Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 April 2011
Douglas Dunn's sonnet ‘The Friendship of Young Poets’, from his second collection, The Happier Life (1972), celebrates what its speaker also claims to have missed out on in his youth. ‘My youth’, he writes, ‘was as private / As the bank at midnight, and in its safety / No talking behind backs, no one alike enough / To be pretentious with and quote lines at’. If there is a certain security and solidity to this kind of isolation, there is also by implication an acknowledgement that allied with the youthful pretension of young poet-friends is a competitive and critical dialogue that helps bring the mature poetic voice into being. Significantly, the poem is also, in its way, a love poem, evocative of Morgan's ‘The Unspoken’, with its ‘talking in whispers in crowded bars / Suspicious enough to be taken for love’. The love of literature, talking about poetry in public, is as potentially subversive as the homosexual love that dare not speak its name in Morgan's poem. There may be a 1890s homoeroticism and decadence to the ‘Two young men, one rowing, one reading aloud. / Their shirt sleeves fill with wind …’; but the closing image – ‘from the oars / Drop scales of perfect river like melting glass’ – is about capturing in poetry an ideal, and therefore in true decadent sense a transient beauty, a passing moment symbolic also of the aesthetic potential inherent in the friendship.