Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A beggar, a drug addict, a layabout....a complete loser....

.....but not in the eyes of God.

The poet, Francis Thompson died on 13th November 1907 in St John's and Elizabeth's Hospital, London.

He died alone apart from a dedicated nurse who stayed with him that night to see him leave this life that he appeared so at odds with.

Yet, beneath an exterior of neglect and intemperance, lurked a God given talent for composing some of the most beautiful and deeply spiritual prose.

His life seems to be a series of ever unfolding disasters, many brought about by his own absent mindedness, his lack of awareness of the world around him and, later on, the opium to which he became addicted.

Born in Lancashire in 1859, his parents converted to Catholicism and young 'Frank' grew up in an intensely religious household. 
Sent to Ushaw at the age of eleven, it appeared that young Francis was destined for the priesthood but, it seemed as if he did not fit in at school and he suffered bullying from his fellow classmates.

For whatever reason, his father decided, in the manner of most Victorian fathers, that his son was not suited to the priestly life and guided him to medical studies in the hopes that Francis would follow in his footsteps and become a doctor.

Sadly, this young, unkempt, outcast of a youth took to sampling medical drugs, specifically, laudanum.

This began his physical and mental downfall and, the final straw came when Francis sold his medical textbooks to fund his drug habit which had, by then, progressed to opium.

Francis was now on the road to perdition and began living rough on the streets of London. 
Paradoxically, during this period, he wrote poetry on odd scraps of paper and began a series of failed attempts at rehabilitation.

A publisher who was also a Catholic, took an interest in this 'spectre' of a man (who had arrived on his doorstep wearing a ragged coat and minus shirt and socks) and even published some of his poetry resulting in a small income for the starving man.

He was sent to Storrington in Sussex to live with the Norbertines in the hope that his removal from London would break the drug habit and his association with the good Fathers would restore him spiritually.

But there was no stability in Francis and he was soon back in London and staying with the publisher, Wilfred Meynell who made a second attempt to redeem him by sending him to the Francisans in Pantasaph in North Wales.

Here, at last, Francis seemed to find an uneasy peace and he stayed for five years during which he had his first book of poetry published.

In true form, however, he returned to London where he took on the appearance of a living skeleton.

Falling ill he was admitted to the Catholic St John's and Elizabeth's Hospital where he died shortly afterwards.

Most Catholics know him for his famous poem 'The Hound of Heaven' but Francis Thompson wrote many more excellent poems, some, admittedly rather Victorian in terms of flowery prose.

'The Kingdom of God' is arguably his next best appreciated poem (see the video below) but I also like 'A Holocaust' because the language used is most graphic.

And for those who do not know the meaning of the word 'caitiff' - as did I, it means a cowardly person.

Apologies for the rather annoying animation

A Holocaust

'No man ever attained supreme knowledge, unless his heart had been
torn up by the roots.'

When I presage the time shall come--yea, now
Perchance is come, when you shall fail from me,
Because the mighty spirit, to whom you vow
Faith of kin genius unrebukably,
Scourges my sloth, and from your side dismissed
Henceforth this sad and most, most lonely soul
Must, marching fatally through pain and mist,
The God-bid levy of its powers enrol;
When I presage that none shall hear the voice
From the great Mount that clangs my ordained advance,
That sullen envy bade the churlish choice
Yourself shall say, and turn your altered glance;
O God! Thou knowest if this heart of flesh
Quivers like broken entrails, when the wheel
Rolleth some dog in middle street, or fresh
Fruit when ye tear it bleeding from the peel;
If my soul cries the uncomprehended cry
When the red agony oozed on Olivet!
Yet not for this, a caitiff, falter I,
Beloved whom I must lose, nor thence regret
The doubly-vouched and twin allegiance owed
To you in Heaven, and Heaven in you, Lady.
How could you hope, loose dealer with my God,
That I should keep for you my fealty?
For still 'tis thus:-because I am so true,
My Fair, to Heaven, I am so true to you! 


  1. Oh, my merciful God, how beautiful. Oh, God grant him rest and may perpetual Light shine upon him.

  2. Man is not made for this world.....we are made for God. Most men look for happiness in the wrong places, but in reality man's restless heart is searching for God.
    True happiness can be found only in God. May God give 'grace', to all that have 'restless hearts!.

    Thank you for posting this very heart-warming story.

  3. Thank you LS and also Ojcetc......

  4. He also wrote a biography of St Ignatius Loyola, which may have been one of the first Catholic books I read. I still have it and have read it at least once more.

  5. "It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
    Though my own red roses there may blow;
    It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
    Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.
    For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
    And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
    And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host,
    As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,
    To and fro:-
    O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!"

    Francis Thompson, "At Lord's".