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This article is taken from PN Review 182, Volume 34 Number 6, July - August 2008.

Thom Gunn, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry Clive Wilmer


When Thom Gunn's mother committed suicide in 1943, he went to live with a pair of unmarried aunts. Charlotte Gunn had had six sisters and these two ran a farm at Snodland in Kent. They had taken it over from their father, Alexander Thomson, whom Gunn's brother Ander remembers stuffing his boots with straw to keep out the cold. On weekdays Gunn lodged in London at the home of a friend of his mother's so that he could carry on studying at University College School. Both school and lodging were in Hampstead - cultured and affluent even in wartime - and Snodland must have provided a marked contrast. Extremely run-down today, it was never well-off and was then half-agricultural and half-industrial: the town's main business was a cement works, which tended to coat the landscape in white dust. The aunts lived in a fairly ordinary nineteenth-century house, but the farm buildings were Elizabethan, and there was something about their way of life that must have reminded Gunn of an earlier time: an era of outlaws and pirates. They were radical women with unconventional views. One of them had, in that most prim of eras, borne a child fathered by a passing soldier. For an upper-middle-class boy from a comfortable suburban background, a life in such a place must have included some feeling of adventure, and adventure is something Gunn's poetry is usually in quest of.

The Snodland farm perhaps helps to ...

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