Today, I received a copy of a clipping of the poem titled “Human Anatomy” from my dear niece Fiona Devotta Vazirani.
I remember having first read this humoristic poem in the mid-1990s. Since then it had appeared in many newspapers and clippings – sometimes with long titles such as “Let’s call it, unsolved mysteries of anatomy” and at times without any title at all.
The author was William Rossa Cole.
Here is that poem appearing under the title “Foolish Questions” (adapted) from “Oh, Such Foolishness” (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1978) as found in Kids Pick the Funniest Poems, edited by Bruce Lansky (Meadowbrook Press, 1991).
by William Cole
Where can a man buy a cap for his knee? Or a key for the lock of his hair?
And can his eyes be called a school? I would think there are pupils there!
What jewels are found in the crown of his head, And who walks on the bridge of his nose?
Can he use, in building the roof of his mouth, the nails on the ends of his toes?
Can the crook of his elbow be sent to jail? If it can, well, then, what did it do?
And how does he sharpen his shoulder blades? I’ll be hanged if I know – do you?
Can he sit in the shade of the palm of his hand, and beat time with the drum in his ear?
Can the calf of his leg eat the corn on his toe?
There’s somethin’ pretty strange around here!
William Rossa Cole, an American editor, anthologist, columnist, author, and writer of light verse was born on November 20, 1919, to William Harrison Cole and Margaret O’Donovan-Rossa of Staten Island, New York. He was the grandson of the Irish national hero, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.
William Cole served in the infantry in Europe in World War II, rising to sergeant and receiving the Purple Heart. After military service, he entered the publishing industry. He served as publicity director at Alfred A. Knopf, publicity director and editor at Simon & Schuster, and publisher of William Cole Books at Viking Press. He was a columnist for The Saturday Review, a vice president of PEN American Center and a member of the governing board of the Poetry Society of America and the executive board of Poets and Writers.
William Cole wrote children’s books and light verse. His whimsical poetry appeared often in Light Quarterly and was widely anthologized, He was an author, co-author, editor, and co-editor, of about 75 books of which 50 were anthologies. The American Library Association were honoured three of his books:
In 1958, “I Went to the Animal Fair: A Book of Animal Poems” which was on the List of Notable Children’s Books of 1940–1959.
In 1964, “Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls: Poems“.
In 1965, “The Birds and Beasts Were There: Animal Poems” .
His marriage to Peggy Bennett in 1947 and his marriage to Galen Williams in 1967 both ended in divorce.
William Cole died on August 2, 2000, in his Manhattan home, aged 80.
Seamus Heaney, Member of the Royal Irish Academy and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 memorialized William Cole in a poem.
“Love me or hate me, both are in my favor. If you love me, I’ll always be in your heart. If you hate me, I’ll always be in your mind.“
This quote now circulating on Facebook is another case of attribution of something to William Shakespeare that was not really said by him. I cannot find any official attribution of this quote and it definitely falls victim to the “Shakespeare said so” syndrome.
The fact that this quote uses “you” for the singular subjective and “your” for the possessive is sufficient proof that the bard did not write this because in Shakespearean English these words would be “thou” and “thy.”
Does anyone have an idea where this quote came from?
Maybe this quote is a perverted version of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 90: Then Hate Me When Thou Wilt; If Ever, Now
Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now; Now, while the world is bent my deeds to cross, Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow, And do not drop in for an after-loss: Ah! do not, when my heart hath ‘scaped this sorrow, Come in the rearward of a conquered woe; Give not a windy night a rainy morrow, To linger out a purposed overthrow. If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last, When other petty griefs have done their spite, But in the onset come: so shall I taste At first the very worst of fortune’s might; And other strains of woe, which now seem woe, Compared with loss of thee, will not seem so.
So, don’t be surprised if one of these days someone posts on the social media that the Holy Bible was another work of the Bard of Avon and many would click “Like” and repost the same!
The above is a widely copied and circulated quote on Facebook and other social networks, but I could not find the source of the quote anywhere in the works of William Shakespeare. Even though the attribution of the above quote to Shakespeare is incorrect, some people due to their ignorance re-post it without verification. Even goodreads.com, searchquotes.com, azquotes.com, and a few other websites have this fake quote on their pages.
Someone had initiated this fraud by copying the part of the text starting with “Before you speak” from the short poem titled “Before You” by William Arthur Ward (1921 – March 30, 1994), one of America’s most quoted writers of inspirational maxims.
by William Arthur Ward
Before you speak, listen. Before you write, think. Before you spend, earn. Before you invest, investigate. Before you criticize, wait. Before you pray, forgive. Before you quit, try. Before you retire, save. Before you die, give.
Even though we have now stepped into the 21st century, a few choose to remain ignorant. I just wonder why these copycats do not surf the internet, enlighten themselves, and verify facts before posting whatever they copy on social media.
On a lighter vein, I came across this comment by Rodolphe in RoDoLpHe’S wOrLd dated August 18, 2011.
“To blog or not to blog“, said Hamlet, in reply to Othello who told him “Put out the comment, and then, put out the comment.”
Both knew that Henry the Fifth was spamming Richard III’s blogger account on purpose because the latter dated Cromwell’s third girlfriend. It was Falstaff who discovered the plot because he hacked Iago’s secret identity database.
I hope no one will copy portions of Rodolphe’s comment and post them on social media and attribute it to the Bard of Avon.
The era of Song dynasty (宋朝) that succeeded the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period in Chinese history began in 960 and continued until 1279. There are two distinct periods in the Song dynasty – Northern and Southern.
During the Northern Song (北宋) period from 960 to 1127, the dynasty controlled most of China proper with the northern city of Bianjing (now Kaifeng) as its capital.
During the Southern Song (南宋) period from 1127 to 1279, the Song dynasty lost control of northern China in the Jin–Song Wars to the Jurchen Jin dynasty.
The Song dynasty was the first in world history to issue national bank notes or true paper money, the first Chinese regime to establish a permanent navy, and the first to use gunpowder. It was during the Song dynasty that the Chinese found the true north using a compass.
The Qing Ming Shang He Tu (simplified Chinese: 清明上河图; traditional Chinese: 清明上河圖) or “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” is a scroll painting created by the famous Chinese painter Zhang Zeduan (1085 – 1145) alias Zheng Dao who lived during the transitional period from the Northern Song to the Southern Song and was instrumental in the early history of the Chinese landscape art style known as shan shui.
This painting considered the most renowned work among all Chinese paintings dubbed as “China’s Mona Lisa” has a theme of the worldly commotion and the festive spirit during the celebration of the Qingming Festival. It encapsulates the landscape of the capital, Bianjing, today’s Kaifeng and the life of its people.
This scroll painting is 9.76 inches (24.8 cm) in height and 17.35 feet (5.287 metres) long. It depicts the bustling and lively life and beautiful natural scenery on both sides of the river that meanders through Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty during the Qingming Festival. The two main portions in the painting are the countryside and the market in the densely populated city. It has more than 170 trees, 30 buildings, 814 humans, 8 sedan chairs, over 60 horses and other animals, 20 vehicles, and 28 boats.
The painting reveals the lifestyle of all levels of the society from rich to poor in successive scenes and offers glimpses of the architecture and clothing of the Song period.
For centuries, the scroll painting was a pride of the personal imperial collections of the Chinese emperors.
The original Song dynasty painting “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” was a favorite of Puyi (February 7, 1906 – October 17, 1967), also known as Henry Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China and the twelfth and final ruler of the Qing dynasty. At the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1945, he took it along with him when he left Beijing. It was then re-purchased and kept at the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City.
The following video describes how the original “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” painting showcased the best of life in the Song Dynasty – one of the golden ages of China.
Remakes of the painting
Revered as a work of art, the scroll painting “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” inspired the creation of several works of art during subsequent dynasties. Court artists made re-interpretive versions of the painting by reviving and updating the style of the original. Even though each of these later paintings follow the composition and the original theme, they differ in details and painting techniques.
The Yuan version
During the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) made a remarkable remake of the original,
The Ming version
Another notable remake painted during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) is 22 feet (6.7 metres) long and is longer than the original Song version.
Based on contemporary fashions and customs the Ming version replaced the scenery from the Song dynasty to that of the Ming dynasty with the costumes worn by the people updated and the styles of vehicles (boats and carts) changed.
In the original Song painting, the crew of an oncoming boat have not yet fully lowered their sails and are in danger of crashing into wooden the bridge.
In the Ming version, a stone bridge with a taller arch replaced the Song wooden bridge, and men ashore guide the boat under the bridge by pulling ropes tied to it.
The Qing version
On January 15, 1737, the Qianlong Emperor received a present of a version painted by five Qing dynasty court painters (Chen Mu, Sun Hu, Jin Kun, Dai Hong and Cheng Zhidao). This Qing remake is much larger – 36 feet (11 metres) long and 1 ft 1.68 inches (35 cm) high – and has over 4,000 people in it.
While in the original Song version, the leftmost side contains images of the busy city, the leftmost third of this Qing version depicts life within the palace, with buildings and people appearing refined and elegant. Most people within the castle are women along with some well-dressed officials.
In April 1742, a poem composed by the Qianlong Emperor was added to the rightmost end of the Qing remake. The poem reads as follows:
蜀錦裝金壁 – A wall of gold has been mounted on Shu brocade.
吳工聚碎金 – Craftsmen from Wu collect spare change
謳歌萬井富 – To pay tribute to the abundance of a myriad of families.
城闕九重深 – The watchtowers of the city rise to great heights.
盛事誠觀止 – The bustling scene is truly impressive.
遺踪借探尋 – It is a chance to explore vestiges of bygone days.
當時誇豫大 – At that time, people marveled at the size of Yu,
此日歎徽欽 – And now, we lament the fates of Hui and Qin.
In 1949, the National Palace Museum in Taipei received the Qing version along with many other artifacts.
Over the centuries, many affluent Chinese treasured the original Qingming scroll. Eventually, it returned to public ownership.
The original Song dynasty painting now kept at the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City and the Qing version in the Taipei Palace Museum, are both considered national treasures and are exhibited every few years for brief periods.
The following video with narration in Chinese shows the different versions of the remakes of the “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” but uses the Ming version to explain the life of the Chinese then, in the near past, and now.
From May 1 to October 31, 2010, China hosted Expo 2010, a major World Expo, officially known as the Expo 2010 Shanghai China in the tradition of international fairs and expositions.
A 3D animated, viewer-interactive digital version of the original “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” titled “River of Wisdom“, screened for three months was the primary exhibit at the China Pavilion. This elaborate computer animated mural about 30 times the size of the original scroll had moving characters and objects that made the painting come to life. It presented the scene in a four-minute day to night cycles. Those who reserved in advance had to queue up to two hours to see the 3D animated version.
After the Expo, the digital version was on display at the AsiaWorld–Expo in Hong Kong from November 9 to 29, 2010; at the Macau Dome in Macau from March 25 to April 14, 2011; and at the Expo Dome in Taipei, Taiwan from July 1 to September 4, 2011.
From December 7, 2011, to February 6, 2012, a digital reproduction was exhibited at the Singapore Expo titled “A Moving Masterpiece: The Song Dynasty As Living Art“.
In her book “EFFECTIVE LIVING,” Lois Smith Murray says on page 154:
Tolstoy wrote, “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”
In his book “A FOR ARTEMIS,” Sutton Woodfield says on page 44:
Over Goldie’s bed, tacked on the wall, was one of those mottoes you can buy at Woolworths for a bob. This one said, “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”
However, the most common claim points to the Persian poet Abū-Muhammad Muslih al-Dīn bin Abdallāh Shīrāzī (Persian: ابومحمد الدین بن عبدالله شیرازی), better known by his pen-name Saʿdī (Persian: سعدی) or Saadi Shirazi or simply Saadi. Born in Shiraz, Iran, c. 1210, he was one of the major Persian poets and prose writers of the medieval period.
His best-known works are Bustan (The Orchard) completed in 1257 and Gulistan (The Rose Garden) in 1258.
Saʿdī composed his didactic work Gulistan in both prose and verse. It contains many moralizing stories like the fables of the French writer Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95) and personal anecdotes. The text interspersed with a variety of short poems contains aphorisms, advice, and humorous reflections. It demonstrates Saʿdī ‘s profound awareness of the absurdity of human existence.
In Persian lands, his maxims were highly valued and manuscripts of his work were widely copied and illustrated. Saʿdī wrote that he composed Gulistan to teach the rules of conduct in life to both kings and dervishes.
In Chapter III – On the Excellence of Contentment, story 19, Saʿdī wrote:
I never lamented about the vicissitudes of time or complained of the turns of fortune except on the occasion when I was barefooted and unable to procure slippers. But when I entered the great mosque of Kufah with a sore heart and beheld a man without feet I offered thanks to the bounty of God, consoled myself for my want of shoes and recited:
‘A roast fowl is to the sight of a satiated man Less valuable than a blade of fresh grass on the table And to him who has no means nor power A burnt turnip is a roasted fowl.‘
Saʿdī died on December 9, 1291, in Shiraz, Iran.
Modern versions of his story are often cited erroneously as Arabian proverbs, with wordings such as:
“I thought I was abused because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet,”
“I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet,“
“I felt sorry because I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet.“
In the case of Helen Keller the quote “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet” derived from Saʿdī ‘s story had been her credo. It helped her overcome self-pity and to be of service to others.
Recently I saw this quote on Facebook that cited the author as William Shakespeare. Facebook is a notorious medium where people post quotes without verifying who said it in the first instance. For example, the recent trend has been to take someone’s quote and add a picture of some dignitary and post it saying it was said so by that dignitary. Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam happens to be one of those favourite dignitaries. So, someone might even post this quote with the picture of Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and claim that this was said by him. And some people to keep up with the Joneses will immediately copy the quote and propagate it believing in the false axiom that “whatever is in print must be true.”
When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meagre possessions, They found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital.
One nurse took her copy to Melbourne. The old man’s sole bequest to posterity has since appeared in the Christmas editions of magazines around the country and appearing in mags for Mental Health. A slide presentation has also been made based on his simple, but an eloquent poem.
And this old man, with nothing left to give to the world, is now the author of this ‘anonymous’ poem winging across the Internet.
Cranky Old Man
What do you see nurses? What do you see? What are you thinking … when you’re looking at me? A cranky old man,.. not very wise, Uncertain of habit … with faraway eyes? Who dribbles his food … and makes no reply. When you say in a loud voice .’ I do wish you’d try!’ Who seems not to notice . . .the things that you do. And forever is losing . . . A sock or shoe? Who, resisting or not … lets you do as you will, With bathing and feeding . . . .The long day to fill? Is that what you’re thinking?. .Is that what you see? Then open your eyes, nurse .you’re not looking at me. I’ll tell you who I am . . . As I sit here so still, As I do at your bidding… as I eat at your will. I’m a small child of Ten…. with a father and mother, Brothers and sisters… who love one another A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he’ll meet. A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap. Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep. At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own. Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home. A man of Thirty. .. My young now grown fast, Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last. At Forty, my young sons … have grown and are gone, But my woman is beside me . . to see I don’t mourn. At Fifty, once more, .. …Babies play ’round my knee, Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me. Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead. I look at the future . . . I shudder with dread. For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own. And I think of the years . . . And the love that I’ve known. I’m now an old man . . . and nature is cruel. It’s jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool. The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigour, depart. There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart. But inside this old carcass. A young man still dwells, And now and again . . . my battered heart swells I remember the joys . . . I remember the pain. And I’m loving and living . . . life over again. I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast. And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last. So open your eyes, people… open and see. Not a cranky old man. Look closer . . . see… ME!
In the above post, the story that introduces the poem is fictional. In fact, the origin of the poem is not known for sure. The claim that the poem was found among the belongings of an elderly male resident of a geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town has not been proved nor was it found among the possessions of any other old man who died in a hospital in Florida, or in any other equally fictional hospital in the United States.
An American poet, David L. Griffith of Fort Worth, Texas, adapted the original poem known under various names, and called it: “Too Soon Old.”
What do you see, my friends, what do you see… what are you thinking when you’re looking at me?
A crabby old man, one not very wise, uncertain of habit, with faraway eyes. Who dribbles his food and makes no reply… when you say in a loud voice, “I wish you’d try?” Who seems not to notice the things that you do, and forever is losing a sock or shoe. Who, resisting or not, lets you do as you will… with bathing and feeding, the long day to fill.
Is that what you’re thinking? Is that what you see? Then open your eyes my friends, you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still, as I live at your bidding, as I enjoy company at your will.
I’m a small child of ten with a father and mother, brothers and sisters, who love one another. A young boy of sixteen, a football in his hands and with wings on his feet, dreaming that soon now a lover he’ll meet. A marine soon at eighteen — my heart gives a leap, remembering the oath that I promised to keep. At twenty-five now, I have a platoon of my own, ‘who need me to guide them and secure a trip home. A man of thirty, my youth now going too fast, hopefully, bound to others with ties that should last. At fifty my daughter and sons have grown and are gone, and I have no one beside me to see I don’t mourn. At sixty no more babies play round my knee, again I know heartbreak, my loneliness and me. Dark days are upon me, my dreams are all dead; I look at the future, I shudder with dread. For my young are all rearing young of their own, and I think of the years and the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man and nature is cruel; ’tis jest to make old age look like a fool. The body, it crumbles, grace and vigor depart, there is now a stone where I once had a heart. But inside this old carcass a young man still dwells, and now and again my battered heart swells. I remember the joys, I remember the pain, and I’m loving and living life over again. I think of the years; all too few. Gone too fast, and accept the stark fact that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, my friends, open and see, not a crabby old man; look closer — see ME!!
The currently circulating version of the poem called the “Cranky Old Man” is a variant of Griffith’s poem. It is also known as a “Crabby Old Man.”
The original poem itself has a long and somewhat perplexing history. It features an old woman as the protagonist rather than an old man and is set in the United Kingdom. Originating from a non-academic source, humbly vernacular in form, it has no obvious value beyond the immediate feelings it provokes on reading.
The poem has been included in various publications under different titles in the United Kingdom often accompanied by the claim that a copy of the original poem was found by the nursing staff among the belongings of an old woman named Kate who died in a hospital’s geriatric ward. Some versions claim that the hospital was located in Scotland. Others claim the hospital was in England or Wales.
The key contributory factors to this poem are the stories of its origins, stories which almost always accompany the poem wherever it appears and which, like the poem’s own words, is virtually unchanged since those early days such as:
The writer of this poem was unable to speak, although was seen to write from time to time. After her death, her locker was emptied, and this poem of her life was found. (Searle, 1973, p. 8).
and more recently:
Get the hankies ready…this one’ll get ya!
Crabbit old woman’s life has ended in a nursing home. While the nurse is packing her meagre possessions, she finds a poem written to the staff of the hospital by the apparently senile and mindless old lady. (Rexanne.com, 2005).
Another version of the origin of the poem says that it was found at Ashludie Hospital, Dundee; that copies were duplicated and distributed to all nurses in the hospital; that a young nurse at the hospital sent a copy to ‘Beacon House News’ at the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health’; and, that the author’s name was not known.
From time to time the mystery of the poem’s origins surfaces. For example, in 2003, an entry on Seniors Network UK, mentions ‘Mattie’s Poem’, with the story that
Mattie was a very dear family friend. She had been a very bright 90-year-old but her body was badly ravaged by time – she died in the Geriatric Ward of a hospital in Lanarkshire in Scotland.‘
According to credible reports Phyllis Mabel McCormack might have penned it in the early 1960s when she was a nurse at Sunnyside Hospital in Montrose, a coastal resort town and former royal burgh in Angus, Scotland. Originally entitled “Look Closer,” she wrote it for publication in the Sunnyside Chronicle, a magazine produced by the staff of Sunnyside Royal Hospital, Montrose, for circulation within the hospital. She submitted it anonymously as she felt it was critical of some of her colleagues.
In 2005, Joanna Bornat in her work “Empathy and stereotype: the work of a popular poem“, a report for ‘Perspectives on Dementia Care‘, 5th Annual Conference on Mental Health and Older, notes:
Amongst the responses to a small survey which I carried out in 1998 while researching attitudes to the poem was a cutting from the Daily Mail newspaper in which the son of Phyllis McCormack, whose name is often linked with the poem as its discoverer, explained:
My mother, Phyllis McCormack, wrote this poem in the early Sixties when she was a nurse at Sunnyside Hospital in Montrose.
Originally entitled Look Closer Nurse, the poem was written for a small magazine for Sunnyside only Phyllis was very shy and submitted her work anonymously.
A copy of the magazine was lent to a patient at Ashludie Hospital, Dundee, who copied it in her own handwriting and kept it in her bedside locker. When she died, the copy was found and submitted to the Sunday Post newspaper, attributed to the Ashludie patient.
Since my mother’s death in 1994 her work has travelled all over the world… – (Daily Mail, 12 March 1998).
Somehow this explanation rings true, though it immediately begs the question of how the origin story was constructed in the first place and whether the poem depends on an apparent myth for its continuing appeal. Encounters have been mixed as responses to the 1998 survey suggested.
These intriguingly mysterious origins greatly add to the poem’s effect. The story of a mute, unidentified and neglected woman creates pathos. It is a parable for ageing times with lessons about listening to our elders and empathy towards older people.
The poem is written in the voice of an old woman in a nursing home who is reflecting upon her life. Here is the original poem in full:
I have reproduced the original poem below entitled “Crabbit Old Woman.” In Scottish, Crabbit means “bad-tempered” or “grumpy”. It has also been known variously as “Kate“, “Look Closer“, “Look Closer Nurse“, “Open Your Eyes” and “What Do You See?“
Crabbit Old Woman
What do you see, nurses, what do you see?
Are you thinking when you are looking at me
A crabbit old woman, not very wise,
Uncertain of habit, with faraway eyes,
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice ‘I do wish you’d try’
Who seems not to notice the things that you do
And for ever is losing a stocking or shoe.
Who unresisting or not, lets you do as you will
With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill
Is that what you are thinking, is that what you see,
Then open your eyes, nurses, you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still,
As I used at your bidding, as I eat at your will,
I am a small child of ten with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters who love one another,
A young girl of 16, with wings on her feet
Dreaming that soon now a lover she’ll meet;
A bride at 20, my heart gives a leap,
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep
At 25, now I have young of my own
Who need me to build a secure, happy home;
A woman of 30, my young now grow fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last,
At 40, my young sons have grown and are gone;
But my man’s beside me to see I don’t mourn;
At 50, once more babies play around my knee.
Again we know children, my loved one and me
Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead,
I look at the future, I shudder with dread,
For my young are all rearing young of their own
And I think of the years and the love that I’ve known.
I’m an old woman now and nature is cruel
’tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body it crumbles, grace and vigor depart,
There is now a stone where once was a heart
But inside this old carcass, a young girl still dwells
And now and again my battered heart swells
I remember the joys I remember the pain,
And I’m loving and living life over again.
I think of the years all too few – gone too fast,
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, nurses, open and see
Not a crabbit old women, look closer — see me.
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 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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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?
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.”