The Poet of the Liturgy

Author: Thomas J.M. Burke, S.J.


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 of God."

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 the eye."

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 those words,

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".)

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