R.S. Thomas’s Wife: A Thorn Bird

Elsi and R.S. Thomas

Elsi and R.S. Thomas, around 1940, from “R.S. Thomas: Writers of Wales” by Tony Brown

A bestselling book turned into a television mini-series: not an uncommon phenomenon. But a bright star in that firmament is Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, which was published in 1977 – the TV version ran in March of 1983.

The date 1977 makes it possible, just barely, that R. S. Thomas had read McCullough’s book or a review of it before he wrote “The Way of It,” which, too, was published that year. Or he may simply have known the thorn-bird legend.

“There is a legend,” in McCullough’s words, “about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale.”

Thomas, describing his wife Elsi, says:

. . . If there are thorns
in my life, it is she who
will press her breast to them and sing.

Some of Elsi’s sketches of R.S. portray a beak-nosed, sharp-eyed man with furious feathers of hair, as if she had pressed her breast to thorns in his life and her pencil began to sing.

R.S. launches his poem with this tribute to Elsi’s artistic talent:

With her fingers she turns paint
into flowers, with her body
flowers into a remembrance
of herself. She is at work
always, mending the garment
or our marriage, foraging
like a bird for something
for us to eat. If there are thorns
in my life, it is she who
will press her breast to them and sing.

Her words, when she would scold,
are too sharp. She is busy
after for hours rubbing smiles
into the wounds. . . .

In recent blogs, I quoted what Thomas said, a year before his death, to an interviewer: “I don’t think I’m a very loving person. I wasn’t brought up in a loving home – my mother was afraid of emotion – and you tend to carry on in the same way don’t you?”

Perhaps R.S. was assessing one of the thorns in his life, his standoffishness from feelings and expressions of love.

And because Elsi was willing to impale her breast on his thorns, R.S. was set free to sing in words as she was singing in colors.

Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“If there are thorns” – “The Way of It,” R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi, 32.


3 thoughts on “R.S. Thomas’s Wife: A Thorn Bird

    • I’m sure he wasn’t. But when Nancy and I had dinner with him and Betty in 1994, he cleared the table, served orange slices in a delicious juice, followed by two kinds of cheese. She, of course, had cooked and served the Welsh lamb dinner. And men can be at their best for guests!

      By doing some web-surfing, you may be able to find some of Elsi’s drawings of RST. I’ve been successful on some occasions, other ones not.

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