R Ronald Stuart Thomas

A Peasant by R.S. Thomas

‘A Peasant’ was written in 1942. The poem presents an emblematic character of Thomas’s poetry called Iago Prytherch. This character is a Welsh hill farmer that appears consistently in Thomas’s early poetry. The poet believed that this character served as a “prototype for the greater part of the Welsh uplands” and as a portrait of an ordinary man of the hills.  R.S. Thomas’s early poems focus on his birthplace, Wales, and its landscape.

The poem consists of a long stanza, which varies in rhyme and rhythm. The lines in the single stanza have different lengths that, combined with the choice of language and the irregular form, create a sense of instability and menace. ‘A Peasant’ presents Iago Pryterchm, as an archetype of his people and of men, juxtaposed with the landscapes of Wales and the harshness of rural life. The full poem can be read here.

A Peasant by R.S. Thomas


Analysis of A Peasant

The poem starts by mentioning a name: “Iago Prytherch his name”. This name belongs to a man that is going to be described in the poem. He is an archetypal rural man (“Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills”), who lives and works in the Welsh hills. The entire poem will serve as an impression of the people of Wales and their lives, especially those who live and work in the countryside. The lyrical voice seems to be watching Iago from afar and he/she describes him very carefully, as he/she focuses on how Iago looks and what he does on a regular basis. He takes care of sheep (“Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud”) and works on the farm (“Docking mangels, chipping the green skin/From the yellow bones”). Lines 4 & 5 create a rhyming couplet that accentuates the first description of Iago Prytherch. These lines also emphasize the rhythmic irregularity of the previous and the following lines.

Iago has a “half-witted grin” while working on “the crude earth”. Lines 4 to 6 depict how Iago works through the harshness of rural labor and how he finds satisfaction in it. The lyrical voice doesn’t idealize Iago. On the contrary, he/she talks about him and the rural life with sharp and concise images that represent everyday life in the Welsh hills. This description serves to express how Iago spends his days (“So are his days spent”). There is little pleasure in this rough labor because “his spittled mirth/Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks/Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week”.

Nevertheless, Iago grows old (“And then at night see him fixed in his chair”) and his life changes completely (“Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire/There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind”). He is dirty and neglected; his clothes are “sour with years of sweat” and they represent how he lived his life (“sense with their stark naturalness”).

The tone of the poem shifts, as the lyrical voice stops talking about Iago in particular and refers to “your prototype” rural worker. The lyrical voice not only uses Iago as an archetype of rural Wales but, also, of all working men. Men work despite the roughness of nature and climate all year (“season by season/Against siege of rain and the wind’s attrition”) in order to survive (“Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress/Not to be stormed even in death’s confusion”). Again, the lyrical voice tells the reader not to forget this man, every man, who fights constantly, “a winner of wars”, and that persists over time (“Enduring like a tree under the curious stars”). Notice that the final lines form another rhyming couplet that accentuates the figure of the working man and its attributes and importance.


About Ronald Stuart Thomas

Ronald Stuart Thomas was born in 1913 and died in 2000. He was a Welsh poet and priest. R. S. Thomas was known for his nationalism and spiritualism. Moreover, he is seen as one of the most important poets of modern Wales. He wrote about his people, his country, and the roughness of rural life in Wales. The poet’s first poetry collection was published in 1946. His most famous work is ‘A Peasant’, a poem that depicts a typical rural worker in the hills of Wales.

R. S. Thomas’s poetry is often described as realistic and unforgiving, as he uses simple and short words to accentuate the content of the poems. Although rural life is a frequent theme in his poetry, Thomas’s poetry also contains religious themes. His later works present spiritual questioning and cultural skepticism. R. S Thomas’s most recent poetry collections include Mass for Hard Times and No Truce with the Furies.

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Julieta has a BA and a MA in Literature and joined the Poem Analysis team back in May 2017. She has a great passion for poetry and literature and works as a teacher and researcher at Universidad de Buenos Aires.
  • M D Evans says:

    Thank you for this. A couple of points: R. S. Thomas was known for his nationalism and spirituality, not spiritualism. Also unsure about ‘menace’ in the poem – I think the word ’frightening’ is used more in the sense of appalling, rather than scary. And I think ‘winner of wars’ refers to farm workers during the world wars who were excused military service in order to keep the nation fed – some ignorant people had criticised them as being cowards for not having fought.
    If you like #RSThomas then you might be interested in @rsthomaspoet on Twitter and in facebook.com/groups/22240849843 – share his poems, quotes, events, info, Q+A, etc…

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      This is really inciteful. Thanks for sharing your ideas with us. We are always looking out for new writers, drop us a line if you’re interested!

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