R.S Thomas: Poems to Elsi
Celebrate the R. S Thomas centenary with this excellent volume that draws together 52 poems (2 previously unpublished) by Thomas to his wife, the distinguished artist Mildred E Eldridge - known as Elsi - from early meditations on their relationship to the elegies following her death.
This revelatory collection dramatises the changing dynamics of a complex and vitally creative relationship. Poems on marriage, cohabitation, birthdays, anniversaries, family and bereavement offer a candid portrait of emotional intimacy, desire, the painful process of ageing, and of loss. Elsi is a complex presence here: to the 'to' in the title signifies not only 'addressed to' but also 'about', 'with an eye on', 'to be overheard by', and even in one case 'from'.
RS Thomas: Poems to Elsi New Welsh Review
"Tony Brown explores the paradox of this ‘unloving’ man, author of some of the greatest love poems written since WWII"
‘I don’t think I am a very loving person,’ RS Thomas famously said in an interview with a Daily Telegraph journalist in the late 1990s, which fitted the image that newspaper readers would have had of the poet: grim, reclusive, taciturn and not infrequently rude. Yet- and it is, of course, one more paradox in this complex man – Thomas composed some of the greatest love poems written since the Second World War. Indeed, this is where so much of the emotion, ‘bottled up’ in his everyday life according to his son, found expression.
In bringing these poems together from Thomas’ various collections (there are also two previously unpublished poems), Damian Walford Davies allows us to see a poet very different from the media cliché: here we find a voice which is loving, caring, gentle and vulnerable. The editor has chosen not be print the poems in chronological order but in ‘such a way as to give sense of the rhythms and shifting moods of married life’. I think this organisation is remarkably successful, allowing us to experience the fifty-year marriage of the poet and Elsi Eldridge for the complex and unusual relationship that it undoubtedly was.
The poems portray a relationship that was not physically demonstrative (their son Gwydion says that he rarely saw them touch each other); they each got on with their creative work, invariably in different parts of the various houses in which they lived over the years, coming together at the meal table, the site of a whole cluster of poems which the editor here brings together:
Seated at table-
No need for the fracture
of the room’s silence: noiselessly
‘He and She’
We get the sense, especially in the later poems, of a deep loving communion that did not require constant conversation. (One recalls the potency of silence in Thomas’ religious poems, and how ‘garrulous’ is used as a pejorative.) The emphasis is less on physical contact than on silent ‘regard’ (in both senses of that word):
When he came in, she was there.
When she looked at him,
he smiled. there were lights
in time’s wave breaking
on an eternal shore.
There is a startling frankness in the poems at times, despite the distancing use in many of them of the third person. ‘Nuptials’, for instance, points to a sense of sexual dissatisfaction, hinted at in other places in Thomas’ writing:
[…] Once the whole loaf:
flesh white, breasts risen
to his first kneading
a slice after, the appetite
whetted for the more
not to be; the fast
upon fast to be broken
only in love’s absence
by the crumb of a kiss.
One is struck by the occasional uncertainty, not just here but also in earlier poems, that his love is actually reciprocated, especially when he recalls the early days of their marriage, its ‘shaky foundations’: ‘I said to her what / was in my heart, she / what was not in hers’ (‘Matrimony’); ‘She was not deceived, / but accepted me a girl / will under a thin moon / in love’s absence’ (‘The Way Of It’). One recalls the description of Prytherch in ‘Gone?’ who looks at his bleak land ‘but accepted it, as a man / will…’; both poems were written at about the same time in the 1970s, perhaps suggesting that the poet ‘regards’ his wife as having the same independence and security of identity as the resilient farmer.
Ultimately what we find in these poems is a portrayal of a relationship carefully negotiated over many years, for all the insecurity the poet feels (and of course we only have his view of the emotional shifts and changes he describes), until he can write in 1990, ‘Gradually / over fifty long years / of held breath / the heart has become warm’ (‘Golden Wedding’). The later poems, as Elsi’s health declines, are especially moving in the expression of her husband’s gentle ‘concern’ (‘Marriage’). Given the usual lack of tactile contact, his taking of her hand - a motif which recurs in the later poems – has profound resonance of feeling: in one of the marvellous elegies to Elsi, the poet tells the reader that, as his own wife ages, ‘Your part then / will be to take her hand in your / hand proving to her / that, if blind, it is not dumb’ (‘Remembering’). In the same poem the reader is warned that ‘Frost will / visit her hair’s midnight and not / thaw’. Even more pressingly in many ways than in Thomas’ religious poems, Time is humanity’s great enemy in poem after poem in this collection, to be confronted and ultimately transcended by the power of love:
Then take my hand
[…] and looking at
me say what time it is
on love’s face, for we have
no business here other than
to disprove certainties the clock knows.
What is ultimately a traditional poetic trope is here given new variations, the poems themselves, the creative acts which express his love, become ‘explosives timed / to go off in the blandness of time’s face’ (‘Bravo’).
The editor has cast his net rewardingly and imaginatively wide in identifying and collecting Thomas’ poems to his wife. At the same time I would want to suggest that two or three of the poems are more indirectly ‘to Elsi’ in that they express more general attitudes towards the female. There is little doubt that Thomas was throughout his life acutely aware of the attractions of women; we see unexpected sexual flirtatiousness at times (as in ‘Al’ and ‘Chat’, where, in the latter, the narrator flirts with, but is ‘taken in’ by, a Parisian prostitute; both poems appear in the recent Uncollected). At the same time the female is frequently seen as constituting a threat to the masculine identity of the narrator, trapping and enmeshing him. (In ‘Chat’ the narrator struggles, albeit only half-heartedly, to escape ‘the meshes she has drawn / About me’.) Thus in ‘Touching’, ‘She kept touching me, / As a woman will / Accidentally, so the response, When given, is / A presumption’; thrown off balance by the woman’s play, ‘It is the man burns’, at the ‘injustice’ and in lust. (One notes that this woman is seen as a representative of the guile of her sex.) In the following poem in the collection, ‘All Right’, we have the motif of looking with which we are familiar in the Elsi poems (‘I look. You look / Away’) but this time it is overtly a ‘performance’. While the poem may represent a momentary impulse of negative feeling on Thomas’ part towards his wife, the terms in which he addresses ‘her’ (‘Madam, I / Grant the artistry / Of your part’) are certainly uncharacteristic of the ways Elsi is usually described. The sense of the female playing a part is repeated in ‘Acting’. The poem does begin ‘Being unwise enough to have married her / I never knew when she was not acting. / “I love you” she would say […] / “I hate you.”’ But such suggestions of deception and the sensuous physical description (‘the rippling meadow / Of her body’) are again untypical of the descriptions of Elsi, as is the sardonic tone at the end, when he urges her to rake a curtain call: ‘My charmer, come out from behind / It to take the applause. Look, I am clapping too.’ If these poems are in fact not as dramatized and generalised as I am assuming, they not only link Thomas’ poems addressed to his wife to those poems which express scepticism and anxiety at the scheming of the female sex, but add yet another dimension to the range of feelings towards Elsi which this fascinating, multifaceted collection displays.
Tony Brown for New Welsh Review