Friday, July 19, 2013

They'll Always Be an England: Poet of the Most Famous Cricket Poem Is Also a Jack the Ripper Suspect

 “More than any other sport, cricket is a lesson in civility.” “I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice.” 

                                                                       Joseph O'Neill, Netherland

My twitter feed is alive with the sound of cricket tweets from both England and Australia supporters.

I enjoy reading all #Ashes tweets, although I remain amongst the baffled by the sport. I enjoyed all the descriptions of Lord Peter's prowess on the field in Murder Must Advertise, and the Inspector Morse episode "Deceived by Flight" (Morse: People are dying out there. Even cricket needs to come to a stop") but I've never gotten the whole picture of what's going on.

Yet, as the test matches have now moved to the hallowed Lord's, (July 18 to 22), I know this is the time to cast a kind thought on Francis Thompson, the late-nineteenth century English ascetic who wrote the most famous poem about cricket; wrote one of the most fevered and thoughtful essays on Shelley; and is on the standard list of Jack the Ripper suspects.  That is one crazy Albion trifecta.

The Hound of Heaven Leads us to Lord's
I first came across Thompson in an anthology of Catholic poets for his most famous poem of all, the “Hound of Heaven,” a compelling mystic vision of a soul running from the grace of God.

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 mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

Francis Thompson was born in Lancashire in 1859 to parents who were Catholic converts, no light matter in England. He studied for the priesthood as a young man, but was rejected by the seminary director. His father was a doctor, and Francis went to medical school for six years in Manchester. He failed the medical examinations three times (more about that later) because he didn’t have enough interest in the science classes.

His mother gave him De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater when he was 18, and his desire for creative release lead him to laudanum until he was a full-blown addict. He moved to London in the hopes of becoming a writer, but he was a tortured soul who couldn’t navigate daily life and he spent years living on the streets. Through the fog he managed to submit some poems to Merrie England, edited by husband and wife Wilfred and Alice Meynell. Wilfred was deeply impressed and published several. Thompson thus came under the care of this couple, who did what they could to help him.

Shortly before his death in 1907, Wiki tells us that Thompson was invited to watch Lancashire play Middlesex at Lord’s. He became so nostalgic for the days of the great cricketers Hornby and Barlow that he stayed home and wrote the poem “At Lord’s”--considered the sport's most famous verse--rather than attend the match.

It’s fascinating that a man who himself is repeatedly described as “unbalanced” would have such a passion for cricket, whose very essence is order and justice, as O'Neill described. The contrast gets even more odd when we learn that some people think he is an infamous serial killer.

But first, the first stanza of the great  “At Lord’s”, which has given rise to several book titles on the sport of cricket.

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though my own red roses there may blow;
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.
For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago !

Overwrought, Yes, but Jack the Ripper?
In 1999, Richard Patterson proposed the theory that Francis Thompson is Jack the Ripper:

"Francis Thompson had a violent childhood, doomed medical school training, and a continual fascination with death. Thompson’s life and verse reflect his downward drug induced spiral into vagrancy. In 1888 Thompson was suicidal, and in possession of a dissecting scalpel. He was living near the murder scene in the West India docks, and he had been homeless man for three years. During the murders, he was seeking out a prostitute for whom he had a fancy. Upon meeting Thompson she vanished and he became delirious all during the very time of the Whitechapel murders."

Patterson also has an elaborate theory that the murders were committed on certain Catholic saints feast days, and that there is a religious connection that hasn’t been looked at before. (He doesn’t seem to know that you can find a Catholic saint’s day on nearly all 365 days of the year, so that’s not much of an argument.)

He has other “evidence,” including Thompson joking in a letter that he needs to start shaving with a razor rather than the scalpel he usually uses, and there is some handwriting similarities between he and the Ripper. Overall Patterson is not very persuasive, but it is an odd fate for a poet to end up on the Ripper suspect list  at all.

"The Saddest Records"
Thompson tried to commit suicide as a young man. Supposedly Chatterton came to him in a vision and convinced him not to. Well, of course he did, Chatterton being the strange 18th century talented misfit prodigy who was a poetry forger--writing poems and passing them off as medieval in origin--before taking his own life at 17.

Thompson died at 48 from tuberculosis. Here's a passage from his essay on Shelley, where he empathizes with the difficult life of poets:

Why indeed (one is tempted to ask in concluding) should it be that the poets who have written for us the poetry richest in skiey grain, most free from admixture with the duller things of earth--the Shelleys, the Coleridges, the Keats--are the very poets whose lives are among the saddest records in literature?

You had a tough time too, Francis.

An Addendum In a Lighter Vein:

The Anglican Psalm Chant for the Rules of cricket (via Di Pereira)

(Photo above from The Guardian, Tony Jenkins. The Queen greets players at first day at Lord's)


Tim Footman said...

Lovely stuff. But I would respectfully suggest that the greatest cricket poem is Henry Newbolt's Vitai Lambada. "Play up! play up! and play the game!"

Tim Footman said...

(Sorry, that should be Vitai *Lampada*.)

Ellen O'Neill said...

Hi. I agree the Newbolt poem really captures the spirit of the game. Love the history around it too.

Richard Patterson said...

Hi. I liked your article, being an Aussie I have sort of a soft spot for cricket. You wrote about me, '(He doesn’t seem to know that you can find a Catholic saint’s day on nearly all 365 days of the year, so that’s not much of an argument.)'

I did know. I'm just asking if we were to pick any four random dates would they match up to patron saints of butchers, doctors and soldiers, and the innocent? These features were figured, by the investigating police, to be central to be case. The professions listed were thought to be the probable occupations of the murderer.

I think it is fair to think that someone like Thompson, who studied as a Catholic priest for several years, may have known certain things. Like these occupations of butcher, solder, doctor, were also those that were venerated by the saints on the dates of all the killings of these innocent women.

You may be interested in a bit of another poem about cricket Thompson entrusted to his biographer, Everard Meynell. It was included in his 1913 biography, "The Life of Francis Thompson". It's about the England vs Australia matches.

'The pride of the North shall droop at last;... An Austral ball shall be bowled full fast, And baffle his bat and pass it by.
The Rose once wounded shall snap at last. The Rose long bleeding it shall not die. This song is secret. Mine ear it passed.'

Thanks for letting provide some feedback to an otherwise excellent post. Sorry if my feedback is too elaborate.

Ellen O'Neill said...

Mr. Patterson, thanks for stopping by and all your thoughts. My favorite description of cricket is Bill Bryson's "In a Sunburned Country" which I read on the plane to Sydney a few years ago (is that too much of a cliche?). It is absolutely hysterical.