Saturday, March 6, 2010


I have just finished reading a biography of the twentieth century Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas (“The Man Who Went Into The West,” by Byron Rogers): an outstanding example of the biographer’s art, no matter what one might think of poetry or this poet. Thomas will be ranked among the great religious poets of the ages (although his “religion” has as much to do with the absence of God as with his presence).

Thomas was always regarded as a rather difficult curmudgeon; in Roger’s book that characterization comes off almost as an understatement. The product of an emotionally warped childhood, he emerged into adulthood (and the Anglican priesthood) almost at the pathological end of the introversion scale (he once jumped over a cemetery hedge rather than stay and chat with the post-funeral mourners), and with a conflicted sense of self that was pulled back and forth between the Welsh background that he considered his real birthright, and the very English nature of his intellectual formation and his language. Serving in rural Welsh parishes for his entire career, he disdained any of his fellow-Welshmen who would not speak Welsh. (He in fact learned his “native” tongue as an adult – in night classes.) Yet he wrote in English because (he said) he had learned Welsh too late to be a poet in the language. In fact (and this is the point at which I come to the subject of this blog), in terms of his speech, R.S. Thomas, the most authentic of poets, was, it turns out, something of a poseur. As a self-conscious defense against the judgment of his backwoods parishioners, he adopted as a young man what his biographer calls “an extra cut-glass Oxford accent” that he carried through his life (when he wasn’t preaching or conversing with his parishioners in Welsh).

At that point in the story, I was tempted to cry, “Phony!” But it caused me to pause, and think. I wonder if most of us – maybe all of us – in our development, as we come to terms with our emerging sense of ourselves, don’t engage in posing as some kind of person or other – trying on personalities and styles that we see around us – whether consciously or sub-consciously. Certainly a person raised with a healthy ego and a sense of acceptance will become an authentic, self-differentiated individual, but that will undoubtedly involve trying on a hat or two along the way. Perhaps the posh accent was a pose for Thomas at 25; perhaps at 80 it was simply himself. (Some of Robert Frost’s biographers, too, claim that the “good gray farmer-poet” was something of a pose.)

In “The Nurture Assumption,” the child development researcher Judith Harris claims (and goes a good way toward proving) that a child’s personality and character are formed almost completely by her peers – the parents contributing very little. She summarizes the findings of her very sophisticated research with this simple observation: “When you were sixteen, whom did you most want to be like: your parents or your peers?”

I claim now to be one of those healthy-minded self-differentiated individuals, but I recall in my youth (about the same age that Thomas was when putting on that accent), being a shaggy-haired bold rebel like… like all of my peers.

And just when I think I have evolved and emerged fully differentiated: There was a time when I went out and bought a hat just like the one I had seen Ian Tyson wear on stage. I was fifty-five!

Have you, dear reader, been free from the pose?

                                                                                                          The author, posing.

(The impertinent reflections in this blog post are the merest footnote to a footnote on the life and art of a sublime poet. You can see R. S. Thomas at 80, and hear that "cut-glass" accent, here.)

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