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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Francis Thompson (1859–1907)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918)
 
POETIC sensations are rare in our time. For a quarter of a century we have enjoyed a regular succession of excellent books of verse—verse graceful, fanciful, musical, interesting, and sometimes noble. Perhaps the general average of verse is higher to-day than it has previously been in the history of English letters. But there have been few books of verse which have caused the heart of the public to beat faster, few books of verse which critics have carried in their pockets for weeks at a time to show to their friends.  1
  There has been one such book, however. In 1893 was published ‘Poems,’ by Francis Thompson. And this volume (as even Thompson’s enemies cannot deny) excited, favorably or unfavorably, all its reviewers. Some hailed it as a work of surpassing genius, some found it irritatingly bad. But all felt about it passionately; no one damned it with faint praise and no one praised it with faint damns.  2
  Francis Thompson was a Roman Catholic and his faith gave him the themes, the imagery, often the phraseology, and the inspiration of all his best poetry. Yet his first most admiring critics were men by no means in sympathy with his religion. H. D. Traill, a North of Ireland Protestant, welcomed him as “a new poet of the first rank.” Richard Le Gallienne called him “Crashaw born again, but born greater.” John Davidson said “Thompson’s poetry at its highest attains a sublimity unsurpassed by any other Victorian poet.” And Arnold Bennett wrote of Thompson’s second book, ‘Sister Songs,’ “My belief is that Francis Thompson has a richer natural genius, a finer poetical equipment, than any poet save Shakespeare.”  3
  Of course there were hostile critics. Some of them were annoyed by the poet’s phraseology, especially his use of words of Latin derivation and of forms which he coined for his own use. But most of them were annoyed by his themes; they resented the intrusion of a flaming Catholicity among the delicate artificial philosophies of the poets of the nineties, and their resentment found voice in attacks that recalled the brave old days of “This will never do” and “Back to your gallipots!” That this resentment continued, in some minds, even after the poet had died and his work had been received as an inalienable part of the world’s treasury of English song is shown by the savagery of Austin Harrison’s “review” of Everard Meynell’s ‘Life of Francis Thompson’ in the English Review in 1913.  4
  Francis Thompson was born on the 16th of December, 1859, at Preston, Lancashire, England. In his boyhood he was taught at the school of the Nuns of the Cross and Passion, and in 1870 he entered Ushaw College. After seven years at Ushaw—years marked by one great tragedy, the decision by those in authority that his “nervous timidity” unfitted him for the priesthood—he went to Owens College as a student of medicine. His years in Manchester taught him little medicine, but they taught him other things destined to affect his life. Francis Thompson read books, but they were not surgical treatises. They were books of poetry, of essay, of theology, of scholastic philosophy. His love for music increased, and he attended more concerts than lectures. Also in Manchester he acquired his besetting sin—the opium habit. He took the drug first in the form of laudanum, during a painful illness. He continued to take it throughout many years of his life. It staved off the assaults of tuberculosis, it prevented his success in medicine or any other methodical and exact career, and thus removed what might have been rivals to the art of poetry. But, as his biographer says, opium
        “dealt with him remorselessly as it dealt with Coleridge and all its consumers. It put him in such constant strife with his own conscience that he had ever to hide himself from himself, and for concealment he fled to that which made him ashamed, until it was as if a fig-leaf were of necessity plucked from the Tree of the Fall. It killed in him the capacity for acknowledging those duties to his family and friends, which, had his heart not been in shackles, he would have owned with no ordinary ardor.”
  5
  Francis Thompson’s years immediately after his failure in his medical examinations were spent in London, in poverty and ill health. But no man of genius can long remain hidden. In a strange and romantic manner, some of his magnificent poetry and prose came to the attention of Wilfred and Alice Meynell. They gave to the world the blessing of acquaintance with Francis Thompson’s work, and to the poet they gave, in addition to more material benefits, the wise and affectionate friendship his lonely spirit most needed. He resisted the opium habit, increased in physical and mental health, gained congenial employment as a reviewer for the best of the London weeklies. The publication of his books established him, in the opinion of those whose opinion was most worth-while, as a figure of great literary importance. He died “a very good death” at the age of forty-eight. Had his mind been (as fortunately it was not) concerned with literature in his last hours he would have known that he had attained a fame of the kind that does not tarnish with the years, that he had realized the poet’s ambition of adding substantially to the world’s heritage of beauty.  6
  If Francis Thompson is to be related by critics and historians of literature to writers of a more recent date than that of Crashaw and Southwell, it must be to the poets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. What they promised, Thompson fulfilled. In a materialistic and sophisticated age, Rossetti and his friends sought to reproduce the romantic splendors of the Middle Ages. They took delight in the lovely externalities of the Catholic Church. Rossetti’s friend, Coventry Patmore, went further than the Pre-Raphaelites; he became a Catholic and thus carried the theories of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to their logical and tremendous conclusion. Patmore’s greater disciple, Francis Thompson, brought back to English poetry the knowledge, largely forgotten since the Reformation, that the proper study of mankind is God; he refused to limit his mind, as his contemporaries did theirs, by temporal and astronomical boundaries. A universal poet must sing the universe. And the center of the universe is God. So Francis Thompson sang of God, and in ‘The Hound of Heaven’ he made of man’s relation to God and God’s relation to man a poem that is unsurpassed in the literature of spiritual experience. And all great poetry deals with spiritual experience.  7
 
 
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