Page 8, 9th November 2007

9th November 2007
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Page 8, 9th November 2007 — Francis Thompson: the poet of the return to God

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Locations: Manchester, London, Preston


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Francis Thompson: the poet of the return to God

Paul Hurley SVD on the encyclopaedia salesman and reformed drug addict who wrote one of the most famous religious poems in the English language To some of us they are "one-poem poets". We know only Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" and Gray's "Elegy", though both wrote other less wellknown works. But very few people can recall anything else by Francis Thompson except "The Hound of Heaven". Yet even if he hadn't written another single verse, he would still be honoured for giving us one of the greatest of all religious poems. Who can ever forget its splendid opening lines?

I fled him down the nights and down the days; Ifled Him, down the arches of the years; filed Him down the In 1857 Dr Charles Thompson, 34, a Manchester surgeon, married governess Mary Morton, a year his senior. Both were converts to Catholicism, and most of Charles's brothers also became Catholics; one, Edward, a former Anglican clergyman, later lectured at Dublin's Catholic University.

After their marriage the Thompsons moved to Preston, where Charles started a medical practice. Three of their five children survived infancy: two girls and Francis, who was born in 1859. He and his sisters got their primary education at home from private tutors and never mixed with other children. So from his earliest years Francis became a great reader who "devoured" Shakespeare.

When nearly 12 he was sent to study for the priesthood at Ushaw Catholic seminary. He got very good marks at Latin, Greek and English, but at 18 he was found unsuited for the priesthood, due to his "nervous timidity and natural indolence". He returned home "a failure in his own eyes and a disappointment to his parents", says his biographer J C Reid. His father then sent him to study medicine in Manchester, but after seven wasted years and three failed final exams he was forced to get a job. He hawked encyclopaedias for two months, not selling but reading them. Next, he tried to join the Army, but after some basic training was rejected as physically unfit. Finally, after a row with his father, who suspected him of drinking, he left home and went off to London.

Drugs, not drink, were his downfall. While a medical student he became addicted to opium and laudanum, both cheaper than beer or spirits. To what extent they affected his writings, as well as those of de Quincey; Coleridge and others, is still debated.

"I made the journey to the capital," he later wrote, "with the gloomiest forebodings." Then aged 26, he got various odd jobs — polishing shoes, holding horses, selling newspapers in the street. Often he hadn't the price of a bed in doss houses and slept rough.

He now "sank from shabbiness to rags, from poverty to beggary, from unkemptness to dirt and was nourished on scraps from vegetable-wagons", writes Reid. He had reached rock bottom when someone persuaded him to submit some poems to Merry England, a Catholic magazine edited by Wilfrid Meynell, husband of Alice, both convert Catholic poets. The Meynells rescued him and became his best friends. They bought him new clothes, housed him and introduced him to some of their friends, including Coventry Patmore. They also sent him to the White Canons' house at Storrington in Sussex, where he stayed a year. It was there he wrote his masterpiece, describing God's pursuit of the human soul and the creature's flight from its Creator. "The magnificence of its diction and the daring of its conception," wrote the critic Fr Claude Williamson OSC in his study, "place it on a plane by itself. It must be ranked as one of the treasures of English literature."

The Meynells also arranged for him to go, in 1892, to the Capuchin friary at Pantasaph in north Wales, where he spent six years. There he became a close friend of Irish-born Fr Anselm Kenealy, later Arch bishop of Simla in India. In his Memories of Thompson he wrote: "He was simple, humble, sincere and courteous. Not much of a man to look at, he was slightly under middle height with a straggly moustache and beard and a pair of splendid melancholy eyes. He spoke with a broad Lancashire accent."

But London, his nemesis, called him irresistibly and he spent most of his last years back there. Wilfrid Meynell got him literary hackwork. He continued writing poetry, though none of it up to the standard of "The Hound". Among his best later poems are "Sister Songs", written for the Meynell's girls, and "Ode to the Setting Sun".

He spent his last months in 1907 in the Sussex country Name of another friend, the Catholic diplomat and poet, Wifrid Scawen Blunt. While there the tuberculosis, iron which he long suffered and fcrwhich he took opium, worsened and he was

brought to hospital in

London. Twelve days Later, weighing only five storm, he died on November 13, 1907. RS tomb in Kensal Greet has the epitaph "Look for me in:he nurseries of Heaver."

lie wrote one excellent pain, but he wasn't a great pat, "But if a man has wiittetone fine poem." said Fr Williamson, "it is best -to forget that he has written 500 failures. Thompson was not a pet of the first order-." He himself once said "I urond like to be called the poet of threturn to God."

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