I am a Catholic Reject
He went to a junior seminary. He hated it. But he was determined to become a priest. His mother had tried to become a nun. But had been turned down. The elder of his two sisters had become a nun. Two of his father's sisters were nuns. So too was a niece.
When he was nineteen, after eight years studying, he was turned down for the priesthood.
He was shattered. He saw himself as a failure.
He began tramping the streets “in rags, his feet torn, without stockings, showing through his boots, his coat torn, and no shirt”, mumbling to himself, reading poetry in libraries, visiting art galleries. He slept in the street in cardboard boxes.
He started taking drugs.
He began writing poetry …
Walk along the Embankment by the RiverThames in the middle of London. It's the middle of the night. It's freezing cold. Huddled in a cardboard box, by the wall, under a tree, in a doorway is maybe a Catholic Reject and one of the greatest poets that has ever lived.
It happened between November 1885 and May 1889. The poet: Francis Thompson. He was born on December 18 1859 in 7 Winckley Street, Preston, the second son of a doctor. When he was five, the family moved to 22b Stamford Street, Ashton-under-Lyne. Apart from a couple of months he spent at a local school run by Nuns of the Cross and the Passion, he was educated at home until he was eleven. He then went to St Cuthbert's College, a junior seminary, at Ushaw, just outside Durham in the north of England.
He hated it. But he persevered. He was determined to become a priest. His mother had tried to become a nun but had been turned down. The elder of his two sisters had become a nun. Two of his father's sisters were nuns. So too was a niece.
When he was nineteen, after eight years studying, he was turned down for the priesthood. He was good at English, Latin and Greek. His teachers said he was a “good, quiet, shy lad.” But the President of St Cuthbert's told his parents, he had a “strong, nervous timidity.” Not only that but he also had, “a natural indolence which has always been an obstacle with him."
Thompson was shattered. To himself, he was a failure. To his long-suffering parents, he was a big disappointment. Even worse he had to return home to Ashton-under-Lyne.
His father now decided that if he wasn't going to become a priest, he would become a doctor like himself. He enrolled him in Owen's College, Manchester. For six years Thomspon pretended he was studying medicine. For six years he left home every morning for College. For six years he returned home every evening and studied his books like a dutiful medical student. It was the last thing he was. He wasn't studying to become a doctor. He wasn't going to lectures. He was tramping the streets of Manchester, mumbling to himself, his shoe-laces untied, reading poetry in Manchester Public Library, visiting art galleries, watching cricket at Old Trafford.
Inevitably his father found out. He asked the lecturers at Owen’s College how his son was doing. He wasn't, they told him. He wasn't even attending lectures.
This time his father packed him off to Glasgow. He got him a job with a surgical instrument maker. But it made no difference. He lasted two weeks. He got him a job selling encyclopaedias. He lasted two months.
For some inexplicable reason Thompson now decided of his own accord that he wanted to become a soldier. Again – Surprise. Surprise – he was rejected. Not because of his “strong, nervous timidity.” Not because of his “natural indolence.” But because now he was a drug addict.
How or when he started taking opium nobody knows. All we know is the slippery slope became even more slippery. Within five years, his mother had died. He had a blazing row with his father, who accused him of being an alcoholic. Some doctor. He left home. He began living on the streets of London. Sometimes in the crypt of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields. Sometimes in and around Covent Garden. Sometimes he slept on the Embankment. In a cardboard box. He was so unlucky he couldn’t even find a lost property cardboard box which might have contained something useful.
Sometimes, however, he was lucky. A policeman once gave him some money. One of the Rothschilds gave him a florin to buy a newspaper. Once he found two sovereigns in the street. He was even for a while given a room by a friendly Anglican bootmaker who was interested in saving his soul. You couldn't make it up, could you?
He began writing poems and, late at night, pushing them through publishers letter boxes.
In April 1888 his luck not to mention his whole world changed. The magazine, Merry England, edited by Wilfrid Meynell, published his poem, “The Passion of Mary.' But Thompson knew nothing about it. There was no way Meynell could reach him. Thompson had no address for Meynell to contact him. All Meynell could do was wait - and hope.
On May 14 1889 the wait was over. Meynell received a letter from Thompson. A priest, Canon John Carroll, who knew him from his days in Preston and Ashton-under-Lyne had kept in touch with him off and on while he was in London and tipped him off about the poem being printed.
Meynell went immediately to the chemist's shop in Drury Lane, the address on Thompson's letter. The chemist promised to tell Thompson he had called. A few days later Thompson turned up at Meynell's office in Essex Street, off The Strand “in rags, his feet torn, without stockings, showing through his boots, his coat torn, and no shirt.”
After some hesitation on both sides, Meynell took Thompson in, cleaned him up, encouraged him to write and, to help him break the opium habit, he sent him to the Premonstratensian Monastery at Storrington, Sussex.
Once he had kicked the habit, which made a change from the habits kicking him, Thompson was a new man.
He wrote no end of poems. He wrote biographies. He wrote literary criticisms. Inevitably, he died young. He was only 48. He told Meynell, who was with him until the end, that he was dying of laudanum poisoning. He wasn't. He died on November 13 1907 of consumption in the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth. He weighed only five stone. All he left was a box of rubbish - and one of the greatest, crashing, tumbling, roller-coaster poems in the English language, The Hound of Heaven.
I fled Him down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him.....
You must remember the rest of it. Everybody else does.
The Hound of Heaven