A Professor of Romance Languages in Columbia University may be right in thinking that Thompson does not ever sink so low as Verlaine, nor ever rise quite so high, and that greater poets than Thompson, from Collins to Coleridge, have often failed in the ode-forms, but he is inaccurate when he says that, " like Verlaine, he is the poet of sin."
Since there was so little to go upon, it is hardly surprising that the alien onlooker's conception of Francis Thompson was a misconception. His poor living, his unknown lodging, his fugitive seclusion encouraged the legend that he was still an outcast. Since this alien had never heard him laugh, and to the ear's imagination it is easier to frame a cry, the subject of the ready-made legend never even smiled; there were no fioretti connected with his name, and the weeds were taken for granted. The heavy remorsefulness of his muse seemed, to such as are unfamiliar with the confiteor of the saints, to mark a more real repentance, and therefore real misconduct, than does the ordinary, facile peccavi of modern poetry-books. We notice that at his death the writers of the obituary notices who were ready with suggestions of evil days were equally ready with the usual liberal condonation. "No such condonation was called for-though by some it was offered- in the case of Francis Thompson," wrote A. M. in the Dublin Review, January 1908. " For, during many years of friendship, and almost daily companionship, it was evident to solicitous eyes that he was one of the most innocent of men."
To The Nation, November 23, 1907, W. M. wrote his protest:-
" I see in the Times a paragraph about Francis Thompson, against which I will ask you to let me make appeal. It comes from ' A Correspondent,' who ' writes to us'; and I am just such another, writing to you. But I knew Thompson, and no pen but an alien's could have written this to Printing House Square: ' There are occasions on which the conventional expression of regret becomes a mockery, and this is one of them. What the world must regret is not the release of Mr. Thompson, but the fact that the cravings of the body from which he is released should have had power to ruin one of the most remarkable and original of the poetic geniuses of our time.' I know what the writer insinuates. I know, too, that he has overshot his mark. But the public will only too greedily infer from his words that Thompson was a degraded man-he who carried dignity amid all vicissitude; that he was a debauchee-he who lived, as he sang, the votary of Fair Love. Nor need I adopt in his regard the fine passage in which Mr. Birrell defends Charles Lamb's ' drinking.' For Mr. Francis Thompson did not' drink.'
" The ' genius' of Francis Thompson was not ' ruined,' or we should not have the evidence of it on every page of three volumes, presenting together a body of best poetry equal in size to that of most of our poets. But it is true that Thompson's health was wretched from first to last. It is true also that he doctored himself disastrously with laudanum from almost the early days of his medical studentship in Manchester. When he came to the streets of London, the drug delivered him in a manner from their horrors, and, besides, was, I think, some palliation of the disease of which he finally died-consumption. . . .
" Again, Thompson was an uncertain worker; but his friendly editors did not hustle him. And they could always count on him to keep time with even a ' commissioned ' poem. The Odes on the Nineteenth Century and on the Victorian Jubilee did not get late to the editor of the Daily Chronicle ; and even if they had been late, nobody else could have sent them so quickly, for nobody else could have sent them at all. Every week, in the Academy, under Mr. Lewis Hind, Thompson's articles made fine reading-his essay on Emerson marking the high-water mark of that manner of criticism; and I am certain that the editor of the Athenmum, for whom he was in harness almost until the last week of his life, and who treated him with a consideration never to be forgotten by his friends, is in sorrow that Thompson is dead.
" Such, in brief, was my friend :-a moth of a man, who has taken his unreturning flitting ! No pen-least of all, mine-can do justice to him : to his rectitude, to his gentleness, to his genius. .... If he had great misfortunes, he bore them greatly; they were great because everything about him was great. It is my consolation now, amid tears for Thompson from eyes that never thought to shed so many again, to know that he knew and accepted his fate and mission, and that he willingly ' learned in suffering what he taught in song.' But I have spoken too much. I did not mean to do more than make the writer in the Times aware that somebody loves his life less because Thompson is dead."
The argument of the poet's sanctity is in his poems; and it were tiresome to take the oath in the discredited witness-box of biography in denial of any particular accusation. But the circumstances that made imputation of evil likely and credible form part of the literary history of the period. The Mid-Victorian respectability which Patmore lifted to Parnassus in the " Angel in the House," and which lifted Tennyson to the Peerage, had given way to reaction. Swinburne's showy metres had persuaded the young that bad morality could be good art. Instead of Burns's heavy drinking and light loves, Verlaine and absinthe served for a new argument to confound the squeamish. Verlaine made a fashion, and his tragedy came easily, even to minor poets, and was not altogether impious. The young men anxious to fall as he fell were anxious also to share in the depths of his contrition. The duet about commission of sin and contrition for sin had great vogue, and accounts for a deal of the poetry of self-accusation, made, not seldom, in regard to imaginary offences. Contrition was, after all, the main force at work, and, in the naked, truthful, and intense moments of death, this was the ruling passion. The reaction had, after all, been merely a reaction, and not a little genius had been spilled in barren soil. The Church and the Sacraments were at the service of men who had fondly believed that their chief strength was in rebellion, and that they had strayed into ways of loss and salvation peculiar to themselves, but who ended by being sorry.