The Heart of a Poet, Exposed

The Hound of Heaven at my Heels: The Lost Diary of Francis Thompson

by Robert Waldron

(Ignatius, 1999 90 pages, $8.95)

All earnest followers of Christ pray for virtue in the midst of a cunning world whispering sweet enticements. What must it be like to have to beg God, hour by hour, for the will to resist a siren song coming from a bottle, vial or pill in the cupboard? And how much more torturous must be such an interior war when it's fought by a sensitive soul capable of composing some of the most sublime and personal poetry ever penned by a fervent Catholic?

Francis Thompson could have told you. Best known for his poem “The Hound of Heaven,” an aesthetic meditation on God's unwavering pursuit of the author's soul through life, Thompson was both deeply religious and hopelessly addicted to opium most of his adult years.

Much of Thompson's story is familiar to lovers of literature. Born in Lancashire, England, in 1859, he set out first to be a priest, then a doctor. Neither seminary nor medical school held him, however, and, after his mother died and his father evicted him, he ended up hooked and homeless on the streets of London. He attempted suicide at least once before submitting smeared and tattered samples of his writing to Merry England, a Catholic monthly magazine. The publication's editor, Wilfrid Meynell, ran two of Thompson's poems in 1888; their brilliance was confirmed by the enthusiasm they inspired in the great Victorian poet Robert Browning.

Meynell went on to befriend the bedraggled writer, nurse him through a short-lived recovery and encourage him to continue writing. The support helped: By the time Thompson died a month before his 48th birthday, he had published three books of critically praised poetry plus nearly 300 essays and book reviews.

In the late 1880s, Meynell convinced Thompson to spend some months convalescing in the quiet of an English monastery, and that's where Robert Waldron picks up the story. What if Thompson had kept a diary while living at the monastery, and what if that turned out to be the time he composed “The Hound of Heaven”?

Waldron entertains these tantalizing possibilities by employing a clever, if initially confusing, device. Billed as a novel, the book opens with a prologue explaining that Thompson did indeed keep a diary while at the monastery. He hid it beneath a loose floorboard in his cell. The author of the prologue has recovered the literary treasure and here presents it in its entirety. Both the prologue and the diary are, of course, fiction.

Why has Waldron chosen to write an imaginary diary instead of a straight biography? The answer may lie in what he accomplishes.

Like every artistic genius, but particularly those who died young after suffering unrelenting interior conflicts, Thompson inspires in many of his enthusiasts a hunger to know more of what fueled his passion. It's clear from this penetrating little exercise, easily read in one sitting, that Waldron is a serious devotee of Francis Thompson. Waldron has perceived that no amount of biographical research could uncover what it is of Thompson that he wants to bring into the light: the heart of a magnificent artist with much to teach Christians of today.

He succeeds. While this work might merely intrigue readers looking for insight into a marginally important literary figure, it will feed those who read primarily for spiritual sustenance.

Waldron's Thompson is a man desperate to prove his love despite the most abject discouragement over his own inability to change for the object of his adoration. Like any addicted Christian, he's built a long track record of broken resolutions, deaths to sin and rebirths in Christ. From such failure Waldron fashions a concise case study of the power of perseverance. Best of all, he pulls this off while avoiding didactics; the book's strength lies in its success as a character study and a story.

“I am not afraid of being alone,” reads a journal entry Francis Thompson never wrote but may well have muttered to himself. “Loneliness accosted me when I was young — and won me for life.”

Later, Thompson records his humiliation upon first meeting Meynell. He's self-conscious about his filthy clothing and offensive body odor. But Meynell, he comes to realize, doesn't see a vagabond. He sees a poet.

Thanks to Waldron, so do we. “Pain, which came to man as a penalty, remains with him as a consecration; by a divine ingenuity, he is permitted to make his ignominy his exaltation,” reads one journal entry. “How many among us, after repeated lessonings of experience, refuse to comprehend that there is no special love without special pain! Dear Jesus, I thank You for my cross; never permit me to forget its special weight, its power, its saving grace.”

Evident in the writings Thompson did leave behind is that he was consumed by love for his Lord; his addiction severely compromised his free will, but could not extinguish his faith. Among all those after God's own heart, who doesn't carry a similarly crushing cross, even if it's not so completely crippling?

Robert Waldron has done contemporary Catholicism a fine service. He's seen to it that a world inebriated on its own sick will gets reintroduced to a forgotten, gifted poet and a suffering Christian — a determined pilgrim who was, despite his bouts with despondence, ever prepared to give account of the hope that was in him.

David Pearson is a Register assistant editor.