January 11, 2009


Battered by bleak midwinter blues? Try poetry: The Victorian poet Francis Thompson, an Irish coffee and a good fire are the best way to beat Seasonal Affective Disorder. (Francis Phillips, 1/09/09, Mercator)

I have lost count of the people who have told me that they suffer, during these bleak, dark days, from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Apparently their mood mirrors the weather and the only remedy for this supposed malady is to lie under a sun lamp and dream of the Seychelles. Examining my own mood on this cold January day I am certain I have all the usual symptoms. However, my remedy is to stoke up my log fire, balance an Irish coffee at my elbow, put my feet on the brass fender (retrieved from the local dump; I don’t need any tips on how to cope in our new Age of Austerity) and declaim "The Hound of Heaven".

This might seem an odd choice to dispel the season’s blues so I will defend it: man is a spiritual being, an incurable myth-maker and romancer, a creature of soaring imagination, a lover of the word-music that only great poetry can make – and a sinner in guilty flight "from this tremendous Lover". "The Hound of Heaven" satisfies all these inchoate tendencies and longings at one sitting. Try it and see for yourself.

I was recently reminded of this poem by an excellent little book, Francis Thompson: A reflection on the Poetic Vocation by Frank Morriss, an American academic. Morriss is a member of the old school for whom the writing of poetry is not a matter of clever verse-making on trendy topics; he regards it as a serious pursuit for which the poet has to prepare himself by deep familiarity with his spiritual inheritance. Its memorable and declamatory quality – for great poetry demands to be read aloud - depends on such references and resonances.

The Hound of Heaven (Francis Thompson)
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, outlaw-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 skiey 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,


With our Lady-Mother's vagrant tresses,


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 my 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-glimpsed turrets slowly wash again.

But not ere him who summoneth
I first have seen, enwound

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."

-Francis Thompson (Catholic Encyclopedia)
-Francis Thompson Encyclopedia Britannica 1911)
-Francis Thompson (Wikipedia)
-Francis Thompson (Illuminating Lives)
-ETEXT: Poems (Francis Thompson)
-ETEXT: New Poems (Francis Thompson)
-ETEXT: Shelley: an essay (Francis Thompson)
-POEMS: Francis Thompson (Poem Hunter)
-POEM: Francis Thompson: "The Hound of Heaven" Glossed
-POEMS: Francis Thompson (Poets' Corner)
-ESSAY: Francis Thompson (1859–1907): a medical truant and his troubled heart (Caoimhghin S Breathnach, Journal of Medical Biography)
-ESSAY: A misfit poet of heaven: Ne'er-do-well Francis Thompson wrote the still-haunting 'Hound of Heaven' (VERONICA WHITTY, 11/09/07, National Catholic Reporter)
-ESSAY: Return to Tradition: Francis Thompson
-ESSAY: FRANCIS THOMPSON; So Close Was He to the Stars That He Loved Earth and Found Divinity in Common Things (JOYCE KILMER, October 6, 1912, NY Times REVIEW OF BOOKS)
-ESSAY: Francis Thompson, hounded by The Hound of Heaven (Ruth Bertels, Taking Five)
-ESSAY: Suspects--Francis Thompson (Richard Patterson, Jack the Ripper Casebook)
-EXHIBIT: Francis Thompson at Boston College: Original Exhibit Summer 2001 (Boston College)
-REVIEW: of Robert Waldron's The Hound of Heaven at my Heels: The Lost Diary of Francis Thompson (Michael Daniel, May 2000, AD 2000)
-REVIEW: of The Hound of Heaven at My Heels: The Lost Diary of Francis Thompson. By Robert Waldron (New Oxford Book Review)
-ETEXT: The Life of Francis Thompson by Everard Meynell

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 11, 2009 8:07 AM
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