Mr. E. V. Lucas has written of the incongruity of Thompson's appearance and his enthusiasm :-
" If ever a figure seemed to say, ' Take me anywhere in the world so long as it is not to a cricket match,' that figure was Francis Thompson's. And his eye supported it. His eye had no brightness: it swung laboriously upon its object; whereas the enthusiasts of St. John's Wood dart their glances like birds. But Francis Thompson was born to baffle the glib inference."
It was his unpromising figure that, making its way late at night from Granville Place to Brondesbury, would pass through St. John's Wood and be stirred with thoughts of the game. Had his mutterings reached the ear of the policeman on the Lord's beat, it would have been known that they were not always so tragically engendered as his mien suggested. The following lines he wrote out for me and posted in the early hours after such a journey:-
The little Red Rose shall be pale at last.
What made it red but the June Wind's sigh ? And Brearley's ball that he bowls so fast ?
It shall sink in the dust of the late July !
The pride of the North shall droop at last;
What made her proud but the Tyl-des-lie ? An Austral ball shall be bowled full fast,
And baffle his bat and pass it by.
The Rose once wounded shall snap at last.
The Rose long bleeding it shall not die. This song is secret. Mine ear it passed
In a wind from the field of Le-bone-Marie.
At the end of two years at Owens College he went to London for the first time, staying with his cousin, Mr. May, in Tregunter Road, Fulham.1 The trials of examination were partly compensated for by a visit to the opera.
In 1879 Francis fell ill, and did not recover until after a long bout of fever. He looks stricken and thin in photographs taken at his recovery, and it is probably at this time that he first tasted laudanum. It was at this time too, during his early courses at Owens College, that Mrs. Thompson, without any known cause or purpose, gave her son a copy of The Confessions of an English Opium Eater? It was a last gift, for she died December 19, 1880. Apart from the immediate consequences of this momentous introduction, fraught with suggestions and sympathies for which there was a gaping readiness in the young man, it greatly serves in the understanding of the opium-eater in general, of the Manchester opium-eater in particular, and of Francis Thompson, to make or renew acquaintance with de Quincey. Indeed if there is one favour that must be asked by the biographer of Francis Thompson, it is that his readers should also be readers of the Confessions, for, without the mighty initiation of that masterly prose, the gateways into the strange and tortuous landscape of dreams can hardly be forced, nor half the thickets and valleys be conquered, of the poet's intellectual history.
1 It pleases the idle mind of the present writer to find that Francis visited Tregunter Road when my mother, who was years later to be the lady of " Love in Dian's Lap," was staying there, unknown to him.
* His uncle, Edward Healy Thompson, afterwards remembered that The Opium Eater was his favourite book at home : " We had often said his experiences would surpass those of de Quincey."
At the same time the family noted other influences ; it was a tradition of theirs that " On the 3rd Sunday of September, 1885, Fr. Richardson of St. Mary's, Ashton-under Lyne, delivered a sermon on ' Our Lady of Sorrows,' which, Francis hearing, was the subject of his meditation, and, two years later, of his poem 'The Passion of Mary.' It is thought that he did not make any notes on the sermon in church, but in the drawing-room at home in Stamford Street he made use that same night of pencil and paper."
As a sight of the pictures of Tintoretto would serve to make known, to one entirely ignorant of the style, the possibilities and achievements of the Venetian School; would serve to make known, not Titian, but the possibility of a Titian, so the style of de Quincey, the habit of his mind, the manner of his confessing, his concealments and sincerities, his association of passion and idleness, his fretfulness and his habit of presaging dole, his manner of complaining of being cold a-bed, his bulletins, his conscious style and repetitions, serve to bring the personality of Thompson to the memory of those who knew him and into the ken of those who did not. For the family likeness, for the school manner, there are passages, too, in the history of Coleridge that will be found suggestive and explanatory. In knowing these cousins of the habit, you come, as you cannot come by any single and uncorroborated experience, into very convincing touch with him whom you are seeking. If, apart from the special significance of Francis's communion with de Quincey, these two are linked, and in them the family likeness is apparent, what of the likeness and the linking when we find how strong was the allegiance sworn by Francis to the spirit of de Quincey; when we track allusions and words and mannerisms in the " Anthem of Earth" back to the Confessions; when coincidence of actualities as well as the coincidence of intellect, such as the two flights from Manchester and the two lives in the streets of London, clashed upon the attention of the young man who was withdrawn from the companionship of contemporaries ?
De Quincey, like Francis, had spent much time in the Manchester library. There both made their vocabularies robust and rare from the same Elizabethans, both fattened to the marrow the bones of their English from Sir Thomas Browne. And both stumbled headlong down a precipice of despondency. De Quincey has said many things on his own behalf, in that despondency and in the recourse to opium, that may well be said on Thompson's.
It happened as if in giving Francis the Confessions Mrs. Thompson had found for him a guardian, a spokesman, as if she had borne to him an elder brother. For Francis's feeling for de Quincey soon came to be that of a younger for an elder brother who has braved a hazardous road, shown the way, conquered, and left it strewn with consolations and palliations. From de Quincey he received the passport, the royal introduction set forth in Sir Walter Raleigh-like language ringing with at least the assurance of its own stateliness and power:-