" He has been, from the first, unfortunate in being shielded from sincere criticism. He has been persuaded by his friends that he is a genius, divinely inspired, whose wildest utterances are his best. ... In no poet of reputation is it (order) more strikingly absent than in Mr. Thompson. Beautiful fancy, sonorous and picturesque diction we find here, indeed, but no motive power. These odes begin on one key, are shifted to another, take up a fresh subject, drop it, and, at length, as if merely wearied of their aimless flight, drop suddenly, and cease in the air."
"These, and the rest, are nonsense-verses," the same writer says of " The Mistress of Vision," but finds elsewhere "a touch of genuine sublimity." The former British Review picks out several examples of "his barbarous jargon" (a phrase also used by Home of Meredith's " Song of Queen Theodolinda ") and prescribes for him Ben Jonson's pill for the poetaster and that he be shaken free of " the praises with which his friends now mislead him." The Literary World also sees need of doctoring, saying, " Nothing can be stronger than his language, nothing weaker than the impression it leaves on the mind. ... It is like a dictionary of obsolete English suffering from a fierce fit of delirium tremens." The Critic, of New York, takes Thompson's ignorance of religion and symbolism for granted ; the Times finds fault with both his poetry and Catholicism ; the Morning Post is unfavourable; the Daily Chronicle, the Speaker, and the Guardian all begin severely but leave scolding before they ended to give generous praise. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph was handsome. The poet's obscurity was the chief cause of displeasure, since from thinking a man's meanings difficult it is fatally easy to go on to say he is meaningless. The case they make is start-lingly good ; one reaches for one's Thompson from the shelves to see if he is in truth so great as one had thought before spending an hour with his early critics. If one pauses before quoting them, it is not for fear of dealing unkindly with them. They are convincing ; only the Thompson of scraps they condemn is not the
Thompson we know by the book. When the Pall Mall says
" There is a terrible poem called ' The Anthem of Earth' without form and void, rhymeless and the work of a mediaeval and pedantic Walt Whitman," the point may be conceded, as between that particular critic and his particular Thompson; it is even possible to share with the Pall Mall its " deep-rooted irritability " when one has to contemplate on its pages tortuous and steep passages torn from their text.
Against the adverse may be set many good criticisms. Mr. Richard Whiteing wrote finely in the Daily News, for he cleared the hurdle of initial distaste-" It is idle to throw the book to the other end of the room. You have to pick it up again." He hates such " outrageous conceits" as "The world's unfolded blossom smells of God "; or " Soul fully blest to feel God whistle thee at heel." It is the old hatred, probably, of overhearing the "little language" of lovers or whispered prayers. But Mr. Whiteing admits that "to put him in order might only be to spoil him. He must have his way."
In the Speaker, Sir A. T. Quiller-Couch, after commenting, as usual, on the precipitate and defiant eulogies of the poet's "friends," continued :-
"... On the other hand, to be stung into denying that he is a poet, and an extraordinarily fine one, is to lose one's head just as wildly and less pardonably. ... Of ' The Mistress of Vision,' I can only say that it recalls, after many days, the wonder and delight with which as a boy I first read ' Kubla Khan.' "
The Daily Chronicle, where Mr. Le Gallienne had given place to Mr. Archer, on a first reading, recognised " a man of imagination all compact, a seer and singer of rare genius"; the Athenczum "a singular mastery of verse " ; the Edinburgh, with ponderous speed, " a great poet," and the Academy and Bookman gave handsome welcomes. Notwithstanding these, the impression on public and poet was discouraging. The book sold badly, and soon died, so that for the first half of the year in 1901 it brought in six shillings' worth of royalties : four copies had been sold. During the first half of 1902 the book found five buyers.
F. T. so far felt depressed by the bulk of adverse criticism as to write his thanks to one of the few kindly reviewers of the new book. He got in answer, June 7, 1897 =-
" I simply expressed (very inadequately) the pleasure your work had given me, without the least thought as to what anyone else thought or might think. That, however, is not strictly true. Your letter reminds me that I read some extracts to a friend, and then said, ' This is not work which can possibly be popular in the wide sense ; but it is work that will be read and treasured centuries hence by those who really care for poetry.' This comes back to me as you speak of the reaction. I assure you no conceivable reaction can wipe out or overlay such work as yours. It is firm based on the rock of absolute beauty; and this I say all the more confidently because it does not happen to appeal to my own speculative, or even my own literary, prejudices.-Yours very truly,
Later F. T. met Mr. Archer casually at Mr. Doubleday's house in Westminster, and his poetry and portrait figured in Mr. Archer's Poets of the Younger Generation.
He was not put out of humour by small royalties :-
"Dear Wilfrid,-It strikes me that the cheque (2/11) has a very unseemly tail, which would be much improved by a piece grafted on to it, to give it a trifle more handsome proportions. Perhaps the thing might not be impossible to a patient operator (to speak ex-medical-studently).-Yours ever, F. T."
He could be tragic too. His interruption during a reading of " Othello" at our house is never to be forgotten. Desdemona was in death agony, when an emphatic voice proclaimed:-" Here's a go, Mrs. Meynell; I have lost my Athenceum cheque." But he found it in another pocket.
If buffers had been needed between the unfavourable reception of New Poems and the sensibility of the author they were supplied at this time by Mr. Garvin's splendid appreciation of his previous works, Poems and Sister Songs,in the Bookman, March 1897:-
" Even with the greatest pages of Sister Songs sounding in one's ears, one is sometimes tempted to think the ' Hound of Heaven' Mr. Thompson's high-water mark for unimaginable beauty and tremendous import-if we do damnably iterate Mr. Thompson's tremendousness, we cannot help it, he thrusts the word upon us. We do not think we forget any of the splendid things of an English anthology when we say that the ' Hound of Heaven' seems to us, on the whole, the most wonderful lyric (if we consider Sister Songs as a sequence of lyrics) in the language. It fingers all the stops of the spirit, and we hear now a thrilling and dolorous note of doom and now the quiring of the spheres and now the very pipes of Pan, but under all the still sad music of humanity. It is the return of the nineteenth century to Thomas a Kempis. In Sister Songs Mr. Thompson has passed from agonies to exultations. Of pure power he had not more to reveal. But Sister Songs has the very sense of Spring: there is some lovely renaissance of spirit in the book, a melting of snows and all dewy germinations of delight. What rhythms are so lissome and persuasive as those of the first part ? In dainty and debonair invention it is altogether incomparable. Sister Songs opens with all the lyrical ilan of Shelley perfectly married with the full and definite vision, the pure and vivid phrase of Keats. Thus in two of Mr. Thompson's many passages on childhood-
Or if white-handed light Draw thee yet dripping from the quiet pools,
Still lucencies and cools, Of sleep, which all night mirror constellate dreams ; and again-
. . . bubbles from the calyces Of the lovely thoughts that breathe, Paving like water-flowers thy spirit's floor beneath. " The second part of Sister Songs is in a greater mood. It is the high ritual of beauty, a very apocalypse of poetry, and one should only labour the futility of terms in attempting to praise it. The primary things of poetry are newly and immortally said. But Mr. Thompson's receptive mind is saturated with modern thought, and he uses it in a singular way to deepen the ancient interpretations. He touches Darwinism, and it becomes trans-mutable in a lovely and poignant lyric-
In pairing-time, we know, the bird Kindles to its deepmost splendour,
And the tender Voice is tenderest in its throat.
" May we not dare to say of this passage (beginning-' Wild Dryad ! all unconscious of thy tree' in Sister Songs) that it almost arrives at that ultimate thing, that ' one thought, one grace, one wonder at the least,' which for Marlowe was beyond the furthest reach of words, and which poets have been seeking to declare from the beginning of song ? Mr. Thompson's poetry scarcely comes by way of the outward eye at all. He scarcely depends upon occasions. In a dungeon one imagines that he would be no less a poet. The regal air, the prophetic ardours, the apocalyptic vision, the supreme utterance-he has them all. A rarer, more intense, more strictly predestinate genius has never been known to poetry. To many this may well appear the simple delirium of over-emphasis. The writer signs for those others, nowise ashamed, who range after Shakespeare's very Sonnets the poetry of a living poet, Francis Thompson."