How does R.S. Thomas convey a sense of the Welsh people and landscape of rural Wales in his poems?

Essay by boobsticle January 2008

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R.S. Thomas was born in Cardiff in 1913 and became the rector of Manafon church in 1942. He was a rector there for twelve years and during that time, he taught himself the Welsh language so he could better understand and relate to the local people. At first sight, his poetry is based around a narrow range of subjects: the Welsh people and landscape, but the emotional range of his poetry is vast and it tends to be universalised.

The three main poems I am going to write about are ‘Evans’, ‘Lore’, and ‘Cynddylan on a Tractor’.

In ‘Evans’, the poet is reflecting on the emptiness, coldness and starkness of Evans’ life and how his surroundings are bare and unfriendly. The personification of the “gaunt kitchen” and the “black kettle’s whine” reinforce the lack of comfort and warmth there is in Evans’ life and further strengthens his loneliness, solitude and the painful and mournful situation he is in.

The fact that the kettle is black also shows that everything in his life is dark, bleak and uncomfortable with no hope for the future. It also relates to when, later on in the poem, the poet talks about the dark night closing in on him like death.

Evans is represented by the “weather-tortured tree”; he is distorted, twisted, stunted and he has been through much suffering and pain throughout his life. As he lies on his bed about to die, the poet talks about the “tide” of death coming to smother and drown him, which gives us a sense of how appalled the poet is at the loneliness and horror of Evans’ death after his lonely and hard life. It also shows that Evans is old and so frail that he is being drowned by his bed, which, in turn, is being engulfed by the oppressive darkness washing over it, almost so that it is inside Evans and taking away his life. The monosyllabic finish is heavy and leaves an impact on us.

‘Evans’ is similar in some ways to the lyrical pleas of ‘The Hill Farmer Speaks’ because the farmer in it is “stripped of love” and is bleak and lonely. This shows the shared experiences in life of the Welsh people and how their lives are hard and lacking in delicate feelings such as love.

‘Lore’ is a direct contrast to this. Although it is also about the bleakness of the Welsh people’s lives, it is a Welsh man’s knowledge on how to keep alive and happy in the bleak landscape and not to die in the way that Evans did. It is Job Davies’ fight against the hardships in life and how he is always determined, defiant, stubborn and optimistic, even through the hardest times. R.S. Thomas begins the poem by talking about the harshness in Job’s life in the first stanza. He shows the bleakness and harshness by describing him as: “eighty-five winters old” because winters are cold, harsh and numbing, like his life. He also does this by saying about “the slow poison and treachery of the seasons” because living there is slowly killing them and sucking the life out of them. Time itself is deceiving them because all they have waiting for them is decline, loneliness and death.

The tone changes in the second stanza to that of defiance and determination and the poet uses vernacular language to show Job’s defiance and the poet’s admiration of him. Job’s advice is that to be happy, he has to rise above life by laughing at it and having an optimistic refusal to let life get him down. The poet uses the metaphoric imagery of the hearse to convey and reinforce what Job is saying. Job also says country food like tea and porridge (which are warm and have a round, chubby sound) will give you courage in the face of adversity and help you to get through the day.

The fifth and final stanza is a conclusion of all Job’s advice on staying happy throughout life. He says we should “stay green” meaning we should keep young at heart. The poet uses the scary image of a machine “whose fuel is human souls” to show his disapproval of technological advances. This is also echoed in ‘Cynddylan on a Tractor’, which is a cheerful poem but has an underlying tone of resentment and sense of regret. Job’s last piece of advice to us is to live life to the full and not to waste our time dreaming about the impossible and to be content with what we have.

Relating to the point about avoiding technological advances to stay happy which is in ‘Lore’, ‘Cynddylan on a Tractor’ has underlying tones of disapproval towards machines even though it is a cheerful and upbeat poem. The machinery has changed Cynddylan so that he no longer has “the old look that yoked him to the soil”. Thomas conveys a sense of Cynddylan’s change by describing his “nerves of metal and his blood oil” which shows that the machinery has dehumanised him and cut the bond between man and nature. This is also shown by the sun “kindling the hedges” which is a beautiful image, but Cynddylan has been desensitised to it and does not notice the beauty of nature around him anymore. At the end of the poem, birds are singing “in vain” which shows Cynddylan’s distraction from nature by the machine because the birds are singing for him but he is oblivious to it. A sense of the countryside is conveyed by Cynddylan scattering the hens with his tractor, showing the disruption the machinery causes and again reinforcing Thomas’ disapproval of technological advances. When Cynddylan bought the tractor, he did it to improve his life, but he is “breaking the fields’ mirror of silence”. This has allusion to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot”In conclusion, R.S. Thomas uses many devices in which to create and convey a sense of the Welsh people and landscape, the main ones being the use of natural imagery, similes and metaphors, the personification of objects, contrasting colours and tone changes. The people of Wales are shown to have very difficult lives with nothing to look forward to and no aspirations. The poet shows mainly how different people react to this lifestyle in different ways, optimistic Job Davies or the despondent Hill Farmer, or Cynddylan with so much faith in technology. The poem which I prefer is ‘Lore’ because it has an optimistic tone and is not as sombre as ‘Evans’ or as critical as ‘Cynddylan on a Tractor’ and because it is upbeat and full of hope, determination, defiance and vigour.

bibliography:‘Evans’, ‘Lore’, and ‘Cynddylan on a Tractor’ by R. S. Thomas