Norman Cliff concludes his tribute to the poet Francis Thompson
FROM 1901 to 1904 Francis Thompson had a further literary spurt of producing prose and poetry, but diarrhoea, malnutrition, influenza, gout and tuberculosis were beginning to take their toll of his frail physical frame, already exposed over many years to the cruel elements through sleeping under bridges and in open parks.
Our final picture of the poet is of a shrunken figure, red nosed, with untidy hair and straggling beard, creeping along Trafalgar Square in rags and broken shoes, finally dying at the age of 48 in 1907 of "morphomania" in St John's Wood Hospital.
It may come as a surprise to learn that Thompson's poem "The Hound of Heaven" was based on his own search for the prostitute who had suddenly left him to avoid prejudicing his literary career. In desparation he searched everywhere for his friend, visiting over and over again all her old haunts and contacting her few acquaintances. Says one of his biographers: "During the closing months of 1888 the montage of pursuit and flight in Thompson's mind found answering echoes among the great traditions of a pursuing God".
Drawing from the Confessions of St Augustine and such Psalms as Psalm 139, as well as St John's Apocalypse, he developed his theme, only completing the work after his return to London in 1890 from a period of rest in Storrington. Many of the rich flowery words he drew from his intimate knowledge of Shelley, Byron, Tennyson and a host of English poets.
And so out of these tragic circumstances of destitution and drug addiction, and an unsuccessful search for his kindly lover of ill repute comes one of the greatest religious poems in the English language, a poem with lofty imagery, sweeping grandeur and deep spiritual truth.
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 laugher.
Up vistaed hopes I sped; And shot, precipitated, Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears, From those strong Feet that followed, follower after.
Soon after Thompson's arrival in Pantasaph, North Wales, in 1892, it was Christmas and he was kneeling before the Crib in the Franciscan chapel. His thoughts as he gazed at the Christ Child set in motion the writing of a poem "Little Jesus" — Little Jesus, wast Thou shy Once, and just so small as I? And what did it feel like to be Out of heaven, and just like me?
Didst Thou sometimes think of there, And ask where all the angels were?
The poem was worked over, expanded and completed three months later — a splendid piece on the mystery of the Incarnation. One of the few poems he wrote in the last five years of his life after his last burst of literary effort from 1901 to 1904 was "The Kingdom of God", which was
posthumously published. It was composed bit by bit under a street lamp, on a park bench or under an archway, written amid exposure, hunger and abject surrender to laudanum. Yet here we see the mystic writing on the realities of the unseen world. 0 world invisible, we view
0 world intangible, we touch thee, 0 world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
Does the fish soar to find the ocean, The eagle plunge to find the air — That we ask of the stars in motion It they have rumour of thee there?
Beneath the rags and appalling condition of this London tramp was a man with a capacity for God, a craving for friendship and love, a responsiveness to acts of kindness and an awareness of the eternal world. As Frances von Alstyne says Down in the human heart, crushed by the tempter, Feelings lie buried that grace can restore; Touched by a loving hand, wakened by kindness Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.
In our inner cities among folk such as Francis Thompson lies a rich field of loving Christian endeavour, fraught as it is with discouragement and failure, such as in his life. But the work is to be done regardless of success or failure.
Through the sad chapters of Francis Thompson's chequered life Wilfrid and Alice Meynell shine through as unchanging friends, accepting him as he was, giving of their time and their resources, showing infinite patience in Christ's name.
On one occasion they had to cancel a family holiday because they had paid his arrears rent at a lodging house. It meant frequently entertaining a man in their home of offensive habits and ragged appearance.
It is true to add that ultimately the poet bequeathed to the Meynells the rights in his published and unpublished works, and that this brought financial benefits to them after his death, but his unanticipated reward in no way detracts from their unfailing support in his struggles with temptation and habit.
In our own time there are what Frances Ridley Havergal calls in one of her hymns "wrestlers with the troubled sea" aplenty. They are all around us if we only have the eyes to see them. With our tight fitting schedules and busy programmes we begrudge the unhurried time to stop and listen, and give support to modern weather-beaten Francis Thompsons.