O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air--
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumor of thee there?
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!--
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places--
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
'Tis ye, 'tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry--and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry--clinging to Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Genesareth, but Thames!
I heard this poem quoted recently by Ravi Zacharias in a podcast. The poem becomes even more moving when one knows a little about its author.
Francis Thompson was born in 1859 in England. He was sent, in his youth, to train to be a priest but because of his lazy ways he was sent home at 18 years.
His parents next sent him to medical school. There he failed his exams several times, and along the way became addicted to opium (laudanum).
He eventually went to London to realize his secret ambition of becoming a poet (the laudanum fit right in, according to some of the poets he had read). However he was soon destitute and living on the street. He still read the papers and wrote poetry, though, and would send it in soiled and wrinkled envelopes to local editors.
One such parcel of his poems came to Mr. Wilfred Meynell, editor of Merry England, a small Catholic paper. In time Mr. Meynell read Thompson's poems, and essays, liked them, and published them.
Thompson found the published pieces and got in touch with Meynell again. The editor and his wife took responsibility for Thompson after that, saw him through rehabilitation and looked after him. It was during the four years of his withdrawal he wrote most of his poetry. Sadly, he became permanently re-addicted to laudanum in 1889 and died from a combination of tuberculosis and laudanum poisoning in 1907.
This biography of his life contains a paragraph explaining how his addiction affected the message of his poetry:
Although he lived a century ago, as Waldron argues, Francis Thompson's story is of contemporary relevance. In the past, many teachers hid the fact that Thompson was an addict from their students. The addiction is integral, however, to understanding both Thompson's life and his poetry. Had Thompson not believed that he had strayed so far from a loving God, he may well never have written a poem of such lyrical beauty and power as the "The Hound of Heaven."
"The Hound of Heaven" is Thompson's best known poem.