The Poets' Chantry/Francis Thompson
Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?
Whether man's heart or life it be which yields
Thee harvest, must Thy harvest fields
Be dunged with rotten death?
Words of terrible import these—and of a truth before which one veils the unwilling eyes: the words of a poet whose heart had already endured the charring of God's insatiate flame; who, in death, was yet to look down upon the whitening harvest of his art.
For the world knew not Francis Thompson during the days of his pilgrimage. Only a little band—the poets, the elect, and sundry of those whose eyes had by miracle been opened—knew him. They, after all, were the only ones whose praise could have signified to the man himself. But after he had gone out from among us the world wakened up. The world had, indeed, almost immediately the grace to realise how costly a loss had befallen it. The world mourned the poet. The world began to read his thrice-precious legacy. And so the world grew rich. Then came that memorable, that almost spectacular, posthumous essay on Shelley, as rich and as radiant as a handful of jewels; and even the general reader capitulated. So that to-day one may quite declare Thompson's immortality to have been speedily achieved; for only the dead are immortal.
When a certain slender volume of Poems, by one Francis Thompson, was issued in the November of 1893, critical London opened wide eyes of attention and even astonishment. It was not, of course, the mere fact of a new luminary upon the poetic horizon—too frequent an occurrence to cause much excitement, and prone, alas, to prove but the giddy flight of a star shooting down to oblivion. But in these pages there was manifestly something unusual—something elemental and arresting. Their author was straightway greeted with the dubious distinction of new poet, and every variety of criticism was showered upon his work. The old, old cry of "native woodnotes wild" came from one reviewer, from another the complaint of too much polishing; his diction was decried as illiterate on one side and as "too literate" on the other. As a whole, however, the verdict was one of rather dazed appreciation; and, if personal details of a more or less romantic nature began to mingle with current criticism, they merely, and for a time, added to the poet's little vogue.
But who was the poet? In one sense a young man—some thirty-four years—as ages go: but bowed already, bent, well-nigh broken by the age-old sorrow of the world. Not unmeet was it that Thompson's birth should have been in Lancashire, historic home of the flame-red, blood-red rose. His father and mother were converts to the Faith. He was early sent to the venerable Ushaw school, in half-anticipation of a priestly career. Later came the tragic choice of medicine (his family's choice, for the father was a physician) and the passing on to Owens College, Manchester. But Francis loved the public libraries too well to keep to his Materia Medica; and he would seem to have lacked courage to tell his father how radically, how painfully, how even ludicrously impossible the chosen vocation must be. So the breach came, the needless yet inevitable breach; only healed by sufferance under the Franciscan shadow of Pantasaph, a few months before the parent's death. "I was in every sense an unsatisfactory son," the poet declared with sad humility in his later life.
Up to London came the young exile, unfriended, with a body never robust, a heart of aching sensitiveness, and a mind absorbed in dreams of ideal beauty. Nothing was ever so inconsolably easy as his steep, his swift descent. Those days upon the cruel London streets; those nights when he lay outcast, suffering the "abashless inquisition of each star"; the wonderful, tentative efforts; the ceaseless literary discouragements; the want, the shame, the impotence of it all, bore their speedy fruit. Master of the drug this poet early scorned to be: but now, in his misery, the servitude to the drug was his. There, at least, lay the cessation of pain. It sounds almost melodramatic, the sequel to this terrible prologue: yet it comes to us upon Thompson's own word that only the hand of Thomas Chatterton—reaching out to him from the twilight world of poetry and of death—stayed his own hand in what might have been the hour of despair. That was the night of ultimate darkness. But the angels kept watch and slept not until morning broke. And with morning came the dawn of a new life for Francis Thompson.
The honour of "discovering" the poet rests primarily with the editor of Merry England through whose insight the worth of his vagrant scraps of manuscript was recognized, through whose tender, indefatigable patience he was tracked and coerced into salvation. To him—as, in a double sense, to his wife, Alice Meynell—fell due the debt of Thompson's immortal gratitude: and to these "dear givers" was dedicated the first volume of his poems. Some of these had been written in Sussex, at the Premonstratensian Monastery of Storrington, to which the new-found friends had directed him. And here, during the following months, was passed an interval of ardently serene creativeness. Here and in London "The Hound of Heaven" took final form—that tremendous and triumphant ode which silenced the most adverse batteries of criticism, and which to the last must stand as one of Thompson's very greatest achievements. Here flamed into life "The Setting Sun." Most of his poems upon children were subsequently composed, and "Love in Dian's Lap" took on its chastely perfect vesture, in London. There too were written the Sister Songs, published as a second volume in 1895; and Pantasaph, near Holywell, in Wales, itself the seat of a Capuchin Monastery, was the birthplace of most of the New Poems which appeared in 1897. Accentuation, all along, might be declared the keynote of this last volume, for every characteristic of the earlier work we here find deepened. It is at once more searchingly philosophical and more richly imaginative; its tenderness is more impassioned, its pathos more intense; while a certain marvellous verbal jugglery (that purple cloud of chaotic magnificence which so often wrapped, and sometimes obscured, Francis Thompson's thought) is even more inalienably dominant in them.
Then the poet returned to London; there he lived, for the greater number of his remaining years, in intimate union with one family of friends, but latterly he wrote little poetry. A few trenchant prose reviews came from his hand during the final decade. Then also was written that admirable and unique Life of St. Ignatius. But not the wisest and the dearest of our poet's friends could recapture the splendid victory of that early renaissance, nor win back health to his own poor life.
It was on the 13th of November, 1907, that Francis Thompson died: shortly after a visit once again to his peaceful Sussex, at the home of Mr. Wilfrid Blunt. He died in the London to which, rather than to the country, he seemed to belong, and just as dawn was breaking in the east. He left behind him a number of unpublished poems, alike early and late, to be gathered by his literary executor in the collected edition of his work.
Well—one may see Thompson's achievement as a whole now, and through a perspective of time which, naturally, changes some details of the outlook. What does not change or anywise diminish is the conviction of his high place as poet. His work is passionately personal; for all the debt to Patmorean philosophy, its form and its thought are overwhelmingly his own. But it has added many a "heart-remembered" line to the legitimate heritage of English literature. This subjective colouring, as omnipresent in the lyric of childhood as in the Nature ode, is nowhere more emphatic than throughout the "Love in Dian's Lap," addressed to Mrs. Meynell. Nor, indeed, is there any division of Thompson's poetic work more uniquely exquisite. These poems are, for the most part, a record of one of those high and beautiful friendships which literature has again and again immortalised for us.
At the rich odours from her heart that rise,
My soul remembers its lost Paradise,
I grow essential all, uncloaking me
From this encumbering virility,
And feel the primal sex of heaven and poetry,
the poet declares, in one of that series which Patmore has said "St. John of the Cross might have addressed to St. Theresa." In all truth, one must search Jerusalem with many a candle before coming upon anything more ethereally yet poignantly beautiful in its own field than "Her Por-trait" or "Manus Animam Pinxit." They are not in any sense the usual style of erotic poetry, these poems which see the body but as veil and vesture of the spirit within, and which make their most piercing cry:
Oh he true
To your soul, dearest, as my life to you!
But, even aside from their poetic excellence, there is that in them for which Francis Thompson has taken all true womanhood into his debt; as did long ago that brave Cavalier lyrist who laid his tribute at the feet of "Lucasta."
Through the love poems of the later and final volume there vibrates a new note of passionate pain, and the pathos of the series entitled "Ultima" is scarcely exceeded, save by its dig-nity. "No man ever attained supreme knowledge unless his heart had been torn up by the roots": these are the words chosen by Thompson as text for his "Holocaust." And verily hand in hand the joy and the pain of love are seen treading the winepress of the succeeding lyrics, until the vintage of "Ultimum" is reached:
Now in these last spent drops, slow, slower shed,
Love dies, Love dies, Love dies—ah, Love is dead!
The days draw on too dark for Song or Love:
O peace, my songs, nor stir ye any wing!
For lo, the thunder hushing all the grove,
And did Love live, not even Love could sing.
And Lady, thus I dare to say,
Not all with you is passed away!
Beyond your star, still, still the stars are bright;
Beyond your highness, still I follow height;
Sole I go forth, yet still to my sad view,
Beyond your trueness, Lady, Truth stands true.
In different vein, but full of charm and of a gracious seeming-ingenuousness, is the "little dramatic sequence" which our poet has comprehended under the title "A Narrow Vessel." There is magic in his "Love Declared," that moment singled out, set apart in the heart's long consciousness, when
Caught up their breathing, and the world's great pulse
Stayed in mid-throb, and the wild train of life
Reeled by, and left us stranded on a hush.
It is all so naïvely intimate that almost as a shock comes the Patmorean revelation of the Epilogue, wherein it appears that this very, very human story is but an allegory of something more divine, since
She, that but giving part, not whole,
Took even the part back, is the Soul.
"The human heart," declared Walter Savage Landor, "is the world of poetry; the imagination is only its atmosphere." Never a poet understood this better than Thompson. While removed by the length of the cosmos from the mists of pantheism (in which, by inevitable paradox, personality tends ever to become impersonal!) Thompson beheld in Nature a wondrously vital and sentient thing. Beyond this, he had the rarer quality of the unified vision. He has himself elsewhere proclaimed the symbolic initiation without which no poet may attain his mystic "land of Luthany"; declaring the final seal of this vocation to be that inner, indubitable light by which he perceives that all created things,
Near or far,
To each other linkèd are,
And thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star.
This mingling of the dainty and the profound is highly characteristic of his own Nature poems. On one page is a fragment like that "To a Snow-flake," of incredible delicacy—on the next, an ode that thunders into sublimity. It is interesting to study in the following stanzas an example of this double manner: the personal appeal to the flower, and the equally subjective, although apparently impersonal, interpretation of the sun's diurnal ministry. The first quoted lines are from a poem, "To Daisies," posthumously published in the Atlantic Monthly.
Ah, drops of gold in whitening flame
Burning, we know your lovely name—
Daisies, that little children pull!
Like all weak things, over the strong
Ye do not know your power for wrong,
And much abuse your feebleness.
Daisies, that little children pull,
As ye are weak, be merciful!
O hide your eyes, they are to me
Or be but conscious ye are fair,
And I your loveliness could bear,
But, being fair so without art,
Ye vex the silted memories of my heart!
This from the "Orient Ode," a pageant of compelling beauty, is already dear to every lover of Francis Thompson:
Lo, in the sanctuaried East,
Day, a dedicated priest
In all his robes pontifical exprest,
Lifteth slowly, lifteth sweetly,
From out its Orient tabernacle drawn,
Yon orbèd sacrament confest
Which sprinkles benediction through the dawn;
And when the grave procession's ceased,
The earth with due illustrious rite
Blessed,—ere the frail fingers featly
Of twilight, violet-cassocked acolyte,
His sacerdotal stoles unvest—
Sets, for high close of the mysterious feast,
The sun in august exposition meetly
Within the flaming monstrance of the West.
It is impossible to quote here from the "Ode to the Setting Sun," with its half-tragic blending of death and birth, or from the wild Bacchic gladness of the "Corymbus for Autumn." For Thompson can, and does, rejoice in beauty with the sensuous loveliness of Keats himself; albeit very soon the visible becomes for him a portent and prophecy of the invisible, and through the glad earth-cry roll dim pealings of "a higher and a solemn voice." There is no more representative expression of this very Christian and very poetic attitude than in the lovely Paschal ode, "From the Night of Forebeing," with its inspiring burden:
Look up, O mortals, and the portent heed:
In very deed
Washed with new fire to their irradiant birth
Reintegrated are the heavens and earth!
From sky to sod,
The world's unfolded blossom smells of God.
Of formally devotional poetry Francis Thompson has written little—"Ex Ore Infantium," the soaring, surging lines of "Assumpta Maria," and a few others. Yet through all his work the spiritual element is the one commanding, indubitable thing. And religion is more than an emotion to him: it is a philosophy. The mystery of pain and evil one finds acknowledged, not lightly, but through cataclysmic rending of the spirit; and a thousandfold more convincing, because of this wide-eyed out-look upon Life, is the poet's ultimate and persistent hold upon Faith. "If hate were none," he has somewhere dared to ask:
If hate were none, would love burn lowlier bright?
God's fair were guessed scarce but for opposite sin;
Yea, and His mercy, I do think it well,
Is flashed back from the brazen gates of Hell.
Throughout the mystical poems which form, then, so large a proportion of Thompson's work, there burns a most poignant message. It is the old, primal story of God and the soul, and one finds it thrilling with never-to-be-forgotten intensity in that magnificent ode, "The Hound of Heaven."
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; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbéd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat,
More instant than the Feet—
"All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."
Thus begins the flight from this "tremendous Lover." The Soul speeds on and on, knocking vainly for shelter at the door of earthly love; next seeking comradeship with the elements, in the very "heart of Nature's secrecies"—
But not by that, by that, was cased my human smart.
In vain my tears were wet on Heaven's grey cheek.
For ah! we know not what each other says,
These things and I; in sound I speak—
Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.
One by one fails each human hope,
Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist
I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist:
there is one last, bitter cry, and then—submission! Love has conquered, and "like a bursting sea" sounds the voice of the Pursuer:
"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."
Thompson has written greater poems than "The Dread of Height"; but, with the sole exception of the "Hound," he has written nothing more characteristic. It is the cry of a soul that has stood very high upon the mountain peaks, and in the glory of fire and cloud feels eternal banishment from the little, joyful things of mortality; for
'Tis to have drunk too well
The drink that is divine
Maketh the kind earth waste,
And breath intolerable.
Moreover, human feet are weak, and the highest election none too sure; neither does any know the depths of Hell like him who has gazed down from Heaven's view-point. So with this cry of spiritual isolation is mingled the pleading voice of human impotence:
Some hold, some stay
O difficult Joy, I pray,
Some arms of thine,
Not only, only arms of mine!
Lest like a weary girl I fall
From clasping love so high,
And lacking thus thine arms, then may
Most hapless I
Turn utterly to love of basest rate;
For low they fall whose fall is from the sky.
This Titanic struggle of soul and sense, of will and work, this struggle which is man—
O' the worm and Deity!—
this battle which is the clearest witness of life—save only for those few who have attained to the "unitive" life of resurgent victory and peace—is mightily mirrored in the pages of Francis Thompson. "Any Saint," "To the Dead Cardinal of Westminster," "A Judgment in Heaven"—in these the pillars of our habitual and superficial security, "les convenances," fall crashing about our heads. We have no choice but to gaze at the poet's own "heart-perturbing" visions. That little matter of man and his eternal destiny (matter of all the preachers in all the ages), it is this the white-faced poet is considering. He walks through the valley of the great Shadow; and what wonder that his brows are bound with thorn as well as cypress? It was nowise possible that Thompson should have escaped melancholy—intense and aching melancholy, that scourge of every sensitive mind. Yet his was, ultimately, a cheerfulness such as merely cheerful men may never know. "Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides," declares Mr. Chesterton (he who knows so well how to say serious things frivolously), "but in a gayer universe." And our poet walked with Giotto. For he believed supremely in God: and he believed in stepping-stones up which the soul might hope to climb; down which God himself might, peradventure, descend. In Francis Thompson, more, seemingly, than in any poet of the present time, has the ascetic ideal found a champion and an exponent.
Lose, that the lost thou may'st receive;
Die, for none other way canst live,
he bids us, in words which might echo those once spoken beside the Sea of Galilee. The world has never been willing to accept them without a struggle. Indeed, may it not be that only through struggle and conflict and defeat is their truth made manifest?
No really morbid heart has ever been able to delight in children: but Thompson loved them frankly and faithfully. Few poets have written more feelingly of (one does not say for) these little ones. This is patent in all three volumes of his verse—while of the second it is, of course, the very raison d'être. A passage of imperishable beauty in the Sister Songs hints how one scarcely more than a child,
Fallen from the budded coronal of Spring,
And through the city streets blown withering,
had lent her ministering touch to the poet's heart in those dark, earlier days. And all the world knows how, in the children of Alice and Wilfrid Meynell, Thompson found one of his inspirations. He has left, as a memorial of his love for them, the verses to his God-child, Francis Meynell; also a lovely fantasy, "The Making of Viola"; the whole of Sister Songs; "The Poppy"; and that uniquely haunting poem "To Monica Thought Dying," with its image of Death holding state among the little broken playthings, thrice in-tolerable with "this dreadful childish babble on his tongue." In a niche of its own must stand that exquisite "Ex Ore Infantium"—
Little Jesus, wast Thou shy
Once, and just so small as I?
And what did it feel like to be
Out of Heaven, and just like me?—
of which no detached page can hope to reproduce the tender gaiety. It recalls nothing so much as one of Crashaw's divinely human touches, his marvelling
That He whom the sun serves should faintly peepe
Through clouds of Infant flesh: that He, the old
Eternall Word should be a Child, and weepe.
Manifestly, Thompson's viewpoint (the viewpoint of verses such as "Daisy" and "The Poppy") is very far from being a childlike one. But his are the musings of one who, having known the full measure of manhood—having known life and love and the grave—has still a heart meet for "the nurseries of Heaven."
We have already suggested the inevitable thing: and now, perforce, we remember that one of the first—yea, and one of the last—titles laid by appreciative critics at our poet's feet was, "the greater Crashaw." It is as deceptive as such generalisations have, in the main, proved selves to be. To point out that the human aspiration for supernal beauty, which Edgar Poe once defined as the essence of the poetic principle, was supremely potent in both men is merely saying that both were authentic poets. The further resemblance would seem to lie in that mystical and spiritual attitude toward life, in that fervour of imagination coupled with devotional tenderness (a "divine familiarity" Thompson himself once called it in commenting on the older poet) which may almost be claimed as a birthright by our Catholic songsters. But Crashaw's was essentially a lyric genius; and Francis Thompson is as dramatic as Browning. Temperamental contrasts are quite as striking: for while the voice of Richard Crashaw comes to us in tones of angelic sweetness, soaring ever to the clouds as to its native sphere, the author of the "Hound of Heaven" has pierced to the depths of passional experiences, and speaks in "words accursed of comfortable men." The one might well be called the poet of Bethlehem—the other, of Gethsemane!
Obvious enough, for the most part, are the imperfections of Thompson's poetic work. But his was overwhelmingly a creative genius, and his faults are, almost without exception, those secondary ones of criticism. He is prone to ellipse and obscurity, to a magnificent anarchy of construction: more than once will his robust and esoteric choice of words plunge the reader in semi-helplessness. Drawbacks such as these may seem superficial enough (and therefore the more unnecessary), but they have their root in some fundamental idiosyncrasy of thought, and are very rarely overcome. In a searching critique upon the first poems, Coventry Patmore granted Thompson all the masculine virtues of "profound thought and far-fetched splendour of imagery, and nimble-witted discernment of those analogies which are the 'roots' of the poet's language," but regretted his lack of the "shy moderation which never says as much as it means." Yet, when all is said, one hesitates to bring the "personal equation" too close to a poet's individuality, or to criticise the passion flower because it is neither a rose nor an asphodel. Why should it not be—just a passion flower? In all nature there are few things more tragically significant. And no one who has read those illuminating prose reviews, contributed originally to the Athenæum or the Academy, could for an instant question Thompson's fundamental critical ability. Melody he knew, and dissonance he knew, with purposeful effect: but his was the large way of Il Magnifico in things alike good and ill.
Death has done much for Francis Thompson; still he is not yet under danger of becoming a "popular poet." In more than a score of passages he has imprisoned emotions still palpitating with life; he has found words for those flashes of consciousness which, almost to our own souls, remain inarticulate. But they are not surface emotions, and in mode of expression the poet was supremely heedless of the wide appeal. Moreover, being far from obvious, his poems demand somewhat of the reader's co-operation, with the inevitable result of minimising the circle of these readers. No one was more conscious of this than Thompson himself in the rare moments when he can be said to have been at all conscious of his reader; "The Cloud's Swan Song" alludes to it with a delicate and piercing pathos. But this, after all, is the slightest test of poetic worth. Those who are willing to delve a little will find real gold in Francis Thompson's volumes—gold of a burning purity and brilliance all too rare in the mines of latter-day poetry. His work is a precious heritage: memorable for its artistic beauty and its deep human sympathy; but in the last analysis most memorable for its essential Catholicity, its spiritual profundity and elevation.
Ah! let the sweet birds of the Lord
With earth's waters make accord;
Teach how the crucifix may be
Carven from the laurel-tree,
Fruit of the Hesperides
Burnish take on Eden-trees,
The Muses' sacred grove be wet
With the red dew of Olivet,
And Sappho lay her burning brows
In white Cecilia's lap of snows!
It is Thompson himself who has achieved this costly and mystical quest!