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.”
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
aside . . .
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.