Skip to content

Francis Thompson: A boy and his dog.

By Katharine Tynan

Francis Thompson at eighteen.

FRANCIS THOMPSON’S PLACE IN poetry stands somewhere between Crashaw and Shelley, with each of whom he had affinities. He had the lofty spiritual passion and flight, “the flaming heart” of Crashaw, and he had the disembodied passion of Shelley, which had as much to do with common humanity and its wrongs and suffering as the cloud and the lark that Shelley rightly sang.

His most famous poem was the dark “Hound of Heaven,” yet no other poet but Shelley could or might have written that lyric which appeared some years ago in Merrie England, by which the discerning were aware that a new planet had swum into their ken. I remember quite well the delight and amazement with which I discovered “Dream-Tryst,” and the haste with which I wrote off to the editor to know who was Francis Thompson. For some of us then the fame of the poet was as much an assured thing as though the ages, the ultimate judgment which sits somewhere out of sight, dismissing the verdicts of contemporaries and making its own unalterable pronouncements, had already spoken. Only an immortal could have written it.

The breaths of kissing night and day
+++Were mingled in the Eastern heaven.
Throbbing with unheard melody
+++Shook Lyra all its star-chord seven.
++++++When dusk shrunk cold and light trod shy
+++++++++And dawn’s grey eyes were troubled grey
++++++And souls went palely up the sky
+++++++++And mine to Lucidé.

There was no change in her sweet eyes
+++Since last I saw those sweet eyes shine:
There was no change in her deep heart
+++Since last that deep heart knocked at mine.
++++++Her eyes were clear: her eyes were Hope’s,
+++++++++Wherein did ever come and go
++++++The sparkle of the fountain-drops
+++++++++From her sweet soul below.

The chambers in the house of dreams
+++Are fed with so divine an air
That Time’s hoar wings grow young therein
+++And they who walk there are most fair.
++++++I joyed for me, I joyed for her,
+++++++++Who with the Past meet girt about,
++++++Where our last kiss still warms the air
+++++++++Nor can her eyes go out.

Insubstantial as the shadow of a dream, this was the poetry for poets, its exquisiteness something not to be defined. Reading it again, one is struck by a resemblance to a third poet, Coleridge. This is poetry warmer than Shelley’s, which is sometimes a little cold, as though the clouds it flew among were of frore drops. Here is the very air of

A damsel with a dulcimer
+++Singing of Mount Abora.

FRANCIS THOMPSON WAS ONE of the many poets who have been utterly impossible for the practical purposes of life. The son of a prosperous medical man, the nephew of an Oxford man who was of the company of John Henry Newman, the comforts and the prosperities and happinesses of life were not for him. He had sunk to the depths of poverty when “Dream-Tryst,” written in pencil on a dingy bit of paper, was the means of his discovery and rescue. But one hesitates to name him with the long line of examples that might be quoted from Marlowe to Verlaine, because, while he grasped at his euthanasia as did Coleridge and Edgar Allan Poe and James Clarence Mangan, the grosser vices never touched him. He had indeed a singular innocence of nature. He may have put his soul to sleep, but she remained unsmirched. Indeed, his poetry could never have been written by one who had gross experiences and gross memories: its flight is unclogged.

Mr. Wilfred Meynell, who befriended him, who admired him, loved him, bore with him as few would, and has now written an illuminating introduction to the Selected Poems, never let him go after that emergence from the depths with “Dream-Tryst.” He had never again to endure starvation, excessive cold, squalid misery. For the remainder of his life he was indefatigably cared for by this devoted friend.

He came about the time the little Renaissance of poetry of the ‘nineties was beginning. The swing of the pendulum was towards poetry—it has swung backwards now with a vengeance; and there was not only a publisher for poetry but a public, so that a great many little poets, robins and wrens and linnets, were emboldened to come out and sing in the unusual sunshine. The poets took full advantage of the happy moment. They chattered a good deal about themselves and their doings. They were treated with respect in the critical journals. Their names were so often in the newspapers that they may have reached even the man in the street. If they puffed and preened themselves a little vaingloriously, the Bodley Head spelt immortality for them, who shall blame them? The winter of the next decade was coming fast enough.

The little movement of the ‘nineties produced, or at least gave a hearing to many genuine poets, though some were of small compass. It gave the minor poet his or her chance. If they were called nightingales, and blackbirds, and thrushes when they were only the smaller singers, well, the critic is not infallible. No one wants the minor poet in this first decade of the twentieth century; and the critics are engaged in discovering for themselves a major poet who shall be only a daw dressed in peacock’s feathers, for there is no sign of a major poet on the horizon; and one grieves over the silence of some few exquisite minor poets to whom the ‘nineties did honour.

Poetry is a seed which perishes on arid soil: it is only the immortal and the very young who can go on writing poetry which no one reads. So to-day the minor poets are silent; and the two whose greatness we had the wit and the generosity to recognise in the ‘nineties were till lately the two who came to one’s mind when one thought of what great poetry was being written in our days, or at least what essential poetry. They were Francis Thompson, whose poetry is nothing if not great, and W. B. Yeats, whose poetry is nothing if not essential. Francis Thompson has always the authentic air of the immortal. Even his failures are great. His aim was always as high as the stars. His faults are the faults of greatness.

ONE REMEMBERS HIM IN the ‘nineties, an odd figure in a drawing-room presided over by the most exquisite of women, short, untidy, in a suit of ugly, yellowish tweed, with the unfailing pipe, a pipe of the grimiest, clutched in his fingers when it was not between his lips. The lower part of the face was poor, the mouth and chin covered by a short beard: but the brow was splendid, and there was the width between the eyes which never goes with insignificance. The expression was simple and candid: indeed, a simpler soul never lived. He had won the praise most sweet to him, the praise of his peers, but he had no consciousness of wearing the purple. His admirations were very frank and simple, and he was humble in the pleasure he took in the work of other people who were far from being on a level with himself. This quality he shared with W. B. Yeats, whose interest in the work of lesser poets has always been inexhaustible.

I remember how delighted he would be with a chance poem picked up out of the Pall Mall Gazette. At that time one often saw him in juxtaposition with Coventry Patmore, who was an extremely arrogant poet, and a terrifying person to the young aspirant who would write poetry or had written something he or she hoped was poetry, even though of a minor order. Patmore had an enormous opinion of Francis Thompson: he had no tolerance for the minor poet.

Coventry Patmore, by Sargent. 1894.

Coventry Patmore would have hailed Francis Thompson as his peer in poetry: and the contrast between the two was startling. Poor Francis Thompson, so simple, so human, so humble, never crushing one with the air of being immortal to one’s mortality; and the arrogant, overbearing old poet, whose presence in the room was like a frost to those he did not honour.

Patmore was somewhat wild in his obiter dicta. He would talk to few people and listen to few people; but he would talk to and listen to Francis Thompson by the hour. I remember to have heard him say that Francis Thompson talked better than he wrote, and that his prose was better than his poetry, both sayings no doubt obviously extravagant; for Patmore was violently generous to the younger poet, as was his way once he was stirred to admiration. On the appearance of “Poems,” he wrote in the FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW an article which welcomed Francis Thompson into the band of the elect.

I can imagine nothing stranger than to see these two as companions—Francis Thompson as I have described him, Patmore with his manner of a cold and lofty arrogance which Sargent has caught so wonderfully in his great portrait. Sargent, that tremendous painter of character, has painted Patmore eight feet high, or that is the impression the portrait gives. He was not really above the common height, but for one whom he dismayed he might have been as high as the mountains—and casting a very cold shadow. With Patmore one was within the circle or one was not; outside the circle no one existed. It was the oddest thing to think of Francis Thompson within his sanctities.

THAT HUMILITY AND HUMANITY of Thompson’s made him lovable. Someone who travelled with him as far as Chester one day before Christmas many years ago has told me of the journey. Francis Thompson was going into the mountains of Wales, to dwell under the shadow of the Franciscan Convent of Pantasaph. He remained there for some considerable time. Would the Franciscans had kept him altogether! for London is no place for the poet unless it be for the poet who would make tragedies. Someone had provided the poor poet with a whole bundle of the Weekly Sun—or was it the Sunday Sun in those days?—by way of literature. It was an excellent paper at that time. Would we had its like again! But, as literature for Francis Thompson, it was ill-chosen.

My informant recalls that there travelled in the carriage from Euston some labourers, Hibernian, alas! very tipsy, and more Hibernico, very noisy. At Rugby they alighted for another drink, having been misinformed as to the time the train waited there. Everyone breathed more freely when they were gone—everyone except Francis Thompson, who had shown no irritation at their presence or their pranks. They were hardly safely within the refreshment room when the whistle sounded and the train began to move. There was an unacknowledged relief in the minds of the other occupants of the carriage that they were to be free of such unpleasant travelling companions; in the minds of all except Francis Thompson. He, on the contrary, was greatly perturbed about the fate of the poor fellows who were likely to be left behind. At the last moment they appeared, rushing wildly up and down the platform, looking for the carriage which they were too agitated to discover for themselves. The other passengers looked on, conscience-stricken, at least one of them, but determined to do nothing that would bring back the riotous fellow-passengers. But the poet nearly flung himself out of the window in his eagerness to direct the lost ones, who, however—or his fellow-passengers could never have forgiven him—found places in another carriage.

It was one salient incident of the day; for the rest he was quiet, or busied himself with his Weekly Suns, until a black-bearded Capuchin received him at Chester.

The person who was his travelling companion on this occasion also recalls that when domiciled together under the most hospitable of roofs he and the poet were alike eager over the latest cricket, whereby pink and green halfpenny newspapers littered the abode of the Muses. It was something dear and unexpected in the poet; yet, after all, not unexpected. He was always a boy; he need not stoop to children or boys, for his heart was innocent and boyish to the hour he died. No one has adorned cricket as he has. He, the Lancashire man, makes poetry of the Test Match. How haunting this is with its suggestion of real folk-song:—

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
+++Though my own red roses there may blow:
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
+++Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.
For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless clapping host.
+++As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,
++++++To and fro.
+++O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!

HE WAS A GOOD Latinist, not so good at Greek, and with no very wide acquaintance with English literature: at least, this is my impression. I remember his delighted amazement when I read aloud George Herbert’s “Love” one night. “I never heard that before,” he said, the words tumbling over each other in their eagerness to be spoken. “It is beautiful, beautiful. I never thought Herbert wrote anything like that.” Yet this lover of Cowley and Crashaw might well have gone on to George Herbert, whose tender intimacy with the Highest those others share. Theirs was the note that disappeared from English poetry when Puritanism came in.
He was silent when the things under discussion did not greatly interest him. When the subject was literature he was a rich, abundant, intemperate talker, as Stevenson might have said, or perhaps did say. He had a curious vein of commonsense, in his literary judgments as in other matters; and he was not to be distracted from the true scent by any red-herring drawn across his path. There I think he was a fine critic. He judged literature, and especially poetry, with a single eye.

W.B. Yeats, by John Butler Yeats

I have a portrait of W. B. Yeats, which has a curious resemblance to Francis Thompson. It was the time when he, too, went bearded. The portrait, by his father, makes the frontispiece to his earliest published poem, “Mosada,” which was brought out in pamphlet form in Dublin somewhere towards the close of the ‘eighties.

There is, of course, no similarity at all between the work of the two poets. The poetry of Mr. Yeats continues no tradition but its own; whereas the poetry of Francis Thompson continues the great Elizabethan tradition. He is in the line of succession to Crashaw and Cowley. He might quite easily have written:

+++++++++Oh, thou undaunted daughter of desires,

as Crashaw might have written “The Hound of Heaven,” although in the latter great poem there is an anguish of suffering which we find nowhere in the poet whose wings were always heavenward. There is very little doubt that Thompson founded himself upon Crashaw, without deliberate intention, to be sure, for who could ascribe deliberation to this flaming heart of modern poetry. And Crashaw was no altogether a good influence for him, for his exemplar excused all his faults, his conceits, his unpruned luxuriance of words, the headlong rush of imagery which, while it sweeps you off your feet, produces a sense of headiness and disorder. Such a poem as “A Corymbus for Autumn” shows his genius at its faultiest, although it is never more unmistakably genius. It is like a dance of Bacchantes. I remember what Lionel Johnson wrote of him in 1895, helping me towards a critical article which I was unable to do at the time unaided.

THOMPSON.

Magnificently faulty at times, magnificently perfect at others. The ardours of poetry taking you triumphantly by storm: a surging sea of verse, rising and falling and irresistibly advancing. Drunk with his inspiration, sometimes helplessly so: more often he is fired and quickened and remains master of himself. He has done more to harm the English language than the worst American newspapers: corruptio optimi pessima. He has the opulent, prodigal manner of the seventeenth century: a profusion of imagery, sometimes excessive and false: and another profusion and opulence, that of Shelley in his lyrical choruses. Beneath the outward manner a passionate reality of thought: profound, pathetic, full of faith without fear. Words that if you pricked them would bleed, as was said of Meredith. Incapable of prettiness and pettiness: for good of bad always vehement and burning, and—to use a despised word—sublime. Sublime rather than noble. Too fevered to be austere: a note of ardent suffering, not of endurance.

SOUND CRITICISM; BUT ONE cannot help but feeling that, in the critic’s mind, the excesses of Thompson’s poetry held too much place. Lionel Johnson was jealous for the language, having the scholar’s and poet’s mind, dwelling himself in a lofty serenity. “A Corymbus to Autumn,” that crowning of her with vine-leaves, is one of the excesses that may claim too prominent a place when we come to estimate Francis Thompson. Its excesses are very bad. Who can forget?—

The sopped sun, toper as ever drank hard
+++Stares foolish, hazed,
+++Rubicund, dazed,
Totty with thine October tankard.

Or,

+++Thy mists enclip
Her steel-circuit illuminous
+++Until it crust
+++Rubiginous
With the glorious gules of a glowing rust.

Yet even with this poem, in which ecstasy reels, has noble passages:—

+++See, how there
+++The cowlèd night
Kneels on the Eastern sanctuary stair.
What is this feel of incense everywhere?
+++Clings it round folds of the blanch-amiced clouds.
Upwafted by the solemn thurifer,
+++The mighty spirit unknown
That swingeth the slow earth before the embannered Throne?
+++Or is’t the Season under all these shrouds
Of light and sense and silence makes her known
+++A presence everywhere,
+++An inarticulate prayer,
A hand on the soothed tresses of the air?
+++But there is one hour scant
Of this Titanian primal liturgy:
As there is but one hour for thee and me,
+++Autumn for thee and thine hierophant
+++Of this grave ending chant.
+++Round the earth, still and stark
Heaven’s death-lights kindle, yellow, spark by spark,
Beneath the dreadful catafalque of the dark.

After the excesses, the dabbled spilt wine and blood and fire of the opening passages, how coolly this comes, like moonlight and starlight and the dark!

He played ducks and drakes with the English language, as Lionel Johnson said, in these corybantic ecstasies of his, “more than the worst American newspaper”; for how should an American newspaper harm that with which it has not even a nodding acquaintance? But for it he made noble amends. Let us turn to some of those high and sweet passages of poetry in which the Muse walks in white with sane and holy eyes. We find an entire nobility in the series of poems, “Love in Dian’s Lap,” with Coventry Patmore used to say Petrarch’s Laura might be proud of receiving. Indeed, no woman was ever praised more nobly in a poem that praises all women. Like all the poet’s work, it is overladen with thought and imagery. But there are wonderful, clear passages:—

Thy childhood must have felt the stings
Of too divine o’ershadowings:
Its odorous heart have been a blossom
That in darkness did unbosom,
Those fire-flies of God to invite,
Burning spirits which, by right,
Bear upon their laden wing
To such hearts impregnating.
++*++*++*++*
I think thy girlhood’s watchers must
Have took thy folded songs on trust,
And felt them as one feels the stir
Of still lightnings in the hair,
When conscious hush expects the cloud
To speak the golden secret loud
Which tacit air is privy to:
Flasked in the grape the wine they knew,
Ere thy poet-mouth was able
For its first young starry babble.
Keep’st thou not yet that subtle grace?
Yea, in this silent interspace
God sets His poems in thy face.

And again:—

How should I gauge what beauty is her dole
Who cannot see her countenance for her soul;
As birds see not the casement for the sky?
And as ‘tis check they prove its presence by,
I know not of her body till I find
My flight debarred the heaven of her mind.
Hers is the face whence all should copied be
Did God make replicas of such as she;
Its presence felt by what it does abate:
Because the soul shines through, tempered and mitigate:
Where—as a figure labouring at night
Beside the body of a splendid light—
Dark Time works hidden by its luminousness;
And every line he labours to impress
Turns added beauty like the veins that run
Athwart a leaf which hangs against the sun.

“BIRD OF THE sun, the stars’ wild honey-bee,” there is no poet whose flight makes so securely for the sun and the stars as this poet. He is at home among the stars, his soul keeping the loftiest company, however ill his body fared on earth. The flight of “The Hound of Heaven” is through the stars, and through the stars the feet of the Pursuer. I know nothing in literature which has the sense of flight and pursuit like this. The sound of the flying feet beats through the magnificent passages, till it dies off in the exquisite cessation and silence of the close when the pursued is taken to the breast of the Pursuer. This poem more than any other must be Francis Thompson’s warrant for immortality. To read it is to read breathlessly.

I fled Him down the nights and down the days,
+++I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways,
+++Of my own mind: and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him and under running laughter:
++++++Up vistaed hopes I sped
++++++And shot precipitated
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears
+++From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
++++++But with unhurrying chase,
++++++And unperturbed pace,
+++Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
++++++They beat—and a Voice beat
++++++More instant than the Feet:
+++“All things betray thee who betrayest Me.”

++++++I pleaded outlaw-wise
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
+++Trellised with intertwining charities:
For though I knew His love Who followèd
++++++Yet was I sore adread,
Lest having Him I must have naught beside.
But if one little casement parted wide
+++The gust of His approach would clang it to.
+++Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.
Across the margent of the world I fled
And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
+++Smiting for shelter of their clangèd bars;
++++++Fretted to dulcet jars
And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.
I said to dawn—Be sudden: to eve, Be soon;
++++++With thy young skiey blossoms heap me over
++++++From this tremendous Lover!
Float thy vague veil about me lest He see!
+++I tempted all His servitors but to find
++++++My own betrayal in their constancy,
++++++In faith to Him their fickleness to me.
+++Their traitorous trueness and their loyal deceit.
To all swift things for swiftness did I sue;
Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.
+++But whether they swept smoothly-fleet
The long savannahs of the blue,
++++++Or whether thunder-driven,
+++They clanged His chariot athwart a heaven
Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their feet:
Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.

The whole poem is magnificent, down to its strange, tender, unexpected close.

+++“Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught,” He said.
“And human love needs human meriting.
++++++How hast thou merited?
Of all men’s clotted clay the dingiest clot:
++++++ Alack thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee
++++++Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take
++++++Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
++++++All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost I have stored for thee at home.
++++++Rise, take my hand and come!”

++++++Halts by me that foot-fall;
++++++Is my gloom after all
Shade of His hand outstretched caressingly?
++++++“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
++++++I am He whom thou seekest.
Thou dravest Love from thee who dravest Me.”

Patmore considered “The Hound of Heaven” one of the very few great odes of which the language can boast. It is unmistakably of the immortal things, and if Francis Thompson had written only that one poem his place among the immortals would be assured. Here, surely, Heaven is taken by violence and the violent bear it away.

PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING HE WROTE had the authentic air of the immortals. You can hardly open a page of his three volumes without finding something ravishing, something poignant. He is so poignant that only his wings lift one at times above unbearable sorrow. To read “To Monica Thought Dying,” is to listed to someone sobbing in the night, and to be inconsolable. The “Sister Songs,” which, it is an open secret, were written to the two daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Wilfred Meynell, fulfilled the promise of the Poems. Our day has not seen such a rush and passion of poetry. The “Sister Songs,” which only Shelley else could have written, so airily beautiful, so full of wealth of exquisite imagery, has its poignant moments. Midway of the flowers and the sun and the song of the lark comes the one explicit reference to the days when London was as stony a stepmother to him as ever she was to De Quincey. The episode it recalls is almost De Quincey’s own.

+++Once, bright Sylviola, in days not far,
Once in that nightmare time which still doth haunt
My dreams, a grim, unbidden visitant;
++++++Forlorn and faint and stark,
I had endured through watches of the dark
+++The abashless inquisition of each star,
Yea, was the outcast mark
++++++Of all those heavenly passers’ scrutiny:
++++++Stood bound and helplessly
For Time to shoot his barbèd minutes at me.
Suffered the trampling hoof of every hour
++++++In Night’s slow-wheelèd car;
Until the tardy Dawn dragged me at length
From under those dread wheels; and bled of strength,
++++++I waited the inevitable last.
++++++Then there came past
A child; like thee a Spring-flower; but a flower
Fallen from the budded coronal of Spring,
And through the City streets blown withering.
She passed,—O brave, sad, lovingest, tender thing!
And of her own scant pittance did she give
++++++That I might eat and live.
Then fled, a swift and trackless fugitive.

But apart from this one poignant passage, the poem is all sweetness and beauty.

++++++And I remembered not
+++The subtle sanctities which dart
From childish lips’ unvalued precious brush,
Nor how it makes the sudden lilies push
+++Between the loosening fibres of the heart.

And, again, there is the exquisite passage in which he describes the first coming of the child, and its corollary:—

+++++++++And now?
The hours I tread ooze memories of thee, Sweet!
++++++Beneath my casual feet.
++++++With rainfall as the lea
++++++The day is drenched with thee:
+++In little exquisite surprises
Bubbling deliciousness of thee arises
++++++From sudden places
++++++Under the common traces
Of my most lethargied and customed paces.

Francis Thompson. Death mask by Everard Meynell. National Portrait Gallery.

THOSE WERE NOT WRONG in an age especially of the little poet who hailed Francis Thompson as a great poet—the last of the Elizabethans, in the royal line of succession to the kings of English poetry. We have kept of his work three slender volumes, so rich in poetry that they might have made many, and a new poem in the Selected Poems: he never beat his thought out thin. What he rejected might have made other poets rich. Rejected! The word makes one remember. Heaven knows how much great poetry he destroyed in his fits of depression and despair. To those who rescued Francis Thompson from the depths and with him his cargo of golden verse the world owes much. A service it is unaware of, and has not acknowledged, was the saving of so many of these poems, which, torn to tatters and flung in a waste-paper basket or on the floor, were saved and pieced together. Francis Thompson repaid those friends royally for what they did for him; and that was something few of us would have undertaken or would have carried out with such loving patience. There was something lovable about him, about his simplicity, his humanity, his humbleness, which perhaps made the burden of his faithful friends lighter, as it made their grief heavier when he died.

The body had carried the soul by dark and miserable ways often; but the soul was brother to the stars, and kept its light undimmed. One thinks of his epitaph as he wrote it of another:

Starry Amorist, starward gone,
—Thou art,—what thou didst gaze upon.

.


Published as “Francis Thompson” in DXLXII O.S, 1910. Minor [non-textual] edits to track usage. Manually transcribed exclusively for the New Series. Please see the copyright page for any rights asserted. Please note The Fortnightly Review [New Series] and fortnightlyreview.co.uk in citations based on this transcription. Katharine Tynan (Hinkson) was an Irish poet and novelist. She died in 1931.

Google BookmarksGoogle GmailPrintPrintFriendlyYahoo MailTwitter