The Influence of Francis Thompson on Henry Williamson

 

 

Go to:

 

A look at Francis Thompson's life and work

 

Henry Williamson and the Francis Thompson Society

 

Henry Williamson and Catholicism

 

'A First Adventure with Francis Thompson' in The Mistress of Vision

 

'In Darkest England' in The Hound of Heaven

 

 

 

The Influence of Francis Thompson on Henry Williamson

 

 

Francis Thompson's poetry was of importance to HW from a very early stage, and stems from his experiences in the First World War. Apart from an invisible presence, by which I mean the ethos that HW drew from FT's work and which is transmuted into his own work, there are several instances of more tangible influence. They are set out in this section but further detail will appear when addressing HW's two essays on Thompson.

 

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 FT'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).

 

In the Chronicle volumes that cover the last two years of the First World War (Vol. 7, Love and the Loveless, 1958; and Vol. 8, A Test to Destruction, 1960), HW makes various references to Phillip reading these three volumes both before he leaves for the Front in early 1917, while still training as a Transport Officer in the Machine Gun Corps at Grantham (where Phillip himself has bought the volumes in a local bookshop), and also later when in France. Later, when the war is over, there is an exchange about FT's poetry with Julian Warbeck (Frank Davis).

 

(Full details of HW's war experiences can be found in Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, Sutton, 1998.)

 

Mary Leopoldina Williamson was herself a deciding influence on HW, taking an interest in him from his earliest years. She was an educated and forthright lady, a suffragette, who spent some time in Greece around the turn of the twentieth century and had written two short visionary stories: The Incalculable Hour (reprinted in HWSJ 31, 1995) and Voices of the Vision of the Night (reprinted in HWSJ 37, 2001). It is from the former that HW took the phrase 'Flax of Dream' as the overall title for his early tetralogy. (See also discussion in AW, 'Save his own soul he hath no star', HWSJ 39, 2003, pp.30-59, particularly p. 32.)

 

And it was Mary Leopoldina with whom he spent that all-important holiday in the cottage at Georgeham, Skirr Cottage (though it was not then so named – his own future home), in May 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War and all its ensuing horror.

 

Mary Leopoldina is Theodora (Dora) Maddison in HW's Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series. There, in How Dear is Life (Vol. 5), her nephew Phillip (based on HW) spends a holiday with Dora in the spring of 1914, in the novel transferred to Lynmouth on the North Devon coast. We learn they discuss literature and art. I think we can safely assume that in real life one poet in particular under discussion would have been Francis Thompson (and another Percy Bysshe Shelley), for in HW's archive – carefully kept throughout his life (and now over 100 years old) – is the following cutting:

 

 

ft tpweekly

 

 

(T.P.'s Weekly was founded & edited by T. P. (Tay Pay) O'Connorhe is buried, as is FT, in Kensal Green Cemetery.)

 

Such a document at that point in HW's life can only have originated from Mary Leopoldina. It is these three volumes that HW appears to have had with him in 1917. They were not in his possession at the time of his death, although he certainly had other copies in 1966.

 

There is also in HW's archive an early well-worn copy of the single-poem edition of The Hound of Heaven, first published in Merry England in 1890, then in the volume Poems (1893), and as a single item (after FT's death) in 1913. Again this surely has to have come from Mary Leopoldina.

 

 

ft hoh 1913a cover

 

ft hoh 1913b title

 

ft hoh 1913c intro    ft hoh 1913d page1
Introduction by Wilfrid Meynell   The first page

 

ft hoh 1913e ms from end book

 

 

In his semi-autobiographical work The Sun in the Sands (published 1945 but actually written in 1934), HW writes of the time he first went to live in Georgeham in North Devon, in March 1921.

 

In myself, I believed, was a power and vision and truth clearer than in any other writer in the world, except in Richard Jefferies, William Blake, and Francis Thompson.

 

Three great visionary writers: three writers whom HW considered to be of prime importance within his own early life.

 

Living with HW at that time was a man probably even more traumatised by the war than HW himself: the ex-RAF pilot Frank Davis. Frank is Julian Warbeck in The Sun in the Sands and the Chronicle novels.

 

 

test frank davis1

       ft davis

Taken not long after the end of the war,

 for Frank Davis is still wearing his (badge-

less) RAF tunic

 

A later portrait, showing a self

assurance which seems to

border almost on arrogance

 

 

Frank was a Swinburne enthusiast (and seemed almost a reincarnation of that poet!), and HW reiterates in many places how 'Julian' continuously declaimed Swinburne's poetry. This was evidently not quite so one-sided as he makes out, for Frank gave HW his own copy of Francis Thompson's Selected Poems (ed. Wilfrid Meynell, Burns & Oates, 1908, and by August 1917 – the edition here – in its eleventh impression), which has as its frontispiece a photograph of FT as a young man:

 

 

ft poems davis1      ft poems davis2
     
ft poems davis3   ft poems davis4

 

 

The pencilled note written underneath the inscription reads:

 

If I like Swinburne because I am young and you like Thompson because you are old, why should I not be right? As the stuff of poetry is youth.

 

HW was then 25 years old and Frank cannot have been much younger! And interestingly, there are many similarities between the poetry of Swinburne and FT.

 

HW's book The Star-born (published in 1935, but written in 1922) arose from his deep pondering over the place and meaning of religion in the world, especially in relation to war, as is shown in the thoughts expressed within his 1920s 'Richard Jefferies Journal'.  Such thoughts stemmed from his reading of Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart immediately after the end of the war, in 1919, while he was still in the army and stationed at Folkestone. But not so obviously, those thoughts and ideas also came from his reading of Francis Thompson, as is shown by his personal file copy of the book, in which he wrote out a verse from 'The Mirage' (first published In Sister Songs, 1895, and then in Meynell's 3-volume Works, 1913):

 

 

ft starborn

 

 

HW's use of the word 'dream-tryst' in his inscription comes from FT's own poem ‘Dream-tryst’, which was part of that small bundle first dropped through the Merry England office letterbox in l887. For HW, 'dream-tryst' was a metaphor for death – or rather, for what comes after death.

 

Now a slight shift of emphasis: in November 1926 HW became acquainted with Wilfrid Meynell. HW was staying with his friend Petre Mais at his home in Hove, near Brighton, on the Sussex coast. HW's book of short stories The Old Stag had been published the previous month: HW was now established as a writer – but not yet famous. Mais must have known Meynell relatively well, as the following letter shows:

 

Dear Mr. Meynell,

 

I have with me a great lover of Francis Thompson, a nature lover who strangely resembles the poet, by name Henry Williamson – I propose to bring him over on Sunday if I may. This is just a warning – but I may, as usual, be prevented.

 

Yrs Sincerely, S.P.B.Mais

 

So on 23 November 1926 HW was taken to meet Wilfrid Meynell at his home at Greatham (pronounced 'Grettum'), Sussex, the property bought with proceeds from FT's royalties. Meynell was then seventy-five years old and grieving over the loss of his wife. In John Walsh's book Strange Harp, Strange Symphony (W. H. Allen, 1968) there is a photograph taken of him the following year in his library, so that room is as HW would have seen it:

 

 

ft meynell library

 

 

Unfortunately there is no detail about the visit, but they would surely have talked about Francis Thompson.

 

HW sent a copy of The Lone Swallows as a thank-you for the visit, and asked about the bust of Shelley he had seen there, as he couldn't remember the details that Meynell had told him. One can imagine how affected HW would have been on seeing such a sculpture of a poet whose work meant so much to him. Meynell's reply states that it had been done by Mrs Leigh Hunt, whose artist husband, after Shelley's death, sometimes felt on seeing it that Shelley was actually in the room. Leigh Hunt had left the bust to Thomas Carlyle, who had left it to Robert Browning, at whose sale Meynell had bought it. A wonderful line of connectedness!

 

There are eight letters from Meynell to HW in his archive between 1926 and 1931, and copies of three from HW to Meynell. (In 1987 Brocard Sewell had access to HW's letters to Meynell and very kindly made copies for the HW archive. These letters form part of the material presented by the Henry Williamson Literary Estate to Exeter University in 2015.)

 

A few days after this visit, on 29 November, HW made his own way from Hove to visit John Galsworthy at nearby Bury. He was in a state over the finishing and reception of his book Tarka the Otter. Galsworthy was a tower of strength – and that night wrote to Edward Garnett recommending HW; resulting in all that happened thereafter.)

 

The relationship between HW and Meynell was very cordial. At the end of October 1928, three days after the publication of The Pathway, HW sent a copy of his new book and apprised Meynell of the birth of his second son, John, asking him to be godfather to the boy. Meynell wrote the following rather lovely letter to HW's wife:

 

 

ft wm1      ft wm2

 

 

Transcription:

 

Dear Mother of John,

 

Please accept the warm congratulations of a stranger, who knows you well. I have loved you in your husband's pages, & been made happy by hearing of you as his wife; & now, as the mother of John, your cup of joy must be running over. Thank you again & again for the part I have in that joy – for the part in it, too, which thousands of other readers of The Pathway will claim & cherish.

 

To meet you someday will be a great privilege for your grateful Wilfrid Meynell.

 

And along the margin of the first page:

 

Perhaps the enclosed verses may become the companions of some of your hours of resting – they need no acknowledgement.

 

The verses were The Shepherdess & Other Verses by Alice Meynell, in a slim Burns & Oates edition (undated), with a charming frontispiece photograph of Alice, and inscribed by Meynell:

 

 

ft am1      ft am2
     
ft am3


 

The last letter from Meynell is dated June 1931, and is full of friendly encouragement:

 

I am so much of a recluse as to have missed the unfavourable notices of which you speak, & I am glad to have been spared them. It is your duty now to forget them.

 

Ever your faithful friend, Wilfrid Meynell.

 

 

 

*************************

 

 

 

Go to:

 

A look at Francis Thompson's life and work

 

Henry Williamson and the Francis Thompson Society

 

Henry Williamson and Catholicism

 

'A First Adventure with Francis Thompson' in The Mistress of Vision

 

'In Darkest England' in The Hound of Heaven

 

 

 

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