As the Eglwys Fach R.S. Thomas Literary Festival approaches, we look at the poet’s relationship with his first wife, the artist Mildred ‘Elsi’ Elridge.
R.S. Thomas has long been considered one of the greats of Welsh poetry with his bleak but masterful verse. His relationship with his first wife, Elsi, has been one of his most profound subjects – but it has also been one of the least understood, and commented upon, by readers of his poetry.
Elsi was a brilliant and accomplished artist, who moved from the illustrious worlds of the Wimbledon and Royal Colleges of art to the Welsh borders of Oswestry where she met Thomas, a young curate at the time. The couple soon married in 1940. Their partnership briefly mixed with artistic collaboration when she illustrated the dust jacket of his first poetry collection, ‘Stones of the Field.’ Apart from this, however, her once prolific outpouring of artwork steadily declined, as did appreciation of her works once her husband rose to fame. Glyndwr University has done much to bring that work back into recognition, having held a large range of Elsie’s art since 2010. Their championing of her art was the catalyst for an exhibit at Abbot and Holder in London this April, before the pieces, including the ‘Dance of Life’ – a six-panelled mural widely considered to be her magnum opus – returned to their permanent home at the university’s Creative Industries Building for a new exhibition in October.
Undoubtedly, Thomas’ rising profile and the decreasing recognition of Elsi’s art punctuated their relationship with tension. In ‘The Way of It’, Thomas commended his wife’s talents, the ease with which her fingers transformed ‘paint into flowers’ while simultaneously suggesting the underlying strain within their relationship. ‘She is busy after for hours,’ he wrote, ‘rubbing smiles into wounds.’
Once found, Elsi’s art has a remarkable, even poetic range with enigmatic self-portraits and haunting landscapes alongside intricate studies of birds and wildlife. She used many mediums, from sculpture to oils, watercolours and sketches. All her talent was deeply moving to her husband, the man their only son, Gwydion, claimed was “visually illiterate” before meeting his wife. Her detailed studies of birds are especially poignant to their relationship, and as such, references to birds and the feather-like fragility of life frequently occur in Thomas’ poems. According to ‘A Marriage’, written after Elsi’s death, they ‘met under a shower of bird notes,’ and she ‘had done everything (in life) with a bird’s grace.’ His proposal was even followed by a joint effort to rescue a buzzard they discovered stuck in a gin trap in the moor.
The absences in their relationship have often been marked upon, even turned to sensational commentary. Thomas’ own comments, easily taken cold to the point of cruelty, such as: ‘I was alone when I was living with her’ suggest a love long worn into ambivalence by the quiet invasion of daily routine and drudgery. As Thomas’ poetry addresses, the restraint of their relationship was not all weakness. ‘Anniversary’ suggests the strength of endurance, of living side-by-side, ‘using the same air’ in spite of the distance between them.
His observations of early tenderness, his observation of an artistic equality they yearned for but never reached, the absolute precision of his descriptions of the artistic housewife who would not have her dormant creative spirit beaten; all these reveal something ‘graceful’, even loving, behind their silences. The language of looks and communication through touch are often present in Thomas’ poetry, even when words are absent. In ‘Pension’ they parry ‘sharp looks’, in ‘He and She’, ‘noiselessly they conversed’, and in ‘Remembering’, Thomas urges the reader to ‘take her hand in your hand’ to prove that ‘if, blind, it is not dumb’. All this builds a portrait of a marriage that though often tense, forged a profound connection and understanding through time.
Each deeply influenced the other. Their worn love, her power in her final absence, death – these are harsh beauties Thomas offers, and that enrich Elsi’s work.
Thomas wrote: ‘I never thought in this poor world to find/ Another who had loved the things I love’. Now, that love is shared and amplified by our opportunity to see her first great love, her art, and to revel in the complex facets of their relationship that his poetry reveals.
Don’t miss the R.S. Thomas Literary Festival at St Michael’s Church, Eglwys Fach, Ceredigion, which takes place on Friday 15 – Sunday 17 September. Festival leaflet and further information available here.
Cold hands meeting,
the eyes aside –
so vows are contracted
in the tongue’s absence.
over fifty long years
of held breath
the heart has become warm.
‘The Golden Wedding’ is taken from R.S Thomas: Poems to Elsi. Available on the Seren website: £9.99
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