The Old Devil



R.S. Thomas: Letters to Raymond Garlick 1951-1999, ed. J. W. Davies

(206 pp, 16.99, Gomer)



You would expect letters from authors or poets to shed light on their working methods, their personalities or their individual quirks - that would be the rationale for publishing them, surely? The instructive example of Philip Larkin, for instance, satisfies all three of these criteria and also triggered a major re-evaluation of Larkin's work when it appeared. Admirers of R.S.Thomas and his craggy, questioning poetry, therefore, may feel somewhat short-changed by this book, despite the beautiful production values.


These letters form one side of a sequence between Thomas and  Raymond Garlick covering nearly all his writing career. Unfortunately, they are written with the same brevity that distinguishes some of his poetry: many are only a brief paragraph and few of the 152 printed are longer than half a page. Many convey some fairly banal greetings, and the sense of a sequence is destroyed by the long gaps between letters - typically six months, sometimes a year. The fact that this is only one side of a correspondence - Garlick's letters have not survived - also works against them, preventing any sense of discussion from gaining momentum.


What the reader gets is a sense of dissatisfaction from Thomas at his efforts and a long sequence of complaints about being unable to write much. Actually a glance at his oeuvre reveals that Thomas was fairly prolific but reading these letters, even for an admirer of his poetry, is rather a chore. The occasional admiring comment on Geoffrey Hill or Ted Hughes might surface, but it is typically only a brief phrase in a sentence.  In addition to that, the letters about the struggle to establish and maintain Welsh Nationalist politics, which Thomas was notoriously involved in, are all pretty bleak and hectoring in tone.


I have no doubt that this collection is published with the best of intentions, and I would enthusiastically direct readers still to Thomas's poetry, but this collection is like a long moan from an aged, cantankerous uncle possessed of faintly eccentric views. It will not, unfortunately, enlighten readers much.


     M.C. Caseley 2009