This section is from the book "The Life Of Francis Thompson", by Everard Meynell. Also available from Amazon: The life of Francis Thompson.
It ends : "Bring back even the best age of Paganism, and you smite beauty on the cheek. But you cannot bring back then, the best age of Paganism, the age when
Paganism was a faith. None will again behold Apollo in the forefront of the morning, or see Aphrodite in the upper air loose the long lustre of her golden locks. But you may bring back-dii avertant omen-the Paganism of the days of Pliny, and Statius, and Juvenal. . . . This is the Paganism which is formidable, and not the antique lamp whose feeding oil is spent, whose light has not outlasted the damps of its long sepulture." This he wrote, who might have been exercising his knowledge of ignominy in a Ventre de Londres or at least in such a book as the memorable Rowton House Rhymes.
The streets, somehow, had nurtured a poet and trained a journalist. He had gone down into poverty so absolute that he was often without pen and paper, and now emerged a pressman. Neither his happiness, nor his tenderness, nor his sensibility had been marred, like his constitution, by his experiences. To be the target of such pains as it is the habit of the world to deplore as the extreme of disaster, and yet to keep alive the young flame of his poetry; to be under compulsion to watch the ignominies of the town, and yet never to be nor to think himself ignominious ; to establish the certitude of his virtue ; to keep flourishing an infinite tenderness and capability for delicacies and gentilezze of love-these were the triumphs of his immunity. A mother not yet delivered of her child must be protected from all ills of mind and body lest they do injury to the delicate and susceptible life within her. Horrors must not be spoken in her presence; it has been held fit that she should have pictures about her bed of fair infants that her thoughts might instruct the features of the unborn child in good-favouredness. How otherwise was the poet dealt with, whose intellect was the womb of the word ! The making of Viola, as he tells it, is a sweeter business than the making of a poet-of the maker of a " Making of Viola "-but not more natural and inevitable. Thompson's muse rose intact, but trailing bloody insignia of battle ; his spirit rose from the penal waters fresh as Botticelli's Venus. It had not been more marvellous if Sandro's lady, with cool cheeks, floating draperies, and dry curls, had risen from a real un-plumbed, salt, estranging sea, instead of from the silly ripples of Florentine convention.
But physically he was battered ; and his condition led my father to prevail upon him, with much difficulty, to be examined by a doctor. " He will not live," was the first verdict, " and you hasten his death by denying his whims and opium." But the risk was taken, and Francis sent to a private hospital.
Thus he alludes to the change within himself :- " Please accept my warmest thanks for all your kindness and trouble on my behalf. I know this is a very perfunctory looking letter ; but until the first sharp struggle is over, it is difficult for me to write in any other way."
De Quincey thought that opium killed Coleridge as a poet, that it was the enemy of his authorship ; that the leaving off of opium creates a new heaven and a new earth. Thompson had now to experience such things by the denial of the drug. Of his links with Coleridge A. M. writes in the Dublin Review, January 1908:-
"Of his alienation from ordinary life, laudanum was the sole cause, and, of laudanum, early and long disease. Coleridge's fault was Thompson's-an evasion of the daily dues of man to man. It was laudanum that dissolved Coleridge's bond to wife and child, and piled their unanswered letters by his bed of illusion and shattering dreams ; it was laudanum that held the hand bound to open them, turning it half callous and half timorous, as though insensibility should borrow of sensibility its flight, its cowardice, and its closed eyes; or rather the sensitive and loving man was acting his own part, wearing a delusive likeness to himself, while laudanum cared nothing for wife or child. It was laudanum that sent Coleridge to take refuge on one alien hearth when no fire was kindled to welcome him in any home of his kindred. It was laudanum that was the unspoken thing, the unnamed, in Coleridge's conscious talk; other things he would confess, but not this, which was the daily desire, the daily possession, and the daily stealth. So it was also, in his own degree, with this later sufferer. Francis Thompson was not like Coleridge; he had not Coleridge's bond and obligations; but the laudanum was alike in the wronged veins, the altered blood, of both."
The renunciation of opium, not its indulgence, opened the doors of the intellect. Opium killed the poet in Coleridge; the opium habit was stifled at the birth of the poet in Thompson. His images came toppling about his thoughts overflowingly during the pains of abstinence. This, too, was de Quincey's experience, told when he was unwinding " the accursed chain " : " I protest to you I have a greater influx of thoughts in one hour at present than in a whole year under the reign of opium. It seems as though all the thoughts which had been frozen up for a decade of years by opium had now, according to the old fable, been thawed at once."
"The Ode to the Setting Sun" was written at midsummer in 1889, and on receiving it, his editor, with my mother and a young friend, Mr. Vernon Blackburn, straightway took the train to congratulate him on this first conclusive sign of the splendour of his powers. For the poet had been placed with the monks at Storrington Priory, and it was the music of three wandering musicians heard in the village street that opened the ode1:-
The wailful sweetness of the violin Floats down the hushed waters of the wind,
The heart-strings of the throbbing harp begin To long in aching music. . . .
Thus by accident were the words of Sir Thomas Browne, an author beloved of Francis-words quoted by de Quincey-again made good : " And even that tavern music, which makes one merry, another mad, in me strikes a deep fit of devotion."