Biography Francis Thompson
- Time Period1859 - 1907
Francis Thompson was born in 1859 to a respectable Catholic family; his father was a doctor. He was sent to Ushaw College in the hope that he would become a priest, but at the age of eighteen returned home, with a letter from the headmaster: "I have been most reluctantly compelled to concur ... that it is not the holy will of God that he should go on for the priesthood ... I quite agree with you in thinking that it is quite time that he should begin to prepare for some other career. If he can shake off a natural indolence which has always been an obstacle with him, he has ability to succeed in any career." Thompson spent the next six years haphazardly studying to be a doctor, and failed the medical examinations three times, twice in London, once in Glasgow. Somewhere along the way he became addicted to opium.
At that time Britain was importing tens of thousands of pounds of opium per year. It was drunk as laudanum, a reddish-brown tincture of the bitter opium powder. Laudanum was cheaper than beer or gin, and just as commonplace. It was both a medicinal and recreational drug. Doctors prescribed it as a pain-killer and a sedative; factory workers blew their paychecks on it every Saturday night. Mothers and nurses raised the infant mortality rate by quieting their fretful babies with it. It was also a popular method for suicide.
But the deciding factor for Thompson was his unspoken ambition to be a poet. He was familiar with the romantic tradition of writers taking opium through De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater; a seductive book, with glittering accounts of the reveries and euphoria of the early stages of addiction. If Thompson hadn't actually written any poetry yet, he could at least live the heroic life of the poet as envisioned by De Quincey and others. So, after his third exam failure, he set off for London, to be a poet and take opium at his leisure. By the time Wilfrid Meynell received his manuscript, he was destitute and living on the streets.
Wilfrid Meynell finally read the manuscript, and wanted to publish the work; but months later his letter was returned as undeliverable by the Charing Cross Post Office. After a fruitless search, he decided to publish one of the poems in the April 1888 issue of Merry England in the hope of conjuring up its author. This stratagem worked; Thompson, ragged from a recent opium bender, showed up in Meynell's office. This was the turning point in Thompson's life. From then on, Wilfrid Meynell and his wife Alice Meynell would be his protectors, his guardians, his nannies. The first thing they did, wisely, was send Thompson to a clinic to dry out, and then to a monastery to convalesce.
Thompson wrote almost all of his poetry during his four years of withdrawal (his only poem widely read today is The Hound of Heaven.) He wrote to Meynell: "Nor need you fear the opium. I have learned the advantage of being without it for mental exercise; and (still more important) I have learned to bear my fits of depression without it. Personally I no longer fear it." This was premature. He still took laudanum occasionally, and around 1898 he became permanently re-addicted. The apathy and depression of the later stages of addiction caused him to quit writing poetry. He died in 1907 from some combination of tuberculosis and laudanum poisoning.