By JOAN COCKERILL YOUNG
Francis Thompson died on November 13, 1907 IT was to the Priory of the White Canons, at Starrington, in Sussex, that the poet Francis Thompson came in 1889, on the advice of Wilfred Meynell, to regain his health after wandering destitute, and an addict to opium, the dark streets of Victorian London.
Francis Thompson was horn in Preston on December 16, 1859, the son of Dr. Charles Thompson and his wife, Mary Turner Morton of Manchester. The family moved, when the poet was five years old, to Ashton-under-Lyne, near Manchester.
It seems to have been a rather austere home, but Francis was, apparently happy with his sisters and their dolls, with which he liked playing. His favourite doll he named Eugenie, because having asked who was "the most beautiful lady in the world," he had been told the Empress of the French. He early showed his love of books. and we have glimpses of him reading in his favourite perch on the stairs.
AT USHAW H's parents, hoping that Francis
might enter the priesthood, sent him to Ushaw College, in 1870. His days at the seminary were not happy. The delicate, sensitive lad could not accept the rough and tumble of life there. particularly the ragging of his school fellows. At games he was a dismal failure! At studies, it was otherwise: While we are told that "the less said the better" of his Arithmetic and Algebra, he shone at English, and his Latin and Greek were voted fair.
He cherished a youthful admiration for Napoleon, and his essay "The Storming of the Bridge of Lodi," won the approval of the heads to the extent of being "promoted to the Hall in the company of passages of Macaulay and Gibbon."
In 1887, Francis left lIshaw, his superiors having decided that he was not a suitable candidate for the priesthood. lie was then sent to study medicine at Owens College, Manchester, but there, too, after six years, he had to admit failure.
Mr. Saxon Mills, a neighbour, wrote of Francis; " . . . An intellectual temperament less adapted to the career of a doctor and surgeon could not be imagined. To such a profession, however, Frank was destined by a careful and practical father." Libraries, galleries. walks, and — though not himself a player of games—cricket, these were Francis' enthusiasms at that time.
TN those years, too. Francis read I de Quincey's "Confessions of an English Opium Eater," and himself started on that road. In 1885, after a vain attempt to en list in the Army, Francis left home for London.
Alone, destitute, and already suffering from tuberculosis, Francis found Victorian London a hard city. Newspaper seller. match seller, sandwichman, porter in a bookshop, he was all these.
Once, while selling newspapers, he was given a florin by a member of the Rothschild family. Feeling that his benefactor must have mistaken the florin for a penny, he hurried after him, but failed to catch up with him. He had relatives whom he might have sought out in his distress, but preferred to tread his hard, lonely, but independent path.
He slept in ghastly doss houses. he rubbed shoulders with thieves. and once talked to a murderer, and sampled to the depths the terrible soul-destroying squalor of that side of Victorian England.
Once, when almost starving, he was given food and shelter by a girl of the streets: . . . of her pittance she did give, That I might at and live : Then fled, a swift and trackless fugitive."
TT must have been in those tragic .1. days, perhaps, that he wrote "in No Strange Land," found among his papers after his death,
"Rut (when so sad thou canst not sadder) "Cry—and upon thy sore loss Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder Pitched between Heaven and Charing Cross."
"And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!"
A kindly Scots bootmaker, whose habit it was when needing assistants. to offer the jobs to tramps. approached him one evening and asked, "Are you saved'?" Drawing himself up, the poet answered, "That is my business."
Undeterred, and with Scots determination, the bootmaker then said, "If you will not let me save your soul, let me at least save your body."
And so for a time. Francis worked for Mr. MacMaster at 14 Penton Street, but with little sense of time, and an inability to retnember addresses, he was scarcely a success, and his benefactor was to sadly call him, "My only failure." Then he let a shutter fall on the foot of a customer, and was reluctantly dismissed,
FRANCIS tells us: "With a few
shillings to give me breathing space. I began to decipher and put together the halt-obliterated manuscript of Paganism." I came simultaneously to my last page and my last half-penny; and went forth to drop the M.S. in the letter-box of "Merry England."
In an accompanying letter to Wilfred Meynell, the editor, Francis wrote: "I must ask pardon for the soiled state of the manuscript. It is due, not to slovenliness, but to the strange places and circumstances in which it has been written."
Ile ended the letter: "Kindly send your rejection to Charing Cross ;post-office." The M.S. remained in the editorial office some weeks. Finally it was read.
Wilfred Meynell was impressed He wrote c/o Charing Cross postoffice. Alas, the sad and disillusioned poet had given up calling there! The weeks went by.
Finally. Wilfred Meynell decided that the only thing to do was to publish the essay, and trust to its author seeing it. Thompson did. He called at the office of "Merry England." It was the beginning of a firm friendship. It was the beginning of a new life and fame for Francis Thompson.
TT was April 1888. and Wilfred I Meynell packed his protege off to Storrington. There he wrote his "Ode to the Setting Sun," and there he read the poems of Alice Meynell. wife of his new friend and benefactor.
The 19th century saw the Catholic revival. Monks and Friars returned to these islands, in some cases to the very lands which had formerly belonged to their Orders. In 1873 the London church of St. Ethelreda in Ely Place returned to Catholic hands. There were many converts—the poet I.ionel Johnson. Alice Meynell, Coventry Patmore, and, of course Manning and Newman.
In 1893 came Francis Thompson's first volume of poems which included the "Hound of Heaven." The latter, J. L. Garvin acclaimed as "The most wonderful lyric in the language." Indeed, he saw in it a "Return to Thomas a Kempis.'
There is, indeed, in this haunting poem what the poet's biographer, Agnes de la Gorce, has so aptly termed "something essential and untranslatable ... at the Sae time mysticand profoundly human. '
TN the remaining years, Francis .1 Thompson continued to write both prose and verse. He battled continually with ill-health. He supported the cause of the Boers.
He moved in that intensely interesting circle of the Meynells, Coventry Patmore, the young Hilaire Belloc. He had an ambition to write a poem to Joan of Arc. It was not to be. Francis Thompson was to die at the early age of 47.
He was persuaded to leave 1.ondon to stay with Wilfred Blunt in Sussex. near Storrington, and while there he visited George Meredith. Firnatly. his condition becoming so obviously worse. Wilfred Meynell took him back to London, arranging for him to enter the Catholic hospital of St. John and St. Elizabeth. and there he died on November 13. 1907. He is buried in St. Mary's cemetery, Kensal Green.
i In "To my Godchild" he wrote I his own epitaph: "Look for me in the nurseries of , Heaven."