Francis Thompson was an English poet and ascetic. After attending college, he moved to London to become a writer, but in menial work, became addicted to opium, and was a street vagrant for years. A married couple read his poetry and rescued him, publishing his first book, Poems in 1893. Francis Thompson lived as an unbalanced invalid in Wales and at Storrington, but wrote three books of poetry, with other works and essays, before dying of tuberculosis in 1907.
Life and Work
Born in Preston, Lancashire, his father Charles was a doctor who had converted to Roman Catholicism, following his brother Edward Healy Thompson, a friend of Cardinal Manning.
Thompson was educated at Ushaw College, near Durham, and then studied medicine at Owens College in Manchester. He took no real interest in his studies and never practised as a doctor, moving instead to London to try to become a writer. Here he was reduced to selling matches and newspapers for a living.
During this time, he became addicted to opium, which he first had taken as a remedy for ill health. Thompson came to London in 1885 and lived a life of destitution until in 1888 he was ‘discovered’ after he sent poetry to the magazine Merrie England. He was sought out by the editors of ‘Merrie England’, Wilfrid and Alice Meynell and rescued from the verge of starvation and self-destruction. Recognizing the value of his work, the couple gave him a home and arranged for publication of his first book, Poems in 1893. The book attracted the attention of sympathetic critics in the St James’s Gazette and other newspapers, and Coventry Patmore wrote a eulogistic notice in the Fortnightly Review of January 1894.
Subsequently Thompson lived as an invalid in Wales and at Storrington. A lifetime of extreme poverty, ill-health, and an addiction to opium took a heavy toll on Thompson, even though he found success in his last years. Thompson attempted suicide in his nadir of despair, but was saved from completing the action through a vision which he believed to be that of a youthful poet, Thomas Chatterton, who had committed suicide almost a century earlier. Shortly afterwards, a prostitute – whose identity Thompson never revealed – befriended him, gave him lodgings and shared her income with him. Thompson was later to describe her in his poetry as his saviour. She soon disappeared, however, never to return. He would eventually die from tuberculosis, at the age of 48.
His most famous poem, The Hound of Heaven describes the pursuit of the human soul by God. This poem is the source of the phrase, “with all deliberate speed,” used by the Supreme Court in Brown II, the remedy phase of the famous decision on school desegregation. A phrase in his The Kingdom of God is the source of the title of Han Suyin’s novel and the movie Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. In addition, Thompson wrote the most famous cricket poem, the nostalgic At Lord’s. He also wrote Sister Songs (1895), New Poems (1897), and a posthumously published essay, “Shelley” (1909). He wrote a treatise On Health and Holiness, dealing with the ascetic life, which was published in 1905.
G.K. Chersterton said shortly after his death that “with Francis Thompson we lost the greatest poetic energy since Browning .” His grave is in St.Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in London.
Among Thompson’s devotees was the young J.R.R. Tolkien, who purchased a volume of Thompson’s works in 1913-1914, and later said that it was an important influence on his own writing. The American novelist Madeleine L’Engle used a line from the poem “The Mistress of Vision” as the title of her last Vicki Austin novel, Troubling a Star.
Francis Thompson’s Works:
Sister Songs (1895)
New Poems (1897)
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Francis Thompson Poems
- 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 midst of tears
- At Lord’s
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk, Though my own red roses there may blow; It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk, Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.
- To A Snowflake
What heart could have thought you? — Past our devisal (O filigree petal!) Fashioned so purely,
- In No Strange Land (The Kingdom Of God)
The kingdom of God is within you O world invisible, we view thee, O world intangible, we touch thee,
- What Shall I Your True Love Tell?
* What shall I your true love tell,
- To Olivia
I fear to love thee, Sweet, because Love’s the ambassador of loss; White flake of childhood, clinging so To my soiled raiment, thy shy snow
- An Arab Love-Song
The hunchèd camels of the night Trouble the bright And silver waters of the moon. The Maiden of the Morn will soon
- The Poppy
To Monica Summer set lip to earth’s bosom bare, And left the flushed print in a poppy there:
Where the thistle lifts a purple crown Six foot out of the turf, And the harebell shakes on the windy hill– O breath of the distant surf!–
- Before Her Portrait In Youth
As lovers, banished from their lady’s face And hopeless of her grace, Fashion a ghostly sweetness in its place, Fondly adore
- To A Poet Breaking Silence
Too wearily had we and song Been left to look and left to long, Yea, song and we to long and look, Since thine acquainted feet forsook
- New Year’s Chimes
What is the song the stars sing? (And a million songs are as song of one) This is the song the stars sing: (Sweeter song’s none)
- Dream Tryst
The breaths of kissing night and day Were mingled in the eastern Heaven, Throbbing with unheard melody, Shook Lyra all its star-cloud seven.
- Go, Songs, For Ended Is Our Brief, Sweet…
Go, songs, for ended is our brief, sweet play; Go, children of swift joy and tardy sorrow: And some are sung, and that was yesterday, And some are unsung, and that may be tomorrow.