Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Two Poets Named Dunstan Thompson

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Two Poets Named Dunstan Thompson

Article excerpt


To sing is the work of a lover.

-St. Augustine

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 Prüfer compiled their tribute volume, Dunstan Thompson: On the Life and 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 had 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 exclu- sive 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 slighdy 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 stood, 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 neoclassical 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 quiedy confident. One cannot confuse the two styles, but is the 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 of the 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. …

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