New Welsh Review

RS Thomas: His Life and Writing

Tony Brown on an exhibition that challenges some stereotypes and secures the importance of the influence of Elsi Eldridge upon her husband RS Thomas' early artistic development

PUBLISHED ON: 04/10/22

CATEGORY: Exhibition review

TAGS: Bangor University, Elsi Eldridge, North Wales, RS Thomas, canon of Welsh Writing in English, exclusive publication, letters, literature, modernism, poetry

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Poem by RS Thomas, ’80th Birthday’, is published here in print for the first time ever, (c) Estate of RS Thomas.

 

Those who identify RS Thomas only as the dour, grim-faced figure who so often appears in photographs, a man with something of a reputation for unapproachability, will find an RS of unexpected variety, depth and even humour in the major exhibition of his life and work, currently being held at Bangor University, a version of which is also available online. The exhibition, organised by the University Archives and Bangor’s RS Thomas Research Centre, directed by Jason Walford Davies and myself, ranges over the whole of RS’ life, from the silver cup used at his christening in 1913 to the wealth of critical studies which has followed his death in 2000. Here, for example, are the cartoons he drew as a schoolboy in Holyhead and a photograph of RS Thomas the rugby player, a member of a team of rugby-playing clergymen in the 1930s.

Clergy rugby team (drawn from Wrexham area), 1930s, RS Thomas on extreme left.

 

There are early poems, published in the student magazine when RS was studying classics at Bangor. Published under the pen-name ‘Curtis Langdon’, they show no hint of what was to come; even when he collected his poems together in the late 1930s with a view to publication, there is still no inkling of his having read Modernists like Eliot or Yeats. It is the poetry of a man still immersed in sentimental romanticism:

 

Tho’ I had wandered through the fields of Sleep,
  And seen the Spring flowers smile in Paradise,
I never dreamed that violets could weep.
  Till I beheld the snow tears in your eyes.

 

The transformation into the poet who, just a few years later, would be writing unflinchingly about the bleak world of Iago Prytherch and his fellow rural workers on the hills around Manafon is truly remarkable. One major factor in that transformation, it is now clear, was Elsi Eldridge, the English artist whom he married in 1940. It was she who introduced him to Yeats, while her own highly detailed drawings and paintings of the natural world (some of which are in the exhibition) showed her husband how to look directly at the world around him and not through a haze of romanticism. (‘She taught us to look’, wrote one of the pupils to whom Elsi taught art at this time.) There were other influences, of course: the impact of the war, the move to Manafon and, indeed, his reading of Dylan Thomas. In his time at Tallarn Green (1940–42), RS sent some poems to Cyril Connolly at Horizon; RS’ covering letter (on show here, with the poems) notes that one of the poems, on the Will, ‘seems precariously near Dylan Thomas, but believe me –it was quite unconsciously so.’ The poem begins:

 

The cross-road, cross-vane, weathercock will,
That spins in the head like a white bauble,
Has swung my heart a wind of ways
From high hill gable to the sea’s marble….

 

Connolly did not publish the poems.

The exhibition shows, too, the early expression of RS Thomas’ life-long opposition to war. In a letter to the press in 1939, as the shadows of war darkened, he endorses a recent call by the Dean of St Paul’s for peace between nations. RS writes: ‘…only if the Church of Christ…has made a superhuman bid for peace shall we young clergy be able, at a later date, to answer the charge of being untrue to the Prince of Peace.’ In a notebook he kept at Manafon, RS describes in 1944 watching the farm workers labouring in the fields, deaf to the birdsong around them; in the margin he writes grimly : ‘June 6. Today the British and American forces landed again in France and a great slaughter was begun.’ RS’ pacifism lasted for the rest of his life and the exhibition shows him demonstrating for Gwynedd CND in the 1980s and displays his CND badge pinned to one of his famous red ties.

At the heart of the exhibition are some of the manuscript poems from the extensive collection in the Centre’s archives. We see, for instance, how the wonderful ‘Luminary’ evolves from a poem to Elsi on her eightieth birthday in 1989; in this version the poet writes: ‘Disdaining a ministrant / I looked God in the eye.’ When the poet later returns to the poem, these powerful lines are removed and we get more lyrical echoes of Dafydd ap Gwilym: ‘Before a green altar / with the thrush for priest / I took those gossamer vows.’ We have Elsi to thank for the survival of other manuscripts on display; evidently she sometimes rescued screwed up drafts from RS’ waste basket and smoothed them out with her iron!

By the 1960s, RS Thomas was recognised as a major British poet. So much so that he received a letter from the Poet Laureate, John Masefield, informing RS that he had been awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Perhaps unexpectedly, RS accepted it, though he writes wryly to Elsi, who is away: ‘The Queen does so enjoy my poetry that she is going to give me a medal. Perhaps Gwydion [the couple’s son] will be able to realise a few shillings on it one day if he is hard up.’

The exhibition shows RS the campaigner, as secretary of Cyfeillion Llŷn, campaigning for greater use of the Welsh language by public bodies in the area; RS the birdwatcher, his sightings carefully recorded in a number of notebooks and observations sent to the British Trust for Ornithology; RS the public figure, in trouble with the authorities and the press for refusing to condemn the burning of second homes in Wales.

 

Tony Brown, Professor Emeritus in the School of English Literature, is co-director of the RS Thomas Research Centre at Bangor University. The founder-editor of Welsh Writing in English: A Yearbook of Critical Essays (1995–2007), he has published widely on the English-language literature of Wales, especially on the work of Glyn Jones (Collected Stories, 1999) and of RS Thomas; his study of the latter in the Writers of Wales series was re-issued by the University of Wales Press in 2013.

 

RS Thomas: His Life and Writing is in the Council Chamber corridor, first floor of the main building at Bangor University. Much of the exhibition, with commentary, can be viewed online in English and in Welsh.