Francis Thompson Biography

FRANCIS THOMPSON (1859–1907), poet and prose-writer, was born on 18 Dec. 1859 at 7 Winckley Street, in Preston, England. His father, Charles Thompson (1824–1896), a native of Oakham, Rutland, practiced homoeopathy at Preston and Ashton-under-Lyne, and married Mary Morton.

Francis Thompson at age 19. Featured in the book The Poets' Chantry (Brégy, Katherine), published in 1912.

Francis Thompson at age 19. Featured in the book The Poets’ Chantry (Brégy, Katherine), published in 1912.

Family History and Education

Francis’s uncles, Edward Healy Thompson (b. 1813) and John Costall Thompson, were both authors. Edward, who was professor of English literature at the catholic university in Dublin (1853–4) and sub-edited the ‘Dublin Review’ (1862–4), wrote devotional works, which were widely circulated. John published a volume of poems, ‘The Vision of Liberty,’ which won the approval of Sir Henry Taylor and of Gladstone. Like these uncles, Francis’s father and mother were converts to the Roman catholic church. Francis was their second child, but the elder son died in infancy. Three sisters were born later.

Francis, who was brought up in the catholic faith, was sent in 1870 to Ushaw College, there to receive a fair classical education and to be prepared, if he and his mentors saw fit, for the priesthood. A frail and timid child of studious tastes, Thompson nurtured at Ushaw his life-long allegiance to the doctrines and liturgy of the church.

At seventeen he left to study medicine by his father’s wish at Owens College, Manchester. Medical study was repugnant to him, and after six years’ trial, in the course of which he thrice failed in examination for a degree, he attempted to find another livelihood. He made no plea in favour of a literary career, but he had read with ardent sympathy the works of Æschylus and Blake, while the gift from his mother of De Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an Opium Eater’ gave his thought a perilous direction.

Thompson’s Career Struggles

His father’s reproaches at his failure to earn a livelihood led him suddenly in November 1885 to seek his fortune in London. There he filled for a time some small posts, among them that of a publisher’s ‘collector.’ But, tormented by neuralgia and other ills, he fell a prey to opium, and soon passed through every phase of destitution, sleeping in the open, and seeking a few pence by selling matches or newspapers.

During this period a Leicester Square bootmaker, accosting him in the street, gave him for a time light employment in his shop, and—what proved a more enduring gift—old account books for scribbling paper. He developed poetical powers, and at the end of two years of outcast life he copied out on ragged scraps of paper in the spring of 1888 two poems, ’The Passion of Mary’ and ‘Dream Tryst,’ and a prose essay, ‘Paganism Old and New.’ These compositions he sent, giving Charing Cross Post Office as his address, to ‘Merry England,’ where the work of his uncle, Edward Healy Thompson, had already appeared.

These compositions were accepted by the editor, Mr. Wilfrid Meynell, and were duly published in the numbers for April, May, and June respectively. Browning read them shortly before his death, and pronounced their author to be a poet capable of achieving whatever his ambition might suggest. At the time, opium eating and privation had ruined Thompson’s health.

After a difficult search, Thompson was found and induced to enter a hospital, and afterwards he went to recover at Storrington, Sussex. His recovery largely depended on the breaking of the opium habit. During this painful process his literary sense gathered fresh strength, and he wrote the ‘Ode to the Setting Sun’ and other verse and the ‘Essay on Shelley.’

Published Volumes

In 1893 he published his first volume of ‘Poems,’ chiefly written at Storrington. Coventry Patmore was among the earliest and most enthusiastic admirers of the book. The chief poem, ‘The Hound of Heaven,’ found wide popularity despite its somewhat recondite theme, which treated in the spirit of the strictest catholic dogma of conflict between human and divine love (cf. Burne-Jones’s Life, ii. 240).

Of the first section of the poems called ‘Love in Dian’s Lap’ Patmore wrote that these were ‘poems of of which Laura might have been proud’ (Fortnightly Review, lxi.). There followed in 1895 ‘Sister Songs’ (new edit. 1908), dedicated to Monica and Madeline Meynell, children of his friend and protector. There he described with subtlety and ingenuous calmness the days of his outcast experience, but the profuse imagery and visionary obscurity of his style rendered a cool reception for the moment inevitable.

From 1893 till 1897 Thompson lived, with short intervals, near the Franciscan monastery in Pantasaph, North Wales. There he wrote nearly all the ‘New Poems,’ which he published in 1897, and dedicated to Coventry Patmore, whose death spoilt the pleasures of publication. The book shows the powerful influence of older mystical poets, but the ‘Mistress of Vision,’ of which he himself said that it contained as much science as mysticism, takes with the ‘Anthem of Earth’ a place in the forefront of English verse.

In prose Thompson also gave proof of notable power. To the ’Academy,’ under Mr. C. L. Hind’s editorship, and, during the last years of his life, to the ‘Athenæum,’ he contributed a large body of literary criticism. In 1905 he issued ‘Health and Holiness: a Study of the Relations between Brother Ass the Body and his Rider the Soul’ (with a preface by Father George Tyrrell). There were published posthumously the ‘Life of St. Ignatius Loyola’ (1909), ‘The Life of John Baptist de la Galle’ (1911), and the ‘Essay on Shelley’ (1909), with a preface by Mr. George Wyndham, who pronounced it ‘the most important contribution to pure letters written in English during the last twenty years.’

Despite his ascetic temper and his mystical prepossessions, Thompson found recreation in watching cricket matches, and wrote odds and ends of verse in honour of the game. During his last months he lodged in London and also paid a visit to an admirer, Mr. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, at Newbuildings Place near Horsham. There Mr. Neville Lytton painted his portrait. In the summer of 1907 he was prevailed upon to enter the Hospital of St. Elizabeth and St. John, St. John’s Wood, where he died from consumption on 13 Nov. 1907, fortified by the rites of the catholic church. He was buried in the catholic cemetery, Kensal Green, where his tomb is inscribed with his own words ‘Look for me in the nurseries of Heaven.’

Excerpted and adapted from the Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement, Volume 3.

This author is featured in July poems