“The Hound of Heaven” – Francis Thompson’s Haunting Poem


.
Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj
.

I can still remember the day I first heard the recitation of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven“. It was way back in 1952 when I was 11 years old studying at St. Mary’s College, Chilaw, Sri Lanka. One evening, our boarding-master, Reverend Brother Andrew Michael, a Christian Brother of the order of Saint De La Salle, recited for us that soul searching haunting poem.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

These words still linger in my mind.

Eugene O’Neill, the Irish American playwright and Nobel laureate in Literature could recite this poem from memory.

J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and other tales admired it.

G.K. Chesterton, known as the “prince of paradox“, hailed Thompson as a great English poet and described him as a “shy volcano“.

The Hound of Heaven considered by many as one of the great Catholic poems, gushed out from the soul, of a deeply troubled a person who throughout his adult life battled addiction, poverty and depression.

Even though it is Victorian poetry, many, including me, still seek comfort in Thompson’s view of a loving God who constantly pursues the wayward soul.

Francis Thompson at 19
Francis Thompson at the age of 19.

.

Francis Thompson born December 16, 1859, was an English poet who later turned into an ascetic. He was the eldest son of a provincial doctor in northern England. He grew up as a shy introverted boy who loved the classics, Shakespeare, in particular. He attended Ushaw College, a Catholic institution near Durham.

If not for his frail health, he would have entered the seminary to pursue the priesthood. He then studied medicine at Owens College in Manchester complying to his father’s wish. His heart was not in medicine rather it was literature that beckoned him. He “made a pretense of study” for six years. After finishing his medical course, he never practiced medicine. He went to London aspiring to become a writer.

Francis Thompson began his career as a bookseller but was not successful. Then he found work in a shoemaker’s store; he sold matches; called cabs. Eventually, he got addicted to opium after consuming it as medicine for ill health. He became a destitute. As a vagrant, he begged for his sustenance. Soon Thompson started living on the streets of Charing Cross and slept by the River Thames along with the homeless and other addicts.

He found solace in the public libraries, but some banned him because of his ragged appearance.

A peer of Thompson wrote:

A stranger figure than Thompson’s was not to be seen in London. Gentle in looks, half-wild in externals, his face worn by pain and the fierce reactions of laudanum, his hair and straggling beard neglected, he had yet a distinction and aloofness of bearing that marked him in the crowd; and when he opened his lips he spoke as a gentleman and a scholar. It was impossible and unnecessary to think always of the tragic side of his life.

At one point of time when Thompson tried to commit suicide, a prostitute offered him a place to stay and looked after him for a while. Thompson never revealed her true identity not even her name, but later referred to her as one who saved him.

Around 1887-88, Thompson sent some poems to Wilfrid Meynell, editor of a Catholic literary magazine giving a post-office address. He added a note apologizing “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.” After some time when Meynell read the pigeonholed manuscripts, he immediately wrote a welcoming letter to Thompson, but the post office returned it.

Wilfrid Meynell published Thompson’s poems in Merrie England so that the author might see them and disclose himself. Thompson saw his published poems and wrote to Meynell. This time he gave the address of a chemist’s shop. When Meynell reached the address, he found that Thompson owed money to the chemist for the opium he had purchased. Meynell left a note requesting Thompson to call upon him.

Wilfrid Meynell and his wife Alice Meynell (née Thompson) whose father was a friend of Charles Dickens rescued Francis Thompson from the verge of starvation and self-destruction. The first step was to restore him to better health and to wean him from the opium habit. A doctor’s care for some months at Storrington, Sussex, where he lived as a boarder at the Premonstratensian monastery, gave him a new hold upon life.

Recognizing the genius in him the Meynell couple arranged for the publication of his first book, “Poems” in 1893. The book received the attention of sympathetic critics in the St James’s Gazette and other newspapers. The English poet and critic Coventry Patmore wrote a eulogistic paragraph in the Fortnightly Review of January 1894.

In the years from 1889 to 1896, Thompson wrote the poems contained in the three volumes, “Poems,” “Sister Songs,” and “New Poems” and other works and essays.

Francis Thompson died from tuberculosis on November 13, 1907, aged forty-eight after receiving all the sacraments, in the excellent care of the Sisters of St. John and St. Elizabeth. He is buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in London.

Shortly after Francis Thompson’s death G. K. Chesterton said: “with Francis Thompson we lost the greatest poetic energy since Browning.

The Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson

.

THE HOUND OF HEAVEN

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes, I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears.
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

The Hound of Heaven - 01

I pleaded, out law-wise,
By many a hearted casement,  curtained red,
Trellised with intertwining charities
(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,
Yet was I sore adread
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside);
But, if one little casement parted wide,
The gust of His approach would clash it to.
Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.
Across the margent of the world I fled,
And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
Smiting for shelter on their clangèd bars;
Fretted to dulcet jars
And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.

The Hound of Heaven - 02

I said to dawn: Be sudden; to eve: Be soon—
With thy young skyey blossoms heap me over
From this tremendous Lover!
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!
I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy,
In faith to Him their fickleness to me,
Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.
To all swift things for swiftness did I sue;
Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.
But whether they swept, smoothly fleet,
The long savannahs of the blue;
Or whether, Thunder-driven,
They clanged His chariot ‘thwart a heaven
Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their feet:—
Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.
Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet,
And a Voice above their beat—
“Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.”

The Hound of Heaven - 03

I sought no more that after which I strayed
In face of man or maid;
But still within the little children’s eyes
Seems something, something that replies,
They at least are for me, surely for me!
I turned me to them very wistfully;
But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair
With dawning answers there,
Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.

The Hound of Heaven - 04

Come then, ye other children,
Nature’s—share
With me” (said I) “your delicate fellowship;
Let me greet you lip to lip,
Let me twine with you caresses,
Wantoning
With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses,
Banqueting
With her in her wind-walled palace,
Underneath her azured daïs,
Quaffing, as your taintless way is,
From a chalice
Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.”
So it was done;
I in their delicate fellowship was one—
Drew the bolt of Nature’s secrecies.
I knew all the swift importings,
On the wilful face of skies;
I knew how the clouds arise,
Spumèd of the wild sea-snortings;
All that’s born or dies
Rose and drooped with; made them shapers
Of mine own moods, or wailful or divine—
With them joyed and was bereaven.
I was heavy with the even,
When she lit her glimmering tapers
Round the day’s dead sanctities.
I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
Heaven and I wept together,
And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine;
Against the red throb of its sunset-heart
I laid my own to beat,
And share commingling heat;
But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.
In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek.
For ah! we know not what each other says,
These things and I; in sound I speak—
Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.
Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake by drouth;
Let her, if she would owe me,
Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me
The breasts o’ her tenderness:
Never did any milk of hers once bless
My thirsting mouth.
Nigh and nigh 
draws the chase,
With unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
And past those noisèd Feet
A Voice comes yet more fleet—
“Lo! naught contents thee, who content’st not Me.”

The Hound of Heaven - 05

Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke!
My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me,
And smitten me to my knee;
I am defenceless utterly.
I slept, methinks, and woke,
And, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep.
In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust o’ the mounded years—
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.
Yea, faileth now even dream
The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist;
Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist
I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist,
Are yielding; cords of all too weak account
For earth, with heavy griefs so overplussed.
Ah! is Thy love indeed
A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed,
Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?
Ah! must—
Designer infinite!—
Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?
My freshness spent its wavering shower i‘ the dust;
And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever
From the dank thoughts that shiver
Upon the sighful branches of my mind.
Such is; what is to be?
The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?
I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;
Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlements of Eternity:
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsèd turrets slowly wash again;
But not ere Him who summoneth
I first have seen, enwound
And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever
From the dank thoughts that shiver
With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;
His name I know, and what his trumpet saith.
Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
Thee harvest, must Thy harvest fields
Be dunged with rotten death?

The Hound of Heaven - 01

Now of that long pursuit
Comes on at hand the bruit;
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
“And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!
Strange, piteous, futile thing,
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught” (He said),
“And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”
Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

.

.

RELATED ARTICLES

Add this anywhere

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s