FRANCIS THOMPSON, POET

The Catholic Press – 24 July 1913

FRANCIS THOMPSON, POET

    Francis Thompson is one of the great English poets. In saying this, one need not be taken as ranking him with Shakespeare and Shelley. One is merely insisting that he is a great poet as surely as Sir Thomas Browne is a great prose writer. He has made of English poetry a cathedral of loveliness as no one else has done. His words seem to be stained in all the colours of beauty making the light of common day richer as it passes through them. His work is built in the thought of heaven and hell. He loved the glory of the world chiefly in order that it might set forth the glory of God. This is where his splendours differ from the splendours of the Elizabethans to whom he has many points of resemblance. Like them, he was imaginatively a voyager into distant seas—something of a buccaneer of language. One can easily conceive his returning from his quest with for trophy some strange line like Shakespeare’s:

Unhouseled, disappointed, unanel’d.

He laid all his spoils on the altar, however. With the gold and silver of speech he honoured God rather than man. His was a dedicated vision as, perhaps, no other vision of equal magnificence in English literature since Milton’s has been.

Thompson’s Best Poems.

    One cannot then be too grateful to Mr. Wilfrid Meynell, whose services to Francis Thompson as man and poet it would not be easy to measure, for a beautiful edition of the poet’s works—two volumes of poetry and one of prose. Possibly the great things of Francis Thompson, like the great things of most poets, might be gathered into a small enough book. But, then, few of us can agree as to which are the really great. Some (as I myself do) count “The Hound of Heaven” and the “Ode to the Setting Sun” as the very greatest—not only great in comparison with the rest of Thompson’s own work, but fit company of the master poems in the English language. Others prefer “The Mistress of Vision,” or “From the Night of Forebeing,” or “To My Godchild.” or “Her Portrait,” or, “A ‘Fallen Yew,” or even the richly-coloured “Poppy” to name no others. It is not so easy to make an indisputable selection of the best of Thompson as it is of the best, say, of Coleridge, with whom, as an architect of gorgeous dreams, he had not a little in common. There is an accent of greatness in nearly all that Thompson wrote. This in spite of the fact that, as someone has said of him, his is a genius with a broken wing.
    His words often fluttered helplessly in trying to follow the boundless rangings of his spirit. He never gave the world a perfect piece of literary art like the “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” He did not mould for himself a new and exquisite world of the senses, a world of almost infallible beauty, as Mr. Yeats in his poetry has done. He was too eager for the infinite to be content with the perfect globes of art. It was not the first time that the perfection of the spirit, necessitated the smashing of the perfections of literature.
    Thompson’s pursuit of art, his use of words, was sacramental. His speech is an immense ritual, expressing the battle between heaven and hell in terms of flowers and suns, of children and of London on the Thames. Perhaps it is this very ritual quality in his work that prevents him from ever achieving those ecstasies of simplicity in song which we find in the Elizabethans, which we find in Shelley. He is as free from simple phrases as a chorus in Aeschylus. He gives us the organ-music and the incense of words rather than any skylark rapture. And yet his genius, his temper, are as simple as a mediaeval saint’s. As simple, it might be truer to say, as a child’s. “Look for me,” he himself wrote, “in the nurseries of heaven,” and in his great essay on Shelley we see a happy, childlike playfulness of imagination losing itself, or rather finding itself, among the stars and the tumultuous harmonies of the universe. He is, in other words, the perfect acolyte in literature, worshipping with every elaboration of ceremonial, and with entire innocence of heart.

A Poet of Ritual

    It was Thompson ‘s great fortune to be at once a poet, a religious genius, and a lover of the earth. He did not attempt to crush life into the limits of the ordained ritual of a church, so much as to invent a new ritual which itself might be to use a common phrase in a slightly unusual sense, as large as life. He considered the lilies how they grew. A garden of roses meant as much to him as it did to Swinburne. I think, indeed, it meant a good deal more, as witness that wonderful verse in the “Ode to the Setting Sun”:

    Who made the splendid rose
    Saturate with purple glows;
Cupped to the marge with beauty ; a perfume-press
    Whence the wind vintages
Gushes of warmed fragrance richer far
    Than all the flavorous ooze of Cyprus’ vats?
Lo, in yon gale which waves her green cymar,
    With dusky cheeks burnt red
    She sways her heavy head,
Drunk with the must of her own odorousness;
    While in a moted trouble the vexed gnats
Maze, and vibrate, and tease the noontide hush.
    Who girt dissolved lightnings in the grape?
Summered the opal with an Irised flush?
Is it not thou that dost the tulip drape,
    And huest the daffodilly,
    Yet who hast snowed the lily,
And her frail sister, whom the waters name,
    Dost vestal-vesture ‘mid the blaze of June,
    Cold as the new-sprung girlhood of the moon
Ere Autumn’s kiss sultry her cheek with flame?
    Thou sway’st thy sceptred beam
    O’er all delight and dream,
Beauty is beautiful but in thy glance:
    And like a jocund maid
    In garland-flowers arrayed,
Before thy ark Earth keeps her sacred dance.

What a passion for the beautiful changing pageant of the earth appears again in that later apostrophe to the dying sun, which begins:

If with exultant tread
    Thou foot the Eastern sea,
    Or like a golden bee
Sting the West to angry red—

Earth as well as heaven is magnified in all those songs. Thompson is the poet of the “Africa and her prodigies” of the sensible world. But his praise of the earth, his showering of fancies before her feet, has always for a back ground the vision of an awful and cataclysmic scheme of things in which, sooner or later, death beckons to every man to go out into the seeming darkness. A divinely splendid scheme of things, however, in which we may live, not as (in a great phrase) condemned men under an indefinite reprieve, but as initiates m the traffic of Jacob’s ladder,

Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Perhaps “The Kingdom of God,” the unfinished poem which contains that beautiful vision, and which was found among his papers, after he died, expresses better what Thompson stands for in literature than any thing else he ever wrote.

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