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Francis Thompson: author of 'The Hound of Heaven'

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 Contents - May 2000AD2000 May 2000 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference - Michael Gilchrist
Australian Catholic University student survey - Michael Gilchrist
News: The Church Around the World
How do we know whether a sacrament is valid or not? - Fr Peter Joseph
The priesthood: John Paul II's Holy Thursday Letter sets guidelines - Pope John Paul II
What are the foundations of a good Catholic education? - Dr. John J. Haldane
Understanding the Incarnation - Msgr Peter J. Elliott
Books: Francis Thompson: author of 'The Hound of Heaven' - Michael Daniel
How the future John Paul II saved a Jewish girl's life - Zenit News Service
Letters: Women's report: a reply (letter) - Dr Marie McDonald
Letters: Nothing to do? (letter) - Frank Mobbs
Letters: More on Adelaide (letter) - Margret E. Mills
Letters: Women in the Church (letter) - Marie Kennedy
Letters: 'Day of Pardon' (letter) - Paul MacLeod
Letters: Reply to Fr Frank Brennan (letter) - Richard Egan
Letters: God's love (letter) - Justin Ford
Letters: EWTN visit (letter) - Mike Keating
Letters: Mixed marriages (letter) - John Schmidt
Letters: Archbishop Pell defended (letter) - Fr Kevin Ryan
Letters: Year of the Lord (letter) - Fr Chrysostom Alexander
Books: 'Three Inns of Everlasting Happiness' by Fr Fabian Duggan - Catherine Sheehan (reviewer)
Books: 'The Wisdom of Adrian Fortescue' ed. Michael Davies - Michael Daniel (reviewer)
Books: 'The Legacy of Pope John Paul II' ed. Geoffrey Gneuhs - Anthony Cappello (reviewer)
Books: 'The Ever-Illuminating Wisdom of St Thomas Aquinas' by Peter Kreeft et al - Tracey Rowland (reviewer)
Reflection: Mary's divine motherhood: central to God's plan of salvation - Sr Mary Augustine Lane OP

In February 1887, Wilfrid Meynell, the editor of Merry England a Catholic literary monthly magazine, received some untidy manuscripts, accompanied by the following covering letter: "In enclosing the accompanying article for your inspection, I must ask pardon for the soiled state of the manuscript. It is due, not to slovenliness, but to the strange places and circumstances under which it has been written".

Meynell must have wondered what sort of a man wrote the enclosed contents, including the moving poem, "The Passion of Mary". What were the "strange places and circumstances" under which these were written? All attempts to trace the author failed, until Thompson noticed one of his poems had been published in Merry England. Meynell's hope that the author would, in response to the publication, reveal himself, proved successful. One day in the spring of 1888, a man in his early 30s in ragged clothes and broken shoes and looking aged and ill - largely due to his drug addiction - presented himself at Meynell's office and introduced himself as Francis Thompson.

Drug addict

Francis Thompson was born in 1859 to a middle class family. Both his parents were strict, devout converts to Catholicism. Raised in an atmosphere of piety, Francis entered Ushaw Seminary in 1870. At the suggestion of the Rector, however, he left in 1877, as it was felt he lacked the necessary dispositions for the priesthood.

Thompson spent the next six years unsuccessfully trying to follow his father's footsteps by studying medicine. An imaginative and creative humanities student, Thompson's low grades compelled him to resist science-based courses. After an argument with his father a few months after withdrawing from Owens Medical College, Francis left home for London.

By this stage, Francis was already a drug addict. His interest in opium seems to have been the result of reading de Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater given to him by his mother for his 18th birthday, not long before her death. Like de Quincey, Thompson longed for the opium-induced creative visions that de Quincey enjoyed. Opium, particularly in the form of laudanum, would have been easily available to Thompson, in his father's clinic and the medical college. It was also easily and legally obtainable from pharmacists.

After an argument with his father, in which he confessed to being a drug addict, Thompson left home for London, hoping to have similar literary experiences to his role model, de Quincey; instead, he encountered poverty, despair and the realisation that he was a prisoner of his addiction. Between sending his manuscripts to Wilfred Meynell and meeting him, Thompson attempted suicide in his nadir of despair, but was saved from completing the action through a vision which he believed to be that of a youthful poet, Chatterton, who had committed suicide almost a century earlier. Shortly afterwards, a prostitute - whose identity Thompson never revealed - was to befriend him, give him lodgings and share her income with him. Thompson was later to describe her in his poetry as his saviour. But she would disappear one day, never to return.


The meeting with Meynell proved providential and marked the beginning of some of the most creative periods in Thompson's life. It could also be argued that the friendship ensured Thompson's survival. The Meynells watched over their prodigy. On more than one occasion they arranged for him to spend extended periods in monasteries as a means of helping him overcome his opium addiction, which he sadly relapsed into on more than one occasion.

The first of these extended retreats was at the Norbertine monastery of Storrington in 1889, during which period, Thompson composed his most famous poem, the autobiographical Hound of Heaven that tells of God, who does not abandon, but pursues, the most wayward soul.

It is during this period of Thompson's life that Robert Waldron's recently published The Hound of Heaven at my Heels: The Lost Diary of Francis Thompson is set. This work takes the form of Thompson's diary that was purportedly discovered under the floor boards of the room in which Thompson stayed. Waldron reconstructs the character of Thompson.

Through the pages of the diary, the persona of Thompson reflects upon his life up to that point, particularly his addiction to opium and the period of his life when he was destitute in London. The reader encounters Thompson's experience of the love and power of God; a God who seeks out his wandering children and will never abandon them, regardless of what they have done or how far they have fallen; a God whose power is such that with divine assistance, Thompson is able to overcome his opium addiction.

Unfortunately, Thompson was to relapse into opium addiction again and to spend some time in other monasteries. However, during the last period of his life, he was to produce some fine works of poetry and prose, including three volumes of poetry. He also wrote, between 1901-1904, more than 250 reviews and articles on a diverse range of subjects.


Sadly, few of these are read today, but the output is extraordinary, not only in terms of volume of material produced, but also when one considers his gradual physical and psychological deterioration. By this stage, Thompson not only took large quantities of laudanum, but was gradually succumbing to tuberculosis. He was to die of the latter, though his consumption of drugs over a number of years would have contributed to his death at 47, on 13 November 1907.

Although he lived a century ago, as Waldron argues, Francis Thompson's story is of contemporary relevance. In the past, many teachers hid the fact that Thompson was an addict from their students. The addiction is integral, however, to understanding both Thompson's life and his poetry. Had Thompson not believed that he had strayed so far from a loving God, he may well never have written a poem of such lyrical beauty and power as The Hound of Heaven.

In an age such as ours in which drug addiction and writings emanating from it are symptomatic of nihilism, and ultimately of despair, Thompson's moving poetry, resonating with a Catholic worldview of hope, provides a positive alternative.

Robert Waldron's The Hound of Heaven at my Heels: The Lost Diary of Francis Thompson, is available from Ignatius Press, Brisbane, (07) 3376 0105, for $14.90 plus postage.

The Passion of Mary
Verses in Passion Tide

O Lady Mary, thy bright crown
Is no mere crown of majesty;
For with the reflex of His own
Resplendent thorns Christ circled thee.

* * *

The red rose of this Passion-tide
Doth take a deeper hue from thee,
In the five wounds of Jesus dyed,
And in thy bleeding thoughts, Mary!

* * *

The soldier struck a triple stroke,
That smote thy Jesus on the tree:
He broke the Heart of Hearts, and broke
The Saint's and Mother's hearts in thee.

* * *

Thy Son went up the angels' ways,
His passion ended; but, ah me!
Thou found'st the road of further days
A longer way of Calvary:

* * *

On the hard cross of hope deferred
Thou hung'st in loving agony,
Until the mortal-dreaded word
Which chills our mirth, spake mirth to thee.

* * *

The angel Death from this cold tomb
Of life did roll the stone away;
And He thou barest in thy womb
Caught thee at last into the day,
Before the living throne of Whom
The Lights of Heaven burning pray.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 13 No 4 (May 2000), p. 12

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