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Francis Thompson

Poet b. Dec. 18, 1859; d. Nov. 13, 1907

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Thompson, FRANCIS, poet b. at Preston, Lancashire, December 18, 1859; d. in London, November 13, 1907. He came from the middle classes, the classes great in imaginative poetry. His father was a provincial doctor; two paternal uncles dabbled in literature; he himself referred his heredity chiefly to his mother, who died in his boyhood. His parents being Catholics, he was educated at Ushaw, the college that had in former years Lingard, Waterton, and Wiseman as pupils. There he was noticeable for love of literature and neglect of games, though as spectator he always cared for cricket, and in later years remembered the players of his day with something like personal love. After seven years he went to Owens College to study medicine. He hated this proposed profession more than he would confess to his father; he evaded rather than rebelled, and finally disappeared. No blame, or attribution of hardships or neglect should attach to his father’s memory; every careful father knows his own anxieties. Francis Thompson went to London, and there endured three years of destitution that left him in a state of incipient disease. He was employed as bookselling agent, and at a shoemaker’s, but very briefly, and became a wanderer in London streets, earning a few pence by selling matches and calling cabs, often famished, often cold, receiving occasional alms; on one great day finding a sovereign on the footway, he was requested to come no more to a public library because he was too ragged. He was nevertheless able to compose a little—”Dream-Tryst”, written in memory of a child, and “Paganism Old and New”, with a few other pieces of verse and prose.

Having seen some numbers of a new Catholic magazine, “Merry England“, he sent these poems to the editor, Mr. Wilfrid Meynell, in 1888, giving his address at a post-office. The manuscripts were pigeon-holed for a short time, but when Mr. Meynell read them he lost no time in writing to the sender a welcoming letter which was returned from the post-office. The only way then to reach him was to publish the essay and the poem, so that the author might see them and disclose himself. He did see them, and wrote to the editor giving his address at a chemist’s shop. Thither Mr. Meynell went, and was told that the poet owed a certain sum for opium, and was to be found hard by, selling matches. Having settled matters between the druggist and his client, Mr. Meynell wrote a pressing invitation to Thompson to call upon him. That day was the last of the poet’s destitution. He was never again friendless or without food, clothing, shelter, or fire. The first step was to restore him to better health and to overcome the opium habit. A doctor’s care, and some months at Storrington, Sussex, where he lived as a boarder at the Premonstratensian monastery, gave him a new hold upon life. It was there, entirely free temporarily from opium, that he began in earnest to write poetry. “Daisy” and the magnificent “Ode to the Setting Sun” were the first fruits. Mr. Meynell, finding him in better health but suffering from the loneliness of his life, brought him to London and established him near himself. Thenceforward with some changes to country air, he was either an inmate or a constant visitor until his death nineteen years later.

In the years from 1889 to 1896 Thompson wrote the poems contained in the three volumes, “Poems”, “Sister Songs”, and “New Poems”. In “Sister Songs” he celebrated his affection for the two elder of the little daughters of his host and more than brother; “Love in Dian’s Lap” was written in honor of Mrs. Meynell, and expressed the great attachment of his life; and in the same book “The Making of Viola” was composed for a younger child. At Mr. Meynell’s house Thompson met Mr. Garvin and Coventry Pa-more, who soon became his friends, and whose great poetic and spiritual influence was thenceforth pre-eminent in all his writings, and Mrs. Meynell introduced him at Box Hill to George Meredith. Besides these his friendships were few. In the last weeks of his life he received great kindness from Mr. Wilfrid Blunt, in Sussex. During all these years Mr. Meynell encouraged him to practice journalism and to write essays, chiefly as a remedy for occasional melancholy. The essay on Shelley, published twenty years later and immediately famous, was amongst the earliest of these writings; “The Life of St. Ignatius” and “Health and Holiness” were produced subsequently.

Did Francis Thompson, unanimously hailed on the morrow of his death as a great poet, receive no full recognition during life? It was not altogether absent. Patmore, Traill, Mr. Garvin, and Mr. William Archer wrote, in the leading reviews, profoundly admiring studies of his poems. Public attention was not yet aroused. But that his greatness received no stinted praise, then and since, may be seen in a few citations following. Mr. Meynell, who perceived the quality of his genius when no other was aware of it, has written of him as “a poet of high thinking, of ‘celestial vision’, and of imaginings that found literary images of answering splendor”; Mr. Chesterton acclaimed him as “a great poet”, Mr. Fraill as “a poet of the first order”; Mr. William Archer wrote, “It is no minor Caroline simper that he recalls, but the Jacobean Shakespeare”; Mr. Garvin, “the Hound of Heaven seems to us the most wonderful lyric in our language”; Burne-Jones, “Since Gabriel‘s [Rossetti’s] ‘Blessed Damozel’ no mystical words have so touched me”; George Meredith, “A true poet, one of a small band”; Coventry Patmore, “the ‘Hound of Heaven‘ is one of the very few great odes of which the language can boast”. Of the essay on Shelley (Dublin Review) a journalist wrote truly, “London is ringing with it”. Francis Thompson died, after receiving all the sacraments, in the excellent care of the Sisters of St. John and St. Elizabeth, aged forty-eight.


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