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Paint in a poet’s eyes

25 November 2016

Meryl Doney on a find: responses by R. S. Thomas to modern art

Too Brave to Dream: Encounters with Modern Art
R. S. Thomas
ony Brown and Jason Walford Davies, editors
Bloodaxe Books £12
Church Times Bookshop £10.80



I CAN just about imagine how ex­­citing it would have been for Tony Brown and Jason Walford Davies, co-directors of the R. S. Thomas Research Centre, to open a couple of art books that had arrived with the gift of Thomas’s personal library, only to find a number of completely unknown poems. The books were Herbert Read’s Art Now and his edited Surrealism. Too Brave to Dream presents all 37 poems along­side reproductions of the paintings that inspired them. Several of Thomas’s “ekphrastic works” — poems inspired by works of art — had already been published, but these were entirely unknown.

It seems that these poems may have occasioned some heated dis­cussion in the Thomas house­hold. In 1940, Thomas married Mildred Elsi Eldridge, a distingu­ished artist and member of the Royal Water­colour Society; their son, Gwydion, said that he was “visually illiterate” when they first met, and it was she who “opened his eyes to detail and colour, to shape and form”.

Elsi, however, had her doubts about the validity of these works: “The quality of a painting is paint not words. It cannot be expressed in any other medium.” But Thomas’s reply was: “The poems are attempts to comment and to draw out ex­­tended meanings. . .”. Whatever the result of these domestic differences, it seems clear that Elsi’s advocacy of a lifetime of “detailed looking” had its influence on Thomas’s approach to artworks.

The poems were written between 1987 and 1993, at a time of pro­found changes in Thomas’s personal life. In 1978, he retired after 40 years as a priest in the Church in Wales, and found the loss of regular duties a challenge. There followed a period of unease and depression. Earlier, the ekphrastic poems had been a way of recovering after a period of “poetic dryness”. These latter works seem to have continued to be the poet’s way of dealing with his demons.

I found it helpful to begin with the paintings and poems before reading the introduction, which gave the experience an immediacy and freshness. Thomas’s responses to the paintings are intriguing, in­­sightful, often dark, but always unique. The title poem, for instance, written in response to Henry Moore’s Shelter Drawing of a woman sleep­ing in bomb shelter, redefines ideas about who it is who is cour­ageous. Is it, he asks, those who will not close their eyes to states of profound unease, displacement, and conflict?


Alas that waking to safety
should be waking also
to survivors, poking
among the remains of others
who were too brave to dream.


The book is meticulously produced, providing reproductions of each painting alongside the relevant poem. Great care has been taken to show the works as Thomas would have known them. A few had been cropped in Read’s books, and are reproduced here in both his and the full version. Some of the titles have been changed by subsequent scholar­­ship. These are also in­­cluded.

The introduction is scholarly, but readable and informative, and detailed references and editors’ notes on the paintings make it a book for lovers of both poetry and art, as well as true Thomasophiles.


Meryl Doney is a writer and freelance fine-art curator.

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