To sing is the work of a lover.
Like most poets, Dunstan Thompson has been neglected. His early work has been out of print for seventy years. His later work appeared only in a posthumous edition that was never commercially distributed. No current anthologies reprint his poems. His critical prose has never been collected. His novel and travel book have become items for antiquarian booksellers. Although Thompson enjoyed considerable fame in the 1940s, his reputation evaporated within his own lifetime. Until D. A. Powell and Kevin Prufer compiled their tribute volume, Dunstan Thompson: On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master (2010), one might have said that the author had been entirely forgotten. Even now most poetry readers will not recognize his name.
Thompson, however, is a neglected poet with a difference. Despite his obscurity, he has managed to generate controversy. Invisible in the broader culture, he has attracted a fitful audience, though few—both enthusiastic and openly partisan. In the forty years since his death in 1975, Thompson’s work has continued to be read and discussed among poetic coteries in both England and America, though their commentary has rarely appeared in print. The people who care about his legacy have known it is good enough to argue about.
Two contradictory views of Thompson and his poetry have emerged, which seem to reflect an irreconcilable dichotomy inherent in both his life and work. Each faction has made exclusive claim to his legacy. For one group, Thompson stands as a pioneering poet of gay experience and sensibility. He was one of the first poets—and certainly the best of the World War II era—to write openly about homosexual experience. Although his language remained slightly coded—even straight sex could not be depicted literally at that time without censorship or prosecution—there was little ambiguity about the hidden world of casual sexual encounters he describes so powerfully in his neo-romantic and rhapsodic poems. An heir to Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, Thompson stands, to quote Jim Elledge, as “a kindred soul” to contemporary gay poets.
To the second group, Thompson ranks as one of the important English-language Catholic poets of the twentieth century. A neo-classical writer of cosmopolitan sensibility, he cultivated an austere and formal style to explore themes of history, culture, and religion. In ways that seem more European than American, the mature Thompson also used the long perspectives of Christian and Classical history to understand the modern world after the devastations, dislocations, and atrocities of a troubled century.
There is no question that Thompson’s poetry falls into two parts—the early work published during the 1940s and the later work gathered posthumously in 1984. (There is no discernible middle period since Thompson published mainly prose in the decade after the war.) Each period presents a very different sense of the author—two divergent voices and concerns. Each period also employs a radically different style. The early verse is expansive, ornate, dramatic, and confessional. The later poetry is austere, urbane, controlled, and quietly confident. One cannot confuse the two styles, but is style the full measure of the man? Are there really two different Dunstan Thompsons? Does the youthful romantic really have so little in common with the mature classicist? Does admiring the poetry of one period prevent an appreciation of the other?
The controversy over Thompson’s legacy has been further exaggerated by the fact that many commentators have read only part of the author’s work and know only fragments of his life. Such ignorance is hardly surprising given the difficulty and expense of obtaining Thompson’s books and the lack of reliable information about his life. There are no collected poems, no published letters, and no biography. The author himself complicated the situation because he so strongly preferred his later work that he declined to have his early poems reprinted—“a waste of youth,” he called them. His literary executor and surviving partner Philip Trower has respected that request until now. The long overdue publication of Thompson’s Selected Poems, edited by Gregory Wolfe, finally provides the opportunity to see this fascinating author’s poetry in perspective.
I was not yet in love, yet I loved to love.
Dunstan Thompson was born in New London, Connecticut in 1918. His father was a naval officer who was frequently at sea. His mother was a shy, religious woman who was impractical with money. An only child, Thompson travelled extensively with his mother, once even visiting Panama when his father was stationed in the Canal Zone. Growing up mostly in Annapolis, Maryland, Thompson attended half a dozen Catholic schools before entering Harvard in 1936. He was a conspicuously sophisticated and literary undergraduate who wrote for the Harvard Monthly and spent one summer in England as a private student of the poet Conrad Aiken. In 1939 Thompson left Harvard probably to avoid being expelled for bad grades. By then he had not only discovered his poetic ambitions but also his homosexuality.
Using a legacy from his aunt, Thompson moved to New York where he and his fellow Harvard poet and drop-out, Harry Brown, published Vice Versa, an ambitious and irreverent small magazine. (Brown would become a best-selling novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter.) Lasting only three issues, Vice Versa presented work by W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Weldon Kees, and Edith Sitwell as well as scathing reviews of well-known writers. Young, affluent, and obviously talented, the poet thrived in literary Manhattan. He also cultivated friendships with Oscar Williams and Horace Gregory, two leading anthologists of the era.
America’s entry into World War II brought Thompson’s New York idyll to an end. Full of anxiety about his future, Thompson enlisted in 1942. His fears of an early death proved groundless. “I had a gallant war record,” he remembered years later, “carrying Coca-Cola bottles to sergeants, and writing the Colonel’s letters to friends back home. He used to mess up the grammar afterwards to make it sound authentic.” In late 1943, Thompson was stationed in England. His light military duties allowed him to explore both London’s literary world and its gay subculture. Despite the war, the gregarious Thompson moved with ease in literary circles meeting T. S. Eliot, Cyril Connolly, the Sitwells—finding, as Aiken observed, “all the Right People in two seconds flat.” More important, in 1945 Thompson met Philip Trower, a young British intelligence officer on leave from Cairo. After being discharged from the Army later that year, he joined Trower in Cairo. They would spend the rest of their lives together.
The war did not stop Thompson’s literary career. He published his first book, Poems (1943), in New York where it gathered considerable acclaim. An English edition followed three years later. Frail but delicately handsome, he was photographed in uniform by Vogue—the romantic embodiment of the aesthete soldier-poet. In 1946 Thompson’s second book, Lament for the Sleepwalkers, appeared in the U.S. By then the author was in the Middle East researching a travel book, The Phoenix in the Desert (1951). By the time that he and Trower returned to England in 1947, Thompson had become a significant literary figure. Inspired by Thompson’s example and success, Trower had also decided he would become a journalist.
Returning to England brought a serious complication. Thompson’s legacy was not large enough to cover the costs of postwar London. As a temporary measure, he and Trower moved to the village of Cley next the Sea in Norfolk. Thompson probably assumed that his prose projects would soon allow them to return to the metropolis, but his travel book enjoyed only a modest success, and his novel, The Dove with the Bough of Olives (1954), proved a commercial failure. No more books would appear during his lifetime. Nor would he and Trower ever leave Cley.
In the meantime both men underwent a private transformation. Thompson had abandoned Catholicism at Harvard, though he had never entirely renounced the faith. In 1952 he told his lover (who had been raised an Anglican) that he wanted to practice the Catholic faith again. Trower was initially taken by surprise, but six months later he followed Thompson into the Church. The two men also made the bold move to ask for ecclesiastical permission to live together as a celibate couple, which, mirabile dictu, was granted. (Their spiritual advisor wisely felt that they would live their faith more successfully together than apart.) Although their platonic lifestyle has been criticized by some gay commentators (and their ecclesiastical license has astonished some Catholic ones), the couple’s decision evidently worked. The two men spent the rest of their life together as a loving, contented, and very Catholic couple—a happiness attested to over the years by many visitors, both gay and straight. Thompson continued to write poetry but with little public success. A few poems appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review, and Horizon, but his next three manuscripts remained unpublished in his lifetime. Meanwhile Trower prospered in his new career, eventually becoming a major Catholic journalist. Thompson died in 1975 after a long and painful decline from liver cancer. He was 57 years old. Trower continued as a journalist for the next forty years. Now 91, he lives in Cheltenham.
Beauty grows in you to the extent that love grows.
The young Thompson was a poet of evident power and individuality. His stylistic signature is so strong that one immediately recognizes his work, even in short quotations. The adjective habitually used to characterize his early verse is “baroque”—an evocative but inexact literary term, at least in English. In Romance language poetry, the baroque style emphasizes mood and rhetorical display over narrative description; it abounds in metaphorical conceits, complex puns, elaborate syntax, and unusual similes. Thompson, however, has little in common with baroque masters such as Luis de Góngora or Giambattista Marino—except in his Catholicism and penchant for elevated style. Presumably, critics have imported the term to suggest the emotional and stylistic extravagance of the early poems. Rather than the rhetorical and metaphorical bravado of a Góngora, in Thompson’s case the term evokes the high drama of baroque painting and sculpture—replete with the martyred saints, yearning nudes, and shadowy revelers.
Significantly, the term “baroque” also carries a pejorative sense in English. Not surprisingly, it was first employed to censure Thompson in one of the earliest reviews of Poems. Howard Moss, later the poetry editor of the New Yorker, criticized the book’s “baroque dishonesty,” declaring that Thompson’s poems “are moving, then, when they are most simple.” Even when the poet’s champions flourish the label approvingly, the term suggests that there is something at least potentially excessive and histrionic under discussion—a style that is richly fragrant but overly perfumed. The term will surely linger in Thompson’s case and thereby continue to obscure the real source of the author’s early style, the British New Romanticism of the 1940s. The precedent would have been obvious to the poet’s early readers, but today it requires a scholarly gloss.
Despite his strong personality, the young Thompson wrote—with distinction and some originality—in a period style. Although one sees the American influences of Hart Crane and T. S. Eliot, his main influences were British—Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas. Thompson’s key model, however, was George Barker, a leader of the neo-romantic revival. Now an author almost as obscure as Thompson, Barker, who was only five years older, already loomed as a major figure in the years just before World War II. A guilt-ridden, working-class ex-Catholic, Barker published his first book at twenty and became the youngest poet in W. B. Yeats’s Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936). His florid and fluent rhapsodies, rife with religious imagery and erotic reverie, proved immediately popular. With unintended prescience, Edwin Muir called him “a poet of genius at a still unformed stage.” The tragedy of Barker’s career was that his undeniably great talents never achieved meaningful formation. His work remained perpetually promising but persistently inchoate.
Most young poets borrow a style; few improve it. Thompson’s accomplishment was to appropriate the elements of Barker’s verse—the densely figurative language, pitched spiritual struggles, religious imagery, tortured eroticism, and self-dramatizing tone—and then employ them more powerfully than his master. Thompson takes the New Romantic style and pushes both the language and emotions further than Barker. In theory, this intensification of an already heated aesthetic would seem a dangerous strategy. In Thompson’s idiosyncratic practice, it worked. Thompson created a poetic vehicle strong enough to carry his heavy anxieties—sexual, religious, political, and poetic. Here is the feverish and compelling “Tarquin,” a portrait of a seductive sexual predator:
The red-haired robber in the ravished bed
Is doomsday driven, and averts his head,
Turning to spurn the spoiled subjected body,
That, lately lying altar for his ardor,
Uncandled, scandalizes him, afraid he
Has lost his lifetime in a moment’s murder:
He is the sinner who is saint instead:
The dark night makes him wish that he were dead.
What daring could not do, the drinks have done:
The limbo lad communicated one
Last sacrament, and, fast as falling, heaven
No longer held a stranger to emotion,
Who like a star, unsexed, unshamed, unshriven,
Was hurled, a lost world, whirling past damnation:
Circled by chaos but by eros spun,
The devil burned much brighter than the sun.
This bellboy beauty, this flamingo groom,
Who left his nickname soul too little room
For blood on blades of grass, must now turn over
Feel for the fatal flower, the hothouse sterile
Rose, raised in no god’s praise, and, like death, never
Again enjoyed, must make his madness moral:
Washed by the inland waters of the womb,
The salt sheet is his shroud, the bed his tomb.
It is always difficult and sometimes fatal to measure the sincerity of a literary work. “All bad poetry,” remarked Oscar Wilde, “springs from genuine feeling.” Sincerity is no guarantee of artistic success, but at the heart of most literature is the urge to make the reader feel the reality of the writer’s experience. In Thompson’s case, the question of sincerity seems unavoidable. There are serious criticisms to be made of his early work—especially its prolixity, emotional self-absorption, and circumlocutionary structure. Why do these overwritten and overheated lines nonetheless deliver such an emotional impact? What redeems the poem is its tangible sense of authenticity—this is how it must actually feel. This sincerity, in turn, seems to emerge from the confessional nature of the work.
The central impulse of Thompson’s early poetry is lyric confession. The language is gorgeously decorated, the meter seductively steady, and the sins elaborately coded, but the confessional nature of the work is never ambiguous. The speaker compulsively bares his suffering and confusion to the reader—his hunger for male love, sexual guilt, painful romantic rejection, fear of death. Today these may be standard topics in undergraduate writing workshops, but in the wartime years these were not easy confessions to make, especially for an American in uniform. Thompson’s self-exposure came at the risk of public shame and potential persecution—particularly the admission of homosexual affairs with fellow servicemen, which not only broke the law but also violated strict social codes of silence. “No tears in the writer,” Robert Frost claimed, “no tears in the reader.” Keening its vast and insistent threnody, the best of Thompson’s tear-soaked early work transcends its own sentimentality mostly by its sheer frenetic persistence. All of the wrong notes seem small in comparison to its large, symphonic sweep.
The style of Thompson’s early poetry is highly musical, metrically formal, and self-dramatizing. The language is packed with alliteration, internal rhyme, and assonance. The lines unfold sonorously in regular stanzas often mixing full and slant rhymes. There is lyrical repetition of lines and phrases. (The refrain is one of Thompson’s signature devices.) The meter is almost always iambic, usually pentameter, a natural choice for a formal poet striving for resonant music. Thompson also occasionally employs iambic hexameter, which echoes the alexandrines of Charles Baudelaire and the Symbolists. Some poets underplay the metrical beat; Thompson accentuates it. One can recognize Thompson’s hammered and alliterative style even in a single line:
The red-haired robber in the ravished bed (“Tarquin”)
The head is human but the eyes are glass (“The Point of No Return”)
Narcissus, doubled in the melting mirror, smiles (“Largo”)
Where is the clock to tell my time of tears (“Where is the Clock to Tell My Time of Tears”)
The strangler with his four and frantic hands (“Lament for the Sleepwalker”)
Thompson reveled in the hypnotic quality of formal rhythms. His mode is essentially rhapsodic—an attempt to cast an emotional spell over the listener. The structures of meaning are not logical or expository but musical. His poems move in circles with repeating words, lines, or refrains. His phrasing is often stylized and artificial, remote from the colloquial. Here is just half of the ornate and periphrastic opening sentence of “The Point of No Return”:
See him now, how unhurried he destroys
The tick-tock meaning of the nursery boy’s
Nostalgia for love’s never-never land,
And, fairy-story prince turned toad, spews out.
Thompson’s densely crafted poems communicate mostly through inference and association. (Here one sees the influence of Hart Crane, the master of lyric indirection.)
Thompson’s aesthetic is auditory; the poems are meant to be heard. The rhetoric is overtly dramatic—usually spoken by an “I” often addressing a mysterious “You.” “Water Music,” which opens Thompson’s first volume, Poems, begins:
Over the river, sleeping, sleep your nights
Of never my delights, of famous flights,
Not mine, outshining moonstone stars, displayed
Like summer sailors from black water drawn
To dance on malachite, to prance parade
Past queens last-quarter afternoons of dawn,
First sunset mornings, break-of-day midnights,
O as the snow swans end their Rhenish flights.
This passage is so flamboyantly overwritten that it acquires, amid its studied decadence, a sort of innocent and awkward charm. Ignoring the austerities of modern poetry, it unabashedly aspires towards the condition of music—the ripest late romantic music. Indeed, the author’s intent is to charm in the older sense of creating an enchantment. Thompson casts a spell to bring the reader—and in a different way his lover—into a dark world that might otherwise seem forbidding. Seen from this perspective, Thompson’s elaborate style is not simply a means to camouflage his homoerotic subject matter, it is also a musical formula to seduce the reader into feeling the private experiences being described.
“Water Music” presents its subject both directly (a nocturne sung to an absent lover) and indirectly (the images from the nocturnal world of rough trade along the docks). No degree in cryptography is required to decode the images of “summer sailors,” “queens,” and “swans.” In Thompson’s early books, the speaker is simultaneously intoxicated by the pleasures of casual sex and repelled by its predatory and reckless nature. No American poet had ever presented the homosexual milieu of the modern metropolis so frankly or so memorably. Auden had universalized the language of his love poems to mask their gay identity. Thompson’s imagery is specifically homosexual. These are elegies on what Edward Field has called “pickups in the dark.” Thompson’s poems neither explicate nor document this underworld. Instead, they simply inhabit this secret city in vividly personal terms. In his combination of high romantic music, urban angst, and dark sexuality, the young Thompson found his distinctive voice.
The punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.
The obsessive theme of Thompson’s early work is the doomed relationship between sex and love in a perilous world. Even when he deals with other subjects, notably war and death, they are viewed through an erotic lens. Passionate, impulsive, and melancholy, these are the poems of a vulnerable young man, not sure of his place in the world and afraid of a war he cannot escape. The speaker’s voice is so strongly defined—in both the best and worst poems—that a unified, autobiographical persona emerges whose erotic ardor and existential panic permeate both early volumes. The sexual vision is dark and dangerous. “The boy who brought me beauty brought me death,” the speaker laments in “Articles of War”—one of the many lines in Thompson’s work that prefigure the poetry of the AIDS era. Sexual beauty is accompanied by deception and menace, “For the devil, good-looking as a movie star, / Moves among us.” Lost in a carnal wilderness in a treacherous time, the speaker longs for the certainty of a true, defining love. This repeated dream of a perfect and enduring union will prove to be what links Thompson’s early poetry to his later work.
Thompson is a war poet of odd originality. He depicts World War II not as a battlefield or training ground—the usual settings of his soldier-poet contemporaries.—but presents it indirectly through an urban nightscape of young men seeking furtive pleasure as they powerlessly await their destinies. The war is lethally real, but it remains elsewhere and invisible. The young soldier’s anxiety is one of Thompson’s recurring themes, but it usually serves as background for the erotic dramas unfolding in the poems. War sometimes serves simultaneously as subject and metaphor, as in one of Thompson’s most compressed and accomplished poems, “This Loneliness For You Is Like The Wound”:
This loneliness for you is like the wound
That keeps the soldier patient in his bed,
Smiling to soothe the general on his round
Of visits to the somehow not yet dead;
Who, after he has pinned a cross above
The bullet-bearing heart, when told that his
Is one who held the hill, bends down to give
Folly a diffident embarrassed kiss.
But once that medaled moment passes, O,
Disaster, charging on the fever chart,
Wins the last battle, takes the heights, and he
Succumbs before his reinforcements start.
Yet now, when death is not a metaphor,
Who dares to say that love is like the war?
This sonnet unfolds as a single extended simile, a metaphysical conceit that might actually be called baroque in the spirit of Giambattista Marino: the lover’s loneliness is like a soldier’s wound. Through synecdoche, the speaker then becomes the heroic, dying soldier who bears the wound. Reveling in the pathos of the situation, the speaker oddly resists its heroic implication. He presents the heroism ironically as a “folly” in a grotesque death scene with the general kissing the doomed man. The sonnet teeters on the edge of sentimentality and self-pity, but before the reader can bring this charge to the poem, the speaker delivers his own stern verdict in the self-lacerating final couplet, which dismisses the poetic fiction he has so carefully constructed. (The powerful use of the Shakespearean sonnet’s closing couplet recalls a slightly earlier Shakespearean sonnet of the period, which also uses the war as a metaphor for personal anxiety—“For My Daughter” by Weldon Kees, a poet Thompson published in Vice Versa.)
The characteristic virtues of Thompson’s early style—its extravagant music, feverish tone, coded eroticism, and circular structure—become its weaknesses when overextended. Composing his poems in formal stanzas, Thompson often tries to sustain his volatile and emotive tunes like a singer who repeats a refrain one time too many. The early poems are unabashedly ambitious–extended lyric odes in the romantic (and New Romantic) manner. The grandest of these odes is “Largo,” the central work in Poems. Cast in an elaborate fifteen-line rhymed stanza of Thompson’s own design, “Largo” stretches across 180 lines—longer than Keats’s three greatest odes combined. Full of powerful feeling and lyric invention, this impressive exercise in the sublime is so fraught with literary allusion and histrionic gesture that it cannot carry the weight of its own aspirations. Poems also contains two other long sequences, “Articles of War” and “Images of Disaster,” each of which runs eight pages, but neither poem summons even the intermittent power of “Largo.” Thompson is at his best when most concentrated. Perhaps his finest early poem, “Tarquin,” the chilling portrait of a ravishing predator, runs only three 8-line stanzas (in an intricate double- envelope rhyme scheme). It is surely significant that so many of Thompson’s best poems, early and late, are sonnets. Fervor requires a framework.
What am I to you that you command me to love you?
Thompson returned to Catholicism in 1952. This decision, which reshaped his poetry, grew out of a new stability in his personal situation. The first half of his life had been largely itinerant; the second part settled securely in Norfolk. He had never before resided in the country. The quiet pace and solitude provided contemplative space that allowed him to reexamine his religious beliefs. Thompson’s literary success had never been commercial, but he had enjoyed considerable recognition since his early twenties. As his public career faded after the failure of his novel, Cley also protected him from both the cultural competition and financial pressures of London. Norfolk’s isolation allowed him to moderate the heavy social drinking that had characterized his New York and London years. His inner life calmed. His turbulent search for “the always loving heart” had led him to Trower, his spiritual hungers back to his childhood faith. “I’m so grateful to God for keeping me hidden away in this unknown village,” he remarked shortly before his death. Not surprisingly, these profound changes transformed his poetry, though not exactly in the ways some critics have maintained.
A common assumption about Thompson’s career is that he changed from a glorious gay pagan celebrating the world, the flesh, and the devil to a pious Catholic contemplating eternity, the soul, and salvation. Such a neat dichotomy makes it easy to generalize about the poetry. The problem is that a careful study of the work itself does not support the theory that Thompson changed (in Edward Field’s pithy but inaccurate formula) “from brilliant bad boy to repentant sinner.” The poems tell a more complicated and interesting story. They demonstrate both continuities and dislocations in his work. They also suggest that Thompson’s main transformation was not theological but emotional.
There is no confusing Thompson’s early and later verse. They not only differ in style; the tone, manner, and subjects of the two periods also bear little resemblance to one another. If Thompson’s early verse is flamboyantly neo-romantic, the later work is calmly neo-classical. It eschews emotional fervor for measured reflection. No longer agonizingly searching for his place in the world, the poet speaks from the security of a meaningfully situated life. A reader may disagree with Thompson’s choices—some proponents of the early work have—but there is no disputing the psychological and emotional stability that characterizes the later poems. “I owe my heart / Unfettered and my soul at rest. / To you, who offer more than all my art / Can match,” he writes in a late poem to Trower. A critic may miss the youthful Sturm und Drang; Thompson did not. “Only the old are grateful,” he writes, “not the young.”
Freed from the traumatic struggles that had previously formed its central subject, Thompson’s poetry either had to change or sink into self-parody. His solution was to reinvent himself—from a Dionysian romantic with a single lyric style and subject into an Apollonian classicist exploring a great variety of subjects, forms, and genres. His style cooled becoming more austere and controlled. The tone shifted from vatic to conversational. The growth of his verse technique is also noteworthy. If Thompson’s early work is characterized by its masterful use of iambic pentameter, the later poetry displays metrical diversity and formal experimentation. His prosodic patterns change from page to page. For the first time he uses free verse. No longer locked into a single rhapsodic mode, Thompson writes dramatic monologues, narratives, hymns, satires, epigrams, epistles, devotions, discursive meditations, as well as short lyrics. Thompson also became prolific. The “Red Book,” as the posthumously published Poems: 1950-1974 is often called, contains five times as many poems as the two early books combined. It is not surprising that readers smitten by the early poems find the later work foreign. It changed radically in most respects. What unites Thompson’s earlier and later work is his personal identity as both gay and Catholic. The expression of that complicated double identity differs significantly, but it persists as an animating presence. The obvious fact that some of Thompson’s gay advocates and Catholic admirers find the combination troublesome does not alter its continuity.
It is a great mistake to divide Thompson’s career into Catholic and non-Catholic periods. Roman Catholicism haunts all of his writing, even the novel and travelogue. The early poetry is as deeply and explicitly theological as the later work. What mostly differs is the speaker’s perceived relationship toward grace and redemption. Edward Field’s formula is exactly backwards: only in Thompson’s early work does the persona of the guilt-ridden sinner appear. This torturously divided soul, vacillating between carnal desire and spiritual despair, serves as the protagonist of the early work. If the young Thompson was indeed a “brilliant bad boy,” he was also the very poster child of Catholic guilt. For him, sexual inebriation inevitably led to a theological hangover. By contrast, the calm and grateful persona of the later work is unconcerned with guilt or repentance.
The title of the early poem “Memorare,” for instance, which means “remember” in Latin, alludes to a popular Catholic prayer of “guilty and sorrowful” supplication to the Virgin Mary. On a literal level, “Memorare” is a war poem in the form of a benediction for the “lost lads” killed in battle on earth, air, and sea. Oddly for an American poem written in the aftermath of the Battle of Britain and London Blitz, Thompson’s lament mourns all the dead, allied or enemy, who share physical destruction, erotic desolation, and spiritual abandonment. Published a month before Pearl Harbor, the poem’s neutrality was not yet politically problematic, but this verse prayer remains the strangest war poem of the period— simultaneously a religious lament and homoerotic elegy for the young male dead. The dead lads in uniform are so explicitly eroticized as lovers, often in homosexual terms—“a gay ghost at land’s end,” for instance—that is difficult not to feel “Memorare” as a universal gay lament. It is unclear who the “you” addressed in the poem is—God, the Virgin Mary, all enlisted men, humanity itself, or just the poet—though its devotional rhetoric suggests a supernatural agency. Whomever it invokes, “Memorare” never ceases to be a prayer of both curtailed love and sorrowful supplication. It concludes:
Remember the enemy, always remembering you,
Whose heartbreaks heartbeat defeats, who too,
Shedding tears during prayers for the dead, discovers
Himself forever alone, the last of his lovers
Laid low for love, and, O at your mercy, murdered.
The lost lads are gone
God grace them
To miss the Catholicism in Thompson’s early work is to misread it. Although the early lyrics deal obsessively with love and sex, the context in which the poet presents his erotic struggle is theological and specifically Catholic. Here is a stanza from one of Thompson’s most explicitly sexual poems, “The Point of No Return,” a nightmare vision of a gay Times Square hustler and drug addict:
What welter of the womb that air breath day
The serpent signified once more in clay:
Later, the data of a Christ-crossed class
The garbage gift of faith, slag heap of hope,
Concerning charity—the sounding brass:
Those cardinals triple crowned this antipope,
Whose keys are skeleton, whose ring is gay
With fools for jewels, whose blessings playboys pray.
In eight lines, one finds twelve Catholic images and allusions: the serpent, Christ, the cross, the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, cardinals, the papal crown, the antipope, ring, keys, and a phrase from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. (One could press four further claims—womb, clay, blessings, and pray—but the point is already made.) Why is there such an extraordinary density of sacred imagery in a poem ostensibly about a street hustler? Thompson’s feverish dramas exist in a theological framework. The sordid and sexual are inseparable from the supernatural.
There has been a hesitation among both gay and Christian readers to recognize that Thompson’s homosexuality and Catholicism co-exist throughout his career. Just as the early poems are saturated with religion, the later work continues to reflect his gay identity—not perhaps in ways consistent with current orthodox opinion but nonetheless apparent. Sexuality has many expressions, including celibacy. Thompson’s return to Catholic practice did not change his sexual orientation or eradicate his libido; it only provided the spiritual means to sublimate eros into agape. (Trower’s unpublished memoir makes it clear that neither man denied his sexual orientation, however much they controlled its physical expression.) The “Red Book” contains several love poems to Trower, which may be chaste but are nonetheless full of passionate devotion to the man Thompson felt had redeemed his life.
There is also a common notion that Catholic poetry is a literature of saintly and well-behaved writers—a pious cliché shared by some Catholic and secular critics. This platitude has no basis in either theology or literary history. There is, of course, a great tradition of Catholic devotional literature from Boethius and Hildegard von Bingen to Thomas Merton and Simone Weil. Most Catholic imaginative literature, however, has been obsessed with sin. To be a Catholic is to recognize one’s self as a sinner in a fallen world, and the central narrative of Catholic literature is the sinner’s difficult journey toward salvation. Dante’s Commedia, which begins in the dark wood of the author’s own depravity, presents the full journey of the spirit from perdition to redemption. Many great writers, however, have portrayed only the darker part of the journey—often because that is where their own lives have stalled. Take, for instance, two authors whom Thompson greatly admired, François Villon and Charles Baudelaire. They were both self-proclaimed sinners, who declared they were likely destined for damnation. Baudelaire and Villon were no less Catholic for their sinfulness. Like salvation, damnation has its literary canon. Catholicism is a faith and worldview, not an outcome. From this perspective, Thompson’s early poetry, which portrays his tormented struggle toward redemption, is both a landmark in American gay literature and his greatest contribution to modern Catholic literature.
Ironically, Catholicism is actually less visible in Thompson’s later work. He does not disguise his faith, but he doesn’t so habitually present it. Poems: 1950-1974 contains some devotional poems, but religion is not its primary topic. The central subject is quite secular, namely history. The older Thompson obsessively ponders the past as a window into the human condition. His interests range from India and China to the United States and Panama, but his main focus is Europe, especially its ancient history. Thompson meditates on the lives of emperors, tyrants, philosophers, poets, and soldiers. He imagines “Ovid on the Dacian Coast,” “Hannibal at the Armenian Court,” and “Virgil at Brundisium.” There are over a hundred historical poems in the posthumous collection. Thompson’s subject matter is notably similar to that of another gay Christian poet fascinated by history, Constantine Cavafy, a lax and lubricious yet loyal Greek Orthodox. Thompson writes poems on historical Christian subjects, such as his epigrammatic sequence on St. Augustine and his passionate sonnet on Cardinal Manning, the great Victorian champion of social justice for the poor. But usually Thompson, like Cavafy, finds sinners more interesting than saints. Of course, there is a case to be made that Thompson’s choice of history as his subject betrays his essentially Catholic imagination, which takes as its natural purview the long perspective from the present back to the time of Christ and the Caesars.
The mature Thompson also reveals a surprising gift for epigram, a linguistic compression impossible to predict from his expansive early work. The “Red Book” is full of epigrammatic verse, some self-contained, some remarkably built into sequences. Appropriating the classical tradition of Martial and the Greek Anthology, Thompson uses the form to ponder eminent figures of antiquity in superbly pointed epigrams on Seneca, Tacitus, Apollodorus of Athens, Caligula, Nero, and many others. In “Horace,” Thompson neatly anatomizes the great Latin poet in a way that touches on the tensions and temptations of his own literary career:
Perfection measured into every part:
Nothing is wanting save, perhaps a heart;
But when you are so clever from the start,
Love almost always loses out to art.
Take up and read.
There is a final factor to consider in Thompson’s later development. In middle age a writer gains perspective on his own life and work. He also better understands the careers of his contemporaries. Thompson’s early adulthood was characterized by passionate excess. Both his poetry and literary identity emerged from that intense but precarious existence, an unstable mix creativity and anxiety, love and promiscuity, exuberant sociability and alcoholism. As the fuel that fired his poetry, Thompson’s life risked becoming aestheticized into a self-consuming artifact. Settled in Norfolk, he pondered the lethal toll that alcoholic disorder and emotional exhibitionism had taken on his contemporaries. “Some I knew / Took to drink / And died gladly,” Thompson writes in “Memoirs,” observing how many of his contemporaries were destroyed by sex or alcohol. “There were writers / Who did not write / Or wrote badly.” Dylan Thomas had died at 39. George Barker had sunk into self-parody. (Hart Crane’s alcoholic decline and early suicide haunted Thompson, eventually becoming the subject of one of his last, longest, and worst poems.) The failure of New Romanticism was not only aesthetic but moral; it fostered a voyeuristic cult of the self-destructive artist pushing experience to the limit for the delectation of the audience. A quarter century later the pathological tendency would reemerge as Confessional poetry and contribute to the deaths of John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and others. Thompson must have felt that he had pushed that style of both life and poetry far enough. To survive meant to change.
If critics have not yet done full justice to Thompson’s early work, the later poetry remains mostly unstudied and unknown. Anyone evaluating it faces three major obstacles– its abundance, diversity, and varying quality. There are 259 poems in the posthumous volume, many of them long. By comparison there were only 45 poems in the two early collections. The late poems also divide into many different forms and genres, some of which seem more natural to Thompson’s talents than others. All of Thompson’s work is uneven. The second half of Poems (1943), for instance, is markedly inferior to the first half. Poems: 1950-1974 is full of weak or minor poems. Thompson’s penchant for travel poems, in particular, resulted in a kind of elegant verse journalism. The “Red Book” contains dozens of colorful but not especially memorable views of foreign cities and landscapes. The travel poems are perceptive and intelligent but lack emotional force and personal connection. Likewise some of the religious poetry is diffuse, prosaic, or sentimental. As in the early work, compression focuses Thompson’s gifts; the best devotional poems are mostly short. But the “Red Book” also reveals poetic growth. The title of one of the best late poems, ”Introspection,” characterizes one particularly compelling change. Here the aging poet ponders his own romantic origins with empathy and insight: “My eye aches—the eye / Is a mirror where / Self-deceptions try / Vainly to disappear.” In poems such as “Introspection,” “Youth,” “In Rain, in Loneliness, the Late Despair,” thought is animated by powerful emotion. The two Dunstan Thompsons, for a moment at least, become one.
Dunstan Thompson is not a major poet, but he is also not a minor writer in the conventional sense of doing a few things exquisitely well. He is ambitious, original, mercurial, and uneven in equal measures. His central themes—love, sex, desire, faith, war, and history—are not minor subjects. When he fails, which is often, it is not from timidity but because he reaches for something beyond his capacity to convey. He wrote too much and often too obsessively about the same subjects. Reading him, one must overlook the flaws to find the virtues. Thompson did not change American poetry. He burned brightly for a few years, and then disappeared from public view. He left no direct literary heirs, but he has sustained a following for half a century. His voice remains vital and genuinely expressive. Thompson occupies a unique place in both Catholic and gay American letters, as well as in the literature of World War II. He will never be a popular poet, but there will be readers drawn to the passions he explores. They will not find his like elsewhere.
Published in The Hudson Review (Spring, 2015)