Saturday, January 25, 2014

Gerald Manley Hopkins, Francis Thompson and Kensal Green Cemetery

I was walking through rows of forgotten life's.  The grass under foot was wet and in some places sodden with the rainfall of four days previously.  I picked my steps carefully at the same time looking to the right to read the headstones as I passed by.  I was in St. Mary’s Cemetery Kensal Green, London on a Saturday morning to visit the grave of the poet, Francis Thompson.

Thompson regarded with Gerard Manley Hopkins as a leading Catholic poet of the 19th century set out at a young age to be a priest but abandoned his studies for poetry.  Throughout his adult life he struggled with drug addiction and died at 48 years of age in 1907.  The “poet of Catholicism” lived a life of contrasts.   His early failures in studying for the priesthood and later for a career in medicine may have propelled him into a lifelong addiction to opium.  As a result he spent three years as a homeless man on the streets of London until rescued by writers and publishers Wilfred and Alice Meynell. 

Publication of his poetic works followed the intervention of the Meynells but despite his subsequent literary success Thompson relapsed into a life of destitution and drug taking.  He died  of consumption on the 13th November 1907 and was interred three days later in St. Mary’s cemetery Kensal Green.

As the leading Catholic Cemetery in London, St. Mary’s has a significant place in the history of English Catholicism.  The passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 and the re-establishment of the English hierarchy in 1850 brought an upsurge in the number of Catholics on the British mainland.  The need for a large cemetery in London for catholic burials was met by the purchase of land which was consecrated and opened in 1858 as St. Mary’s Cemetery. 

St. Mary’s shares a common driveway with the more famous Kensal Green cemetery at the end of which driveway two pathways separate and lead into the adjoining cemeteries.  One is immediately struck by the vast number of Irish names inscribed on gravestones sharing space with Italian names and to a lesser extent Polish names.  Murphy, Doyle, Webster, Howe, McCarthy and even a Taaffe were some of the forgotten lifes I saw inscribed on gravestones as I picked my way carefully in search of Francis Thompson’s last resting place.  The elaborate grave stones favoured by members of the Italian community were not matched by the Irish who opted for more simple grave markers many of which were adorned with shamrocks.

Francis Thompson’s grave is marked by a large plain tomb with an inscription lettered by the controversial English sculptor Eric Gill.  On one end of the tomb is the inscription “Francis Thompson, 1859 to 1907” and beneath it is written the poets own lines “ look for me in the nurseries of heaven”.  On the opposite side of the tomb is a crown of thorns entwined with a wreath of laurel.  A fitting symbol perhaps for a poet who wrote his own epitaph in the concluding lines of the epilogue to “A Judgement in Heaven”.

“A double life the poet lived,
And with a double burthen grieved;
The life of flesh and life of song,
The pangs to both lives that belong”;

Not far  away from Thompson’s grave is that of his benefactor Alice Meynell, herself a poet who died in 1922.  The weathered flat stone which marks her resting place bears only her name and date of death.

As I was leaving the cemetery, I chanced on the fine monument to T.P. O’Connor, Irish member of Parliament described as “Orator, Statesman, Journalist, Irish Patriot, Tribune of the people and citizen of the world”. 

“Tay Pay” as O'Connor was known was a newspaper proprietor and editor as well as an M.P.  He was familiar with the work of Francis Thompson whose most famous work “The Hound of Heaven” opens with the lines:-

            “I fled him, down the night and down the days;
            I fled him down the arches of the years;
            I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways
            of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
            I hid from him, and under running laughter”.

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