Dr Rory Waterman‘s recent research centres on notions of belonging and estrangement in 20th Century British poetry. Both his creative and his critical writing are concerned with notions of home and homecoming.
From Tonight the Summer’s Over (Manchester: Carcanet, 2013)
My mother kept me informed:
a sad, warm, phone-grained voice
enticed me home, for once –
could not prepare me for
the dying old dog by the door
whose too big leather collar
gives name and number,
to carry her back unharmed.
‘Home, Leaving and Finding One’s Proper Ground’ [extract]
From Belonging and Estrangement in the Poetry of Philip Larkin, R.S. Thomas and Charles Causley (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014), pp.51-2
But Causley belonged to his community, and to Cornwall, more than Thomas ever did to Wales/Cymru or the communities in which he lived. Thomas’s ‘un-Welsh’ upbringing culminated in his studying Classics at Bangor, then training as an Anglican priest at St Michael’s College, Llandaff, near Cardiff. Between 1937 and 1942 he held curacies near the English border at Chirk and at Hanmer, the former traversed by Offa’s Dyke a mile from the modern border, and the latter in the region traditionally called Maelor Saesneg (‘English Maelor’), a flat, detached hernia of Flintshire on the ‘English’ side of the River Dee. He had no choice but to take up curacies in English-speaking parishes because he spoke no Welsh, and it was around this time that he experienced a cultural epiphany and realized that in order to go back to the ‘true Wales’ (Thomas 1998, p.50) he had to reinvent himself as a Welsh-speaking Welshman. As he wrote in No-one: ‘such was his hiraeth for the hills in the distance […] that he decided to learn Welsh as a means of enabling him to return’ (p.50). The early poem ‘Hiraeth’ sums up his feelings about this (Thomas 1946, p.34). Here, he mourns being ‘far inland, far inland’, the lowing assonance and repetition highlighting the speaker’s regret. Now he can only remember, not experience,
The great hills and yellow light
Stroking to softness the harsh sweep
Of limb and shoulder above the quiet deep.
This is a landscape made flesh, at ease in its element. By contrast, the speaker is left with the ‘curse’ of his symbolically barren ‘leafless house’, which ‘cowers naked upon the plain’, and dreams his way westwards and homewards to ‘Caergybi, Aberfrraw / And holy Llanddwyn’.
From 1942 to 1954, Thomas began his lifelong homecoming, simultaneously learning Welsh and serving as vicar of Manafon, a village in the hills of Montgomeryshire, but still English-speaking and fairly close to the English border. Then, until 1967, he was the vicar of St Michael’s in Eglwys-fach, on the west coast, where most locals also had little Welsh and many were English (1), before taking up the position at Aberdaron, a Welsh-speaking parish at the end of the Llŷn Peninsula, where he served until his retirement in 1978. Being in Aberdaron, he commented, ‘was like a return home’ (Thomas 1993, p.15) – not to a place he was from, exactly, but to a place of essential belonging of both spiritual and cultural kinds. In No-one, he writes that Aberdaron appealed because ‘it was so similar to Holyhead, if one forgot about the town of Holyhead itself’ (Thomas 1998, p.71). But an even greater appeal was that, in this place which reminded him so much of his first hometown, ‘Welsh was the language of the majority […], the flowing and open language of the Llŷn’ (ibid.). By the time he arrived there, this man who claimed that a person born in Wales but unable to speak the language ‘is not Welsh’ (Wintle 1996, p.282) and who felt that ‘The changing of mynydd and nant into mountain and stream leaves me an exile in my own country’ (which would also mean he was born an exile in his own country) had fought hard all his adult life to ‘belong’ to his country by his own strict definition. So, finally, the Welsh-speaking Thomas felt he ‘belonged’ to his country. But this came at a cost, as it left him estranged both from his younger self and from his family: both of his parents, his English wife, and even his own child Gwydion, to whom Thomas never taught the language, could not share his ‘Welshness’ with him (2).
- In No-One Thomas expresses his central dissatisfaction with this village: ‘What he didn’t know before settling there was how weak the Welsh language […] was. Even amongst the common folk of the village there had been quite a bit of intermarrying with English people […]. In Eglwys-fach there was an English middle class’ (Autobiographies, p.64).
- See Byron Rogers, The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas (London: Aurum, 2006), p.44.
R.S. Thomas, Autobiographies, ed. and trans. Jason Walford Davies (London: Phoenix, 1998)
R.S. Thomas, ‘Autobiographical Essay’, in Miraculous Simplicity: Essays on R.S. Thomas, ed. William V. Davis (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansa Press, 1993)
R.S. Thomas, The Stones of the Field (Camarthen: Druid, 1946)
Justin Wintle, Furious Interiors: Wales, R.S. Thomas and God (London: Harper Collins, 1996)