“The Passion of Mary,” a poem by a certain Francis Thompson, came to the editor of a Catholic literary magazine in a crumpled, dirty envelope without a return address. Only after it had been printed six months later, did an emaciated figure appear in the office door, “a waif of a man,” as the editor later recalled, “more ragged and unkempt than the average beggar, his feet without stockings, showing through his boots, his coat torn and no shirt.”
So began one of the oddest literary careers in the history of British letters. For the previous several years Thompson had lived hand-to-mouth, sleeping under bridges along the Thames embankment, walking the streets at night, and always hungry. His shabby appearance had caused him to be invited to leave library reading rooms, yet using a pencil and scraps of paper, and, as he later put it, “devoured by literary ambition,” he had continued to write. During his years on the street, he had developed a dependency on laudanum an opium-laced pain reliever sold across the counter at pharmacies.
His background was unusual. Thompson was the product of a Catholic seminary education where he had excelled in classical literature before being dismissed as unsuitable for the priesthood. A long stint in medical training proved equally unsuccessful, and he had ended up penniless on the street. Recognizing the talents of the gentle, introverted young man, the editor paid off Thompson’s drug debts, and eventually arranged for him to be rehabilitated at a monastery in the English countryside south of London. His confidence in Thompson’s abilities was well founded.
During Thompson’s two-year stay away from London, he drew from his inward resources, producing a remarkable flow of poems and essays, painted with a firm literary brush. Among these was a longer work, entitled “The Hound of Heaven,” whose opening stanza told of a hare being pursued by a hunting dog:
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…
God, personified by the hound, relentlessly pursues him:
“…with unhurrying chase, And uperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy.”
Between 1885 and 1895 three booklets of his poems appeared in print, and Thompson’s name was widely recognized. A major secular literary magazine headlined him as one of its major contributors, though few of its employees had ever actually met him.
Reading Thompson’s faith-infused poetry, it is easy to overlook the context of this work. British Catholicism at this time was largely inward looking, pre-occupied with church-state politics, and arguments over papal authority, none of which interested Thompson. When a visitor tried to draw him out regarding these controversies, he replied: “I am orthodox, it is my only consolation.” But his unwavering belief in God as the source of beauty, also led him to gently chide Church leadership’s increasing reliance on philosophy to combat unbelief in place of literary expression. “The Church, which was once the mother of poets no less than of saints, during the last two centuries has relinquished to aliens the chief glories of poetry.”
For Thompson such a separation was unthinkable. God “as primal beauty” in whose radiance gives meaning to all earthly creation, the “Omnipotent Musician” in whose hands “Creation vibrates with harmony from the palpitating throat of the bird to the surges of His thunder as they burst in fire along the roaring strands of Heaven.” The center of Thompson’s universe was the redeeming figure of Christ, “heavenly beauty taking on itself flesh.”
For Thompson there was no alienation between God and art. He was convinced that true beauty inevitably drew the human heart toward the divine. A lengthy essay described the religiosity of the agnostic English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, portraying him as “struggling – blindly, weakly, …but still struggling – toward higher things.” Typical of the Catholic conservatism of the era, the essay was rejected by a leading Catholic magazine because it was not sufficiently “Catholic” in tone.
In one area of Church life, Thompson and the leading British prelate of the day, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Archbishop of Westminster agreed. In a powerful essay on British social conditions, Thompson had argued that the Church was losing the lower classes because it was not taking to the streets. He graphically told of the destitution he himself had experienced, of individuals living “life that is not a life; to which food is as the rule of hunger; sleep…precious, costly, and fallible…in which men rob and women vend themselves…where destitute children are brought up in sin from their cradle, that they know evil before they know good.” Deeply impressed by Thompson’s essay, the aging Cardinal Manning met with him to discuss the possibilities of creating a Catholic equivalent of the Salvation Army.
Thompson, whose writing was so full of images of wind, and sky, never escaped the darkness of the streets. After a period of poetic genius, he found himself in his late thirties, unable to write poetry. In his final years, he returned to London and opium, standing under the gaslights at the book-sellers stall, dashing out his essays to meet his deadline, seldom sleeping, experiencing, in his words “night and the street a corpse beneath the moon.” A friend remembered him in these final years as “a moth of a man…in wretched health.”
Despite his precarious circumstances, Thompson still managed to turn out a string of weekly essays for the highly respected literary magazine, The Athaneum. He produced a stream of articles remarkable for their erudition and balance on a broad range of literary figures from St. Francis of Assisi, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton, to popular writers of the day including the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was said of Thompson, that his literary tastes were more “catholic than Catholic,” — broad enough to include God’s presence in writers who often were unbelievers.
Only in his final months did he leave the streets of London to receive care at monastery in North Wales. Francis Thompson, widely celebrated as the “Poet of the Return to God,” died at the age of 47 in 1907.
*Illustration of London Thames River embankment by concept artist Fernando Acosta for “Assassins Creed: Syndicate.”