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Welsh poet Ronald Stuart Thomas also bleak, not as romantic, anniversary

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.

Posted by
1797 posts

I clicked your link and read up on Mr. Thomas. Interesting to say the least. I am not a big fan of poetry and his didn’t excite me at all. But thank you for the post.

Posted by
6052 posts

Well he sounds like a barrel of laughs!

I found this really interesting because my family is from North Wales and I was brought up just over the border. Till this post I’d never heard of him. I wonder if his “sunny” disposition came from being an English speaking Church of Wales minister in welsh speaking, largely non conformist communities? Once he did learn the language I imagine he must have been frustrated to not be able to successfully write in the traditional form of welsh poetry which is a big part of welsh speaking culture based around Eisteddfod. It’s a real art form, not easy and almost impossible to non native speakers.

On a more positive note, from googling him I found his wife’s art which is lovely. I won’t be hunting out his poetry, I will be looking out for her pictures.

Posted by
1512 posts

And what spots should be be on the lookout for when we find ourselves in Chirk, or north Wales more generally, Emma?
I'd also like to know the culinary specialties, too...

Posted by
6052 posts

In the immediate area Chirk is famous for its medieval castle which I believe is still lived in and has some lovely gardens. In normal times it has regular antique fairs/car boot sales which my mum swears by for good stuff. Look out for the stunning welsh wool blankets which cost a lot new but can occasionally be bought on the (slightly more) cheap at the fairs.

Just down the road is Llangollen which is a nice town for a visit as well as being famous for its International music festival and the slightly scandalous in their day Ladies of Llangollen. It is also home of a genuine engineering wonder of the world the Pontecysyllte Acqueduct..

Just over the border is Ellesmere which has excellent bird watching on the “meres”.

The main nearby towns are Mold, a nice market town with good locals market and Wrexham. Famous at the moment for being home to a Covid vaccine processing plant and a football team that has just been bought by Ryan Reynolds. The most famous thing to come out of Mold is the stunning gold Mold Cape now on display in the British museum. Gold has been mined in north Wales for millennia and I believe all royal wedding rings contain some even though it is now in very short supply.

Other wise visit North Wales for stunning mountain and coastal scenery, castles, steam trains, slate mines, fun seaside resorts and lots of outdoor activities.

North Wales is not particularly well known for its food although it produces excellent lamb and beef. Traditional dishes include cawl ( a form of stew), Anglesey potatoes ( a baked dish of potato, leeks, bacon and cheese),welsh cakes ( spiced griddle scones) Bara Brith( translates as speckled bread, either a light fruit cake or fruited loaf of bread depending on your family). The pies in Mold market have a very good reputation and there is lots of dairy products including Cheshire cheese and Ice Cream from over the border.

Posted by
1512 posts

thanks for that, emma -- with all that going for it, it's a wonder that RS Thomas wasn't less of a grump.

Posted by
1092 posts

"Well he sounds like a barrel of laughs!" - He looks like one too. He makes Albert Steptoe look and sound like The Laughing Policeman.

I like reading about odd people, even those I've never heard of, and ended up reading a few of his poems. How about this for a brilliant Thomas line: "We were so still, Eskimo-footed arctic marksmen in the muffling silence of the eternal snows." But it belongs to the other Thomas, the brilliant one.

Posted by
4343 posts

I have stayed in Chirk. It’s a good base for touring the black and white villages (old houses) of Shropshire, plus in addition to what Emma has mentioned, there are some good National Trust properties nearby. Plus it’s about an hour’s drive to Snowdonia National Park and half an hour from Chester.