“The prince of Atlantis: theatrical subjectivity in the poetry of Dunstan Thompson”
Someone asked me to write this, late in 2002, as part of an issue of an Internet magazine which was basically about dance history and 1940s New York. I had really stopped writing prose by that time, I didn’t want to do it at all, I had no ideas, but she insisted. I had great difficulty writing it. In the upshot, it wasn’t published. C’est la vie. As a result of writing the essay, I was suggested to a BBC producer doing a radio programme about Francis Thompson. I had given him a whole spiel about the influence of opium on Thompson’s dissociated and luxurious style before I realised that he was basically a religious affairs producer, and that all the speakers on the programme were going to be very, very pious Catholics for whom Thompson (F) was a modern Saint. I didn’t get the gig.
There is now a book about Thompson by Kevin Prufer and D.A. Powell.
There is something like a flash about the poet Dunstan Thompson (1918-75); first his poetry was so brilliant, and so ambivalent; then it vanished altogether, as if our eyes had been literally dazzled. Thompson published 4 books of poems, in 1943, 1946, 1947, and 1975. Two of them were called Poems, which is taking plainness to extremes. The second of them came out from an English publisher and is the same as the first except for 6 new poems. These were picked up in his second American book (Lament for the Sleepwalker, 1947) – so that you don’t need the English book. Thirty years later, a posthumous volume of Poems 1950-74 was published – which I just don’t find interesting. In the first Poems, stanza 3 of 'Largo' goes:
The goddess who presided at our birth was first
Of those in fancy clothes fate made us hate to fight:
The Greeks with gifts, good looks, so clever, so polite,
Like lovers quick to charm, disarming, too well versed
In violence to wear weapons while
They take a city for a smile.
By doomed ancestral voices cursed
To wander from the womb, their claws plucked out our sight,
Who nighttime thinking we are followed down the street
By blind men like ourselves, turn round again, and wait,
Only to hear the steps go past
Us standing lonely there, at last
Aware how we have failed; are now the Trojan fool
For all the arty Hellenistic tarts in plaster cast:
The ones who always rule.
For years, the only visual trace I had of Thompson was a photocopy of a painting of him reproduced in one of Oscar Williams’ anthologies. I assumed this was by Leslie Hurry – but recently realised that it was by Gene Derwood, Mrs Williams. Hurry was part of a group of New Romantic painters in England, who drew their style in the first place from a Parisian school of stage painters – Christian Berard, Eugene Berman, Pavel Tchelitchew. So, it was a logical departure when Hurry painted the backdrop for Robert Helpmann’s ballet Hamlet (1943). Hurry has vanished perhaps even more thoroughly than Thompson – almost all of his work, after decorative schemes in pubs in the 1930s which were simply torn down, was in book jackets, film posters, sets, and costume designs. However, as I look at the black and white photos of the groupings of dancers in front of his Hamlet backdrop, it seems to me that this was not only the supreme work of visual art of the English 1940s, but also the creation, of all creations, which is closest to Dunstan Thompson’s poetry. Neurosis, paradox and montage, theatricality, astounding ability to mould space and introduce a rippling movement throughout it, tragic nobility, pervasive violence, temptation and moral qualms, build a space which is super-real and internally contradictory. All of this is close to the essential Thompson poem. It is symptomatic of the time that the imagery is drawn from the cultured past (the castle of Elsinore and conventional Shakespeare staging), like Thompson’s thane of ghosts, princes, etc., but also contemporary in its sense of anguish, its overwhelming sense of inner space as a new universe. (Helpmann saw the whole ballet as 'a nightmare dream in the mind of the dying Prince'.) Thompson’s use of myth is what allows him to create an autonomous space for art – one whose bounds he can decide. Leaving the spatial regime of the backdrop painting, the dancers become simply humans – their movement perfect because complete.
'Largo', (perhaps his masterpiece) a poem about 150 lines long, does not follow any logical progression or any definite physical situation: instead it offers a subjective space, divided into separate mythological spheres but united by the central figure for whom all these myths are expressions of feelings, and turned inside out by luxurious emotional images and paradoxes, threatening overthrow and transcendence. 'Largo' is, in the Italian music, 'a slow movement, one degree quicker than grave, and two than adagio.' The first stanza speaks of the treachery of friends, and uses the mirror as an ambiguous symbol for gay lovers. The speaker arrogantly, or with a superb ability to gamble, compares himself to Hamlet and Richard (the Third, we suppose). Line 13 starts 'Each one betrays himself', an echo of line 15 of 'The Hound of Heaven' (by Francis Thompson), which starts, 'All things betray thee'. The second stanza identifies a particular person, who is the true friend; he and the poet live together somewhere where 'clocks and mirrors were reversed'. But we are still in the atmosphere of a Court, presumably borrowed from a Shakespeare play. The third stanza is the one quoted above, about 'the goddess who presided at our birth', and it describes a nameless curse, viewed in terms of the Greeks fighting to annihilate the Trojans, and the goddesses of fate (or Harpies?). The fourth stanza compares their affair to a voyage that ends in drowning, 'last Cytherean trips in spring'. It also features the Sirens. Five suggests that the separation is to be caused by war, and is much about Eros; it wonders what will be left of their Eros when they get back. Six is about the demand on poets to write about public conflicts, and a 'serpent queen' who seems to be in charge of poetry, and to tell 'failure in every line'. Seven has the lovers as mountaineers, and more doom. Eight is about a certain 'Damon' (a conventional name for shepherds in Greek erotic idylls), a departing guest; about unicorns; and his transit across 'Elysian waves' to join the gods. Nine is about Hamlet again, and about the fatalities of war which await both lovers ('gay boys, whom war/ Won janizary'). Ten slips through Narcissus, harlequin, and the playing-cards, into gambling which also involves a saint. The whole is a triumph of subjectivity; if we call it balletic, it is because it unfolds in a space which is defined, at every moment, by the figures hurrying through it, and these are defined by their costumes - instantly recognizable, and drawing with them entire myths. The poem occurs as if underwater: in a space which is wildly malleable, made up of interpenetrative spaces, welcoming and yet perilous, with rapid mood swings.
George Barker wrote:
The colossal Apollo. The sky-writer with
Guilt in his thumbmark, the poet with the human
Hanging at hand, cut with a verb to the nerve,
Rabbits at butchers. The arrogant wreath
Bright at his face, the Mephistophelean omen,
Both wards away and draws a man and woman.
O seeking at all altars a Sibylline to serve
Either in beds or wars, he finds only
The anthropoid I gibbering from mirrors. Lonely
The poet walks among a score of selves.
(from 'Eros in Dogma')
I’m not going to try too hard to hide my belief that Thompson, although heavily dependent on the English poet (his elder by 4 years), actually wrote better Barker poems than Barker. Certainly, Barker published over six decades and wrote a lot more than his pupil. Can we compare these Sibyls to the “arty Hellenistic tarts”? Well, they were just girls about town, I suppose. The greedy seizing of imagery (Apollo, then Mephistopheles, then the Sibyls too), its monumentalism which is always ready to collapse into papier-mâché, but always renewed, suited Thompson. These metaphorical spaces interpenetrate unstably – a signature, hyperbole plus instability. I suppose Apollo does wear a wreath (which might be gilded and so “bright”), and is lord of the Muses. We like the phonetic inversions (verb-nerve, ward-draw) which capture this repulsion of twins. Because butchers hang rabbits on sticks thrust through their legs, we see the poet as hawker of souls – a suitably ambitious image for a stanza that starts with the Sun God. The poet is as Mephistopheles to the Faust of “men and women”, in no doubt of his power to snare, entrance, and delude. Violence, inversion, sexual power, polar tensions, hyperbole, imagery between religious and theatrical – we see Thompson’s signature here, prefigured. There is no doubt that Thompson adopted Barker’s style after they met in New York in 1940. (It was possibly Oscar Williams who introduced them?) But, be fair –is Barker’s poem better?
Since Barker was Eliot’s protégé at Faber, and Eliot was Anglo-Catholic while Barker was Roman Catholic – the Barker link is rather more prestigious than at first appears. Indeed, ‘Ash Wednesday’ can be considered as the forerunner both of Barker poems like Calamiterror or Eros in Dogma, and of Thompson. Thompson exploited Barker’s poems in the same way that he exploited Jacobean drama and Greek mythology – to create a temporary self which fulfilled itself within the work of art, and preserve an essential mystery about the emotions being evoked. This also allows the reader to be fulfilled inside the poem. The theatricality preserves the essential freedom of art, where a documentary poem ends up by denying it.
Barker reviewed Poems (the English one) in Poetry London, Tambimuttu’s magazine, #13, 1948. "American poetry is a very simple subject to discuss for the simple reason that it does not exist. … Most of the best American poetry is anaemic, anglophiliac and academic." This, in 1947? He does not mention Thompson in the body of the review (as might be expected when reviewing someone’s poetry, I think), but a footnote by the editor clarifies that the imitation discussed in the review is of Barker by Thompson. If you destroy what is most similar to you – you’re destroying yourself. Something of a problem to use 'anglophiliac' as an insult if you were born in Essex. We can hardly pass by this quarrel without reflecting on the links between certain ideals of masculinity and the distaste for high-flown language which has affected English (and American) poetry so much. The shift by which rhetoric, after 2000 years of innocence, came to be a dirty word, calls out for investigation – as a contribution to the history of inhibition and anxiety. The detailing in a recent biography of Barker’s bisexuality hardly came as a surprise to those who habitually hang out in bars with London poets. No doubt he had a lot to hide – all the same, his massacre of Thompson in print sticks in the throat.
Thompson wrote, in Lament for the Sleepwalker:
I am chilled, as though a star
Of mobs and children came by traitor's gate
And climbed the water stair to break his neck
On the axe king's block, all in winter sunshine.
His brain in ice, his guts in melting jelly,
As barefoot fellow bound for high-heel gallows,
Peer of the Presence like a spaniel licks
Cracked lips to ease his vomit back; then stumbles
On the ladder going up to hell.
('The Prince, His Madness, He Raves at Mirrors')
‘High-heel gallows’ is a complex phrase. Of course, hanging involves heels being high – no longer touching the ground. But the more daily use of high heels points, ambiguously, to sexual display, to the adoption of a female role. A more obvious pun is with the buskins, the high heels traditionally worn by tragic actors. This redefines the scaffold boards as a stage. Theatricality is being pointed out to us. Perhaps, sexual display is being seen as a form of tragic exposure. A connection with the great Jacques Tourneur film ‘Build my Gallows High’ is not possible, chronologically – it’s not that kind of Jacobean. Thompson uses, later in this poem, the phrase ‘killer’s kiss’, but this is not connected to the minor 1955 film noir called ‘Killer’s Kiss’. However, the verbal echoes do allow us to detect a translation – Thompson’s poems use the film noir archetype of the alluring and destructive woman, except that the serpent queen is always a man. Crime imagery pervades his poems. Classic films noirs, like ‘Spellbound’ and ‘The Locket’, liked to use protagonists who were in shock, drugged or deranged, acting in a trance, locked in a fugue of compulsive and stylised behaviour – often inspired by the fatal woman. The Sleepwalker theme is significant for New Romantic poetry, because they were also interested in trance and fugue states; when reason sleeps, prophetic dreams steal in, in which archetypal truth is visible. The poet sees the true shape of contemporary history – but also, emotional events clad in theatrical and mythical forms, which allows sexual betrayal in 1944 to be staged as the execution of a nobleman in 1450 or so.
In the ballet 'A Miracle in the Gorbals', – the premier was in 1944– Helpmann's poses were drawn from the attitudes of Christ in El Greco paintings. This identification with Christ seems problematic for the spectator, but is echoed in one of Thompson's poems ('The Lay of the Battle of Tombland'), where one stanza seems to equate the poet with the clothes of Christ being diced for at the foot of the Cross; he is the prize being thrown for, and the dicers say 'In our heartbreak arms is sport.' The gallows is also the Cross. The scaffold is associated, in England, with confession –and the broadsheet prototype of crime fiction. The classic modern English Catholic poem as at 1944 was Francis Thompson’s 'The Hound of Heaven', with its overload of Baroque figures directly drawn from Crashaw or Robert Southwell. The poem describes the ineluctable pursuit of a sinner by sanctity and bliss, hunting him. It is stranger than I can easily express.
Naked I wait Thy love's uplifted stroke!
My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me
And smitten me to my knee;
I am defenseless utterly.
I slept, methinks, and woke,
And, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep.
In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me
This is very sexy – and seems to be homoerotic. The speaker has already said to the angel, 'share/ With me... your delicate fellowship;/ Let me greet you lip to lip,/ Let me twine you with caresses,/ wantoning(.)' And then: 'So it was done;/I in their delicate fellowship was one'. This fellowship is a resonant word, and, even if F. Thompson wasn't the primal Gay Catholic Poet, gay Catholic poetry has, ever since, owed a debt to Thompson. This, in fact, is why the New Critics were unhappy about taking on the baroque in a forthright way. The collapse of a building is ruin – which is why it is also a symbol of orgasm ('ruin' as sexual initiation); and this seems to be in Dunstan Thompson's mind as he describes the ruined city of blitzed London. ('The poet's blood-trick tower falls', in 'Largo', echoes the lines about 'powers... pillaring hours'.) 'The Prince of Atlantis' is the name of a Thompson poem I haven't seen, but which already seems to combine ruin and the inrush of the ocean in an erotic way.
Whereas baroque painting was typically a style of excess spatial illusionism fitted into architecture, Hurry’s great backdrop creates its own (illusory) architecture and violently imposes subjective space onto this classically stable, if deceptive, background. All the same, Hurry’s stage painting is close to baroque painting – which we can describe, incompletely, as histories of male saints. The paradox of Baroque poetry, the trompe l’œil paradox of Baroque pictorial space, are unstable and impossible juxtapositions from which emerges, like a spatial illusion, gay sexuality – something volatile, melodramatic, interstitial, contradicted by newtonian laws. This was possible, momentarily, in the 1940s.
Edwin Denby wrote illuminatingly about the governance of the body in different countries, the way a sense of the borders of the body steers it, how far its various parts rotate around their various pivots, and how it fits into a space populated by other bodies– and about the links between this and dance. A mask is not always a painted thing that goes on the face – it could be a whole style of movement which “masks” the person’s natural style – an assumed movement pattern. If we call Thompson’s poetry Baroque, we may be recalling a style of Catholic painting in which the stances of the models exploit the Italian manner of governing the body. That is, there is a match between the bodily gestures and the verbal patterns. The Catholic quality of high-flown poetry like Barker’s and Thompson’s may be a geographically restricted expressive system, which when imported to a northern clime (with different conventions of bodily posture) surprises the audience and makes unusual effects possible.
The pendant to the 20th C opposition to the Baroque in the English departments is that the favoured style of the latter was the Metaphysicals, whose influence is definitive of university poetry both in the USA and in Britain. However, if you compare Donne carefully with authors like Gongora, Lubrano, and Marini, it appears that his style was close to theirs, that he was enormously influenced by Italian and Spanish poetry, and that if he was not English he would be called Baroque. There is a paradox here. Surely the outcome of following the New Criticism to its end would have been to write Baroque poetry. The poetry written by (or for) academics practising the New Criticism systematically under-exploited the possibilities indicated by the classic texts of the movement.
Thompson wrote one travel book, Phoenix in the Desert (1951), about the Near East. He did almost no research, and has no claim to know very much about what he is looking at. As a travel writer, he wasn’t the best – he doesn’t get off the plane till page 88. However, while it is flying over Parnassus he thinks about poetry. 'At present the state of poetry is like one of the ancient heresies that still exist in Asia or Africa. Nestorians in India. Monophysites in Ethiopia. There they are: the same liturgy as was sung in the first centuries. The essential has been preserved, the rite is practised, but at the cost of petrification. (...) every energy goes to survive in a hostile society. Surrounded by pagans or infidels, these fossilized churches repeat without change like obsessive neurotics. (...) The analogy to the present state of poetry is valid despite the "innovations" of free-verse, sprung-rhythm, half-rhyme, eccentric typography. All that set down to the hectic excitement of the consumptive.'
'The Lay of the Battle of Tombland' is a frightening exposition of a traditional gay topos in which the rejected older man prophesies doom and decay to the (indifferent) younger man:
the sirens sang
Their wrongs, O sang to me
lost in the blackout, "You're young
but wait till you're old as we."
The Harelip Man knelt down to drink
blood from the sewers, swore,
"You'll kiss me yet, and you'll thank
Me later, later after the war."
Through air of flares the statues ran
Shrouded in silk.
Moralising, usually an incitement to virtue, is here an incitement to vice. The word 'sirens' is a useful gloss on the female prophetic figures who appear in other poems. The poem uses imagery from the Blitz (a kind of pun on the 'sirens' who are warning of danger) and from "Le Testament d'Orphée" as the silk of parachutes (also of parachute bombs) merges with the stuff that angels' wings are made of. Again, the ten stanzas of the poem don't show any particular progression; the poem is carried by an emotional mood, with extreme and luxurious oscillations riding on dramatic imagery.
I read Thompson as part of a broad project, being carried out by several people on the unwished-for wing of English poetry, of re-living the 1940s. We couldn’t find any American equivalent to the New Romantic style which dominates the 1940s in Britain – it was too much the product of doom and anarchism. Kenneth Rexroth was interested in the movement mainly because of the anti-state politics of its members– a difficult stance to strike in a country under siege by the Third Reich. It’s easy, though, to write about romantic ruins in a city where most of the buildings have been wrecked by bombs. Was that all? was Parker Tyler's book on the Russian stage set designer Edith Sitwell was in love with all we would ever find? who was Rae Beamish? Conversely, it seems quite feasible to insert Thompson in a line of gay American poets where style was expressive of a way of speaking and of a psychological attitude towards the world, and also coded as being gay. Changes in this style – I am thinking of Hart Crane, Thompson, Robert Duncan, John Wieners, Gerrit Lansing, among others – could relate, not only to a loyalty to the ideals of fashion, but also to exposure shifting the boundaries of what is public enough to reach the desired listener and yet secret enough to baffle the undesired one. Continuity in this style reflects the loyalty of the poet to the audience – acceptance of a duty to give heightened and transcendent expression to what is already there; the fulfilment of a need which had seemed, foolishly, to get created without a matching fulfilment existing. All things betray thee means that every time you act naturally you give yourself away – this can be recuperated as expressive movement, the capture of everyday life through stylisation. Relations with cultivated female speech patterns (perhaps not quite contemporary but slightly earlier in date?) also need to be borne in mind. Women’s poetry has always moved at a distance from centrally authorised norms – observing a vector of distantiation which presumably also guides us towards gay poetry.
"I expect a wicked clever poem for His Excellency’s fête."
"A smile, as warm and sweet and lingering as one of her own chocolates, appeared on the face of the Pontic ambassadress. She turned from overhearing her praises and waved a black kid finger at me. A lunar light sparkled from her wrist. 'Cher poète, you will not fail me, remember. I expect a wicked clever poem for His Excellency's fête. It will be the great surprise for him. Tout le monde, everybody will hear you read it. So you must give us all 'what for'.
'What for?', I asked, an asparagus-fed sheep."
-Phoenix in the Desert
The editor – using very clear tones and words with very few syllables – was telling me to find some biographical background on Dunstan Thompson. I didn't know anybody who knew him. Meanwhile, everyone she contacted seemed to have an archive of letters, cabinet of photographs, and an address book full of people willing to reconstruct every last cocktail of Denby's life. Our poet lived in New York 1940-43, while editing the little magazine Vice Versa, and again in 1945-6. Surely someone must have known him? Walk-on parts in biographies of Barker and Dylan Thomas (who described him as constantly moving his hands, like someone playing a flute) only increased my frustration. The available evidence was not only coded but lacked credibility. Thompson’s co-editor on Vice Versa was Harry Brown, who also wrote a novel called A Quiet Place to Work, set among American expats in Mexico, circa 1967. He evokes the “foulard stocks… mauve form-fitting shirts, very tight black jeans, and canvas shoes with rope soles” which define the moral status of two painters who wear them. One of the painters is called St Albans –a natural equivalent of “Dunstan”, as early English saints after whom English Catholics are baptised. Thompson was Catholic and very Anglophile, and “Alban”, as the first English martyr, is a classic English Catholic name. St Albans talks in an English accent – which Thompson did too (although it was a regional, north-eastern USA accent – not like St Albans, who “got his English accent from thumbing through The Queen”.) “‘When you’re speaking to me of truth’ he said, 'please remember to address me by my real name – Pontius Pilate. And remember that I don’t suffer little women to come unto me.’" This actually sounds like part of a Thompson poem – theatrical, splendid, based on a parody of religion. The narrator-hero calls St Albans “you Third bastard”, referring to the third sex (vacuous anti-gay term of the mid-century) which does sound like a Thompson poem called “The Third Murderer”. He also refers to St Albans as “a feather-boa constrictor”. If we put the other names together, we get Francis Thompson. The world is full of meaningless patterns, but I am inclined to see some kind of relationship between Francis St Albans and our protagonist Dunstan Thompson. Elusive references in the British Library catalogue make it possible that this was the same Harry Brown who wrote the script of “Ocean’s Eleven” – the narrator does seem to have written 15 movie scripts, which is why he is well off. (I remember my mother reading The Queen – she used to get knitting patterns out of it.)
I know of a number of Thompson poems (which I have never seen) which appeared in American magazines between 1942 and 1943 and were not picked up in his books. Bill Mackay discovered translations of Thompson into Spanish by Jorge Luis Borges, no less, and published in El Sur. Borges was an anglophile and was undoubtedly reading English poetry magazines in the 1940s.
Finally, I resolved to base my piece on the impossibility of knowing what really happened. In the absence of data, I would rewrite my role as a subterranean remake of 'Kiss Me Deadly', in which I walked the bleak aisles of London's most low-life libraries, climbing wet metal stairs into darkened storerooms, trudging the tendrils of a dragnet that ended in acoustically dead vastness. No such number, no such zone.
Then, Karlien produced the address of Thompson's literary executor and instructed me to make contact. Shortly later, Philip Trower – it was he – wrote, to advise me, an account of Thompson's career during the 1940s, which he kindly consented to let us publish. This document reveals new and unsuspected facts which shed a light on the whole era, as well as on Thompson's work in all its phases. (This essay, and Trower's narrative, never appeared in the magazine for which they were commissioned. Sometimes I wonder why. I work hard. Karlien works hard. And what happens?)