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.
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
O Lady Mary, thy bright crown
* * *
The red rose of this Passion-tide
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The soldier struck a triple stroke,
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Thy Son went up the angels' ways,
* * *
On the hard cross of hope deferred
* * *
The angel Death from this cold tomb