Meeting R.S. Thomas on a Sunny Day in London

The embrace is powerful, tight, unrelenting, with the arms of the captured one hanging limp. Yet malevolence does not characterize the face of the captor.

Or so it seemed to me when the sculpture arrested me on a sunny mid-May day in London.

It was our first full day there, and my son and I had chosen Tate Britain as our destination art museum. Our feet were following our eyes’ lead . . . until my eyes halted, catching my feet off guard, in front of Jacob Epstein’s monumental alabaster carving of “Jacob and the Angel.”

Pop Angel Jacob websizeJacob’s chin all but rests on the angel’s nose, and the angel’s knees bend as he grips Jacob, perhaps keeping him from slumping to the ground.

Whether it was from the front or the back of his mind, Epstein was responding to the biblical account of Jacob wrestling with a Mystery (Genesis 32:22-31).

They grapple through the night, Jacob prevailing, until, toward dawn, the Stranger dislocates Jacob’s hip. Jacob still won’t let go . . . unless the Stranger reveals his name. The Stranger refuses, instead giving Jacob a new name, Israel. Then the Stranger disappears, and Jacob goes, limping, into a relocated future.

Doesn’t sound like Epstein’s carving, does it?

No. I see Epstein’s sculpture as giving us the inward meaning of the Bible’s outward narrative.

Jacob is hoisted by Transcendent Strength out of his everyday world, held limp in a new reality, his chin not quite touching the nose of the Avatar of the Ever Unsoiled.

He is dislocated, but when he is put down, he will find himself in a location where he can look into a transformed future and front it unafraid.

And that’s when I met R. S. Thomas.

His poems hoist me out of the mental world in which I customarily ruminate. I go limp, his poems grip me. And when they put me down, I find myself relocated, peering into . . . . . Sometimes a more challenging distance. Sometimes a kindlier one.

Never again will sun in a field be . . . just sun in a field. Now it is . . .

                                           . . . the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past, it is the turning
. . .

to the transcendent light in the present moment, as I did on the island of Bardsey, twelve days after my Tate Britain encounter with RS.

In the Bardsey Oratory, a lovely voice was reading one of Thomas’s poems, and I was there, simply there. Speechless afterwards, all I could do was hug the reader.


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

“the pearl” – “The Bright Field,” Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), 60; see Matthew 13:45-46.


5 thoughts on “Meeting R.S. Thomas on a Sunny Day in London

  1. John, The wrestling with the Angel also, of course, reminds one of RST’s “Waiting”, with its echo of Genesis 32.29: “Face to face? Ah, no / God; such language falsifies / the relation”; God is as elusive as ever and the poet waits, “between faith and doubt”.

  2. I have to confess that I’m an Epstein philistine, and find the image breathtakingly powerful, on different levels of interpretation. I would want to walk around and around this sculpture for some time, run my hands over it, sensing the weight of it. The same as I do with RS’s words. Left small by my own realisation of what I don’t know, then grow by the reality of what I have just learned and understood.

    • I, too, wanted to touch, to feel the coolness of the alabaster, to sense the work of the sculptor’s chisel. A guard watching? So I settled for the walking around and round approach, with many stops to look and look. The closeness of chin and nose reminded me, for whatever reason, of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling painting of the fingers of Adam and God almost touching. Which, in turn, reminds me of an RS poem – can’t remember which one – hole in memory.

  3. Your post left me breathless – the wonder of the sculptor – the strength of those arms – and your words.

    Don and I never got to that museum. We went to many others but somehow that one always seemed to get onto the “next time” list.

    I am so happy that you were able to make that trip – as I am sure are those who heard your lectures and spoke with you in person. I had prayed so hard and so often for this.

    Thanks be to God.

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