By BARBARA WALL
FRANCIS THOMPSON: man and poet, by J. C. Reid (Routledge, 25s).
"FRANC IS 1 HOMPSON man and poet" is a welldocumented account of the poet's life and a conscientious and scholarly attempt at a final :valuation of his poetry.
His reputation has undergone fluctuations. When his first publication "Poems" appeared in 1893 it was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by the critics one of whom placed the new poet just below Shakespeare; but "New Poems" (1897) were the sort of complete flop that causes Mr. Reid to draw a parallel with the case of Mr. Colin Wilson.
Then, in the years after the first world war, his reputation reached another peak, since when it has been steadily falling, leaving only " The Hound of Heaven " and " In No Strange Land " as part of our poetic heritage. To these Mr. Reid appends "The Mistress of Vision". "All Flesh". "Contemplation" and "A Fallen Yew"
THE bare externals of the life of this most interesting and puzzling man are fairly well
known: that he was born in Preston of convert parents on December 18, 1859; that his
father was a doctor, his mother died when he was 21, and he loved playing with his sisters' toys; that he was sent to Ushaw when 11 and told he hadn't got a vocation when 19; that he was ostensibly a medical student in Manchester for the next six years, though really reading in public libraries, dreaming on benches, and starting to take laudanum . . .
That he left for London in 1885 " with a few pieces of extra clothing and Blake and Aeschylus in his pocket ", wilfully " de-classed " himself and became a tramp and beggar in the London streets (still taking laudanum); that he sent a poem to " Merry England " and as a result was rescued by Wilfrid Meynell, its editor; that his two great writing periods took place when he was staying with monks. first at Storrington and then at Pantasaph (on both occasions deprived of laudanum); that his last 10 years were spent in London again, in and out of the MeyneIl household, on laudanum and off poetry, writing prose, reviewing, street-pacing; that he died of consumption in 1907 aged 47.
HIS known characteristics include his devotion to Alice Meynell and his admiration for Coventry Patmore; his evasion of responsibility (his love was always bestowed where " reciprocation " was impossible); his extreme reluctance. to get up in the morning. even when threatened with jugs of cold water; his self-absorption, unpunctuality, lack of consideration. and wordy tormented letters of apology; his endless talk of trivialities when in company, his inspired conversation when alone again in the street
But in spite of all that is known. there remain two great puzzles about Thompson that no biographer can unravel. The first is: why he started taking laudanum in the first place. To explain it on the grounds that his mother had just died and he had just read de Quincey is absurd; others have weathered those events without becoming opium-eaters. He didn't want to face adult life: yes; but why? Mr. Reid spends many pages on this problem but offers no really satisfactory explanation.
Perhaps a key to the puzzle was some kind of temperamental laziness (it was his "indolence" that turned him down for the priesthood). Perhaps, having the vision of a poet, he couldn't face the sheer hard work of actually writing poetry, so took his drug to sink into a dream-world. It was only when deprived that he wrote, and not until he was 30.
THE second puzzle is why he chose to clothe his vision, once he had started communicating it, in such a welter of archaic words. Mr. Reid analyses the poet's vocabulary expertly, and makes a good attempt to get to his hidden motives (though this is really impossible).
Was Thompson's obscure language a symptom of some evasion, because really the vision itself was blurred? Or was it a genuine inability to communicate something genuine? Had he the habitus of art, but the hand that trembles (Dante's l'abito dell'arte e matt die :remit)?
Fortunately for us, no shortcoming of vision or vocabulary exists, as Mr. Reid sums up, in the six poems listed above. It is by these six poems " that Francis Thompson still lives; it is through these poems that we are brought to the heart of a vision so true and profound that a life of suffering may seem small enough price to pay for it. For Thompson was right when he mused in a casual note: Where I find nothing done by me, much may have been done in me'."