Francis Thompson

Francis J. Thompson

Surgery, 224 Stamford St, Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire

Name

Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

Charles Thompson

Head

W

57

Surgeon, M.R.C.S & L.A.C

Rutland

Francis J. Thompson

Son

U

21

Medical Student

Preston

Mary Thompson

Daur

U

19

None

Preston

Margaret Thompson

Daur

U

16

None

Preston

Rosa W. Cox

Serv

U

22

Housemaid

Nottingham

Jane Hughes

Serv

U

22

Housemaid

Wales

 

Frank is dreaming. Frank is late again. Frank is bleary-eyed. Every day this week he has set off for the medical academy with the very best of intentions, but somehow - he does not know how - he has found himself in the museum again, gazing at the statues. He is as pale as a dew-drop. It is only months since his mother has died, his saint-like mother, who has shrugged away her own family to marry her father, and to follow the faith to which both of them have converted. He drinks some of the tincture, and feels its pleasure ooze through his body, opening and closing his pores. It takes the edge off the images - gruelling, vomitory - of the dissections he has been forced to watch, the slow bleeding. It has done nothing for his pallor - he is small, red-headed, with a lost look, large grey eyes, and a faint, sandy moustache. His sisters, Polly and Maggie, chaff him for being absent-minded; their aspiration is to join the Church, as it had been his. This dream has already evaporated. The laudanum begins to percolate his brain. He takes himself out for a walk, staring oddly at the air, his copy of Blake's Innocence And Experience in one pocket, and a copy of plays by Aeschylus in the other. To a casual spectator, he looks somehow unkempt and askew; he looks peculiar; he looks distracted. His shoelaces are undone. The words dance in his head like bees.

Francis Joseph Thompson - it would seem that only his immediate family knew him as 'Frank' - was born in Preston on December 18th, 1859. He was the second child of Mary Turner Morton and Charles Thompson - their first child having died at birth (they later lost a daughter, too). Both parents were converts to Roman Catholicism, and his mother had encountered stiff opposition from her family. In Mary's case, it was her second engagement to a Catholic; the first fianc� had died, but the engagement had done the damage. However, by the time the Thompsons had settled in the flat-roofed surgery in Ashton-under-Lyne, in 1864, their religious tribulations were over. Their son was a quiet, self-absorbed child, who delighted in the company of his sisters, whose dolls he borrowed; and he much preferred to play their games than those of any boys. He had a puppet theatre, a colourful and inexpensive cardboard affair, with marionettes, operated by wire and hair. He talked to his sisters boldly and colourfully about soldiers, and enacted little battles in the theatre. This theatre was to be one of the only possessions he retained - and indeed, played with - throughout his life. He was also known suddenly to hold forth on a subject which caught his interest. "I can't think where Frank gets his ideas," was a family refrain. But the answer was, his father's books. He was well-read, and this endeared him to the teachers at Ushaw, the Catholic boarding-school in County Durham to which he was sent when eleven, for a seven-year stint.

His experience at Ushaw was designed to fit him for the church, but it was an ultimately unsuccessful time of his life. He was bullied from the first day, and made no close friends (although this is not to say that he did not play at pirates and the like, like any child his age; nor that it was perpetually traumatic). At Ushaw, he also maintained his lifelong passion for cricket, which had begun as a child, playing with his sisters, especially on seaside trips to Holyhead or New Brighton. He could recite the names of the victorious 1878 Lancashire team. A letter from the school convinced Frank's father that it was better for the boy to follow in his own footsteps, and he duly enrolled as a medical student at Owens College. His mother desired it; he concurred; it was a disaster. His mother may also have accidentally have contributed further to her son's later difficulties. Knowing his fondness for (and familiarity with) the Romantic poets, she gave him a copy of De Quincey's Confessions Of An English Opium-Eater. It was her last gift before her death, by which time Frank was already dosing himself heavily with laudanum - one dubious advantage of being a medical student, and one with easy enough access to supplies of it at home, as well.

Francis Thompson in 1879

The charade of his studies finally came to an end when he failed his examinations for the second time, in 1882. The failure cannot have surprised Frank - or Francis, as he now became. He had sold his medical books to support his habit, which his father mistook for drunkenness. Francis had two jobs in quick succession - as an assistant to the manufacturer of surgical instruments, a post which lasted only a fortnight; as an encyclopedia salesman. After eight weeks, and no sales, he had at least read the product from cover to cover. The third, and most improbable course, was to go for a soldier. His brain was stuffed with the uniforms and strategies of wars through the ages. But a simple physical examination ruled out any prospect of the army as a profession.

On March 8th, 1885, Francis and his father locked horns in an argument - about his supposed alcoholism, which he truthfully denied (although he didn't mention the opium). His father's impending re-marriage was probably also the subject of disparaging comment. He left home. He quickly resolved to move to London (for which he had to ask his father for the price of the ticket). His father agreed also to support him by sending him seven shillings a month, a sum which Francis eventually did not bother to collect, as he drifted slowly into destitution. When not in the London libraries, he worked first as a book-seller's messenger (another predictable failure - the books absorbed him). And then, successively, he was a boot-black, a newspaper-seller, a match-seller, and a cadger of odd jobs like offering coach-passengers help with their luggage. Apart from a brief journey to Lancashire in the early autumn of 1885, which cannot have inspired any confidence, he gradually drifted out of society almost altogether. The Guildhall Library refused to admit him because of his destitute and unwashed appearance, and he was as likely as not to tramp the London streets at night.

The world of the doss-house had already begun to suck him in, when he had a chance encounter with a boot-maker, John McMaster, a religious man who literally called Francis Thompson in off the street, and gave him shelter and a job as an errand-boy. The McMaster family included Rose Violet Cooper, McMaster's orphaned niece, a three-year-old whom the family trusted to Francis, and with whom (calling her "Little Flower"), he went walking in St. James' Park. The McMasters even organised a Christmas visit in 1886 for Francis to Lancashire; it was not a success. His father was about to re-marry, to Anne Richardson (whose brother would marry Francis's sister Maggie). Polly was about to enter a convent. His stepmother-to-be did not like him. And Francis's rehabilitation turned out to be temporary. By early 1887, he was sleeping rough again, under the arches at Covent Garden, and elsewhere. Only a relationship with a (nameless) young prostitute allowed him any kind of "home". Throughout this time, however, the derelict Francis Thompson was composing poems on scraps of paper with which he filled his pockets. He had had sight - presumably in Lancashire - of Merry England, a Catholic monthly edited by Wilfrid Meynell. In late February 1887, he pushed an essay and some poems, on grubby paper, through the door of the magazine, inviting the editor to "kindly send your rejection to the Charing Cross Post Office".

But Meynell, looking at the pieces, some six months later, liked them. Failing to contact Francis Thompson, he eventually published the a poem and the essay in April 1888. Publication made Thompson contact Meynell, who visited the address given: a chemist's shop in Drury Lane (where Meynell forked out in respect of a 3/9d debt, and a promise of half-a-guinea, if he could locate the missing writer). A few days later, Thompson arrived at Meynell's office in person, without shirt or socks, wearing a ripped coat, and in smashed-up shoes. Meynell (seven years older than Thompson, and a Quaker by birth, but who had converted to Catholicism) took him in. Or took him on, might be a more appropriate way of putting it. Thompson havered. He went back to stay with his girl protectress; but - so the slightly unbelievable story goes - she vanished, with the express intention of making him accept the Meynells' generosity. In the event, the Meynells - Francis fell, like many other men, for the dazzling good looks of Meynell's wife Alice, a poet - arranged for him to stay at Storrington Priory, in Sussex. There, perhaps, his "villainous mud-hut of a body" (Thompson's words) could be nourished by the Norbertine friars. It seemed improbable. He was to stay there until early 1890, this time weaning himself off the laudanum, something he had not managed at the McMasters' home.

At Storrington, however, Thompson began to flourish. Despite the physical difficulty of ridding himself of drug addiction, he began to write articles, and to fill what would become treasured notebooks with poetry. He also made friends with a local couple, the decorator Reuben Stanford and his wife Fanny, after meeting one of their six children, Daisy, on a walk across a common. Daisy, then ten, became a new muse, a new "Little Flower": she inspired one of his most famous poems, which include the lines: "Her beauty smoothed earth's furrowed face!/She gave me tokens three:-/A look, a word of her winsome mouth,/And a wild raspberry." In 1890, Thompson moved back to London, taking lodgings near the Meynells' new home in Bayswater. By this time, Meynell had been gifted the editorship of The Weekly Register, and Thompson, shabby and unpunctual as ever, began to contribute productively, and impressively enough to attract the admiration of Cardinal Manning. More impressively, Browning wrote to Meynell that he was "confident of success" for Thompson. The Meynells continued to nourish him, and to entrust him - like McMaster, like the Stanfords - with the care of their children, whom he took skating. He became a godfather to the youngest - another Francis - in 1891. Nevertheless, he was not easy company: forever losing papers, talking abstractedly, and insensible to any kind of schedule. Making an appointment with Francis Thompson was completely pointless. And in 1892, he began to take laudanum again.

Francis Thompson in 1894

Meynell was quick. He arranged for another retreat, with Franciscans at Pantasaph in Flintshire, North Wales, to take Thompson in. Thompson meekly accepted; he was even escorted to Euston Station for the journey, there being no doubt that he would otherwise wander away. He was to stay there for five years, at first in the monastery, then in the post-office, and eventually in a hillside cottage behind the monastery. In 1893, meanwhile, Thompson's first book of Poems was published. It attracted extravagant praise and hostility in equal measure, but the first edition quickly sold out ("I have read in ye Register with great surprise that ye Poems are exhausted," wrote Thompson, one of whose tics was to write "the" as "ye"). What sold them - apart from Meynell's shrewdness as a publicist - was the combination of spirituality and verbal eccentricity. Thompson liked to mint words, or to combine them, and his poems have the same quirky signature that marks them out as irrepressibly his - rather as a Hardy or Hopkins poem could have no other author. Hardy, in fact, was a particular fan of Thompson's. He could be excruciating; he could be daring; he was always metrically inventive. His first collection included The Hound Of Heaven, which has continued to engross his supporters - his appeal proved broader and more lasting than contemporaries like Dowson or Davidson.

In 1893, Thompson heard that his father was at Rhyl. In a classic, tragic Thompson episode, he set off to make his peace, only to find that his father had left before he arrived. They were at least to meet, if not to be reconciled, in 1894. In 1895, he received news that his father was dying, borrowed money from the Franciscans, arrived - with terrible predictability - too late. His stepmother snubbed him. He stood mournfully apart at the funeral. He also lost the return half of his railway ticket. As ever, it was Meynell who reimbursed the friars. Meynell also arranged publication of a further book of poetry, in 1895; it did not fare well at all.

Pantasaph - which he briefly left after an argument with a housekeeper - brought Francis Thompson one sudden new experience. He had been sentimentally fond of women all his life. Now, when he took up his new residence, lodging with the family of Pantasaph's caretaker, Michael Brien, he fell suddenly in love and, "that falling kiss/ Touching long-laid expectance, all went up/ Suddenly into passion." The shy object of his shy affection was Brien's eldest daughter, Maggie. It would seem that the sudden flash of their affection was too much for both of them; nothing came of it; and Maggie Brien died, unmarried, only a year after Thompson himself, still treasuring a photograph of the awkward poet. Two years later (and by now back in London), Thompson fell for another young girl, Katie King, whose stories he had admired. Katie King's mother stepped in, and warned Thompson off in a letter, much to Thompson's chagrin - and Katie's - although it is doubtful that Katie would have considered Thompson a proper suitor in any case. The rejection was to hurt him for the rest of his life.

In 1895, Thompson had met, and stayed with his one real poetic mentor, Coventry Patmore, of whose dog Nelson he was terrified, but in whose company he revelled. Perhaps the most genuine disaster in Thompson's mental universe was Patmore's death shortly before the publication of his third (and also unsuccessful) collection, New Poems 1897). Thereafter, never far from the Meynells, he settled into a sort of routine, working as a journalist for magazines like Academy and New Review. His output was prodigious, scrupulous, and delivered at the very last second. He lived in a succession of lodging-houses, where a succession of landladies suffered his peccadilloes. He had once set fire to his coat by leaving a lighted pipe in it; at Elgin Avenue, he accidentally set fire to his room (and absent-mindedly left the house while his room burned out; his landlady and fellow-lodgers must have been exceptionally charitable). In November 1897, miraculously for the first time, he strayed into the path of a hansom cab, and cut his head open.

The turn of the century brought news of Katie King's marriage to a clergyman (and her subsequent death after childbirth); and a period of despair. His laudanum intake persisted; but so too did his writing, his vagueness, his life on the breadline. He regularly pawned his clothes. Often, he stayed in bed all day. He arrived seven hours late for a lunch at the Meynells; he missed the marriage of Monica Meynell, one of their daughters, by turning up so early that he assumed he was late. A publisher was persuaded to commission a life of St. Ignatius, and to pay him a pound for every three pages he completed. In the evenings, he talked cricket and poetry in a pub called The Skiddaw . In 1906, Meynell got him back to Crawley, in lodgings near Storrington; in late 1907, Meynell persuaded the writer Wilfrid Blunt to accommodate Thompson in a cottage on his Sussex estate (Thompson vanished before they were due to depart - he was hunting down a pork pie he thought necessary for the journey). He and Blunt co-existed well; in the afternoons, the by-now wraith-like Thompson was to be seen sleeping in a chair, with an upside-down copy of Martin Chuzzlewit. He became very ill, and Meynell's son, Everard, brought "the skeleton of Francis Thompson" back to London that autumn. Thompson died in the Hospital of St. John and St. Elizabeth in the dawn of 13th November 1907. There was no-one but a night-nurse at his bedside.

Three years later, a Selected Poems was published. In two years, it sold over 18,000 copies. Thompson continues to have a faithful readership, and a very mixed critical reputation. At least one phrase of his is firmly embedded in the language: rather a surprising one. The title of Han Suyin's novel, turned into a highly successful film in 1952, with an accompanying best-seller of a song, is Love - A Many-Splendour'd Thing. The phrase 'A Many-Splendour'd Thing' is from a Francis Thompson poem.

Sources:

Francis Thompson, Man And Poet, by J.C. Reid, Routledge And Kegan Paul, 1959

Francis Thompson, by Peter Butter, Longmans Green & Co, 1961

Francis Thompson, A Critical Biography, by Paul van K. Thomson, Nelson, 1961

Francis Thompson and Wilfrid Meynell, by Viola Meynell, Hollis & Carter, 1952

The Life Of Francis Thompson, by Everard Meynell, Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1926

Francis Thompson: The Poet Of Earth In Heaven, by R.L. M�groz,

Faber & Gwyer, 1927

Strange Harp, Strange Symphony: the life of Francis Thompson,

by John Evangelist Walsh, W.H. Allen, 1968

The Letters Of Francis Thompson ed. John Evangelist Walsh, Hawthorn Books, 1969

Kate Carruthers

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