Dunstan Thompson’s life falls neatly into two equal halves, divided by three years of army service (1942-5) in the middle.
The first 24 years were spent mainly in the US where he moved from home to school, school to university, and university into adult independence like the rest of his contemporaries. Then in 1947 he settled permanently in England where he lived in the same village, and for 24 of those 27 years in the same house, from which he seldom went away for more than a few nights and in which he eventually died.
He was born on 30th August, 1918 in New London, Conn, the only child of Terry Brewster Thompson, a naval officer and Virginia Leita, nee Montgomery. At the time of his birth his father was at sea in the Atlantic in command of a submarine. World War II still had two more years to run.
The Thompsons came from Protestant New England stock (hence the father’s names Terry and Brewster) and there was a family tradition that the famous scientist Benjamin Thompson Count von Rumford was a collateral ancestor. However, at some point early in their lives, both Dunstan’s paternal grandparents had become Catholics. The grandfather, Charles Thaddeus Thompson, had worked for the Associated Press, and at different times had been head of the Paris and Washington offices. He was also a correspondent on the Italian front in World War I, later writing a book about it. He had turned Catholic about the same time as his wife Flora (nee Macdonald), who, before her marriage had been one of the first women journalists and later wrote I think two books on economics. She had converted to Catholicism after being asked to write a book attacking the Catholic Church which she had agreed to do after, however, saying, that she must first read about it. Much of the upbringing of their three children had been in France. Dunstan’s father was the eldest.
His Mother Leita (pronounced Leeta) Thompson came from a Washington Catholic family which on both sides had always been Catholic. Her father Warwick Montgomery, who had French connections, was originally from New Orleans. Her Mother, Eleanor Horsey before she married, belonged to an old Maryland Catholic family who were proud of having Daniel Carrol, the only Catholic founding father, in their ancestry, and General Lee of Civil War fame.
Of his parents Dunstan used to say that they would both have died for their faith “but would have mounted the scaffold from different sides,” which was an observation about their differences of temperament rather than about their religion. The father was a good, intelligent and necessarily well disciplined man, while his mother was highly strung, nervous and emotional. For most of the time, when the father was at sea, Dunstan and his mother lived either at the family house his father had had built in Annapolis near the Naval Academy or in Washington at the house of his great-aunt Leita.
“Aunt Leita” as she was called, was the figure who, after his parents, would have most influence on his life. The sister of his grandfather Warwick Montgomery, she had married Edward White, the only Catholic Chief Justice there had so far been in the United States. Dunstan could barely remember the Chief Justice who died when he was only two and a half. But his Aunt Leita meant as much to him in some ways as his Mother, and that is saying a lot.
Most of the happiest days of his boyhood were spent at her large and exteriorly rather gaunt-looking house on Rhode Island Avenue, next but one to what is now St Matthew’s Catholic cathedral and, during summer holidays, at the house she rented every year for two months in the fashionable part of New London at the corner of Ocean and Glenwood Avenues. The ecstatic little lyric Summertime recaptures the elation of the journey there. Finally at her death in 1934 she left him enough money to live on for the rest of his life without having to take a job. It was not riches. But it was enough to keep him afloat in reasonable comfort provided he handled it wisely.
Because of his father’s upbringing and these Washington connections, from the time he was a small boy he was used not only to a somewhat cosmopolitan family atmosphere where French was often spoken (though he himself never became a fluent French speaker) but to meeting the higher clergy of the Washington-Baltimore area, kissing the rings of cardinals and archbishops, serving their masses, hearing higher ecclesiastical chitchat, and taking part in frequent religious services. Before he was twelve he had been three times to Europe, including Rome, where he was present at the canonisations of St Joan of Arc and Ste Therese of Lisieux and met the reigning Pope, Pius XI.
Today there are people who might regard such a childhood as a ‘religious hot-house’ or positively ‘unnatural’. But he seems to have absorbed it as naturally and without damage as another boy would have being taken constantly to football and ice-hockey matches. It did not prevent him from enjoying the company of other boys, or being popular at school. Although he was little good at games, he was liked for his cleverness and wit.
He went to four different Catholic schools: St Mary’s Annapolis run by the Redemptorists; Georgetown Prep in Washington, run by the Jesuits (2 years); Villanova prep (one year), a school in the Ojai valley in California when his father was stationed on the West Coast; and finally two years at Canterbury, a prep school in Connecticut, which was the one he enjoyed most.
From school he went to Harvard. This was in 1936 by which time he had given up the practice of his religion.
His time at Harvard was not an academic success. After three years he left of his own volition without taking a degree for fear of being kicked out for his scholarly misdemeanours; missing lectures, neglecting to hand in papers on time, generally failing to apply himself to the subjects he was meant to be studying. But it was of great value to him as a writer and poet to be. He had started writing poetry in his last year or so at prep school. But his time at Harvard convinced him that writing poetry was what he wanted to do above all else. In this he was greatly encouraged by two members of the faculty, Robert Hillyer and Theodore Spenser, who were poets too and appreciated his talents
At Harvard he made many friends, most of whom remained friends for life, and was soon on the board and then editor of the Harvard Monthly, a student magazine founded a couple of generations earlier by the philosopher Santayana. His articles in the Monthly, which did not stop at criticizing the way the English literature department was run, got him the kind of attention usually acquired by clever undergraduates bent on making their mark.
During the summer vacations of 1938 and 1939 he also spent a month at Rye in England attending a summer school for young writers and painters run by the poet Conrad Aiken and his wife. Master and pupil seem to have taken to each other in a special way. Here is Aiken writing about him at this time to a friend (see Aiken Selected Letters). “Dunstan Thompson….. is the cleverest… a real gift of the gab, raconteur, mimic, clown…. A good deal of a fashion follower, but honest and psychologically alert.” Aiken introduced him to T.S.Eliot whom he visited on both trips.
After Harvard, and before going into the army, he lived for two years in New York. This was when he established himself as a young writer of special talent and promise. At the same time he embarked on the promiscuous homosexual life-style which was to find expression in his first two books of poems.
His chief mentors as a poet were Oscar Williams who published many of his poems in his series of widely read modern anthologies, and the poet Horace Gregory with his wife Marya Zaturenska who painted his portrait. George Barker, the Irish-English poet was another familiar. Barker, who was older than Dunstan by quite a few years, probably had more influence on him than any other writer at this time. They saw a lot of each other. There were also visits to Aiken who had returned to the US on the outbreak of War and settled in Brewster, Mass. But his success was not just with established figures. Within a short time he had acquired a following of young people of his own age who were attracted not so much by his poetic gifts as by his cleverness and wit. To spend an evening with him was more than just fun.
With his Harvard friend Harry Brown he also started a literary magazine called Vice Versa. Harry, who eventually became a script writer in Hollywood, was embarking on a literary career too. Financed by Dunstan, the magazine only ran for three numbers from Nov 1940 to Jan ’42. It closed partly because it was costing more than Dunstan could afford, partly because he and Harry were soon to be called up into the army. But it too in its way contributed to making him known. It is still a collector’s piece.
As Dana Gioia writes (see Revisiting Vice Versa), both editors “understood, that in order to matter a little magazine had to make a big noise, and they announced their presence with the panache and self-assurance in which Harvard students have such alarming expertise.” “Exuberant irreverence” was the general tone --- somewhat like that of his articles for the Harvard Monthly.
Exactly where he lived I have forgotten, if I ever knew. I only remember him telling me that he took an apartment on his own for a short time but couldn’t stand the loneliness. For the rest of these two years he seems to have rented a room in the apartment of one or other of his friends.
His life differed from that of most of his contemporaries in that having independent means he did not need to take a job. He therefore had the whole day to himself. So when not working on a poem or editing Vice Versa he spent the bulk of his time reading. He does not seem at this point to have contemplated writing a novel. That was to come later.
Much of this reading was done in bookshops, his favourite being the Gotham Book Mart. The Book Mart specialised in 20th century poetry and literature and has remained for more than fifty years a centre for poets and avant-garde writers living in or visiting New York. From time to time the owner, Frances Steloff, held literary evenings at which passing poets and writers would be asked to read and talk about their books. Miss Steloff was a great admirer of Dunstan’s poems and still remembered and spoke of him with affection long after he had moved to England.
Social life was mainly at lunch or in the evenings. Nor was it all confined to writers editors and publishers. Through his Harvard friends John Hay and John Slocombe he got to know a small world of rich New Yorkers who were in the social rather than the literary swim. It differed from the social world he had known in Washington, but in its own way it too helped to broaden his outlook and deepen his understanding of the peculiarities of human nature, always one of his chief topics of interest.
Then came induction into the army. After the usual months of basic training, and having failed to achieve officer status --- he was shipped to England in Sept. 1943 as a GI in a medical unit. Here after some months in the regency spa town Cheltenham he was posted to a medical unit on the other side of the country near Norwich. But not for long. His friend Harry Brown had been pulling strings in London, and he was moved to the Office of War Information in London’s West End. Harry, who was on the staff of Stars and Stripes, the US Army newspaper, had managed to persuade the US military authorities that it was a waste of talent to leave a gifted young writer as a lance corporal in a medical unit when he could be thinking up cleverer ways of presenting US war aims. At the time, Harry had a certain clout with the US army authorities in London, having just published a successful war novel.
We are now in the spring or early summer of 1944. Dunstan’s first book, Poems had just come out in New York, and he was soon immersed in the London literary world.
We catch another glimpse of him from Conrad Aiken, this time in a letter to Malcolm Cowley. Describing a meeting with Eliot, Aiken writes: “As we usually do, we kept carefully off any reference to each other’s work: the only literary mentions were of Orwell, who it seems is someone One Ought to Meet, and Dunstan Thompson (my former pupil) who astounded Tom and everyone else in London by getting to know All the Right People in two seconds flat. Which doesn’t in the least surprise me.”
All the right people meant, in addition to Eliot himself, writers like Stephen Spender, Osbert and Edith Sitwell and Cyril Connolly, as well as figures in the theatrical, artistic and social worlds. Success of this kind would have been due once again, as it had been in New York, as much to his wit, intelligence and gifts as a conversationalist as to his talent as a poet. With older men and women he was always well-mannered and respectful, as well as knowing how to draw out what was best and most interesting in them.
During this time in London, the English publishers Secker and Warburg brought ought a selection of poems from the New York book together with some new ones, which would eventually appear in Lament for the Sleepwalker. This English book, like the New York volume was also confusingly entitled Poems.
It was likewise at this time (Feb-March 1945) that he and I met and became friends. After being wounded in the Italian campaign I had joined an intelligence unit and was about to be posted to Cairo. I left for Cairo in late May or early June. About the same time Dunstan was posted to France where he remained until his discharge in December 1945.
After his discharge he lived at the Algonquin Hotel in New York until the following September when he joined me in Cairo to write a book about the Middle East. The book had been commissioned by the publishers Dodd Mead. He already had a contract with them to publish his second book of poems, Lament for the Sleepwalker. The travel book eventually appeared under the title The Phoenix in the Desert, published not by Dodd Mead, but by the London publisher John Lehman.
Meanwhile we had decided he share our lives as writers. I had been destined for the law, but had always loved literature and the arts.
On our return to England and my demobilisation, we rented a small house in St John’s Wood in London for the best part of a year, before moving in the summer of 1948 to the village of Cley-next-the-sea in Norfolk on the east coast.
With the move to Cley began the second and more tranquil half of his life. These years saw the composition of the great majority of the poems in the Red Book, (something like 90 per cent) and his return to the practice of the Catholic Faith. The two together could be said to contain the ultimate significance of his life.
To begin with we rented a house on the village street called the Rocket House, then, when the tenancy ended, moved to the Lodge which was to be his home until he died. The Pheonix in the Desert was written at the Rocket House, and his one published novel, The Dove with a Bough of Olive at the Lodge.
While at the Rocket House he established for himself the pattern of life which would remain more or less the same until the end. The word pattern suggests a regular time table. But that would not have been in keeping with his character. I simply mean to suggest the ways in which he used his time. Most of it, of course, was given to reading and writing, with a walk or bicycle ride in the afternoon. Later before supper we would talk and have a drink for an hour or so with more conversation or reading afterwards.
Walks were either across the marshes towards the beach or up the valley of the little river Glaven towards Glandford Mill. The bicycle rides took us further afield. Our nearest shopping centre was the little market town of Holt four miles away. It was to be four years before we bought, second hand, our first car which of course extended the range of places for exploration.
This more or less daily routine, in so far as one can call it such, was interspersed every month or two with visits to the bookshops in Norwich or Cambridge, coupled with a good lunch at one or other at the better hotels.
Trips to London, either to see English or US friends, were at longer intervals. Or friends might come to stay with us at Cley. I remember one particularly cold June when the poet Howard Nemerov spent much of his visit wrapped in a rug and huddled over an electric fire.
If I had to be away for any reason Dunstan usually went to stay with friends in Sussex. In London, he still saw Eliot, Osbert Sitwell, John Lehman, the journalist poet, Paul Dehn and other literary friends from time to time.
After he moved to Cley he only once left England. That was in 1950 when we went to Italy for a month. We spent a fortnight in Rome, followed by a week in Ravenna and a week in Venice.
When we had been three years at the Rocket House the lease came to an end and we moved to the Lodge. The Lodge was on higher ground at the edge of the village; a picturesque gardener’s cottage at the entrance to the 18th century Hall with fine old trees all around it. We rented it from the owner of the hall and with it went a walled garden --- a one-time kitchen garden. We replaced the neglected vegetable patches and moribund fruit trees with a lawn, flower beds and shrubs. Here, in good weather he spent many hours, reading, composing his poems, or just thinking. It was an ideal place for him; secluded, but not too far from other people. When indoors he worked in the larger of the two bedrooms. From his desk, which was by the window, he could watch the birds admire the roses on the wall and look over it into the garden
That he lived a quiet retired life after his move to Norfolk is true. After his hectic mode of existence in New York and London, it was what he preferred. He had come to realise that the way he had been living in New York both before and after he joined the army was destroying him. But the rumour that he had become a recluse was mistaken.
Such then was the background to the writing of the majority of the poems in the Red Book. Some of the poems came quickly. Others he worked on for years until he was satisfied with them. He was writing new poems and correcting others up to a fortnight before his death.
The walks and bicycle rides account for his new love of nature, which brings out a lyrical gift barely noticeable before. It is almost as if he had discovered the beauties of nature for the first time. Equally new is the way his already existing love of history finds expression for the first time. His favourite periods were the Graeco-Roman worlds and the century and a half leading up to the First World War. He was a great reader of historical biographies. The quieter more ordered life and the rediscovery that it has a meaning and purpose also allowed his wit to flourish in a way that does not seem to have been possible in the more tormented early poems. It is particularly noticeable in the four line epigrams. (See the subject index).
Because of the size of the book and the diversity of subject matter, I have put a subject index on the website to help readers find their way around more easily.
Two questions remain to be explained or at least mentioned; the difference of style between the earlier and later poems, and the poets failure after the early 1950s to find a publisher for the latter. Only eight or so appeared during the 1950s and 60s in periodicals like The New Yorker or The Paris Review.
About the first question, the change of style, it is certainly not due to a rejection of poetic modernism, but it could be considered a modification or tempering of its excesses and exaggerations. It had nothing to do with his changed way of life after he moved to England. It begins to show itself towards the end of Lament for the Sleepwalker, written before he left New York.
As for the second question --- the failure to find a publisher for the later poems in spite of the efforts of his many friends in the publishing world who were convinced of their merits --- it can only be a matter of speculation. There was a well known avant-garde publisher in New York in the 1940s and 50s of whom it was cruelly reported that when he received a new book of poems for consideration he would say “It’s Greek to me so it must be good.” Perhaps Dunstan’s poems were no longer “Greek” enough, whatever that may mean.
Whether his changed outlook on life and the inclusion of a number of religious poems in each of the three collections he submitted for publication also had something to do with the rejections I will let others decide.
The recovery of his faith and return to Catholic practice took place in 1952. After discussing with me what it involved, he went up to London to see a Jesuit priest at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Farm St, made his confession and was reconciled. I became a Catholic about a year later, helped by the same priest, a Fr. William Peers Smith. At various times earlier in my life I had been attracted by the Catholic Church, but for one reason or another had failed to reach a decision. This time, with Dunstan’s help, I did.
Perhaps I should add that with “lapsed Catholics” there is usually a difference between those who have given up the practice of their faith for intellectual reasons and those with whom it is mainly a matter of morals. The former really do no longer believe. It all seems unreal and untrue. With the latter belief may have been damaged but will not necessarily have gone altogether. There will often be an underlying intention to return ‘eventually’ or ‘if and when it becomes possible’. Dunstan belonged to the latter category.
Although his decision initially took me by surprise, looking back I can now see signs which, had I been more familiar with the way Catholics think, would have indicated to me the direction in which his mind and heart were moving. But ever since I first knew him his conversation had always been full of references to things Catholic if only because they had been so much part of his boyhood and youth. His talking about them a lot, or being interested in them, did not necessarily indicate any notable change of mind.
Among the things he used to mention about the time when he was a GI in London during the war was going into Farm St. Church to have masses said for his father after his father’s death.
Then there was our trip to Rome in 1950. 1950 was a Jubilee Year and he had read that on 1st Nov Pius XII was going to proclaim the Assumption of Our Lady a dogma of the Church. This, I later realised, had been his main reason for wanting to make the trip.
Back home I missed a still bigger clue to what lay ahead. From the time we moved to Norfolk in 1948 he had taken an increasing interest in the little town of Walsingham nine miles from where we were living.
Down to the end of the middle ages, Walsingham had been the site of one of the greatest shrines in Europe in honour of the Blessed Virgin. Destroyed by Henry VIII and his agents in the 16th century, the devotion had been revived in the 1920s both among Catholics and high Anglicans. The ruins of the original shrine are now in the grounds of a large country house. But the Anglicans have a modern shrine in the village, and the Catholics a medieval chapel, known as the Slipper Chapel, a mile outside.
After his return to the Church, we were often at Walsingham either for Mass or to help with pilgrimages in some way. But in other respects the pattern of his life remained the same as before, until the late 1960s when his health began to deteriorate.
There was nothing dramatic to begin with, apart from trouble with his eyes and back pains which kept him in bed for two months. It just seemed to be a general weakening of his whole metabolism. Reading became tiring so that more and more I had to read to him. Also he no longer felt up to walks of any length. Instead I used to take him for a drive in the car. In spite of all this and his failure to get his poems published, he did not lose his spirits. For most of the time, I think these final years were in some ways the happiest of his life.
Then in the spring of 1974 his condition worsened. Much or most of 1974 he spent in bed until in early January 1975 the local doctor called in a specialist who diagnosed cancer of the liver. He died a fortnight later on 19th January.
The funeral Mass was held in the Catholic church of St Joseph, Sheringham and his body was buried in the cemetery at Cley next the sea. The grave is close to the hedge on the far side from the entrance. The tombstone carries the inscription O Crux Ave Spes Unica.
Notes. His papers and a typescript memoir of the poet’s life are in the Huntington Library, Calif. There are also papers in the Lamont Poetry Library, Harvard, and the Beineke Library at Yale.