Bangor exhibition on Welsh poet RS Thomas hailed by Queen draws international interest

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RS Thomas with Tony Brown and Professor Jason Walford Davies

Dale Spridgeon, local democracy journalist

An exhibition in Bangor that sheds light on the life and work of a prolific Welsh poet praised by the Queen is sparking literary interest around the world.

“RS Thomas His Life and Writing” pays homage to the enigmatic former Anglican priest who would go on to become one of the Welsh leaders of modern poetry.

The Bangor University exhibit includes items ranging from his glasses to his typewriter, his red tie and suspenders, drafts of poems, personal notes – including one on his Queen’s Gold Medal.

Other memorabilia include letters to his peers, rare manuscripts, photographs, illustrations, some from the poet himself, others from his first wife, the talented English artist nicknamed ‘Elsi’ (Mildred E Eldridge).

The papers were handpicked by RS Thomas Research Center co-directors, Professor Emeritus Tony Brown and Professor Jason Walford Davies.

For those unable to visit the bilingual exhibition, an interactive abridged version in English and Welsh is also available online.

So far the online version has had around 2,000 hits, with many people accessing the Welsh and English sites from around the world.

Sense of humor

The personal items on display also help to shed light on little-known aspects of the famous poet’s personality.

According to Professor Brown, who met him on several occasions, RS Thomas had a reputation for being a stern clergyman – “but those around him knew him to have a highly developed sense of humour”, said he declares.

This was clearly demonstrated when he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1964.

The exhibit features a scribbled and erased note from RS to his wife Elsi which quips:

“The queen likes my poetry so much that she is going to give me a medal. Possibly Gwydion [his son] can make a few shillings on it one day if he gets into trouble.

Among his many other accomplishments, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996.

Born in Cardiff in 1913, the son of a merchant seaman and brought up in Anglesey, the family moved to Holyhead in 1918.

RS would later study classics at Bangor University before training to become a priest.

He became a clergyman in parishes in North Wales, including Chirk, where he met his first wife, and in Eglwysfach, Tallarn Green Manafon and Aberdaron.

He died in 2000, aged 87, his final resting place was at Pentrefelin, near Criccieth. He is survived by his second Canadian wife Elisabeth Vernon.

Important collection

Twenty-two years after his death, interest in RS Thomas is still going strong.

“There are now translated editions of his work in every field, from Chinese to Slovak to Polish to German, and there have been a multitude of critical studies, articles, scholarly journals published on both sides of the Atlantic.” said Professor Brown.

The Bangor exhibit not only bears witness to the development of one of the world’s most revered poets, but also represents years of painstaking work and dedication by the research center to acquire and preserve RST and Elsi material.

The center recently purchased what is believed to be the largest collection of manuscripts still in private hands.

Its cost of £40,000 was funded by grants from the Victoria and Albert Purchase Grant Fund, the Friends of the National Libraries as well as support from the University Development Fund and the Department of Welsh and Celtic Studies.

RS Thomas and Elsi Midred E Eldridge Photo courtesy of RS Thomas Center Bangor University

Western coast

Among other items that came to the center, a collection of notebooks kept by RS from his time as a priest in Manafon in the 1940s were recently donated by a private owner.

The first book reveals it was used as a diary – the page is open to an entry for 1944.

The staunch pacifist poet notes on June 6 – the day of the D-Day landings in France:

“Today British and American forces again landed in France and a great massacre began.”

RST was also an ardent member of the Welsh CND – his anti-nuclear badge with the daffodil emblem is on display with his “infamous red tie”.

Another fascinating exhibit features a handwritten draft of his poem “West Coast.”

“Remarkably, seven working drafts of this poem, which was first published in Destinations, 1985, have survived. said Professor Brown.

“We were told, by RS’s son, the late Gwydion Thomas, that his mother Elsi sometimes ventured into his father’s office and rescued abandoned poems and manuscripts from the trash.

“She would then flatten the crumpled papers with her iron!”

The “West Coast” drafts are the many manuscripts purchased by the center from the collection of the late Peter Joliffe.

“They look like they got the Elsi treatment!” said Professor Brown.

Portraits of RS Thomas in the center, images by Dale Spridgeon

rare material

The center is always on the lookout for materials and the center often bids on items that are sometimes auctioned off.

Lost and rare items are still occasionally found in attics, sheds and closets, with some of the items donated by members of the public.

A clipping of a previously unknown poem was found in the back of a second-hand book by RS Thomas found for sale at a market stall in North Wales.

Another, a black and white photograph, had been overlooked for years.

It showed RS Thomas sitting in front of a bus on the day of a church outing, when he was vicar at St Mary’s Church, Chirk, in the late 1930s.

“His owner had wondered, do you think it could be him?” said Professor Brown.

“I looked at him, there was no doubt – it was him!”

“It is entirely possible that there is still evidence of him in North Wales,” Prof Brown said.

“We are always interested at the center to hear from people who think they may have something.

Professor Emeritus Tony Brown examines the collection of books belonging to RS Thomas, Dale Spridgeon

Precious objects

The RS Thomas Research Center is used by students, researchers and scholars who come to Bangor from all over the world to study the poet.

Located in a former finance office, it houses precious objects including the books removed from his home in Pentrefelin which are safely stored on shelves in a former vault.

Other items include the poet’s chair, eggs he collected he was an avid birdwatcher, and a hat believed to have belonged to Elsi.

Later in his life, RS Thomas was known as parish priest of Aberdaron.

He would become secretary of Cyfeillion Llŷn – The Friends of Llŷn, a pressure group which campaigned on behalf of the Welsh language and the cultural well-being of the peninsula.

The group discovered that two early medieval stone carvings, Meini Penprys, were kept in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford – not on display but stored in a basement.

The exhibit features the letter that RS wrote to the museum’s deputy custodian on behalf of the Cyfeillion saying:

“We run our business and our campaigns in Welsh.

“I write in English only for your convenience.” He called for a response.

Fortunately the campaign was successful and the stones are now on display either side of the main entrance to Oriel Plas Glyn-y-Weddw, Llanbedrog, near Pwllheli.

‘RS Thomas: His Life and Writing’ is open to visitors free of charge which can be viewed in the hallway of Bangor University Council Chambers until December 16, 2022.

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