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,