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Thompson, Francis

Category: Poet

Francis Thompson (1859 –1907) was an English poet, born in Preston, Lancashire.  He studied medicine at Owens College in Manchester, but took no real interest in his studies and never practised.

In 1885, he moved to London to try to become a writer, but without success and gradually he was reduced to selling matches and newspapers for a living.  As his situation worsened, he started living on the streets of Charing Cross and sleeping by the River Thames with the homeless.  He lived as a street vagrant until 1888, when he was 'discovered' by the editors -  Wilfrid and Alice Meynell -  of the magazine Merrie England after he sent poetry to  them. 

Suffering from ill health, he had turned to opium – more specifically laudunum and had become an addict, so when the Meynells rescued him he was suffering from nutritional deprivation,  destitution [insecurity], and addiction.  Thompson attempted suicide during those three years, so we can add extreme unhappiness or depression to this list.  He was saved from completing the action through a vision which he believed to be that of a youthful poet Thomas Chatterton, who had committed suicide almost a century earlier. So despite the extraordinary bleakness of his existence he gained courage.  And he was not friendless.   Shortly afterwards, a prostitute - whose identity Thompson never revealed - befriended him, gave him lodgings and shared her income with him.  After being rescued, Thompson lived as an invalid in Wales and at Storrington.

Thompson wrote poetry throughout his time of suffering and it is this poetry for which he is most remembered.  His poetry is ‘nice’ after his rescue, but it has none of the intensity and haunting genius apparent during his dark times.  His most famous poem  The Hound of Heaven  describes the pursuit of the human soul by the Higher spirit. There is the sense that even in his darkest moments, he had no real sense of being alone.  Perhaps the suicide was an attempt to meet his pursuer.  You can access his poems via Project Gutenburg….. 

Although Thompson attempted to get known and have his works published during his period of destitution, he was often unable to leave an address and publishers were unable to contact him.  His work was only published once the Meynells gave him a home and arranged for publication of his first book Poems in 1893. The book attracted the attention of sympathetic critics in the St James's Gazette and other newspapers, and Coventry Patmore wrote a eulogistic notice in the Fortnightly Review of January 1894.  He has been feted ever since.

A lifetime of extreme poverty, ill-health, and an addiction to opium took a heavy toll on Thompson, even though he found success in his last years. He would eventually die from tuberculosis at the age of 48.

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