He was educated at the state-sector Dynevor School in Swanseabefore going on to study theology at Christ's College, Cambridgewhence he graduated with starred first-class honours. He then went to Wadham College, Oxfordwhere he studied under A. An Exposition and Critique. In he became dean and chaplain of Clare College and, in at the age of 36, he was appointed to the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, a position which brought with it appointment to a residentiary canonry of Christ Church Cathedral.
Share via Email The misanthropic Welsh priest-bard One of the sharpest ironies about his legacy is that what many people remember is not so much the poetry itself as the mythology: Mind you, the poetry too can be mythologised.
Poets share some responsibility for the myths they generate, and some take a good deal of trouble to nourish their growth. RS's near-contemporary, Dylan Thomasgleefully burnished his image as a young Bohemian genius, and Yeatsone of his poetic heroes, certainly took his own mythic persona very seriously.
Perhaps it should not surprise us that, judging from studies of RS in the years since he died inhe, too, took some relish in feeding the myth, playing up to the stereotypes for all he was worth. If in his last years he showed some signs of a gentler tone in his poetry, he seems to have become more savagely ironic about how he was perceived.
Give the public what it wants: There is a time-honoured Welsh tradition of poker-faced amusement at the expense of the conquerors, and a good deal of RS's public face in his last decade or so had more to do with this than with the things that mattered most to him.
Which is not to say that what lay beneath the mythology was benign. The anger and the sporadic cruelty and contempt were real: And the religious poetry, too, cannot be boiled down to any simple formulae of contemplative passivity: RS's God is often as mindlessly savage as the owl sweeping down on its prey a metaphor he uses more than once — or else he looks on the earth with icy detachment or, worse, with a completely uncompassionate fascination.
M Wynn Thomas, in a newly published collection of his superb critical essays on RS, notes that the poet's religious commitments became steadily more "Buddhist" in character — in the sense that what he is evoking is ultimately to take a very powerful image from the poetry looking into the mirror and seeing a stranger behind your eyes; dissolving the ordinary perceptions and expectations of subject and object, cause and effect.
Yet at the same time, as Wynn Thomas observes, the inescapable image of the cross keeps returning as a sort of benchmark of what makes any talk of God possible — the affirmation of some kind of conviction that something "other" touches us in the middle of suffering.
There is no way of reducing this to a systematic theology, but it is a good deal more than agnosticism, however far RS travelled from what most would regard as orthodoxy.
This is unmistakably RS's religious framework, always impatiently shrugging off anything simply consoling. Dennis Potter 's unforgettable phrase that religion is "the wound not the bandage" might have been coined to describe this. But it should remind us that one of RS's lifelong passions was for the visual arts, and Wynn Thomas's discussions insist that we fail to read him adequately if we don't take seriously the poems he wrote in response to various artworks, a significant proportion of his output.
Wynn Thomas leads us through his engagements with the impressionists and the increasing enthusiasm for surrealism; and he correlates this, very plausibly, with RS's growing acknowledgment that the artwork, in words or pigment, is a thing in itself, not an illustration. If it is a kind of category mistake to look for the stories behind the pictures and some of RS's earlier poems about paintings read a bit like thisthen we have to ask whether it is any more sensible to look for the story behind the poems.
In other words, beware of reading the poems just as the deposit of a psychological history. But the poetic achievement is outside this: Like a painting, especially a radically non-representational painting, it introduces something new into the world.
That is why it is always some kind of political act, and why the furious expression of RS's political frustrations does not add up to a message of despair or quietism. The speaking of anger changes something Wynn Thomas has some good pages on parallels with Denise Levertov's poetry, with its religious and political concerns, both like and unlike RS's preoccupations.
What his exact stature is as a poet is a pointless question; there is not much to be said for league tables here. But he is as unignorable as a creaking door — the steady, deceptively bare and subtly calculated idiom, the apparently odd but endlessly suggestive line-breaks, the whole idiom sustained decade after decade, doggedly, and yet with so many surprises.
The centenary promises well, with Wynn Thomas's book leading the way and some unpublished material about to appear. RS may have connived in the mythology, but he deserves to be liberated from it and to be read afresh for the serious, alarming and enlarging writer he is.On Rowan Williams: Critical Essays $ In this collection of essays, Australian theologians critically analyze the themes that bind together the theology of Rowan Williams, one of the leading lights of contemporary British theology.
About Ben Ben Myers is “Disruptive History: Rowan Williams on Heresy and Orthodoxy,” in On Rowan Williams: Critical Essays, ed. Matheson Russell (Eugene, OR: Cascade, ), “From Faithfulness to Faith in the Theology of Karl Barth.
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