Professor Thomas graduated with a BA English from Swansea University in 1965. Professor Thomas holds the Emyr Humphreys Chair of Welsh Writing in English and is the former Director and founder of the Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales (CREW).
Why did you choose to study at Swansea University and why English literature?
It was all an accident born of misfortune. My intention was to aim for Oxford. But my father died very unexpectedly when I was on the brink of A-levels, leaving my mother without a penny of pension and psychologically shattered. I therefore thought it best to stay near home. At the end of my first year, I was strongly tempted to take a degree in History - a subject I found much easier to handle than English, although I had performed equally well in both. But my first love was literature, so I decided to follow my heart, accepting that I was very unlikely to excel.
Image credit: Literature Wales - Llenyddiaeth Cymru Camera Sioned
What are your memories of being a Welsh speaking student at Swansea University?
I felt isolated in a great sea of Englishness. But I was also afforded refuge, since I was able to follow one History course through the medium of Welsh in both my first and second years -- Rhys Davies being my first-year tutor, and John Davies (later the famous author of the Penguin History of Wales) my second.
Welsh is now not only acknowledged but respected and valued, as it never was in my early days.
What were your reasons for staying on at Swansea after graduating?
Because I was appointed to the staff -- totally unexpectedly - when I was only 21 and had just begun postgraduate work. I then chose to stay because my roots were deep, not in college but in the culture of the surrounding area.
You have written many books on the two literatures of Wales and on American literature - of which one are you most proud?
I'm not sure that 'proud' is the word, but I'm fairly satisfied with four that I think suggest my range - I write Cultural History as well as Literary Interpretations (I dislike the limp term 'literary criticism'), and encompass American poetry as well as the two literatures of Wales.
Therefore: The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry (Harvard, 1987); Corresponding Cultures (UWP, 1997); In the Shadow of the Pulpit (UWP, 2010); R.S.Thomas: Serial Obsessive (2013). But there are only two works whose interest will outlast me, and they're both really the work of other people -- Emyr Humphreys and R S Thomas!
How did it feel to receive your OBE and to become a member of the Gorsedd of the Bards?
The OBE has been an embarrassment from the very start. I declined the invitation to Buckingham Palace, and (after much uncertainty) accepted the honour for two reasons only. That some unknown kind friends had gone to the considerable trouble of preparing a nomination (unknown to me, of course); and in the hope that it might prove of use when I was writing supporting references for others working like me on the literatures of Wales who were applying for grants from London sources. I have never used the OBE in any other context, and I fear that use of it has brought few benefits, if any.
The Gorsedd is an entirely different matter. I was nominated by my dear old friend and Swansea University Colleague, Professor Hywel Teifi Edwards, with the explicit intention of seeing me installed at 'his' National Eisteddfod in Llanelli in 2000. And accordingly, I value it as a very special privilege.
What is the highlight of your academic career?
An exceedingly difficult question. My career was transformed when I became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1995, a rare honour, and the highest honour for any British scholar. My experience of being Visiting Professor at Harvard was electrifying and a huge boost to morale. And I had the privilege of being among the tiny handful who established the Learned Society of Wales, and the further honour of being one of its two inaugural Vice-Presidents.