When Tyrrells Crisps Are Served with Ice Cream, Will R. S. Thomas Smile?

From the Daily Mail online.

From the Daily Mail online.

I wonder what R. S. Thomas would make of the use of his picture on bags of Tyrrells “Hand Cooked English Crisps”?

Potato chips, that is.

Would he fancy crisps with ice cream, as I do?

Something salty with something sweet. Pretzels serve the purpose, but just barely. There’s nothing quite like potato chips with ice cream.

It’s been Utz’s chips for me, ever since I went with my mother to the farmers’ market in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and the woman at the Utz’s stall handed me a few chips. Every kid, of course, got some.

Utz’s of Hanover chips and Pensupreme ice cream: that’s the ticket.

Something to make R.S. smile?

R.S. in a priest’s dog collar, looking as if he’s just tasted ultra sour Eucharistic wine, is being pictured on bags of Tyrrells sweet chili and red pepper crisps. Beside the picture, which appears to be superimposed upon an antique automobile, is a sort of poster with the words: “Win a fleeting look of contempt or £25,000.”

According to a company spokesman: “The picture was chosen solely for the look. We are humbled we didn’t recognize R. S. Thomas sooner.”

Also on the bag is this: “When we see an eccentric old photograph – like the one on the front of this bag – we can’t help but dream up a silly caption.”

RS Thomas Welsh poet May 1993 1993

R.S. Thomas at the Maybank Hotel, Aberdyfi, Cymru, May 1993.

My dream is of a November 1994 evening at the Bull Bay Hotel, where Nancy and I invited Ronald and Betty Thomas to join us for dinner. At dessert time, Ronald looked at me with a shy grin and asked, “Do you think they’ll have ice cream?” Sure enough, when the server asked for our orders, ice cream was on offer.

Ronald tucked into his ice cream with a smile like I must have worn when I had Pensupreme ice cream and Utz’s potato chips during the Second World War.

If his ice cream had been accompanied by Tyrrells sweet chili and red pepper crisps, I think he’d have given the server the look that Tyrrells is featuring on its bag.

“How But in Custom and in Ceremony?” | A Memory of R.S. Thomas

RS Thomas at Porth Neigwl

R.S. Thomas at Porth Neigwl, August 2012

It’s a small memory of what some may call an unremarkable incident, but for me it’s a mind-ventilating moment in my relationship with R. S. Thomas.

Thomas was showing me Saint Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron, the parish of which he was vicar from 1967 until 1978, when he retired, and he and Elsi moved to a stone cottage at Porth Neigwl, “Hell’s Mouth.”

Before our visit to the church, Thomas had taken me to the cottage and allowed me to photograph him standing (too close to the edge?) with his back to “Hell’s Mouth.” Now, in the church, I looked at the pulpit from which he had preached and asked if he’d let me take a picture of him standing in it.

Frosty rejoinder: “I never step into the pulpit except in clerical collar, cassock, and surplice.”

He was wearing his signature red necktie, so I stowed my camera.

But I wondered: Here’s a modern man, who forthrightly expresses his doubts, who appropriates the scientific understanding of the world, who interprets the Bible metaphorically not literally. Why, then, this reverence for an antique wooden structure that enables the preacher to be seen and heard in a church building?

The answer that came to me is found in “A Prayer for my Daughter” by W. B. Yeats:

How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?

One year, my wife and I found ourselves so mired in church activities that we brushed aside the idea of putting up a Christmas tree. After all, is celebrating the birth of Jesus dependent upon a tree?

Yes, it is, Peter and Suzanne declared when they arrived. So out they went, bought a tree, schlepped the decorations from the attic, and soon the customary yuletide evergreen graced the parsonage.

How but in custom and ceremony . . . .

R. S. Thomas knew that in a time of doubt, you do not wait for an experience of God’s presence before you participate in the customs and ceremonies of religion. Rather, you participate in those customs and ceremonies as the ground base on which God, in God’s time, will play the melodies of belief.

And Thomas’s tradition, the Anglican tradition, is rich in the time-honored poetic prose of the Book of Common Prayer, which also guides the attire of Anglican priests and their movements and actions within sacred space.

So one way to keep from toppling over backwards into Hell’s Mouth is to maintain the customs and ceremonies out of which innocence and beauty and belief in God are born.

“Panoramas Are Not What They Used to Be” | A Memory of R.S. Thomas

claude lorrain

The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, Claude Lorrain, 1648

It’s been a heat-wave July, and I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to be looking at instead of the view from my study window. Getting up before dawn and going out to the rim of Bryce Canyon to wait for the rising sun to illuminate a hoodoo-accented panorama. Rolling over on my back in the Sea of Galilee and slowly turning my head from side to side to take in panoramic views of the hillsides.

Then I remember a letter from R. S. Thomas, in which he says: “The cruise we went on was not aimed at birds, so I didn’t see many. Mainly I had an overdose of scenery. As Wallace Stevens said: ‘Panoramas are not what they used to be’.”

That quote is the first line of “Botanist on Alp (No.1);” the second line is: “Claude has been dead a long time.” In fact, the French artist died in 1682, and the panoramas he painted now appear, to eyes brought up on Cézanne, emotionally sterile.

Back to R.S.’s overly panoramic cruise: He’s referring to an Alaskan cruise that he and Betty took – all, he claims, because “Betty still has an appetite for travel.”

Several months after R.S. wrote that he hadn’t seen many birds, Nancy and I had dinner with him and Betty. In the course of our conversation, he recalled that he had seen about thirty new species of birds on the cruise, including the bald eagle.

Always with Thomas there’s but . . . but . . . butting, which he makes no effort to hide. Indeed, he parades the contraries that are endemic in human nature.

So it’s not surprising that, in fact, Thomas continued to find certain panoramas what they used to be – Welsh panoramas that were close to home; preferably, just outside his door.

snowdon mountains

The Snowdon Mountains, Wales

In July of 1998, in a letter giving me his new address, he said:

After many delays we are in our cottage, still trying to impose order. I have lost sight of the sea although it is only some 3 or 4 miles away. This is the pick of Welsh mountain scenery. I can see Snowdon from just outside the cottage and other mountains are about us, though they do not pass the qualifying altitude of 3000 feet.

All of which convinces me that R.S. must have remembered the final stanza of the poem by Wallace Stevens:

The pillars are prostrate, the arches are haggard,
The hotel is boarded and bare.
Yet the panorama of despair
Cannot be the specialty
Of this ecstatic air.

Stevens’ use of “ecstatic” surely must have delighted Thomas. For he had written: Stevens’

       . . . adjectives
are the wand he waves
so language gets up
and dances under
a fastidious moon.

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

“adjectives / are the wand he waves” – “Homage to Wallace Stevens,” No Truce with the Furies, 62.

The Man Under the Fringed Lampshade | A Memory of R.S. Thomas Reading His Poems

RS Thomas in 1993

R.S. Thomas at the Maybank Hotel, Aberdyfi, May 1993.

There R. S. Thomas sat, enthroned in an armchair, under the fringed shade of a floor lamp. On his face, eyeglasses; in his hands, my copy of a book of his poems.

Twenty minutes earlier, ten of us had sat around the lounge of a small hotel, eying the empty throne. Had Thomas forgotten that he’d promised to read some of his poems before we ate dinner together? Getting antsy, I began walking in the direction of his hotel, only to meet him on his way uphill.

After settling in under the fringed shade, Thomas revealed what we need to know about great poems.

He demonstrated that rhyme is not an essential ingredient of poetry. Yes, some fine poems include rhyming words, but since there is great unrhymed poetry, rhyme clearly is not essential.

The first essential is rhythm – the rhythm created by stressed and unstressed syllables, by punctuation and line ends, and by the way that some words force you to make a tongue adjustment before you can say the next word.

The second is word choices, word sounds, and word placements, and the ear, not the eye, is the judge of rightness.

The third is fresh metaphors, avoiding shopworn tropes like the plague. High on the list of shopworn tropes – “avoiding like the plague.”

The fourth is saying something common to human experience in a better way than it has ever been said before – a way that ventilates our stale mind.

The man under the fringed lampshade revealed all those things by reading a selection of his poems.

Too much reading of poetry is done by people trying to be dramatic. They seem to imagine that without their elocutionary salt, the poet’s work will be bland.

Listening to Thomas, it was clear that the reading of poetry involves careful articulation of the words, so that the play among their sounds can be heard. Reading poetry also involves adherence to the rhythms the poet created, so that what the poet is saying, not what the reader thinks the poet should be saying, catches the ear of the listener.

Now read aloud to yourself one of the poems Thomas read under the fringed lampshade:

To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.

Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long,
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with the fruit of a man’s body.

I can’t think of a more striking figure of speech for the crucifixion than “love in a dark crown / Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree / Golden with the fruit of a man’s body.”

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

“To one kneeling down no word came” – “In a Country Church,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 114.

Praying Earlier Than Thou | A Borrowed Memory of R.S. Thomas

Chuch Hostel Bangor Wales RS Thomas

Chapel of the Church Hostel, Bangor Wales, where R.S. Thomas prayed. Photo from 1994.

Usually my midweek blog features one of my own memories of R. S. Thomas, but this week’s memory is borrowed.

While Thomas was studying classic Greek and Latin literature at the University of Wales, Bangor, in preparation for ordination to the priesthood of the Church in Wales, he lived in the Church Hostel with other theologs. The hostel’s warden was Glyn Simon, later Archbishop of Wales.

Simon’s son remembers:

They had a chapel attached to the hostel, and my father used to get up early to pray there. The only thing was, R.S. would already be there, praying. So my father got up earlier, and R.S. got up earlier and earlier, it became a sort of contest between them. My father found his asceticism quite amusing, and as children we liked him, he had very good-looking features that seemed to have been wrought out of wood.

Thomas was not a conventional pray-person: Not for him table graces that were spoken; certainly not for him the prayer-rants of many radio and TV preachers. Nevertheless he was a man of prayer.

But . . . . not as in the old days did he pray. Not perhaps as he prayed during his praying earlier than thou contest with Glyn Simon. Not perhaps as he prayed when he became rector of Manafon.

Not as in the old days I pray,
God. . . .
……………. I would have knelt
long, wrestling with you, wearing
you down. Hear my prayer, Lord, hear
my prayer. As though you were deaf, myriads
of mortals have kept up their shrill
cry, . . .
……………. It begins to appear
that is not what prayer is about.
It is the annihilation of difference,
the consciousness of myself in you,
of you in me; . . .

Prayer, then, is an overcoming of the distance between the creature and the Creator. It is a silence, in which God is a presence, not an absence. Prayer is an experience, in which the person praying is aware of being inhabited by God and of finding a habitation in God.

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

“Not as in the old days I pray” – “Emerging,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 1.

The prose quote from the son of Glyn Simon is found in Byron Rogers’ biography of Thomas: The Man Who Went Into the West, 99.

“A Succession of Duds” | R.S. Thomas’s Memories of U.S. Presidents

With one exception, R. S. Thomas never talked with me about American politics.

The break in that rule came on November 9, 1994, the day after the mid-term elections during President Clinton’s first four years in office. Television’s nattering heads were agog with the Republican “sweep” that launched Newt Gingrich’s firecracker career, which prompted Thomas to refer to recent U.S. presidents as “a succession of duds.”

How many “duds,” I wondered, does it take to make a “succession”? “Recent” certainly included Clinton and the first Bush. What about Reagan? Ford? Carter? Thomas didn’t say, but surely Reagan was on his list. For President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher saw things through the same eyes, and Thatcher was, for Thomas, “The Iron Lady [who] became / rusty.”

Rusty things are, of course, duds.

From Thomas’s perspective, Thatcher and Reagan must have appeared twinned in dud-ness. Both were bellicose: the prime minister with her Falklands War, the President with his Star Wars Missile Defense.  That militarism would have got right up pacifist Thomas’s nose, and he would have been caustic in his rejection of the greed-is-good, trickle-down economics favored by both leaders.

But . . .

But there’s irony here as there is irony almost everywhere in Thomas’s life. Thomas was well known, and often angrily dismissed, for his insistence that the Welsh people needed to become more defiantly, even more bellicosely, Welsh. But the Welsh, when given an opportunity to vote for some measure of “home rule,” turned it down. Then along came the Iron Lady, and the Welsh, deeply alienated by her English chest thumping and her bugger-the-poor policies, voted in favor of a separate Assembly to legislate on matters pertaining to Wales.

What Thomas, the poet laureate of resurgent Welshness, failed to achieve, the rusty English prime ministerial dud, helped bring about. And wasn’t there a soft chuckle in the heavens?

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

“The Iron Lady became” – “Not Blonde,” Mass for Hard Times, 24.

“I Can’t Offer Much in the Way of Hospitality” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

Welsh hospitality mattered to R. S. Thomas: It was an integral part of the Wales he loved.

Medieval Welsh lords welcomed traveling bards to their tables, as the bard Iolo Goch was welcomed at Sycharth by Owain Glyn Dŵr, which moved the bard to praise

. . . Sycharth with its brown beer,
Meat from the chase, fish from the weir.

R.S. Thomas in 1992

R.S. Thomas in 1992

Why there would be no such welcome for this American non-bard, Thomas felt it necessary to explain.

During the early months of 1992, letters passed back and forth as Thomas and I worked out the details of my August visit. Writing on March 8th, Thomas agreed to my proposed dates and got in a dig at the English: “I will make a note of August 11 and 12. This peninsula will be overrun with English visitors then, so you won’t hear much Welsh.”

With that, he turned to hospitality: “I hope I remembered to say that the reason I can’t offer much in the way of hospitality is that my wife died a year ago this month.”

Elsi Thomas was hospitalized in early March 1991; when R. S. brought her home, he carried her up the steep stairs to her bedroom, where she died on March 10th. Decades earlier, at the time of their nineteenth wedding anniversary, Thomas had written:

Nineteen years now
Keeping simple house,
Opening the door
To friend and stranger.

When I visited Thomas on August 12, 1992, he opened the door to this stranger, and led me up to the room where Elsi had died, which was, I had the impression, very much as she had left it.

But that was after Thomas made up for his inability to offer me home hospitality by giving me lunch at the Woodlands Hall Hotel. There was nothing specifically Welsh, however, about the food: poached salmon with prawns, carrots, broccoli, and green beans; Blue Nun Liebfraumilch.

Two years later, in November of 1994, Thomas offered my wife and me hospitality in the welcoming home that he and Betty Vernon had made for themselves at Llanfairynghornwy on the island of Anglesey. On the hearth, a real fire, which Thomas from time to time during drinks poked into warmer life. Betty served Welsh lamb with mint sauce and currant jelly, roasted potatoes with gravy, and the quintessential Welsh vegetable leeks cooked with tomatoes. For afters, there were nods to the non-Welsh: slices of Mediterranean oranges served in a tangy syrup with cream, Brie from France, and Double Gloucester, an English import.

It was Welsh hospitality, but Betty was English.

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

“Of Sycharth with its brown beer” – “The Tree,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 56.

“Nineteen years now” – “Anniversary,” Tares, 18.

“Art Leading Modesty Astray” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

R. S. Thomas never struck me as a prude. Neither was he an erotic poet. But sex slips into his impressions of paintings.

At least eight of the poems he wrote in response to the 33 paintings reproduced in his book Between Here and Now have sexuality as theme or sub-theme.

The women in the group of five couples that I took to visit Thomas in 1993 would not be surprised to learn that he wrote these lines: “. . . urgencies / of the body; a girl beckoned.”

Thomas was not like eighteenth-century Anglican priest John Wesley, who thought that artists who painted “stark naked” boy babies (Jesus and John the Baptist) and women lacked both decency and common sense.

Thomas included a Renoir painting of two “stark naked” bathers in Between Here and Now, and in the accompanying poem he tells us they are “naked / for us to gaze / our fill on, but / without lust.”

If you feel the need to say “but / without lust,” doesn’t that suggest that lust has sashayed into your consciousness?

Moving on, since there’s the whole matter of living in glass houses, we come to this blog’s poem by Thomas in response to a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec.

“Justine Dieuhl” by Toulouse-Lautrec

“Justine Dieuhl” by Toulouse-Lautrec

The black-and-white reproduction in Between Here and Now left me with no idea of the stark red at the throat of Justine Dieuhl in Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting. Then I bought a used copy of Bazin’s Impressionist Paintings in the Louvre, the book that Thomas was perusing when he wrote his poem, and was startled by Justine’s, at first impression, bloodied neck.

In Thomas’s poem,

          . . . The red kerchief
at the neck, that suggests
blood, is art leading
modesty astray. . . .

Was Justine, in truth, modest? Are her hands, as Thomas goes on to say, “in / perfect repose”? Or do her arms and hands draw the color red, suggestively, downward?

Whose modesty is being led astray? Justine Dieuhl’s? R. S. Thomas’s? Mine? Yours? Indeed, how did “modesty” and “astray” come up for consideration?

The art of the painter and the art of the poet reveal that what we put forth as “truth” is often just our impression of what we’re seeing – on occasion, an impression that has a hormonal component.

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

“urgencies / of the body” – “The Casualty,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 21.

“naked / for us to gaze” – “Renoir: The Bathers,” Between Here and Now, 77.

“The red kerchief” – “Toulouse-Lautrec: Justine Dieuhl,” Between Here and Now, 69.

“Art Is a Sacrament in Itself” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

R. S. Thomas told me that you cannot understanding what Jesus meant when he picked up bread and said, “This is my body” (Mark 14:22), unless you understand poetry.

“How,” Thomas asked, rhetorically, as we talked on a dreary November afternoon in 1994, “can this man give me his body to eat?”

“One needs,” he continued, “an understanding of metaphor in order to respond.”

When we use a metaphor, we say one thing is another thing, while all the while knowing that it isn’t. The one I love is a red rose, but she isn’t a flower. My friend is a prune, but he isn’t a dried plum. “Prune” and “red rose” point to qualities that are red-rose-like and prune-like.

In the Christian sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, bread is a metaphor: It is Christ, but it isn’t the physical body of Christ. The bread is pointing to something bread-like that transcends the here-and-now substance that we call bread.

The sacramental bread is a metaphor pointing to the spiritual nourishment found in Christ. Something like that is what Thomas means when he says, “Art is a sacrament / in itself.”

Alyscamps at Arles

Les Alyscamps, Paul Gauguin, Musee d’Orsay

That affirmation comes near the center of Thomas’s impression of Gauguin’s painting “The Alyscamps at Arles.”

In this painting, we see the ruins of the chapel of St-Honorat rising up behind a clump of trees. Many leaves are autumnal yellow-orange. Three black-garbed figures walk along a stream. A bush burns.

All of these painted realities become metaphorical in Thomas’s poem. Three figures? Perhaps the Trinity. The walkers “have the stiffness of candles,” and are passing “the living water, and the leaves // over them have the crispness / of bread.”

For Thomas, an Anglican priest trained in Christian doctrine and liturgy, there is something sacramental, something metaphorical, about the painting.

How do we, Thomas’s readers, read the painting?

Before the chapel was ruined, the doctrines and sacraments of its priests pointed to the transcendent, to the mystery at the heart of matter. Now, the work of art, like a sacrament, is a window through which we catch impressions of what is between the here and now.

“We are,” Thomas suggests,

      art’s mercenaries,
firing our thought’s arrows
at the mystery of things.

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

“Art is a sacrament” – “Gauguin: The Alyscamps at Arles,” Between Here and Now, 59.

“We are art’s mercenaries” – “Paving,” Residues, 62.

“Elsi Was an Artist” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

Eldridge Range

“The Berwyn Range, Denbighshire” by Mildred E. (“Elsi”) Eldridge, from the Grosvenor Museum

Often there are biographical reasons for our predilections. Certainly, the fact that R. S. Thomas’s first wife, Mildred E. Eldridge (Elsi; 1909-1991), was a painter may help account for his love of Impressionist art. More, her reputation in the art world may have ignited R.S.’s desire to gain fame as a poet.

“Elsi was an artist,” Thomas told me. She trained at the Royal College of Art in London, where she won the Prix de Rome travel scholarship. This allowed her, according to R.S., to spend “eighteen months studying in Italy.”

By the time Elsi and R.S. met, she had exhibited her watercolors in a number of London galleries, with laudatory reviews appearing in major English papers. Today, her delicate watercolors of birds fetch several thousands of dollars at first-class auction houses.

During the Second World War, she contributed watercolors to the “Recording the Changing Face of Britain” project, which was an attempt to preserve in a Romantic manner how historic buildings and treasured landscapes looked before they were lost to bombers and developers.

Elsi and R.S. Thomas

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

In a strict sense, Eldridge is not an Impressionist. Yet there is an impressionist feel to her work. Her touch is light, her brush leaves a few strokes of color. She conveys, in the words of M. Wynn Thomas, “a romantic fragility of presence, leaving only a fleeting impression.”

In “The Berwyn Range, Denbighshire,” Elsi paints her impression of her husband’s line: “The movement of wind over grass.”

The Romantic strain in R.S.’s sensibility may have led him to Impressionist art even if he had not met Elsi, and he may have become a renowned poet, too. But when they met and married, she was the recognized artist, while he was the unknown poet. And it’s hard to find great promise in the poems he wrote during his university days. Only after he and Elsi married did he begin to write the poetry that made him “a name.”

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

“In the movement of wind over grass” – “The Moor,” Pietà, 24.