Dunstan Thompson: Underground Poet
There is an old adage to the effect that “history is written by the victors.” One might also add that history is written about the victors, for ours is not the first century to put a high premium on success. When shrill ideologues in the academy excoriate their conservative colleagues for “ethnocentrism” - that prejudice for “white male capitalist culture” over the contributions of women and minorities and other less prominent social groups - they are in essence exaggerating and distorting the partial truth that history is often written for, and about, the high-achievers.
Literary history is no exception to this phenomenon. However much the artistic world pretends to oppose the achievement-oriented world of getting and spending, it too prizes success. Writers who consciously spurn the institutions and trends of their literary culture find it difficult to gain recognition. Of course the great, epoch-making figures such as the Modernists are likely to create their own audience. But what of the many lesser lights, outstanding writers who nonetheless resolutely swim against the cultural tide? I think of the English Poet Geoffrey Hill – still far from being well known - whose oeuvre, spanning over thirty years, is now beginning to eclipse the immensely popular poets of the Movement Generation. In the case of Hill, the linguistic complexity of his poetry, with its sense of history and evil, and the human desire for transcendence, when compared to the more ephemeral work of his peers, is finally commanding the attention of critics and readers.
What of the true “failures”, those whose work does not become part of official history? There are innumerable scribblers, of course, who rightfully recede into oblivion. But for others there is only the hope of a “discovery”.
Thanks to the efforts of Philip Trower, the remarkable accomplishments of Dunstan Thompson, a lyric poet of great versatility and depth, can now be discovered. In my opinion, Thompson is easily one of the finest twentieth-century poets of a Christian – and specifically Catholic – sensibility. The value of Thompson’s work is not in its formal breakthroughs but in the fusion of the formal discipline of poetry and the discipline of a Christian outlook on self and world. Though he could not have intended it, the posthumous volume of his mature poetry also has a dramatic quality, for it tells of a poet who has chosen obscurity but who struggles (ultimately triumphs) over the temptations to withdraw into moral and intellectual complacency. Unlike most volumes of poetry today, Thompson’s Poems 1950 – 1974 is not mired in word games or swept with gusts of artificial emotion; it is a moving record of a poet’s attempt to align vision and will – out of that tension the poetry emerges.
By nearly all the standards of literary achievement (and of the even more despotic standards of modern “lifestyle”), 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 literary scene around World War II. After publishing two well-received volumes of poetry, Thompson simply disappeared from the literary scene. This is how the American poet and novelist Edward Field recounts his encounter with Thompson:
I met Dunstan Thompson (born in 1918) once, in 1946 just after we both, still in our uniforms, had returned from overseas where he worked for OWI in London. He had already published his brilliant first book, Poems (Simon & Schuster, 1943), and was about to publish his second, equally brilliant, Lament for the Sleepwalker (Dodd Mead, 1947). But then he disappeared, and I heard he was living abroad. There were occasional poems to be seen in the magazines, the last one in the New Yorker in 1965. One of his friends, Harry Brown, who met him at Harvard and with whom he edited the lively little magazine Vice Versa (1940 – 1942), has (now) just filled in the major gaps for me… He died in 1975. 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.
Field made those remarks in 1980. In 1984, ten years after Thompson’s death, and nearly forty years after his last published volume of poetry, there appeared Dunstan Thompson, Poems 1950 - 1974. This book revealed that, despite his “disappearance”, Thompson continued to write poetry right up to his death. The astonishing thing is that Thompson did not allow his technical skills to deteriorate; he continued to explore and effectively use a variety of forms. His earlier “baroque” style, found in the published collections of the 1940s, gives way to a more spare, mature voice.
Poems 1950-1974 discloses Dunstan Thompson as an Underground Poet. By underground, I do not mean in the Dostoevskian sense of “Notes from the Underground”, in which a nihilistic individual hides from the light of day. Nor do I want to indicate anything radical, in the sense of 1960s rebellion. Rather, Thompson descended into a private world where he sought to purify his vision in order to understand the mystery of creation, free from the worldly temptations which he felt had led him to write for his own glory. Thompson knew the temptations of solipsism, but in the end his life in the underground was directed toward the cultivation of poetic seeds nourished by a vision of existence 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. [Foresight]
Advent, like the season of Lent, is a time of purification and anticipation, a preparation for the joy of the Incarnation revealed at Christmas. The best of Thompson’s poetry manifests this eschatological longing, but far from being other-worldly, Thompson finds God’s grace within the created order, among the most commonplace things.
Dunstan Thompson was born in New London, Connecticut, the son of a naval officer, and grandson of a convert to Roman Catholicism. His mother, a devout and somewhat domineering figure, came from a family that was related to Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, the first American cardinal. 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.
Then came the period described by Edward Field: editing Vice Versa, World War II, and the two outstanding volumes of poetry. It appears that in the years after the war Thompson was undergoing a good deal of emotional stress. He decided to live as an expatriate in England and also traveled in the Middle East. The travels are chronicled in The Phoenix in the Desert (1951). In 1952, at the age of 34, Thompson returned to his childhood faith. His only novel, The Dove with the Bough of Olive (1954), reflects both his reconversion to Catholicism and his ambivalence about his attempt to be a part of the literary scene in Britain. The novel is not very effective: Thompson tries to blend a Brideshead Revisited plot (Catholic aristocratic family, strong mother figure, wastrel son who returns to the Faith) with a Noel Coward domestic comedy centered in Mayfair. He evidently came to the realization that fiction was not his literary gift, for this novel was his last published book.
That, in bare bones outline, is a description of Thompson’s public career. His retreat into seclusion occurred at the time of his return to Catholicism. Though such experiences are inevitably wrapped in mystery, I think two major reasons for Thompson’s “disappearance” can be adduced: one literary, the other spiritual/moral.
It is important to remember that despite the cultural ascendancy of the Modernists (Eliot, Pound, Joyce) from the 1920s, many twentieth century poets drew their aesthetic nourishment not from the radical innovations of the “Men of 1914”, but from older traditions. Thompson’s poetic mentor at Harvard, Robert Hillyer, was such a poet. The “Genteel Tradition” in letters, represented most brilliantly by George Santayana, still had currency at Harvard in the 1930s. In A History of Modern Poetry (Cambridge, MA, 1976) David Perkins writes that in Hillyer “the ‘genteel’ idea of poetry as reflection, consolidation, and beauty combined with something a little harder, shrewder, more contemporary, and closer to actual speech.” Perkins also notes Hillyer’s technical skill and variety. All of this applies equally well to Hillyer’s best student, Dunstan Thompson.
Thompson’s other poetic mentor also had Harvard connections. Conrad Aiken, who had been at Harvard with T. S. Eliot, faced the same struggle with the dominance of the Modernists. Perkins concludes that Aiken’s style was formed by the “poetic ferment of the 1910s” and that it developed “organically and independently” from that initial formation. Thompson probably owed less to Aiken’s idiosyncratic style than his example as a dedicated craftsman who traveled easily in Anglo-American literary circles. Hillyer, Aiken, Thompson, and many other twentieth-century poets, felt that the Modernists had hijacked the language, corrupted poetic form, and beguiled the reading public. The Auden Generation, too, with its political and sexual preoccupations, would have appeared frivolous and adolescent. In “Images and Reflections: For T. S. Eliot on Winning the Nobel Prize”, Thompson gently parodies Eliot’s style: “A dillar a dollar/A transatlantic scholar... The rusted busted triumph car/Subsides with Dives in it/Gross tyrant of the age of tin...” [Images and Reflections].
Thompson increasingly found it difficult to get his poems published and that, combined with his spiritual alienation from the literary scene, led to his withdrawal into seclusion. Thompson’s personality can perhaps best be understood in Augustinian terms. A strong, devout mother played a role in his reconversion, following a period of unbelief and immersion in the goods of this world. In Thompson’s case, his predominant sin was not lust but vanity, an inordinate desire for fame and attention - at least, this was how he came to see it.
Only an Augustinian who has thrown himself into the world with a vengeance can reject the world so thoroughly. But, like Augustine, Thompson continued to use his talents in the service of spiritual things after abandoning the secular order. It would have been terribly easy for Thompson to give up poetry, or to have dropped his standards without the discipline of publishing. But the fact is that Thompson never ceased to write poetry, and that he continued to develop his art up to his death. There is almost no self-pity in his later poems, though he obviously identified with the exiled poet Ovid. In the single most beautiful poem Thompson ever wrote, “Ovid on the Dacian Coast”, he sees the poet transmuting the fragmentary nature of his exile 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.
As with many of his finest poems, Thompson uses classical culture as an opaque window onto Christian truth. Ovid loses the world, only to gain it back through patient attendance to, and loving use of, the created world. The poet’s sacrifice and suffering participate in a redemptive mission – ultimately that of Christ. Of course, the poem stands perfectly well on its own without this Christian dimension – which is to say that the images possess an anagogical depth and sufficiency indicative of true art.
Thompson hardly romanticizes 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, opennesss, sacrifice. In “At the Bektashi Monastery”, the speaker addresses an effete poet who ignores the sufferings of the local populace 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. (71)
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.” The scorn of the speaker in the poem is kept under control, revealing the way in which the poet damns himself.
There is more than a hint of self-recrimination in “At the Bektashi Monastery”, and in a similar poem, entitled “Valley of the Kings”. Here the speaker also addresses a tourist whose soul is wrapped in illusion. But, on descending into the pyramid of Tutankhamun, his “imagination wakes”. Imagination here has a double meaning; first, the individual in the poem finds childhood fears of death aroused by the claustrophobic tomb; but the pyramid, with its myriad pictures and hieroglyphs, is a work of art which bespeaks a people assured that love is stronger than death. For the tourist, however, “Death is a subject for a later date”. The paintings are of eternal shepherds, priests, and kings, who seem to possess a secret.
For if they breathed on you,
Would you not fall into a trance of trust? And
Not air, if stirred, imbue
A faith compelling hope, compelling love? They
Reveal a world,
All out of sight, though shining, the true
Atlantis. But not so, not so is a childhood
Like that achieved. (86)
The wall paintings in the pyramids are works of art, and can only point us toward salvation and the New Atlantis - or New Jerusalem, where Christ breathes out the Holy Spirit on all his followers. But if art is not religion - and Thompson never for a moment would countenance that equation - it still has the high task of awaking our imaginations to divine reality.
Two of Thompson’s recurring themes (they are the themes of all great poetry) are evanescence and the vanity of human wishes. Thompson often reveals that self-deluding vanity through monologues, spoken by dying emperors or poets - both of whom think they can rule, and thus, possess, the world. The danger with some of these poems, and his other more direct attacks on the materialism of our age, is that the speaker of the poem stands aloof and above the hedonists he chides - the very fault of the poet in “At the Bektashi Monastery”. Thompson certainly was not a prophet; his gift was for reflection and empathy.
The theme of evanescence is usually handled with a lightness of touch that marks the best of Thompson’s poetry. In “Passage”, the speaker looks out on the plenitude and vitality of nature, as thistles, roses, fruit trees, and wasps bask in the sun. But the poem ends:
Here, or there, these common yearly things
Repeat, repeat, and gardens do not range:
Yet thistles, roses, fruit trees, birds, and
Come to an end, and the church bells sound a
These many soft declensions of the day,
So hard to take to heart, bear life away. (340)
Again, though this exquisite lyric stands alone on its literal meaning, the small touch of the church bells sounding a “change” alludes to the transformation which death brings to everyone. Naturally, there are a number of poems about death, ranging from epigrams to a remarkable transformation of Milton’s “Lycidas” in the poem “The Death of Hart Crane”.
Given his seclusion and estrangement from his former life, it is not surprising that the theme of memory runs throughout Thompson’s mature poems. Many of these poems are autobiographical. Though in one sense they are “confessional”, they reveal none of the despair and undisciplined emotion of the “Confessional” poets. Rather, they are truly confessional in that they celebrate moments of grace and seek to do penance for past sins. The poem thus becomes an act of reparation. Unfortunately, these reminiscences are often so private that they slip from the reader’s memory. Perhaps the most effective poems in this vein probe his relationship with his mother, who appears as a Monica figure to the poet’s Augustine.
The central section of Poems 1950-1974 consists of poems with religious themes and is entitled “The Way of Peace”. In a century with very little poetry of a direct, lyrical, spiritual nature, the mere existence of these poems is enough to evoke interest. Of the 50 poems in this section, perhaps a half dozen stand out. By saying this, I do not mean to be critical; it is, in fact, quite an achievement. In the modern era, traditional Christian language and imagery have become so burdened by sentimentality and cliché as to make it extremely difficult to write “religious” poetry. Because faith involves such strong and intimate emotions, it is often impossible to achieve the proper aesthetic distance which is the first requirement of art.
Thompson’s lightness of touch marks “Three Views of Assisi”, which is a triumph of simplicity. The three views are in three churches: Santa Maria degli Angeli, Santa Chiara, and San Francesco respectively. Each contrasts wealth and poverty as these relate to the examples of Sts. 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. (156-57)
The homeliness of the imagery is reminiscent of George Herbert, but it has no need of metaphysical conceits.
Thompson’s poetry gains greater force and tautness when there is something personal at stake. But the problem of aesthetic distance in the poetry of religious experience makes the personal approach difficult. Several of Thompson’s autobiographical poems are to be found in “The Way of Peace”, which concludes with a long poem, “The Halfway House”. This sequence of 19 poems, which all differ in form and mood, is based on an actual journey to the Nitrian Desert where the ancient monastery of the Romans, Deir 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. Like all of Thompson’s longer poetic sequences, “The Halfway-House” has moving, surprising moments, but is weak as a whole. It traces the rhythm of conversion, including the temptations to “do the right thing for the wrong reason” which arise after conversion. The desert monks set the example which the poet must try to follow in his own, more temperate, climate. In section XIII 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. (252)
Despite fine passages like this, the poem fails to engage the reader’s sympathies because it approaches the experience of conversion from an external perspective. Of course, conversion is an intensely private experience and is hard enough to write about in prose, much less through poetic image. In the end, it may be that Thompson’s finest “religious” poetry is to be found in poems such as “Ovid on the Dacian Coast” and “Passage”, where the supernatural order borders closely, if unobtrusively, on the natural world.
The range of Dunstan Thompson’s poetic oeuvre is more varied than can be indicated in the space of a single essay. Little has been said, for example, about his marvelous knack for epigram, which he utilizes so well in poems with historical subjects, such as French history. Reading the book as a whole is an affecting experience. In his solitude, confronting death, having given up any chance for fame or attention, Dunstan Thompson never loses his sense of humor, or his awareness of the world outside himself. My favorite poem of Thompson’s is one I imagine he wrote near his death. It is called “On a Crucifix”, and though it is printed normally, I have a suspicion that it is a “pattern poem”, like George Herbert’s “Easter Wings”, and I print it below as such. In this poem is distilled Dunstan Thompson’s reflection on the failure of the Cross; that failure, like his, conceals a mystery, though it appears as foolishness in the eyes of the world.
On a Crucifix
Here at last