One day last week I found this wonderful item had been delivered to my house. Is a new book called Too Brave To Dream which contains about three dozen previously unpublished poems by R.S. Thomas, who died in 2000. After his death, two seminal studies of modern art were found on his bookshelves – Herbert Read’s Art Now (1933/1948) and Surrealism (1936), edited by Read and containing essays by key figures in the Surrealist movement. Poems handwritten by Thomas were later discovered between the pages of the two books. These poems written in response to a selection of the many reproductions of modern art in the Read volumes, including works by Henry Moore, Edvard Munch, George Grosz, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Graham Sutherland – many of whom were Thomas’s near contemporaries. Written between 1987 and 1993, these poems are published in Too Brave To Dream for the first time – alongside reproductions of the works of modern art that inspired them. They poems are instantly recognizable as works of R.S. Thomas. According to the publishers blurb:
Thomas’s readings of these often unsettling images demonstrate a willingness to confront, unencumbered by illusions, a world in which old certainties have been undermined. Personal identity has become a source of anguish, and relations between the sexes a source of disquiet and suspicion. Thomas’s vivid engagements with the works of art produce a series of dramatic encounters haunted by the recurring presence of conflict and by the struggle of the artist who, in a frequently menacing world, is ‘too brave to dream’.
The poems vary considerably in style and mood. Some are wry and playful – although Thomas isn’t perhaps best known for his sense of humour, he certainly wasn’t averse to playing with words and you can find puns throughout his work including in these new poems. Others are bleaker in tone, reflecting the disturbing nature the artworks to which they respond.
Incidentally, these poems were all written after Thomas had, after forty years of service, retired from his post as an Anglican priest. He seems to have experienced something of a crisis after his retirement, perhaps because of the lack of daily routine and regular duties require of him by the Church. He wrote to a friend in 1978, just before his retirement
I am retiring at Easter. I shall be 65. I could stay till 70, but I am glad to go from a Church I no longer believe in, sycophantic to the queen, iconoclastic with language, changing for the sake of change and regardless of beauty.
The form of his religious faith was never straightforward to R.S. Thomas but it did continue to dominate his poetry. He may have given up on the Anglican Church but that does not imply he had given up on religion altogether.
The poem that gives this book is title is a response to one of Henry Moore’s Shelter Sketches. During the ‘Blitz’ the London Underground served as a shelter for Londoners – who not only used the platforms as refuges, but also slept there. Moore produced a group of drawings based on his observations of people in the shelters. They’re are revelation if you think of Moore only as a sculptor but in any case they are very powerful images. I can’t reproduce the particular example that inspired the poem in question here for copyright reasons, but it is dated 1941 and is a sombre image of a figure in what appears to be a restless sleep, presumably during an air raid, with one hand rolled into a fist. Here is Thomas’s poem:
on the dark dream
where the sleeper wanders
far from the crackling
meadows and the sharp flowers
with their smell
of combustion. Alas
that waking to safety
should be waking also
to survivors poking
among the remains of others
who were too brave to dream.
I’ve enjoyed dipping into this book enormously not only for the “new”poems by one of my favourite poets but also because of the interesting cross-section of influential works of art that it includes, including a number of artists who were completely new to me. If you’re interested in poetry or art you’ll find this book fascinating!
P.S. The cover image is Gorse on a Sea Wall, by Graham Sutherland.