Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Francis Thompson tasting - Curse on the brutish jargon we inherit

Another pale aesthete of the 1890s today, Francis Thompson, as represented in the 1908 Selected Poems that followed his death at age 47 from tuberculosis.  The anonymous author of the book’s biographical note calls him “this aloof moth of a man” (p. vii).  He and Ernest Dowson are the English ur-poets of the 1890s.  Thompson was a homeless opium addict, kept alive by a prostitute with a heart of gold who, once he was taken up as a poet, renounced him so as not to damage his reputation, after which he became a kind of monk.

None of that is remotely believable.  How I would laugh if I were tricked into seeing a movie about this character.  What nonsense, what clichés!

And I have not even gotten to his poetry, which is unbelievable in its own way.  Thompson was a baroque Catholic poet, in the line of Richard Crashaw and Coventry Patmore, who became Thompson’s great champion.  Thompson is wilder than Patmore, and as befits a baroque poet he more often veers into bad taste.

Thou fill'st thy mouth with nations, gorgest slow
On purple aeons of kings; man's hulking towers
Are carcase for thee, and to modern sun
Disglutt'st their splintered bones.  (From “An Anthem of Earth,” p. 109)

Is that awful or magnificent?  “Disglutt’st.”  Some fragments from “A Corymbus for Autumn”:

            Suffer my singing,
Gipsy of Seasons, ere though go winging;
            Ere Winter throws
            His slaking snows
In the feasting-flagon’s impurpurate glows!


            Thy mist enclip
Her steel-clear circuit illuminous,
            Until it crust
With the glorious gules of a glowing rust.

Am I mocking Thompson?  Only a little.  I admire his audacity with the language – “Curse on the brutish jargon we inherit” (“Her Portrait,” 40), yes, that’s the spirit – but then I have trouble taking him seriously.  He is a grapey poet (“Her skin was like a grape, whose veins / Run snow instead of wine,” “Daisy,” 1).  As is typical with baroque modes, Thompson’s poems face two constant problems, obscurity and kitschiness. 

Yea, not a kiss which I have given,
But shall triúmph upon my lips in heaven,
Or cling a shameful fungus there in hell.


Thou to thy spousal universe
Art Husband, she thy Wife and Church;
Who in most dusk and vidual curch,
Her Lord being hence,
Keeps her cold sorrows by thy hearse.  (“Orient Ode,” pp. 92 & 94)

The poem is addressed to the sun, rising in the east; “she,” the wife, is the Earth; the last three lines are a way of saying that it is dark at night.  The Christian allegory is made explicit only at the end.  Looking back at the poem, perhaps most of its obscurity just comes from its length – who can follow seven pages of that stuff.  The most kitschy bit, by the way, although “shameful fungus” is tempting, is the accent mark in “triúmph.”

Thompson may at this point survive as the author of one poem, the dense, harrowing “The Hound of Heaven,”  a masterpiece that could not have been written by a poet afraid of “impurpurate glows” and “disglutt’st” and making a single line out of “rubiginous.”  Thompson “[s]ublimed the illuminous and volute redundance” (“A Child’s Kiss,” 16).  I guess. I probably don’t understand that line.

I have notes with many more lines as good, let’s say, as these.  But I will give Thompson another day and will try to do something more than just swish his verse around in my mouth.

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