March 29th is the birthday of Ronald Stuart Thomas, published as R.S. Thomas, (1913 Cardiff, Wales).
He was an only child, and his father was in the merchant navy, so the small family moved from seaside town to seaside town until Huw eventually got a steady job with a ferry company that ran between Wales and Ireland and they were able to settle in one place. The Thomas household was an English-speaking one and Ronald didn’t learn to speak Welsh until he was 30, which troubled him because he regretted not being fluent enough to compose poetry in what should have been his native tongue.
He entered the Anglican priesthood after he finished school. His first posting was as a curate in Chirk, in northeast Wales, and this is where he met the woman who would be his wife for 51 years, Mildred Eldridge, known as Elsi. She was an artist, and this inspired him to write poetry. They had one son, Gwydion, born in 1945, and lived a simple life in a small cottage with few modern conveniences — largely by Thomas’s choice.
He retired from the clergy in 1978 and became a passionate and outspoken advocate of Welsh nationalism and a harsh critic of the English, whom he viewed as conquerors. He was often just as contemptuous of his countrymen, however — bitter and angry with them for letting their culture slip away. He called them “an impotent people/sick with inbreeding / worrying the carcase of an old song.” He wrote his autobiography — titled Neb, meaning “nobody” — in Welsh.
Nearly all of his work focused on the landscape and people of Wales, usually with a political or religious subtext. His poems are stark and spare, as unforgiving as the Welsh landscape. “Austere” is a word that comes up frequently in reviews. He wrote, “A recurring ideal, I find, is that of simplicity. At times there comes the desire to write with great precision and clarity, words so simple and moving that they bring tears to the eyes.” In poems like “A Marriage,” written on the death of his wife, he succeeds: “We met / under a shower / of bird-notes.” Thomas died in 2000 at the age of 87.