They are two of Wales’ cultural greats. Here, Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan, compares the attitudes of poet RS Thomas and artist Kyffin Williams to Wales and to faith.
Both RS Thomas and Kyffin Williams give the lie to the attack once made on Wales by AN Wilson in the London Evening Standard when he said: “The Welsh are held in universal derision. They have never made any significant contribution to any branch of knowledge or culture.”
It says more about Wilson than Wales for here were two giants in their respective fields.
And these famous Welshmen had a lot in common. One was born in Llangefni and the other in Cardiff; both had an enormous affinity and love for Wales, its landscape and history, especially North Wales, and they both lived at different times in Chirk, on the Llyn peninsula, Meirionnydd and Anglesey.
And they were born within a few years of one another – RS Thomas in 1913 (so it is his centenary year) and Kyffin in 1918.
They, of course, knew one another but, apparently, did not talk about either poetry or art – just about rugby and birds!
Both lived frugal lives without benefit of much comfort.
More personally, they were people whom I admired from a distance as I grew up in a mining village in South Wales. I never thought that I would ever meet them or get to know them but I was privileged to do so as Bishop of Bangor and officiated at both their funerals.
Both wanted simple ones. RS got one, in the small Pentrefelin church at the end of the lane in which he lived. There was no music, no hymns and no homily on his instructions.
Kyffin Williams would have preferred a simple service at Llanfair yng Nghornwy, but the burial there was preceded by a service at Bangor Cathedral. I had to persuade him that a service of that nature was required.
Kyffin Williams sketched a portrait of RS after the latter’s retirement. “Look at it,” said RS to me once “It makes me look very miserable.”
I am afraid I gave him little consolation when I said that at times he did appear to be so. All I got by way of a reply was “Humph”.
Nicholas Sinclair, Kyffin’s godson, quotes Kyffin Williams when he says that “there was a mood that touches the seam of melancholy that is in most Welshmen, a melancholy that derives, from the dark hills and heavy clouds and enveloping sea mists”.
Melancholic might well have been a description of many for RS as well.
RS, of course, was no stranger to art. Mildred Eldridge, his first wife, was a very talented painter. She was a well known artist long before he became a well known poet. RS wrote a number of stirring poems about paintings.
Kyffin Williams and Welsh Language
Both were Welsh speakers. RS Thomas came to speak Welsh fluently and wrote his autobiography in Welsh but only after learning the language later in life. He regretted bitterly that he could not write poetry in Welsh and did not regard his Welsh prose writing as making up for it. Kyffin Williams would recite poetry in Welsh and most of his paintings in oil and ink wash had Welsh titles: Rhayadr Cwm Glas, Gwastadnant, Fedw Fawr.
Kyffin Williams once said: “I paint in Welsh”.
In attitudes to faith they differed. While RS was an ordained priest, Kyffin considered Christianity as basically a good religion, admitting that he had never really been a true Christian.
He claimed to experience greater emotional and even religious feeling exploring the mountains of North Wales.
These were to him far more rewarding than the confines of any church. There are echoes here of RS Thomas who said that God revealed Himself to him more through the beauty of the natural world than through people.
Kyffin’s faith, in spite of his disclaimers, seemed straightforward and simple whereas RS Thomas’ was an anguished one. He returns again and again in his poetry to the quest for God and is regarded by many as the writer of the finest body of religious poems in the twentieth century.
Both men in their different ways were anti the establishment. Kyffin fought long and hard against the art establishment and had some pretty harsh things to say about it.
RS Thomas too clashed with those in authority. He flouted Episcopal authority in all kinds of ways.
I remember the first time I met him when I was the Archdeacon of Meirionnydd and went to sympathise with him on the death of his first wife. He told me that he had spent his life avoiding people like me but then invited me in to have tea with him. He had never been asked to read his poetry in any church in Wales and I persuaded him, or rather his second wife persuaded him, to read it at Bangor Cathedral when I was bishop. She told me afterwards that the reception I gave after it, at the bishop’s house, had been a kind of healing experience.
He felt he had been acknowledged and accepted. Echoing Coleridge in his Introduction to the Penguin Book of Religious Verse 1963, RS says: “The nearest we approach to God is as creative beings. The poet, by echoing the primary imagination, recreates through his work the forces of those who read him to do the same, thus bringing them nearer to the primary imagination, and so, in a way, nearer to the actual being of God as displayed in action.”
Great art does that as well and “if poetry is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart”, as RS puts it, the same can also be said of art, which is why both these great artists, in their different way, appeal to so many people and why Wales is so very proud of them.
Dr Morgan delivered the Kyffin Williams Memorial Lecture last month. You can read the whole lecture here