Poems to Elsi: RS Thomas, Seren
“It was a day when Diane Abbott MP was 47, and Alvin Stardust 58, when they honoured RS Thomas.” So writes Byron Rogers in his introduction to The Man who Went into the West, a valuable and highly entertaining account of the life of this great Welsh poet, thought by many to be one of the greatest of the 21st century and certainly for my money. The huge amount of newspaper space reserved for Thomas’s obituary, which left “little room for anything else except birthdays” gave rise to this slightly quirky remark.
I highly recommend Bryon’s book for anyone interested in learning more about RS Thomas, and in understanding the complex identity and the profound dichotomy lying at the heart of the man who raised Iago Prytherch, a hill farmer and main character in his early poetry, to the status of mythological icon, yet who wrote in English, and “spoke English with the strangulated vowels of an upper class English accent and sent his only son to an English public school”.
But it is not Byron’s book that we celebrate today. 2013 marks the centenary of the birth of RS and publisher Seren is marking the event with a new collection of work, Poems to Elsi, concentrating on the poet’s relationship with his wife, the painter Mildred E Eldridge.
For those of his readers accustomed to considering Thomas as a poet of the dramatic landscapes of his home country, and of the national culture and identity crises of modern Wales, as well as a search for spirituality and a defined God, here in this new volume is a surprising revelation of other roles he fulfilled (with varying degrees of success), those of lover, husband and father.
Damian Walford Davies’ introduction to the collection begins with a paragraph of recollection written by Elsi when she received a proposal of marriage from RS: “‘RS 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. On the same day we found a buzzard in a gin trap on top of a pole. We were able to free it after putting a coat over its head to calm its fear. RS then threw the trap into the middle of the lake and the bird flew off strongly. I wonder what sort of creature the farmer thought had flown away with his trap."
Not the most romantic introduction to married life perhaps, but their wedding on the 5 July 1940 came in a time of privation, a time of war. As a priest, RS was never going to earn a lot of money and the couple lived a spartan existence in a series of freezing farmsteads.
Elsi was an artist in her own right and, at the time of their marriage, far better known than he. These poems chart their relationship from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. But what is there to say about these poems that the work itself does not say better? From the beginning …
I never thought in this poor world to find
Another who loved the things I love,
The wind, the trees, the cloud-swept sky above;
One who was beautiful and grave and kind,
Who struck no discord in my dreaming mind…’
(I never thought in this poor world to find)
… on to the birth of their one son, Gwydion …
What shall I say of my boy?
Tall, fair? He is young yet.
Keep his feet free of the world’s net.
(Ap Huw’s Testament)
What is life?
pitifully her eyes
asked. And I who was no seer
took hold of her loth hand
and examined it and was lost
like a pure mathematician
in its solution:
Nineteen years now,
Sharing life’s table
And not to be the first
To call the meal long
We balance it thoughtfully …
…to the end
She left me. What voice
Colder than the wind
Out of the grave said:
‘It is over?’
As Dr Rowan Williams points out in his introduction, these poems are not a Hardy-esque attempt to make amends to a departed wife for a relationship which had, in reality, failed; rather, they are a faithful recording of “a long shared time”. A recognition that passion is not the only, perhaps not even a major constituent of marriage when viewed beside such moments: “In front of the fire / With you, the folk song / Of the wind in the chimney and the sparks’/embroidery of soot.”
Any work of this poet is mystical and beautiful. I would heartily recommend this book but also, for those new to RS Thomas I would also recommend to beg, borrow or steal (well - perhaps not that) a volume of his collected poems. Frances Spurrier