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Down The Arches of the Years

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Down The Arches of the Years

Post by Karen on Sat 9 Apr 2011 - 13:14

radio by Edward Wickham.
Down the arches of the years.

If you like your poets mad, bad and dangerous to know, then you'll just love Francis Thompson. Author of one of the most anthologised poems of the 19th century, "The Hound of Heaven", he was a drug addict and a visionary, a poet who scribbled his best verse into notebooks on the streets of London, and who was saved from those streets by a good-hearted prostitute.
In his documentary on Thompson (The Hound of Heaven, Thursday, Radio 4), Michael Symmons Roberts began by trying to draw parallels between his own life and Thompson's. Both born in Preston, both from Roman Catholic families, both poets - and that, luckily for Roberts, was that. The attempt to make this a kind of dialogue between soul-mates ended early, and became instead a more straightforward and satisfactory account of Thompson's life.
The readings of Thompson's poetry by Ken Bradshaw were outstanding, presented in a tone of intense fascination, as if the narrator-poet were himself unable quite to comprehend the bizarre visions he was presenting. Bradshaw also played the voice of Thompson during the documentary, and the transition from this to the voice of the poet made perfect sense. The famous lines about Jacob's ladder "pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross", and Christ walking on the Thames, were electrifying.
Thompson's relationship with Christianity was fraught and ambivalent. He studied for six years to be a priest, then gave it up for medicine (which he also abandoned). His addiction to opium seems to have started during his medical training, and got worse when he went to London, living on the streets around Charing Cross and the Embankment, which still see their fair share of homeless visionaries and cranks.
Only when a publisher discovered him did he make a serious attempt to kick the habit by going into rehab at Storrington Priory in Sussex. But works such as "The Hound of Heaven" are not Christian in any straightforward sense. This, his most famous poem, is an expression of persecution, fear and, above all, erotic anticipation. If it reminds us of anything biblical, it is the Song of Songs, but written in a paranoid drug-dream.
In other works, such as "To a Snowflake", which Valentine Cunningham describes as the best nature poem of the 19th century, Thompson seems influenced by Blake, as he wonders at the Creator of such an extraordinary thing.

Source: Church Times, September 19 2003, Page 13

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Karen Trenouth
Author of: "Epiphany of the Whitechapel Murders"
Author of: "Jack the Ripper: The Satanic Team"
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