Poet Francis Thompson

Untitled 1from a group portrait of Francis Thompson (1859-1907) and his fellow students at St. Cuthbert's College

In an age which seems, as Louis Bertrand has said, to derive an ignoble pleasure in becoming barbarous again, the Catholic Church has been compared to an unknown city, a forgotten citadel, a strange and unique land possessing all the sweetness, the peace, and the poignant mystery of some isolated medieval cathedral close.

William Gladstone called it a wondrous church, "as old as Christianity, as universal as mankind, as fresh, as vigorous and as faithful as on the day when the Pentecostal fires were showered upon the earth."

Other men in Christendom's history, not less observant, have admired, at a distance, the richness and variety of the Catholic tradition, the seamless robe of Catholic unity, the splendor of the Catholic vision, the perennial beauty of the Catholic liturgy, the heroism of Catholic martyrs, and the enduring zeal of the children of the Household.

Yet they stand aloof – for with all this appreciation of one or another aspect of the Church, they know her not. They fail to see her as not only a closely-knit body of truths, with many most attractive accidents, but as, in substance, a divine organism, a supernatural way of life. And the duty of acquainting them with this vision is our inheritance from the Apostolic age of the Church – and, in particular, from the century of Francis Thompson.

The Poet of the Return to God”

Untitled 2The 1959 unveiling of the Francis Thompson Centenary Plaque, presently displayed in Burns Library's Francis Thompson Room of Boston College Library
"To be the poet of the return to Nature is somewhat," he said, "but I would be the poet of the return to God."

Francis Thompson is our very own poet. His simple removal from prosaic ambitions, his vagrancy, his unconquerable spirit, his simplicity and humility, his debonair acceptance of pain and poverty, his passionate desire to convert the world, the conspicuous splendor of his genius – all these deeply appealing elements in his extraordinary career are a challenge and an urgent invitation to the laity in this languishing era to labor and to persevere in the militant apostolate of Catholic Action.

There has always existed in America a melancholy Puritan contempt for the mystic and the penitent, for the troubadour who labored not in steel or stone, for the poverty-stricken artist who wrote his immortal lyrics on the gates of Paradise and walked the highways of the world a free man…

The Aching Heart of Francis Thompson

God put the melody of song into the aching heart of Francis Thompson. If we but served (God) as faithfully and as devotedly as this poet of celestial vision, if we did not hide our light under a bushel and bury our talent in the bowels of the earth, the restoration of all things in Christ would soon be an accomplished reality.

He was so thoroughly and vibrantly Catholic in everything he published that the critics dismissed him as the mere versifier of a small religious clique. Thompson, they decided, was un-English; and when his small fame reached our shores, he was speedily daubed un-American…

"If Francis Thompson had been an Anglican or a Unitarian," wrote Canon Sheehan, in 1898, "his praise would have been sung unto the ends of the earth. He would have been the creator of a new school of poetry. Disciples would have knelt at his feet. But, being only a Catholic, he is allowed to retire, and bury in silence one of the noblest imaginations that have ever been given to Nature's select ones – her poets…

His very humble beginnings

Untitled 5In his birthplace, Ashtone-under-Lyne, Stamford Park opened in 1873; Photo: Skinsmoke/wikipedia
In a small box of a house on a narrow street in Preston, Lancashire, Francis Joseph Thompson was born on December 18, 1859. He was the second son of Charles Thompson, a physician, and Mary Turner Morton. A few years later the family moved to Ashton-under-Lyne. "There is a sense in which I have always been and even now remain a child," he wrote, in later years.

"But in another sense I never was a child, never shared children's thoughts, ways, tastes, manner of life, and outlook of life. I played, but my sport was solitary sport, even when I played with my sisters; from the time I began to read (about my sixth year) the game often (I think) meant one thing to me and another (quite another) to them – my side of the game was part of a dream-scheme, invisible to them. And from boys, with their hard practical objectivity of play, I was tenfold wider apart than from girls with their partial capacity and habit of make-believe."

His Vocation Journey

Before he was eleven years old, Francis was sent to the seminary and college of Ushaw, near Durham, where he remained for seven uneventful years; but he never realized his mother's fondest dream of priestly ordination…

What was to be done with the boy? His father decided that he should become a physician and Francis obediently went off to study medicine at Owen's College in Manchester. He attended few lectures. From the utilitarian point of view he wasted his time for six years.

Untitled 4(from left) Francis Thompson age of 19; later drawing in 1907 by Hon. Neville Lytton
Whole days were spent watching interminable games of cricket at the Old Tafford ground. He read poetry in the public libraries, frequented museums and galleries, and fell in love with a statue – Melpomene…

In 1879 Francis fell ill and it is probable that at this time he first tasted the drug which was to be his master, with few interruptions, until his death. Laudanum did not corrupt his morals nor blunt his finer sensibilities. It served him, despite untold agonies, in retarding the grim advance of tuberculosis and in giving him a few more years in which to achieve his great destiny.

He failed, of course, to pass his medical examinations. He failed as an apprentice to a surgical instrument maker and as the purveyor of an encyclopedia. He failed also to pass an army physical examination. On November 9, 1885, he left a hopeless note on his sister's dressing table, informing her that he had gone to London.

A Poet in Waiting

It never occurred to him that he might support himself with his pen…

In February, 1887, he sent a manuscript of an essay and a few poems to Wilfrid Meynell, at that time the editor of “Merry England”. Six months passed before the essay was read and an unsuccessful attempt made to communicate with the author. Eventually, after the publication of one of his poems, Thompson plucked up enough courage to visit the editor's office.

Untitled 3Memorial plaque to Thompson on Winckley Street in Preston; Photo: Martinevans123
"From that time," remarks Herbert Vaughan, "Thompson's career became smooth and prosperous enough. He was nursed and petted back to some degree of health; he became reconciled to his father, who had vainly sought his runaway son; he was surrounded with every sort of delight that made appeal to his shy, mystical, diffident nature."

In 1893 Francis gave to the unsympathetic world his first small volume of poetry. One of the poems especially, “The Hound of Heaven”, was highly praised by a few discerning critics. The book, however, sold less than four hundred copies. His second volume, “Sister Songs”, was published two years later. Finally “New Poems”, containing some of his finest mystical pieces, was published in 1879 – and was even less popular than his first venture.

In addition to poetry, he wrote a biography of St. Ignatius Loyola, “Life and Labors of St. John Baptiste de la Salle, “Health and Happiness”, and his greatest prose work, the “Essay on Shelley”.

He died, neglected by the world of letters and ignored by the general public, in a London hospital, on November 13, 1907. His grave in Kensal Green cemetery is marked by a stone which bears this simple inscription: "Look for me in the Nurseries of Heaven."

His Catholic vision of life

What was the underlying philosophy of his life? Francis Thompson did not covet the wealth and adulation of this world. His gaze was fixed on eternity. He knew that God comes closer to us in our suffering. His greatest ambition was to remain always a child of God, to believe, hope and trust in (God), to have the strength of will to lift up his eyes from the sordid evil of a dingy metropolis and see
the traffic of Jacob's ladder.

Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross and to behold, when his suffering was most intense, Christ walking on the water, not of Gennesareth, but Thames.

What is it to be a child? "It is to have a spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism," he informs us…

Francis Thompson grasped "this sorry scheme of things entire." He achieved that ultimate wisdom which is reserved for those who cast off pride and dedicate themselves, without reserve, to the fulfillment of their special mission in life. In the songs of Francis Thompson is to be found the secret of true happiness which comes only when we are courageous enough to become as little children and, whatever our station in life may be, to explore the infinite mystery of God's love.

(The Hound of Heaven – A Modern Adaptation) 

(Reprinted from La Salette Publication, Our Lady’s Missionary, April 1936, pgs. 53-54, 56)

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