Reading the Collections, Week 35: Douglas Dunn’s Elegies notebooks

Douglas Dunn published Elegies in 1985 – a collection of 39 poems written after the death of his first wife, Lesley Balfour Dunn, who died in 1981, aged 37, from melanoma of the eye. It was awarded the Whitbread Book of the Year prize. Dunn and Lesley were living in Hull at the time, where Dunn had originally been a librarian under Philip Larkin. They had no children but clearly had had an intensely loving relationship, he a poet and she a photographer. Writing out of his grief, in Elegies Dunn records not just the awfulness and yet somehow the strange beauty of their days together during her decline – from the diagnosis onwards – but also their earlier joyful times together, including living in France for a while. The poems also chart his subsequent return for a period of time to Scotland – to his birthplace in the west, then to Dundee, where he was Writer in Residence at the University for a year – and finally his departure back to his empty house in Hull.

DD photo montage_Blog

Photos from ms38640/10

I can still remember the impact Elegies made upon me when I first read it, working through it in sequence in a way I rarely read any poetry collection, transfixed and left stunned at the end.

Dunn became a Professor of English in the School of English here in St Andrews in 1991, and around the time of his retirement the Library purchased his archive – an extensive corpus of notebooks and correspondence. One of the notebooks, generally known as ‘the red notebook’, is particularly well-known – and can be read on our Digital Humanities portal. It contains several of the drafts of the poems that would eventually find publication in Elegies – and as such it is used by lecturers in the School of English to show the process of artistic composition. For this post, I looked at the red notebook but also – because it seemed to me that there were a number of poems from Elegies not shown in it – at the three notebooks from the archive which follow it chronologically.

Among the drafts of full poems are many fragments – pairs of lines or brief stanzas – which belong to poems sometimes eventually published, sometimes discarded. There are also drafts of essays, details of poetry competitions for which Dunn was a judge, story ideas, drafts of works for radio, the surprise of a recipe in one book, snatches of playscripts, and lists of the poems that would eventually be published as Elegies, with the name of the magazines in which they had appeared separately. Some entries are diary accounts (though he kept a separate diary, which is also in the archive), often unbearable as he writes plainly of his heartbreak. To read Elegies is to experience the poet’s intense personal grief in the form of art. To read the notebooks is to live alongside him, experiencing at times a terrible raw woundedness.

Many fragments find their way into finally published poems. ‘Second Opinion’ deals with the stark experience of diagnosis, and Dunn is unflinching in his description of the impact upon him of attending the hospital appointment with her. In his notebook, probably still dazed, he uses verse to record concrete details, writing about the young male doctor who gives him the news:


Blue notebook (ms38640/2/42), pp 132 and 133

Professional anxiety –

His hand on my shoulder

Showing me the door – soap,

Fingers, knuckle, and his wedding ring.

Blue notebook (ms38640/2/42), pp 132 and 133

These lines change slightly in the published version, the metre lubricated and the doctor’s fingers elaborated by a resonant metaphor:

Professional anxiety –

His hand on my shoulder

Showing me to the door, a scent of soap,

Medical fingers, and his wedding ring.

Sometimes the notebooks provide an intriguing glimpse simply into the art of poetic composition. A literary criticism exercise could, for example, ask why the poet has moved from an ABBA rhyme scheme in the draft, to ABAB in the final, published version:

Red Notebook page 117_Blog

Red notebook (ms38640/2/41), p 117

As I turn earth on it, and underground

Go song and what I feel, go common things,

Goes half my life, go eyes, instinct and wings

Into the cairn of my spade-patted mound

Red notebook (ms38640/2/41), p 117

Turning the earth on it; and underground

Go song and what I feel, go common things

Into the cairn of a shoe-patted mound,

Goes half my life, go eyes, instinct and wings

‘At the Edge of a Birchwood’

The notebooks also reveal the artifice in the arrangement of the collection. The following lines, which do not appear in any of the poems in Elegies, are written after the poet leaves Dundee where he has been renting a house (in Tayport), and returns to his empty house in Hull:

Red Notebook page 128_Blog

Red notebook (ms38640/2/41), p 128

Returning here brings sorrow back to me

And I can hardly bear to think of you

As nothingness and fragrant memory.

Red notebook (ms38640/2/41), p 128

Yet the final poem in Elegies is ‘Leaving Dundee’, and it would be hard to argue with that choice of conclusion, from an emotional perspective:

The road home trickles to a house, a door.

She spoke of what I might do “afterwards”.

“Go, somewhere else.” I went north to Dundee.

Tomorrow I won’t live here any more,

Nor leave alone. My love, say you’ll come with me.

What does it mean to have a poet’s papers available for consultation? Clearly, for a biographer, there is a wealth of detail available in the extensive archive. But anyone can ask to see these notebooks, and the experience is humbling. It is one thing to have free access to the papers of a deceased poet; quite another to have that access while the poet is still alive and very much present to us here in Scotland, but this seems to me typical of the courage which is at the heart of Dunn’s work. A quiet, modest man, Dunn is nonetheless a writer whose profound grief, transmuted into one of the most powerful and successful modern collections of poems in the English language, has been lived out fully in the public eye. How do the details of our lives – the pain, the irritations, the delusions and the joys – make sense? In the hands of an artist they can be changed into transcendent objects that inspire and help us to see and understand the world, even its terrible grief, more clearly. The papers of Douglas Dunn offer proof of that.

John MacColl

University Librarian and Director of Library Services

31 responses to “Reading the Collections, Week 35: Douglas Dunn’s Elegies notebooks

  1. This is a beautiful portrait of Douglas Dunn, who I hadn’t heard of until I read this post, and his process. I’m always intrigued by the artist’s process of creating art. This post felt like I was reading one of Dunn’s notebooks. Now, I have to check him out. Thanks again for this post. And congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  2. As a writer and poet I can appreciate this post. Wow, I wish there was more posts like this about creative writers and their actual story. Writing heals and when a poet is in the midst of grief, sadness, love, or any other emotion..exceptional writing always comes out of it. I will be looking more into this writer, he seems like a fantastic writer. He breaks the “poetry rules”. We all should every now and then, if not always.

  3. Something I would appreciate is the originality of the work. I can see in the pictures, the papers are not reprinted into typed letters but handwritten script.
    Including all the cancellations Dunn sir makes.
    If it is his handwriting, one can trace his stress by the way he writes, small and condensed
    Its a pleasure…

  4. Thank you for adding the photos of his notebooks. Handwriting has become such an intimate thing now. Wonderful.

  5. This is wonderful. Huge admirer of DD – and Elegies is to be treasured. Thanks for this post.

  6. Nice portrait! Good emphasis of his life and work! Thank you so much for sharing culture…

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