And forgetfulness which yet knoweth it doth forget; But content-what is content ?
He makes a like protest in the " Renegade Poet on the Poet" :-
"... Did we give in to that sad dog of a Robert Louis, we must needs set down the poor useless poet as a son of joy. But the title were an irony more mordant than the title of the hapless ones to whom it likens him- Filles de Joie? O rather filles damertume. And if the pleasure they so mournfully purvey were lofty and purging, as it is abysmal and corrupting, then would Mr. Stevenson's parallel be just; but then, too, from ignoble victims they would become noble ministrants.
. . . Like his sad sisters, but with that transfiguring difference, this poet, this son of bitterness, sows in sorrow that men may reap in joy. He serves his pleasure, say you, R. L. S. ? 'Tis a strange pleasure, if so it be."
Forsaken, his complaints were doubled. Of many lamentations for his muse, the following lines to W. M. have a personal bearing :-
Ah, gone the days when for undying kindness I still could render you undying song ! You yet can give, but I can give no more; Fate, in her extreme blindness, Has wrought me so great wrong. I am left poor indeed; Gone is my sole and amends-making store, And I am needy with a double need.
Behold that I am like a fountained nymph, Lacking her customed lymph, The longing parched in stone upon her mouth, Unwatered by its ancient plenty. She (Remembering her irrevocable streams), A Thirst made marble, sits perpetually With sundered lips of still-memorial drouth.
" I shall never forget when he told me," writes Mr. Wilfred Whitten, " under the mirrored ceiling of the Vienna Cafe" that he would never write poetry again."
At one time he would declare " Every great poem is a human sacrifice "; but at another :-
" It is usual to suppose that poets, because their feelings are more delicate than other men's, must needs suffer more terribly in the great calamities which agonise all men. But, omitting from the comparison the merely insensible, the idea may be questioned. The delicate nature stops at a certain degree of agony, as the delicate piano at a certain strength of touch."
And at another, in an early note-book :-
"The main function of poetry is to be a fruitful stimulus. That is, to minister to those qualities in us which are capable of increase. Otherwise, it is a sterile luxury. Nor should it be made to minister to qualities which are mischievous by much increase. Sought mainly to provoke waning emotion, it is a sterile luxury; sought mainly to stimulate crescent emotion a pernicious luxury."
In view of these various accounts of the poetic function one must ask: Were the sorrows necessary ? were they real ? One mistrusts the poet, to whom joy must necessarily often come in the affirmation of distress.
One may argue that Thompson must have been happy on the score of his poetry. As a poet, no doubt, he was ; but not necessarily as a man. The two states did not overlap. He says in a letter to a friend that he did not realise that Sister Songs, so poor a thing, would give pleasure; whereas in verse he speaks of sending it exultingly.
His " I have no poetry," like the communicant's " I am unworthy," is but the prelude to the embrace. In the " To a Broom Branch at Twilight" (Merry England, November 1891), he declares that there are songs in the branches-
I and they are wild for clasping, But you will not yield them me.
The thought that silence is the lair of sound was his own ample consolation for other unproductive periods : but now as he grew ill and really silent, he felt that silence could nurture only silence.
His pride faces his distress; they stare each other out of countenance. It is certain that he often joined in
George Herbert's address to a Providence who has made man "the secretary of her praise," though "beasts fain would sing," and "trees be tuning on their native lute " :-
Man is the world's high-priest; he doth present
The sacrifice for all; while they below
Unto the service mutter an assent
Such as springs use that fall, and winds that blow.
And against the many contrary passages of Francis's may also be set his on the poet's happiness :-
What bitterness was overpaid By one full verse ! world's love, world's pelf I fillipped from me, and but prayed Boon of my scantly yielded self.
Here the " curse of destinate verse " reads like a blessing. Yet, strictly speaking, he found that unwritten predestinate verse means an ill case:-
For ever the songs I sing are sad With the songs I never sing.
His complaint is not against the verse that gets written, which even when sad of origin is a boon : "Deep grief or pain, may, and has in my case, found immediate outlet in poetry."
To his view of others on previous pages must be added his attitude towards the author of "The Anthem of Earth," of "The Hound of Heaven," of "Shelley." One who went to the task of reviewing his contemporaries heavy, not with distaste, but with pent-up potential admirations, who had an appetite at once insatiable and fastidious for all literature, must needs have enjoyed in relaxation the splendours of his own verse.1 But not merely as critic did Francis Thompson realise the greatness of Thompson. The innermost chambers of his consciousness buzzed with the certainty of his poetic gravity and significance. He trusted the quality of the poetry within him as an ordinary man trusts the beat of his pulse and counts upon it. There were anxieties of composition and, of course, the ebb and flow of satisfaction in himself and a final despair. But before that he had known that he was, and he still knew that he had been, a poet. That is why he is so often the laureate of his own verse-
Before mine own elect stood I,
And said to Death :-( Not these shall die.'
I issued mandate royally. I bade Decay :-' Avoid and fly;
For I am fatal unto thee.'
I sprinkled a few drops of verse, And said to Ruin,' Quit thy hearse7:
To my loved,' Pale not, come with me ; I will escort thee down the years,
With me thou walk'st immortally.'
These vaunting rhymes were written that he might go on to declare his undoing, being now stripped of his songs. It was true, of course, that he lost, not the poetry, but the functions of the poet. In exquisite lines he begs his muses to stay their flight, and his exquisite
1 With nothing that he has to say of another poet is it so impossible to agree as with his own estimate of the relative importance of the sections of New Poems-
"Creccas Cottage, Pantasaph, November 1896.
" My dear Doubleday,-I regret that I cannot consent to the omission of the translations. If anything is to be left out, it must be the section Ultima, not the translations. I said at Pantasaph that I would keep these, whatever I left out. They were held over from my first book, and I will not hold them over again. I regard the * Heard on the Mountain* as a feat in diction and metre ; and in this respect Coventry Patmore agrees with me. But I do not at all mind leaving out the section Ultima.-Yours, F. T." lines belie the convention that they have flown, that the shrines of his heart are empty.
In Mr. Wilfred Whitten's obituary notice of Thompson there is report at first hand of the poet's satisfaction in that his poetry was immortal. He quotes :-
The sleep-flower sways in the wheat its head, Heavy with dreams, as that with bread ; The goodly grain and the sun-flushed sleeper The reaper reaps, and Time the reaper.
I hang 'mid men my needless head,
And my fruit is dreams, as theirs is bread :
The goodly men and the sun-hazed sleeper
Time shall reap, but after the reaper
The world shall gleam of me, me the sleeper !
And he adds : " When Francis Thompson wrote these verses, he did not indulge a fitful or exalted hope; he expressed the quiet faith of his post-poetic years. Thompson knew that above the grey London tumult, in which he fared so ill, he had hung a golden bell whose tones would one day possess men's ears. He believed that his name would be symphonised on their lips with Milton and Dryden and Keats. This he told me himself in words too quiet, obscure, and long ago for record. But he knew that Time would reap first."