July-August 2000By Ruth Clements
Ruth Clements is Lecturer of Advanced Writing in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California.
The Hound of Heaven at My Heels: The Lost Diary of Francis Thompson. By Robert Waldron. Ignatius. 93 pages. $8.95.
I fled Him, down the nights
and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches
of the years;
I fled Him, down the
Of my own mind .
Thus begins The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompsons autobiographical poem. Like St. Augustines Confessions, it is also a spiritual testament, a creative reconstruction of his journey to faith and grace how a loving God saved a wretch like him.
The figure of a Hound as a metaphor for God likely struck initial readers as strange too daring and bizarre. But when the Catholic poet Thompson (1859-1907) read Shelleys Heavens Winged Hound and juxtaposed that startling image with Confessions (a work he had all but memorized; it had haunted him, hounded him, for years), he knew that he had struck spiritual gold: Thank you, Jesus, for sending me the insight that does not blind but illuminates. In writing this hymn of Gods love for His children, Thompson would find his souls treasure, his true vocation: He was to illuminate, through his poetry, the darkened souls of those who were still trying vainly, furiously to escape God, the Hound of Heaven. Although I might flee from God, God would seek me to the ends of the earth.
In Thompson we hear the echo of St. Augustine in his tortured youth: For to me then you were not what you are, but an empty phantom, and my error was my god . For where could my heart fly to, away from my heart? Where could I fly to, apart from my own self? Where would I not pursue myself?
And we hear Miltons Satan: Me miserable! which way shall I fly/ Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?/ Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.
In The Hound of Heaven, Thompson describes his hell: I stand amid the dust o the mounded years / My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap./ My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,/ Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream. But, like St. Augustine, he surrenders himself at last as a child, tolle lege, tolle lege into Gods embrace.
Robert Waldrons The Hound of Heaven at My Heels is a novel, a creative reconstruction of Thompsons lost diary. It interweaves fact and fiction to breathe new life into a man Waldron considers one of Englands great poets. Waldron gets inside Thompson, assuming the poets voice and using his verse, to allow us penetrating glimpses in the form of brief diary entries into Thompsons soul.
The poets spiritual journey is thus captured in snapshots; a pilgrims progress that leaves the biographical-narrative norm behind in favor of something that feels more immediate and intimate. This literary technique is a gamble that rarely pays off. But, on the whole, Waldron wins. Not every hand, mind you. Some of the diary entries are embarrassing: My Anne who said, The first time I saw you I knew you were a genius. How? I asked, amused. Your fine brow and eyes proclaim it, she said. But this is a rare clunker Victorian Romantic Goo. The following entries are more typical:
Why is it so difficult to admit wrongdoing? Pride, first my opinion that I was above other mortals and then my opinion that I was below them. At long last I can see the truth about us all: ordinary until touched by Gods grace.
I have vowed to Jesus to follow exactly the Liturgy of the Hours. Time sanctified is time transcended, and only in such time shall I vanquish my lifes enslavement.
And this entry (which gets to the heart of Thompsons self-imposed hell): My first ingestion of opium was an act of full consent of the will. I was cognizant of the dangers of lifetime enslavement, but I hoped the visionary splendor would nourish my poetic power, and this was of great importance to me. Thereafter my opium drinking was no longer a complete act of the will, for my body developed its own will counter to that of my mind and soul. Oh, how I understand Saint Pauls lamentation, for the good that I would I do not, but the evil that I would not I do. Saint Francis named his body Brother Ass. My own body has been more like a faithful canine, faithful to one master: opium. I am plagued by the axiom that an old dog cannot be taught new tricks .
Wallowing in the mire and scratching lusts itchy sore is a hoary theme; and the soulful saga of Lost & Found is trite. But to dismiss this diary as a series of clichés would be injudicious. Perhaps it is more on point to reflect on the nature of the central cliché the stubbornness of human nature that St. Paul summed up so powerfully in his lament. How tyrannical is the perversity of our wills! Why do we have to be dragged kicking and screaming like raging adolescents to God? Waldron/Thompson writes, There is no escape from God. But then I bewitched myself to believe in escape and nearly destroyed myself by self-delusion.
It behooves us as Catholic readers, as all-too-human beings, to not be shy about the shadows of Thompsons life. Who would throw the first stone? If not opium, then what particular evil bedevils each of us? (I am writing this with nicotine ricocheting through my veins. Yea, though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death last year, and swore off this destructive escape, still I do the very thing I hate.) Self-delusion is powerful in its subtlety a sneaky snake sidewinding its way inside the soul. But at least addiction is a devil one can wrestle down. As C.S. Lewis displayed so splendidly in The Screwtape Letters, spiritual pride is the sliest sidewinder of them all.
Thompson was too honest for spiritual pride he knew and named his demons: opium, an imagination run amok, self-will run riot. During his year-long retreat at a monastery, Thompson began writing The Hound of Heaven while struggling mightily against the chaos that haunted his life: I sat the night staring through my casement at the insane eye of the moon. The opium in my drawer repeatedly whispered to me. My hand reached out to the drawers handle. After beseeching Mary Immaculate for a half hour, I was able to resist one more time.
Whether or not one buys into Waldrons opinion that Thompson is one of the great English poets, this fictional diary nevertheless succeeds in its purpose of putting the reader into the poets teeming mind so as to witness both the turbulence of his soul and the yearned-for spiritual pax he found at the monastery.
The Hound of Heaven chases us. Inside us two wills duel. We want to be caught and, perversely, we want to escape. But to flee is to die. For without you, wrote St. Augustine, what am I to myself but the leader of my own destruction? In The Hound of Heaven at My Heels, Robert Waldron is telling us to pay attention, to stay alert, to be mindful that Francis Thompsons struggles are our own. It is the story of the souls brutal and exhausting civil war upon which hangs the nature of our eternity.