Poems to Elsi by R.S. Thomas
Edited by Damian Walford Davies

Back in March, as part of the Dewithon hosted by Paula at the Book Jotter, I did a little post on the great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas whose work I’ve loved for decades. That post led to a conversation about the poet on Twitter which spurred me on to buy a collection of Thomas’s work I didn’t have – “Poems to Elsi”. And it was another encounter on Twitter, this time via a link to a documentary from S4C which is up on YouTube, which send me back to the book and made me pick it up for what was a very emotional read…

As I mentioned in my post, one of my favourite Thomas poems is “A Marriage”, a beautiful verse which encapsulates the life of his wife, the painter Mildred ‘Elsi’ Eldridge. It’s an emotional work which gets me every time, and I don’t think I’d previously been aware that there was a whole volume which pulled together Thomas’s works relating to his relationship with Elsi. Edited by Damian Walford Davies, it also contains two previously unpublished poems and is, as far as I’m concerned, 72 pages of genius.

RS and Elsi were married in 1940 and were together until her death in 1991. However, as the fascinating introduction by Davies makes clear, it was not entirely a straightforward relationship. Thomas was, of course, a notoriously private man, writing his autobiography in the third person, and often alluding to personal events very obliquely (I read it back in the day, and it’s fascinating). However, reading between the lines of this and the poems, it seems that the marriage was one where in some ways Elsi was very self-contained and RS often felt shut out, unable to know what was really going on in her mind. Of course, it could be argued that *no* human can ever really know the whole truth about another, and that Elsi’s view that you should “Keep your hearts together and your tents separate” was a valid one. How closely you should interpret that is, of course, a matter of speculation; certainly their tents were together enough to have a son, Gwydion, whose existence often seems to flummox RS. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be said for allowing individual space within a marriage to make it a successful one…

Were there currents between them?
Why, when he thought darkly,
would the nerves play
at her lips’ brim? What was the heart’s depth?
There were fathoms in her,
too, and sometimes he crossed
them and landed and was not repulsed.
– from “Marriage” (not “A Marriage”)

The poems are arranged broadly chronologically – well, in subject matter, that is – so that they build up to give as close a portrait of the marriage as we’re likely to get; at least, from RS’s point of view. Elsi apparently has as yet unpublished writings, and I wonder if they will ever see the light of day? That’s by the by, however; what really matters is the poetry itself and it’s incredibly beautiful and moving. I’ve read many of these poems before, in the original collections from which they’re drawn; however, the cumulative effect of reading them in this sequence and following RS and Elsi through their life is an emotional one, and I had any numbers of shivers down the spine; as well as, I must confess, the occasional wobbly moment… RS was a powerful poet, one who deserves to be better known; although his poetic eye was often unflinching, it was also capable to great tenderness which I think is often forgotten.

…she was not deceived,
but accepted me as a girl
will under a thin moon
in love’s absence as someone
she could build a home with
for her imagined child.
– from “The Way of It”

So reading this collection was an exceptionally poignant experience, and I’m so glad I tracked this collection down. And there are some rather lovely synchronicities involved in my reading of this book (I seem to be seeing a lot of those lately), most of which are due to the editor of the collection, Damian Walford Davies, and his twin brother Jason! I mentioned being sent off from Twitter to a Youtube documentary, and that programme features the brother academics jousting over the merits of Dylan Thomas vs R.S. Thomas. And curiously enough, at the time of the show, Jason was Co-Director of the R.S. Thomas Research Centre at Bangor University; but it’s brother Damian who edited the poems, and did so very beautifully and sensitively.

Another level of intrigue exists when we get to this:

Back in the late 1990s, the producer of this CD collection approached R.S. Thomas with a view to recording the poet reading his own work. The result was an epic 3 CD set which emcompasses a wide range of his verse; it was released in 1999 by Sain and I recall picking it up on one of our holidays in Wales. It’s a marvellous collection, and a credit to the producer – who was one Damian Walford Davies! So it seems that R.S. Thomas and his memory have been well-served by both of the brothers…

I’ll end by sharing a couple of links with you. The first is the short show I mentioned, with the brothers playfully disagreeing about which Thomas is best – great fun!

And finally, here is RS reading “A Marriage”. If you can track down the poetry CDs I highly recommend them, because I don’t think there’s anything better than hearing a poet read their own work…