Why I Put Robert Frost Aside and Turned to R.S. Thomas

I began collecting the works of R. S. Thomas when a wincing checkbook convinced me to stop collecting the works of Robert Frost. Here’s the story:

It was sometime in the 1950s, either in college or theological school, that Frost’s poems began to colonize my imagination. This reading moved into collecting when a parishioner transferred a treasure from her library to mine. The book is a signed copy of Frost’s 1936 volume of poems titled A Further Range. Just below Frost’s signature, the woman who gave me the book has written: “To the Rev. John Galen McEllhenney from Helen A. Tyson, March 1, 1968.”

For a number of years before Helen gave me A Further Range, I’d been learning about book collecting from Frederick E. Maser, a Methodist minister who was known for occasionally wearing a black suit, a black silk shirt unbuttoned almost to his navel, and a gold necklace. Flamboyant or not, Fred Maser was an exceptionally knowledgeable book buyer.

I learned from Fred to buy books, not because you hoped they’d be an investment increasing in value, but because you loved books. Pick your ‘topic’ – an author, such as Frost, or a category, such as Maser’s Bible collection. And don’t spend more than you can afford.

And so, about 1969, I started collecting the works of Robert Frost. Book stories became my bars. Every time I was in Philadelphia, I hurried to Sessler’s on Walnut Street for a conversation with Mabel Zahn, who usually worked with high-net-worth collectors, but who was willing to be on the lookout for Frost items I could afford.

Also, I haunted secondhand shops, got on the mailing lists of rare book dealers in the United States, and checked the shelves of bookstores in Cambridge, England, when I was there during the summer of 1976. All the while, I was adding both new and used secondary Frost materials to my collection, and started gathering Frost’s Christmas cards.

Eventually, by the late 1970s, I had all the Frost items I could afford; first editions of his earliest books were out of my reach. So I turned my attention to R. S. Thomas. Because he was still living, his books were affordable . . . although the prices I had to pay for his earliest three books and two very limited editions did cause my bank account to wince.

Now, forty years later, my R. S. Thomas collection lives in the special collections section of Drew University’s library, along with several of Fred Maser’s collections.

Packing A Welsh Poet In My Bag For My Upcoming Trip to Wales

RS Thomas on SexTwenty thousand saints are said to be buried on Bardsey Island, all 445 acres of it. So to take the bones of saints to Bardsey would be like rounding up more politicians and lobbyists for Washington.

Excessive, to say the least . . . certainly un-called-for . . . a fool’s errand.

No matter.

I’m packing a Welsh poet in my bag for my upcoming trip to Wales, which will include, if weather permits, a boat trip to Bardsey. The island lies off the coast of Aberdaron, R. S. Thomas’s last parish.

I’ll take Thomas out of my bag in Aberdaron on May 28th, but he’ll come out, first, the previous weekend at Gladstone’s Library at Hawarden, also in Wales.

The story is this: I may be the only American parish minister who developed a personal relationship with Thomas, visiting him in 1992, 1993, and 1994, and corresponding with him from 1991 until his death, in 2000. Indeed, I may be the only American, no matter of what vocation, who learned to know him – I welcome comments proving me wrong.

My book A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R. S. Thomas and His Poetry was published in 2013, during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. That publication has led to my forthcoming speaking opportunities in Wales.

An American whose tongue does back flips when trying to pronounce simple Welsh words, carrying the preeminent poet of Welshness to Wales; the preeminent twentieth-century poet of God, too.

And that, if anything, justifies the packing of nine talks about Thomas and his poetry in my bag. Like RS, I’m an ordained minister; like him, I was a parish minister for forty years; like him, I’m a doubting-believer. Unlike him, I’m an American. Unlike him, I don’t write poetry. Well, an occasional limerick. So if there’s an acceptable reason for me to speak about RS and his poems, it lies in the way our similarities and dissimilarities afford me a distinctive perspective on his doubt and his belief.

These links will take you to what I’m doing at Gladstone’s Library and Aberdaron:



Who knows what’ll happen. Perhaps I’ll be pelted with leeks. Expect a report in June.

“The Interval Between Here And Now” | Review of a Book by R.S. Thomas

Between Here and Now, the title of one of R. S. Thomas’s books, announces a vagueness between two specifics.

“Here” indicates a specific location in space, the apartment in which I’m thinking and writing. “Now” points to a specific moment in time, 8:55 a.m., June 3, 2013, when my coffee has gone cold.

In the here and now, that’s something we understand. Thomas reports: “I take up apartments / In the here and now.”

But what can be between here and now?


Thomas uses the poems in Between Here and Now to nudge us toward that answer. The book, published in 1981, features thirty-three black-and-white reproductions of Impressionist paintings that were in the Louvre and now are in the Musée d’Orsay.

The paintings are presented in color in Germain Bazin’s volume Impressionist Paintings in the Louvre, where Thomas came upon them. As he looked at the works of such artists as Monet, Cézanne, Pissarro, and Van Gogh, Thomas formed poetic impressions of the artists’ painterly ones. With the result that there is a poem by Thomas to the right of each reproduced painting.

Following this first section titled “Impressions” is a second titled “Other Poems.” Two of these additional thirty poems contain the phrase “between here and now.” I quoted the first above; in the second, Thomas refers to “the interval between here and now.”

How does Thomas understand this interval? This vague break between two specifics?

“Landscape at Chaponval” by Camille Pissarro

“Landscape at Chaponval” by Camille Pissarro

Perhaps his “impression” of Camille Pissarro’s “Landscape at Chaponval” opens the way to an answer:

It would be good to live
in this village with time
stationary and the clouds
going by. . . .

The village with its terracotta-tiled or gray-slated roofs is timeless. The woman waits quietly for the cow to munch her fill. While clouds sail by, and the wind ruffles grain, leaves, and grass.

Impressionist art, by its choice of pigments and use of brushstrokes, gives us a sense of both time stopped and time moving.

In another impression of a Pissarro painting, “Kitchen Garden, Trees in Bloom,” Thomas says that “Art is recuperation / from time.” One more Pissarro painting, “The Louveciennes Road,” moved him to speak of “exchanging / progress without a murmur / for the leisureliness of art.”

By visualizing an interval between here and now, art enables us to recuperate from the clock’s operations on our lives. It provides the leisure that allows us to gain impressions of something that somehow ‘exists’ in the gap between specific place and specific time.

In the penultimate poem in Between Here and Now, Thomas tell us:

            . . . Art
is not life. It is not the river

carrying us away, but the motionless
image of itself on a fast-
running surface with which life
tries constantly to keep up.

Those of us who have tidying-up minds, who want sentences to roll smoothly and logically from first word to final stop, may find those lines so convoluted that we close our eyes in despair.

Thomas hopes so.

For when our eyes are closed, we may receive impressions of a mysterious realm between here and now, a realm in which meanings that transcend the mundane slip into our consciousness.

When I read the lines following “Art / is not life,” I recalled an earlier poem in Between Here and Now, Thomas’s impression of Paul Cézanne’s painting “The Bridge at Maincy.”

“The Bridge at Maincy” by Paul Cézanne

“The Bridge at Maincy” by Paul Cézanne

In his poem, Thomas wonders if Cézanne should have depicted someone crossing the bridge. After all, isn’t that what bridges are for? Yes, but this bridge is for us to look at and wait for a traveler to return to from the world of noise and activity. This bridge is for us to stop at long enough for the returnee to linger at the railing and wait for his face to emerge like a “water-lily” from the stream’s dark depths.

“Art / is not life.” “Art is recuperation / from time.” Art creates an interval of leisure between the place in which we’re stuck and the ticking clock.

In the poem in which Thomas declares that “Art / is not life,” Thomas sees a traveler always “Taking the next train / to the city, yet always returning / to his place on a bridge / over a river.” “So,” he continues,

                will a poet
return to the work laid

on one side and abandoned
for the voices summoning him
to the wrong tasks. Art
is not life. . . .

The task of the poet, the task of the painter, is not to create something that we can speed-see and speed-read and speed-comprehend. The task of the artist is not to officiate at “the marriage of plain fact with plain fact.”

Rather, the artist presides at the divorcing of facts, at the opening of gaps in the world that we call “real.” The artist creates an interval in which we catch glimpses of something that transcends reality, something that transforms the quotidian.

In art, we may sense a “stupendous presence” that no here and now is large enough to contain . . .


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

“I take up apartments” – “Flat,” Between Here and Now, 101.

“the interval between here and now” – “Pluperfect,” Between Here and Now, 89.

“It would be good to live” – “Pissarro: Landscape at Chaponval,” Between Here and Now, 45.

“Art is recuperation” – “Pissarro: Kitchen Garden, Trees in Bloom,” Between Here and Now, 41.

“exchanging / progress without a murmur” – “Pissarro: The Louveciennes Road,” Between Here and Now, 33.

“Art / is not life” – “Return,” Between Here and Now, 109.

“water-lily” – “Cézanne: The Bridge at Maincy, Between Here and Now, 49.

“the marriage of plain fact with plain fact” – “The New Mariner,” Between Here and Now, 99.

“stupendous presence” – Van Gogh: The Church at Auvers,” Between Here and Now, 65.

Six New Books on R.S. Thomas | Reviews & Notes

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of R. S. Thomas’s birth – he was born on March 29, 1913, in Cardiff, Wales – at least six new books have been published. Two of them deal with poems he wrote; one, with poems written about him. And three are combinations of personal reminiscences and interpretative studies.

Five of the books lie to the left of my keypad; the sixth has not yet been published. So this blog will offer my first thoughts on the ones at hand.

RS Thomas Poems to ElsiThere are two books for new, or relatively new readers of Thomas’s poetry. The first is R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi, edited by Damian Walford Davies (Seren, 2013). It contains poems Thomas wrote to, for, and about Elsi, his first wife – love poems, but not what Robert Frost calls “sunset raving,” not the love poetry written by adolescents of all ages.

There’s a dryness, an astringency, about Thomas and his poetry even when he’s in love. Elsi, too? Here’s how she, with her watercolorist’s eye, describes the moment when they agreed to marry: “R.S. and I were on the moor at Bwlch-y-Fedwen, the wind blowing across the bleached grass and grey stone,, and the golden plover calling when we decided that we could live together.” Now this is R.S. poeing the same scene:

Before a green altar
with the thrush for priest
I took those gossamer
vows that neither Church
could stale nor the Machine
tarnish, . . .

As Elsi and R.S. grew old together – they were married for more than 50 years before she died – his poems to her grew less and less dry. Damian Walford Davies has done us a great favor by bringing them together, thereby allowing us to feel the many moods of love as filtered through a great poet’s sensibility.

A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R.S. Thomas and His Poetry McEllhenneyThe second book for Thomas newcomers is my own, A Masterwork of Doubting-Belief: R. S. Thomas and His Poetry (Wipf & Stock, 2013), which introduces the poet, the development of his thinking, and the tensions in his life that “hurt [him] into poetry.” It is part reminiscence, part biography, part interpretation, focusing on his hyphenation of Welshness and Englishness, artist and scientist, poet and theologian, and most importantly, doubter and believer.

For longtime R.S.T. fans, A Masterwork offers a viewpoint differing from the usual British one, which often is academic, and all too frequently presents Thomas as stone-faced.

I liked Ronald, but yes, I experienced his stony glare. Many times, however, he went out of his way for me. He told the surgeon, who operated on him for a hernia, that he had to be released from the hospital in time for him to spend a day with “this American who’s coming to see me.”

Uncollected Poems R.S. ThomasThe next two books are for readers who know Thomas’s poetry well. The first is R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems, edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies (Bloodaxe Books, 2013). The editors have gathered poems Thomas published, beginning in 1939, in periodicals, little-press limited editions, memorial booklets, etc. – poems that he never included in one of his books.

Each poem tells us something about Thomas, if only a hint of why he abandoned some of his children. A few of the poems are on their way to my A-list. For now, as a clergyman who ministered in the second half of the twentieth century, I’ll single out “Vocation,” which begins: “Mine is the good cause / If lost;” and concludes: “Against times / That infect I offer my / Priceless inoculation.”

imagined greetings r.s. thomasThe second book for readers steeped in Thomas’s poems is Imagined Greetings: Poetic Engagements with R. S. Thomas, edited by David Lloyd (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2013). These are poems written to or about Thomas. Some are warm tributes, some are cheeky, some just plain snarky. In some, I found the Thomas I learned to know; in others, a Thomas I never met.

Each poem is a personal view of Thomas, a segment of a cubist painting of him, similar to Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard.

The fun of imagined Greetings, at least for me, is the way the poets take well-known lines from Thomas’s own poems and quote them, half quote them, deconstruct and reconstruct them.

R.S. Thomas Serial ObsessiveThe fifth book on my desk is nearly as high as the other four piled together. It is R. S. Thomas: Serial Obsessive by M. Wynn Thomas (University of Wales Press, 2013). This book is too important to slide over quickly. So I’ll hold it for an extensive review, only saying now that it deals with the fixed ideas that serially possessed Thomas’s imagination: Iago Prytherch, Wales, his family, and his elusive God.

The book not yet published is The Things Left Unsaid: R. S. Thomas and Me by Lee McOwan; more about it when I receive a copy.

Poetry and prose quoted in this blog:

“R.S. and I were on the moor” – R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi, 9.

“Before a green altar” – “Luminary,” R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi, 54.

“hurt [him] into poetry” – “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” W. H. Auden, Another Time, 98.

“Mine is the good cause” – “Vocation,” R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems, 82.