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FRANCIS THOMPSON: A PSYCHO-
BY ELLA FREEMAN SHARPE.
FRANCIS THOMPSON can, I suppose, be justly called the greatest religious poet of the nineteenth century. He surmised for himself an immortality through his verse, a surmise likely to be fulfilled. There are poets whose universality of expression is like great orchestral music which includes the individual instruments with their individual and peculiar music within the whole. There are poets who are masters of an individual instrument. To find Thompson is to be arrested as it were by a single. experience, a few poignant cadences that are manipulated in different keys with an ever increasing complexity and astonishing beauty. With the true poet's intuition he can direct us to the scene of his poignant experience the Eden of infancy which he never relinquished.
Turn not your tread along the Uranian sod
I sure shall keep a younger company:
Pass the crystalline sea, the Lampads seven:-
In speaking of Shelley, Thompson has given us what one feels from the standpoint of psycho-analysis to be the sine qua non of poetic genius. He says Shelley had
An instinctive perception (immense in range and fertility, astonishing for its delicate intuition) of the underlying analogies, the secret subterranean passages, between matter and soul...the most rarefied mental or spiritual music traced its beautiful corresponding forms on the sand of outward things. He stood thus at the very junction-lines of the visible and invisible....He could express as he listed the material and the immaterial in terms of each other.
It is that direct spontaneous transcript of the unconscious experience into perfectly analogous expression that makes the poet, and in the case of Francis Thompson gives us so clear a picture of whence he drew his inspiration. Nor do I know elsewhere from a poet's lips anything so psycho-analytically accurate as this poet's swift intuition respecting the poet's nature. He says of Shelley: "He retained the idiosyncrasy of childhood, expanded and matured without differentiation. To the last he was the enchanted child." The phrase "without differentiation" 1 Read at a Meeting of the British Psycho-Analytical Society held on 18th April 1923.
touches one of the fundamental characteristics of the sources of Francis Thompson's own imagination.
We shall not do violence to Thompson's majestic verse in interpreting in the light of psycho-analysis those subtle analogies with which his work abounds, finding therein some way to the heart of his mystery. The exposition of that mystery in authentic poetry brought him for all too brief a period into an articulate relationship with his fellows. Nor shall we do violence to the man in interpreting those same analogies, for unexpressed, they made of him "an enfant perdu," "an alien guest,' 'unsharing in the liberal laugh of earth." For of himself might be written his own words on Coleridge:
Over that wreck most piteous and terrible...shine, and will shine...those...re. splendent poems for which he paid the devil's price of a desolated life and unthinkably blasted powers.
Francis Thompson was born in 1858 or 1859. He never knew which and said he did not care. His birthplace was Preston and he remembered his mother taking him to see the house in which he was born. It seemed to him "disappointingly like any other house." Thompson's father was a general practitioner and, like his wife, sister and brothers, a convert to Roman Catholicism. His rounds were his diocese and he was remembered after death for many unostentatious offices of kindness. Two of his brothers, Francis Thompson's uncles, were writers of uninspired verse. Mary Morton, the mother of Francis Thompson, was a convert to Roman Catholicism and it seems probable that an estrangement because of this caused her to leave home to earn her livelihood. She failed to enter the novitiate, an experience repeated in her son's life. A cousin says that Francis Thompson inherited his passion for religion from his father, but the poet himself considered he inherited his mental and physical traits from his mother.
Certain traits are interesting because of their perpetuation in diverse members of a very scattered family. One relative's life was a tragedy because she failed to enter a convent. Two aunts lived and died as nuns. Francis Thompson's own niece is in a Canadian Community. One relative recited the Psalms in a loud voice in the streets of his town while sleep-walking. The aloofness and disregard of worldly prosperity so marked in Francis Thompson himself, are characteristics to be found in the scattered branches of the family.
Francis Thompson was the second son, the first dying in earliest
infancy. There were three daughters: one died in infancy, the other two were his companions in the nursery and in his early lessons.
Childhood, he says, was tragic to him. He refers to the "long tragedy of early experiences adventured upon alone." That these were early and inner experiences, laying the foundations of a character that was never to be able to adjust itself to a world of men, is obvious. The outward events are clear enough. He attended for some months the school of the Nuns of the Cross and Passion. He reached the 'age of discretion' at seven and took his first communion. He was taught with his sisters by the same governess until he was twelve. At the age of seven he was reading Shakespeare and Coleridge.
There is no doubt that his father was a kind and just man: that his mother was tender and devoted. From the memoirs of Meynell we get glimpses that show how early the young boy manifested signs of that withdrawal from life that was afterwards so marked. As a child he would retire to a cupboard on the stairs and play alone, later he took his books. He was fond of toys. He had a little toy theatre in which he manipulated the puppets for hours. He had a toy theatre near him when he died, he had never tired of it. Once he lost a prize of a clockwork mouse to his sister and he was inconsolable. She gained it from him because of his dilatoriness. He could never be in time as a child. As a man, the clock meant nothing. Even till his last years he admonished himself to no avail by writing on his walls, "Thy sleep with the worms will be long enough," "Thou wilt not lie abed when the last trump blows." When playing cards he was always not ready.' He was always late for meals, always asking for ten minutes more, and his walking was described as 'unrecognised progress.'
He became as a child 'expert in concealment' and of the tragedy within no one knew. His notebook records an incident in childhood when he was lost. He remembered it thus: "The world wide desolation and
terror of realizing that the mother can lose you, or you her and your own abysmal loneliness and helplessness without her. It is like fearing yourself to be without God."
He played with his sisters but he records that the game often meant one thing to them and quite another to himself. It was part of a dream scheme to him. But from boys' games he was tenfold wider apart than from girls'.
He resented the fiat "Thou shalt not hold a baby" and he could not shake the feminine prejudice, but he managed to wrest a succession of dolls from his sisters. He dramatized them, fell in love with them. In
his essay on the "Fourth Order of Humanity" he remarks that he "did not father them." So he fell in love later with the bust of a woman in a Manchester Art Gallery. She succeeded the dolls, and of her he says, "She is the divinity of an accident-awaiting a divine thing impossible which can never come to her, and she knows it not."
Thompson himself recognizes that he was over young when he felt the charm of diction and beauty of words, the sense of words, to use his own expression, "suddenly becoming a marvel and quick with a preternatural life."
He first saw the sea at five. He bathed timidly, wearing his consecrated medal round his neck. The sea, it is worthy of note, is very little alluded to in his verse, it is never the occasion of a poem.
In 1870 the poet went to Ushaw College, Durham. He was then twelve and he met his first great trial timidly and doubtfully as he had met every previous trial, and did meet every later demand for adjustment to new conditions. In his words he did not want to leave "his tender home, his circle of just judging friends." He suffered from the moment of the train journey to school, during which he was teased by the boys in the carriage and the jam tarts in his pocket became a sticky mass, until he left school, rejected as a possible candidate for orders in the Roman Catholic Church and ordained by his father to become a medical student. The "Essay on Shelley" gives us some glimpse of the young boy. His tormenting playmates were devilish apparitions of a hate now first known. To his virginal soul they heralded a world's ferocity. He is a little St Sebastian sinking under an incessant flight of shafts. There is a note in his biography which reads, "If a little boy were let into Heaven he would chase the little angels and pluck the feathers out of their wings." Referring in later years to his schooldays he admits that his lot was no worse than that of other boys, but he says "a gash is as painful to one as amputation to another."
It is on record that he once organized a piratical band, putting episodes out of his omnivorous reading into concrete expression, but he soon forgot to play at pirates, and he never revived the game in any form in later years. He began surreptitiously to write verse. He was heard reciting Latin verse in his sleep. By his masters he was considered a good boy and was liked, although there was persistent complaint of his dreaminess and his unpunctuality. He shared in none of the school games. He is remembered on the play-afternoons as an unkempt figure, writing and copying poetry. What had happened we can read in the Shelley essay: "He threw out a reserve encysted in which he grew to
maturity unaffected by the intercourses that modify others into the thing we call a man."
At the close of Ushaw days his superiors decided that his abstraction of mind unfitted him for the calling of a priest. It was a lasting grief to him. He was thrust back into a world he had already abjured in spirit. Unfit for the discipline of the Church he proceeded to the severer demands of medical training. But he was indifferent to his prospects. What resolution he had, gathered around his conviction that he was a poet. But so deeply had he entrenched himself that he spoke of his literary aspirations to none, raised no voice against his training as a doctor, although he detested the thought of it, and dumb and apathetic he proceeded to Manchester. We have every reason to believe by the whole conduct of his life that the father's words were genuine when he said, years after, when the poems had appeared, "If the boy had only told me.'
For six years Thompson pursued his medical course at Owens College, Manchester, never once voicing the utter distaste he felt. He confessed to Coventry Patmore in later years the repugnance to the dissecting room which he could stifle, but the sight of blood never ceased to fill him with abhorrence. He missed his lectures when he was not late for them. He would leave his father's door unkempt and with untied shoe-laces. He spent hours in the museums and reading-rooms. It was in one of these museums he was enthralled by the bust of the goddess, who succeeded his dolls. It is worth while remarking that in his essay he refers to her as a "Bacchante with vine strewn locks." It was during these years that Thompson's mother gave him a copy of De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and it proved her parting gift. She died suddenly shortly afterwards in December, 1880. Francis was then about twenty-two. The importance of this gift cannot be over-estimated. The allegiance to De Quincey's spirit was forged. Thompson's literary work in its mannerisms, its Elizabethan diction, tells us that both men drew from the same sources. In their lives are significant parallels the same headlong courses to despondency; both fled from Manchester, both lived a life of hazard in London and both were succoured by an outcast woman of the street. Both commemorate this signal service in memorable language.
Thompson began spending money on opium, and it is important to remember that at this time he had not the consolatory knowledge of his genius as an offset to the pangs of conscience.
He failed his final examinations a second time, and after the years.