Biography of Francis Thompson

For others with this name, see Francis Thompson (disambiguation).

Francis Thompson
Francis Thompson at 19.jpg
Thompson in 1877.
Born(1859-12-16)16 December 1859
Preston, Lancashire
Died13 November 1907(1907-11-13) (aged 47)
St John's Wood, London
Resting placeSt. Mary's Cemetery
Kensal Green
Known forEthereal poetry
Over 50 poems; essays
Hound of Heaven

Francis Thompson (16 December 1859 – 13 November 1907) was an English poet and mystic. At the behest of his father, a doctor, he entered medical school at the age of 18, but at 26 left home to pursue his talent as a writer and poet. He spent three years on the streets of London, supporting himself with menial labour, becoming addicted to opium which he took to relieve a nervous problem.

In 1888 a married couple, publishers, read his poetry and took him into their home for a time. They were to publish his first book Poems in 1893. In 1897, he switched to writing prose, drawing inspiration from life in the countryside, Wales and Storrington. His health, always fragile, continued to deteriorate and he died of tuberculosis in 1907. By that time he had published three books of poetry, along with other works and essays.

Early life and study

Thompson was born in Winckley Street, Preston, Lancashire. His father, Charles, was a doctor who had converted to Roman Catholicism, following his brother Edward Healy Thompson, a friend of Cardinal Manning. Edward along with John Costall Thompson, Francis' uncles, were both authors. Francis had a brother who died in infancy, and three younger sisters.

At the age of eleven, Thompson was sent to Ushaw College, a Catholic seminary near Durham. Thompson studied medicine for nearly eight years at Owens College, now the University of Manchester. While excelling in essay writing, he took no interest in his medical studies; he had a passion for poetry and for watching cricket matches. He never practised as a doctor, and to escape the reproaches of his father he tried to enlist as a soldier but was rejected for his slightness of stature. Then in 1885 he fled, penniless, to London, where he tried to make a living as a writer, in the meantime taking odd jobs – working for a bootmaker and booksellers, selling matches. During this time, he became addicted to opium, which he had first taken as medicine for ill health, having experienced a nervous breakdown while still in Manchester. He lived on the streets of Charing Cross and slept by the River Thames, with the homeless and other addicts. He was turned down by Oxford University, not because he was unqualified, but because of his addiction. Thompson contemplated suicide in his nadir of despair, but was saved from completing the action through a vision which he believed to be that of a youthful poet Thomas Chatterton, who had committed suicide over a century earlier. A prostitute whose identity Thompson never revealed, befriended him and gave him lodgings. Thompson later described her in his poetry as his saviour.

Writing career

In 1888, after three years on the streets, he was 'discovered' after sending his poetry to the magazine Merrie England. He was sought out by the magazine's editors, Wilfrid and Alice Meynell, who recognised the value of his work. They took him into their home and, concerned about his opium addiction which was at its height following his years on the streets, sent him to Our Lady of England Priory, Storrington, for a couple of years. He continued to take opium but in small doses at irregular intervals, to relieve nerve pain.

Francis wrote most of his poetry during this period from 1888 – 1897, after which he turned to writing prose. He struck up a good relationship with the Meynells who, parents and children, furnished inspiration for some of his poetry. They arranged for publication of his first book Poems in 1893. The book attracted the attention of sympathetic critics in the St James's Gazette and other newspapers, and Coventry Patmore wrote a eulogistic notice in the Fortnightly Review of January 1894. Francis' poem The Hound of Heaven was called by the Bishop of London "one of the most tremendous poems ever written," and by critics "the most wonderful lyric in the language," while the Times of London declared that people will still be learning it 200 years hence. His verse continued to elicit high praise from critics right up to his last volume in 1897. His selected poems published in 1908 contains about 50 pieces in all. Notable among his prose works are an essay on Shelley, "The Life of St. Ignatius", and "Health and Holiness".

Later life and death

Thompson moved around frequently, subsequently living as an invalid at Pantasaph, Flintshire, in Wales and at Storrington. A lifetime of poverty, ill-health, and opium addiction had taken their toll on him, even though he found success in his last years.

Thompson attempted suicide but was saved from completing the action through a vision which he believed to be that of a youthful poet, Thomas Chatterton, who had committed suicide almost a century earlier. Shortly afterwards, a prostitute - whose identity Thompson never revealed - befriended him, gave him lodgings and shared her income with him. Thompson was later to describe her in his poetry as his saviour. She soon disappeared, however, never to return.

Thompson died from tuberculosis at the age of 47, in the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth, and is buried in St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green. His tomb bears the last line from a poem he wrote for his godson, a Meynell: Look for me in the nurseries of Heaven.

Style and influence

Memorial plaque to Thompson, Winckley Street, Preston

His most famous poem, The Hound of Heaven, describes the pursuit of the human person by God. Phrases from his poetry have been lifted by others and made famous. The U.S. Supreme Court in Brown II used "with all deliberate speed" for the remedy sought in their famous decision on school desegregation. A phrase in "The Kingdom of God" is the source of the title of Han Suyin's novel A Many-Splendoured Thing. In addition, Thompson wrote the most famous cricket poem, the nostalgic "At Lord's". He also wrote The Poppy (1893), Sister Songs (1895), New Poems (1897), and a posthumously published essay, Shelley (1909).

G. K. Chesterton said shortly after his death that "with Francis Thompson we lost the greatest poetic energy since Browning." Among Thompson's devotees was the young J. R. R. Tolkien, who purchased a volume of Thompson's works in 1913-1914, and later said that it was an important influence on his own writing. Halliday Sutherland borrowed the second line of The Hound of Heaven for the title of his 1933 autobiographical best-seller "The Arches of the Years". The American novelist Madeleine L'Engle used a line from the poem "The Mistress of Vision" as the title of her last Vicki Austin novel, Troubling a Star.

In 2002, Katherine A. Powers, literary columnist for the Boston Globe, called Hound of Heaven "perhaps the most beloved and ubiquitously taught poem among American Catholics for over half a century," adding that Thompson's other poetry lost its popularity amidst anti-Modernism in the Catholic church during most of the twentieth century. However, she agrees that the dawning century is more akin to his spirit: "His medical training and life on the streets gave him a gritty view of reality and a social conscience, and his governing idea that God is immanent in all things and in all experience, so vexatious to both Victorians and the Vatican alike, no longer strikes an alien or heretical note." In 2011, Thompson's life was the subject of the stage play and film script HOUND (Visions in the Life of the Poet Francis Thompson) by writer/director Chris Ward, which has been performed in various venues around London.


Inscription on memorial plaque

Thompson's birthplace, in Winckley Street, Preston, is marked by a memorial plaque. The inscription reads: "Francis Thompson poet was born in this house Dec 16 1859. Ever and anon a trumpet sounds, From the hid battlements of eternity." The home in Ashton-under-Lyne where Thompson lived from 1864 to 1885 was also marked with a blue plaque. In 2014, however, the building collapsed.

In 1999 an Australian teacher added Thompson's name to the list of people (that as of 2016 extends to more than 100 individuals) suggested as possible suspects in the infamous Jack the Ripper murders, citing interpretations of his poetry and his medical background, but no physical evidence.


  1. ^ a b Meynell, Everard. "Thompson Francis". Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 cite.citation{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:"\"""\"""'""'"}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration{color:#555}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription span,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration span{border-bottom:1px dotted;cursor:help}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output code.cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:inherit;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:block;font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:block;color:#33aa33;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration,.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-right{padding-right:0.2em}

  2. ^ a b c d Thomson, John (1913). Francis Thompson the Preston-born Poet. London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent.

  3. ^ Brégy, Katherine. The Poets' Chantry.

  4. ^ Chilton, Carroll B. "Francis Thompson". Catholic Encyclopedia (1913). 14.

  5. ^

  6. ^ Chen, James Ming (2012). "Poetic Justice," University of Louisville School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper, Series No. 2007–01; Cardozo Law Review, Vol. XXIX, 2007; Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper, No. 05–30.

  7. ^ The Kingdom of God at Poets' Corner

  8. ^ Chesterton, G.K. (1909). "A Dead Poet." In: All Things Considered. New York: John Lane Company, p. 275.

  9. ^ Tolkien, J.R.R. (1984). The Book of Lost Tales. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 29n.

  10. ^ Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller by Michael Korda. Barnes and Noble Books, 2001. p. 67.

  11. ^ "Poet du jour - BCM - Summer 2002". Retrieved 17 June 2017.

  12. ^ Good Stuff. "Francis Thompson bronze plaque in Preston". Blue Plaque Places. Retrieved 3 November 2015.

  13. ^ Dramatic video shows moment dangerous building collapses in Ashton town centre, by John Scheerhout, in the Manchester Evening News; published 27 March 2014; retrieved 19 April 2014

  14. ^ "Jack the Ripper: A Suspect Guide - Francis Thompson". Casebook. Retrieved 3 November 2015.

  15. ^ Chan, Melissa (6 November 2015). "Jack the Ripper's Real Identity was Poet Francis Thompson, Teacher Claims". New York Daily News. Retrieved 19 April 2016.

  16. ^ "Was a Famous Catholic Poet Jack the Ripper?". WeirdCatholic. 18 June 2018. Retrieved 16 July 2018.

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