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.

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.

“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.

“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.