About the Waiting for God: An Exploration of the Poetry of R.S. Thomas course
… leaning far out
over an immense depth, letting
your name go and waiting,
somewhere between faith and doubt,
for the echoes of its arrival. (‘Waiting’, Frequencies, 1976)
As well as being one of the major British poets of the twentieth century, R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), was an ordained priest in the Church in Wales. The two roles, priest and poet, are inseparable in his work. Thomas served as priest in a series of parishes in rural Wales and the poetry which made his reputation in the 1950s and 1960s arises directly from his need to relate to the country people–hill farmers and labourers–whose lives and background were so different from his own. Confronted by ‘the muck and blood and hardness … of farm life’, his struggle to minister to the rural people caused him to wrestle with his own beliefs and calling.
In the poetry of the 1970s and 1980s the fleeting glimpses of the longed-for ‘good place’ where Thomas could transcend his sense of spiritual isolation and feel a sense of being ‘at home’ in some larger reality, is expressed in a vision of a rural world, simple and pure. In the same period, however, Thomas’s poetry contains a fierce critique of our contemporary world of technology, commerce and consumerism, a world in which the individual is reduced to a mere function of consumption and production: the world of the Machine. In volumes like H’m (1972), the Machine is in conflict with a God whose victory is far from guaranteed.
Retirement from the church in 1978 brings fresh, and profound, questioning as the priest, freed from parish responsibilities, becomes lonely pilgrim: What is the nature of God, or ‘ultimate reality’? How does one enter a full relationship with that reality? What is the nature of prayer?
It is in the poetry itself that R.S. Thomas expresses his lonely wrestle with such fundamental questions, a struggle informed at times by his reading of Kierkegaard and Tillich. This is a distinctly modern vision and results in some of the finest religious poetry published in Britain since the War.
The day will consist of two lectures. The first will examine the poetry which arises from Thomas’s struggle to relate, as pastor, to the taciturn, materialistic hill farmers. The second session will explore Thomas’s anguished exploring in the mature poetry with the nature of God. The afternoon session will consider a range of poems in detail, including his more political poetry and the remarkable elegies to his wife of fifty years, the artist Mildred Eldridge.
About the Tutor
Tony Brown is Emeritus Professor of English at Bangor University, where he is Co-director of the R.S. Thomas Research Centre, which houses the major archive of the poet’s writing. His publications include R.S. Thomas (U. of Wales P, rev. ed. 2013) and, as co-editor with Jason Walford Davies, R.S. Thomas, Uncollected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2013) and R.S. Thomas, Too Brave to Dream: Encounters with Modern Art (Bloodaxe, 2016).
You might also be interested in the 2023 Poetry & Arts Festival held in Aberdaron where R.S. Thomas spent the last years of his life.
Leave a Reply