This section is from the book "The Life Of Francis Thompson", by Everard Meynell. Also available from Amazon: The life of Francis Thompson.
In all the poetry belonging to the period of "The Mistress of Vision" Patmore is the master of vision. He leads the way to "deific peaks" and "conquered skies," the Virgil of a younger Dante.
Their thoughts chimed to the same stroke of metre and rhyme;1 for each of the mystical poems may be found suggestions in Patmore. For the "Dread of height" we find among " Aurea Dicta " the following :-
" ' Searchers of Majesty shall be overwhelmed with the glory.' Blissfully overwhelmed; ruined for this world, yet even in this enriched beyond thought; happy searchers, consumed by the thunder of divine instructions and the lightning of divine perceptions, but surviving as new creatures in the very flesh of the destroyer."
" The spirit of man is like a kite, which rises by means of those very forces which seem to oppose its rise; the tie that joins it to the earth, the opposing winds of temptation, and the weight of earth-born affections which it carries with it into the sky."
Patmore's " Hate pleasure, if only because this is the only means of obtaining it" is the root paradox of the many found in the lines beginning-" Lose, that the lost thou may'st receive," and the rest.
But go through the whole of the two poets, and even while recognising the twin enterprises of imagination you will end in the enjoyment of their dissimilarity. Patmore has quoted St. Paul-" Let each man abound in his own sense," and has said himself:-
" When once he has got into the region of perception, let him take care that his vision is his own, and not fancy he can profit himself or others much by trying to appropriate their peculiar variations of the common theme."
1 "The metre in my present volume," wrote the author in a suppressed preface to New Poems, "is completely based on the principles which Mr. Patmore may be said virtually to have discovered."
Patmore may have given Thompson a metre and a score of thoughts, but above everything else he gave him the freedom of his imagination. Having led him to a point of vantage, he looked in the same direction, but the revelation varied as the view varies to two men who walk along a road towards the same sunset. They are a few paces apart; to one an intervening tree may be black and sombre, to the other streaked with fire. The height they reached may have been the same, but the dread of height was to each a thing of his own.
From Patmore, August 1895 :-
" I see, with joy, how nearly we are upon the same lines, but our visions could not be true were they quite the same; and no one can really see anything but his own vision."
Again, in November of the same year:-
" It is always a great thing to me to receive a letter from you. My heart goes forth to you as it goes to no other man; for are we not singularly visited by a great common delight and a great common sorrow ? Is not this to be one in Christ ? "
" You dissipate my solitude and melancholy as no other, but one, can."
Again from Patmore :-
" In the manner of your verse you are gaining in simplicity, which is a great thing. But I will speak more of that bye-and-bye. In the matter, I think you outstrip me. I am too concrete and intelligible. I fear greatly lest what I have written may not do more harm than good, by exposing Divine realities to profane comprehensions, and by inflaming ' popular esotericism.' "
"The Mistress of Vision" is described by F. T. as " a phantasy with no more than an illusive tinge of psychic significance." It is a masque in which he and his Muse observe the formalities of dialogue, but before the poem is finished the truth is out; as when, dawn breaking upon dancing lovers, their steps cease, and for a moment their embrace is real. So in the poem : the phantasy is not maintained; the masque is up. Christ, before one is aware, is treading the land of Luthany, is walking on the waters. Following, in carefully considered sequence, is " Contemplation," and, afterward, the true fruits of The Unknown Eros. " I felt my instrument yet too imperfect to profane by it the highest ranges of mysticism," he had said, and, in "The Mistress of Vision," "The Dread of height," and particularly in "The Orient Ode," something is withheld. As the rood-screen shields the altar, language screens revelation.
Although the spirit of reservation in the literature of religious experience has apology in the saying that they who know God best do not seek to define Him, that is not the leading argument for reticence. Patmore said that in such matters the part is greater than the whole, and in any case
" No great art, no really effective ethical teaching can come from any but such as know immeasurably more than they will attempt to communicate."
And, beyond that, they recognised truths "which it is not lawful to utter," but knew that the poet may express them in ways that shade them to the eye, or make them invisible as the too-bright disc of the sun. Sufficient rays may pass through cloudy speech to diffuse life-sufficing warmth. " See that thou tell no man " is an injunction of which the poets keep the letter but break the spirit.
"Not only among the Hebrews," writes F.T. in a review of a paper on St. Clement, " but among the Egyptians and Greeks, prophecies and oracles were delivered under enigmas. The Egyptian hieroglyphics, the apothegms of the wise men of Greece, are instances of the practice of throwing a kind of veil around important truths in order that the curiosity of men may be aroused and their diligence stimulated. All who treated of divine things, whether Greeks or Barbarians, concealed the principles. . . . Whatever has a veil of mystery thrown around it, causes the truth to appear more grand and awful."
St. Clement speaks of an unwritten tradition of blessed doctrine, handed down from SS. Peter, James, John, and Paul. St. Clement's own account of these sacred doctrines is, he himself says, incomplete; some he has forgotten, others he would be unwilling to allude to even in speech, much more unwilling in writing, lest they who met them should pervert them to their own injury, and he should thus be placing, according to the proverb, a sword in the hand of a child.