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“Need we be taught to love?” #rsthomas

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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 Edited by Damian Walford Davies, it also contains two previously unpublished poems and is, as far as I’m concerned, 72 pages of genius.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…

“…under a shower of bird notes” – some thoughts on R.S. Thomas #dewithon

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Over at the lovely Book Jotter blog, Paula is hosting her second annual Wales Readathon event during the month of March; known as Dewithon, it promises much of interest and so far I’ve read some fabulous posts, with loads of ideas for more reading…. (as if I needed any more of those!)

Wales is a country for which I have a great love; when the children were younger we holidayed in North Wales every year, and I love the landscape, the people and the country. Some of my favourite musicians are also Welsh (John Cale, Manic Street Preachers) and of course the literature is outstanding. I probably won’t have time to read anything Welsh of substance this month so instead I thought I would share some thoughts about one of my favourite Welsh poets – R.S. Thomas.

Thomas was a complex man; a Welshman brought up speaking English, he wrote in that language but learned his native language at a later date and I’ve seen him talking eloquently in it with a somewhat cultured English accent. Intensely private, he was an Anglican Priest who took his calling seriously, balancing it with his work as a poet. After a number of ministries he retired in 1978 from his role as vicar of St Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron, tucked away at the end of the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales and lived in a tiny and primitive cottage in Y Rhiw, where he continued with his writing and political activism until his death in 2000.

Many of Thomas’s early works deal with the Welsh landscape and labourer; later writings took a more political turn, rueing the anglicisation of Wales and supporting Welsh Nationalism. His late poems are particularly powerful, often bitter, and I imagine he may well not have been an easy man to get on with…

I feel a strong connection to Thomas’s verse, and also with his location; because it was on the Llŷn Peninsula we would holiday, and in fact we even managed to get a look at the cottage from a distance on one visit. It overlooks the dramatic bay of Hell’s Mouth and I can imagine it would have been a most striking location during extreme weather.

These are my Thomas books; a good number of which I picked up on visits to North Wales. I read him avidly back in the day, but it’s a while since I’ve picked up one of his books. A particularly moving poem is a favourite of mine, however, and I wanted to share it here:

A Marriage

We met
        under a shower
of bird-notes.
        Fifty years passed,
love’s moment
        in a world in
servitude to time.
       She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
      closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
      ‘Come,’ said death,
choosing her as his
      partner for
the last dance, And she,
      who in life
had done everything
      with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
     for the shedding
of one sigh no
     heavier than a feather.

Thomas was married to Mildred Eldridge, an artist whom he called Elsi, and the poem was written after her death in 1991. Elsi isn’t remembered enough in my view; she produced murals and book illustrations, amongst other works, and what I’ve seen is lovely. I sense that her career may have had to take second fiddle to that of her husband (though her Wikipedia page lists some interesting activity), and as I recall he wrote mostly very obliquely about her (and Gwydion, the son they had). Nevertheless, this poem is quite beautiful, one of the most moving things I’ve ever read. The imagery is telling, too, as the only example of Elsi’s work I have is in the form of an old Medici greetings card (she often used to illustrate for them I believe):

Elsi specialised in birds, you see, apparently produced multitudes of artworks for nature in later life deep in the Welsh countryside. So the metaphors in this beautiful poem are very apt.

There’s much online about Thomas, and pleasingly more information now about his wife. Gwydion sadly passed away in 2016, though his children are a link to the poetic past of their grandfather. Thomas’s poetry is not always easy, but it’s often a powerful and emotional read; I recommend you search it out to discover the voice of a different Welsh poet called Thomas! 😀

Penguin Modern Poets #1 – Lawrence Durrell, Elizabeth Jennings, R.S. Thomas

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And so I get to the end of the first volume of the Penguin Modern Poets! I’ve been ruminating as I read about the best way to approach writing about the books, and I don’t really intend to get into heavy poetic analysis, as I’m not really qualified to do that. Instead, I think I’ll just give a personal response to each poet and pick out some of my favourites to give a flavour of the books. So here goes volume 1!

poets 1

Penguin opened the series with some big-name poets: Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) is of course known for his fictions and his books about Mediterranean islands, and I’m not actually sure if I knew he wrote poetry as well; Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) is a poet I *was* aware of – I think I studied her at school, though I can’t actually recall which poems; and finally R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), a Welsh bard whose work I’m very familiar with, as I already own many of his books and love his verse! All would have been well-known at the time of publication, though I suspect that Thomas is possibly the name that readers would know nowadays as a poet.

Writer, Lawrence Durrell

So, to start with Durrell. Not surprisingly, his poetic style is quite dense and allusive, much like his prose work, and the subject matter is often set around myths and legends and islands. If I’m honest I didn’t always pick up all the allusions (particularly the classical ones) but some poems were very powerful despite this – “J’Est un Autre” with its hints of strangers following you in Budapest was particularly memorable. However, some of the wordplay lost me, and I think I’d prefer to stick with Durrell as a prose stylist rather than a poet.

02Jennings02

Jennings had a much more straightforward style, but I was surprised to find that I didn’t recognise any of her works at all – not even a glimmer of familiarity. Her style is more personal, dealing directly with subjects like death and old age, family heritage and fear. Perhaps this is more traditionally what would be thought to be a woman’s subject matter, although that argument would quickly be subverted by either Plath or Sexton. Jennings’ poems are also studded with religious imagery and pretty consistently downbeat. “Ghosts” was probably my favourite, a pithy little verse about how events left undone cause a house to be haunted.

r-s-thomas

And finally to R.S. Thomas – now, there was an intriguing man! Notoriously reclusive and difficult, particularly during the latter part of his lifetime, he was an Anglican priest who was also a poet. Brought up an English speaker, he taught himself Welsh and became quite a militant supporter of the tongue, though he learned the language too late to use it in his poetry. His works are in the main about Welsh people, landscape and nature and they’re remarkably powerful. He wasn’t afraid to say what he thought and to criticise his country and fellow countrymen and women if he felt it was justified. Towards the end of his life he allowed some personal influence into his poems, and some of those written after the death of his wife, Mildred “Elsi” Eldridge, are remarkably moving.

The personal poems came later than this volume, where the verse is mainly concerned with Wales and its fate. “An Old Man” and “The Village” were two of my favourites, but I think the one I liked best, and will share with you here, is “Welsh Landscape” – my favourite in the book, I think.

So my first reading of the Penguin Modern Poets has been stimulating and rewarding. All of the poets have their strengths, though Thomas is obviously my favourite, and I’m looking forward to volume 2 very much.

Welsh Landscape by R.S. Thomas

To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood.
That went into the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.
You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales.
There is the language for instance,
The soft consonants
Strange to the ear.
There are cries in the dark at night
As owls answer the moon,
And thick ambush of shadows,
Hushed at the fields’ corners.
There is no present in Wales,
And no future;
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts;
Mouldering quarries and mines;
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcase of an old song.

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