The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VI. Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century

§ 61. Francis Thompson

A curious complement-contrast is supplied by Francis Thompson, Davidson’s close contemporary from birth to death, and, with him, almost completely representative of the main tendency of poetry among men who had reached, but not more than reached, middle life before the twentieth century began. Thompson, like Davidson, suffered from poverty and ill-health, though this last was partly caused, as it was not in Davidson’s case, by imprudence on his part. But, during the latter years of his life, he was “taken up,” both in person and in reputation, by benevolent persons in a powerful coterie. He was very much more of a scholar than Davidson, and was always, or almost always, as definitely devout as Davidson was the reverse; nor, though, as has been said, he had had losses and privations, did he make these much of a subject for poetry. The two are thus, in many ways, different; but, for that very reason, the representative character assigned to them in regard to the poetry of the latest years of the century is the more complete.

It has been said that Thompson had strong classical leanings; he was, also, very much under the influence of Caroline poetry, especially that of Crashaw, and, in more recent styles, of Coventry Patmore (the Patmore of the Odes not of The Angel in the House), a definite suggestion from whom he at least once quite frankly acknowledges and whose poetry was, perhaps, present with him oftener than he knew. His most famous poem, The Hound of Heaven, is, like others of his pieces, irregular Pindaric of a thoroughly seventeenth-century kind. The opening stanza is undeniably fine; it is the best following of Crashaw in his Sainte Teresa vein that has ever been achieved, and the rest is not too unequal to it. But the anticipated pre-Raphaelitism of the Fletchers has been called in to blend with Crashaw’s often extravagant, but seldom too gaudy, diction; and the result, too often, approaches the fatal “frigidity.”

  • Across the margent of the world I fled,
  • And troubled the gold gateway of the stars,
  • Smiting for shelter on their clangèd bars—
  • Fretted to dulcet jars
  • And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon
  • makes one think rather of Benlowes (and of Butler upon him) than of Crashaw. Thompson sometimes played undesirable tricks with rime and diction, as in “able” and “babble” and as in the, certainly “gritty,” lines.
  • Wise-unto-Hell Ecclesiast!
  • Who siev’dst life to the gritty last.
  • But his following of the “metaphysicals” sometimes resulted in quite charming results. The Inconstant need not have been disowned by any captain of the Caroline crew, and the following led him through pieces that have less of the pastiche about them, like Absence, to some that have hardly any, such as Penelope. Whether he ever became entirely free from his various imitations and attained the true mimesis—the creation or re-creation of something after his own image and not other people’s—whether the clothes of gorgeous language and an elaborate imagery in which he swathed himself did not prove as much a hamper as a help are, perhaps, questions for individual decision. But that he is on the right side of the dividing line is certain.