In the winter of 1887, Wilfred Meynell, editor of the Catholic Magazine Merry England, received a mysterious parcel containing an essay and some poems written on dirty scraps of paper. In the cover letter, pardon was asked, “for the soiled state of the manuscript,” claiming it was not through slovenliness, but the unavoidable circumstances under which they were written. Meynell published one of these poems, hoping by this means to gain further correspondence. His bait worked and one day an unkempt, ragged man, suffering from an opium hangover, entered his office, introducing himself as Francis Thompson.
Born in 1859 to Catholic parents, Thompson was sent to Ushaw College to study for the priest-hood. But at 18 he returned home with a letter from the headmaster which said: “It is quite time that he should begin to prepare for some other career.” So accordingly, for the next six years he lazily studied to become a doctor like his father. But he failed the medical exam three times. About this time he took up opium which was not only available for medical use, but was, as a liquid called laudanum, cheaper and just as available as beer. After his threefold failure he took to the streets of London; a bum, poor and homeless.
It was during these years on the streets writing poetry that Wilfred Meynell found him. Meynell and his wife Alice (also an accomplished poet) took Thompson under their wing, placing him in a drug clinic and then a monastery to recover. For some years he seemed cured of his opium addiction and during this time he wrote nearly all of his poetry and a number of literary essays. But in 1898, Thompson relapsed into his opium addiction from which in part he died in 1907 at the age of 48, due to a mixture of tuberculosis and laudanum poisoning.
From out of this shaky life, in 1893, Thompson wrote "The Hound of Heaven," a poem that is considered his masterpiece. Coventry Patmore called it, “one of the very few ‘great’ odes of which the language can boast.” After gaining fame in England, Thompson’s popularity quickly spread to America and beyond, due in part to critics like G. K. Chesterton who called him “a great poet.” His patron Wilfred Meynell hoped to promote Thompson as "the Poet of Catholic orthodoxy" and even claimed: “One greater than Milton is among us.”
The verse form is irregular and somewhat confusing even after an initial reading. There are rhyming couplets and quatrains spaced throughout that give it just enough regularity to throw off the novice reader (like myself). Even ignoring all rules of order and blindly rushing after the pageant of florid words, however, is often excitement enough. For as nearly everyone who has read it has remarked, the pace is frenzied, running and rushing headlong, as if the Hound of Heaven were indeed close behind.
Thompson was called a mystic poet, that is, he used allegorical and symbolic figures to represent God and other spiritual things. In "The Hound of Heaven," which is autobiographical, the allegorical image is that of Thompson being pursued by a hound, the Hound of Heaven. From which he flees,
of his own mind. But no matter where he goes or what he does, he cannot escape,Down the nights and down the days...Down the arches of the years...
Down the labyrinthine ways
From those strong Feet that followed,
Followed after. But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace.
Soon, the reason he flees is made clear; he does not wish to give up his dreams or his sins. "Lest having him, I must have not besides."
He then says that during the pursuit he leaves even the fellowship and abode of men. Hoping that by living under the open sky and eating in the “wind walled palace” (i.e. outside) he might partake of Nature’s delicate fellowship.
But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart...
And past those noised feet
A voice comes yet more fleet--
'Lo! Naught contents thee, who content’st not me.'
"The Hound of Heaven" is very forceful in presenting humanity fleeing from God even though the gloom is after all only, “Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly.” The poem reaches a raw, emotional pitch rarely attained in written words. As G. K. Chesterton said: “It was an event of History, as much as an event of literature, when personal religion returned suddenly with something of the power of Dante or the 'Dies Irae,' after a century in which such religion had seemed to grow weak and provincial, and more and more impersonal religions appeared to posses the future.”
At last the Hound draws near and asks him why he delays. What is so precious on earth? Doth he not know that,
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest me!
Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Many people from all walks of the Christian life, not just Catholics, have appreciated "The Hound of Heaven" because of its overarching theme: the love of God. That no matter where we are or what we’ve done God is always pursuing, not in wrath, but in love. Perhaps Chesterton expresses best what this poem means: “The awakening of the Domini Canes, the Dogs of God, meant that the hunt was up once more; the hunt for the souls of men…. and…the hunt will continue until the world turns to bay.”