R. S. THOMAS once said that there had been no personal influences on his life, and little contact with anyone who could be considered a peer. He spoke of an admiration for his fellow poet Wallace Stevens, but less is known about his interest in art — perhaps surprising, given that he was married to Mildred “Elsi” Eldridge, one of the least-known but best-regarded artists of 20th-century Britain.
Thomas, understood as a man comfortable in nature, liked to walk, and would bring back skeletons and skulls for his wife to paint — many of these still litter their old home, now owned by the National Trust. It was, at times, a strained relationship: when asked whether he felt lonely after the death of his wife, Thomas said that he sometimes felt lonely when she was alive.
Thomas remarried, and when his second wife, Betty Thomas, moved from the cottage they had shared, the books on the shelves were donated to an archive. He had kept a number of signed editions from poets such as Geoffrey Hill, but also left behind were two influential books on modern art edited by the critic Herbert Read: Art Now (1933) and Surrealism (1936).
Between the pages of these two books, archivists found more than 30 previously unseen — and untitled — poems that Thomas had written in response to some of the images, including works by Henry Moore, Edvard Munch, Salvador Dali, René Magritte, and Graham Sutherland. A new collection, Too Brave to Dream: Encounters with modern art, contains the first publication of these poems, alongside reproductions of the artworks to which Thomas was responding.
THE poem that gives this book its title is a response to Henry Moore’s Shelter Drawing (1941): part of a series of drawings that Moore produced from his observations of people sheltering from the Blitz. Thomas’s poem reminds us of the poet we already know; it offers a certain admiration for those able to live — or, as here, die — without comforting delusion, but its overall tone is familiarly sharp:
that waking to safety
should be waking also
to survivors poking
among the remains of others
who were too brave to dream.
Whether or not humankind can bear very much reality, Thomas is always keen to remind his readers that they need to bear more. Where “too brave to dream” is a tribute to a dead firefighter, it is also a challenge to those dreamers who will not wake themselves to deal with the starker realities of the human condition.
Indeed, Professor Jason Walford Davies, the book’s editor, warns us that “The poems in the collection repeatedly show a willingness to confront, without the comfort of illusions, a modern world in which old feelings of certainty have been undermined. They are unsettling poems, which perhaps tells us something of the poet’s state of mind in this late phase of his career.”
THE ekphrastic process — the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the action of a painting or sculpture, in order to amplify and expand its meaning — was one that Thomas seems to have enjoyed, but he was aware that the artists he adopted may not have appreciated it. He told an interviewer that: “Remember Elenora Duse’s retort when asked to explain what her dance meant: ‘If I could explain it in words, do you think I would go to the enormous trouble of dancing it?’
“The poems are attempts to comment and to draw out extended meanings in a way which most of the painters would have found reprehensible, because painting has its own plastic and compositional values.”
Elsi apparently agreed: “It was not a good idea to try to put a painting into words,” she said. “It cannot be expressed in any other medium.” Thomas was working with reproductions, too, having never seen the original works. “What a tangle,” she went on, “quite impossible to express.”
THE first half of the book is taken up with images that Thomas found in Art Now. Some of these — like Matisse’s Odalisque with a Turkish Chair, giving us the opening poem — are more charming than our poet is able to be. A woman reclines on a chair next to a chessboard, relaxed; but to Thomas she is “not to be bought”, and he insists that “you must play her at her own game if you would have her mated.” It’s at once a bad pun and a curious projection, but the cynical tone continues past paintings that are more cheerful, or just generally less harsh, than his interpretations of them.
By the time we reach the section with images from Surrealism, though, the text aligns more obviously with the mood of the paintings. In Dali’s Suburbs of the Paranoiac-critical Town, Thomas identifies that “despite the intimacy of the heartbeats from the church belfry, there are distances still.” This is classic Thomas, suspicious of religious belief that offers comfort rather than challenge, happier with distance than intimacy.
THESE Surrealist artists were arguably much more concerned with fullness and arrival than retreat and separation, though. Jindrich Štyrský’s Man Fed on Ice, in Thomas’s poem, is “offering not nothing but an absence of substance”. And yet Štyrský, also a poet, wrote of his subjects that, “They will all rise, the man-letter, gnawed bone, full stop, rag, altar, crutch, staircase, claw, stuffing, man-coffin, whistle, shoelace, pebble, luggage, cubes of mist, and man-sediment.
“There will rise liquid beings made of cotton wool, snake skins, feathered trees, in fragments, beings withering at the hip, stuck together from words, borne by the wind, full of pustules, nourished by ice, in outline, hollow beings, modelled in snow, in raw meat and in sand.”
This is discomfiting, raw, and frightening, but it is undoubtedly possessed. The man fed on ice is still clearly flesh, present, and, in fact, nakedly open — not lacking substance, as Thomas interprets. It seems that the poem is not drawing out meaning from the work so much as adding a contesting layer.
Thomas does, however, seem to recant by the end of the poem — “It is not thought but love will bring on the thaw” — but by now the reader feels very much in the presence of two disparate voices.
OCCASIONALLY, the conflict between the artworks and the poems works the other way, as in the verse that is written in response to Ancestors II by Grace W. Pailthorpe. Whereas in this instance the image is unsettling, Thomas’s voice works to smooth out its jagged edges.
Pailthorpe was one half of what one critic has called “the eeriest couple in art”. She started life in a Plymouth Brethren family, but met Reuben Mednikoff, her partner, at a party given by a satanist. Mednikoff, on the basis of the “uterine shapes” and sexual content in her work, concluded that she was obsessed with childlessness. Pailthorpe wrote that it reflected her fury with her father, a puritan. Ancestors II is part of this distressed thought-world, and Thomas recognises the “snarl” of it. But “we are here now to reflect,” he writes (another pun, this time on Plato), “to hold a mirror up to perfection.”
One feels, however, that the mirror he wants us to us “band together to sustain” would perhaps be better left to shatter. What made Thomas such a sustaining co-traveller for us odd fragments of readership was precisely his call for us to do justice and let the skies fall. It is frightening now to see him flinch.
R. S. Thomas, Too Brave to Dream: Encounters with modern art, edited by Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies (Bloodaxe Books, 2016; £12 (CT Bookshop £10.80); reviewed, Books for Christmas, 25 November).
In response to Man Fed on Ice (1934) by Jindrich Štyrský
frozen but not opaque,
hindering our efforts
to see through, offering,
when we endeavour, not
nothing but an absence
of substance; tempting
us to analysis, suggesting
at the same time
it is not thought but
love will bring the thaw.
In response to Ancestors II (1935) by Grace W. Pailthorpe
According to this
we were already in the stone,
in the tree stump, a look
yearning to become
a being, a snarl waiting
to be domesticated
in a smile. Plato
was not wrong. Somewhere
there was the idea
of us. We are here now
to reflect, to hold a mirror
up to perfection. Happiness
is not remembering
our fragments, but in banding
together to sustain
the growing heaviness of that mirror.
Simon Joseph Jones is the publications manager for Quakers in Britain. He is a former editor of Third Way magazine.