or mediocre poets strike a chord with the sensibility of their day
and they become popular. But the secret of that success, the hitting
of a transitory sweet spot, also assures their disappearance when,
inevitably, the public mood shifts. Who thinks of the saccharine-soused
bromides of Rod McKuen anymore? "The People's Poet," as
McKuen was dubbed in the late 1960s, is just plain obsolete, a fuzzy
version of the Beat Generation's no-strings kind of guy.
The English Catholic poet Francis Thompson's fall from favor at
the middle of the last century is partly of this variety; that is,
he could write a bad poem with the best of them and, similarly,
his public's attention drifted elsewhere. But the particulars of
his eclipse are also less nebulous; for he could write a good poem
too: It was his being presented as a specifically Catholic poet
that did for him.
Thompson (1859-1907), that "shy volcano," as G. K. Chesterton
called him, was best known as the author of "The Hound of Heaven,"
perhaps the most beloved and ubiquitously taught poem among American
Catholics for over half a century. "I fled Him, down the nights
and down the days;" it begins. "I fled Him, down the arches
of the years; / I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own
mind; and in the midst of tears / I hid from Him, and under running
laughter." The wild poem rushes along, urgent and heartfelt,
showing man careening through the world seeking love, meaning, himself,
but finding everywhere everything "shattered in shard on shard"—
until he hears Christ's message: "'Ah fondest, blindest, weakest,
/ I am He Whom thou seekest! / Thou dravest love from thee, who
Thompson was born in Preston, Lancashire, a cradle Catholic and
the son of a doctor. His first idea was to become a priest, but
he dropped out of the seminary and was sent to train for a medical
degree. He hated the field and, in time, having acquired an addiction
to opium, left his college and disappeared into the London streets.
There he lived a couple of years in destitution, before being rescued
from suicide by a prostitute who cared for him until he was taken
up by Wilfrid Meynell, the editor of a new Catholic magazine, "Merry
England." Meynell and his wife, Alice, supported Thompson for
the rest of his life—19 years. Freed from immediate want,
he pursued a literary career, contributing poems, essays, and reviews
to Meynell's magazine and elsewhere, and publishing three volumes
of poetry. Despite his gratitude and deep feelings for the Meynells,
Thompson was, it seems, something of a trial. With a short respite,
he remained addicted to opium, and his melancholy nature was worsened
by romantic troubles. He died at the age of 48.
After Thompson's death, Meynell published collections of his works;
and in the 1930s, Fr. Terence L. Connolly, librarian of Boston College,
an admirer of Thompson and friend of the Meynells, brought the writer's
papers to the University from England, establishing the Thompson
Room to hold them. As curator of the collection, Fr. Connolly sought
to promote Thompson's reputation, and he, too, compiled and edited
volumes of the poetry and prose. (Indeed Connolly may have hastened
Thompson's popular decline by cobbling together poems from Thompson's
notes and drafts, producing works inferior to anything the author
himself would have countenanced.) Although Thompson has fallen into
obscurity, a new edition of his poems has recently been published
by the library once led by Fr. Connolly, edited and annotated by
Brigid M. Boardman, author of the 1988 biography, Between Heaven
and Charing Cross: The Life of Francis Thompson.
It may seem strange to us, and even a little annoying, that Francis
Thompson—an Englishman, after all—was popular among
U.S. Catholics in general, to say nothing of being celebrated at
Boston College, whose collections today include such a wealth of
Irish and Irish-American material. There's no getting around it:
Englishness had, in that distant day, a caché that Irishness
decidedly lacked; still, let us be clear what sort of an Englishman
Thompson was. Like Chesterton, he was sympathetic to the Irish;
and more to the point, his Catholicism, by virtue of his being English,
was charged with meaning. The very existence of English Catholicism
called attention to the fact that England herself had fallen away
from the Church and conjured up Recusancy: courageous, defiant,
and true. ("How sweeter than the bee-haunted dells / The bosomy
blood of martyrs smells!" Thompson rejoiced in ghoulish surmise
in "To the English Martyrs.") Whatever one's extraction,
but probably most interesting to Irish-Americans, Francis Thompson
was one of us, not one of them.
Beyond giving rise to a certain tribal spirit, Thompson's poetry
appealed to the American temper in its untrammeled, bursting quality,
sometimes bumptious and garish, but fired-up nonetheless. It is
filled, too, with archaisms, so dear to Americans of yesteryear,
and with concocted words on the lines of "devinelier," "unprevisioned,"
"outlaw-wise," and "sighful."
Winter that numbeth the throstle and stilled wren,
Has keen frost-edges our plumes to pare,
Till we break, with the Summer's laughing children,
Over the fields of air.
While the winds in their tricksome courses
The snowy steeds vault upon
That are foaled of the white sea-horses
And washed in the stream of the sun.
Thaw, O thaw the enchanted throbbings
Curdled at Music's heart;
Tread she her grapes till from their englobings
The melodies spurt and smart!
Not everyone rejoiced in Thompson's linguistic abandon; his contemporary,
the English poet Lionel Johnson wrote that Thompson "has done more
to harm the English language than the worst American papers."
It was the Meynells' avowed intent to promote Thompson as "the
poet of Catholic orthodoxy," and to this end both Wilfrid Meynell
and, later, Fr. Connolly excised from Thompson's poetry passages
that smacked of Modernism, that capacious and ever-mutating bugaboo
of the Church during the late 19th century and first decades of
the 20th. They removed, for example, passages that sprang from Thompson's
interest in ancient religions (or heathen mythology, depending on
your view). Such deletions did not make Thompson more popular, just
more palatable to wary orthodoxy. But by the mid-1950s this defensive,
authoritarian impulse was identified by a vocal group within the
Church as the reason for U.S. Catholics' cultural backwardness and
lack of intellectual prestige. American Catholics were, as the leading
critic, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, put it, suffering from "a
self-imposed ghetto mentality." Inevitably or not, such criticism
became, in one short decade, orthodoxy itself; and American Catholics
rejected the idea of a special culture. Catholic religion and Catholic
culture separated. The former became seen, increasingly, as a private
matter, as being merely one religious profession among the others
practiced in the United States. The latter, tarred with the brush
of anti-intellectualism, virtually disappeared. The poetry of Francis
Thompson, though replete with learning and literary allusion—and
the farthest thing from anti-intellectual—was a casualty of
this temper nonetheless.
According to biographer Brigid Boardman, Thompson believed he was
writing for the future, that he was "the Poet of the Return
to God." And, oddly enough—in retrospect— Monsignor
Ellis, who inadvertently advanced the dismantling of Catholic culture,
took a view of things entirely compatible with Thompson's, believing
that "the moribund philosophy of materialism," which marked
American society as a whole, was giving way to a society based in
religious and moral values. It was this new order that would find
leadership, he hoped, from a coming generation of Catholic intellectuals.
Had that day miraculously dawned, an unbowdlerized Francis Thompson
would have fit right in. As it happens, Brigid Boardman, who has
restored the passages cut from his poems and included poems that
"had been all but suppressed," believes that Thompson
is more accessible now than in his day. His medical training and
life on the streets gave him a gritty view of reality and a social
conscience, and his governing idea that God is immanent in all things
and in all experience, so vexatious to both Victorians and the Vatican
alike, no longer strikes an alien or heretical note.
Katherine A. Powers
Katherine A. Powers writes the column "A Reading Life"
for the Boston Globe. Her reflections on the medieval imagination,
"The Illustrated Life," appeared in the Winter 2001 issue
"I the body, He the cross"—Francis Thompson at age