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Book reviews >

Interval of our wounding

Richard Harries visits  again a priest-poet's candid explorations

R. S. Thomas: Uncollected Poems
Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies, editors
Bloodaxe £9.95
Church Times Bookshop £8.95 (Use code CT853 )

R. S. Thomas: Serial Obsessive
M. Wynn Thomas
University of Wales £19.99

COLLECTIONS of poems by R. S. Thomas appeared regularly throughout his life, and there were both Collected Poems (1945-90) and Later Collected Poems (1988-2000). It is, therefore, remarkable that Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies have, after many years' work, been able to gather such a large collection of poems published in magazines and newspapers over 60 years, but never before located and collected together. They are well worth preserving, and it is good to have them in this centenary year of the poet's birth.

Those familiar with his verse will be able to locate all the familiar themes: Thomas's anguished puzzlement before the stoicism of the hill farmers; his continual, nearly always disillusioned, search for the true Wales; his bitter questioning of an apparently absent God; and his brutally candid analyses of himself.

They will see here, too, his poetic development from his early formal lyricism - "July 5 1940", on the occasion of his marriage to Mildred Eldridge, in particular, seems to echo another Thomas: Edward - through to the subtle, stubbly rhythms of his later period. Always there is the interaction of landscape and what is going on in the heart. From time to time, it is possible to see how a theme developed early, e.g. "Two versions of a theme" on a Welsh funeral became an ever finer poem, with its lines like "What is this incidence of pious catarrh at the grave's edge?"

One group of poems particularly worth preserving are those addressed to his first wife, both in the early stages of their relationship and two written in old age, "Birthday" (2002) and "Luminary" (2002). This relationship, as well as other family relationships, is a particular theme of Wynn Thomas's Serial Obsessive. Mildred Eldridge was a talented painter, but of a very different temperament from his. Her paintings are precise and elegant

We see the contrast in her painting of the isolated Nonconformist chapel Soar-y-Mynydd, fitting neatly and prettily into the countryside, and what that chapel meant to her husband, about which he wrote: "I saw the soul of a special type of man, the Cymro or Welshman. For the very source of Welsh life as it is today is here, in the middle of these remote moorlands of Ceredigion."

Wynn Thomas also explores the poet's continual disenchantment with his search for the true Wales, and we are left with the feeling that in the end it existed only in "the high pastures of the heart".

His book does not set out to be a comprehensive study of Thomas, but focuses on some neglected themes. One is the importance of painting for the poet; the other is the influence of other writers on him, or at least his affinity with them, such as Kierkegaard and Borges.

He brings out well the essential irony in everything the poet wrote, suggesting that the "S." of his name ought to be Socrates. He sets Thomas in this wider cultural world, and defends him from the charge that he was too narrow in his themes, although he does acknowledge the obsessive nature of his desire to write poetry.

Towards the end, Thomas lamented to Wynn Thomas that he no longer had the gift to write a true poem; but he did single out one that he cherished:

The archer with time
as his arrow - has he broken
his strings that the rainbow
is so quiet over our village?

Let us stand, then, in the interval
of our wounding, till the silence
turn golden and love is
a moment eternally overflowing.

A hitherto uncollected poem, "Easter. I approach" (2009), refers to "an absence so much richer than a presence" because it offers "an impalpable possibility for faith's fingertips to explore". Many will continue to be grateful to R. S. Thomas, with his willingness not only to go up the sheer face of the rock, but out on the overhang. If we are sometime disturbed by his savage honesty, what his fingertips have felt - the moments of illumination - seem that much more real.

The Rt Revd the Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the former Bishop of Oxford.

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