Introduction to the Website, by Philip Trower


The majority of people who re-member or know about Dunstan Thompson will associate his name with two books of poems published 
in the United States in the 1940s: Poems, (Simon and Schuster 1943) and Lament for the Sleepwalker, (Dodd Mead 1947).  It is on these two books that his reputation as a poet has so far rested.  In a letter of 19th Dec 1949, Edith Sitwell uses the adjectives ‘strange’, ‘magnificent’, and ‘beautiful’ in describing their contents, while the American critic and poet Edward Field writing in the monthly bulletin of the Academy of American poets in 1980 and recalling the impact the poems had made says  “In that period after the war he was for my young self not far behind Hart Crane, Auden, Spender, Dylan Thomas as one of the stars of modern poetry.” 

The striking imagery, technical virtuosity and emotional intensity displayed by the author in dealing with war, death, love and friendship, immediately marked him out as a young writer of exceptional talent and promise.  Poems by him will be found in many periodicals and anthologies of the time, particularly the anthologies of modern verse edited by Oscar Williams.

Recently the University of Missouri’s Pleiades Press described him as a ‘lost American Master’ and have placed him first in their Pleiades “Unsung Master Series”.

But why lost?  The two books of poems were followed by a travel book, a novel and an occasional poem in periodicals like the New York or the Paris Review.  But then, apparently, nothing more.  It was known that soon after World War II he had gone to live in England, so it was assumed, except by close friends, that he had given up writing.

The reality, however, couldn’t have been more different.  From the time he settled in England in 1947 until his death in 1975 he never stopped writing poetry, the only difference now being that he could no longer find any publisher for it, in spite of the efforts by friends in the New York literary and publishing worlds, who continued to recognise his merits.  Why this should have been so is discussed elsewhere.  Here I am concerned solely with the enormous body of verse left unpublished at his death.  This, as his friend and executor, I had privately printed in what I now call the Red Book. 

There was no difficulty about it. The poet had prepared everything himself.  The whole corpus was contained in three typescript folders, each of them a separate book, which at different times had already made the round of the New York publishing houses under the titles The Seven Levels of Troy, The Way of Peace, and The Slave Kings of Delhi.  I only had to go through them to catch any remaining typing or spelling mistakes, and then find a satisfactory designer and printer.  

In this I was extremely fortunate.  A friend, Peter Newbolt, grandson of the Edwardian English poet Henry Newbolt, who had had a wide printing and publishing experience, happened to be living in the same village.  Mainly for financial reasons and to make distribution easier we decided to print all three books as one to which I added eleven pages of “additional poems” that I had found scattered about when going through the poet’s papers.  Newbolt not only designed the book but also found the right printers. 500 copies were printed under the title ‘Dunstan Thompson, Poems, 1950-1974’.  This was in 1984. That the two early books are remarkable from a literary point of view is not in question.  But the poems written subsequently to 1950 were the ones he hoped to be remembered by, while he gave instructions that the two early books were not to be reprinted.

The main purpose of the website, therefore, is, in accordance with the poet’s wishes, to bring the contents of the Red Book to a wider public. 

Both sets of poems, early and later, are the work of the same man, but a man in different circumstances and a different frame of mind.  In the first it is a bit as though we were hearing the voice of a man running around in a forest fire, while in the second it is the voice of the same man after he has reached safety and has had time to reflect on his experience and the surrounding world in relative tranquillity.

Or exaggerating a bit and using another image it is not unlike moving from listening to Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ to Bach’s ‘48 Preludes and Fugues’.

To quote Eliot, having found ‘the still centre of the turning world’, it is from this point that Thompson is now able to celebrate its mysteries, sing of its wonders, lament its tragedies or launch darts and javelins at any follies and misdeeds of the inhabitants that attract his attention.

Or as Professor Kevin Prufer of Houston University puts it: “If in his later poems Dunstan Thompson’s sensibility shifted from fantastic eroticism, anxiety and grief to a more serene, objective and often joyful outlook on life, one might find in these new poems the same sharp intellect, the same probing curiosity, tempered with age and the erudition which comes with it.”  As regards the content there is a new love and response to the beauties of nature, a fascination with historical personalities and situations reminiscent of Browning, and a penetrating interest in other people’s spiritual and psychological trials and tribulations rather than his own. (See the subject index.)

All this makes reading the Red Book like a journey of adventure through a new country, in addition to being, what is more usual on taking up the work of a hitherto unexplored poet, an encounter with a fresh poetic sensibility. 

For an appreciation of the Red Book see ‘Dunstan Thompson – Underground Poet’, by Gregory Wolfe.