To celebrate the 100th anniversary of R. S. Thomas’s birth – he was born on March 29, 1913, in Cardiff, Wales – at least six new books have been published. Two of them deal with poems he wrote; one, with poems written about him. And three are combinations of personal reminiscences and interpretative studies.
Five of the books lie to the left of my keypad; the sixth has not yet been published. So this blog will offer my first thoughts on the ones at hand.
There are two books for new, or relatively new readers of Thomas’s poetry. The first is R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi, edited by Damian Walford Davies (Seren, 2013). It contains poems Thomas wrote to, for, and about Elsi, his first wife – love poems, but not what Robert Frost calls “sunset raving,” not the love poetry written by adolescents of all ages.
There’s a dryness, an astringency, about Thomas and his poetry even when he’s in love. Elsi, too? Here’s how she, with her watercolorist’s eye, describes the moment when they agreed to marry: “R.S. and I were on the moor at Bwlch-y-Fedwen, the wind blowing across the bleached grass and grey stone,, and the golden plover calling when we decided that we could live together.” Now this is R.S. poeing the same scene:
Before a green altar
with the thrush for priest
I took those gossamer
vows that neither Church
could stale nor the Machine
tarnish, . . .
As Elsi and R.S. grew old together – they were married for more than 50 years before she died – his poems to her grew less and less dry. Damian Walford Davies has done us a great favor by bringing them together, thereby allowing us to feel the many moods of love as filtered through a great poet’s sensibility.
The second book for Thomas newcomers is my own, A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R. S. Thomas and His Poetry (Wipf & Stock, 2013), which introduces the poet, the development of his thinking, and the tensions in his life that “hurt [him] into poetry.” It is part reminiscence, part biography, part interpretation, focusing on his hyphenation of Welshness and Englishness, artist and scientist, poet and theologian, and most importantly, doubter and believer.
For longtime R.S.T. fans, A Masterwork offers a viewpoint differing from the usual British one, which often is academic, and all too frequently presents Thomas as stone-faced.
I liked Ronald, but yes, I experienced his stony glare. Many times, however, he went out of his way for me. He told the surgeon, who operated on him for a hernia, that he had to be released from the hospital in time for him to spend a day with “this American who’s coming to see me.”
The next two books are for readers who know Thomas’s poetry well. The first is R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems, edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies (Bloodaxe Books, 2013). The editors have gathered poems Thomas published, beginning in 1939, in periodicals, little-press limited editions, memorial booklets, etc. – poems that he never included in one of his books.
Each poem tells us something about Thomas, if only a hint of why he abandoned some of his children. A few of the poems are on their way to my A-list. For now, as a clergyman who ministered in the second half of the twentieth century, I’ll single out “Vocation,” which begins: “Mine is the good cause / If lost;” and concludes: “Against times / That infect I offer my / Priceless inoculation.”
The second book for readers steeped in Thomas’s poems is Imagined Greetings: Poetic Engagements with R. S. Thomas, edited by David Lloyd (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2013). These are poems written to or about Thomas. Some are warm tributes, some are cheeky, some just plain snarky. In some, I found the Thomas I learned to know; in others, a Thomas I never met.
Each poem is a personal view of Thomas, a segment of a cubist painting of him, similar to Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard.
The fun of imagined Greetings, at least for me, is the way the poets take well-known lines from Thomas’s own poems and quote them, half quote them, deconstruct and reconstruct them.
The fifth book on my desk is nearly as high as the other four piled together. It is R. S. Thomas: Serial Obsessive by M. Wynn Thomas (University of Wales Press, 2013). This book is too important to slide over quickly. So I’ll hold it for an extensive review, only saying now that it deals with the fixed ideas that serially possessed Thomas’s imagination: Iago Prytherch, Wales, his family, and his elusive God.
The book not yet published is The Things Left Unsaid: R. S. Thomas and Me by Lee McOwan; more about it when I receive a copy.
Poetry and prose quoted in this blog:
“R.S. and I were on the moor” – R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi, 9.
“Before a green altar” – “Luminary,” R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi, 54.
“hurt [him] into poetry” – “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” W. H. Auden, Another Time, 98.
“Mine is the good cause” – “Vocation,” R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems, 82.