Book reviews: Catholic Herald



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The Catholic Herald is a Roman Catholic weekly newspaper published in London, to which HW contributed just one review.


Francis Thompson's poetry was of importance to HW from a very early stage, and stems from his experiences in the First World War. Although there is no actual evidence within his personal papers, HW is known to have stated that his Aunt Mary Leopoldina (his father's sister) sent him a copy of Thompson's poems while he was at the Front in France in 1917, and from what we read in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight it would appear that this would have been the 3-volume Works (ed. by Wilfrid Meynell, Burns & Oates, 1913). For a deeper exploration into the influence of Francis Thompson on HW and his writing, see the page on Francis Thompson and allied pages.


When John Walsh's biography of Francis Thompson was published in 1968 it is not surprising therefore that HW felt he should review it, although whether the Catholic Herald commissioned the review or HW submitted it unsolicited is not known; neither is the precise date of its publication in the paper, other than month and year.



WALSH, John: Strange Harp, Strange Symphony: The Life of Francis Thompson (W. H. Allen, 1968)




March 1968





Strange Harp, Strange Symphony: The Life of Francis Thompson, by John Walsh (W. H. Allen)


The title is not from a film, but from Shelley's Alastor, an autopsychical poem of the kind, whether in verse or prose, most young poets born with the seeds of creation begin their literary careers by absorbing. Sequent poets fasten on such works by their famous relations (in the world of the spirit) affirming thereby their own identities.


Poets usually begin clumsily, by imitating, as a child its parent, in speech, ideas, customs etc. A natural process of growth, and not, as the author of this comprehensive and possibly definitive biography seems almost to think, merely plagiarizing. They live with their god, night and day: a celestial presence companioning them.


Thompson is perhaps the greatest Catholic poet of the English language. He is generally dismissed, if not derided in this age, by many minor and minimus poets who lack the seeds of creation. And, even now, not entirely accepted by some Catholics of the hierarchy – to their, and our loss. Which is a pity; there are many mansions and even cots in the unseen world, which is the true world.


This is easily demonstrable, for as Blake wrote, "What is now achieved was once only imagined." Look about anywhere; every material object visible now was once only imagined. Keats wrote of the imagination: from which all material objects have arisen. The Imagination, ever striving for beauty, and to create order out of chaos – an evolutionary process, to all inspired artists – is surely God.


Here is Thompson, writing in 1890:


It would be a mistake to suppose that literature makes for good through the comparatively narrow medium of professedly religious writing. On the contrary the most powerful moralising influence is exercised in the long run by purely secular literature which is widely read, which never makes direct reference to either religion or morals, but which insensibly insinuates the ethos that loves it, as our bodies are insensibly permeated by the viewless constituents of the air that we breathe.


This passage was deleted in a book first published in 1948 etitled Essays I by the book's editor, the Rev. T. L. Connolly, Thank heaven that Mr. John Walsh in 1968, has included it in his book which is full of authentic details of his hero's material and unseen life.


The reviewer has not been able to read all this new book, but will spend many an evening between now and the Spring in going through it, word by word, with the same care with which it was "researched" during the past four years in American libraries and also those in England, when many hitherto unpublished poems came to the light, with fragments of the poet's notes and essays.


I first read Francis Thompson in 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, while in the words of my superior officer, "the slums are dying in Flanders." He meant that not only the old world was such that 1914–18 in Europe perforce must bleed upon the battlefields, but that a new vision was born there.


And Thompson's poetry was of the dereliction as that which had made the slums in "darkest Britain." A brave vision; an equally lonely one for the infantrymen of Europe who died there, in what to them was "No Man's Land."


"Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,

Cry, – clinging heaven by the hems;

And lo, Christ walking on the water,

Not of Genesareth, but Thames!"






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