The article of the month

Francis Thompson by Heather King

Francis Thompson (1859–1907), English author, ascetic, and drug addict, wrote The Hound of Heaven—a poem about God’s relentless pursuit of the human soul that is known and recited worldwide.

Thompson was born into a middle-class Catholic family from Preston, Lancashire. His father was a provincial doctor; his mother died during Thompson’s boyhood. Wishing to please his father, he entered Owens College (now the University of Manchester) to study medicine at the age of eighteen but loathed the coursework and eventually quit. While at Manchester, he suffered a nervous breakdown and began taking opium to calm himself. In London, where he moved at twenty-six, he became addicted. For three years he was nearly destitute, wandering the streets doing odd jobs—selling matches, calling cabs, assisting bootmakers— to support his drug habit.

For a time he was homeless, sleeping on the streets around Charing Cross. He later credited a prostitute who befriended and sheltered him during this period as an angel who had saved his life. Thompson had always been drawn to writing and, also during this time, managed to send some poems to the magazine Merrie England. Wilfrid and Alice Meynell, the magazine’s editors, spotted his promise, hunted him down, and took him under their wing. They paid for two years of treatment at Our Lady of England Priory, Storrington. Thompson’s addiction abated, though he never entirely recovered. His first book, Poems, published in 1893, included the immortal The Hound of Heaven.

The book was well-received. Other poetry collections followed. His selected prose includes Health and Holiness and The Life of Saint Ignatius. If not widely read during his lifetime, neither was Thompson altogether unnoticed. Wilfrid Meynell called him “a poet of high thinking, of ‘celestial vision,’ and of imaginings that found literary images of answering splendor.” The Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton deemed him “a great poet.” The Victorian poet-critic Coventry Patmore called The Hound of Heaven “one of the very few great odes of which the language can boast.” No matter how often heard, the poem’s opening lines still raise a shiver: 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….

As we converts especially know, good luck. God will not be mocked. A lifetime of ill health took its toll. Near the end, Thompson was cared for by the Sisters of Saint John and Saint Elizabeth. He died at forty-seven of consumption and is buried at Saint Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in London’s Kensal Green. His tombstone is inscribed with the last line of a poem he wrote for a godson: “Look for me in the nurseries of Heaven.” In 1988, forensic pathologist Joseph C. Rupp, medical examiner for Nueces County, Texas, proposed that a hundred years earlier Francis Thompson had committed the Jack the Ripper murders. The theory has never been proved.

Heather King is a contemplative laywoman and author of several books. She blogs at www.heather-king.com