Literary parallels are often drawn between writers who might seem, at first sight, to offer but few points for comparison. I have sometimes wondered that no critic has commented on the really curious resemblances between two poets who challenge attention not merely in the superficial likeness of their names—James Thomson, the Secularist, and Francis Thompson, the Catholic—but in the actual circumstances and misfortunes of their lives; an affinity which is rendered the more piquant by the extreme unlikeness of their religious and social convictions. Furthermore, they were both not only men of genius and devoted students of literature, but sworn admirers of the great lyric poet, Shelley, to whom, from quite different standpoints, they paid very noteworthy and distinctive tributes of admiration.
When I wrote the Life of James Thomson, B.V. (1889), a few years had still to pass before the splendours of Francis Thompson’s three volumes of verse¹ were to take lovers of poetry by surprise, even as the sombre majesty of The City of Dreadful Night had at an earlier date impressed George Eliot and other discrimination critics of the ’seventies. Mr Megroz, author of Francis Thompson, the Poet of Earth and Heaven (1927), was subject to no such limitation; but though he has much to say of Thompson’s spiritual and literary precursors, such as Crashaw, Donne, and Coventry Patmore, and still more of Shelley, to whom Thompson owed a good deal of inspiration, he does not once mention the presumably inadmissible “B.V.”
It may therefore be worth while to note some of the more salient features in which the two writers resemble or differ from each other, and to remark how, in the lives of these men, fate (as in the case of a congenital malady) wielded a mightier influence than any that religion or irreligion could apposite:—
They have much wisdom yet they are not wise,
They have much goodness yet they do not well;
. . . . . .
They have much strength but still their doom is stronger,
Much patience but their time endureth longer,
Much valour but life mocks it with some spell.
For, however unlike they were in character and in creed, James Thomson and Francis Thompson were brothers in the sad adventures of life, and in the misfortunes that dogged them, owing largely perhaps to their subjection to the drink-crave, though it were hard to say to what extent that weakness was itself due to a luckless struggle for livelihood or to an inherited predisposition. Both had good and faithful friends; yet at certain periods of their lives both were victims of homelessness, solitude, and despair. Sunt lacrimæ rerum. The great Virgilian proverb is true of either of them, and indeed is the last word to be said. But it is of their writings, not their lives, that I would now speak.
It was quite to be expected that, as a singer, the religious poet would be more tenderly treated by critics than the pessimist, whose gloomy themes would naturally repel all but those who could discern the beauty through the gloom; and accordingly we find that, while James Thomson’s reputation has had to fight its way against the indifference or even hostility of many readers, Francis Thompson’s has been readily, even rapturously, established. We need not quarrel with the fact; nor have I any wish to dispute Mr. Megroz’s somewhat high-sounding assertion that Thompson was “no unsophisticated warbler of childish nonsense, to be patronized with comprehensive smiles or psychoanalytic complacency.” Let us hope not! But if a comparison of the two poets’ artistic qualities be permitted, I should say that while Thompson’s muse is the more spontaneous, with a lighter touch and tread, showing less trace of elaboration, and having language more elastic and pliable at its command, there is far more thought, more gravity, more strength, in the stately slow-moving harmonies of The City of Dreadful Night.
In “B.V.’s” verse, rich as it is in metal of a heavier vein, there is nothing (be it granted) that can compare with the soft lyrical beauty of Thompson’s best work—let us say, with the following superb passage from Sister Songs:—
Once, bright Sylviola, in days not far,
Once – in that nightmare time which still doth haunt
My dreams, a grim, unbidden visitant—
Forlorn, and faint, and stark,
I had endured through watches of the dark
The abashless inquisition of each star,
Yea, was the outcast mark
Of all those heavenly passers’ scrutiny:
Stood bound and helplessly
For Time to shoot his barbed minutes at me;
Suffered the trampling hoof of every hour
In night’s slow-wheeled car;
Until the tardy dawn dragged me at length
From under those dread wheels; and, bled of strength,
I waited the inevitable last.
Then there came past
A child; like thee, a spring-flower; but a flower
Fallen from the budded coronal of Spring,
And through the city-streets blown withering—
She passed—O brave, sad, lovingest, tender thing!
And of her own scant pittance did she give,
That I might eat and live:
Then fled, a swift and trackless fugitive.
It is well that Francis Thompson was at his noblest and best in his narration of this most poignant incident; else one would not dare to call to remembrance the very similar story of the outcast Ann in De Quincey’s masterpiece. As it is, the passage in Sister Songs is worthy to be set beside the corresponding one in The Opium Eater; and I do not know what higher praise could be given it.³ It is, I think, its author’s highest flight; but there are things in The Hounds of Heaven which are scarcely inferior in the natural, unlaboured, yet haunting sweetness of their music.
That both the poets of whom I speak were lovers of beauty in all its forms there is ample evidence in their writings; both, as their biographers have testified, were devoted lovers of children. Francis Thompson’s face, as shown in the two published portraits, is that of a born idealist; more sensitive, and so perhaps more attractive than that of “B.V.,” but hardly so steady, so trustworthy, or so strong. There is also in James Thomson’s features a suggestion of the humour, rather saturnine perhaps, which he undoubtedly possessed; a quality of which the younger poet showed small sign. The havoc wrought on Francis Thompson by his sufferings in London has left its mark very painfully on the later portrait of him, made from a drawing by Everard Meynell in 1903.
The bulk of Thompson’s poetry, as also of his prose, is small, and not to be compared either in maturity of thought, or in sustained mastery of workmanship, with the best writings of “B.V.” The City of Dreadful Night, however unpopular its theme, is a much greater poem than any of Thompson’s—indeed, its final canto, with the poetical reproduction of Albert Durer’s Melencolia, is surpassed by few things in modern literature. Nor, because it rejects the prevalent theology, is it, in the true sense, irreligious, any more than the work of Lucretius was so. There is a grave and dignified humanity in Thomson’s mood, which, albeit despondent, should life his poem high above the cheap charge of impiety: and no one who loves and understands great poetry can fail to respond to the rhythmic and measured movements of his verse when he describes, as Lucretius did, the glories of sky or sea and other great natural phenomena. Witness the following extract:—
How the moon triumphs through the endless nights!
How the stars throb and glitter as they wheel
Their thick processions of supernal lights
Around the blue vault obdurate as steel!
And men regard with passionate awe and yearning
The mighty marching and the golden burning,
And think the heavens respond to what they feel.
Here is an absolute negation of that belief in a guiding providence which inspired The Hound of Heaven; yet the solemn grandeur of the pessimist poem equals, if not surpasses, that of the devotee. In a word, the poetic sense is alike independent of creeds or the denial of creeds.
In no respect, perhaps, are the kinship and the divergence between these two poets more clearly shown than in their respective utterances about Shelley, a singer so much greater than either of them, and so deeply esteemed by both.³ Neither of them shared that belief in mankind’s perfectibility which plays so great a part in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, but both recognized his personal charm and the aerial magic of his verse. There the resemblance ceases; for Thompson’s religious faith was a far greater obstacle to a full understanding of Shelley than was the scepticism of “B.V.” His much-praised essay is a rhapsody; most beautifully expressed, beyond doubt, but one that gives no true picture of its subject. It is very pretty to say of Shelley: “He dabbles his fingers in the day-fall. He is gold-dusty with tumbling among the stars. He makes bright mischief with the moon.” But when the critic goes on to a denunciation of his “child-like irrationality” he puts himself out of court for any serious understanding of the author of the Defence of Poetry and the Essay on Christianity, and is merely repeating what is at once seen by those who are acquainted with Shelley’s prose works to be a misapprehension. Far less excusable, but lying outside the scope of this article, are his references to “grave sins” and “one cruel crime.”
Viewed even from a purely literary standpoint, I prefer James Thomson’s eulogy of Shelley’s verse, as a saner yet not less finely-worded eulogy, and a worthy tribute to one who he acclaimed as “Poet of poets and purest of men”:—
So subtly sweet and rich are the tones, so wonderfully are developed the prefect cadences, that the meaning of the words of the singing is lost and dissolved in the overwhelming rapture of the impression. I have often fancied, while reading them, that his words were really transparent, or that they throbbed with living lustres.
It is unfortunate that Thomson’s poem and prose essay on Shelley are so little known, for, as Mr. Bertram Dobell remarked in the preface to his privately printed volume,* “not one of Shelley’s admirers ever surpassed him in affectionate devotion to his memory, or even studied his writings with more minute and loving care.”
I have now stated the reasons why I think that the comparison between James Thomson and Francis Thompson deservers more attention than has yet been accorded to it by literary men. The only personal allusion, as far as I know, made by the younger poet to the elder is where, in one of his essays, he mentions the earlier James Thomson, author of The Seasons and The Castle of Indolence, and in so doing describes the poet of The City of Dreadful Night as “that later James Thomson, who, conscious of the identity of his name with his predecessor’s, added stanzas to The Castle of Indolence.” This refers to “B.V.’s” fine poem, The Lord of the Castle of Indolence, in which he playfully extolled the majestic self-satisfaction of his forerunner, “Jamie” Thomson, as he elsewhere calls him, “of most peaceful and blessed memory.”
Of this still earlier poet all that Francis Thompson has to say is that he prefers his Castle of Indolence to his Seasons (who would not?), and that “we tolerate him for his last-centuryness.” The reader who would “tolerate” the writer of so lovely a poem as The Castle of Indolence must possess plenty of assurance! But what I would remark, in conclusion, is the signal contrast between the happy, easy-going, seventeenth-century “Jamie,” whose masterpiece is, of course, not The Seasons, but that shorter poem, so nearly perfect that we can hardly credit it to be the work of its author, and the two brilliant but most unhappy singers of the same or similar name, Thomson and Thompson, sceptic and believer, so different in their respective philosophies of life, yet so closely akin in their melancholy experience of living.
¹ Poems (1893); Sister Songs (1895); New Poems (1897).
² I would have expected from Francis Thompson a better appreciation of De Quincey’s genius than the reference to him as “master of a great, unequal, seductive, and irritating style.” The sublimity of De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis was recognized by James Thomson.
³ James Thomson’s strange nom-de-plume, “B.V.” (“Bysshe Vanolis”), was adopted out of reverence for Shelley and Novalis. We are told that Francis Thompson “constantly betrays an awareness that he is looking at himself in looking at Shelley.”
* Shelley, a Poem, with other Writings relating to Shelley, by the late James Thomson (“B.V.”); Chiswick Press, 1884.
The Rationalist Annual, 1929