RHIAN BUBEAR: RS Thomas: ‘The Echoes Return Slow’ as a poet’s autobiography

A “Shifting Identity” Never His Own: The Echoes Return Slow as a Poet’s Autobiography.


What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music. (Kierkegaard)[1]


During the course of a 1990 interview for Planet magazine, entitled ‘Probings’, R.S.Thomas made what, at first sight, might appear to be no more than a passing remark:

 “I complained once to Saunders [Lewis] about the tension of writing in one language and wanting to speak another and his reply was that out of such tensions art was born.” [2]

 Yet, as any reader who indulges more than a merely speculative interest in his work will realise, Thomas’s complaint has far wider implications than the nature of this apparently chance remark might suggest, since for Thomas, the question of language was explicitly and inextricably linked to the wider question of personal identity. The tensions to which he refers are, of course, implicitly related to the profound feelings of internal alienation that sprung from his dichotomous positioning as a “resident native”, and his desperate “yearning to return home from that exile.” Significantly, crucially even, for the young poet, Lewis’s shrewd reply presented him with far more than a simple affirmation of those tensions. As a positive endorsement of the aesthetic possibilities made available by turning the disabling myth of cultural and linguistic duality to one’s own artistic advantage, Lewis’s response, became an enabling remark, which, as Christopher Morgan adds, “proves, in retrospect, to have been of singular vital importance to the young Thomas by pointing to the source and method of his future life’s work.”[3] Whilst there can be no doubt of Thomas’s sincerity when he referred to what he saw as his necessary restriction to English language poetic composition, being as a “scar on my personality”, it seems his curse did become his blessing, for as M. Wynn Thomas has more recently, and indeed very convincingly, argued:

 …The power that is in the poetry –the power that is the poetry … is a power of distinctive anguished engagement with the defining paradox of his identity as neither resident nor native but as resident native, or native intellectual …[4]

 Thus, it would seem that underpinning Thomas’s substantial oeuvre is, as Morgan suggests, a ‘project’ in autobiography which is rooted in the question of the poet’s “own elusive identities” as an ongoing excavation of that tension of ‘inbetweenness’, “most often not as a reaching after resolution but as an embracing and straddling of the frequently dire tensions of a divided identity…”[5] From this perspective, as indeed its title would suggest, The Echoes Return Slow, emerges not as a point of departure into poetry as autobiography, but as the climax of the source and method of Thomas’s life’s work.[6]

Published in 1988, just three years after his official autobiography Neb, The Echoes Return Slow is arguably one of Thomas’s most compelling and intriguing works. A beautifully crafted but complex, and even at times cryptic, piece of writing, the volume evokes a curious sense of doubleness, and division. As an exercise in autobiographical writing The Echoes Return Slow is, as M. Wynn Thomas has observed, “of a highly unusual Kind”[7], for it is explicitly a poet’s autobiography, and as such the text offers not only an exploration of Thomas’s fragmented and divided sense of self, but most significantly, presents us with what is often an anguished meditation on the theme of life becoming art. Thus although there will inevitably be some recycling of the material found in Neb, the emphasis is quite different here, and is focused quite specifically on the aesthetic as opposed to the personal and human pronunciations of his earlier prose text. Remarkable not least for its innovative dialectic structure, which even the most cursory reading will reveal, the text alternates between densely woven prose and sharply etched poems to produce what is essentially a radical double narrative, inscribing the poet’s cultural and linguistic dualities along with a sense of his wider subjective divisions. The volume is composed of a sequence of sixty pairings of poetry and prose, the prose extract printed invariably on the left hand page, with the companion poem facing it on the right. Each of the pairs function jointly, as a consideration of an experience, period or occasion in the poet’s life, working in chronological order from the pre-natal period through to the moment of poetic composition. It is perhaps worth noting here that this chronological ordering of the text can prove deceptive, for ostensibly at least it would seem to promise a realist, objective narrative account of life as a distilled catalogue of experience, whereas what we are actually given is, in fact, a very deliberately constructed, and highly wrought psychic landscape. Thomas’s choice and treatment of material is, of course, highly selective – for instance, there is curiously little mention of his marriage or family life – and, at times, deliberately idiosyncratic, as in his reference to the infant child as “the trash” “lopped off”, and works to convey far more a sense of the life than the events of the life, which appears, as Barbara Prys William’s impressive reading explicitly suggests, to be thoroughly in keeping with current theoretical trends. Drawing her inferences largely from James Olney’s pioneering text, Metaphors of the Self: the Meaning of Autobiography, and from which, in part, she quotes, Prys Williams notes how:

Boundaries of the genre have expanded considerably beyond the limiting supposition that autobiography is coterminous with self-written autobiography. Theorists now allow that good autobiography may as well communicate the sense of a life as the events of a life and that “self-enacting, self-reflexive verbal structures” may be important means of communicating the feel of a life from inside, in areas in which discursive prose might be inadequate… “One … cannot capture with a straight-on look, or hope to transmit directly to another, one’s own sense of the self; at most one may be able to discover a similitude, a metaphor, for the feeling of selfhood”.[8]

Thus, in the light of these broader theoretical considerations, she concludes, quite rightly, that the poetic medium of The Echoes Return Slow, with its careful arrangement of verse and prose produces a resonance of meaning that allows Thomas privileged access to the unconscious, and the image-producing part of the psyche that was so important a determinant for him.[9] However, in what remains an otherwise virtuoso performance, from here Prys Williams makes what seems like a curious interpretive leap, and, evidencing her claim with a number of references to the prose biography, she forges a comparison with Sartre, for whom the act of writing was explicitly a process of self-discovery, and suggests that for Thomas too, poetic composition might have been a way of strengthening a “weak sense of self”[10]. Yet the very notion that poetic composition held some kind of intrinsic therapeutic value for Thomas, is not only purely speculative, but, moreover, risks imposing a crude Freudian reading on the text, whereby the writing itself is reductively, but necessarily, figured as an expression of its author’s troubled psyche. In fact, however, rather than the uncontrollable pouring out of Thomas’s own neuroses, the symbolic structures of the text themselves point to a very deliberately and consciously constructed poetry, that not only dramatises but exploits a sense of tension and division for its own aesthetic purpose. As Katie Gramich has observed, the characteristically dialectic form of the poems “dramatise a protracted argument that reminds us of W. B. Yeats’s well known dictum that ‘we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric; but of our quarrel with ourselves, poetry’”.[11] Indeed Thomas’s own repeated references to Yeats celebrated dictum, raises the suspicion that Thomas did quite consciously, perhaps even actively, cultivate those inner tensions for his own artistic advantage. Moreover, the very notion of a unified, stable subjectivity is radically at odds with the idea of a Kierkegaardian selfhood that is inflected and reflected in the poems, which as Rowan Williams says are characterised by a clear determination “not to arrive at a point of mastery or closure”.[12] Viewed from this perspective then, the poetry is explicitly a reflection on as opposed to an expression of Thomas’ troubled psyche, a subtle but significant difference.

A distinctive feature of Thomas’s mode of psychological and textual self-reflection is the phenomenon that has become known as the uncanny. Elizabeth Wright has argued, as Steve Vine observes, that surrealism promotes an “aesthetic of the uncanny”. The surrealist painters, she says, took the familiar world and de-familiarised it, presenting the viewer with, for example, a watch that melts (Salvador Dali), a pipe that proclaims that it is “not” a pipe, and in the case of Renée Magritte a closed door with a “vaguely” human shape puncturing it. (Psychoanalytic Criticism, 134) According to Wright, these objects wrest the familiar world into the unfamiliar, the habitual into the strange. In the uncanny she says, “the unheimlich object threatens us in some way by no longer fitting the context to which we have been accustomed”. Thus, “the familiar, the heimlich, is the result of the apparently successful orderings we have made of the world”, whereas the unheimlich “defies the normality of seeing” and disturbs habitual perceptions in the name of the unknown, the unpresentable. (“The Uncanny and Surrealism”, 265, 277)[13] Wright is, of course emphasising the subversive power of art to blur the boundary between the familiar and the strange. Whilst Fflur Dafydd has, from a similar perspective, noted how the explicitly subjective nature of Thomas’s autobiography disturbs the normative distinctions between fiction and reality, it seems that this is compounded in The Echoes Return Slow, where Thomas deliberately wrests the familiar strange by removing words from their taxonomic restraints in a way that jars with our perception of reality, by opening up a whole new, and often disturbing, range of semantic possibilities. Thus, the reference to the figure of innocence, the infant child, as “the trash that had accumulated nine months in the man’s absence” becomes not only a perversion of nature, a point on which both Dafydd and Prys Williams agree, but a perversion of language itself. Indeed taken in the context of the broader theological and metaphysical underpinnings of Thomas’s oeuvre, the father’s “absence”, suggests that the trash could be read as an inversion of the logos itself where in the most literal and derogatory of ways the flesh becomes word, and word alone, presenting an implicit challenge to the hegemony of religious orthodoxy. To return briefly to the uncanny, it is perhaps worth pausing here to consider how as a term the uncanny is itself grounded in textual and linguistic instabilities, a point that clearly emerges at the very start of Freud’s 1919 essay ‘Das Unheimlich’.[14] Freud’s analysis of the etymological and lexical uses of the word heimlich and its opposite unheimlich[15] reveals that the distinction between them is not as exclusive as it might seem, for the word heimlich signifies on the one hand, domestic and familiar and on the other hidden and concealed, the two meanings coexisting, leading Freud to conclude that ,“heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or other a subspecies of heimlich.”[16] Interestingly, as Fflur Dafydd has noted, ‘Neb’, like the term ‘uncanny’, is also strangely inhabited by its other:

Although the word seemingly translates as ‘No-one’, Jason Walford Davies has demonstrated its “jack-knife ambiguity” in pointing out that “‘neb’ in Welsh actually means someone.” (A,x) What he means by this, and as the University of Wales Dictionary points out, is that the literal meaning in Welsh is “someone, anyone (any person)” and that its usage refers to presence, rather than the presumed absence.[17]

From what is, arguably, an essentially nationalist perspective, both Dafydd and Walford Davies agree that the ambiguity in calling himself ‘Neb’ explicitly emphasises the sheer “Welsh otherness” of Thomas as a major English-language poet. Yet, given the specifically Kierkegaardian idea of selfhood that informs much of the later poetry especially, neb acquires a significance that extends beyond a sense of cultural and linguistic duality, to encompass far broader questions of subjective division. Curiously, uncannily even, it is not so much in the official prose autobiography of the same name, where Thomas emerges as being most thoroughly implicated in the ambivalent role of Neb, but in the later Echoes Return Slow, where the dynamic interaction of verse and prose allows him to fully engage with the paradox of his identity. The short prose extracts, and sharply etched poems combine as a mode of expression to unfold what Thomas undoubtedly experienced as a “shifting identity/never one’s own.” What is perhaps most significant about this dialogue between the facing pages is, as Marie-Thérèse Castay insists, the emphasis that such a mode of writing places on continuity (each pairing of prose and verse generally bears upon the same subject) and discontinuity (the fragmentation of the narrative into chronological sections) that relates implicitly to the combination of permanence and transience of life[18]. As Castay insists, this sense of permanence is established by “the continuous flow of prose into separate units, elliptic sentences and noun phrases” as in:

 A scrubbed doorstep, clean enough to be defiled by the days droppings, circulars, newspapers. A threshold of war, unbeknown to the young couple, the child-planners, choosing the capital of a fake nation to be their home. (ERS, 4)

 However, it is worth noting here that, as M. Wynn Thomas has observed, the parallel phrasing where the scrubbed doorstep is also the threshold of war constitutes a kind of “extended pun”,[19] which is, of course, a characteristic strategy used by Thomas to pluralize and de-stabilise meaning. To a certain extent, the prose extracts, which Thomas himself compared to the glosses Coleridge wrote in the margin of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, do provide useful information for the understanding of the poems, producing a kind of mirroring effect as they reflect backwards to the life story presented in Neb, and forwards to the companion poem on the facing page. Yet the volume contains numerous examples where verse and prose work in tandem specifically to engender uncertainty, the tendency being often to distort, or even fragment, rather than to reflect or confirm meaning, which is, it seems, an allegory of Thomas’s own uncertain and transient sense of self. In this instance, for example, whereas the prose extract is concerned explicitly with the idea of violence as an aspect of history, expressed in terms of the threat of world conflict, in the corresponding poem this is translated into an entirely different register, assuming the rawness of the primal scream, that emphasises the violence of existence per se[20]:

 The scales fell from my eyes,

and I saw faces. I screamed

at the ineffectuality

of love to protect me.

(ERS, 5)

 As we have already seen, the poetic medium of the text works in a very deliberate, and indeed a very self conscious way through parallel, dialogue, pun and dialectic, which seems to convey an explicitly post-structuralist notion of identity, as a perpetual shifting within a range of different roles and positions, calling into question and indeed at times actually erasing the normative distinction between self and other. Thus, in a particularly moving poem that involves a retrospective consideration of his pacifist stance during the second world war Thomas, writes significantly in the third person rather than from the authority of the “I”, as if to distance himself from the experience:

 Entered for life, failing

to qualify; understudied

for his persona, became identical

with his twin. Confronted

as the other, knew credit

was his for the triumph

of an impostor. Slipped easily

into the role for which

his double was cast, bowing

as low as he to appropriate

the applause. When volunteers

were called for to play

death’s part, stood modestly

in the wings, preferring rather

to be prompter than prompted.

(ERS, 21)

Interestingly, as is often the case with the work of American experimental poet Jack Spicer, it seems that meaning is being created here as much between the lines as within the lines themselves, which is perhaps a reflection of the shared insistence on a negative theology, that informs both poets’ work. Thus, by using complete enjambment to illustrate the mergence of self and other, in tandem with strategic line breaks that demonstrate a sense of doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self, Thomas shows how the other is as much something within us as beyond us, endorsing Peter Barry’s observation that:

 ‘Self’ and ‘Other’ are always implicated in each other, in the root sense of this word, which means to be intertwined or folded into each other … [for] as basic psychology has shown, what is identified as the external ‘Other’ is usually part of the self which is rejected and hence projected outwards.[21]

 Given his acute sense of personal division, and the nature of his metaphysical and theological beliefs, it is hardly surprising that Thomas should conceive of the self in a way that renders even the most remote possibility of a stable, unified identity as little more than an adolescent pipe dream. As such The Echoes Return Slow could be described as the narrative of the exploration of a complex and amorphous, plural identity, which places itself in direct opposition to a more conventional, if unsophisticated, linear notion of selfhood. Hence, the prose extracts appear to have been consciously constructed so as to give the impression of being unfinished drafts, corresponding to a quasi-Lacanian idea of the subject in process, where “Character is built up / by the application of uncountable / brushstrokes” (ERS, 93). Interestingly Thomas in many ways appears to resonate with Lacan, as for example, the way in which, for both, the speaking subject exists paradoxically as both ‘someone’ and ‘no-one’. Yet, there is no reference to Thomas having been familiar with Lacan’s post structuralist psychoanalytic theories, although they would presumably have shared the same literary and philosophic influence of both Heidegger and Kierkegaard, which seems indicative of a strange cultural echoing.

The fact that The Echoes Return Slow as a mode of autobiography inevitably involves an altered perspective, as a long term retrospective view that reveals significantly more about the present state of Thomas’s psyche than any objective truth about the past, would seem, ostensibly at least, to legitimise a psychoanalytic interpretation of the volume. Yet, critical consensus has it that Thomas’s conception of the self was of a spiritual rather than a psychological category[22], a factor that any immanent reading of the text must necessarily account for. From this perspective, Castay has argued very convincingly for placing Thomas’s often agonised engagement with the paradoxes of his identity under the rubric of a metaphysical quest, that became “obvious and paramount” only with his arrival at Aberdaron in 1967.[23] Whilst M. Wynn Thomas would obviously endorse Castay’s basic contention that Thomas’s standpoint was not really psychological, but of course existential, he develops the argument in an interesting direction that accounts for the fact that even though The Echoes Return Slow must inevitably, given Thomas’s stance, be a spiritual autobiography, the text does seem to broadly inflect and reflect a discourse of psychoanalysis:

 … just as his religious poems reflect, in their every aspect, the problem of finding an authentic contemporary means (involving language, style, form) of conveying the complex conditions and the distinctive ‘style’ of modern belief, so too does his autobiography address the problem of how to develop a contemporary discourse appropriate for exploring the concept (so alien and unsympathetic to modern minds) of the intrinsically spiritual character of the self …What he is particularly concerned to register – by ensuring that it is inscribed in his very discourse – is the way that any valid modern conception of the spiritual self is bound to take very substantially into account those aspects of personal identity that have been so notably identified by such ostensibly ‘secular’ disciplines as psychology and sociology. [24]

Thus, Thomas is particularly concerned, for instance, to explore the drama of the oedipal situation that almost every school of psychology to follow Freud has regarded as being an important determinant in the developmental process of selfhood and identity. Yet it should not be assumed that his approach is in any way systematically psychoanalytic. Thomas’s re-writing of the pre-oedipal stage, in the first two pairings of poetry and prose, for instance, as a moment of the most acute existential suffering contrasts violently with the associated images of pre-moral bliss that post-structural psychoanalysis has seen as definitive of this period of symbiotic unity:

 Pain’s climate. The weather unstable. Blood rather than rain fell. The woman was opened and sewed up, relieved of the trash that had accumulated nine months in the man’s absence. Time would have its work cut out in smoothing the birthmarks in the flesh. The marks in the spirit would not heal. The dream would recur, groping his way up to the light, coming to the crack too narrow to squeeze through.

I have no name:

time’s changeling.

Put your hand

in my side and disbelieve

in my godhead.

Her face rises

over me and sets;

I am shone on

through tears. Charity

spares what should be

lopped off, before

it is too late.

(ERS, 4, 5)

In his retrospective gaze the ageing poet’s earliest, and arguably most significant, experiences of childhood are coloured by a profound sense of alienation as opposed to   the absolute mergence of self and (m)other, which characterises this pre-symbolic stage as theorised by both Lacan and Kristeva. Thus, the short elliptic sentences and noun phrases that constitute the prose extract work in conjunction with a deliberately chopped syntax and the strategic line breaks of the companion poem to further disrupt the heterogeneous flow of language, and to convey a particularly disturbing impression of a quite unnaturally isolated infancy.

Although psychology evidently plays a decisive role in the drama of his textual self-definition, as an ostensibly secular modern discourse, Thomas was quite aware of its fundamental inability to construct a sense of the dualities of human existence. Of course, given his existential stance, questions of subjectivity and personal identity can never wholly be divorced from his broader theological and metaphysical concerns. Indeed, for Thomas, no single mode of discourse could ever adequately narrate or account for his idea of a contemporary selfhood, as a constantly shifting, plural identity. Yet such an unusually fluid relationship between competing discourses is, in many ways, problematic, for it represents the inherent danger of these diverse modes of explanation being subsumed, or assimilated, within an autonomous and totalising structure. Viewed from this perspective then it becomes clear that the incessant dialogue between psychology and a negative theology that informs The Echoes Return Slow reflects part of Thomas’s wider attempt to pluralize and de-stabilise meaning. “What I’ve tried to do, in my own sort of simple way as I’ve got older”, said Thomas in 1983 “is to try to operate on more than one level, to try to bring ambivalence and so on into the phrases.”[25] Nowhere, it seems, is his ambition more fully realised, or better articulated than in The Echoes Return Slow, which remains undoubtedly the most thought provoking, and cryptic volume in Thomas’s substantial oeuvre.



[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or : A Fragment of Life, (London: Penguin, 1992) p. 43

[2] Planet 1990 (35)

[3] Christopher Morgan, R.S. Thomas: Identity, environment, and deity, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003) p.4.

[4] M. Wynn Thomas, ‘For Wales, see Landscape: Early R.S. Thomas and the English Topographical Tradition’, in Welsh Writing in English: A Yearbook of Critical Essays, 10 (2005),p. 10

[5]Christopher Morgan, pp. 1, 4.

[6] It should be noted here however that The Echoes Return Slow does figure a move away from the personal and human pronunciations of the ‘official’ prose biography, a point that will be developed during the course of this essay

[7], M. Wynn Thomas, ‘‘Time’s Changeling’: Autobiography in The Echoes Return Slow’, in Echoes to the Amen: Essays After R. S. Thomas, (ed) Damian Walford Davies (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003), pp. 183-205.

[8] Barbara Prys Williams, ‘“A consciousness in quest of its own truth”: Some Aspects of R. S. Thomas’s The Echoes Return Slow as Autobiography’, Welsh Writing in English: A Yearbook of Critical Essays, 2 (1996), p.98.

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid, p.100

[11]Katy Gramich,, ‘Mirror Games: Self and M(O)ther in the Poetry of R. S. Thomas’, in Echoes to the Amen: Essays After R. S. Thomas, (ed) Damian Walford Davies (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003), p. 132.

[12] Ibid, 154.

[13] Steve Vine, Literature In Psychoanalysis: A Reader (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2005), p. 115.

[14] ‘Das Unheimlich’ first appeared in a publication of Imago, and was subsequently translated into English under the title of ‘The Uncanny’.

[15] The English translation being canny and uncanny

[16] Sigmund Freud, The Penguin Freud Library, vol. 14 (trans.) J. Strachey (London: Penguin, 1993 [Abbreviated as PF])p. 347-348

[17] Fflur Dafydd, A Shifting Identity Never Your Own: The Uncanny And The Unhomely In The Writing Of R. S. Thomas, ([Ph. D. Thesis], Bangor University, 2004) p.36.

[18] Marie-Thérèse Castay, ‘The Self and Other’, in The Page’s Drift: R.S. Thomas at Eighty, (ed.) M. Wynn Thomas (Bridgend: Seren, 1993), pp. 130-131.

[19] M. Wynn Thomas, ‘‘Time’s Changeling’: Autobiography in The Echoes Return Slow’, in Echoes to the Amen: Essays After R. S. Thomas, (ed) Damian Walford Davies (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003), p. 185.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Peter Barry, Beginning Theory, (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 2002), p.145-6

[22] See for example Castay, M. T., ‘The Self and the Other’, in The Page’s Drift: R.S. Thomas at Eighty, (ed.) M. Wynn Thomas (Bridgend: Seren, 1993), pp. 119-147, Thomas, M. Wynn, ‘Irony in the Soul: The Religious poetry of R. S[ocrates] Thomas’, Agenda, 36:2 (1998), 49-69., Thomas, M. Wynn, ‘‘Time’s Changeling’: Autobiography in The Echoes Return Slow’, in Echoes to the Amen: Essays After R. S. Thomas, (ed) Damian Walford Davies (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003), pp. 183-205. and Williams, R., ‘Suspending the Ethical: R. S. Thomas and Kierkegaard’, in Echoes to the Amen: Essays After R. S. Thomas, (ed) Damian Walford Davies (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003), pp. 206-219.

[23] ‘The Self and the Other’, pp. 123-125

[24] ‘Autobiography in The Echoes Return Slow’, p. 184

[25] ‘R. S. Thomas talks to J. B. Lethbridge’, Anglo-Welsh Review, 74 (1983), 46.



Dr Rhian Bubear recently moved to the upper-Swansea valley. She currently works as a teaching assistant at Swansea University. Her research interests include experimental poetry and poetics and psychoanalytic literary theory. Her forthcoming title Liberating Dylan Thomas: Rescuing a Poet from Psycho-sexual Servitude will be published by UWP in spring 2015.



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