Virginia Barton

Pause awhile with Dunstan Thompson

Chesterton Review, August 1989


Review: Poems 1950-1974 by Dunstan Thompson (Bungay, Suffolk: Paradigm Press, 1984).


There is a portrait photograph of Dunstan Thompson facing the title page of this book. Pictured in uniform in 1945, the poet was twenty-seven years old. It is a gentle, sensitive face, large-eyed and intelligent. The dark hair escapes that military severity so common in “Service” portraits, and the slightly quizzical lift of an eyebrow suggests a man more likely to question than to conform.

thompson-d2 (137x200)So it comes as no surprise to learn that Dunstan Thompson confessed to few military talents and rose no higher m rank than lance-corporal. On the other hand, the knowledge that he served first with a medical unit and later in intelligence, squares with the sensitive mouth and with the reputation for braininess. Dickens, no less, set great store by physiognomy; and, I must admit to a sneaking feeling that one can learn a lot from a face. There is a frank directness about this young man’s glance that must have been most attractive. His friends refer to him as brilliant – a word that means bright, sparkling, illustrious, highly talented. His poems are all these things; they are also profound, funny, carefully crafted and, almost without exception, a joy to read. Which last quality is surely the ultimate goal of the poet.

Dunstan Thompson was only fifty seven when he died of cancer in 1975. This large collection of poems, written during the last twenty-five years of his life, have not been published before, bar a handful. That they have been saved for readers new to Thompson’s work, and for the many admirers of his earlier books, is the result of the tireless efforts of Philip Trower. He prepared the book for publication in close consultation with the author before his death. Mr. Trower also contributed the teasingly brief biographical note.

The large volume (360 pages) is arranged in three sections, in accordance with the author’s wishes. Mr. Trower disarmingly apologises for the length of the book: “…for reasons of economy and to forestall the possibility that some of them [the poems] through the accidents of life and time might never get into print and so be lost.” Lucky the poet who has so diligent and devoted a friend. As one explores ever deeper into the many pages of this book, one understands Mr. Trower’s anxiety that nothing should be lost.

Because this author is now largely unknown, a skeletal biographical sketch may be helpful. Dunstan Thompson was born in New London, Connecticut, in 1918, the only child of a naval officer. His mother came from Maryland stock and both parents were Catholic, with French connections. Dunstan’s paternal grandfather worked for a time in Paris with Associated Press. He married a most unusual woman for those days, an economist and one of the first women journalists. Writing must have been their stock-in-trade. Their son, the naval officer, remembered playing in Monet’s famous garden, a memory charmingly recreated by Dunstan in the poem “Giverny.”

Because of the naval career, the family was constantly moving house, a circumstance that cannot have done much good to Mrs. Thompson, a nervous and emotional woman. These regular upheavals meant that as a lad, Dunstan was often packed off to Washington to stay with a great aunt who was the widow of the (so far) only Catholic Chief Justice of the United States. Gleanings from the poems suggest that the relationship was a happy one, and it was from her that, in due course, Dunstan inherited enough money to be financially independent.

The instability of the home-base was mirrored in Dunstan’s education. The poor chap attended at least thirteen different schools before admission to Harvard. This constant changing must have been particularly hard on a lonely, only child with one parent away at sea and the other prostrate in a darkened room. By the time he arrived at university he no longer practised his Catholicism. Happily, this was to be a temporary lapse. At Harvard, he studied versification with two American poets, Robert Hillyer and Theodore Spencer.

Just before the Second World War, Dunstan spent two summer vacations in England, with Conrad Aiken at Rye. A dreamy, retrospective pastoral poem, dedicated to Aiken’s memory, is included in the book; a generous and graceful tribute to an early influence. And it was Aiken who introduced Thompson to T.S. Eliot. Images and Reflections – for T.S. Eliot on winning the Nobel Prize (published in the ‘60s in the Paris Review) is an amusing and affectionate view of Eliot’s personality. This web of words and concepts is delightful to roll on the tongue, if a shade ambivalent in its conclusions.

The greatest living poet of the day must have thought well of the young Dunstan, for he “brought him out,” as it were, in literary London circles. Stephen Spender and Osbert Sitwell were probably the “lions” whom Dunstan knew best. (Osbert’s sister, Edith, wrote of the young man’s poems in 1949: “Two seem quite magnificent … others very beautiful.”)  Between 1940-1942 he co-edited, with a Harvard friend, Harry Brown, the lively magazine Vice Versa. In 1943 his first volume of Poems (Simon and Schuster) was published. Lament for the Sleepwalker (Dodd Mead, 1947) was described by the American poet, Edward Field, as “equally brilliant.” 1943 saw the publication of a novel, The Dove with the Bough of Olive (Simon and Schuster; Cassells London, 1947); and, after a trip to the Middle East, a travel book, The Phoenix in the Desert (John Lehmann, London, 1951 ).

The meteoric passage of this “star of modern poetry” seemed burned out after the initial flowering. After the mid-fifties, except for an occasional poem in a magazine, Dunstan Thompson apparently ceased to write. Few of his admirers would have guessed what a wealth of work lay in waiting. Perhaps these lines from the poem, “Foresight,” anticipate re-discovery:


My poems will peer
Up through the future
Paper flowers
Set out for everyone.
And I shall wonder
Why I worried
Lest they never
Come to bloom


From about 1950 onwards, Dunstan Thompson settled in England, in the East Anglian County of Norfolk. He returned to the practice of his religion and one section of the book, poems with religious themes, is dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham. This place of pilgrimage, where a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth was built in the eleventh century, was one of the most important shrines in the Middle-ages. The shrine was destroyed in 1538 but the pilgrimage was revived in this century and is popular with both Anglicans and Catholics. The contradictions faced by every Christian at a celebrated place of worship are tellingly conjured up in the poem, “Walsingham.”

Having settled in his adopted Norfolk, Dunstan rarely left it. His health was poor, but it would be a mistake to think of him as a recluse. A voracious reader, he kept in touch with world affairs and with political, economic and artistic events. “Modern” is not a word I would attach to his work in either style or content; it is contemporary without being fashionable. The range of subjects is huge. A formidable classical background is complimented by a keen understanding of history. Attic heroes jostle with Mary, Queen of Scots, and Theodoric with the Pompadour. Or History recedes to make way for the ordinary or insignificant-the touching cameo of a pensioner fingering precious Christmas greetings, or the work-worn scrub woman whispering prayers at early Mass. A rich variety of character and incident make this a book to return to again and again.

Dunstan balances a moving awareness of man’s shortcomings with a trusting faith in Salvation, and his wistful melancholy is never wholly devoid of hope. Neither is humour lacking, and here one traces the European milieu of his upbringing. Genuine passion is most often directed at overt wealth, at “tragic money-men” or “hard-mouthed merchant bankers.” Tender descriptions of the natural world are stitched into a series of “still lives.” “The chaffinch looks around the world, and takes his time with August” exactly captures this cheerful little bird at that languorous time of year. Or there is Rosalie, beloved cat and close companion, “all furr and purr.”

This poet belongs to both sides of the Atlantic and either side may claim him. In fact, of course, he is beyond the reach of both. We have lost his face and form. But it is not too late to capture his spirit and his thought. If I tempt anyone to hunt out this book and pause awhile with Dunstan Thompson, I am glad of it. There is much to admire, to savour and to enjoy.

This review opens the door a mere crack. Philip Trower has made it possible for anyone to walk inside and explore the world of this neglected poet.




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