Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Thomas Humphry Ward
Francis Thompson (18591907)
[Born 1859, at Preston, where his father was a homoeopathic doctor. His parents and uncles, one of whom was a professor in the Catholic University, Dublin, were of the Roman Catholic religion, as was the son. Educated at Ushaw; at first intended for the priesthood, but afterwards studied medicine at Owens College, with no success. Unfortunately, having read De Quinceys Confessions, he took to opium; went to London 1885, and fell into the depths of poverty, but was discovered and rescued by Mr. and Mrs. Meynell, under whose protection he partly broke the evil habit, so that in 1893 he was able to issue his first volume of Poems, which ran through five editions in two years. Published Sister Songs 1895, and New Poems 1897, the last chiefly written in Wales, near the Franciscan Convent; and, later, various essays, reviews, and Catholic biographies. Died in London, of consumption, November 1907.]
FRANCIS THOMPSON came very near to being a great, a very great, poet; he would pretty certainly have been one had he not clouded his brain and shortened his life by the indulgence referred to above. Never did plausible writing do greater harm than was done to this rare mind by those pages in which De Quincey glorifies opium, saying that whereas wine robs a man of his self-possession, opium sustains and reinforces it . Opium communicates serenity and equipoise to all the faculties, active or passive . The opium-eater feels that the diviner part of his nature is paramountthat is, the moral affections are in a state of cloudless serenity, and high over all the great light of the majestic intellect. Young Thompson believed all this, with the result that we know. But when, under the joint influence of religion and of more than parental care, he was able to write, his best work reached a standard attained by very few, whether of his own time or earlier. Burne-Jones, if we may refer to an often-quoted passage, declared in 1893 that since Gabriels Blessed Damozel, no mystical words had so touched him as The Hound of Heaven; and judgments not less enthusiastic were passed by Coventry Patmore, Wilfrid Blunt, andnaturally enoughby Thompsons protectors, the Meynells. About the same time he wrote, and dedicated to the young daughters of his friends, a volume of Sister Songs; we quote from it some lines which both illustrate the grateful affection which he felt to the family and give a pathetic picture of the misery from which they had delivered him. In the interval between 1893 and the publication of New Poems (1897), his genius, we will not say ripened, but deepened; witness our third extract, which both in its grasp of the central idea and in its quick succession of vivid images comes very near to the great passages in Shakespeare. But there is another side. Thompson either could not or would not realize the beauty of simplicity. He became, to a greater and greater degree, consciously and wilfully abstruse, and many of his later verses are positively unintelligible, while he grew more and more fond of néologismes, new words, old words with new terminations, and, to use a much-ridiculed phrase of his own, the illuminous and volute redundance of sounds. In fact, such is his inequality that Mrs. Meynell, the one authorized exponent, has found it desirable to publish a volume of Selections, though the aggregate of his poems is so small. Still, it is well to remember that one success in poetry outweighs many failures; and two of the three poems from which we quote are successes that no survey of modern English verse can afford to overlook.