THE POET OF THE LITURGY
Thomas J. M. Burke, S.J.
A fragile man with a burning song, Francis Thompson has been given
many names and titles. Chesterton has called him the "shy
volcano." Others have called him the poet of earth in heaven and
heaven in earth. He has been likened to the fiery Crashaw, to the
mystic (and mystifying) Blake, to the sincere Burns, even to
Shakespeare. Some have seen in him a Catholic Shelley, a
profounder Donne, and significantly he has also been called an
epic poet and a Gothic poet. Although I think these titles
accurate and justified, I believe his most appropriate title to be
the Poet of the Liturgy.
Some have thought and called Thompson a poet of the liturgy
because he uses a great many images taken from the ritual of the
Church. In his poems we find phrases like "blanch amiced clouds,"
"silver thurible," "sanctuaried East," "Day, a dedicated priest,"
"Orient tabernacle," "twilight, violet cassocked acolyte,"
"flaming monstrance of the West." But to use such images and apply
them as a sort of ornament never would justify the great title of
poet of the liturgy. No, Thompson deserves the title because he
used the language of the liturgy and applied it to nature with an
understanding that such language was not extraneous or exotic, but
native to nature. What language could better express the dignity
and new position of all nature since the Redemption, since Christ
had colored every creature with His blood? Thompson had grasped
the reality beneath the symbol; he realized that Christ had in His
position of , bridge maker between heaven and earth,
raised and glorified fallen nature and had harmoniously united its
disparate elements in Himself. With bold imagery and daring
symbolism he sacramentalizes and consecrates all to God, viewing
everything as harmonized in Christ who is the center of the
universe. Thompson had resolved to apply to all creatures the
language of the Sacrifice which alone makes evident this unity and
oneness of everything. This is why he deserves the name, this is
what made him the Poet of the Liturgy.
For the liturgy, in the words of a recent writer, "as a
consecration of the universe wants to bring the seal of the God-
Man, of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, to all created
things.' Thompson, as a great Catholic poet, had the gift of
insight, the power of seeing beneath the surface of things that
appeal directly to the senses. This led naturally to that profound
spiritual insight which sees in all external things a "sacrament,"
an external sign of the inward grace-a manifestation of God's
presence. "Sacramentalizing the universe," in the words of Msgr.
Fulton Sheen, "ennobles the universe for it bestows upon it a kind
of transparency which permits the vision of the spiritual behind
the material Poets are masters in sacramentalizing creation for
they never take anything in its merely material expression: for
them things are symbols of the divine." Plunkett was
sacramentalizing nature in the beautiful poem in which he cries:
I see His blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of His eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies. .
All the symbolism which has characterized Christian art is after
all simply an attempt to visualize that portion of the unseen
world which is manifest to the spirit. To see Christ in everything
is the true spirit of Christian mysticism, which Thompson
certainly had caught, for he sings:
By this, O singer' know if thou see.
When men shall say to thee: Lo! Christ is here,
When men shall say to thee: Lo! Christ is there,
Believe them: yes and this then art thou seer,
When all thy crying clear
Is but: Lo here! Lo there! ah me lo everywhere.
Instinctively and firmly Thompson believed that all earthly beauty
is in some way a reflection of heavenly beauty. Christ's print was
in everything. "Earthly beauty," he writes, "is but heavenly
beauty taking to itself flesh." For this colorful poet all the
world and human life were "crammed with heaven and aflame with
God." The material universe was full of the "many colored wisdom
Like all who are working in the vital spirit of the liturgy, be
transformed the commonplace. This is the consistent character of
his imagery. He has been likened to Blake because it was his
To see a world in a grain of sand,
A heaven in a wild flower-.
Alice Meynell called Thompson's power the likening of great things
to small ones. But Chesterton more accurately says of Thompson
that here in his poetry we find both the images too large for the
ordinary person to comprehend-as when Thompson suddenly likens the
whole world to a thurible swinging before the face of God-and the
ones too small for ordinary eyes as when he calls Christ the
a word which carries too many subtle tones to be ever
exhausted. "In F. Thompson's poetry, as in the poetry of the
universe, you can work infinitely out and out, but yet infinitely
in and in. These two infinites are the mark of greatness; and he
was a great poet."
The great and the small are juxtaposed in all his poetry, but how
true this is to the ritual of the Church, which alone has been
able and bold enough to use such imagery. Christianity has been
distinguished from paganism in this very association of high and
low, so that Chesterton's phrase, "sky scraping humility," is a
correct reflection of the spirit of the Christian. The Man-God is
the fountain head of this paradoxical juxtaposition of the great
and the lowly. It is the theme of the So did this
shy and fierce poet see great in small, heavenly in earthly. He
drew a vision of heaven in the little things of his ordinary life.
Many have compared Thompson to Crashaw, the poet of "white fire,"
but Thompson has surpassed him even in his own special glory of
"mixing heaven and earth." And through his images he was acting on
his conviction that all poetry is ritual, for that is the
corollary to his statement, that "ritual is poetry addressed to
But there is a further aspect to Thompson's poetry; one in which
his creations bear, as Edmund G. Gardner said, "a defined and
intelligible relation to the knowledge and sentiment and religion
of the age in which he lived and of the ages which followed,
developing itself in correspondence with their development." This
is not disjoined from the other view we have been treating; but
emphasizes a more historical view of his poetry. Thompson lived
through a period which saw the great Christian resurgence,
especially among writers and artists. It had started with Newman
and Aubrey de Vere, but really gained importance towards the end
of the century when there was a powerful impetus given to the
rising liturgical movement and the modern stress on the Mystical
Body. Patmore who had a strong intellectual influence upon
Thompson wrote in his : "I think it must be
manifest to fitly qualified observers, that religion, which to
timid onlookers appears to be on a fair way to total extinction,
is actually both by tendency from without and compulsion from
within . . . in the initial stage of a new development, of which
the note will be 'real apprehension,' whereby Christianity will
acquire such a power of appeal to the pure among the Gentiles, as
will cause it to appear almost like a New Dispensation, though it
will truly be no more than a fulfilment of the express promises of
Christ and His apostles to the world-promises which in every age
have been fulfilled to thousands and thousands of individuals who
have so learned the King's secret as to have become the converts
of intelligible joy." The prime factors in this revival of vital
Christianity was Leo XIII's stress on the Mystical Body and the
new awareness of the liturgy. To many even today who realize for
the first time the transcendent reality behind the liturgy it does
seem like a New Dispensation And through Coventry Patmore and the
monks of Pantasaph that is what it was to Thompson in the 90's.
He became a leader in the return to God, for he himself had said
that he desired to be "the poet of the return to God," for that
mission he conceived as really worthwhile. He had entered into the
full and triumphant spirit of Catholicity, the vigorous, active
con' secreting spirit of the liturgy. His close friend and
benefactor, Wilfred Meynell, had inscribed on his magazine, , the device, "We shall try to revive in our own hearts
and in the hearts of others the enthusiasm for the Christian
Faith." And that is what Thompson did by his poetry. Weak and a
derelict he might seem, but he was strong too. A mighty strength
leaped within him, for he was strong in the freshness and vibrancy
of his vision, strong in possessing eternal truth and the wealth
of tradition, strong in his Catholicity, his flaming imagery, and
strong in his appreciation of the Church's ritual. Thompson it was
who gave vivid expression to the growing realization of God's
presence in the world. He had a vision of Jacob's ladder stretched
between heaven and Charing Cross, and of Christ
-walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames.
His inspiration was coming direct from the liturgy as is evident
in such great poems as the , the ,
and the . His , of course, is
the best known and perhaps the most influential of his poems,
especially if we look at him under this aspect of the poet of the
return to God, the poet mirroring the liturgical revival. In those
days of the 90's many a young poet, as Walter de la Mare or
Richard de Gallienne, was walking the streets oblivious of
everything except the insistent stanzas of the .
Sister Madaleva has accurately said that: " is
the baby talk of that return (to God); the is
its mature and candid autobiography, and the meaning, or whatever
part of it has counterpart in words, is the theme of "
But Thompson sang not only of return to God but of entire
capitulation. All things should be consecrated to God; all things
bear His impress; all should be sacrificed to Him. When he heard
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
he had caught the spirit motivating the Gothic artists who brought
together all the good things of earth to be offered and
relinquished to God. All things belong and are linked to Christ
and should be dedicated to Him. He sensed the delicate harmony of
all creation united in the Creator; under the countless different
forms he saw that God was the Guiding Principle of all.
All things by immortal power
Near or far,
Hiddenly to each other linked are
That thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star.
But it is in God they are linked, for
From sky to sod
The world's unfolded blossom smells of God.
Since all belonged to God, he knew that he should, like the Gothic
artist, who was a liturgist, bring all nature in intricate
coordination, before the altar of sacrifice. The medievalist
caught the forest giants mute and motionless in his arches that
they might house the Tabernacle of God. Sun and moon and stars,
and figures of every type jostled in the windows to see and give
homage to the God of Hosts enshrined. Symbolically and
artistically, virgins and saints and martyrs, children and
laborers, the fruits and the flowers of the fields, the seasons,
the animals, were all represented in the statuary and friezes, for
all things were made to praise the Lord. The sacrificial table
gave meaning to all that splendor and riotous pageantry of the
cathedral. And that is what Thompson has done in his poetry. He
has brought all creatures to adore the Lord. Day and night, sun
and moon, bird and flower, all he brings to the table of
sacrifice. His images are like an apse of windows opened to
illuminate one central idea throned altarwise. All is consecrated
to God and bears His impress.
(Taken from the April 18, 1943 issue of "Orate Fratres".)
Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN Online Services.