Looking Up

Donald Davie

  • The Passages of Joy by Thom Gunn
    Faber, 93 pp, £4.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 571 11867 4
  • The Occasions of Poetry by Thom Gunn
    Faber, 188 pp, £6.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 571 11733 3

In the past, I have been persuaded by those like Colin Falck who have thought Thom Gunn’s distinctive and great achievement was to have re-established creative connections with at least one aspect of Shakespeare, and with some of Shakespeare’s great contemporaries, notably Marlowe and Donne. Gunn, I believe, liked this notion, and Clive Wilmer endorses it in his excellent and too brief Introduction to The Occasions of Poetry. It is disconcerting to have to acknowledge that in Gunn’s very fine collection of poems this dimension of his writing is no longer evident. In none of these 37 poems, as I read them, is there any longer evidence that their author has been attending to the songs from Shakespeare’s plays, to Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, or Marlowe’s translations and imitations of Ovid: they are ‘contemporary’ in an altogether less complicated and more obvious way. Although the title of the collection and an epigraph to one poem come (surprisingly) from Johnson’s ‘Vanity of Human Wishes’, in all other respects these poems seem to remember not much before Whitman, and certainly nothing before Stendhal or Keats. Clearly, if Gunn has indeed been one modern poet with a sympathy for the English Renaissance, that was far from being as central to his achievement as some of us thought. For the achievement is still there: The Passages of Joy is as fine a collection as he has ever published, and if it lacks the resonances that some of us have come to expect and delight in, it provides others that many readers may well prefer.

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