By Francis Fyt ton
JUST a century ago there was founded in London a Catholic magazine called Merrie England. It was not a landmark in Catholic journalism but it was to bring about something very like a landslide in Catholic literature.
The first pebbles of that landslide arrived in the office some 30 years later, in the spring of 1888 to he precise, in the form of a bundle of torn and dirty manuscript. Wilfrid Meynell. who with his wife Alice edited the journal, was a busy man and he put the papers aside for several weeks before looking at them. When at last he was able to do so he found that the uneven scribble upon tattered sheets that had obviously once formed part of an old account book added up to two poems and an essay; all of them works of quite exceptional quality.
Meynell at once wrote to the only address given : Charing Cross Road Post Office.
Failing to get an answer, he published one of the poems, "The Passion of Mary," and a few days later it had the desired effect of materialising the poet himself. Filthy, haggard and shirtless, he was overtly utterly wretched. His name was Francis Joseph Thompson and he was just 27 years old.
WHEN the Meynells saw this mockery of the spring sunshine walk into their office they might well have wondered how such a figure of misery could have penned the immortal opening lines of "The Passion of Mary": 0 Lady Mary, thy bright crown
Is no mere crown of majesty; For with the reflex of His own Resplendent thorns Christ circled thee.
But if the Meynells wondered, then they cannot have wondered long. For this contrast of outward misery and inner happiness—there is no other word with which to describe such a quality—is the very essence of Francis Thompson's being. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, who knew hin-s only in those last tragic months before his death, was to exclaim, in the agony of bereavement: "No one had so sad a life as he." Yet he was hopelessly wrong.
Suffering is always terrible but it is never more heart-rending than when beauty of form or beauty of mind is the victim. So the beauty of Thompson's few works arouses our pity and we are blind to the evidence of spiritual tranquility wherein lie the very qualities we so much admire. This tranquility was the armour that nature had girded upon a very fine and very frail man; but until we take apart that armour we can see neither the man nor his work.
For Francis Thompson was that most remarkable of men : one who, having passed the better part of his life in circumstances of squalor and pain, could in his hours of leisure write only of the eternal verities.
E need only look at today's
literary scene to grasp the enormous implications of this. Today, let a man be cast adrift upon a raft, or into prison, or in some remote land, and he needs must write a book about it which will become an automatic best-seller, even though many thousands of his readers will have had almost identical experiences.
Perhaps it is because we moderns worship Self that such experiences seem all-important; but 'Thompson could treat his experiences as mere threads in the great pattern of life's greater meaning; he was a natural philosopher : natural because he had no need to explain the nature of his philosophy.
Self, indeed, meant so little to him that physical suffering was powerless to affect the quality of his thought. Thus he was not a dreamer but an intent and even impartial observer of life's comedy. He wore his detachment as another might wear armour, that he might wield the sword of his learning in God's service. Posterity may, indeed, decide him to have been that rarest of all literary birds, an unselfish poet.
How else can we explain this poet, like De Quincey an opium eater, who had no need of written "Confessions"; this vagabond, rescued from starvation by a young prostitute, whose only passion was for the matronly Alice Meynell; this man, called asexual, whose poetry proves him to have been as romantic a lover as even Browning could have wished for; this writer, hailed by Browning as being capable of achieving whatever his ambition might suggest, who, with the prophesy sadly unfulfilled, could still be generous to lesser writers?
da NLY once did this quality 'desert him. When, after some weeks without reply from Merrie England. when, lightheaded from hunger and opium, dreadful visions pursued him through the streets of London, then indeed did Thompson despair, and he sat down in the gutter to take a lethal dose of laudanum. But there appeared a vision of Thomas Chatterton, the boy poet who committed suicide at the age of 15 which held him back. A few days later he saw his first poem appear in Merrie England.
That the vision was divinely inspired Thompson never seems to have doubted. In "Health and Holiness" he mentions having seen an hallucination which appeared to him during that process of "seclusion and interior gestation" through which, he maintains, poets, like saints, must pass before fulfilling their destinies. He mentions also the test of authenticity : the relation of the vision to the reverie of the visionary. Coming from Francis Thompson—who must have been something of a connoisseur of visions—this has great authority.
PERHAPS the most revealing thing about this essay is that which he is most at pains to conceal, the fact that much of it is based on personal experience.
"I recall a poet," he says, speaking of his own false vision; the physical sufferings he instances are those of St. Ignatius Loyola, whose biographer he was later to become; personal experience is everywhere glossed over.
Quoting St. Ignatius's dying words: "I have been too hard on Brother Ass," Thompson concludes that for modern man penance is to sally the failing body, not to mortify the lusty flesh. And though this was Thompson's own constant need, no hint of this circumstance colours the essay.
Indeed Thompson's advice to the reader, to be lenient with the body, is but part of his sublimation of Self. To mortify the body, he argues, is to pay it disproportionate attention and perhaps to cripple it needlessly in life's race. The whole essence of his Christianity is normality. Given normal treatment, the body will prove a better, less obtrusive, servant of the spirit; whereby the spirit will be a better servant of God
THUS Francis Thompson's subjects for essay are twofold: the instrument of service and the ways to serve.
Though primarily considered as a poet, his gifts as a prosateur were considerable, His interest in this medium may be judged by his essays on the prose of Sydney, Shakespeare, Ben Janson, the 17th century and Goldsmith. "Essay on Shelley," judged by George Wyndham to be "the most important contribution to pure letters written in English during the last 20 years," is still unequalled and easily surpasses those of Bernard Shaw and even Chesterton on the same subject.
Yet always it is a poem, "The Hound of Heaven," which so perfectly illustrates the magical and mystical quality of his work, that captures our imagination; perhaps because Thompson's own hounds were so evidently those of Hell : the ill-health which shadowed his whole life and the drug habit which he could never conquer.
It is peculiarly appropriate that Thompson's first works should have appeared in Merrie England; for although his England was not merry he had, despite the evidence, a merry life. It was the best sort of merriment: quiet, inner and contented. No lofty sesthetic, he could jest of his "eternal pipes, stubby beard and shabby clothes."
Dying of consumption while still a comparatively young man, he made that most supreme of all jests —a jest at death itself—in words that recall Denton at the guillotine: "Look for me in the nurseries of heaven"—his chosen epitaph.