Return to Tradition: Francis Thompson

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IT IS doubtful if universal literature has yet come to a full appreciation of the poetic genius that was Francis Thompson. Overshadowing the scant satisfaction that he derived from life is the literary legacy that was left the world upon his death in 1907. He was born at Preston, Lancastershire, England, in 1859, the son of a provincial doctor. A part of his education was received at Ushaw College where the first evidence of his love of creative literature made itself known. There followed his vain attempt to fulfill his vocation for the priesthood. His incurable indolence, physical weakness, and incredible impracticality forced his spiritual adviser to counsel him to abandon the idea of becoming a priest.

Following the wishes of his father, he went to Manchester University to study medicine. Failing at this, he became for a time assistant to a maker of surgical instruments. This was revolting to his nature and, without advising his father, he became a homeless wanderer on the streets of London. After brief employment as book agent and shoemaker's assistant, he became little more than a tramp. Often famished and cold, receiving occasional alms, earning a few pence selling matches or calling cabs, haunting the libraries until driven away because of his unkempt appearance, a helpless victim of consumption and the opium habit, finding his only woman friend in a nameless girl of the streets—such were the three years that Thompson spent in London.

However, he did manage to write a little during this time and some of his poems eventually came into the hands of Wilfrid Meynell, Catholic publisher and editor of Merrie England. After some difficulty, Meynell found Thompson and brought him to his own home as friend and guest. Recognized as the discoverer of Thompson, Meynell said, "Let none be named the benefactor of him who gave more to all than any could give him."

Thompson became an intimate of the Meynell circle. Though he never entirely gave up the opium habit, except for intermittent periods, he conquered it sufficiently to apply himself to the writing of great poetry. His shyness and quick sensibility often made his life miserable. He died, 1907, of tuberculosis.

Due to the mounting chorus in praise of Hopkins, and the fashionable instability of much of Catholic criticism, Thompson no longer receives the attention which should be given him. In his great odes Thompson, following the Liturgy, used the signs in nature correctly, as manifestations of the sacramental character of the universe. In a series of daringly flamboyant figures he piles magnificent picture upon picture until the world of beauty stands out clearly as the house of God.

Some critics have censured his tendency toward florid magnificence, but they do it without taking into account Thompson's purpose, which contrary to the vague surface worship of nature indulged to the full by the Romantic poets, was a successful attempt to look behind the glowing fagade of nature into the very purpose of the forms of creation. If the outer forms were baroque and florid, God's world, as he made it, stood revealed in a thousand dazzling pictures which were but the façade of revealed glory. Christ walks the murky waters of the Thames, His face looks out, as well, through the frozen bread of the snowflakes, and the fountains of His beauty pour in cascades from the rainbows on the Sussex downs. Eye had not seen, but tongue might declare a purpose and discern a pattern.

Sister Songs, Thompson's first book of poems, was dedicated to the Meynell family. It is a graceful and facile collection of poems, sometimes marred by a confusion of Victorian and Renaissance attitudes toward the Meynell girls and their mother Alice.

Of Thompson's later work his "Hound of Heaven" is perhaps his most beautifully integrated poem. Because of its universal appeal, it has, unfortunately overshadowed his great odes "To the Setting Sun," "Orient Ode," and the superb but revealing economy of his ode "To the Dead Cardinal of Westminster," written upon the death of Cardinal Manning.

Of equal rank with these are the "New Year Chimes," a rhythmical commentary on the eternity of God, and the "Mistress of Vision," a dream treatise on divine wisdom. In "Assumpta Maria" Thompson reached the zenith of his power to combine the natural and the supernatural.

His poems are most easily studied in the excellent edition edited by Terence Connolly, S.J. This edition has adequate textual notes except for "New Year's Chimes" and the "Mistress of Vision."

Thompson's prose is still admired by many critics. Of his critical essays the one on Shelley is perhaps the most complete and artistically balanced. Thompson's love of Shelley fails to dim his critical faculties and though his praise of Shelley's excellences verges on baroque writing, the essay is a critical masterpiece, for "love begets knowledge where the hard mind fails."

His excellent and definitive biography, by Everard Meynell, was published in 1916.

From Return to Tradition: A Directive Anthology, ed. Francis Beauchesne Thornton, pp. 94f.
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