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Francis Thompson: A Picture Biography

ISSUE:  Spring 1928

For who is he can hide away Beauty with a bit of clay?

Francis Thompson might be placed with Villon, Defoe, and De Quincey, one of those picturesque individuals of whom we get but momentary glimpses through shifting banks of fog. No true panoramic view of his life can be obtained, for there are long gaps of which we have no details save those supplied by a too-willing imagination. His story, seems to come in small pictures framed by darkness and the London fog—a series of miniatures, vignettes.

He is a small boy in velvet knee-breeches, thin but erect, his brown hair straggling over his narrow, pinched face. At a respectful distance before him stand his two sisters, Mary and Sylvia. Suddenly, in an excited voice, he exclaims, “Ladies and gentlemen: the show is about to begin!” and he stoops over a box at his feet.

The box is a sumptuous affair without a lid or a front; its inner walls form the theatre, resplendent in red plush. At the stage left is a fireplace and a four-poster bed on which reclines a white-haired woman. A tiny cotton nightcap is pulled down over her head. At her side, his red tongue hanging over his long teeth, crouches the wolf. And in the center, her back to the audience, stands a diminutive figure with golden hair streaming down her scarlet cape. At the word “begin,” the figures move upon the stage, backward and forward, to the right and left; and the boy, dangling them at the end of “three of Sylvia’s hairs,” directs the destinies of his marionettes. It is the premiere performance of “Little Red Riding Hood”; Francis Thompson, aged six, the producer.

A little later we see him again. This time he is perched perilously on the top of a great ladder in his father’s library. He tries to balance himself on his tip-toes while his slim fingers grope for a book on the top shelf. Suddenly the maid enters from the opposite end of the room. “For the land’s sake, Master Thompson,” she begins. But the boy’s start at her unexpected entry is too much for the rickety ladder, and amid a shower of flying books he tumbles to the floor with a resounding “thud”—a copy of “The Tempest” clutched victoriously in his grimy hands.

Later in life he tells us that at the age of seven he had “found his way to the heart of Shakespeare and Coleridge.”

He is ten years old, now, and on his way to Ushaw College. Perhaps his parents and the authorities of the school will turn him into a priest. The coach rumbles and ploughs through the muddy road, pitching from side to side and throwing the occupants from one seat to another. There is the sound of laughter; other boys are on their way to Ushaw. Francis is wedged into a corner. As the coach lurches suddenly, some one tosses an apple core at him. For a moment he glares at the offender; then, too miserable and self-conscious to object to anything that might happen, he turns his head and stares out the window.

“They’re boors,” exclaims a deep voice at his side. “You’ll get used to them in time.” Francis gazes into the dark face of a boy slightly older than himself. It is “Paddy” Hearn —later to be known as Lafcadio Hearn. But the encouraging words only, make him feel more miserable than ever, and he returns to his previous occupation of staring blindly through the coach window. It seems as though the journey to Ushaw will never end.

The next picture is of a class room presided over by the gaunt Mr. F. S. There is monotonous drone of students reciting a theorem in plane geometry. They sound like flies buzzing in an empty room. Directly before the master, and behind a huge pile of books, slouches Francis, his head barely visible, his lips unmoving. Hidden behind the fortification lies a volume of poetry on which the boy’s eyes seem to be glued. Geometry theorems and axioms are not bothering him. He is oblivious to everything but the volume he is reading—oblivious even to the stern Mr. F. S. who lowers his spectacles to the point of his nose, pulls his long neck out of his collar, and from his newly won height glares down over the pile of books on his student’s desk to the volume of Coleridge. It is unfortunate that Francis does not see his master’s face relax into a sympathetic smile that twitches around the corners of his lips as if Mr. F. S. were dreaming — dreaming of a time when he, too, stole books of poetry into the class in mathematics. At any rate, the greatly feared Mr. F. S. proceeds with the lesson and pretends ignorance of Francis’ offence.

The fifth vignette is of a letter, now yellow with age and tattered at the corners, dated June 1877. It is from the President of Ushaw College and is addressed to Francis’ parents.

With regard to Frank, I can well appreciate the regret and disappointment which you and his mother must feel. Frank has always been a great favorite of mine ever since he came as a child to the Seminary. He has always been a remarkably docile and obedient boy, and certainly one of the cleverest boys in his class. Still, his strong, nervous timidity has increased to such an extent that I have been most reluctantly compelled to concur in the opinion of his Director and others that it is not the holy will of God that he should go on for the Priesthood. It is only after much thought, and after some long and confidential conversations with Frank himself, that I have come to this conclusion: and most unwillingly, for I feel, as I said, a very, strong regard and affection for your boy. I earnestly pray God to bless him, and to enable you to bear for His sake the disappointment this has caused. I quite agree with you in thinking it is quite time that he should begin to prepare for some other career. If he can shake off a natural indolence which has always been an obstacle with him, he has ability to succeed in any career.

At eighteen years of age Francis Thompson has met with the first of many reverses that seemed to dog his footsteps until the very hour of his death.

It is three years later. Francis is in the dingy library of Owen’s College, Manchester. His parents believe that he is studying medicine. He looks stricken and thin as he bends over a volume on the table, his bony fingers straying through his lustreless hair. There are black rings under his eyes, and his lips are pale. Perhaps he is more interested in the study of medicine than he was in preparing for the priesthood, for he seems deeply absorbed as he hunches his shoulders over the worn book. As he scans the lines, his eyes fairly glitter and his fingers twitch nervously at the corners of the pages. He turns a page. For a moment it passes through a shaft of sunlight that slants over the volume. The title of the book gleams black on the white page—”Confessions of an Opium Eater.” Stealthily he glances around him. Then he takes from his pocket a small vial filled with a brown fluid. He twists the cork out and places it against the tip of his tongue. Already he has developed a taste for laudanum.

It is in the fall of 1882. Long, black shadows from the trees cut across the narrow street. With his brown felt hat pulled down over his forehead a young man slouches along the street, hesitating at frequent intervals as if pondering over some perplexing problem. Once he stops completely and turns back. Then he pulls his coat tighter about his drooping shoulders and resumes his former direction. At No. 7 Winckley Street, a square, red-brick house, he lingers for a long time; then he mounts the single step, turns the door-knob, and enters.

“Francis!” his father has leaped from the big arm-chair by the fire.

“I’ve failed my examinations,” comes the dejected reply, and with chin almost touching his chest Francis trudges up the stairs and disappears.

It is dusk in London. At the corner of Oxford Street and Wardour Street, where the wind sweeps the dry dust in eddying swirls, stands a pitiful figure clothed or half clothed in “the regimentals of the ragged.” His coat is threadbare, and a long tear zig-zags from the shoulder to the tail. His knees have pushed their way through his baggy trousers. Swaying slightly as the wind whips through his ragged clothes and unkempt hair, he stands there absorbed in the confusion of chattering voices and scraping feet. Crowds of people jostle their way along the street. Cabs rattle past. The monotonous wail of a barrel-organ rises above the clamor. Then, suddenly, at his ear comes a quiet voice, “Is your soul saved?”

It startles him. It intrudes upon his privacy. He turns to the speaker, defiant though in rags. “What right have you to ask me that question?”

From the grey-bearded man at his side comes the answer that strikes home, “If you won’t let me save your soul, let me save your body.”

For a moment his defiance clings to him; then slowly he drops his head. Starvation is a great leveller. That evening, Francis Thompson clumsily drives pegs in Mr. Mc-Master’s boot-making shop in an effort to pay for his supper.

It is the year 1887. In a third-story room, Francis Thompson sits at a table over which is scattered a profusion of scribbled papers. His stubby pencil flies back and forth across the sheet that lies before him. He is writing his essay on “Paganism.” The smoky, oil lamp at his side throws a lurid glare over the iron bed, the painted wash-stand, and the mouse-colored carpet. Through the open window comes a hot wind and the sound of a clock in the distance striking four. It is almost dawn in London. Suddenly the door flies open, and a woman wearing a flashy green coat enters the room. As she tosses her tam o’ shanter on the bed, her blonde hair straggles over her low forehead. Her eyes are sunken and dull, her lips scarlet. Wearily she walks over to Francis’ chair. As she lifts his face and kisses it, the heavy, licentious curve of her lips gives way to an expression of tenderness. When he lays down his pencil and speaks, she throws herself across the bed.

Then, for a long time, they talk; she with the coarseness of a woman of the streets, he with the brilliance of a scholar; she with the bitterness of a mother that could not be, he with the weariness of an undernourished youngster.

After he has gone to bed, she drops into his chair and toys with the stump of his pencil. She looks across at his haggard figure; she tries to read his papers as they lie on the table. The clock in the distance strikes six. Hesitatingly she reaches for a piece of blank paper, and, chewing the end of her pencil between words, she forces her clumsy fingers to write. “You said you found friends today. They wouldn’t understand our friendship. But I always knew you were a genius. Remember.”

On the note she places a few coins. Then as the final colors of dawn stream through the window, she opens the door and leaves.

It is another barren room. Wilfred Meynell, editor of Merry England, has finally found the whereabouts of the author of “Paganism” and awaits his return to the room. The knob turns, the door opens, and a strange hand is thrust in. The door closes as mysteriously, but no one has entered. Again it opens; again it shuts. At the third attempt, in staggers the shadow of a man, who looks more dead than alive—as ragged as any waif in London. His toes protrude through his shoes, and there is no shirt under his tattered coat to hide his bony chest. His hands are like sticks covered with skin, and his face is blue with cold. Poverty and laudanum have done their work.

Mr. Meynell is startled. He had expected to meet any sort of man except a derelict. He hardly knows what to say. Finally he blurts out, “You must have had access to many books when you wrote that essay.”

“That,” said the tramp in a quiet, even voice, “is precisely, where the essay fails. I have only two books, Aeschylus and Blake. All the other references were from memory.”

Mr. Meynell’s astonishment is not lessened by these words. He looks at the speaker with mingled pity and surprise. “Couldn’t I lend you a little money?” he ventures.

Francis straightens himself and tries to hide his bare chest. His pride is touched to the quick. “Thank you,” he replies, “but you are mistaken. I am not a beggar.”

“No, no. Of course not. I didn’t mean that. But you will write me another article, won’t you?”

“I shall be glad to,” replies Francis as he throws himself across his filthy bed.

The pause that follows is awkward. Mr. Meynell tries to find appropriate words of departure. He opens his mouth, he shuts it. Then he takes a last look at the haggard figure on the bed, quietly lays a little money on the table, and in desperation leaves the room.

On a table lies a small, square book bound in brown boards. It is covered with glimmering gold circles. A few inches from the top glistens the word POEMS, and directly, below it is the name FRANCIS THOMPSON.

Oscar Wilde, his shirt open half-way down his chest, is slouching in an arm chair. A friend is reading aloud from Thompson’s second volume of verse “Sister Songs.” At the conclusion of the reading there is a long pause. Suddenly Wilde leaps to his feet and fairly shouts, “Why can’t I write poetry like that? That’s what I’ve wanted to do all my life!”

It is a miserable November afternoon in 1897. Yellow fog curls along Chancery Lane, and a thin, icy rain pelts into the slush of the road. Plodding through the muck, his brown cape flying behind him, comes a hatless man. Across his stooped back is slung a fisherman’s basket from which protrude two water-soaked volumes. The rain has plastered his grey hair tight against his scalp, and a thin stream of water trickles from the point of his unkempt beard. His face is slightly discolored and shows the marks of pain and the fierce reactions of laudanum. But in spite of his apparent misery, a happy smile plays about the corners of his mouth as Francis Thompson, hack writer, carries his book reviews through the fog and mud to the office of the “Academy.”

The next is perhaps the smallest of all the pictures. It is a letter written by Francis Thompson.

“I am a helpless, waterlogged, and dismantled vessel, drifting without power to guide my own course, and equally far from port whichever way I turn my eyes.”

It is a November midnight in the year 1907. Lying in bed at the home of Wilfred Meynell, Francis Thompson is reading “Many Cargoes” by the yellow light of a candle which sputters from a table at his bedside. Across the room, another candle flickers against the black window that shakes and rattles from the force of the wind outside. The two lights throw grotesque shadows over the bed and across the face of the reader. He turns a page, the rasping of the paper breaking an otherwise dead silence. At his right side is a well-worn prayer book; at his left is a half pint bottle of brown laudanum. The light of the candles exaggerates the yellow and purple discolorations on his face. His beard is unkempt, his hair thin and almost white, his eyes are dark and sunken.

Suddenly the door opens, and a quick gust of wind almost extinguishes the candles. Wilfred Meynell enters.

“Francis!” he gasps. “You’re ill!”

“Yes, Wilfred,” comes the dull answer from the shadow on the bed, “I am dying of laudanum poisoning!”

. . .

It is in the mortuary of St. Mary’s Cemetery, Kensal Green. Francis Thompson lies at rest. Roses from the garden of George Meredith and violets from the garden of Alice Meynell are scattered over his coffin. Mingled with the roses, is a slip of white cardboard on which is written, in Meredith’s own hand, “A true poet, one of the small band.”


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