Between Heaven and Charing Cross: The life of Francis Thompson by Brigid Boardman (Yale University Press — £19.95 SINCE Francis Thompson's death in 1907 a number of biographies have been written of him. In 1913 Everard Meynell, whose parents knew the poet so intimately, wrote his The Life of Francis Thompson, a record which for 30 years was regarded as the official biography.
Then in 1944 American Jesuit Terence Connolly wrote Francis Thompson in his paths; J C Reid in 1959 wrote Francis Thompson, Man and Poet; and in 1968 John Walsh pubished his Strange Harp, Strange Symphony.
These were all important contributions to the understanding of the poet's unusual and difficult life. Why, one might well ask, another biography?
Dr Brigid Boardman answers this by asking the reader "to set aside the earlier views, and by listening to Thompson's own voice speaking through his own poetry . . . to reveal the real personality and real poet". This, she says, will show that he has a fuller claim to our attention today than he has so far been given.
The book analyses carefully not only Thompson's great poems for which we know him, but also the reviews and articles which came from his pen. Most interesting to this reviewer was his handling of William Booth's famous "In darkest England and the way out" written in 1890, desribing the appalling social conditions of Britain's cities at that time, and advocating the encouragement of self-help and the formation of self-sustaining communities. Francis Thompson's own sordid experiences on the London streets made him respond to the Salvation Army leader's penetrating analysis, resulting in the poet challenging his fellow Catholics to adapt Booth's solutions within their own structures.
The Capuchin Franciscans, already advocates of a similar approach, took up this challenge, and hailed him as "the poet of the return to God". They had a vision of their friars going into the slums of Britain's cities in the name of Christ, and saw in Thompson their "poet Prophet".
This gave Thompson a much needed sense of vocation and of usefulness , but his own opium addiction and the friars' involvement in theological controversy rendered this hope unrealisable, and the plan petered out.
The author's careful research into the poet's original notebooks reveals that he fervently believed that his poetry contained a message that must wait for a future generation to fully understand and appreciate. The final picture we have of Francis Thompson is of a frail, bedraggled and weather beaten man of 48, suffering the effects of years of addiction to laudanum and going to a premature death.
The sad story raises the inevitable question of the kind of life and
career he might have had if (a) he had entered the priesthood and free from addiction, or (b) if he
had conquered his habit permanently during his time of recuperation in Storrington, Sussex, or (c) if he had married Katie King with her literary gifts and warm personality, and allowed her to re-direct his life.
But E V Lucas said of him, "He was born to baffle the glib