When R.S. Thomas died in 2000, two seminal studies of modern art were found on his bookshelves – Herbert Read’s Art Now (1933/1948) andSurrealism (1936), edited by Read and containing essays by key figures in the Surrealist movement. Some three dozen previously unknown poems handwritten by Thomas were then discovered between the pages of the two books, 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 Dali, René Magritte and Graham Sutherland – many of whom were Thomas’s near contemporaries. These poems are published here for the first time – alongside the works of modern art that inspired them.
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’. At times we are offered an unflinching vision of ‘a landscape God / looked at once and from which / later he withdrew his gaze’.