*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 13th of November 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
There is a certain biographical trope that can trace itself back through Goethe’s fictional Young Werther. Werther was a fictional forlorn man of passion and melancholy. The young troubled poet and suicide became more than just a trope for the likes of Thomas Chatterton, John Keats, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath. For modern versions and comparisons see Nick Drake or Elliot Smith.
These were my first comps as I dug into the life and poetry of Francis Thompson- a tragic figure who nonetheless was also the poet who wrote “The Hound of Heaven” a poem about God’s unrelenting grace. After his tragic early death, he was lauded by the likes of G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Francis Thompson was born in Lancashire England in 1859. He was raised in a Catholic family and attended the seminary at Ushaw from the age of 12 in preparation for the ministry. A few years in, he and the seminary decided to part ways. The Dean sent his parents a letter noting Thompson’s “strong, nervous timidity” and a “natural indolence”.
His father would send him to medical school to follow in his own footsteps. There Francis found a copy of the scandalous “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater”. He then tried opium for the first time as a tincture known as laudanum. He unraveled, left school, and ended up homeless in London. For three years he sold matches writing poetry on scraps of paper. He claimed to have been saved by the kindness of a prostitute and a vision of Thomas Chatterton the poet who famously committed suicide at the age of 17.
He sent one poem to the Meynell family, publishers of the Catholic publication Merrie England. Wilfrid Meynell was so impressed he asked for a meeting with the unknown poet and was shocked to meet a disheveled Thompson with open toes, no shirt under his coat, and smelling foul. Meynell decided to contract Thompson for poetry and prose and would pay him in kind by taking him in. Defeated, Thompson agreed. The Meynell’s paid for Thompson to enter a private hospital in London and from the 1890s he would live with the Meynell’s writing poetry and watching Cricket (he is also the author of one of the most famous poems about Cricket).
Thompson never fully recovered and continued to take prescribed opium for his nerves. He entered a Capuchin monastery and lived there for four years. It was during this time that “the Hound of Heaven” was published.
The poem begins:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
Thompson tries to reconcile his own melancholy with God’s goodness. Near the end of the poem he wonders:
Is my gloom, after all, Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
Ultimately the poem is about God as the hound who will not relent in his grace and the:
“strong Feet that followed, followed after. But with unhurrying chase, And unperturbèd pace, Deliberate speed, majestic instancy…”
Francis Thompson went back to live with the Meynell’s and became the godfather to their children. He never recovered from his days on the street and was continually ill. He died of Tuberculosis on the 13th of November in 1907. Francis Thompson was 47 years old.
The last word for today comes from Luke 7:
11 A little later Jesus went to a city called Nain. His disciples and a great crowd traveled with him. 12 As he approached the city gate, a dead man was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her. 13 When he saw her, the Lord had compassion for her and said, “Don’t cry.” 14 He stepped forward and touched the stretcher on which the dead man was being carried. Those carrying him stood still. Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, get up.” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 13th of November 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Hounds include; Marmaduke, Clifford, and the one from “the Fox and the.” He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who recommends Elliot Smith’s 1997 album “Either/Or” I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.