LONDON — R.S. Thomas, a priest and Welsh nationalist who became one of Britain's most admired poets, has died. He was 87.

Thomas died Monday, his family said. No cause of death was given.

In his poems, Thomas gnawed relentlessly at his preoccupations: the English speaker who learned Welsh and identified with the nationalist cause, the naturalist resentful of technology, and the priest haunted by the silence of God.

His style was spare, his words plain, and he was sometimes compared to Robert Frost.

He was a difficult and prickly man — perhaps deeply shy as well — who rarely offered help to biographers. As a Welsh nationalist he advocated legislation barring English people from buying property in Wales, and supported arsonists who attacked English property, but his poetry was all written in English. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996.

Ronald Stuart Thomas was born March 29, 1913, in Cardiff, Wales, but grew up speaking English. He was ordained a priest of the Church in Wales, the Anglican church in the principality, in 1937.

Thomas showed no enthusiasm for the Welsh language until about 1940, when as a curate in Talarn Green he began taking weekly lessons. His interest deepened while he was rector of Manafon, from 1942-54, where the hardworking hill farmers became his poetic subject.

His development as a poet was spurred by his courtship of Mildred Eldridge, later his wife, who had established a reputation as a painter. "This made me wish to become recognized as a poet," Thomas said in his article for the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. She died in 1991.

His subject was personified in the poems by the recurring figure of Iago Prytherch, a farm laborer.

homas' treatment of the farmers was unsentimental: "I now found myself amongst tough, materialistic, hardworking people, who measured one another by the acre and by the pound .... What was in their minds, I wonder? The question remains unanswered to this day."

The peasant isolated on his hillside links Thomas to his later concentration on the priest facing a silent God, as in his poem "Kneeling":

Moments of great calm,

Kneeling before the altar

Of wood in a stone church

In summer, waiting for the God

To speak; the air a staircase

For silence; the sun's light

Ringing me, as though I acted

A great role. And the audiences

Still; all that close throng

Of spirits waiting, as I,

For the message.

Prompt me, God;

But not yet. When I speak,

Though it be you who speak

Through me, something is lost.

The meaning is in the waiting.

"The English language has lost one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century and one of the greatest religious poets of that century," said Damian Walford Davies, lecturer in English at the University of Wales.

Thomas is survived by his son Gwydion, from his first marriage, and by his second wife, Elisabeth Vernon. Funeral details were not immediately available.

U.S. & World - Associated Press Sept 27, 2000, 5.09pm GMT as in Deseret News (23 years ago when I put this up)