John A. Holland writes about the life of Ashton's best known poet:
Go, songs, for ended is our brief, sweet play
Go, songs, for ended is our brief, sweet play;
Go, children of swift joy and tardy sorrow:
And some are sung, and that was yesterday,
And some are unsung, and that may be tomorrow.
Go forth; and if it be o'er stony way,
Old joy can lend what newer grief must borrow:
And it was sweet, and that was yesterday,
And sweet is sweet, though purchased with sorrow.
Go, songs, and come not back from your far way:
And if men ask you why ye smile and sorrow,
Tell them ye grieve, for your hearts know Today,
Tell them ye smile, for your eyes know Tomorrow.
An Uncomfortable Childhood
Francis Thompson was born to Roman Catholic parents in Preston on 18th December, 1859 and died in London on 13th November, 1907.
He and his family moved to Ashton under Lyne to live at 226 Stamford Street (still standing and marked with a Blue Plaque).
As a child he had a rich imagination that was characterised by a solitary withdrawn dreamy nature that remained with him for the rest of his short life. He immersed himself in books, a passion that was to both help and hinder him: later he made his living as a book reviewer: but his poetry is full of unconscious echoes .
For the first eleven years he had a comfortable and protected childhood but this ended in 1870 when he was sent to Ushaw near Durham where for the first time he met cold reality from which he shrank. His schoolmates found him odd and regrettably he became the target of their animosity.
For four years he worked steadily at his studies and then moved into his final three years to study for the priesthood. However he proved too reserved for this and was sent home.
His long suffering father sent him to Owen's College (now Manchester University) to study medicine. Despite having no desire to be a doctor, he managed to survive the six year long course, convincing his father en route that he was studying when in fact he was either at the museum, at Old Trafford watching the cricket, or simply in the library reading. His ultimate failure was inevitable and this led to a succession of short lived unpromising jobs. Addiction to laudanum (perhaps begun after reading De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, the book ironically given to him by his mother) most certainly contributed to his situation and the confrontation with his father who thought the problem was alcohol was the spur for him to leave for London.
The Move to London
His introduction to the capital was not the romantic fairytale episode of Dick Whittington but one of hardship and destitution. For three years he was homeless. His laudanum habit took its toll of both his mental and physical state reducing him to seeking the most menial of tasks and lifestyle. His later accounts sadly reveal the degradation to which he sank, so much so that allegedly he attempted suicide, which was in direct contravention of his Catholic beliefs. Much speculation surrounds this and critics have postulated about his religious sincerity. The fact remains that to the end of his short life he was devoted to his daily prayers. The poem "The Hound of Heaven" by common consent remains one of the greatest spiritual quest poems in the English language and along with a few of his other poems is still regularly anthologised.
From The Poppy
Summer set lip to earth's bosom bare,
And left the flushed print in a poppy there:
Like a yawn of fire from the grass it came,
And the fanning wind puffed it to flapping flame.
With burnt mouth, red like a lion's, it drank
The blood of the sun as he slaughtered sank,
And dipped its cup in the purpurate shine
When the Eastern conduits ran with wine.
Without the help of the Meynells, a well known Catholic family of the the time, he would without doubt have sunk into oblivion: an untidily written poem pushed through the door of the magazine "Merry England" alerted them to this unusual and brilliant new poet. The Meynell's took him under their wing for the next twenty years. During this time he was sent to detox at least twice in two places of religious peace - Pantasaph in Wales and Storrington.
He produced his best work under their aegis of the Meynells. They welcomed him into their home: he became a regular member of the household. However, according to the children he was not actually welcomed with open arms all the time - merely tolerated. His poems for their two daughters, much quoted , are really about his personal angst - Poppy and Daisy. They reveal his regret for the waste of his own life, with its addiction and reveal an immature and limited self-critical outlook . Sentimentality lies uncomfortably with brutal realism in these poems.
For the best part of twenty years he was encouraged and protected by the Meynells and this resulted in the most productive period of his life. During this second half of his short life he wrote his best poems, many born out of his personal psychological suffering, along with a string of consistently high standard of literary reviews by which means he earned his living.
In the final years he deteriorated and the few remaining images of him reveal a pale haunted figure familiar to so many of his contemporaries. Written sources of the time reveal a man wracked by addiction and the homeless lifestyle he had fallen into. How his creativity was affected by the increasing amounts of laudanum he was taking has been the subject of both positive and negative speculation. But despite all of this he was regarded as having achieved a level of serenity not previously noted. Under the tutelage of a fellow poet, Coventry Patmore, he perhaps found the understanding he had so desperately lacked for most of his life.
After a life of pain and struggle, he died of tuberculosis in 1907. His legacy is largely forgotten these days except within literary and Roman Catholic circles.
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