The Walled Garden: Poems
by Andrew Thornton-Norris.
CreateSpace, 2011, 2015.
Paper, 74 pages, $7.

Few things have frustrated supporters of traditionalist or conservative aesthetics than the state of contemporary poetry. It seems that not a year goes by with at least one major essay bemoaning the invisibility of traditional verse or even subjects other than the poet’s own emotions orpolitics.

Traditional architecture has established figures like Duncan Stroik or emerging talent like Matthew Alderman to carry the banner forward and the traditional composer James MacMillan was made a Knight Bachelor two years ago, but while there must be poets out there working in traditional forms and styles, they have been difficult to find.

One of them is Andrew Thornton-Norris, author of The Walled Garden (2011) and a frequent contributor to the Imaginative Conservative and Claritas: the Journal for Catholic Culture and Arts. The Walled Garden is a stunning collection of poetry that is at once in a contemporary idiom, in iambic pentameter, and eminently Catholic. The book is arranged chronologically, with his most recent work at the beginning and concluding with a section of immature work titled “Hymns of the Death Cult” tacked on like an embarrassing college photograph immortalized for all time on social media. While the work of that section is, for the most part disconnected, emotive, and modernist, it does offer glimpses of the better poet he would become, as for instance in 1998’s “Fair Quiet, have I found thee here / And Innocence, thy sister dear?” where we read “For my heart was bleak as the plain ploughed field / And my mind was dark as the shadowed copse.” Beneath the archaism and cliche, the living rhythm of iambic pentameter was making an appearance.

But it is the mature voice that is of interest. The poems are refreshingly direct, in contrast to contemporary poets whose poems are like hearing half of a telephone conversation in their elusive allusions, or the poems that are really fragments of prose surrounded by ellipses. Thornton-Norris has also grounded his poems in the public realm instead of his personal biography, which makes them more relatable than many other works.

“Youth II” stands out for its directness: “And worldly expectation seems but / An image of the everlasting love / That is to come, but an image still / Remains an image, precious as that is”; although he occasionally goes too far into didacticism, as in “The Inner Mystery of Woman”: “And as at night stories relate the stuff / Of subjectivity, the common, the shared, /Inner dimension of experience.”

If traditional meters give Thornton-Norris’s poems life, Catholicism gives them their substance. While much of the last century’s criticism of Catholic literature focused on how the writers subtly pointed or nudged the reader towards the faith, these poems hit the reader over the head with it, like a Renaissance painting of the Crucifixion falling off a museum wall onto a viewer—and the effect, in this age of bishops and faithful alike either unwilling or afraid of speaking the truth, is wonderfully refreshing.

In “Gothic,” Thornton-Norris writes: “In the clearing in the woods the trees / Point up to our eternal destiny / The inner self is shown to be made of / The self-same substance of the universe.” Or, “This Mortal Heart,” with these lines: “And all the things she says and does explain / The unity that lies under the heart / Of everything and shows me that our lives / Are truth and purpose written into being.”

The Walled Garden is a marvelous book, the work of a master glorifying the Master of All. It has been neglected for too long. Thornton-Norris is right up there with James Matthew Wilson and a handful of others keeping the tradition of metrical, substantive poetry alive.  

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance writer based in Boston, where he focuses on urban development and transportation and leads Boston’s G. K. Chesterton Society.