A Brave Voice Stilled: R. S.Thomas’ life and poetry explored in new exhibition.
Only a few people know that the poet R. S.Thomas was a passable ballroom dancer but there are many aspects of the life of this complex and supremely creative man that are sometimes overshadowed by the poetry and the public persona.
A new exhibition at Bangor University sheds light on many such aspects of his life, such as the R. S. the staunch pacifist, who railed against the slaughter of the Second World. Then there is the young and sporty R. S. who played tennis, cricket and rugby and, in the case of the last of these, believed that ‘wingers had cold feet.’
Every item on display has been hand-picked by the Co-directors of the R.S. Thomas Research Centre, Professor Emeritus Tony Brown and Professor Jason Walford Davies and it’s an absorbing, revealing array of artefacts and poems, memorabilia and photographs. Luckily for those not able to visit the physical exhibition there’s a judicious selection of items also made available online.
Items such as the searingly honest ‘Vicar’s Letter’ he submitted to the parish newsletter in Eglwys-fach near Machynlleth in 1967, which has more than a touch of the confessional about it:
“There are many occasions, all too frequent, when I know how far short I fall of what is required of a minister. There are moods of discouragement, disappointment, embarrassment, even shame.
“I try to pray for each one of you, insofar as I know your needs and temptations and weaknesses. You must pray for me, too, because we are all members of Christ’s Church….Please remember that I am always ready to help you in any way that I can”.
While his public support for CND is well known, the exhibition also illustrates R S Thomas’s energies as a campaigner for more local bodies as Cyfeillion Llŷn/ The Friends of Llŷn.
Thomas became secretary of this pressure group that campaigned on behalf of the Welsh language and the cultural wellbeing of the peninsula, keeping minutes and keeping up momentum. They discovered that two early medieval inscribed stones, Meini Penprys, were held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford – not on display but stored in a basement.
Thomas duly write to the Deputy Keeper on behalf of the Cyfeillion (‘We conduct our business and campaigns in Welsh. I wrote in English for your convenience only’), urging their return. The campaign was a success, and the stones are now displayed either side of the main entrance to Oriel Plas Glyn-y-Weddw, Llanbedrog, near Pwllheli.
One of the artefacts on show, along with its attendant caption, tells us about somewhat unlikely non-de-plumes the young poet adopted when submitting work for consideration:
‘RST’s earliest printed poems appeared in Omnibus, the student magazine, while he was studying at what was then the University College of North Wales, Bangor. His poems, and one piece of creative prose, appeared under the nom-de-plume ‘Curtis Langdon’.
RST said in an interview in 1990 that in retrospect he was ‘astonished’ at the pen name he adopted and felt it was derived from the names of the sort of authors his mother read as he grew up (‘Warwick Deeping’, for example). When a new editor took over and RST heard him say that ‘there would be no more poems by that bloody Curtis Langdon’, RST submitted a poem, copied out by a friend and under a new pseudonym, ‘Figaro’. It was accepted.’
Very few drafts of R. S. Thomas’ poems exist, as he destroyed them as he revised and worked on them (although his wife Elsi did manage to fish some out of the bin and duly ironed out the creases) so seeing some of the variant versions offers us a rare insight into the workings of the poet’s mind.
Over time we see his style take shape and solidify, as he shrugs off the influence of the Romantic poets. Early lines of his, such as ‘Tho I had wandered through the fields of sleep’ find him channelling his inner Wordsworth and are only missing the daffodils. He even has ‘Keats dreams’ and early on admits to the influence of Dylan Thomas on his work, a flowery quality he later loses as if snipping it off at the stem.
The exhibition also gives us a glimpse of R S Thomas’ dry wit, which always delighted his friends.
When Thomas received the Queen’s Medal for Poetry in 1964 he wrote a letter to Elsi – who was away at the time – by way of sharing the news, suggesting a way in which their son might one day benefit from the award:
‘The Queen does so enjoy my poetry that she is going to give me a medal. Perhaps Gwydion will be able to realise a few shillings on it one day if he is hard up’.
The mordant humour is just another aspect of R. S. Thomas which this multi-layered and illuminating show presents with both clarity and insight.
The physical exhibition ‘R. S. Thomas: His Life and writing’ is open at the Council Chamber Corridor, Bangor University, from the 6th of June 2022 until the 16th of December 2022. The online version is below…
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