This study endeavours to correlate the facts of Francis Thompson's life with the content of his works and so to arrive at some understanding of the underlying unconscious problems. The sublimation of these resulted in the greatest religious verse of the nineteenth century. Failure of sublimation resulted in the ineffectual, irresponsible Thompson who became an outcast and opium drinker.
The poet's intuitive power of transcribing unconscious experiences into analogous expression enables the psycho-analyst to understand
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unusually clearly what those same unconscious experiences were. He, like Shelley, had 'an instinctive perception … of the underlying analogies … between matter and soul. He could express as he listed the material and the immaterial in terms of each other'.
Family characteristics reappeared in Francis Thompson. He followed his parents in the Roman Catholic faith. He failed to enter the novitiate. His mother had failed too. He considered he inherited his mental and physical traits from his mother. Aloofness from life and disregard of worldly prosperity, so marked in Francis Thompson himself, are characteristic of members of a scattered family.
He was the second son, the first dying in infancy. He had two sisters for companions in the nursery and he was taught with them by the same governess. Later he attended the school of the Nuns of the Cross and Passion until at the age of twelve he was sent to Ushaw College. He records that childhood was tragic to him. He became 'expert in concealment'. The outer evidences of the inner tragedy of childhood were to be seen in his painful inability to adjust to the domestic demands of the home, e.g. he could never be punctual, could never relinquish his toys, and resented the fact that boys were not expected to play with dolls. He wrested a succession of dolls from his sisters.
His schooldays were unhappy. He did not want to leave home, and he regarded his tormenting school-fellows as 'heralding a world's ferocity'. His lot was no worse than that of other boys, but he says 'a gash is as painful to one as amputation to another'. He became more reserved. He surreptitiously began writing poetry. He left school with the bitter grief of being deemed unsuitable for the calling of a priest.
He spent six years training for the medical profession in Manchester. He attended few lectures, but frequented the museums and secretly wrote verse.
The gift of De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater from his mother was a significant gift, forging an allegiance to De Quincey's spirit, evidence of this being shown in subsequent events of Thompson's life, and De Quincey's influence on his poetical development.
Thompson began drinking opium. After a second failure in his final examinations, the rupture with his father occurred and Francis Thompson went to London. Here he touched the depths of poverty. He was thwarted in a suicidal attempt by a vision of Chatterton. The next day he saw one of his own poems in print. The Meynells sought him out, and until his death in 1907 they cared for his physical well-being, and under their protection and encouragement, his genius became productive. During this time he abstained from opium. The later years were unproductive. Opium became again a necessity. He died in a London nursing home in 1907 with his toy theatre beside him.
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The theme of the Hound of Heaven, Thompson's best-known poem, recurs in other poems which are not of a religious nature. In the Hound of Heaven the soul of the poet is in flight from the divine pursuer, who is God, to whom the poet must capitulate at last. God is the Father, the Lover. In the Ode to the Setting Sun and the Orient Ode the sun becomes identified with God, and the poet imagines the planets fleeing from this hunt which is the 'hunt o' the world' and its consummation is 'Thou join'st the woman to the man'. The elaboration of this theme can be followed in The Narrow Vessel, The Ode to the English Martyrs, Laus Amara Doloris, Assumpta Maria. The erotic motive of the chase becomes clear in this elaboration, the pursuer beingFather, God, Sun, Death, while the poet is the pursued, the sufferer, the sacrificer, the woman. The poems are his sacrifices. They 'sum in one all renderings that were', mother and wife of her child, the maid of her virginity, the child of the mother's breast.
Thompson's femininity comes to fullest expression in the Assumpta Maria. He, the poet, is Mary, Mother of God, and Queen of Heaven, and the pursuit theme emerges in the poem Contemplation in its full significance, when he (the poet) 'his mortal house unbars to the importunate and thronging feet'.
The poet identifies himself with two types of women, the Pagan and Christian. It is the strength of the erotic motive underlying the former that tortured the poet. Thompson's rejection as a priest is surely linked in his own mind with some deep disquiet concerning his poetry. One remembers the secrecy at home and school concerning his early efforts. He never informed his father.
The poet is the Pagan Goddess in Daphne. But both types are merged and reconciled in poems such as The After-Woman. This reconciliation seems to have been psychologically possible under the influence of Alice Meynell. Love in Dian's Lap, poems dedicated to her, breathe a Christian spirit, but bear a Pagan title, and while they are the poet's delineation of his revered lady, he gives the unconscious significance of them in words referring to his own spirit,
'Unveil this spirit, lady, when you will,
And if you love the image, 'tis your own'.
The virginal and prostitute identifications are traceable to the virginal and prostitute phantasies concerning the mother, and these are to be found in An Anthem of Earth.
The portrayal of the consummation of love lies in such phrasings as 'enchanted movelessness', 'passionless passion', 'wild tranquillities'. For him the onset of love is quiet and comparable to the babe at the
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breast. And when he refers to his unfulfilled desire for his benefactress his frustration is put again into the imagery of deprivation of food. One ventures the opinion that in Francis Thompson we have a unique psychical fixation at the oral level. Psychically he was never weaned. In Of Nature, Laud and Plaint, he makes this very clear to us. The penis-nipple phantasy underlies such phrases as 'God focussed to a point'. Deity is 'twiformed', 'nurse at once and sire'. When he is weaned 'God is stolen from the mouth', and weaning is a symboliccastration.
The phases of the eternal cycle revolve in himself, for he himself is both mother and child, and the child in the womb is God and son. His goal is death or the womb, for only in 'the sacred bridal gloom of death' will father and son be one.
The poet is omnipotent in his soul. He in his poetic work (e.g. Carmen Genesis) is a creator even as God created the universe.
Thompson was assured of the immortality of his verse, an assurance paradoxical enough in the face of his neglect of the world.
His actual life, as well as his verse, give evidence of the yielding up of all to this relentless pursuer, but it has, too, the significance of a deep-seated infantile omnipotence. His disregard of time, health, all ties and obligations point to an inner desolation of spirit when confronted by reality limitations.
Much of Freud's theory of infantile sexuality could be formulated from Francis Thompson's poetry, so direct is the transcript from the unconscious mind in his verse:
We speak a lesson taught we know not how, And what it is that from us flows The hearer better than the utterer knows.
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(1927). Applied Psycho-Analysis. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 8:81-84