Whether physical or spiritual, the “things given at the start” - things like good looks or their lack, a strong or weak constitution, a quick or slow mind, a turbulent or tranquil temper, artistic gifts or their absence and so on - will always be there. The “later accretions” may eventually enhance, transform, obscure, or damage the “things given at the start”, but they will seldom if ever completely eradicate them. The “things given at the start” are the tools or material with which we are to do our work in this world. They give our personality its particular shape or stamp. They make up the core of the personality. (They can be compared to the differing amounts of money for trading with given to the servants in the parable of the talents.)
As for the “later accretions”, they have their origin largely in the way we use the “things given at the start”. How do we handle them? Do we put them to good or bad use? Do we build with them or on them good or bad habits? Other accretions will be due to external influences and circumstances as they interact with our use of our basic gifts or limitations. Among the most potent of these in Dunstan’s case will have been the family background described in the chapters you have read so far.
I used to think the words “temperament” and “character” were the best way of describing this difference between what is “given at the start” and what is acquired or created “along the way”. But in practice, the word “temperament” has too limited a meaning. Even if we see it as something we carry with us through life, we tend to associate it almost exclusively with our emotional and psychological make-up. And while, when we speak of a person having a good or bad “character”, we mostly mean they are personally responsible for it, at other times we give the word “character” almost the same meaning as temperament. For instance, when we speak of someone having a “strong” or “weak” character, it often carries the connotation of something given as much as acquired.
All this is a just preface to explaining what I see as “given at the start” in Dunstan’s case; the complex of physical and spiritual gifts and limitations making up the core man. The brief biography will, I hope, have helped to throw light on some of the later accretions.
For Christians, of course, limitations can be seen as blessings, even if it takes most of us time and grace to discover it. Blessed are the poor. In contrast, gifts make us more accountable as stewards. In regard to his exceptional gifts this is something Dunstan came to realise deeply at the end of his life. One day not long before his death he said: “I’m so grateful to God for keeping me hidden away in this unknown village. If I’d been successful and famous I should have been a proud intellectual attacking the faith and the Church.” Not that there aren’t distinguished intellectuals, Catholic and otherwise, who do no such thing. He was talking about himself. He had a profound understanding of his shortcomings and so was conscious of the intoxicating effect fame would have had in his case.
Coming back to things “given at the start”, I will begin with physical endowments.
I don’t know whether his birth was in any way difficult, but it left him with birth marks at the back of his neck and down one leg and a slight tremor in one hand - the right, I think. The tremor was not a serious affliction, and it was not there all the time. But it became noticeable if he was nervous or upset, and he was always self-conscious about it, at least during the years I knew him. If he was meeting new people, for instance, and they offered him a drink the tremor might start and he would sometimes spill the drink as he was handed it leaving his host or hostess with the impression that this was not the first drink he had had that day. Since there came a time when he drank quite a lot this embarrassed him all the more.
His physical appearance was another cause of embarrassment to him, at least as a youth and young adult. It was not that he was ill-looking. As he approached middle-age, and his face and body filled out, he was even positively good-looking, as you can see from the photographs taken by Vogue when his first volume of poems appeared, and there is a nobility in the drawing by Alfonso Ossorio, which although done when he was in his twenties, anticipates in a remarkable way what he looked like when he was dying and immediately after death. But up to his mid-twenties, he was certainly unusual looking.
It would have been difficult for anyone seeing him for the first time not to notice and be struck by the large slightly protruberant eyes with heavy lids coupled with a rather prominent nose above full lips and a slightly receding chin. As a young man he was also exceptionally thin with long loosely knit limbs and long expressive thin-fingered hands. The immediate impression was of a nervous highly intelligent antelope whose movements were not fully under its control. Throughout his life he had difficulty in co-ordinating his legs and arms, something which made playing games next to impossible. He was equally bad at catching balls and aiming straight, and the nuns who taught him to write seem never to have managed to get him to hold a pen properly. His handwriting remained strangely awkward and crabbed until he tried to improve it after he had been at Cley for some time.
In addition to being physically far from robust, he was emotionally and nervously highly strung. This too could have been partly due to problems at birth.
What about mind and heart?
I think he himself put his finger on the second of them when, listing what he saw as most characteristic of himself in his poem ‘Dedication’ (Red Book p.361), he speaks of “the gaiety bestowed at birth”. (He was writing before the word gay was co-opted to its present use). To be gay in the traditional sense means to be carefree and merry, to love happiness, laughter, friends and fun, and be easily entranced by the goodness of life.
It is in part what we look forward to in heaven, and it remained central to his personality right to the end, no matter how much later accretions sometimes obscured it. Among those later accretions we can include “the shyness from my youth”, which he also mentions in the poem, the irrational fears feelings and anxieties picked up from his mother during infancy and childhood, or the consequences of a longish period of chaotic living. He loved amusing and witty people, and jokes and fantasising, which, according to the Collins dictionary, I see, means “to conceive extravagant or whimsical ideas,” and it could have added stories. In Dunstan’s case, one of these involved a goose and gosling, four mice and two piglets (“the bores”) all living together in the same house. It wasn’t a story in the strict sense. There was no plot and he never wrote it down. It was more a continuous improvisation, a flow of imaginary conversations commenting on or making fun of himself or me or people he knew or whatever happened to be going on at the time.
Nothing expresses his love of life, friends and fun better than a photograph I have of him aged about 9 months. He is sitting on his mother’s lap, waving at the camera, with an expression of delight on his face as though crying “Isn’t it wonderful. Come and join us.” Life was to be far from all fun and jokes for him. But he was always glad and quick to be cheered up. He had a wonderful capacity for bringing his imagination into play to distract him from worries and anxieties, especially at night. It might be imagining what coloured pyjamas the Pope was wearing, how many gin and tonics the English Queen Mother drank before dinner, how long Alexander the Great could have kept his empire together if he hadn’t gone swimming and died so young, or whether Michelangelo would have been pleased at being given the Order of Merit.
Next on the list of gifts “bestowed at birth”, I would give first place to his deep love of truth. Here we have moved onto a different plane. In the poem just mentioned he even calls it “my only value as God gives me worth”. His only value? No doubt there had been a time when he had valued his other gifts more highly - being clever, highly intelligent and witty for instance - if only because they helped to compensate for his physical and emotional disadvantages. But he came to realise, as every man who has really learned from life will, that wit and cleverness are less than nothing if not at the service of goodness and truth.
In the last year of his life when illness had made him hypersensitive about the smallest things, I recall his insisting on my re-opening a letter I had written for him and changing the date after I admitted to having mistakenly or out of carelessness misdated it.
However his love of truth went far beyond not uttering falsehoods. We all like to see ourselves as truthful in that sense. It meant wanting to get to the heart of things and facing up to them as they actually are. According to the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper this is the essence of the virtue of prudence, not just avoiding impetuosity. I remember when Catholics started rejecting many basic Church teachings after the 2nd Vatican Council the sorrowful tone in which he said: “No one seems to care about truth any more.”
In addition to seeing things as they are, love of truth can also mean wanting them to be fully what they were intended to be; to use the language of philosophy, wanting them to have perfection of being. His love of truth in this deeper metaphysical sense meant that he was easily and quickly disenchanted when anything fell short of his usually high expectations. This trait was already present in childhood. On one of three trips to Europe before the age of 13, his parents took him to Versailles. After they had shown him everything - the palace, the private apartments, the gardens, the Hameau, the two Trianons - he asked “Is that all?” He was, I think, twelve, but it could have been ten. It must have been a disconcerting experience for both parents and would surely have left Louis XIV gasping.
That in this world, nothing is perfect, nothing lasts, everything comes to an end is something most people take a lifetime to accept fully, if they ever do. He seems to have realised it from childhood. Like Hopkins, not to mention countless other poets, he was continually ravished by the world’s beauty and simultaneously saddened by its evanescence - a reality which dominates the book of Ecclesiastes and which the ancients expressed in the words ‘eheu fugaces’ and ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’.
It was natural that this deeper level of his personality should come more to the surface after he recovered his faith and began to practice it again and many of his friends regretted it. He had become too serious, they thought. He was no longer witty and amusing all the time. That was the trouble with religion in general and Catholicism in particular. It made people gloomy. The same things were said in Roman society in the 2nd century when one of its members became a Christian. People tend to think that witty entertaining people exist solely to amuse them, a trap into which poor Oscar Wilde so noticeably fell.
Seriously held Christian beliefs will of course make anyone less superficial. But this deeper side of Dunstan’s personality had always been there. It was not just the result of recovering his faith.
Along with truthfulness went exceptional moral courage. The two are for the most part, or should be, inseparable since it is impossible to be truthful in the deep sense Dunstan was without finding oneself in the position of sometimes, if not often, having to say things that are not going to be liked. This was not particularly difficult in his Harvard days and later in literary and artistic circles in New York and London with people who were used to challenging each others ideas.
It was different, however, in conventional social circles. Unlike Johnson or Belloc, he did not enjoy disrupting the even tenor of a lunch or dinner party by challenging or confronting the opinions or prejudices of his host or fellow guests just for the sake of a fight. Self-consciousness and shyness, the “shyness from my youth”, partly made him averse, but even more his upbringing. Except when he was deeply upset for some reason, he always had beautiful manners.
But should occasion require it, should something be said which he believed to be seriously wrong, false or unjust, he did not hesitate to state in the clearest terms what he thought.
This is where his moral courage showed itself most markedly and was one of the reasons, though not the only one, why, after he settled in England, he led a relatively retired life. The educated English of that period still tended to think that everything English was best, regardless of whether it was or not, and that everything England had done had been right. Their attitude to America, too, was often cumbersomely, when not stupidly patronising. This was not true of all, but at least of a fair percentage. Returning to the Church did not make things in this respect any easier. It increased the number of things on which he felt he had to take a stand. If necessary, and without being disrespectful, he was equally prepared to speak his mind to the clergy.
In 1968 we had the recently retired bishop of the diocese and the local parish priest to lunch. I remember the date because the English Catholic bishops had just issued their statement saying that although English Catholics ought ideally to obey Paul VI’s encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’ (forbidding contraception) they could in fact follow their own consciences in the matter.
After lunch, Dunstan begged the bishop to write a letter to The Times disassociating himself from the statement. The bishop was anything but weak. He had ruled a large diocese firmly for many years. But when Dunstan was roused in the interests of what he saw as the truth, there was something formidable about him. It was a bit like having provoked the disapprobation of Dr Johnson. I can still remember the scared look in the bishop’s eyes and the way he shrank back in his chair as if he would have liked to disappear into the bookcase behind. “But I’ve retired,” he said weakly. “My Lord,” Dunstan replied, “as Catholics, we never retire.” He then went on his knees and repeated his request. The bishop didn’t write a letter to The Times, but one could see he knew that Dunstan was right.
Another example about this time took place in church. The upheavals following the 2nd Vatican Council had begun, and the local parish priest gave a sermon on the Annunciation in which he compared Our Lady to an unmarried mother. “Speak more prudently about the Mother of God,” he called out sternly.
After his death, more than one person, including one of his closest friends, admitted to me that there were moments when they were frightened of him. It is a not unusual reaction of average people, like you and me, confronted with a powerful intelligence linked to strong convictions. The paradox is that physically, as he would himself have admitted, he was for the most part, or except when on an emotional or spiritual “high”, anything but a model of fortitude.
If moral courage was a natural counterpart to his love of truth, another was intense curiosity. As a very small boy, whenever anyone described something that had happened or told him a story, he would ask “Then what?” until an exhausted or exasperated relation gave him a toy boat called the “Then What?” Of course it is natural for children to ask a lot of questions. But in his case the number obviously went well beyond the average and instead of diminishing as he grew up seems to have increased. It is as if he couldn’t know enough about the mysteries, follies, beauties, terrors and dramas of human existence (“things as they actually are”) which throughout his life both fascinated and amazed him. When not reading, composing his poems, or enjoying the pleasures of conversation, he was always observing and reflecting on what he read or saw.
He once jokingly attributed this passion for information to the difficulty he had in handling every day life. “I need to know what’s going on so that I can take evasive action.”
One result, was a passion for newsprint of a kind I have never come across in anyone else. Every periodical or paper, from academic publications via the daily press to society magazines was a source of information about life and people. I only once knew him reject one. It was towards the end of his life when his health had begun to fail and he tired easily. We were having tea in the Royal Hotel in Norwich and I went to look for something for him to read. All I could find was a trade magazine called ‘Shoe News’. Shoe manufacture was one of the towns main industries. He waved it aside wearily. But earlier, I believe, he would have found something to interest him even in that.
I come finally to his intelligence, imagination and wit.
His intelligence was not primarily of the strictly logical or mathematical kind, though he could quickly see the flaw in an argument, and expound ideas with exceptional force and lucidity. If he had been more self-disciplined and less quickly bored by what didn’t immediately interest him, he would have been a marvellous teacher. He liked to explain and instruct though without always knowing how to adapt his method to his audience.
I think of an evening in the early ‘60s when some Catholic friends with their two sons were visiting us. The sons were at university where for the first time they were having their faith seriously challenged, and the mother, with her sons in mind, asked Dunstan what some teaching of the Church meant. He began to explain. I don’t remember how long he spoke. But suddenly I sensed an extraordinary stillness in the room. On looking round I saw everyone’s eyes fixed on his face as if riveted to his words or mind. What they had hitherto known dimly and confusedly had suddenly become transparent to them.
Afterwards I congratulated him. He must have felt something exceptional had happened because he replied quite simply without any element of affectation: “It wasn’t me. It was the Holy Spirit. I could tell it as I was speaking. It was for the sake of the boys.”
That may have been so on this particular evening. But God had given him a purely natural gift for explaining facts and ideas. I experienced this many times when there was no need for any special supernatural help. It would often be in the evening before or after dinner. We would be talking of this and that and suddenly he would take off on one of these marvellous explanatory flights. I used to feel like a small bird picked up by an eagle and carried high in the air from where I could see everything laid out below as on a map.
I had always known he was cleverer than I am, but for many years I assumed that our minds were at least more or less of the same order. Only towards the end of his life did I realise how far above me he was in intelligence and perceptiveness and that by no amount of effort could I reach his level. There was no way I would ever arrive at seeing things with the clarity, comprehensiveness and penetration he did.
However, as I said, it was not so much the clarity of the mathematician or logician seeing that if A is true, then B must follow.
His intelligence was above all intuitive and imaginative. He seemed to grasp by instinct just why and how human beings behaved the way they do in particular situations and how those situations came about. It didn’t matter whether he was talking about historical figures, people in public life or people he knew personally. Of course it wasn’t only instinct or, as I said, being extra observant. It seemed to be a faculty of rightly interpreting what he observed.
He would often invent imaginary conversations between people which made me think of what a French critic once wrote about Tolstoy. It was “as though life itself could speak.” I remember one of these imaginary conversations in particular. It was between a husband and wife discussing a dinner party as they were returning home in their car. Unfortunately I’ve forgotten the details. I only recall how devastatingly true to life it was as well as typically funny.
His one published novel ‘The Dove With a Bough of Olive’ is full of examples of this kind of thing. But I don’t think he could ever have been a really successful novelist. He said that thinking up plots and describing settings bored him. ‘The Dove With a Bough of Olive’ is nearly all conversation or interior monologues.
Intelligent though he was, at least in later life he was only too ready to recognise greater gifts of this kind in other people. It was part of his realism. Once, when his friend Billy Abrahams was staying with us in Cley he took me aside to draw attention to some remark Billy had made about an historic house we had been visiting. “Did you hear what he said?” he said. “He is so incredibly clever. I would never have thought of that.” It was also, I think, because, out of generosity, he wanted his friend to be properly appreciated. If this hadn’t always been so, it was how he became.
With regard to his wit I hope to find some examples when I go through the notebooks of his conversation which I kept during the last two years of his life. But there is more to being witty than the brilliant epigram or retort that no one can forget. It is also the way the thing is said that can make it so funny; the speed and lightness coupled with the tone of voice and expression, and the fact that it comes so completely ‘a propos’. For instance I once burst into the sitting-room where he was reading and sat down heavily with a sigh in the easy chair opposite him. He looked up briefly and with a teasing look threw out the remark “The soft chair is the beginning of the end of the world.” This would hardly get into a book of quotations, yet at that particular moment in the particular circumstances it was not just funny. By bringing into conjunction the trivial and the tremendous it encapsulated in the lightest way something indefinably memorable.
Another time, speaking of the speed with which human beings come to take benefits for granted, I remember him saying by way of example: “Put a group of African pygmies on a trans-Atlantic airflight and the second time round they will complaining about the quality of the cocktails.”
Or in answer to my complaint that Picasso, at least in later life, had an ugly mind came the rejoinder: “Picasso had a dry ugly mind, Dali had a wet ugly mind.”
The only other remark of this sort I can immediately recall is more epigrammatic. We were talking about the difficulties of translating poetry and one of us mentioned Gilbert Murray’s translations of the Greek tragedians. Without a moment’s hesitation he said, “they are like a liturgy invented by a government department for a religion no one believes in.”
Murray was a famous classical scholar and public figure in the decades immediately before and after World War I. You have, of course, to know his translations to appreciate just how perceptive the comment is. Actually, to be fair, the remark is just as applicable to other late Victorian and Edwardian translations of the classics. But it was not just a penetrating piece of literary criticism and funny because of the speed and manner in which it was tossed off. It also summed up with devastating precision what was wrong with so many high-minded, enlightened people of Murray’s generation.
I don’t want to exaggerate the degree of his gifts. If I say that I sometimes had the bewildering impression of at one moment listening to Burke or Dr Johnson, at another to Sydney Smith, Wilde or Horace Walpole, at yet another to Newman, or Keats, I am not trying to suggest that he was some kind of world genius, or that he was necessarily on a level with any of these famous names. I believe he was a poet of exceptional talent and insight. But Parnassus has many “mansions” and they are of all shapes and sizes. What I am trying to do is convey the particular combination of qualities, often startlingly contradictory and sometimes at war with each other, that made him the person he was.
The greatest shortcomings he had to struggle against were tendencies to jealousy and to react over strongly to real or imagined slights. This was largely related, I think, to the importance he attached to friendships (and I am talking here about friends not other kinds of relationship).
We all like and value having friends. But with Dunstan friends seemed to fill some special need or lack. This may have been partly due to being an only-child. While some only-children are exceptionally self-contained, with Dunstan it was the exact opposite. Friends were the missing brothers and sisters without whom it was as though he felt incomplete. It is significant, I think, in this connection that his sonnet to Our Lord, ‘San Salvador’, begins “Friend of the friendless”, and that one of his favourite prayers (by the medieval St Richard of Chichester), of which I found a copy in his missal or New Testament, contains the invocation “O most merciful Jesus, friend and brother...”
But there was, I think, something else. The need not just for companionship but also for contact and communication with others minds - for the frequent exchange of thoughts, ideas, impressions and experiences - was fundamental to his nature and its fulfilment necessary to his happiness. In this respect, much of his life can be seen as a continuing quest for the ideal spiritual and intellectual “playmate” or “playmates”. This partly explains the violence of his reactions at times when he thought that any of his friends had let him down, paid insufficient attention to him, or too much in his presence to someone else. Prudence, justice, temperance, rationality and courtesy temporarily flew out of the window. The storm never lasted long and would be followed by generous apologies. But while it did it could be awe-inspiring as well as disconcerting.
So as not to end this chapter on a negative note, I quote some words I have just found which I jotted down on a scrap of paper I don’t know how long ago. “He had the intellect of an angel, the imagination of a poet, the fears and phobia’s of a lost child. Yet somehow he managed to get through life. His intelligence and realism were his life-boat.”
So much for the qualities, gifts and limitations given at the start.
For the origin of any later accretions see the Brief Biography.