The Poet of the Return to God
It is an irony that Victorian, Anglican England produced two poetic geniuses who were neither Victorian nor Anglican. Both were quintessentially Catholic, one so avant-garde he has been called the “father of modern poetry” and the other a tardy Romantic. These blazingly gifted men are, of course, the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins and Francis Thompson, author of the great ode “The Hound of Heaven.” But while Hopkins continues to be anthologized and studied as a brilliant poetic pioneer, Thompson has largely been consigned to moldering books on unused library shelves. Today’s readers probably find him too Byzantine and archaic.
Yet since 2007 is the centenary year of Thompson’s death at age 47, it seems an appropriate time to reconsider this talented and tragic minstrel. For one thing, his “Hound of Heaven” is one of the great religious odes of modern times, having been praised by such diverse writers as Oscar Wilde, G. K. Chesterton, Eugene O’Neill and James Dickey. For another, his poetry, sensuous and lush as it is, radiates a profound Catholic spirituality. Thompson’s work illustrates the power of a religious vision to permeate the consciousness so intimately that it transforms the natural world into a realm of allegory, symbol and metaphor.
Because of this, Thompson had a profound reverence for the world of nature. He saw it as one of the words of God, as a mystical and, as the Rev. Andrew Greeley might say, enchanted home whose rhythms and contrasts, comforts and terrors, spoke of religious truths. His sacramental sense of God’s creative presence in the material world confirms the intuitions of all who like to wander riverbanks or stroll forest paths as they pray.
On Pain and Loss
But Thompson was not merely a lover of nature, writing rhapsodic lyrics about poppy fields or yew trees. He also addressed pain and loss, which characterize every spiritual journey. He frequently reminds us of the price of discipleship and the necessity of the cross. About suffering Thompson was ever the realist, ending his poem “Daisy” with the following stanza:
Nothing begins, and nothing ends,
That is not paid with moan;
For we are born in other’s pain,
And perish in our own.
For Thompson, though, pain is never pointless. It is potentially the most precious offering we can give to the God whose son died horribly on a cross. In “To the English Martyrs,” for instance, Thompson’s perspective would be incomprehensible except for the Christian theology of death, and especially the heroic deaths of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith:
How sweeter than bee-haunted dells
The blosmy blood of martyrs smells!
And, later in the same poem, Thompson notes:
Pain the loss became possessing;
Pain the curse was pain the blessing.
Perhaps in our postmodern culture, with its pharmacy-focused attempts to blot out every type of pain or ache, this is one of the less emphasized distinctions of Christianity—to see in pain not punishment, but gift. Certainly Thompson saw it so, and this conviction permeates his religious poetry.
Thompson’s poetic sensibilities were largely shaped by the great Romantics, especially Shelley, whom he deeply admired. And with Shelley, Thompson shared not just an obvious love of nature, but an intensity of emotion as well, which gave his poetry a sense of breathless urgency.
This intensity resulted at least partly from Thompson’s struggle with ill health (and his consequent addiction to laudanum) from his late 20’s until his death. Thompson also lived with the abiding sense that his unique talent had itself in some way effected a double failure in his life; he had left the seminary at Ushaw with his father’s hopes of a priestly life for him frustrated, and he had failed in the final examinations at medical school.
Yet he was precocious from birth. Thompson had read Shakespeare to his two sisters when he was only seven years old, and his voracious appetite for reading had early set him apart, stimulating his sensitive imagination. Later failures and struggles with his addiction no doubt fueled the intensity of his often fervid poetry.
Nature as Incarnation
If in intensity and voluptuousness of language Thompson’s poetry resembles Shelley’s, it was different in a crucial way. For unlike his beloved predecessor, Thompson saw nature as revelatory of the Infinite. His poetry is, then, profoundly incarnational.
In “The Kingdom of God,” for instance, Thompson queries:
Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air—
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?
He immediately answers with his belief that the world of the transcendent constantly spills into our own:
The angels keep their ancient places;—
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
God is present here, Thompson affirms. Even when one is afflicted and, in desperation, “clinging to heaven by the hems,” God will make known this presence:
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!
Thompson himself, while eking out an existence on the streets of London and no doubt “clinging to heaven by the hems,” had had his own experience of salvation; when he was destitute and near despair, Wilfred Meynell, editor of the journal Merrie England, finally read a dog-eared manuscript Thompson had sent and, recognizing the poet’s genius, tracked him down. Soon afterward, Meynell took him under his wing. He and his wife, Alice, herself a poet and essayist, began the long and famous relationship that changed Thompson’s life and, no doubt, extended it by many years.
In the poetry that followed this rescue, nature was still the usual source of inspiration. Thompson’s orthodox theology, however, precluded the hints of pantheism found in some of the great Romantic poets. A quite different attitude from that of Wordsworth, for example, is reflected in Thompson’s “Of Nature, Laud and Plaint”:
Lo, here stand I and Nature, gaze to gaze,
And I the greater. Couch thou at my feet,
Barren of heart, and beautiful of ways,
Strong to weak purpose, fair and brute-brained beast.
Drenched in the Spirit
Nature might brim with holy disclosures, but it was not God. Thompson was not nature’s worshiper, but its exegete.
To varying degrees, the natural world consistently provides imagery and metaphors for Thompson. His most significant poetry, however, is drenched with the struggles and paradoxes of the spiritual journey. In his “Any Saint,” for instance, he addresses the soul:
Who art thyself a thing
Of whim and wavering;
When his wings pen thee.
Before accepting the peculiar freedom of being “penned” by God’s angels, however, Thompson gives in his great ode “The Hound of Heaven” a full account of having run from God “Lest, having Him,/ I must have naught beside.” Ultimately, he becomes isolated from both the spiritual and material worlds, however, discovering that nature cannot fulfill his human longings. For, though his “tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek,” he admits that
not by that…was eased my human smart….
For ah! we know not what each other says,
These things and I….
Nature, the “fair and brute-brained beast,” is just a “poor stepdame,” and she “cannot slake my drouth.”
It is only when desolate and anguished that the narrator receives the grace to turn back to God, asking:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
And God responds:
Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee,who dravest Me!
Ultimately, then, it is Thompson’s religious vision that distinguishes him from the great Romantic poets. In fact, while he considered Wordsworth “the poet of the return to Nature,” Thompson desired to be, as he recorded in an early notebook, “the poet of the return to God.”
In Thompson’s mission to harmonize the worlds of nature and religious faith, he frequently returns to his favorite source of metaphor and allegory—the sun. This is not surprising, for it had been the sun that occasioned in him a profound religious experience while staying in a monastery in 1888 to recover from opium addiction. Standing before a life-size crucifix in a field, Thompson watched the extraordinary beauty of the setting sun and felt a rebirth within himself of both his poetic gifts and his relationship with Christ. At the same time, he recognized in the setting sun and its promise of rebirth a mystical symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection. Consequently, the sun became the supreme symbol in the world of Thompson’s poetry, as it is the supreme material force in the world.
This inexhaustible warehouse of imagery for Thompson reflects the great mystery of his faith, as when he writes in “Ode to the Setting Sun”:
Thou dost image, thou dost follow
That King-Maker of Creation...
Thou art of Him a type memorial.
Thompson shows his delight in the sun repeatedly. In various nondivine personifications, such as “Sultan Phoebus” and “empress of the air,” he speaks of the sun’s “radiant finger,” “burning curls,” “sceptered beam” and “untarnishable wing.”
But it is Thompson’s religious creed that inspires the charming and reverent pun,
And the Sun comes with power amid
O Radiant Light
It is this latter verse that illumines the uniqueness of Thompson. Shelley could have conceived much of Thompson’s imagery; and it clearly shows his influence, which is evident after rereading “The Cloud,” for example. But unlike Shelley, Thompson saw nature through the lens of faith, and his poetry harmonized the worlds of matter and spirit; he was deeply, essentially Christian. Seeing beyond the visible, Thompson could address the “Mystic Sun”:
Thou, for the life of all that live
The victim daily born and sacrificed.
Or, again Christ-conscious,
Like Him thou hang’st in dreadful pomp of blood
Upon thy Western rood;
If, however, the sun’s daily drama evoked in Thompson images of the crucifixion, it paradoxically symbolized, even more significantly, the triumphal mystery of resurrection. In the light of the sun, Thompson saw a symbol of the light of Christ, and he believed that this light
when It set on earth arose in Heaven.
And he concludes his “Ode to the Setting Sun”:
Till Time, the hidden root of change, updries,
Are Birth and Death inseparable on earth;
For they are twain yet one, and Death is Birth.
The poetry of Francis Thompson luminously reflects his Catholic faith, just as it gives us an incarnational vision of nature and its central life-source, the sun. His mystical vision reminds us of a central tenet of our creed: that our death is also our resurrection into the bosom of an unchanging God.
In his essay on Shelley, Thompson wrote that “all the elemental spirits of Nature take from his verse perpetual incarnation and reincarnation, pass in a thousand glorious transmigrations through the radiant forms of his imagery.” What he said of Shelley’s poetry, of course, is manifestly true of his own. And in this centenary year of his death, Catholics everywhere, but especially in the English-speaking world, should take the occasion to revisit and celebrate the poetry of Francis Thompson. For, as Joseph Husslein wrote in the introduction to Terence Connolly’s 1944 biography of Thompson, “His spirit knocked at heaven’s gate….”