Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

R. S. Thomas's Poems about Paintings

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

R. S. Thomas's Poems about Paintings

Article excerpt

HORACE declares in his Ars poetica." "Ut pictura poesis," "As painting, so poetry." This is certainly not the case and R. S. Thomas's poems about paintings demonstrate it as well as any--showing the limits of his interest in painting and in the natural world. Thomas is not a very visual poet. The natural world in itself does not interest him. He is concerned with human behavior. Looking at paintings, he thinks about the human situation they present, and in his picture poems he imagines the states of mind of the people portrayed and writes an inner monologue for or about them. He is closer to Simonides of Keos's reformulation of Horace: "Poema pictura loquens, pictura poeum silens," "Poetry is a speaking picture, painting, a silent poem" (Plutarch, De gloria Atheniensium 3.347a). Thomas is not a dispassionate observer. He is interested in morals, not in landscape.

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. …

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