Catholic Poetry: “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson (1859-1907)

In the early twentieth century, Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven” was very popular among Catholic readers in the English-speaking world. (The playwright Eugene O’Neill could recite it from memory.) The poem arose from Thompson’s battle with drug addiction and his recovery. In Thompson’s poem, God is the “Hound of Heaven” who relentlessly but consistently and lovingly pursues the wayward soul. God, for Thompson, is “this tremendous lover.” An excellent recitation of the poem by Richard Burton in the 1970′s can be found on Youtube.

THE HOUND OF HEAVEN

By Francis Thompson (1859-1907)

I fled Him, down the nights 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 midst of tears

I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

Up vistaed hopes I sped; And shot, precipitated,

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,

From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

But with unhurrying chase, And unperturbèd pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

They beat—and a Voice beat

More instant than the Feet—

‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me’.

I pleaded, outlaw-wise,

By many a hearted casement, curtained red,

Trellised with intertwining charities;

(For, though I knew His love Who followed,

Yet was I sore adread

Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.)

But, if one little casement parted wide,

The gust of His approach would clash it to:

Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.

Across the margent of the world I fled,

And troubled the gold gateway of the stars,

Smiting for shelter on their clanged bars;

Fretted to dulcet jars

And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.

I said to Dawn: Be sudden—to Eve: Be soon;

With thy young skiey blossom heap me over

From this tremendous Lover!

Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!

I tempted all His servitors, but to find

My own betrayal in their constancy,

In faith to Him their fickleness to me,

Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.

To all swift things for swiftness did I sue;

Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.

But whether they swept, smoothly fleet,

The long savannahs of the blue;

Or, whether, Thunder-driven,

They clanged his chariot ‘thwart a heaven,

Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their

feet:—

Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.

Still with unhurrying chase,

And unperturbed pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

Came on the following Feet,

And a Voice above their beat—

‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’

I sought no more after that which I strayed

In face of man or maid;

But still within the little children’s eyes Seems something, something that replies,

They at least are for me, surely for me!

I turned me to them very wistfully;

But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair

With dawning answers there,

Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.

“Come then, ye other children, Nature’s—share

With m” (said I) ‘your delicate fellowship;

Let me greet you lip to lip,

Let me twine with you caresses,

Wantoning

With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses,

Banqueting

With her in her wind-walled palace,

Underneath her azured dais,

Quaffing, as your taintless way is,

From a chalice Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.’

So it was done:

I in their delicate fellowship was one—

Drew the bolt of Nature’s secrecies.

I knew all the swift importings

On the wilful face of skies;

I knew how the clouds arise

Spumèd of the wild sea-snortings;

All that’s born or dies

Rose and drooped with; made them shapers

Of mine own moods, or wailful divine;

With them joyed and was bereaven.

I was heavy with the even,

When she lit her glimmering tapers

Round the day’s dead sanctities.

I laughed in the morning’s eyes.

I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,

Heaven and I wept together,

And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine:

Against the red throb of its sunset-heart

I laid my own to beat,

And share commingling heat;

But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.

In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek.

For ah! we know not what each other says,

These things and I; in sound I speak—

Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.

Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth;

Let her, if she would owe me,

Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me

The breasts o’ her tenderness:

Never did any milk of hers once bless

My thirsting mouth.

Nigh and nigh draws the chase,

With unperturbed pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy;

And past those noisèd Feet

A voice comes yet more fleet—

‘Lo! naught contents thee, who content’st not Me.’

Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke!

My harness piece by piece Thou has hewn from me,

And smitten me to my knee;

I am defenceless utterly.

I slept, methinks, and woke,

And, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep.

In the rash lustihead of my young powers,

I shook the pillaring hours

And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,

I stand amidst 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.

Yea, faileth now even dream

The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist;

Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist

I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist,

Are yielding; cords of all too weak account

For earth with heavy griefs so overplussed.

Ah! is Thy love indeed

A weed, albeit an amarinthine weed,

Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?

Ah! must—

Designer infinite!—

Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn

with it?

My freshness spent its wavering shower i’ the dust;

And now my heart is as a broken fount,

Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever

From the dank thoughts that shiver

Upon the sighful branches of my mind.

Such is; what is to be?

The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?

I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;

Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds

From the hid battlements of Eternity;

Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then

Round the half-glimpsed turrets slowly wash again.

But not ere him who summoneth

I first have seen, enwound

With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;

His name I know and what his trumpet saith.

Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields

Thee harvest, must Thy harvest-fields

Be dunged with rotten death?

Now of that long pursuit

Comes on at hand the bruit;

That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:

‘And is thy earth so marred,

Shattered in shard on shard?

Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me! ‘

Strange, piteous, futile thing!

Wherefore should any set thee love apart?

Seeing none but I makes much of naught’ (He said),

‘And human love needs human meriting:

How hast thou merited—

Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?

Alack, thou knowest not

How little worthy of any love thou art!

Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,

Save Me, save only Me?

All which I took from thee I did but take,

Not for thy harms,

But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.

All which thy child’s mistake

Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:

Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’

Halts by me that footfall:

Is my gloom, after all,

Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?

‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,

I am He Whom thou seekest!

Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’

About Pat McNamara

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