Friday, June 12, 2015

thous and thees and titanic glooms and whatnot - Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven"

For the next week and a half, Wuthering Expectations will be vacationing.  No posts on vacation.

I did not mention that Francis Thompson wrote cricket poetry.  The sport, not the insect.  Talk about obscure.  I will ignore those in favor of his unusual religious poems.  Every poem I quoted yesterday was a religious poem, so I mean more religious poems, ones I understand.

The clearest, to me, is “’In No Strange Land,’” a vision of the “world invisible” as it operates on earth, specifically in London.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry; - and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

And Christ is “walking on the water / Not of Geneserath, but Thames!”  I think “thou” and “thy” are referring back to the poet, but that is just a guess.  It is the specificity of the angels in London that I am enjoying here, “[t]he drift of pinions… at our own clay-shuttered doors.”  But then I wonder what “clay-shuttered” might mean.  If I just quote Thompson lines from which I understand every word, I won’t have much to quote.

Thompson’s masterpiece, “The Hound of Heaven,” is more abstract but succeeds in suggesting the sinful life of the speaker, who feels that Christ is a wild animal in pursuit of him, and who, if he catches the poet, will kill him, perhaps by eating his heart. 

Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
       Thee harvest, must Thy harvest fields
       Be dunged with rotten death?

So the poet flees:

            Up vistaed hopes I sped;
            And shot, precipitated
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
    From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

The poet indulges in the pleasures of this world, asking nature to display herself naked to him, in a passage that has not aged so well.  The results are ugly:

In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
         I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust o’ the mounded years –
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.

The Hound, at the end of the poem, explains that the traumas suffered by the poet are not caused by the Hound but by the flight from it.  The poet is Catholic, but the psychology of the poem, the fear that a spiritual experience can be a source of terror or harm, is more general.  Not universal, perhaps, but common.  It is the vision that drives a number of Flannery O’Connor characters, this frightening sense that the Hound will save them but in the process murder them.

I scouted around for O’Connor writing about “The Hound of Heaven” and found something quite funny, a 1963 letter wondering if youngsters should be kept from “The Hound of Heaven.”

Probably what he means about impounding “The Hound of Heaven” is that it ought not to be set up as THE type of religious poetry – lest the students think they had to have thous and thees and titanic glooms and whatnot in all religious poetry.  I wouldn’t impound “The Hound of Heaven,” but I would impound “Trees” early on.  Our pastor has a piece of bad verse to decorate most every sermon, all of which I feel sure was supplied him in some Catholic grammar school.

The sideswipe crack at Joyce Kilmer, another poet in the line of Patmore and Thompson, is pretty choice.


  1. I also thought immediately of O'Connor when I read this (this excerpt; I've never read the actual poem). I don't know if it's a specifically Catholic thing, but I know plenty of folks who believe that close encounters with God or Christ will be more-or-less in the form of a corrective blow to the head. Personally I think that's a good thing. And Paul reminds us we're baptized into Christ's death, etc. So as Christian metaphor goes, it's not that out there. Except for using a dog, I guess. Is there an image of God as hunter in the poem?

    I confess that I'm not tempted to read Thompson by any of this. Good thing you're here to do it for us.

  2. No, not out there, not at all, although I think rarely so strongly emphasized, which is part of what makes O'Connor unusual, too. She also thinks it is a good thing. So does Thompson. Perhaps part of makes the poem work is his resistance to it being a good thing.

    I do not think the impulse or fear is at all unique to Catholics. The interest by a particular group of Catholic writers, now that I cannot explain.

    Thompson is so baroque that I could have misunderstood, but I do not believe there is a separate hunter figure in the poem. There is ambiguity with the hound, though - sometimes it is more like a wild animal,and sometimes more analogous to a hunting dog. And then, yes, the hunter is implied, and the identity of the hunter is clear enough, too.

    I am thinking of writing a post about bad taste in literature. These 1890s poets are, I am afraid, the inspiration.

  3. I would never have imagined anyone could alliterate dung with death...

  4. There's the Aretmis and Actaeon thing too, but I only get that from your commentary, not from any of the snippets you posted.

    An essay on bad taste in literature could be fun. I hope you write it.

  5. have a nice vacation and... there's nothing chasing you...

  6. Thompson's cricket poetry - "Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago" - is probably the best-remembered of his poetry in England and the least obscure in meaning. Perhaps that's because the laws of cricket are less obscure and incomprehensible than the laws of god in late nineteenth century decadent Catholicism.
    There's also something of Hopkins in the compacted imagery and clotted rhetoric - and the humourlessness. Indeed, there's not much difference between Christ as hawk and Christ as hound in the way they catch their prey.
    Anyway, enjoy your vacation - only a week and a half? - and come back reinvigorated.

    1. There's more prose about cricket than poetry, and the prose tends to be impressionistic or wistful and the poetry tends to be either thumping or storytelling -- it's as if the game reassigns the stereotypical habits of each form to the other. I'm thinking of, in poetry, things like "When M'Dougall Topped the Score" (Thomas A. Spencer) and that grotesque "Vitai Lampada" (Sir Henry Newbolt). (But there are the "long uneven lines" of men in Phillip Larkin's "MCMXIV" lining up for the war as if they were waiting to get into the cricket grounds -- I start to doubt my own point.)

    2. There's more prose than poetry about everything.
      I'd happily lived without reading "When M'Dougall Topped the Score" (or "How McDougall Topped the Score" according to other versions) before and can do without it for the rest of my life, but there are fine poems about cricket by Gavin Ewart, Alan Ross, John Arlott (who also did some fine thumping with The Yetties - who were Hardy admirers too) and Harold Pinter (complete poem:
      I saw Len Hutton in his prime
      Another time, another time.

      As Hutton was in his prime before the Second World War, Pinter may have been exaggerating)
      Perhaps the best poem about cricket out-Brahmas Emerson:

      If the wild bowler thinks he bowls,
      Or if the batsman thinks he's bowled,
      They know not, poor misguided souls,
      They too shall perish unconsoled.
      I am the batsman and the bat,
      I am the bowler and the ball,
      The umpire, the pavilion cat,
      The roller, pitch, and stumps, and all.
      -Andrew Lang

    3. And Kamau Brathwaite ("Clyde back pun he back | foot an' prax!") and 'The Aboriginal Cricketer' by Les Murray, though I don't think it's a great one of his (the idea that the bat is being held like a "shield" "to face spears" is wishful thinking, artificially inserted to feed an idea that the poet has already figured out -- or if there's any photograph of an Indigenous Australian trying to protect themselves by holding a shield in the air two feet to the right and tilted backwards then I've yet to see it -- Murray's not charging the subject with surprises and new thoughts as he does in other poems when he addresses cars and cities and doomed pigs) -- true: there are good cricket poems.

      Trying to look up the Brathwaite to refresh my memory I came across a seventeen-page academic paper about "the relationship between Caribbean female poets and the game of cricket [...] the discussion focuses on the cricketing works of [Joan] Anim-Addo," whose mother was a cricketer, so look for cricketing poems and ye shall find them, I suppose, though Anim-Addo's 'Janie Cricketing Lady' poem doesn't seem to be anywhere online, and the rest of that paper is only available to subscribers. The most recent cricket poem that I know about is the one written by an Australian sports journalist late last year after Phillip Hughes died. How often do the papers cover poems? -- but they covered this one. Te tum te tum te tum, it went. "The nation mourns, the cricket stops, but never be in doubt, | That somewhere far above us, he’s still sixty-three not out."

      George Francis Wilson in 1905 went a wee bit overboard.

      "Cricket, of games the rose of all that please
      Whether in London city or beneath
      Far Austral skies, or on some village heath.
      No name of promise and past ecstasies,
      Of sun-spaced hours and green-grass memories.
      Falls from our lips with such an easeful breath
      When Spring hath laid aside her girlish wreath
      And Summer's tresses float upon the breeze !

      Nor gold may stain, nor tyrant qualify
      Thy Commonweal of Peace : thy votaries.
      Whose song is healing and whose regimen
      A rhythmic unison *twixt hand and eye.
      For their reward do ask but twilight ease,
      For their last law the law of honest men."

    4. (In defence of Wilson, the lines "-- and a throbbing star | Waned to a spark, afar" from 'A Sixer', are a useful example of language fastening its teeth in some physical phenomenon and flooding it so completely with literature that the original thing goes under and drowns and is removed, like a mastodon in a tar pit.)

    5. The Wilson poem has the advantage that it is not obscure, in the sense that I can understand it despite complete ignorance of cricket. It has the disadvantage of being terrible. Bear down on the topic at hand, man.

    6. George Francis Wilson seems to be justly neglected, going by what you quote and the Murray isn't Murray at his best.

      My own books are in boxes so I can't look properly, but thinking on I'd say that the best poetry - the best writing, perhaps - on cricket is elegiac - wistful, as you say. Gavin Ewart wrote rampaging McGonegallesques about Botham's Headingley innings of 1981, but it was a poem about cricketing suicides (cricketers - and especially ex-cricketers - seem more likely to kill themselves than others are) that was most moving. I can't find it on the 'net, though. Here's Alan Ross's Test Match at Lord's:

      Bailey bowling, MacLean cuts him late for one.
      I walk from the Long Room into slanting sun.
      Two ancients halt as Statham starts his run.
      Then, elbows linked, but straight as sailors
      On a tilting deck, they move. One, square-shouldered as a tailor's
      Model, leans over, whispering in the other's ear:
      'Go easy. Steps here. This end bowling.'
      Turning, I watch Barnes guide Rhodes into fresher air,
      As if to continue an innings, though Rhodes may only play by ear.

      The only problem is that it's a poem in a mythology: if the names are only abstract names they have no effect. Know some of the names and they echo down the years.
      The same is true elsewhere: Arlott on Hobbs, for instance. In prose too: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man are as much Memoirs of a Cricketing Man -Sasson and Blunden played into their sixties - and the only innocence some of Simon Raven's depraved characters have is in memories of cricket.
      I prefer Thompson at Lord's to Thompson on the Lord and I regret Hopkins never wrote about W.G. Grace rather than god.

    7. Murray is usually better when he can possess his subject or else annihilate it a bit and replace it with his own observation of it (becoming a flock of bats, or comparing a 4WD in a driveway to a bear muscling down on its shoulders in, I think, 'The Biplane Houses' somewhere) but for 'The Aboriginal Cricketer' he's decided to stand back from the subject and say, oh, handsome. John Kinsella is a better Australian poet to go to for that hands-off respect; it's his normal mode.

      (And it occurs to me to wonder if Kinsella has ever written a cricket poem. The Australian Poetry Library gives me some instances of him mentioning it ("players floating | in slow movement | to the wicket" from 'Still Life/Through a Window" and 'The cricket pitch is a glowing strip | calenture betrayed by reticulation' from "The lonely of heart ...') but not a whole poem. Chris Wallace-Crabbe on the same website is being more Murray than Murray: "cricketers [...] all carved from the one block of ice-cream" but Murray is being Murray too: "The new car outside, streaming cricket scores | is a sit-in radio.')

      After looking for the Brathwaite yesterday I'm still chewing over the difference between those wistful poems, which are primarily British, and the poems of the West Indies, in which all the heroes are current and alive and the spectators aren't thinking about the grass or the sun or the summer air; they want to know who's going to win.

      ... So Islands eh win de sheld is Guyana.
      Well who tell dem say dat, Tanti nearly cause ah riot.
      She start to carry on.
      She say dey teaf,
      She say dey eh like de Islands,
      She say change de rules,
      She say tie and draw, same ting,
      She say she forming delegation to see de Doctor,
      She say she declare war,
      An' she have one big, big crowd round she,
      An' she on top one ah dem ting dey does roll de pitch with.
      Dat same Tanti Merle dat look as if butter can't melt in she mout.
      It take me 'bout two hours to get she out de Oval ...

      (Paul Keens-Douglas)

    8. I like Murray when he has room to sprawl - THe Boys Who Stole the Funeral and Ferdy Neptune. Did A.D. Hope ever write about cricket? No doubt Baudelaire came into the poem too, if he did. Did he even mention it? It doesn't even count as a sign of "her immense stupidity". Come to that, did Geoffrey Hill? I bought Broken Hierarchies second-hand and haven't packed it away, but the thought of so much inescapable literary and personal references, scrupulous and transformative punctuation and multiple meaning in one volume has intimidated me when I've thought of opening it so far.
      I'd guess C.L.R. James is very present in Brathwaite - cricket is national liberation and national identity by other means there.

    9. If Hill has ever written about cricket then I don't remember it. He doesn't seem to intersect with organised sport of any kind, he doesn't even disparage it, which now that you've brought it up, is interesting: an intense focus on the nature of England and Englishness but no sport? The mass spectacle of Diana-mourning moves him; the mass spectacle of team allegiance doesn't. Does his child-self in the "Mercian Hymns" ever play sport? I don't believe he does. He has a toy plane and he burns things. He mucks around with frogs. No games with goals or scores or teams.

      Hope mentions cricket briefly (caveat: I haven't read all of Hope) but he was opium-of-the-masses about sport in general and cricket is just another opiate. Sport in Hope isn't something you do, it's something you gawp at when you should be doing something else.

  7. These comments on cricket poetry are sufficient justification for writing a book blog.