When the American Catholic poet Dunstan Thompson died in 1975, his death went virtually unnoticed. One of the rising literary stars of the 1940’s, his poetry had been practically forgotten, except among a few scholars and devoted readers. Today, Thompson still remains largely unknown, but thanks to the publication of Here at Last is Love—a new collection of Thompson’s best poems—that may change. Edited by Gregory Wolfe, whose introduction is as splendid as Dana Gioia’s afterword, this is a book for poetry lovers everywhere—or anyone interested in the struggles of Christian faith, which permeated Thompson’s life and work.
Thompson’s rise to literary stardom was as meteoric as its collapse. Born in 1918, to a well-to-do Catholic couple, Thompson was a precocious youth, filled with ambition and nervous energy. After entering Harvard in 1936, he immediately made a mark as an undergraduate—writing for the Harvard Monthly, and studying with the poet Conrad Aiken—but Dunstan’s talents outpaced his patience with education, and he dropped out of Harvard before earning his degree.
Thanks to a legacy from his aunt, Thompson had enough money to move to New York, and, with a fellow Harvard drop-out, start a new literary magazine called Vice Versa-attracting famous contributors like W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound and Dylan Thomas. At the same time, Thompson began writing his own impressive poetry.
In 1943—by which time he had enlisted in the U.S. army, and been stationed in England—Thompson published his first book, Poems, which received tremendous acclaim, and made him a presence in London’s literary scene. Dark, brooding, lyrical and intense, these early poems dealt with war, suffering, loneliness and—somewhat daringly—sex. Thompson, by that time, had taken to drink, given up Catholicism, and engaged in a series of affairs with other young men. All of these experiences emerge in his poetry, though even Catholic publications praised him, recognizing his work dealt with more universal human themes. Commonweal magazine, for example, wrote of Thompson in 1944:
Here is a living, speaking voice of youth enmeshed in war…. [Thompson’s] language is steeped with metaphors and usages and allusions which hold their most intense meaning only for a reader equally steeped in the central stream of Western culture.
Because of his limited military duties—Thompson never saw combat, and engaged in mostly clerical work—he had time to cultivate his craft, and raise his literary stature. After the success of Poems, Dunstan was photographed in uniform by Vogue— “the romantic embodiment of the aesthete soldier-poet” (to quote Gioia). Still only in his twenties, he was introduced to such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, Cyril Connolly and the Sitwells, among others. Thompson seemed to be living a young poet’s dream.
As the War ended, and he prepared to publish his second collection of poetry, Lament for the Sleepwalker (1947), Thompson met and fell in love with a British soldier, Philip Trower, who would become his lifelong companion. But that is where Thompson’s story takes a dramatic turn.
In 1950, Pope Pius XII had proclaimed a Holy Year, and also announced his intention to proclaim the Dogma of Our Lady’s Assumption. Dunstan, who by then had been living with Philip for several years, suddenly suggested they attend the ceremony—an odd thing to do for two lapsed Christians living a life far apart from Catholic teaching. But something was stirring in Dunston’s soul.
After their visit to Rome, and the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (close to their home in England), Dunston’s faith was reawakened. Memories of his visits to Rome as a child—where he had attended the canonizations of St. Therese of Lisieux and met Pope Pius XI—came flooding back, and he immersed himself in Catholic theology and literature, as much as modern poetry. Within two years, he told Philip he had decided to return to the Church, which, of course, would now mean a celibate friendship between the two.
To Dunstan’s surprise—and joy—Philip, a lapsed Anglican who had nonetheless felt uneasy about their lifestyle for years, agreed it was the right thing to do. Philip, who had his own spiritual longings, then followed Thompson into the Church, six months later. With the permission of their spiritual director, an orthodox but sensitive Jesuit priest, the two lived together in the same house the rest of their lives— as chaste friends and practicing Catholics— until Thompson’s death from cancer, at age 57, in 1975.
Thompson’s conversion did not, it should be stressed, lessen his interest in poetry; it increased it. He continued to write, and became even more prolific, producing hundreds of new poems. Unlike the earlier ones, however, they adopted more historical and religious themes, and differed in both style and content. As Gioia writes of them: “No longer agonizingly searching for his place in the world, the poet speaks from the security of a meaningfully situated life.”
As can be seen in Here at Last is Love, these later poems are beautiful, and equal, if not surpass, the power of his earlier poems. But that is not how the secular literary world treated them. After Lament for the Sleepwalker, Thompson never published another book of poetry again, and only a few of his post-conversion poems appeared in prominent journals. For the most part, his new poems met with mass rejections, and many remained unpublished at the time of his death. Thompson never lost his talent, but he had lost his audience.
In 1984, Trower tried to correct this situation by publishing Dunstan Thompson, Poems, 1950-1974, privately. But they have remained virtually unknown until recently.
One factor preventing a consensus on Thompson’s achievement is that his life and work—regrettably, but perhaps unavoidably— has been drawn into the present-day culture war. Anyone who is gay and Catholic-especially someone who is gay, has been sexually active, and then reformed his life by adhering to Catholic teaching —is bound to be controversial, and Thompson has become doubly so, because of his past fame and current revival.
On the one hand, are commentators who champion Thompson’s later “Catholic period,” and the poetry that emerged from it; and on the other, those who celebrate his earlier “gay period,” and criticize the later poetry as inferior, the supposed result of the Church’s baneful influence. Some in the latter camp remain upset that Thompson chose Catholicism over a homosexual lifestyle, with one critic commenting: “It pains me to think of this brilliant, groundbreaking poet grown old and irrelevant, cloistered in a cottage by the sea and denying himself physical intimacy with the man he’d loved for thirty years.”
But this depiction of Dunstan Thompson, as Philip Trower (who is still living at 92) told me recently, “is pure imagination.” The only thing painful about Thompson’s later life was the disease that ended it far too early. Both he and Trower were extremely happy after their conversions and decision to live chastely—especially when attending Mass and receiving Holy Communion. Moreover, Dunstan gave Philip a handwritten note, shortly before his death, expressing how grateful he was to live in the countryside, and in full communion with the Church. After his conversion, Thompson never again spent extended periods of time in either New York or London, precisely because he feared their surroundings would tempt him back into his previous life.
Among the many virtues of Here at Last is Love is that it reprints poems from both periods of Dunstan Thompson’s life, and allows readers to judge for themselves their merits. Reading them, I could not help but be deeply moved by Thompson’s journey, which culminates in his return to the Lord, after years of exile, beautifully expressed in “Fragment for Christmas:”
Dear Lord, and only ever faithful friend,
For love of us rejected, tortured, torn-
And we were there; who on the third day rose
Again, and still looks after us; descend
Into each wrecked unstable house; be born
In us, a Child among Your former foes.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.