Friday, October 14, 2011

Delighting in Dunstan

Back in 2007 R came home from a day out with a present for me. It was a book of what appeared to be war poems from WW2 with a distinctly homoerotic bent. At the time I was so taken with the poems that I put three of them on the blog: "This Tall Horseman, My Young Man of Mars", "The Lay of the Battle of Tombland", and "Field Music II" All of the poems were so vital and vigorous and had a tense, sometimes violent and often sexy energy to them. There was, at the time, precious little else to go on and almost nothing to be found about this poet. A little while later I came across a second volume of poems, with some crossover of contents with the first. And then finally, some long time later I came across an online article "What Became of Dunstan Thompson" by Edward Field. At last, a little more information and I can happily recommend the article to anyone who enjoys this blog, as something I think you'll find worth reading in its entirety, however, we should probably say something here about this mysterious man.

He was a man of contradictions when his life is viewed across time. It appeared to the reading public that after the 1940s with his couple of 'slim volumes' and a couple of travel books, that he disappeared. In truth, there was nothing very mysterious about it. He didn't stop writing poetry, he simply found it almost impossible to get another collection published. There was a personal turning point. During the war as a GI stationed in the UK doing office work, he met Philip Trower and they became lovers but at some point further down the line both men had a conversion to Catholicism (or 'transformation' as Trower calls it in Thompson's case since he had been brought up in a fiercely Catholic home). From that point on the two men lived as platonic friends, together, in the Norfolk village of Cley-on-the-Sea, until Thompson's death in 1975. Trower was Thompson's literary executor and in the last few years, as Thompson has become more and more noticed again, he has been approached on numerous occasions (when he could be found in his remote Norfolk home) about reprinting those early volumes of poetry but he always maintained that Thompson himself had instructed him, shortly before his death, never to allow the reprinting of those early books. Modern sensibilities being what they are, it is difficult to grasp what has happened here. We are used to the notion of the 'ex-gay' and all its attendant problems and politics but this is not that, so much as the more old-fashioned notion of a commitment to celibacy.

Clearly this blooming of devout Catholic life is something of a contradiction and critics have found it problematic. With it, in his writing, came a broadening of subject matter, a move away from the overtly homoerotic tone of some of his earlier work and a somewhat more mature style. It may be a combination of these things, along with changing fashions in poetry which stopped him having another collection published in his lifetime. However, there is a slow resurgence in interest and I was amazed and delighted to find the book at the top of the post which was published last year by the Pleiades Press in their 'Unsung Masters Series'. It consists of essays on Thompson's life and work, interviews with and reminiscences by those who knew him, including Trower and a portfolio of poems which includes a few selected from the two early volumes. I am almost finished with the book now and it reveals an extremely complex and interesting character who genuinely is an 'unsung master' in anyone's book. He should have been up there with Auden and Spender as one of the best poets of his generation but somehow managed to fall through the cracks of history. The two eminent quotes at the beginning of Field's essay (which is reprinted in the Pleiades book) sum-up for me the difficulty and the enjoyment of getting to grips with Thompson: "The gayest poet of WW2" and "The best catholic poet of the latter half of the 20th century"

The new book also includes, in its small selection of his poems, a representative sample from the later work. Philip Trower published a collection after Thompson's death and, as a beautiful example, I've chosen this one. It is not the substantial nor the most representative but as the UK has been in the grip of a wonderful Indian Summer it feels particularly evocative.


The thistles, rooted out, throng in again;
The single regal rose is mobbed by weeds;
The plums, the pears, the ripening apples, rain
In the sun; and past summer plants new seeds.

The chaffinch looks around the world, and takes
His time with August: even wasps relax -
Late afternoon, their metric buzzing breaks
Off, as though they were bees and the light wax.

Here, or there, these common yearly things
Repeat, repeat, and gardens do not range:
Yet thistles, roses, fruit trees, birds, and stings
Come to an end, and the church bells sound a change.

These many soft declensions of the day,
So hard to take to heart, bear life away.

So, read the Edward Field article, read the poems, if at all possible, buy the Pleiades Press book and make a discovery.


This bibliography makes no claims but I think covers most of the obvious bases.

The Song of Time. An English Poem Adapted from the French of Marguerite de Navarre. Cosmos Press: Cambridge (MA), 1941. Printed in an edition of 50 copies with the original French poem facing Thompson's Translation.

Poems. Simon & Schuster: New York, 1943.

The Third Murderer. Poems Privately printed: London, 1944. A 7pp booklet printed in an edition of 60 copies.

Poems. Secker & Warburg: London, 1946. With a slighty different selection of poems.

Lament for the Sleepwalker. Dodd Mead & Co.: New York, 1947. A second collection of poetry.

The Phoenix in the Desert. A Book of Travels. John Lehmann: London, [1951]. A book of travel writing about the Middle East with the journey itself commissioned and paid for by the publisher.

The Dove With the Bough of Olive. Simon & Schuster: New York, 1954. Another volume of travel writing. UK first edition by Cassell: London, 1955.

Poems 1950-1974. Paradigm Press: Bungay, 1984. The posthumously published collected and edited by Trower, mostly unpublished material. Sometimes referred to as The Red Book.

I'd be delighted to hear from anyone who knows of other material which could be added to this bibliography and I will try to update it from time to time. Thompson edited and contributed to a number of poetry magazines both before and after the war and so at some point I may add a 'non-book' section to this list.

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