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Thompson, Francis


English poet and critic; b. Preston, Lancashire, Dec. 18 (or 16), 1859; d. London, Nov. 13, 1907. His family was deeply concerned with religious matters. His father, a surgeon, and his mother had been converted to Catholicism before their marriage. His father's two brothers were Anglican clergymen; one of them became a Catholic; and two of their sisters became Catholic nuns. Of the poet's two younger sisters, one became a nun. The family moved to Manchester in 1864.

Thompson entered the seminary at Ushaw College in 1870 but was not found suited to the priesthood. In 1877 he turned to Owens College, later part of Manchester University, to study medicine. He found it repugnant, his health declined, he twice failed his examinations, and he abandoned the study in 1883. He failed as a salesman and was rejected by the army. His mother had died in 1880, and in 1885 he quarreled with his father and left for London. He had been addicted to opium since about 1880, and in London he lived the life of a derelict in the streets and alleys. A pious Evangelical churchman, John McMaster, supported him for more than a year, but then Thompson reverted to the streets.

He submitted some poems to Wilfrid meynell, editor of Merry England, and one was published in 1888. Meynell sought out the poet, now near death and in despair, and sent him to a private sanitarium where after a year he was cured of his drug addiction. He spent nearly another year with the monks of the Priory at Storrington before returning in 1890 to lodgings in London near the Meynells.

The period of purgation was a fruitful one. Thompson published "Ode to the Setting Sun" (1889) and his famous "The Hound of Heaven" (1890). Near the end of 1892 he visited the Franciscan monastery at Pantasaph in Wales. There he prepared his first volume of poetry for publication (1893), and there Coventry Patmore visited him (1894) and began their long friendship. Sister Songs were published in 1895 and New Poems in 1897.

Thompson is generally thought of as a Catholic poet whose verse seems florid and ornate by modern standards, but his "mysticism" and his vision of nature are supported by a hard core of objectivity and accurate theology. Love and poetry itself are his other subjects. He wrote nearly 500 reviews and critical essays during his last ten years. In his taste for the metaphysical poets and his grasp of the possibilities of myth and symbol he was in advance of his time. He also completed a life of St. Ignatius Loyola (1909) and of St. John Baptist de la Salle (1911) before he succumbed to tuberculosis at 47.

Bibliography: Poems, ed. t. l. connolly (rev. ed. New York 1941); Literary Criticisms, ed. t. l. connolly (New York 1948). p. van k. thomson, Francis Thompson (New York 1961). j. c. reid, Francis Thompson: Man and Poet (Westminster, Md. 1960). v. meynell, Francis Thompson and Wilfrid Meynell (New York 1953).

[c. t. dougherty]

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