R. S. Thomas's poems about paintings.
There are a small number of poems on paintings scattered throughout R. S. Thomas's work before 1981. One, "On a Portrait of Joseph Hone by Augustus John" in his first book, The Stones of the Field (1946), "Souillac: Le Sacrifice d'Abraham" in The Bread of Truth (1963), "Nocturne by Ben Shahn" in H'm (1972) and two in The Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), "Woman Combing. Degas" and "The Annunciation by Veneziano"--these are the ones chosen for Collected Poems 1945-1990. (1) The subject existed as a possibility from the beginning of his poetic career, but he waited for some six years after The Laboratories of the Spirit to take full advantage of it. Suddenly in Between Here and Now (1981) over half the book is devoted to poems on paintings, each printed with a black and white illustration on the left facing page, except for a color reprint of Degas's Women Ironing that serves as a frontispiece. Nine of the thirty-three poems are in the Collected Poems (CP). Thomas's next collection, Later Poems 1972-1982 (1983), contains no poems about paintings, one "Remembering David Jones," is a general poem about his calligraphy and poetry, not about any specific work, and there is "Sonata," a poem about Beethoven's music affirming the power of art. Then, five years later, Ingrowing Thoughts (1988), is only poems about paintings, twenty-one in all, again each with a black and white reproduction of the painting on the left facing the poem on the right. Eleven of these are reprinted in the Collected Poems (which has no illustrations for any of the poems).
The seven years that separate Between Here and Now (BHN) and Ingrowing Thoughts (IG) show the time that Thomas needed to absorb the lessons of his first set of painting poems, and how he looked for new subjects and how he worked to develop. The second set of paintings is a different kind of choice. Thomas resisted the world in which he lived and was uncomfortable with what he saw as its vulgarity. These paintings are very much of the modern world and represent a complete break with the painting of Monet and Degas. They are difficult and enigmatic, with a different order and logic. In choosing them, he chooses the dream world.
These two collections constitute a major change in Thomas's development. They are in some ways almost an interlude or period unto themselves, as afterwards Thomas returns to his habitual subjects, but they do show clearly a powerful need for something different and to get away from his home ground of Wales. The painters chosen for Between Here and Now are exclusively French, except for the Dutchman, Jongkind, who painted mostly in France, and the American, Mary Cassatt, who studied in France and was helped by Degas, and Thomas keeps to the French painters from Monet to Crzanne (with six poems on paintings by Degas and five by Monet). Ingrowing Thoughts offers a more diverse group of European painters, Picasso, van den Bergh, di Chirico, Ernst, the American, Ben Shahn, and three English painters, Paul Nash, J. S. Bigge, and Roland Penrose. There are no Welsh painters, no Welsh subjects in either book. There are no abstractions and only a limited number of contemporary paintings.
Thomas's relation to Wales, it needs to be said, is extremely complicated (which is not recognized in much of the criticism). Although he was born in Cardiff, in south Wales, "my history for the first six years of my life ...," he writes, "was to move from port to port, with most of those years spent in England." His earliest memories were of Liverpool (Autobiographies 3). Later he cut himself off from his family and rejected the culture of south Wales. His father's mother spoke Welsh and his father may have known some as a boy, but his parents did not speak Welsh (Davis 21-2). Neither his wife nor his son spoke Welsh, and he made no effort to have his son learn. His son says:
R. S. was a snob ... R. S. was reinventing himself as an English gentleman. He tried to invent himself as other things later, like a Welsh nationalist, but he went too far with that one. He taught himself Welsh, but such an academic Welsh, he found he couldn't talk to most Welshmen ... basically he was an English vicar in a Welsh parish. Psychologically he could never be Welsh, I think he was obsessed by class (Rogers 36-7).
Perhaps the poems about paintings were part of this reinvention. Byron Rogers, who wrote the authorized biography and who interviewed him in 1975 for The Daily Telegraph, noted then that: "his manners are not Welsh. The formality, the reserve, the tension these bring, are those of the English upper middle class" (Rogers 12). Thomas says that he spoke English with a "a pure accent," that Rogers notes "means not just that he had no trace of a Welsh accent: Thomas sounded posher than the Queen." His very English accent was "a source of wonder to his wife's family" who were English. They thought it the sign of a "self-made man" (Rogers 74-5). Certainly as a Church of England clergyman, he was an alien in Nonconformist north Wales.
Between Here and Now acknowledges Germain Bazin's Impressionist Paintings in the Louvre (Thames and Hudson, 1958). The poet appears to have turned the pages of an older book and decided to write some poems. Certainly his first wife, Elsi Eldridge, who was a painter and who taught art at Oswestry High School, may have had something to do with his choice of subject, but this is uncertain, because her dislike of the poems in Between Here and Now is "the one recorded disagreement between them." According to Rogers, she "dismisses out of hand" the poems about paintings, writing in her memoirs (which are in manuscript): "The quality of a painting is paint. It cannot be expressed in any other medium." She was upset that Thomas had never seen the originals. "What a tangle," she writes (Rogers 270). Ned Thomas and John Barnie, who interviewed Thomas for the Welsh arts magazine, Planet, in 1990, stated in one of their questions: "Your wife of course is an artist and this must have helped bring you in contact with the visual arts." Thomas totally ignored this comment and said nothing at all about his wife.
He did not say he had not seen any of the pictures, but stated that he had had to rely on "the secondhand medium of reproduction" and that "an object, place or situation seen with one's eye is not the same as when presented by another, be it an artist's brush or camera," glossing over the differences between them. He thought that the publishers in using monochrome illustrations had "lessened the impact of some of the poems." "The poems," he said, "are attempts to comment and to draw out extended meaning in a way most of the painters would have found reprehensible, because painting has its own plastic and compositional values" (Thomas and Barnie quoted in Davis 45). Thomas is fully aware that poems are not paintings and he does not want them to be. This response nine years later may have had something to do with his wife's reaction. "Extended meaning" indicates that he knew that he was going beyond the image. A number of the poems are clearer if one knows the paintings, but for the majority, it makes surprisingly little difference and Thomas, I believe, wanted this independence.
His wife in her memoirs records her surprise at Thomas's looking at one of her paintings:
I showed him a painting. 'How awful,' he said. In what way? 'Such sentimental faces.' Realised I had not even looked at the faces, but at all the details of colour placing, light and dark contrast, and the shape of bodies. A perfect example it would seem of what a person looks for if they are not painters, a face being the most important part to them of a human being. Gave me a jolt, I must say. (Rogers 270)
This is exactly the way Thomas looks at the portraits in his poems. He is reading and judging character. Thomas's son's first wife, Sharon Young Lunney, says that her father-in-law paid very little attention to her--"he found it difficult to focus on anything that wasn't himself' (Rogers 28)--but that she got on well with Elsi and often talked to her at length when Thomas was not around:
With me and R. S., there was an absence of relationship, but I think Elsi grew fond of me ... She understood R. S. inside out ... One of the things that she couldn't understand was that he was completely uninterested in her as a painter, so there was a whole area of her he ignored. (Rogers 29)
One of his wife's paintings, a Welsh landscape, is on the dust jacket of the first edition of the Collected Poems (London, Dent, 1993), discretely acknowledged as "Cover painting by M. E. Eldridge."
The paintings offered Thomas a change of scene, as well as new, ready-made subjects, analogous to the way that older plays gave Shakespeare ready-made plots. Although he changed them, they offered a definite beginning. For Thomas, this was a means not only of getting away from Wales, but also from himself. The starting point was not his own personal history, but a different reality and someone else's experience--the other. Charles Ives explains and justifies his use of other people's music as follows:
No true composer will take his substance from another being--but there are times when he feels that his self-expression needs some liberation from at least a part of his own soul. At such times, shall he not better turn to those greater souls, rather than to the external, the immediate, and the 'Garish Day'? (Essays Before a Sonata 102)
Thomas's choice is similar and, of course, if he took material from a history, biography or novel, he would be using material already stated in words. With these poems, he starts with an image, a thing which offers the chance of greater freedom. Thomas declares in the Planet interview that "It is a welcome relief from the obsession with speech and writing to realize the number of other forms of expression and communication, such as painting ..." (quoted in Davis 45). The poems were written in a sense to get away from language.
Frank Stella remarks that "Paintings simplify the world" and a painting as the subject of a poem offers a strong focus, clearly defined limits and a concentration akin to that of a lyric poem. By publishing a reproduction of the paintings he chooses opposite his poem, as Thomas does in his two books of picture poems, he also allows himself the possibility of going a long way away and working at a remove from the image with his references still easily understandable. The illustrations allow the poet to be more allusive. They give him the freedom to create his own space, and to avoid images and a certain kind of description, if he wishes. Consequently, it is worth noting that he rarely avails himself of this freedom and in most cases stays close to the picture. He does not feel free enough to let go and his desire to belong to what he sees as the tradition of English poetry blocks any radical innovation.
After the text, Bazin's book contains ninety-six fairly good color plates (80-271), each one facing a page of commentary and then a section of 261 very small black and white reproductions of works by the same painters and others (273-304), seven or eight pictures to the page. Thomas chooses thirty-two paintings from the color plates and substitutes his commentary for Bazin's. The poems in Between Here and Now are printed in the same order as the paintings in Bazin's book--with one exception: "Monet: Lady with a Parasol." Monet painted this subject twice, one with the woman "turned towards the right," the other with her "turned toward the left." Bazin reproduces both paintings in the midst of the black and white section (298). They are so small, about two by two and a half centimeters, that it is unlikely that Thomas would have noticed them unless he was looking for them. His statements that the grass "is a fire about / the feet" and that she is "brown" suggests he was looking at a color reproduction (BHN 13), so either Bazin's book had Monet's lady in color on the dust jacket or Thomas had another source for the first poem in his book. (I used the Bodelian Library copy of Bazin, which, of course, has no dust jacket.)
Bazin's commentaries provide information about the artist and the circumstances of the painting and discuss the work's painterly qualities. Had Thomas wished to include anything about the paintings as paintings, the material was available to him. He uses the historical material in only one poem. In "Monet: Portrait of Madame Gaudibert," he writes that her husband "knowledgeable about ships, / knew how to salvage / the ship-wrecked painter" (BHN 23). Bazin explains that Monet was in "very distressing circumstances" at this time and that M. Gaudibert was "a shipowner" "who came to the rescue of the unfortunate artist by commissioning his own portrait and that of his wife" (106). Again, although such historical material was available for each painting, Thomas chose to ignore it. He is not interested in thinking his way into the past. History, facts, details of any kind, do not engage his attention. He does not care about objects or describing anything in detail. His poems are usually somewhat out of time.
On Cezanne's Repentant Magdalen Bazin states: "The subject of the painting is uncertain. She is called Magdalen or Grief. She is very similar to the Melancholy by Fetti" that Cezanne may have seen in the Louvre (114). Thomas will have none of this uncertainty. For his purposes she must be the Magdalen. On occasion, Thomas does not hesitate to take an entirely different view from Bazin. The woman's clothes in "Degas: Absinthe" are "out of the top drawer, the best her class / could provide" (BHN 43). Bazin describes them as "clumsy boots and a frayed coat and skirt" (180), which is not necessarily contradictory, but does present a different picture. There is perhaps a suggestion that Jean Avril is promiscuous in Thomas's poem on Lautrec's picture of her dancing. There is no hint of this in Bazin's commentary, which gives a detailed description of her dancing.
There is also a mistake that has been overlooked all these years. Thomas has a poem called "Cezanne: The Bridge at Mainey," but Cezanne's painting in Bazin is entitled The Bridge at Mennecy. Mennecy is the small town south of Paris near Corbeil, where Cezanne spent the month of May in 1887 and where he had been earlier. The painting dates from before 1884 and after 1880, perhaps 1882 or 1883 (Bazin 190). There is a Maincy, not far away to the east and a little farther south (north east of Meulun). Whether the mistake is Thomas's or the typesetter's or someone could not read Thomas's handwriting or tried to correct it with a map, we do not know and probably never will, but the different spelling should be noted in any future printings.
Of the thirty-three poems in Between Here and Now, nineteen are portraits, including a few that are groups of figures, like Degas's The Dancing Class and Musicians in the Orchestra, Renoir's The Bathers, and Cezanne's The Card Players. Twelve are portraits of women, almost all with some suggestion, if not specific comment, about their sexuality. Fourteen are landscapes, but only six without any human figures, although all fourteen contain man-made objects (buildings, bridges, roads). Landscapes without people occur much later in the history of painting than those with and are much rarer. As in his other poems, Thomas is interested in the human condition. He is not interested in the paintings as paintings. There is nothing in the poems about shape or form, almost no mention of color (perhaps not surprising if most of the reproductions are in black and white), and nothing about the brushwork or the quality of the painting. He is not unaware of these things. On Degas's Portrait of a Young Woman, he notes the painter's purposes:
I imagine he intended other things: tonal values, the light and shade of her cheek. (BHN 21)
and then dismisses them: "To me innocence / is its meaning." This innocence, in my view, is wholly Thomas's invention and read into the painting. Thomas chooses pictures by a variety of painters, but the differences in their styles do not matter to him. Only in one case, Monet's Portrait of Madame Gaudibert, is the painter the subject. Thomas accepts the painting's subject as if it were completely unproblematic.
Thomas handles the paintings very freely. As with Degas's Portrait of a Young Woman, he does not hesitate to modify the image or superimpose his own ideas upon it. Monet's The Bas-Breau Road is wonderfully realistic with a transparent brightness rare in his work. This is perhaps where Thomas gets "looking-glass smooth," but the road is not at all smooth (BHN 17). The ruts are clearly visible. The notion that no one bothers about where the road goes and that it is not for "getting people / anywhere ... at speed" is wrong, as is the "gap / in the forest" and the idea that it dawdles. The road runs straight from the lower left hand corner directly to the horizon at the right center. It does not dawdle. There are no curves or meanders to confirm Thomas's "slow river." As can be seen in the foreground the road is wide enough for two carriages or wagons to pass. The "gap" is the consequence of Monet's perspective. The road does not narrow. This is a main thoroughfare, built for a purpose and goes straight, as far as we can see, to its destination. That it has "the quietness of time / before the first motor-car" is certainly the case, an apposite comment that has something to do with the fact that the picture has no people in it, but, of course, the motor-car is an anachronism as far as Monet is concerned. Thomas in this poem reinvents the image.
With "Cezanne: The Card Players" there is very little distortion of the scene. The actual painting is dark, so that it is not easy to make out the bit of gray above the bowl of the pipe that might be smoke, but might be ashes. Certainly Thomas's "pipe without / smoke" is what one sees looking at the reproduction (BHN 51). The "empty / bottle" as it has a cork in it is probably not empty. We do not see glasses. Here Thomas imposes his sense of the players' psychology, that their minds "drift" "lazily as flies," or the "inane / problem" of "their boredom" which cannot be seen in the picture. On the contrary, although Cezanne has not painted their facial expressions, the two men appear focused and concentrating on their game. In "Degas: The Dancing Class," Thomas has their dancing master "looking no higher / than their feet; listening / for their precise fluttering" and the dancers "picking up words / gratefully, as though they were crumbs" (BHN 37), however, in the painting the master is looking directly at the faces of the dancers immediately in front of him. There is no "fluttering." The dancers are resting, one sitting on the piano scratching her back and most of those in the far corner on the master's right do not seem to be listening. In fact, Bazin says that while the girl in the center "seems to be paying some attention," "the rest are taking no notice" (Bazin 148). Only the face of one of the two dancers in the doorway in front of the master is at all clear, but even then it is difficult to read her expression. The dancers in the left foreground have their backs to us and the faces of those in the far left background are blurs. The bird metaphors are nice, but cannot be derived from this somewhat casual scene in which, as in most classes, some people are paying attention, while others are not.
"Monet: Rouen Cathedral, Full Sunshine" is another example of reading into the painting, Thomas's "extended meaning." The picture is one of a series painted at different times of the day, very heavily over painted, encrusted with paint, in this case, mostly pale browns, yellows, grays and whites. The mass and form of the cathedral are roughly blocked out, but none of the architectural details of the front can be distinguished. Because of the thick over painting the picture is almost abstract. Thomas starts: "But deep inside / are the chipped figures / with their budgerigar faces" (BHN 73). If he is referring to the statues in the doorways of the cathedral, deep is an effective touch, recognizing the thickness of the over painting; however, no figures can be made out, not to mention faces, and the eroded faces of statues on the fronts of medieval cathedrals do not look like "budgerigars." The metaphor seems inaccurate, disconnecting the poem from the painting. Monet and Thomas have completely different purposes. Monet wants to balance the play of the light and the massive solidity of the cathedral. Thomas worries about the "divine humors" and whether prayers are heard. The poem is a development of the bird metaphor: "stone twittering in / the cathedral branches," although the immense block of the cathedral does not resemble a tree, and "the excitement of migrants / newly arrived" is odd for the immobile stone figures who have stood in their places for hundreds of years. The notion that we might pray to the budgerigars is also odd. That our prayers are "dry crumbs" is a nice touch.
Thomas uses the paintings entirely for his own purposes. He sticks to his last and does it his way. There is no reason why he should pay any attention to the painterly qualities of the various pictures or not change the subject. He is writing poetry, not art criticism. Horace is wrong. "Ut pictura poesis" is false. Like Shakespeare, all Thomas wants is a bit of plot, a hint of character. In some ways, he resembles Beethoven in the Diabelli Variations or Picasso copying Delacroix's Women of Algiers, trying to completely transform the material and at the same time show his point of departure. Judging from the poems, he needs to differ from the paintings, to take possession of the material. He cannot accept them as they are and be true to himself. He is not interested in painting as painting. He has no obligation to Degas. What he cares passionately about is poetry.
This taking possession often causes Thomas to force the image, to push or twist it to the odd or grotesque, as with the budgerigars. With "Monet: Lady with a Parasol," this is a matter of word choices. The woman in the painting is standing on a hill top, holding a parasol in her right hand. She is looking at us, facing to our left, into the wind, her scarf blowing out behind her. Seen from below, her face is in shadow, and her features and expression cannot be distinguished. Thomas's statement that she "is brown already" cannot be verified, because her face is in shadow (BHN 13). For it to be fashionable to be brown, we have to wait for Coco Chanel. He says: "She wields her umbrella // from fashion, a not / too serious shield against / summer's unreal missiles." From is unidiomatic and somewhat awkward here, but the strangest phrase is unreal missiles. Are these the sun and wind? If so, they are not unreal and as both are continuous forces, they cannot be accurately described as missiles. The poem continues:
What she carries is a pretence at effeminacy, a borrowing from the mystery shadow concocts.
The umbrella is a standard article for a woman of her social standing on a sunny summer's day and useful in protecting herself from the sun, hardly a pretence. Effeminacy is "unmanly weakness, softness, delicacy" and the wrong word. The lady with the parasol is unmanly from head to toe. She is a woman and does not need to pretend to femininity (which may be the word Thomas was looking for). Thomas ends the poem by stating that her arm is "sturdy," her carriage "erect" and her "bust ample enough / for a peasant to lay his / head there." Beyond the fact that her arm does not look unusually sturdy nor her bust unusually ample and that she in no way appears to be a country person or a peasant's companion, the assumption seems to be that a strong woman is somehow out of the ordinary.
The metaphor is strained and the language is awkward: "What / she carries is ... / a borrowing / from the mystery shadow concocts." The parasol is not borrowed from mystery or shadow, it casts a shadow thereby creating mystery, if we wish. That shadows are concocted makes them sound as if they were artificial and composed of different ingredients. Along with wield, shield, missiles, pretence and effeminacy, the stylistically awkward syntax seems to be an attempt to intensify the poem, to make a static scene dynamic. The bluntness and clumsiness of the syntax and slightly off-center or extreme metaphors are at once an attempt to break free of conventional forms and expectations, and away from what Stevens calls "the bawds of euphony," and a fear of simplicity, because it is too close to emptiness. This elaborateness is both a check on Thomas's directness and brutality, and an expression of it.
Thomas's poems are deliberately emphatic, as if the exertion of energy could create more meaning. There is a harshness and a bleakness about all of Thomas's work. The poems are often aggressive in different measures. Thomas often attacks the protagonists, as he does the lady with the parasol. Bryon Rogers, who knew Thomas, in his obituary of the poet in The Guardian (27 Sept. 2000), quotes Thomas as saying: "My mother used to ask my father, 'Haven't you a good word to say about anybody?' He thought for a long time and said 'No.'" (The wording of the story is slightly different in the biography; Rogers 12.) Such an attitude would not be easy to grow up with and his father obviously shaped Thomas's conception of God. The bleakness emerges in "Jongkind: The Beach at Sainte-Adresse," a delicate watercolor of a calm sea, beach and small village with no one in sight that could easily serve as the setting of a poem about happiness or contentment. There is a rowboat on the beach in the right foreground, far enough from the sea to be out of reach of the tide. Thomas personifies the boat in order to deny the calm. The boat remembers "the fury of the clawing / of white hands" and the sea is "the glass lid of a coffin / within which by cold lips / the wooden carcasses are mumbled" (BHN 15). The "within which by" and "mumbled" are slightly awkward. How lips mumble a carcass is unclear, but the rejection of what Jongkind has painted is total. Where the painter sees peace and quiet, the poet sees shipwreck and death.
"Degas: Musicians in the Orchestra" offers another version of Thomas's pessimism. The painting is remarkable, like so many of Degas's works, for its point of view: up close to the orchestra pit, looking slightly down, with the stage showing the dancers in the background at an angle, filling roughly the top quarter of the painting. There is no horizon. Thomas compares the musicians intent on their playing to Odysseus's men whose ears he stopped to prevent them from going mad on hearing the sirens' song. For Thomas, who conflates the episode with that of Circe, their eyes are "sealed" so that they do not behold:
the skirts' rising and falling that turns men to swine. (BHN 27)
Women in these poems are a constant and irresistible temptation, and sexual fantasies inform almost all the descriptions of them. The part that fantasy plays in these lines is especially great as ballerinas' skirts, the tutus, are made so that the rising and falling is minimal and not revealing. The meaning of Degas's Portrait of a Young Woman Thomas says is innocence. He no sooner says that than he says that she has "looked upon evil / and not seen it," and adds that she is waiting to be surprised by sexual experience:
Her young being waits to be startled by the sweetness in roughness of hands that with permitted boldness will remove her bark to show under how smooth a tree temptation can shelter. (BHN 21)
The lines are some of his most successful with their balancing of not quite antithetical qualities: sweetness and roughness, permission and boldness, and temptation and shelter. The poem's force and subtlety depend on roughness not being the exact opposite of sweetness and the fusion of the tactile metaphor of bark and the more abstract temptation and shelter. The metaphor reminds us of Daphne turning into a laurel to escape from Apollo's passion.
The somewhat plain looking Mlle. Dihau in "Degas: Mademoiselle Dihau at the Piano" is a "mellow-fleshed, / sun-polished fruit"--and "mahogany- / toned" (BHN 25), although in Bazin her face is a pale tan with rose cheeks. The musical score is "a notice / against trespassing upon / land so privately owned." Again the sexuality is in the mind of the beholder. As with the young woman, it is immediately a question of "trespassing" or violation. The poet reads into the image. The dejected and sad, morose woman in "Degas: Absinthe" is said to be wearing her best clothes "in order / to have something good she could take off" (BHN 43). She appears rather to be contemplating the sorrows of her whole life, not "repenting" her drink and thinking of aphrodisiacs, as Thomas claims. Jane Avril Dancing all by herself in Toulouse-Lautrec's drawing shows her knees (in black stockings) "by which some would gain entrance to heaven" (BHN 67). Both she and the absinthe drinker appear to be turned inward.
Bazille's Family Reunion shows two couples, a pair of men, a pair of women, and a man with two women standing under a tree. There are no children or servants in the painting. The clothes are carefully painted, which Thomas has perfectly caught in "And clothes, clothes: / how they outdo / their background" (BHN 19). The irony is humorous and serious. The language is simple and economical, no words wasted or out of place. Each stanza makes its own conclusive statement. The two unusual verbs, partake and beget, slightly old-fashioned in this context, echo neatly and appositely the King James Genesis. The poem shows Thomas's anti-establishment feelings at their most articulate. He finds the banal respectability of this well-dressed family group provocative, as if respectability immediately causes him to think of sex, as if somehow they are pretending and he needs to strip away the pretence. His emphasis on the clothes makes it seem that he thinks that they have something to hide. They cannot be said to be complacent or hypocritical, and it is one of the poem's major strengths that Thomas does not say anything so easy or hackneyed. Bazille is not a good enough painter to give them any individuality or feelings. They look blankly at the spectator. Thomas uses this lack of expression wonderfully for his purposes: "Their looks challenge / us to find / where they failed," thus avoiding any spurious emotion.
Thomas starts right off with their sexual knowledge. The tree they are standing under is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Eden and they have partaken of its fruit. Thomas goes directly and succinctly to the point: "Sex? They wanted / it. Children? / Why not?" (BHN 19). The children are an afterthought. Thomas is ambivalent about children, to say the least. They are "like a human mistake" in "Father and Child" (IG 13) and "indiscretions" in "La Nuit Venitienne" (IG 41), while the drawing in "Drawing by a Child" (Destinations, 1985) is the child's revenge on her parents "for bringing me to be" and the servants' children in "Bazille: Family Reunion" are going to overturn the established order. Although for Thomas, the order represented by this family reunion cannot survive, no reason is given in the poem as to why this is the case. Thomas implies that they are too comfortable, too well-dressed and too well-fed, but does not indicate why the society they represent will not endure. Is it the mere fact of having servants? Thomas's view of human nature prevents him from believing in society. Social conventions appear to him as somehow false, and it is interesting that Thomas interprets the reunion in terms of society, and not in terms of their personal or family history. As in many of the poems, there are a number of uncertainties, but Thomas does not like ambiguity or uncertainty. They suggest a more open, secular world.
Because of its simplicity and easy conversational tone, "Cezanne: The Bridge at Maincy" is one of the most successful poems in Between Here and Now: three stanzas, two sentences; a short question, and a long reply that does not answer the question. Cezanne's picture shows a wooden bridge over a slow-moving stream in the middle of a forest. The bridge is at the center of the canvass at a slight angle to the viewer, dividing the poem horizontally into two unequal parts. There is more space devoted to the different greens of the forest at the top than to the darker green fiver turning from the right under the bridge in the center. The direction of its flow cannot be determined, nor can we see the road or where it goes. A pale brown building can be seen at the left on the other side of the bridge and another glimpsed through the trees beyond the bridge. The buildings can be distinguished easily in Bazin's reproduction, but not in the black and white copy in Between Here and Now.
Thomas begins: "Has a bridge / to be crossed?" (BHN 49). As the painting shows a bridge, the question is immediately metaphoric, implying decisions, turning points and rites of passage. The question is not answered and echoes throughout the poem. "Better empty / this one," the poet continues, but the bridge is already empty and there is no one to be seen in the picture. We are to await "the traveller's return//from the outside / world to his place / at the handrail." That the traveler has his place tells us that he has often been here before. He returns "from the outside / world"--the line break marks the separation--so this is the inside world, the place of the imagination, inner change and renewal. The return is not to cross the bridge, but to stand and
watch for the face's water-lily to emerge from the dark depths as quietly as the waxen moon from among clouds.
Cezanne's river is so dark at the bridge that it would be difficult to see your face, no real water-lilies are visible and, of course, water-lilies are on the surface and do not come up from below, but none of these things matter to the poet. Thomas paints his own picture. The way he departs from the paintings indicates the degree to which he is removed from the outside world. The traveler waits to see his reflection as if to reaffirm his identity and collect himself before crossing the bridge. The moment is one of self-knowledge and implied light, with the moon moving from behind the clouds. Waxen seems to denote not only the quality of the moon, but also its fullness, that it has waxed rather than waned. Thomas's words mark the slow gradations of becoming.
The poems in Ingrowing Thoughts (1985), published when Thomas was seventy-two, are of a different quality than those in Between Here and Now (1981). They are freer, more adventurous, in keeping with the more heterogeneous choice of painters and paintings, more abstract, more indirect, vaguer and, in some ways, denser, thicker, and more opaque, as if working with more obdurate material. Thomas found the paintings in Herbert Read's Art Now, from which he takes six paintings (Chagall, di Chirico, "The Child's Brain," Magritte, "The Red Model," Soutine, Matisse and Derain) and in Read's Surrealism from which he takes all the rest, with the exception of the Picasso, Shahn, van den Berghe, Hofer, Bauchant and de Smet, for which he had another source or sources. There are only three portraits (Matisse, Derain, Soutine) and these are the only poems that resemble the character studies of Between Here and Now. The poems appear to be between the self and the other. Thomas is not a particularly introspective poet, compared to Wordsworth or O'Hara or Ashbery. He is neither a poet of the light and shadow of feeling nor of self-revelation. The paintings he has selected are not realistic. There is no representation of everyday life in the style of Monet, Pissaro or Degas. There are no landscapes and no abstractions. There are a number of abstract paintings reproduced in Art Now: Kandinsky (color frontispiece) and Delaunay, Gorky, de Kooning, Kline, de Stael and others in black and white. Thomas refuses the most original and interesting development of modern painting.
He wants definiteness, an object clearly, even if fantastically seen. His character forces him to judge, to come to conclusions, sometimes in spite of himself. There is a lot of anger in his work. The vehemence, rigidity--both forms of definiteness--are ways of managing this aggression. He cannot escape from morals. Uncertainty does not suit him. He is pessimistic without being skeptical. The paintings he uses in Ingrowing Thoughts are surrealistic, real objects deformed or in unreal, problematic contexts, or unreal objects composed of real parts. Ten of the twenty-one paintings, those by Picasso, di Chirico, Magritte, Ernst, Nash, Dali, Eluard, and Penrose, are of this kind and five others, by Shahn, Bauchant, Chagall and Bigge, go in this direction. That the only artists from whom he chooses two paintings are di Chirico and Magritte is clear proof of this turn to the dream world. These poems are Thomas's attempt to confront the unconscious without self-analysis, which accounts for the indirection, opacity and a certain inarticulateness. The decalage between the book's title and its subject is indicative of the difficulty. Thoughts is plural and denotes consciousness rather than unconsciousness, ideas that have been more or less formulated, rather than unformed. The paintings reach out beyond that, but Thomas is uncomfortable with the dream world. In "The Red Model," the poem from which the book's title is taken, thought is singular. The painting by Magritte shows two feet painted as if they were hollow and could be put on like boots. For Thomas, they belong to a dead man whose ghost will walk "onward for ever against / an ingrowing thought" (IG 33). The nature of the thought is unstated and obscure, and Thomas ignores Christian theology to present it as threatening, haunting the dead man throughout eternity. Similarly, in "The Child's Brain," opening a book and opening your mind are something that you do "at your own risk" (IG 29).
Like many good poets, Thomas's work is often uneven. There are strong lines in many of the poems that are like lumps of pure gold in a vein of ore. The summary in "Guernica":
The bull has triumphed at last; the tossed humans descend up-- side down, never to arrive. The whole is love in reverse. (IG 9)
glosses the images so as to suggest the horror without insisting upon it and to include the Spanish practice of bullfighting. (Whether Thomas knew of Picasso's interest in bullfighting or his many, obsessive drawings of the Minotaur is unknown.) Tossed goes with the separated up--and down repeats descend, and the action is restated as "love / in reverse," where the notion of love going backward offers us a new view of love as well as of aggression (reverse is not the same as opposite)--it is formulations such as this that distinguish the good poets. The broken up--acts out smashed and the bone's jigsaw [my italics]. The process is made infinite and, therefore, irreparable by "never / to arrive." The force of the lines is in the simplicity of the words and the subtlety of their interaction. This is Thomas at his best. The close is powerful:
The painter has been down at the root of the scream and surfaced again to prepare the affections for the atrocity of its flowers.
The "has been down at" gives the sense of visiting what has been done for an indefinite time and "the root/of the scream" expresses the way the cry is torn from the figure with its mouth open and hands up, at the same time as its static, on-going nature as part of the painting. The "affections" seem slightly weak in the context of their being prepared for "the atrocity of the flowers." The atrocity is the havoc of the attack on the city. The flowers seem to be its ironic consequences.
That anything is "embraced dearly / like a human mistake," in "Father and Child," is psychologically extremely astute, as is the "thirst/sharpened by unpalatable / truths" in "The Good Inn" (IG 26). Observation here goes deeper than the mere enjoyment of taking a hard look at the life around him; however, often in Ingrowing Thoughts, there is uncertainty or ambiguity about what Thomas is saying to us. This is sometimes because he has chosen paintings without a story and does not impose one. These are poems of unfinished or partial stories, of story fragments. Looking at the di Chirico painting The Oracle and reading Thomas's poem about it, there is no reason why "life in the end / is profane," why a blackboard is a cemetery or what "surrealist / mourning" is, and why it is appropriate, or what is meant by "in permanent procrastination / of the eclipse of thought" (IG 30). Is the eclipse procrastinating or the thought? The obscurity overpowers the poem.
Penrose's sculpture Captain Cook's Last Voyage is a nude female torso with its back to a shrouded object inside a slightly tilted wire sphere that is constructed with the wires arranged like longitude and latitude meridians and a thicker band of metal for the Equator. Nothing suggests icebergs or the polar ice caps. The poem's final stanza moves perfectly. The stanza's strength is that it is one carefully articulated sentence.
On eternity's background is the shadow of time's cage, where nautically we are becalmed listening to the echoes in the nerves' rigging of that far-off storm that is the spirit blowing itself out in the emptiness at the Poles. (IG 46)
The measure and balance of the phrases leave nothing to be desired, nonetheless, many things are unclear, and the poem probably exists because they were unclear to the poet. Cook did not complete his last voyage. He was killed by natives in Hawaii. Everybody's life is incomplete, because the exact moment of its end is unknown and unpredictable, and we die in the midst of doing other things. The relations between time and eternity, if we can believe in eternity, are shadowy. We are prisoners of time.
Nautically is our location in space and time on this last voyage and all the problems of sailing and navigating. The adverb is unusual and a very economical way of maintaining the metaphor. The nerves stand for our worries, resistances and fantasies. The forces of the inner world are at best managed, but never mastered, and always more or less out of control. The spirit blows itself out, because there is nothing but emptiness, even if we go to the ends of the earth. This is a cold thought, right for the desolation of the polar ice caps. The poet calls it a storm, because for him the struggle for meaning is a fight, full of sound and fury. Far-off makes it unconscious as well as partially conscious, at a remove, like "eternity's background" or Captain Cook's last voyage. The poem exists just out of reach of reason. As a group, these poems in Ingrowing Thoughts are not as heavy or rhetorical as many of the poems in Destinations, published in the same year, 1985. Perhaps the paintings enabled Thomas to simplify his thoughts and by providing an unconscious structure, as well as the order of a definite image, made it possible for him to be more direct--and to copy the indirection of the painting. This poem is also interesting in that the ideas are non-Christian, an important substrata in Thomas's work that deserves further study.
The divided nature of many of Thomas's poems can be clearly seen in "Art History" published in Not That He Brought Flowers (1968) and interestingly given the title, not about painting. The first six and a half lines are perfect, delicate, and nuanced, with the enjambments keeping the thought moving, so that each new idea is a surprise.
They made the grey stone Blossom, setting it on a branch Of the mind; airy cathedrals Grew, trembling at the tip Of their breathing; delicate palaces Hung motionless in the gold, Unbelievable sunrise. (CP 201)
Each line is complete in itself, either as a sentence or a phrase, such that the continuation in the next line is unexpected and, because the words are right, particularly satisfying. The phrasing is very well done: the enjambed elements are of different lengths and grammar, verbs with their single force: Blossom, Grew, Hung, the longer prepositional phrases: "Of the mind," "Of their breathing," and the adjective and noun: "Unbelievable sunrise." The final two sentences are too heavy, rhetorical, and obscure:
They praised With rapt forms such as the blind hand Dreamed, journeying to its sad Nuptials. We come too late On the scene, pelted with the stone Flowers' bitter confetti.
Praised pushes in the direction of the moral. Rapt could pass, although slightly too insistent, "blind hand / Dreamed" is a bit hackneyed and cathedrals are too large, unlike sculpture, to be imagined by the hand. The hand's journey is unclear as are its nuptials and their sadness. Why we are too late is uncertain and what it means to be "pelted with stone / Flowers' bitter confetti" is unexplained. Why bitter? Is pelted to be understood as the impression made by seeing the cathedrals or as pieces of stone falling from the cathedral? Whatever it may mean, it contradicts the breath-taking beauty of the opening. The concluding five and a half lines have not been completely thought through and take away from the vivid physical presence of the first half of the poem. "Art History" is unusual in that it breaks into two halves; more often the conflicting impulses struggle throughout the poem or here and there within it.
The central importance of all the arts for Thomas, not only poetry and painting, is clearly stated in, "Sonata," a poem published in Later Poems: 1972-1982, two years before Ingrowing Thoughts. It is evening and a couple are listening to a Beethoven sonata. The woman asks with her eyes: "'What is life?'"
While the music went on and on with chromatic insistence, passionately proclaiming by the keys' moonlight in the darkening drawing-room how our art is our meaning. (CP 433)
The octave in Western music is divided into twelve equidistant tones. This is the chromatic scale. Classical music from Bach to Brahms is based on the diatonic scale which involves choosing seven out of the twelve tones as a scale. Chromaticism means using the the five omitted tones. They form unstable chords that add variety to the harmony and are used in passages of modulation when the music changes keys. "[C]hromatic / insistence" weakens or dissolves the sense of key. The music is then farther from the key, somewhat removed, perhaps adrift, and harmony more complicated to establish. The "keys' moonlight" presents the music visually by the ivory light reflecting off the piano's white keys in the moonlight. (The image does not, I feel, identify the sonata--which would make the poem cruder.) The music demonstrates "how our art is our meaning."
For the poet, it is art that gives meaning to life, that expresses who we are, causes us to feel that we belong in the world and enables us to feel some kind of contentment or satisfaction. The process is too complex to be fully elucidated. Thomas contents himself with the terse, epigrammatic declaration. The implication, nonetheless, is that the artist discovers and invents meaning and that this needs to be a continuing process, presumably to adapt to our always changing circumstances and persons. This, it needs to be emphasized, is not about the value of art for the artist alone, but also its value for the spectator, the listener and the reader, its value for the audience. The poem is also a statement that some of the most important things cannot be explained or expressed in terms of religion. Thomas's poems about paintings reaffirm his never-failing faith in art.
Bazin, Germain. Impressionist Paintings in the Louvre, trans. S. Cunliffe Owen. London: Thames and Hudson, 1958.
Davis, William V., ed. Miraculous Simplicity: Essays on R.S. Thomas. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1993.
Ives, Charles. Essays Before a Sonata. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970.
Plutarch. Moralia. Loeb Library, v. 4. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005.
Read, Herbert. Art Now, revised ed. 1960. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.
--, ed. Surrealism. London: Faber and Faber, 1936.
Rogers, Byron. The Man Who Went to the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas. London: Aurum, 2006.
--. "R.S. Thomas." The Guardian. 27 Sept. 2000. www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/
Thomas, Ned and John Barnie, "Probings: An Interview with R.S. Thomas," Planet 80 (April / May 1990): 28-52. Rptd. in William V. Davis, ed. Miraculous Simplicity, Essays on R.S. Thomas. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1993.
Thomas, R.S. Autobiographies, trans. Jason Walford Davies. London: J. M. Dent, 1977.
--. Between Here and Now. London: Macmillan, 1981.
--. Destinations. Halford: Celandine Press, 1985.
--. Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: J. M. Dent, 1993.
--. Ingrowing Thoughts. Bridgend, Poetry Wales Press, 1985.
(1) According to Thomas's son, Gwydion, he edited the Collected Poems and his father never looked at it, so it cannot be assumed that the inclusion of a poem had Thomas's approval (Rogers 41). All citations from Rogers are from Rogers's The Man Who Went to the West unless otherwise noted.
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|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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