those in Justin Wintle's "Furious Interiors", a biography writen without Thomas' cooperation - but also of his son and grandson, his daughter-in-law and his two remarkable wives, and you have a rounded picture of a gifted and complex man, a picture which brings me at least closer to understanding the poems and the thought behind them.

My interest, as I said previously, goes back to when in the first days of 1987 I set about analysing one of his poems, "Evans", to set questions on it for an exam paper. Analysis, rather than simple reading, brought home to me what was going on in the poem and fired me with a need to know more, to read more. I also fired off a fan letter, pure and simple, care of Thomas' publishers. Within a week, I received a postcard in the wild writing now familiar from the signature facsimile on the Selected Poems 1946-68. Having learned from the Rogers book that such an item now has monetary value as well as the huge personal value to me from that moment, I've had it scanned, and reproduce it here. Years later, in 1999 - the year before Thomas died - I received another letter, this time asking me how I felt now that we had in Scotland a parliament of our own. The old Welsh nationalist was in full flight in that letter, though the wild writing has grown spidery with age.

Rogers' biography points out that Thomas always replied to letters. I feel I knew that already, as I knew instinctively many of the things I found in this book. When he died, I felt I had lost a heroic companion. But now I have spent a week in his company, brought there by a journalist with an easy manner and an unobtrusive charm. I'm not lending anyone my copy - but you should read it. Really.


  1. And now that you've read this book do you feel that you have 'left stranded upon the vast and lonely shore of his bleak bed?'

    I no there is no relevance, but do I get a Mars Bar?

  2. A clear contender for the Mars Bar - but surely they're not compatible with your teething troubles? :-(
    As long as you remember not to quote merely to show that you can .....

  3. BTW - I learned that the eponymous Evans was only 49 when he died - I'm sure we all pictured someone much older.

  4. Sack the teeth! I need sugar to get me through the week!

    I know I pictured someone much older! That kind of changes the outlook on the poem a bit, doesn't it? Hmmm