I have lost count of the people who have told me that they suffer, during these bleak, dark days, from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Apparently their mood mirrors the weather and the only remedy for this supposed malady is to lie under a sun lamp and dream of the Seychelles. Examining my own mood on this cold January day I am certain I have all the usual symptoms. However, my remedy is to stoke up my log fire, balance an Irish coffee at my elbow, put my feet on the brass fender (retrieved from the local dump; I don’t need any tips on how to cope in our new Age of Austerity) and declaim "The Hound of Heaven".
This might seem an odd choice to dispel the season’s blues so I will defend it: man is a spiritual being, an incurable myth-maker and romancer, a creature of soaring imagination, a lover of the word-music that only great poetry can make – and a sinner in guilty flight "from this tremendous Lover". "The Hound of Heaven" satisfies all these inchoate tendencies and longings at one sitting. Try it and see for yourself.
I was recently reminded of this poem by an excellent little book, Francis Thompson: A reflection on the Poetic Vocation by Frank Morriss, an American academic. Morriss is a member of the old school for whom the writing of poetry is not a matter of clever verse-making on trendy topics; he regards it as a serious pursuit for which the poet has to prepare himself by deep familiarity with his spiritual inheritance. Its memorable and declamatory quality – for great poetry demands to be read aloud – depends on such references and resonances. "The ability to detect, by an experience of inscape, subliminal significances is a vocational gift…" Morriss’s study is a labour of insightful love; he includes the whole of "The Hound of Heaven", a glossary of Thompson’s imagery and a biographical summary of the poet’s life.*
The distinguished World War II commander, Lord Archibald Wavell, a fine soldier and a lover of poetry, included the poem in his celebrated anthology, Other Men’s Flowers (a man of formidable memory, he claimed he could repeat by heart all the 260-odd poems in his collection). He put it, appropriately, in his section on "Music, Mystery and Magic", and commented: "I have used the magic of its imagery in my times of stress, to distract my mind from peril or disaster. I have repeated the words of this greatest of all lyrics under fire, on a rough Channel crossing, in pain of mind or body." A copy of the poem had been given to him by a friend when he was playing golf at St Andrews; perhaps it was this fact that led to Churchill’s churlish remark that being in the company of Wavell was "like being in the presence of the chairman of a golf club."
Wavell, incidentally, thought that Thompson’s "Arab Love-Song" contained the two most beautiful last lines of any love-song: "And thou – what needest with thy tribe’s black tents/who hast the red pavilion of my heart?" The man who could summon up the haunting power of such an image spent much of his adult life as a vagrant on the streets of London, addicted to laudanum and struggling to make a pathetic living by selling matches. He died aged 48, in November 1907 – of consumption rather than Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.
* It can be obtained from Borromeo
Books, PO Box 7273, St Paul, Minnesota 55107.