Graham Draper considers the work of Francis Thompson
Thompson was addicted to opium for much of his life, which was no doubt responsible for him being homeless on the streets of London for three years. He left medical school after repeatedly failing his exams and was estranged from much of his family until the time of his father’s death. He attempted to commit suicide, but was saved by a prostitute who housed him over the winter. The addiction to opium resulted in his failing to enter the University of Oxford and in the loss of many friendships. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 47 with little notoriety, no family of his own, almost no possessions, and very few friends.
And yet Francis Thompson wrote one of the most beautiful and influential poems in the history of Christianity. His masterpiece, The Hound of Heaven, depicts the flight of a soul from its creator; wretched, confused, and desperate to evade encounter with the living God, the soul is pursued relentlessly until finally turning to face its maker in the sudden realization of his limitless love. It has admirers from all wings of the Christian fold and beyond; from the evangelical apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig to the Roman Catholic prelate Robert Barron and the Victorian poet Robert Browning. While The Hound of Heaven is undoubtedly Thompson’s most well-known work, his genius as a poet more generally has been recognized by a number of literary giants. G.K. Chesterton wrote that, ‘In Francis Thompson’s poetry, as in the poetry of the universe, you can work infinitely out and out, but yet infinitely in and in. These two infinites are the mark of greatness, and he was a great poet.’ Oscar Wilde, after hearing Sister Songs read aloud, purportedly exclaimed: ‘Why can’t I write poetry like that? That is what I’ve wanted to do all my life.’ The religious sense in Thompson’s work is not superficial. Thompson saw poetry as his vocation and the means by which he was to render a special service to God; an excerpt from a notebook declares that his ardent desire was to be ‘the poet of the return of God,’ just as Wordsworth was ‘the poet of the return of nature.’
Despite many differences, Thompson’s prose shares some important similarities with that of his contemporary Gerard Manley Hopkins. Highly vivid imagery is prominent in their poems, and the visual element is essential to how they convey their central themes. Similarly, both men took great pleasure in using very original, and often obscure, words and phrases. But most importantly, both poets were keen to show that the entirety of creation is permeated with the divine presence; God is intimately close to all things, holding them lovingly in his hands, and can be encountered in all places, at all times, and in every moment. This is especially evident in Thompson’s Orient Ode and in Hopkins’s God’s Grandeur. In the former, Thompson likens the rising of the morning sun to a consecrated host raised up in benediction:
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
Both Thompson and Manley Hopkins attended a Roman Catholic seminary for a number of years and, this being the nineteenth century and a period of great growth for Neo-Scholasticism, would have received very clear ideas on the doctrine of creation, especially from the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, God unceasingly acts to sustain all creation in existence, continuously adding being to their natures; as such, God is intimately close to all of his creatures and keenly aware of every moment of suffering or joy which they encounter.
The many trials and tribulations in his life gave Thompson a profound insight into the nature and depth of human suffering and the beauty of reconciliation between a soul and its maker. Sometimes poetry is the best way to help someone to seek the loving arms of their divine Father; if you wish for evidence of this merely read some of the Psalms of David, and this is something which Thompson not only realized but also lived and breathed. In our age of tired scepticism and drab nihilism which can see no purpose or meaning in suffering, the poetry of Francis Thompson is a beacon. Perhaps this is how he is to become the poet of the return of God. People need to hear the message of Francis Thompson—they need to know that the living God is holding them lovingly and can be encountered in every sunrise, in every cup of tea, in every breath.
Graham Draper is currently undertaking research on evolutionary biochemistry at the University of Bristol.