When a Poet Says “I” — R.S. Thomas and the Prostituée Parisienne

When Liam Neeson plays the role on Broadway of a man broken in body, mind, and spirit by hard-labor imprisonment after being tried and convicted for the ‘crime’ of loving men, we do not say that Liam Neeson is gay. We say Liam Neeson is playing Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss.

So why, when poets say “I” in a poem, do we assume they are telling us something true about themselves? Perhaps they’re playing a role on the stage of poetry. Perhaps they’re imagining what it’s like to be another person. Even a man looking into the eyes of a beautiful woman at a café in Paris.

R. S. Thomas published a poem titled “Chat” in Poetry Wales in 1971. When I first read it, in 2013, I wondered what subscribers to Poetry Wales thought about it four decades earlier. Did they stop to ask, “Is RS the priest telling us about his one-nighter in Paris? Or is he role-playing?”

If they knew RS, as I learned to know him in the 1990s, they recognized that this often austere man had an appreciative eye for feminine beauty. But that does not mean that RS is the man in “Chat” who is dining alone in Paris with a soignée woman:

What’s that you say?
No never. Well, just once . . .
Oh, in Paris or somewhere.
She was so pretty. Imagine
Yourself in an hotel
Dining-room; the tables engaged
All save yours. There comes in
A woman, young, soignée;
Looks around, summons the head
Waiter. They confer. He approaches:
Would Monsieur? I arise;
She is seated. Slowly the conversation
Develops. She is well-informed.
I incline; would she allow?
Good. Waiter, some more
Claret. Over the glass
Rim a momentary fencing
Of eyes. . . .

“Is Mademoiselle engaged for the evening?” the poem’s “I” asks. Non. They leave the hotel, walk, the young woman indicating the way. “In the spring gardens / All the birds of the city / In song.”

Then the streets narrow, the buildings change. “There is no / Birdsong now; my rhymes / Falter.” A door at the end of an alley. Baudelaire remembered. The “laughter of the whores / Of Paris.”

     . . . What was that
That you said? Well, yes,
I was taken in, I suppose.

Taken in through the door? Taken in by the Prostituée Parisienne, but before going through the door, bidding her Adieu?

Is RS taking us in?

The answer to all these questions is: “We, the readers, must decide for ourselves.”

The poet has written the poem; now it is ours to interpret . . . or to let it interpret us.

 

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

“What’s that you say?” – “Chat,” R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems (edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies, 2013), 83-84.

R.S. Thomas Responds to Henri Matisse’s “Portrait of a Girl in a Yellow Dress”

Henry YellowMy last post ended when my mind hit a wall while chasing a poem by R. S. Thomas about a painting by Henri Matisse.

I mentioned my plan to be in London later this month, said I was looking forward to seeing an exhibit titled Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Tate Modern, then added: Speaking of Matisse, didn’t Thomas write a poem about one of his paintings?

The wall has given way, revealing the poem, which is called “Portrait of a Girl in a Yellow Dress – Henri Matisse.” It follows Thomas’s meditation on Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” in his book titled Ingrowing Thoughts (1985), which exhibits poems dealing with works of art he found in two of Herbert Read’s books on twentieth-century painting.

Matisse’s young women sits with her back to a window, giving Thomas his opening line – a line that allows the poet to suggest that artists use windows as backdrops, while poets use windows as outlooks. Certainly, that is the case with Thomas’s “The View from the Window”:

Like a painting it is set before one,
But less brittle, ageless; these colours
Are renewed daily with variations
Of light and distance that no painter
Achieves or suggests. . . .

So is this post going to get to Matisse, or is this whole Matisse thing a teaser?

No, here’s Thomas’s take on Matisse’s painting:

Windows in art
……….. are to turn the back
on. Facing the public
she challenges it to prefer her
……….. to the view. The draught
cannot put out
……….. ……….. her flame: yellow
……….. dress, yellow
……….. ……….. (if we could come close
enough) eyes; hands
……….. that, after the busyness
of their migrations between cheek
……….. and dressing table, lipstick
and lip, have found in the lap’s
……….. ……….. taffeta a repose
whose self-consciousness the painter
……….. was at pains not to conceal.

A painter creates a painting, leaving it to us to see what we can see in it. A poet creates a poem, leaving it to us to discover what we hear in the reading of it.

We have Matisse’s painting and Thomas’s response to it. Now the interplay between them can be a way that we read our self.

 

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

“Like a painting it is set before one” – “The View from the Window,” Poetry for Supper (1958), 27.

“Windows in art” – “Portrait of a Girl in a Yellow Dress – Henri Matisse,” Ingrowing Thoughts (1985), 10.

The Star Beyond the Farthest Star | Poems of R.S. Thomas

“I have a terrible need,” Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother, “of – shall I say the word – religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.”

Van Gogh’s “stars” pictures – “Starry Night over the Rhône” (1888) in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and “Starry Night” (1889) in the Museum of Modern Art in New York – are profoundly spiritual paintings, even though their subject matter is not religious. The closest thing to a traditional symbol is the church in “Starry Night.”

Yet both paintings give visual form to Robert Frost’s call to worship: “Take something like a star / To stay our minds on and be staid.”

One reason, perhaps, that we moderns have such un-staid minds is that we have lost sight of the stars.

Persse McGarrigle, in David Lodge’s novel Small World, finds himself in a big city in the Midlands of England attending a literary conference. He feels un-staid because a “yellowish glow from a million streetlamps lit up the sky and dimmed the light of the stars.”

Later, back home in Ireland, hitchhiking because his wallet is empty, then walking because it’s too late for cars to be on the road, Persse decides to sleep in a haystack. “He throws down his grip, kicks off his shoes and stretches out in the fragrant hay, staring up at the immense sky arching above his head, studded with a million stars. They pulse with a brilliance that city-dwellers could never imagine.”

Fascination with the stars seems to have been a human trait since the days before men and women began to use certain sounds to signify “days.”

Because we are composed of stardust?

Because we are characterized by always-more? More money, sex, power, success, knowledge . . . . always something more to try to get a grip on.

But what if there is something beyond everything we can get a grip on?

What if there is a star beyond the farthest star?

If there is, the star is God.

For R. S. Thomas, God is the star beyond the farthest star – the star that Thomas staid his mind on and was staid.

It was a November-dark night, when my wife and I drove to the cottage where R.S. and Betty lived at Llanfairynghornwy. We saw someone on the left side of the road beckoning with a flashlight – R.S. directing us up a driveway and into a parking spot. Then, shining his light on the stepping stones, he guided us to the door.

Like Persse McGarrigle, Thomas abhorred the “yellowish glow from a million streetlamps [that] lit up the sky and dimmed the light of the stars.” Like Vincent Van Gogh and Robert Frost, Thomas needed to live where he could see the stars, to be reminded to take something like a star to stay his mind on and be staid.

God.

One of my favorite Thomas poems is “The Other,” which was, I think, first collected in Destinations, one of the most beautifully printed, illustrated, and bound of Thomas’s books.

Thomas, sleepless in the middle of the night, hears . . .

. . . the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village, that is without light
and companionless. And the thought comes
of that other being who is awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.

Beyond the stars that can be seen because the village is without light, is The Other Star – the One who keeps Israel, who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4).

References for the quotes in this blog:

Edward Connery Lathem, editor, The Poetry of Robert Frost, “Take Something Like a Star,” 403.

David Lodge, The Campus Trilogy, Book One, Small World, 268 and 349.

R. S. Thomas, Destinations, 15.

Doubting Our Belief That We See Other People Clearly | The Poems of R.S. Thomas

Elsi and R.S. Thomas

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

It’s human to believe we see other people clearly. Human to form opinions about them based on first sightings. Human to believe our opinions are undoubtedly correct.

As a young parish priest in Manafon, R. S. Thomas believed that no cataracts blurred his view of his parishioners:

Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales,
With your sheep and your pigs and your ponies, your sweaty females,
How I have hated you for your irreverence, your scorn even
Of the refinements of art and the Church, . . .
Men of bone, wrenched from the bitter moorland,
Who have not yet shaken the moss from your savage skulls,
Or prayed the peat from your eyes, . . .

Thomas strafed his people with his pen’s bullets, but when they didn’t bleed, he began to doubt his aim: Was his vision foggy?

I have taxed your ignorance of rhyme and sonnet,
Your want to deference to the painter’s skill,
But I know, as I listen, that your speech has in it
The source of all poetry, clear as a rill
Bubbling from your lips; and what brushwork could equal
The artistry of your dwelling on the bare hill?

Thomas’s parishioners were not impressed by the fact that their priest was a poet, that his wife, Elsi, was an artist.

Perhaps his parishioners were right, he began to suspect, to be unimpressed. Perhaps they had something that he and Elsi lacked.

Could it be endurance, Thomas asked, in a world doing its damnedest to best them?

In one of his most anthologized poems, “A Peasant,” Thomas begins by believing that he clearly sees a hill farmer. Smells him, too, for his clothes reek of muck and sweat. His manner are gross. And “There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.”

But as time passes, doubt weakens Thomas’s belief in his clear-sightedness.

Perhaps there is something frightening in the vacancy of his own mind?

Does he give off the odor of town and library as the farmer gives off the odor of field and barn?

As doubt undercuts his first impression of the peasant, Thomas begins to believe that what he now sees is the truth. This man of dirt and dung has a staying power that he, Thomas, lacks. “This is your prototype,” he tells himself,

                   . . . who, season by season
Against siege of rain and the wind’s attrition,
Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
Not to be stormed even in death’s confusion.

This peasant can withstand life’s sieges, and survive.

But . . . .

A doubt begins to niggle at Thomas: Could the very qualities that make hill-farmers survivors also make them stranglers?

Could their choke hold on life squeeze the life out of the next generation?

Thomas etches for us the children of the survivors, who are waiting for the old to die, so that they can inherit the farm; so that they can join in singing the love song of the blackbird:

This is pain’s landscape.
A savage agriculture is practiced
Here; every farm has its
Grandfather or grandmother, gnarled hands
On the cheque-book, a long, slow
Pull on the placenta about the neck.
Old lips monopolize the talk
When a friend calls. The children listen
From the kitchen; the children march
With angry patience against the dawn.
They are waiting for someone to die
Whose name is a bitter as the soil
They handle. In clear pools
In the furrows they watch themselves grow old
To the terrible accompaniment of the song
Of the blackbird, that promises them love.

One reason for Thomas’s greatness as a poet is that he takes a but . . . but . . . butting . . . approach to other people.

One poem presents other people as this. But a few pages along, another poem presents the same people as that. But the new this is soon challenged by another this.

Contradictory expressions of this-ness, but . . . .

A reminder that what we believe we see when we look at other people is never the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Thomas believed there is something in other people worth seeing.

But he learned to doubt his first look.

But then he learned to doubt his second look. And so on . . . .

There are times in Thomas’s poetry when he fails to doubt his belief that his first look is all there is to be seen. These poems leave a nasty taste in the mouth of the reader. Perhaps I’ll gargle and deal with them some day.

But at his best, Thomas is a doubting-believer in other people, offering us poems that give us unexpected glimpses of multi-sided, fractured, Cubism-like human truth.

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

“Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales” – “A Priest to His People,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 29.

“I have taxed your ignorance of rhyme and sonnet” – “A Priest to Hi People,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 29.

“There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind” – “A Peasant,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 21.

“This is pain’s landscape” – “Tenancies,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 33.

A Thinker Without Final Thoughts on God | R.S. Thomas and His Poetry

rs thomas with birdwatching glassesOne of the rarest of human birds is the thinker without final thoughts.

I can picture R. S. Thomas reclining in dry grasses among the rocks on a hillside overlooking Bardsey Sound, his high-powered field glasses trained on the sky, waiting for a thinker without final thoughts to fly by. Many days. Most days. No luck.

Meanwhile, Thomas has time to think about cuckoos – cocksure people who think they have thought their final thought about everything.

In particular, God.

Some people think they have thought their final thought about God: God is – They think they can prove it.

Other people think they have thought their final thought about God: God isn’t – They think they can prove it.

And Thomas, as I see him at his birdwatching, continues to think about a poem by his favorite American poet, Wallace Stevens:

We live in a constellation
Of patches and of pitches,
Not in a single world,
In things said well in music,
On the piano, and in speech,
As in a page of poetry –
Thinkers without final thoughts
In an always incipient cosmos, . . .

As a thinker without final thoughts, Thomas goes on thinking about God, and out of his thinking comes the insight that God cannot “be penned / In a concept.”

I’ve loved that “penned” ever since I came upon it many years ago in Thomas’s poem “After the Lecture.” We cannot use a pen to get God down in black letters on white paper. And we cannot pen God – cage God – in rational formulations, in theological concepts, in dogmas and doctrines and creeds.

God resists our every effort to contain God in our rationality.

In his poem “The Combat,” Thomas stands the biblical account of Jacob’s wrestling match with an angel on its head. Jacob wrestles all night with the angel in Genesis 32:24-30, and at daybreak, when the angel is unable to pin Jacob, they begin to talk, and eventually Jacob asks for the angel’s name. The angel declines to give it, leaving Jacob and the modern reader wondering if Jacob’s wrestling partner is, in fact, God.

Thomas, in his poem, tells the wrestling partner:

You have no name.
We have wrestled with you all
day, and now night approaches,
the darkness from which we emerged
seeking; and anonymous
you withdraw, . . .

In both Thomas’s poem and the Bible, the wrestler insists on remaining anonymous; on not revealing a name that might allow us to pen this mysterious being in a concept.

Jacob got a hand on the wrestler, but he never got a handle on this mystery.

Thomas concludes his poem with these lines:

 . . . We die, we die
with the knowledge that your resistance
is endless at the frontier of the great poem.

Thomas never says outright that the “you” addressed in his poem is God. But everything Thomas does say points in that direction.

And the poem makes clear that God resists thinkers who suppose they have thought final thoughts about God. God stops these thinkers at the border, shouting “Halt!” before they can enter into the “great poem.”

Poems quoted in this blog:

“We live in a constellation” – “July Mountain,” Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems (2009), 317.

“be penned / In a concept” – “After the Lecture,” Not That He brought Flowers, 22.

“You have no name” – “The Combat,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 43.

How R.S. Thomas’s Poems Got ‘Started’

rst“As I go through my day,” R. S. Thomas writes, “at my desk, in my contact with others, or out in the world of nature, I see something, begin to turn it over in my mind, and decide that it has poetic possibilities.”

The ‘starter’ for the following poem is, I think, an evening when Thomas, the parish priest, visited a parishioner and listened to her talk about her son who now knew the reason for the roaring in his veins:

At nine o’clock in the morning
My son said to me:
Mother, he said, from the wet streets
The clouds are removed and the sun walks
Without shoes on the warm pavements.
There are girls biddable at the corners
With teeth cleaner than your white plates
The sharp clatter of your dishes
Is less pleasant to me than their laughter.
The day is building; before its bright walls
Fall in dust, let me go
Beyond the front garden without you
To find glasses unstained by tears, . . .

For me, the mother is a widow living with her only son in a cottage on a remote farm. Thomas has walked up the path to call on her, and nodded attentively, over a cup of tea, to her grumbling about her son and those – perhaps “sluts” – down in the village.

Every pastor has listened to both the son and the mother. Every pastor empathizes with each of them, for they are doing what comes naturally. But only one pastor has brought this common experience to poetry, writing:

           . . . from the wet streets
The clouds are removed and the sun walks
Without shoes on the warm pavements.

Thomas chose words and rhythms to keep the experience fresh; words and rhythms that recreate it for each new reader.

Here’s the full quote with which I began:

As I go through my day at my desk, Thomas writes, in my contact with others, or out in the world of nature, I see something, begin to turn in over in my mind, and decide that it has poetic possibilities. The main concern now will be not to kill it; not to make it common, prosaic, uninteresting. If it bores me in the telling, it will surely bore the public in the reading. I must choose words and rhythms which will keep it fresh and have the power to recreate the experience in all its original intensity for each new reader. But in this very process the experience is changed, and will continue to be changed as each new reader apprehends it.

R. S. Thomas quotes used in this blog:

“As I go through my day” – “Words and the Poet,” R. S. Thomas: Selected Prose, 65.

“At nine o’clock in the morning” – “Mother and Son,” Tares, 37.

Mildred Elsie Eldridge: R.S. Thomas’ Painter Wife and “The Huge Talent in This Family”?

Mildred Elsie Eldridge self portrait

Mildred Elsie Eldridge self portrait, from the BBC Wales website

A recent posting on the Wales Online website piqued my interest: “Mildred Elsie Eldridge: Celebrating the woman behind R S Thomas.”

Eldridge, an artist of some renown, was Thomas’s first wife. The online article deals with a retrospective exhibition of her works mounted at a gallery in Pwllheli, Wales, this past spring, and summarizes her accomplishments as a painter. (You can view a gallery of paintings by Eldridge on the BBC Wales website.)

She painted Welsh landscapes in oil and watercolor, sketched persons and places, was a weaver and sculptor, and designed altar cloths, stained glass windows, and wrought-iron chandeliers – two of which are in churches where her husband was the vicar: Eglwys-fach and Aberdaron.

Eldridge’s husband once contrasted the “watercolour’s appeal / To the mass” with “the poem’s / Harsher conditions.” Her drawings of him portray him as a poet of life’s “Harsher conditions.”

A commenter on the Wales Online article asks: “Why have we not heard more about this wonderful woman? It would seem that she was the one who was the huge talent in this family. . . . It couldn’t be because she was English ???? could it ????”

Cheeky, understandable, but not true.

I have not seen any of Eldridge’s paintings and drawings, only being able to study reproductions of them in books and such websites as the Victoria and Albert’s. But art critics who saw them in the 1930s wrote:

Eldridge’s work “gives more than the promise of achievement” – that was Tommy Earp, London’s best-known art critic, writing about Eldridge’s one woman show at the Beaux Arts Gallery.

Other critics hailed her “delicate taste in colour,” and noted that she lived in “a paradise of her own so that all her work is other worldly.”

I evaluate Eldridge as having a seeing eye, a light hand, a soft-pedaled palette – an appealing, talented artist, but not “the huge talent in this family.” No critic wrote about her the way a host of critics wrote about her husband:

1955 – Kingsley Amis: “R. S. Thomas is one of the half-dozen best poets now writing in English.”

1978 – British Book News: “. . . the most rugged, honest and original poet writing in English today.”

1981 – Ann Stevenson: “All his poems possess that authority of tone which is the hallmark of a master.”

1986 – Alan Bold: “. . . in his attempts to give utterance to the ineffable Thomas has created some of the most profoundly religious poems of the century.”

Art critics did not rank Eldridge among the six best English artists of her day. Although she was one of the artists selected for the Recording Britain project during the Second World War, the V&A’s website dealing with the project does not list her among the painters singled out.

The truth is this: R. S. Thomas is a Welsh poet who has a worldwide reputation that was initiated by London-based literary critics, and he was nominated by the British literary establishment for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Mildred Elsie Eldridge is an English artist who painted many Welsh landscapes, who was noted with appreciation by English art critics early in her career, but whose paintings never gained high acclaim in either England or Wales. Perhaps because they are too delicate in color, too other worldly, for an age characterized by life’s harsher conditions.

Yes, her work deserves renewed appreciation, but R. S. will remain “the huge talent in this family.”

His poems capture truth, her paintings beauty, and truth, as R.S. reminds us, is not necessarily beautiful:

  . . . One thing I have asked
Of the disposer of the issues
Of life: that truth should defer
To beauty. It was not granted
.

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

”watercolour’s appeal” – “Reservoirs,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 27.

“One thing I have asked” – “Petition,” H’m, 2.