Francis Thompson’s poetry resulted from the tortured and tormented mind of a man maladjusted to the world. The son of a successful father with whom he could have little in common, he was a failure in his studies to become a Catholic priest and later a physician. Self-exiled from home, he wandered to London, where, ground down into the direst degradation and poverty and forced to subsist on the inadequate fare he could earn by selling matches on the street, he nevertheless grew in spiritual fervor and integrity.
His first poems, growing out of a promising youth of effort, were published in April, 1888, in Merry England, a magazine edited by Wilfrid Meynell, who with his beautiful and talented wife Alice was to have great influence on the personal and poetical life of the poet. These early works include numerous poems about children. One of these, Thompson’s first on the subject, is named “Daisy.” The poem flirts with the obviously sentimental but rises above it. The poet meets the little girl, in a Wordsworthian fashion, walks with her, like two children walking side by side. When she leaves her walking partner after a short time, he remembers the joy of their companionship and the poignancy of parting, but he reconciles himself with the thought that sadness is the price of all happiness.
Thompson’s first volume of poetry, POEMS, was well received. Spurred on by enthusiastic reviews in numerous magazines, the volume startled the Victorian audience who reacted with approval or shock. It was immediately evident that a poet of considerable power was writing. His verse form was unconventional, running from clipped lines of one word to unusually long ones. The vocabulary was exotic, even bizarre, including old forms of usual words and outlandish coined terms. Latinisms abounded. Most important of all, however, was the powerful mysticism that had energized the great works of the earlier Metaphysical poets, John Donne and Richard Crashaw. William Blake’s influence is also immediately evident in several of the poems, as in “Little Jesus,” which parallels in subject matter, treatment and rhythms the earlier poet’s “The Lamb.”
Thompson’s second volume, SISTER SONGS, did not meet with the success of the earlier volume. Even the author held reservations about its publication. In approach and language that marks no advance over the previous volume, it catalogues Thompson’s love affair—which seems to have been genuine—with the daughter of his landlord.
Another of Thompson’s love affairs, entirely chaste and worshipful, is chronicled in “Love in Dian’s Lap,” begun the year of publication of “The Hound of Heaven.” The sequence is made up of poems written about Alice Meynell, the wife of his first publisher, who was herself a poet and a beautiful and charming woman. In Thompson’s mystic, powerful style she becomes far more than an earthly woman. She is his spirit, soul, his Heaven. In “A Carrier Song,” the poet says that she has “waned” from him and left him in a “darkened cage.” Another,...
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