A First Adventure with Francis Thompson

 

 

Go to:

 

A look at Francis Thompson's life and work

 

The influence of Francis Thompson on HW

 

Henry Williamson and the Francis Thompson Society

 

Henry Williamson and Catholicism

 

'In Darkest England' in The Hound of Heaven

 

 

**********

 

 

'The Mistress of Vision'

 

'A First Adventure with Francis Thompson'

 

Critical reception

 

 

 

'A First Adventure with Francis Thompson'

 

 

Published in The Mistress of Vision (St Albert's Press, 1966: 500 numbered copies; 2 guineas) 

 

(St Albert's Press is the imprint of The Aylesford Review, see entry for In the Woods for further information.)

 

The book did not have a dust wrapper: the binding was of plain mid blue buckram.

 

HW's essay is reprinted in Indian Summer Notebook (ed. John Gregory, HWS, 2001; e-book 2013).

 

 

'The Mistress of Vision':

 

Francis Thompson's poem 'The Mistress of Vision' was written and worked on c.1895‒6 while FT was living at Pantasaph, and it was first published in New Poems (1897) in a section titled 'Sight and Insight'. It was included in volume 2 of Wilfrid Meynell's 3-volume Works (1913), kept in the same-named section. In 1918 'The Mistress of Vision' was published in the prestigious edition by Hilary Pepler and the Ditchling Press, limited to 200 copies, with Commentary by Father O'Connor and Preface by Father McNabb. Note that all concerned were connected to the Catholic faith, and that the poem is given a purely 'Catholic' interpretation.

 

This 1966 edition replicates the Pepler edition, but with the addition of HW's essay and a very useful Introduction by Joseph Jerome. (In the Aylesford Review Summer 1966 issue, Fr Brocard's Editorial refers to Jerome as 'Mr', clarifying that he was not actually in Holy Orders.) Jerome's Introduction gives details of the background to the 1918 Pepler printing, but interestingly, however, he ends on a wider note:

 

 

ft jerome

 

 

Father McNabb (himself a poet and critic) also takes a wider view, emphasising the poem's 'Mystic' quality:

 

The poem Mistress of Vision is vision as well as poem. To the writer . . . it is perhaps the poet's . . . topmost note of mystic song.

 

He goes on to state that to understand the poem one must also understand mysticism – and then gets a little bogged down in his own explanation. (Quite simply, a mystic is someone who seeks, by contemplation, spiritual apprehension of truths beyond earthly understanding.) For Fr McNabb, FT was indeed a mystic, but one who’s Catholicism (like his own) led only to the God of the Catholic Church.

 

Francis Thompson's poem and Father O'Connor's Commentary are printed opposite each other: verses on the right-hand page, Commentary on the left. O'Connor's interpretation of FT's title immediately sets the tone of his interpretation:

 

THE MISTRESS OF VISION, the Queen of Poesy and of Paradise, our Lady Saint Mary.

 

The whole Commentary is a masterly work continuing in similar vein. While such an explanation satisfies the Catholic mind and soul, it is likely to be off-putting to those outside that particular expression of faith. Indeed, for the ordinary reader, the poem and its Commentary appear to bear no relationship to each other. I would suggest that unless of a deep Catholic faith, readers should ignore the Commentary, and preferably read the poem from an outside source. (The poem is freely accessible on the internet.)

 

From whichever viewpoint one approaches the poem, it is full of allegorical symbols, some more obvious than others. To fully tease those out is the work of scholars: but the poem can be fully enjoyed for its own sake because of its beauty of rhythm and imagery.

 

The poem tells the story of a poet's search for perfection, for the 'Truth' of his own mind and his craft in portraying it. The 'Vision' of the poem is an allegorical garden. In this Garden of Vision is a Lady of Light. Rather than Mary the mother of Jesus of the Catholic interpretation, she can be seen as the Muse of Poetry, and her eyes hold secrets that the poem cannot fathom. All through the Vision the Lady sings, but the poet can only re-create a dim recollection of her song. She tells of the 'Land of Luthany' and the 'tract of Elenore' where the poet must go to perfect his art. But the poet does not know how to get there, and is given rules to guide him which he must obey: to suffer is central to this end.

 

'Luthany' and 'Elenore' are obviously allegorical 'Utopian' lands. They are words actually made up by FT to stand for that perfect state of being when Truth will be revealed, or understood. Looked at from such a perspective, the poem comes into focus and one can see how it would appeal to HW, who was on his own search for 'Truth' and perfection in his art, and would have understood the various rules laid down here in order to obtain it. One can also see how this can be interpreted in purely religious terms: the one can stand for the other – and FT as a Catholic and poet would have understood, and meant, both interpretations to be valid.

 

In a postcard to Fr Brocard (12 July 1966, reproduced elsewhere in these FT pages), HW noted that he didn't care for the O'Connor commentary, saying it 'is OK for Catholic ingénues . . .' (not terribly tactful when writing to a priest of the Catholic faith!). Brocard could not understand why HW could not see the beauty of O'Connor's work, and his note underneath is quite tart:

 

[O'Connor], a distinguished man of letters and a Professor of Sacred Theology . . . is scarcely a work for 'ingénues', Catholic or otherwise!

 

This little exchange highlights the difference between the interpretation of a Catholic and a — seer. It is interesting that FT, in his original collection New Poems, put this poem into a section titled 'Sight and Insight'; ‘Orient Ode’ is also in that section: 'Insight' was one of HW's own aphorisms, as he notes at the beginning of his own essay – see below.

 

Full analysis of this poem is a study in itself and not really a subject for consideration here. The poem has its own beauty, and considered reading of it brings its own truth. Verse XXII near the end of the poem holds the answer to the poet's quest, and include lines which HW was fond of quoting:

 

ft verse xxii

 

Let us turn now to HW's essay.

 

 

'A First Adventure with Francis Thompson':

 

HW opens his essay (following the main pulse of his psyche) with reference to his comrades of the First World War: how their shared experience linked them together. He must surely have in his mind FT's phrase, 'All things linkèd are'. He then tells the reader that he discovered the poetry of Francis Thompson in 1917 (as I have explored in 'The influence of Francis Thompson on Henry Williamson'). At the time that this essay was published this information was new, and possibly quite startling, for his readers.

 

The words stood out from the printed page, making instant impact

 

and he knows now, fifty years later:

 

that we shared the same sense of sight, which with reflection becomes insight.

 

He also notes that their experience of childhood was similar: just as FT had told himself that his experience was similar to that of Shelley. For neither man was that quite true, although they both actually thought it was. HW's 'drawbridge' was to retreat into the world of nature (but retreating into nature is actually to open oneself to a world akin to that sought in FT's 'The Mistress of Vision').

 

That world had changed with the outbreak of the War in 1914, and one has an echo here of those words HW wrote at the end of his young schoolboy nature diary:

 

. . .Finish, Finish, Finish

the hope and illusion of youth

for ever, and for ever and for ever.

 

Here it is expressed as:

 

that secret life was gone for ever . . . changed in a world of dereliction extending all along the Western Front.

 

(In his file copy of The MIstress of Vision HW has crossed through the word 'all')

 

He equates his experience of the war with FT's experience on the streets of London: deciding both were suffering from a lack of love, quoting Freud and Blake as men who understood this (a slightly dubious argument!).

 

He then quotes several lines from FT's Sister Songs (although he doesn't identify them as such until some way further on): the lines seem to be a cry of pain, a yearning for a life that FT knows is denied him – marriage and a family.

 

HW continues straight on from the poem with lengthy quotation from FT's ‘Shelley’ essay (written 1889‒90 while at Storrington, and probably honed when back in London), starting by quoting the well-known sentence:

 

So beset the child fled into the tower of his own soul, and raised the drawbridge.

 

Where FT has written within this quote 'A living poet', HW has added in the margin 'Alice Meynell'. This information is also given as a 'Note' by Fr Brocard Sewell right at the end of the book, stating that the reference is to Alice Meynell's essay 'The Rhythm of Life'.

 

After this long quotation HW says that the Shelley essay was written while the poet was living on the Embankment under the arches of Waterloo Bridge, which he (HW) also knew after the war when he saw:

 

workless old soldiers lying on newspaper spread on the paving stones, trying to sleep – no hardship this, after the dreadful crater-zones filled with water and afloat with corpses in khaki and feldgrau, in the morasses below the Passchendaele ridge . . .

 

(FT did not actually write the ‘Shelley’ essay during that early London street period, but while at Storrington. But HW no doubt wanted to make the connection of thought back to the war. As has been noted many times, the First World War was always the uppermost thought in HW's mind: its horrors constantly with him.)

 

HW quotes further from FT's essay – a passage where FT tries to persuade Catholic thought that poetry comes from God as much as Holy Rhetoric does.

 

HW states that he read 'this marvellous essay' in '1917 in Flanders', and proceeds – over two pages – to describe that time. It is one of the most intense and harrowing passages in the whole of his writing opus. This is the period when HW was a transport officer during the 1917 Spring Offensive at Arras, which for HW ended on 8 June 1917 after he and his mule train had been shelled while on the nightly task of taking supplies up to the Front Line, and badly gassed. His mule driver within feet of him was killed (not named here, he was Driver Frith). HW was hospitalised and ten days later sent back to England, where he underwent a prolonged convalescence. Fifty years later he is describing that event in vivid detail.

 

HW tells us that that night – after the attack – he read FT's poem ‘Peace’, and that he altered a few words in pencil. ‘Peace’ was written (commissioned by the Daily Chronicle, though they did not publish it) to celebrate the end of the Boer War in May 1902, and first appeared in the 3-volume Works of 1913. The poem includes a section stating that 'imperialism' must learn a hard lesson if the peace they have won with so much sacrifice is to be worth what it cost in blood. That of course was one of HW's main themes. It is a lesson apparently still not learned over 100 years later.

 

 

ft peace hw      ft peace

 

 

HW then turns back to Sister Songs, and quotes what is Section 7 and most of Section 8 from the First Part (the two separate parts are reference to the two sisters): then a hiatus and he moves into the middle of the Second Part (where sections not numbered but marked by a one-line space), quoting those lines he had also inscribed into his file copy of The Star-born, in which occurs the phrase: 'As the innocent moon, that nothing does but shine.'

 

Then he adds:

 

This tremendous music continues for page after page . . . Francis Thompson is a major poet . . . The Mistress of Vision attempts to convey, and does convey, what another living poet, Mr. Robert Graves, calls the White Goddess.

 

Mention of Graves is interesting in itself, as the two men did not get on; but this is a reference to Graves' book The White Goddess (Faber, 1948, revised and enlarged 1952), the theme of which is that the Muse, the Moon-Goddess, inspires poetry of a magical quality and relates this to ancient rites: it is an extended metaphor of poetic inspiration. HW is stating that in his view (as opposed to the Catholic interpretation given here for 'The Mistress of Vision') that is what FT's poem is: a metaphor of poetic inspiration. (We have seen that he had told Fr Brocard he wasn't in sympathy with Fr O'Connor's commentary.)

 

In his closing paragraph HW mentions 'a war between Heaven and Hell'. He is referring to William Blake's complicated poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, making here a link between FT and Blake. (FT was a great admirer of Blake, which was reinforced by his association with Coventry Patmore. HW was also a great admirer of Blake's poetry.) This poem is a strand that appears in HW's The Gold Falcon, and I gave some background to this in my essay on that book. (See AW, 'The Gold Falcon: a morality play in prose', HWSJ 45, 2009, pp 5‒24, in particular 14‒15.)

 

The point HW makes here is the gap between those that can 'see' and those that do not have that 'greater love', quoting the words of the great First World War poet Wilfred Owen, whom he admired above all others. Poets are misunderstood. (And HW would have been including himself in that statement.) HW ends by returning to the theme of war but now allying it to 'The Hound of Heaven':

 

 

ft verse

 

 

 

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Critical reception:

 

There are only a few reviews, but they make interesting reading.

 

Times Literary Supplement, 15 December 1966:

 

 

ft tlsreview

 

 

which was followed, 29 December 1966, by a letter from Fr Brocard Sewell: 

 

 

ft tls brocard

 

 

Source and date unknown, (Leonard Clark):

 

 

ft review clark

 

 

 

Catholic Herald, 8 July 1966:

 

 

ft rev catholic

 

 

Irish Independent, 11 October 1966:

 

 

ft rev irish

 

 

 

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

 

 

Go to:

 

A look at Francis Thompson's life and work

 

The influence of Francis Thompson on HW

 

Henry Williamson and the Francis Thompson Society

 

Henry Williamson and Catholicism

 

'In Darkest England' in The Hound of Heaven

 

 

 

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