A friend of mine recently told me that whilst he was studying at Bangor University in the 1980s, R. S. Thomas visited to give a reading. During the interval, my friend asked the poet whether he had ever 'been in love' (he is a bit embarrassed about this now but he was basically stuck for something to say). Thomas, empty-eyed and dead-toned, responded, 'I suppose I must have been. I married my wife.'
This doleful utterance feeds perfectly into the caricatured marriage of Elsi Eldridge and R. S. Thomas, a coupling that is popularly characterised as cold, resentful and loveless. Damian Walford-Davies's newly edited collection R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi seeks to challenge the famed sterility of the Thomas's marriage and to foreground the importance of Elsi as a muse of sorts to her iconic husband. Walford-Davies brings together 'the full range of Thomas's poems to his wife', eschewing a chronological portrait, choosing instead to present the poems in a way that reflects the undulations of a marriage. Not only does this reconstruct the traditional view of the Thomas's partnership, but it also helps to exonerate R. S. Thomas to some measure: 'those critics who see in a mother-damaged Thomas a baleful misogyny that extends to his representations (and elisions) of his wife too often fail to recognise the ways in which the poems work to expose and redress the insecurities and gaps on which male power, and its vocabularies, are based.'
The perhaps unconventional marriage of fifty-one years is poetically charted through tender Romantic (with a big R) beginnings, 'Her gentle voice was music on the wind' and encompasses an eroticism that one does not immediately associate with Thomas's oeuvre, 'that time we lay/ all night, side by side/ the moon virginal,/ his sword naked between'. Equally, the somewhat functionality of their relationship, indicated by Walford-Davies in his introduction (he quotes Elsi's assertion that a happy marriage is based on keeping 'your hearts together and your tents separate'), is redrawn as a positive dynamic. The Thomas's conservative intimacy can be seen as cosy, for example, rather than frustrated: 'in front of the fire/ With you, the folk song/ Of the wind in the chimney and the sparks'/ Embroidery of the soot - eternity/ Is here in this small room.'
Of course the collection does take in the inevitable low points of the marriage, and Thomas's questioning of his choice of partner, his 'fretting of stars', is as tangible as the distance his wife could characteristically demand. In 'All Right', Thomas writes, 'I look. You look/ Away', and that 'no statue/ Could show less/ The impression of/ My regard.' Indeed, Elsi's aloofness is shown to be a key element of the legend that her husband creates of her, 'There was a room/ apart she kept herself in,/ teasing me by leading me/ to its glass door, only/ to confront me with/ my reflection.' This is the tragic side of the Thomas' marriage and the side most commonly recognised by those familiar with the poet's biography. But by providing a complex interior view of the relationship, Walford-Davies invites the reader to further scrutinise the importance of Eldridge, both personally and poetically, to her husband. Poems to Elsi celebrates and centres Mrs Thomas, rightfully so, as a profoundly important source of inspiration. This is a timely book that augments the popular perception of R. S. Thomas (as a man of ecclesiastic restraint and politics) with a portrait of a man whose romantic (little r) love was very real, and complicated.
Jem King @ www.gwales.com