On this day in 1907 died Francis Thompson, aged 47. He had been in poor health after years of sleeping rough and addiction. Wilfrid and Alice Meynell, writers themselves, took him under their wings, found writing work for him and helped him get published, but TB had already claimed him.
This poem is by W. H. Davies, his younger contemporary, who had himself known life on the streets of London and of American cities. He knew of what he wrote.
Thou hadst no home, and thou couldst see
In every street the windows' light:
Dragging thy limbs about all night,
No window kept a light for thee.
However much thou wert distressed,
Or tired of moving, and felt sick,
Thy life was on the open deck—
Thou hadst no cabin for thy rest.
Thy barque was helpless 'neath the sky,
No pilot thought thee worth his pains
To guide for love or money gains—
Like phantom ships the rich sailed by.
Thy shadow mocked thee night and day,
Thy life's companion, it alone;
It did not sigh, it did not moan,
But mocked thy moves in every way.
In spite of all, the mind had force,
And, like a stream whose surface flows
The wrong way when a strong wind blows,
It underneath maintained its course.
Oft didst thou think thy mind would flower
Too late for good, as some bruised tree
That blooms in Autumn, and we see
Fruit not worth picking, hard and sour.
Some poets feign their wounds and scars.
If they had known real suffering hours,
They'd show, in place of Fancy's flowers,
More of Imagination's stars.
So, if thy fruits of Poesy
Are rich, it is at this dear cost—
That they were nipt by Sorrow's frost,
In nights of homeless misery.
From "Foliage: Various Poems" by W. H. Davies.
See also another Welsh Poet, R. S. Thomas, who also observed the difference between the surface and the depths.
The sky is clear,
The sun is bright;
The cows are red,
The sheep are white;
Trees in the meadows
Make happy shadows.
Birds in the hedge
Are perched and sing;
Swallows and larks
Are on the wing:
Two merry cuckoos
Are making echoes.
Bird and the beast
Have the dew yet;
My road shines dry,
Theirs bright and wet:
Death gives no warning,
On this May morning.
I see no Christ
Nailed on a tree,
Dying for sin;
No sin I see:
No thoughts for sadness,
All thoughts for gladness.
(from Foliage: Various Poems by W. H. Davies.
Sometimes Davies says it all in sheer simplicity: Christ is risen, No sin I see!
“This is no time to save, but spend, To give for nothing, not to lend. Let foes make friends: let them forget The mischief-making dead that fret The living with complaint like this— “He wronged us once, hate him and his.” Christmas has come; let every man Eat, drink, be merry all he can. Ale’s my best mark, but if port wine Or whisky’s yours—let it be mine; No matter what lies in the bowls, We’ll make it rich with our own souls. Farewell to study, books and pen, And welcome to all kinds of men.”
From Foliage: Various Poems by W. H. Davies. A man who had known poverty, living on the streets, before he was taken up by other writers.
My youth was my old age,
Weary and long;
It had too many cares
To think of song;
My moulting days all came
When I was young.
Now, in life's prime, my soul
Comes out in flower;
Late, as with Robin, comes
My singing power;
I was not born to joy
Till this late hour."
W. H. Davies
Another Welsh poet today, this one writing in English. Davies was famously discovered as a poet when he was living in a homeless hostel, walking through London, selling a little booklet of verse from door to door. Before that he had shipped cattle across the Atlantic and tramped over much of North America: the Supertramp. Not a life conducive to singing power.
Never give up on life! Joy comes to many at a late hour, and with it perspective and understanding of the trials and depressions of youth.
The European robin sings through Autumn and Winter to defend its territory but is less vocal when moulting – growing a new suit of feathers.
WH Davies was a Welsh poet who knew the hostels and streets of London, and the night wanderers who could not go indoors through the coldest winters. They are back on the streets and in the closed shop doorways of Canterbury as I write. Will.
They hear the bell of midnight toll,
And shiver in their flesh and soul;
They lie on hard, cold wood or stone,
Iron, and ache in every bone;
They hate the night: they see no eyes
Of loved ones in the starlit skies.
They see the cold, dark water near;
They dare not take long looks for fear
They'll fall like those poor birds that see
A snake's eyes staring at their tree.
Some of them laugh, half-mad; and some
All through the chilly night are dumb;
Like poor, weak infants some converse,
And cough like giants, deep and hoarse."
W. H. Davies
“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep, Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins
So let’s be a little more serious about the sorrow we looked at yesterday. Sorrow and depression are real. Hopkins bids us take comfort, even if we are tossed about by a whirlwind of spinning emotions and thoughts. We know our sorrow will at least have an end in death: life death does end. But does this mean that death brings an end to a frightful life, or that life puts an end to death? I would suggest both arguments hold true. And each day dies with sleep, ‘and another succeeds it’ is the subtext of that word ‘each’. We always have another chance to open our eyes and say with another of Wales’ poets, WH Davies:
Good morning Life, and all things glad and beautiful.
It may feel all wrong at this moment to be uttering such a prayer, but that does not mean that it is actually wrong to make an act of hope.
An evening Taizé service, all three readings taken from 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, each one followed by silence.
After the first reading I felt quite let down: for much of my life, there was no praying for the higher gifts, or even any great feeling of having gifts worth mentioning. Day by day seemed a matter of getting through the agenda: getting up, half-hearted morning offering (Good morning life and all things glad and beautiful), breakfast, commuter trains, waiting for students who might or might not attend the lesson, more trains, sit down to eat with whoever’s at home, prep for next day, sleep more or less well, repeat.
That was how it looked on a cold, damp evening, a year and more into retirement. But at the time it was not all gloom, as this old post makes clear. Good morning life and all things glad and beautiful!
What does Paul say? Just look at Chapter 13: whatever gifts I may have count as nothing, without love. And I dare to say that I loved my work, loved the oddball teenagers I worked with, and even loved the commute. Writing this blog has forced me to open my eyes and look into that mirror where we can see the Lord at work, however dimly. I hope a few readers have enjoyed the reflections our writers have shared.
Good morning life and all things glad and beautiful!
A few days ago David wrote of L’Arche: ‘As a Community we do celebrations very well, and for me, being involved gives me a sense of belonging which deepens my passion for L’Arche.’ And I began to consider the celebrations that have taken place lately.
The Annual Advent Celebration brings hundreds of friends and family to share our preparations for Christmas in songs and sketches, sales and refreshments. The Christmas market in Saint Peter’s church was as much a celebration as a day of work. There were Christmas parties for the different work activities groups, for the half-barrels gardening club, and of course in the houses. Some of us squeezed into the Cathedral carol service.
And before that … birthdays, community gatherings, the Harvest Festival, the funerals of Emma and Denise … and that’s not all, not by any means.
Any occasion can be celebrated. My wife recalls her first arrival in the community and finding on her bed a card welcoming her by name. My first weekend was marked by the teeth incident. A core member had been sick and had flushed her teeth away down the toilet with everything else. Every manhole and inspection cover was lifted, every toilet flushed. I was poised by the last one before the cesspit, with Leo, a crazy Canadian, singing ‘Teeth are flowing like a river, flowing out to you and me-e-e.’ We didn’t catch the teeth, (and nor did anyone else) but I caught the L’Arche sense of belonging that David mentions. It has never left me.
The last-mentioned celebration was not about teeth or sewage, but about the joys of being alive among sisters and brothers on a Spring morning. I hope I can continue to bring this sense of celebration to all areas of my life, and invite all readers to do likewise! Here is a morning offering that a Christian or a non-Christian could use to start the day:
‘Good Morning Life, and all things glad and beautiful!
Celebration of the half-barrels group; our decoration for the Harvest Festival at St Mildred’s, Canterbury.
Edward Thomas died in battle on this day in 1917. He came late to poetry, as did W.H. Davies, who wrote this tribute to his friend. They were great walkers through the countryside, like these friends from L’Arche Kent. May we all walk in peace!
Happy the man whose home is still In Nature’s green and peaceful ways; To wake and hear the birds so loud, That scream for joy to see the sun Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.
And we have known those days, when we Would wait to hear the cuckoo first; When you and I, with thoughtful mind, Would help a bird to hide her nest, For fear of other hands less kind.
But thou, my friend, art lying dead: War, with its hell-born childishness, Has claimed thy life, with many more: The man that loved this England well, And never left it once before.
If we read his Autobiography of a Supertramp, we learn that Davies did spend time in the libraries but lacked the energy to get the most out of being there because of sitting in front of the Lodging House Fire. What would he have done with a mobile phone? Played mindless games all day?
I gave myself over to the influence of the coke fire. After going out in the morning for two or three hours, I would return at midday, often earlier, and sit hopelessly before this fire for ten or eleven hours, after which I would retire to my room. What a miserable time was this: the kitchen, foul with the breath of fifty or sixty men, and the fumes of the coke fire, took all the energy out of a man, and it was a hard fight to keep awake. It has taken the play out of the kitten, and this small animal lies stretched out, overcome by its fumes, without the least fear of being trodden on. Sometimes, when I endeavoured to concentrate my mind, with an idea of writing something, it was necessary to feign a sleep, so that these kind hearted fellows might not disturb me with their civilities. On these occasions it was not unusual for me to fall into a real sleep. And, when I awoke, it sickened me to think of this wasted time; for I was spending in bed more hours than were necessary for my health, and it was a most cruel waste of time to be sleeping in the day.
This fire exerted a strange influence over us. In the morning we were loath to leave it, and we all returned to it as soon as possible. Even the books and magazines in the libraries could not seduce me longer than an hour.
There was one seat at the corner of a table, which I have heard called “the dead man’s seat.” It was within two yards of this great fire, which was never allowed to suffer from want of coke. It was impossible to retain this seat long and keep awake. Of course, a man could hardly expect to keep this seat day after day for a long winter, and to be alive in the spring of the year. This was the case with a printer who, unfortunately, had only three days’ work a week. The amount he earned was sufficient for his wants, so, in his four idle days, he would sit on this seat, eating, reading, but more often sleeping, until before the end of the winter, he was carried away a dying man. Some of these lodgers claim to be able to recognise in the public streets any strangers who are suffering from this coke fever.