“Nor Can I Remember Gideon Puw” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

R. S. Thomas had so many children that he forgot some of them – Gideon Pugh, for instance.

I met Gideon in Wales magazine, where his poet father is listed as “S. R. Thomas.”

It seemed likely that the typesetter reversed “R” and “S,” but Thomas is such a common surname in Wales that there could be, I supposed, a S. R. Thomas.

The poem, however, was like other poems R.S. wrote in the 1940s about the farmers who lived around Manafon, Thomas’s parish in the hill country of mid Wales.

With nothing more to go on, I filed Gideon away in the back of my mind, until, in 1991, Thomas responded to a letter I wrote him. Continuing that correspondence, I asked: “Is it correct for me to assume that the poem ‘Gideon Pugh’ on p. 47 of Wales, Winter 1944/1945, is by you? The poet is identified as S. R. Thomas.”

His answer came as the second half of an I-can’t-remember sentence: “. . . nor can I remember Gideon Puw. My early work has had more than enough notice compared with the later. I hope you have read ‘Counterpoint’.”

In our conversations, Thomas often referred to his “poor memory.” But I suspect that some of his forgetfulness was convenient. Which may be the case with “Gideon Pugh.”

As Thomas became better and better known for his Welsh nationalism, he tried to block out the times when he used anglicized names like “Pugh” instead of the Welsh “Puw.”

Whatever the explanation for his failure to remember him, Gideon Pugh/Puw is Thomas’s child. He appears in the recently published R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems, edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies (Bloodaxe Books, 2013).

Gideon is another one of Thomas’s Manafon-era hill farmers, at whom the poet looks, at first, from some distance – a distance that is physical, intellectual, and psychological. Then Thomas draws closer, looks deeper, and pries loose some of the glib theories that stick like burrs to his mind.

At first, Gideon seems to be a man who is so solitary that, when night comes, he shuns both other people and the natural world, and simply crawls under the covers and goes to sleep; for it “seems / That bed is the shortest route to the friendlier morrow.”

But, on second look, Thomas considers:

Could we lower the light, sharpen our eyes, peer
Beyond the mind’s trellis, seeking the soul,
Small, shy as a flame of his own wood fire,
We would find – What would we find? For look! He has risen;
Our glib theories clutter our wits like burrs.
The door closes, he is out under the stars,
Braving the night’s malice, the brown owl’s mirth.

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4 thoughts on ““Nor Can I Remember Gideon Puw” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

  1. Thomas’s early poems featured, primarily, the hill farmers of mid Wales; Wales itself, its history and landscape; and the natural world. These poems were praised by the critics, loved by the poetry-public, and included in a host of anthologies. And they brought R.S. one prize after another.
    By the late 1960s, however, Thomas’s poems began to change in focus and style. It now was God who held his attention, and the style he used for writing about God had the lack of syntactic clarity that every human attempt to understand God has.
    So Thomas became a ready target for the critics. He had achieved fame, and critics live for pouncing on the famous, pointing out how their work is faltering.
    And in a secular age – God? We don’t need God.
    Need to slow down, read, and re-read? No way; we’re speed-read people.
    The result? Thomas’s early poetry continued to be read, praised, and anthologized. His later, such as the poems in “Counterpoint,” which he hoped I’d read, to be damned with faint praise or just plain damned.
    And yes, I’d read “Counterpoint” before R. S. asked, and I’ve read it many times since. And it remains one of my least favorites of his books, although I ended my book by quoting the last two poems in “Counterpoint,” two of my favorites.

  2. Then Thomas draws closer, looks deeper, and pries loose some of the glib theories that stick like burrs to his mind.”
    I bow to the beauty of this poetic piece. I stand enriched, sir.

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