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…
There was a time when the opening lines of Francis Thompson’s poem, “The Hound of Heaven”, would have been widely known. Today, as I discovered on a recent trip to England to film a documentary on Thompson, the poem and the poet are almost entirely forgotten. Nowhere was this crass disregard for one of England’s finest poets more evident than in the disgraceful neglect of the poet’s grave. The inscription on the tomb in the sprawling Catholic cemetery in Kensal Green had eroded to the point of illegibility. Ivy crawled creepily over the sarcophagus, covering the tomb in a blanket of oblivion, and, as if to add insult to the injury of neglect, another headstone had been placed so close to Thompson’s that it had eclipsed the poet’s epitaph. Having paid my respects at Thompson’s grave, I tried in vain to find the grave of another great Victorian poet, Lionel Johnson, whose resting place I knew to be only a matter of yards from Thompson’s. Such ignorance of fine art and such forgetfulness of a priceless heritage say more about the demise of England than they say about the neglected legacy that Thompson has bequeathed to a heedless nation.
In the light of such national amnesia, the film documentary on Thompson has become something of a crusade to make the poet and his work known to a new generation of cultured Christians on both sides of the Atlantic.
Francis Thompson was born in 1859 in Preston in Lancashire. Having failed in his efforts to train for the priesthood and then for the medical profession, he lived for a while in abject poverty in the squalor of post-Dickensian London. Homeless, penniless, addicted to laudanum, and sleeping on the streets, he befriended prostitutes at a time when the notorious Jack the Ripper was filling those same streets with terror. Such is the modern proclivity for conspiracy theories that the hapless poet has been listed among those suspected of being the world’s most mysterious serial killer. There are many reasons that Thompson could not have been the Ripper, not least of which are the innocent wisdom and religious serenity to be found in his poetry.
Thompson was saved from the streets by the charity of Wilfrid Meynell, editor of the magazine, Merry England, in which Meynell had published some of Thompson’s verse. At Meynell’s instigation, Thompson spent some time recovering his health and overcoming his drug addiction at Storrington Priory in Sussex, which was immortalized a few years later by Hilaire Belloc in his poem, “Courtesy”:
Of Courtesy, it is much less
Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,
Yet in my Walks it seems to me
That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.
On Monks I did in Storrington fall,
They took me straight into their Hall;
I saw Three Pictures on a wall,
And Courtesy was in them all …
The recipient of the same courtesy that would so impress Belloc, Thompson recovered remarkably well at Storrington, writing some of his finest verse during his period of convalescence with the monks, including his most famous poem, the above-quoted “Hound of Heaven”. Although most revered as a poet, Thompson was also the author of “Finis Coronat Opus”, one of the finest short stories the present author has ever had the pleasure of reading. A cautionary tale in the Faustian mode, it tells of a poet who sells his soul to the devil and sacrifices his marriage on the altar of “art”. It was a stinging sideswipe against the rising aesthetic movement with its mantra of “art for art’s sake” and its desire to divorce beauty from morality. Here, as elsewhere and always, Thompson’s art was always at the service of the Good, the True and the Beautiful.
Francis Thompson died in 1907 at the tragically young age of forty-seven. He was eulogized memorably by G. K. Chesterton who described him as “the greatest poetic energy since Robert Browning”: “In Francis Thompson’s poetry, as in the poetry of the universe, you can work infinitely out and out, but yet infinitely in and in. These two infinities are the mark of greatness; and he was a great poet.”
Returning to the vision of the neglected grave in Kensal Green cemetery, there seems no more appropriate tribute to Thompson’s life and death (and resurrection) than the closing lines of Chesterton’s famous poem, “The Rolling English Road”:
My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
Reading these lines afresh, in the light of my visit to Thompson’s tomb in Kensal Green cemetery, I cannot but believe that Chesterton had Thompson in mind as he wrote these lines. Thompson’s youth was certainly full of folly and the reference to seeing things “undrugged” is surely an allusion to the laudanum addiction that Thompson, like Coleridge before him, had never managed to overcome.
The final words on this great but neglected poet do not belong to Chesterton, or even to Thompson himself. They belong to the God whom Chesterton and Thompson worshipped. At the end of “The Hound of Heaven”, it is Christ Himself who speaks to the Poet:
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
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The featured image is a photograph of Francis Thompson at the age of 19. It is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.