HISTORY IS WRITTEN by the victors, so the saying goes. It would be pleasant to believe that the history of literature (or the arts in general) might prove an exception to this rule, that artistic merit will always be recognized in its own time, regardless of fashion or ideology. But we know that’s not true. Artists who consciously or unconsciously spurn the dominant institutions and trends of their culture always struggle to gain recognition.
There are posthumous demotions and rediscoveries, of course, which can bring about a measure of belated justice. But it’s hard not to think from time to time of those who toil—and remain—in obscurity, without the hope of future resurrection.
I’ve been pondering this subject a great deal lately as I edit a volume of the selected poems of Dunstan Thompson.
By nearly all standards of literary achievement, Dunstan Thompson was a failure. His life and work are today known to only a few older poets and scholars, who remember the Anglo-American scene around World War II. After publishing two well-received volumes of poetry, Thompson simply dropped off the map.
In 1984, ten years after Thompson’s death from liver cancer, and nearly forty years after his last published volume, there appeared Dunstan Thompson, Poems 1950–1974, brought out by a small British press. It went almost without notice in mainstream journals and magazines. Edited by Thompson’s longtime companion, Philip Trower, this book demonstrated that, despite his vanishing from public view, Thompson continued to write poetry right up to his death.
What is so astonishing about the posthumous volume is the revelation that, despite his disappearance from the literary scene, Thompson did not lose his edge—or his passion. He continued to explore a variety of poetic forms and to pursue the only subject that he ultimately cared about: the meaning of love.
As I’ve labored on the editing project, I’ve come to think of Dunstan Thompson as a poet of exile. In the end, how much of his experience of exile was self-chosen and how much was imposed from without doesn’t really matter. Thompson knew that the danger of exile was a drift into solipsism, but he decided that in his exile he would strive to live and work sub specie aeternitatis. Late in his life he wrote:
So this Advent waiting
Is almost done.
My poems will peer
Up through the future—
Set out for everyone.
And I shall wonder
Why I worried
Lest they never
Come to bloom.
Dunstan Thompson was born in New London, Connecticut, the son of a naval officer, and grandson of a convert to Roman Catholicism. A sensitive and somewhat frail boy, Thompson was educated at Catholic schools, but by the time he reached Harvard he had rejected religious faith. At Harvard he immediately distinguished himself in literary circles, becoming the editor of the Monthly.
Thompson went on to edit a short-lived but lively literary magazine, Vice Versa, after which he joined the armed forces, ending up in London at the end of World War II. In the nine months immediately following the war Thompson underwent a tremendous amount of emotional stress. The promiscuous gay lifestyle he was leading was proving increasingly hollow. After a six-month trip to the Middle East he decided to live as an expatriate in England. Here, after he and Philip Trower had established a stable relationship, he found himself on a religious journey.
In 1952, at thirty-four, Thompson returned to the practice of the Catholic faith. Trower was also received into the church, and they were granted permission to live celibately with one another, which they did until Thompson’s death.
That, in bare bones outline, is a description of Thompson’s public career. What seems clear from this vantage point in time is that his conversion was two-fold: religious and aesthetic. His earlier style, baroque and hothouse-romantic, gives way to a spare, classicist voice. One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that for some these twin conversions would be interpreted as betrayals—or perhaps simply as a departure into irrelevance.
Though there is almost no self-pity in the later poems, he found the metaphor of exile apt. In “Ovid on the Dacian Coast” the exiled poet transmutes the fragmentary nature of his life into a unified and universal experience.
The marsh birds wheel and shriek
Above him, as he takes
Word after word from their bleak
Coast of love: his heart breaks.
In place of gold, he sets
A banished life between
Driftwood, and out of fish nets
Roofs his loss with sea green.
Thus lives unexiled, though
Abandoned, stranded, scanned
By the Dog Star only, for so
Based, his poems are his own land.
Ovid loses the world, only to gain it back through patient attendance to, and imaginative transformation of, the created order. The poet’s sacrifice and suffering participate in a redemptive mission.
Thompson refuses to romanticize the poet’s role; again and again he returns to the poet’s self-preoccupation and temptation to stand back from harsh realities demanding love and sacrifice. In “At the Bektashi Monastery,” the speaker addresses an effete poet who ignores local suffering in order to pursue refined observations about ancient ruins. The poet, sidestepping his own responsibility, wishes that the wealthy would alleviate the poverty around him. The speaker then asks:
So is your latent love for these
Deformed and desperate people real?
That wizened face, it looks like yours.
This twisted finger wears
Your signet ring. And all the rare
Stigmata of text-book disease
Flower across yourself.
But the poet misses the chance at self-recognition and goes up with the tourists, leaving the beggars below “Where mystic Moslem monks who danced / Now quietly are…. An old calm / Dervish, with a rosary, takes your alms / And stores it in between his prayers.”
That love and poverty might be related can be seen in “Three Views of Assisi,” which is a triumph of simplicity. The three views are Assisi’s three churches. Each poem contrasts the wealth of the churches against the poverty of Saints Francis and Clare. In the final poem the magnificent artwork of Giotto and Cimabue is set against the splendor of the ordinary down in the grotto beneath the church.
…here the fluent stutter.
And here the experts are abashed. The sound
of praying rises like the thunder of
A battle driven desperate underground….
Here poverty, superb, is something more
Than riches gone. You’ve had your way. The poor,
At home here, crowd your palace, then go, crowned
In your likeness, towards that paradise
The birds and fish still preach about, allure
The children to. There cats are kind to mice.
There you speak for us to il gran Signor.
The homeliness of the imagery is reminiscent of George Herbert, but has no need of metaphysical conceits to achieve its effect.
Thompson’s poetry often gains greater force and tautness when there is something personal at stake. For example, “The Halfway House” is a sequence of nineteen poems based on a journey to the Nitrian Desert where the ancient monastery of the Romans, Deir al-Baramus, is located. It is a poem about conversion, using the contrast between the privation and negative way of the desert with the noise and clutter of the world. It also reminds us that the monastic vocation is itself a form of “estrangement,” a self-imposed exile from the world. In section 13 the monks are described:
At night they startle snuffling beasts, who find
Them robed in sheets of stone, dissembling sleep,
Their tired eyes open on the other side
Of things. They suffer silently the deep
Estrangement they have ventured on, the friend
Who for a friend has gone alone ahead,
And prays a lifetime, speechless, in a cave
That he, repenting, may pass by the grave
Business of lying
In the desert, dying
Of want of love.
The range of Dunstan Thompson’s poetic oeuvre is more varied than can be indicated here. Working on the edition of his selected poems has been a wrenching but profoundly rewarding experience. In his expatriate exile, confronting death, having given up any chance for fame or attention, Dunstan Thompson never loses his sense of humor, or his awareness of a larger world outside himself.
One of my favorites is a poem I imagine he wrote near his death. It is called “On a Crucifix,” and though it was printed left-aligned in his posthumous collection, I have a strong suspicion that it is a pattern poem, like George Herbert’s “Easter Wings.” In this poem is distilled Dunstan Thompson’s reflection on another failure—a failure, like his, that conceals a mystery, though it appears as foolishness in the eyes of the world.
Here at last