This enriching poem by Francis Thompson questions accepted spirituality. The mystics of the old promoted charity and “pure living” as Godly and rejected the spirituality of those “dwelling” in sin for they did feel that these individuals are guilty of “ungodliness” but they with their life did set an example for an honest and a pious way of living. Francis Thomas was a vagabond much like the “children of Cain” wandering in a world that is not his home and seeking an alternate reality. His brilliance made him restless and he willed to create in his own mind a reality that would make him feel at home, a reality that would nourish and foster him. He desired to create a world where he would be “accepted” by everybody. It would not be justifiable to give a reason for his way of life for it is a feeble tool to explain the dynamics of the soul. He led a life that is detestable in the eyes of society but he would derive meaning and pleasure in doing what he did. He would humor ideals that were accepted by nearly everybody and weep for things that make society rejoice. When his world would come crashing down he would create a better one and would be the king till it was found wanting. This was because the absolute would “weigh and measure” all the ways of man and it would always be far away from his desires but man on the other hand would build “castles in the sand” and would never give up his pursuit. I presume that Francis Thompson would have spent many days in tears and many still clenching his fist against the “Sovereign Lord”. This is the soul’s desire and many philosophers, theologians and men of science have tried to define this quest but all their definitions are found wanting. The theologians would call it “Original Sin”. The scripture in Genesis would say that “Every intention or imagination of a man’s heart was evil”, King David says that “In sin did my mother conceive me” and the implication of John Calvin’s theology would lead us to the notion of “total depravity”. This emphasizes the soul’s desire to destroy meaningful consciousness or life and embrace “nothingness”. The Eastern theologians would call this phenomena “evil” and would define is as “self loathing that leads to destruction of one self and one’s being in such a way that there is a slow eternal fading away into nothingness” and the soul desires this more than anything. In the midst of all this “THE HOUND OF HEAVEN” sniffs the warm blood of its victim in the air and relentlessly pursues it till it is satisfied and this hound seeks to attain this end with everything at stake even if this means changing the very nature of man. This he does out of love and that is the meaning of the Christian doctrine of Kenosis, Charles Wesley says that “He emptied himself off all but love and bled for Adam’s helpless race”. The love of this mighty pursuer is not a “metaphysical concept” that occupies the speculation of the wise and learned or a love that is predestined in such a way that there is no need for ‘direct intervention” but it is a love that serves, moves, suffers, dies and triumphs not for itself but for undeserving creatures. Those whose hearts this love has captured would exclaim and question saying “Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” .This wonderful poem by Francis Thompson captures the soul’s desire to escape the grasp of this love and ebb into nothingness and the sovereign’s desire “capture” the soul and feed it with internal bliss.
The poet begins by describing his restless desire to flee from the presence of the almighty. His famous words “I fled him” describes the soul’s natural desire to self-destruct. He runs away from the very source of life and consciousness in search of something that does not exist but is alive in our hearts and in our minds. Human Beings have a natural conception of heaven as a place where there is joy and pleasure but not God and man works so that he might reach “his heaven”. The poet is willing to flee him past anything; he is willing to do whatever it takes to escape the “jaws of the hound”. He does not desire joy but desires to flee the “lover of his soul”. This reinforces the teaching of St Paul on the Love of Christ to quote; he says that “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? [shall] tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?............ For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is where the poet is; the nights and days, the arches of the years, the labyrinthine ways and titanic glooms cannot separate him from the love of God in Christ. The poet would have often expressed his “unworthiness” and his great sins to discourage the hound from pursuing him, it might have been a way to put the hound “out of track” but the hound pursues him with “unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy”. The hound finally majestically remarks out of his glorious confidence knowing that it is by his very power that his prey escapes saying that “ All things betray thee who betrayest me”. This means that even the strength, the intellectual prowess and the confidence on the sin of the author would be a tool used by the hound to hunt its prey and not mechanisms used by the prey to escape the hound. Whilst in pursuit certain hounds give up hope when the hare burrows itself under the earth but the burrow would surrender the hare to this “great hound”.
The poet then progresses to his defense on his way of thinking, his “hedonistic” life and his pitiable condition. He has decorated his heart with “lust after his being” which he mistakes for “true love for oneself”. The poet finds himself in a situation that we are fully accustomed with. We may sometimes find ourselves in a position where we have an illusion on knowing ourselves entirely, we may find ourselves dictating our terms to God and using him as a means to satisfy our greedy lusts but the poet is fully aware that God does not cater to these lusts but he desires to change our hearts and our lives. This is a great challenge for a man who has in his life wandered so much away from God and sought comfort elsewhere. In the song “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkle the boxer admits that his loneliness led him to seek comfort from the “whores on 7th avenue”, this is natural for a man alien from love. The poet here too seeks comfort from the harlots that surround him and when his lover approaches he uses his “books and his poetry” to protect himself from true love. For he knows that to experience the true love of his lover, he would have to abandon the harlots that he associated himself with. He remembers the nights of sensual pleasure and how passionate he was for this way of life. He did not want to open his heart to the hound because if he did he knows that the “The gust of his approach would clash it too”. He knew that the love that the hound possessed was eternal, a love that goes beyond human dimensions, a love that is relentless and a love that would accept no other love. Stricken with that love St Francis De Sales exclaims “Ah, come Holy Spirit, and inflame our hearts with your love! To love—or to die! To die—and to love! To die to all other love in order to live in Christ’s love so that we may not die eternally”. The poet thus knows that he would have to “die to all other love” to be in true love because the purity of that love is jealous and will not associate itself with anything else. Christ proclaims in Matthew 10:37 “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me”. This is unpleasant to the ears of the poet that he flees to seek shelter in the heavens as an outlaw but he is troubled and restless for he fears a “great conspiracy”. Filled with this great fear he proclaims to times and seasons to hasten its course for he does not will to see the day, the day when this “tremendous Lover” overwhelms his being. Thus he seeks ultimate comfort in the forces of nature, he prays to these forces urging them to blind him from the hound till they day of his death by saying “Float thy vague veil about me lest He see”. He wants his deceptive love for nature to protect him from that lover. The protection he seeks after is his desire to “live in a lie” so that he might escape the horrors of the reality of true love. To his horror and astonishment the poet found that these forces of nature did not approve of his love for them for they were the faithful servants of his lover. They betrayed him because of their constancy, a dynamic way of understanding this would be “they betrayed him by not catering to his needs” for he desired motion and change so that he might forget the haunting presence of his lover but they offered him only their constancy. The scripture says that “All of nature groans in anticipation for the sons of God to be revealed.” Their groaning is so intense that they do their part to hasten the day the hound meets its prey. The poet thus not give up, the spirit of his rebellion is still not shaken and he clings on to every fleeting opportunity that passes by but everything around him now is like the “whistling mane of every wind”. The poet here expresses his rebellious and frantic attempts to evade the hound but the hound is nonchalant. All the attempts made by the outlaw does not disturb his pace even for moment of time. He still unhurrying, unperturbed, deliberate in his pace and majestic in his desire. Then his sovereign being proclaims that “Nought shelters thee who wilt not shelter Me”. This means that the whole realm of the heavens belongs to the “Sovereign Lord” and the forces of nature’s will is the desire of “the Lord” and he channels them according to his desire, for his pleasure. It would please these forces to betray the rebel of this great being. While the love of the hound pursues him from his tail, his sovereign majesty is at work and is making his path straight so that he is one day ready for that love and one such device that he sovereignty chooses are the forces of nature so that they have the pleasure in participating in the eternal will of God and they are pleased to be an integral part of his cosmic plan.
The poet in his previous attempts to obtain ultimate control over his life tired to find “safety in numbers” by losing himself in his relationship with human beings but he did not have a pleasant experience. He then seeks to find comfort with children; he had comfort in their innocence, truthfulness and simplicity. He wanted to hide in their presence and learn their ways for he knew that they would not betray him nor were they aware of his rebellion but the “Sovereign Lord” knew his intentions and he sends the “guardian angel of the children” to protect them from the grasp of this outlaw. He did not want the children to be defiled by the presence of this “vile creature”. Thus they “innocently” seem elusive and they can offer nothing but their faithfulness to his pursuer. The rebel then turns his attention to the “children of nature”, the laws that governs life and the ways of the vast cosmos so that he may evade the pursuit of the hound. For if he finds satisfaction in these elements then the love of the hound will have no worth in his life because he would have found the answer to the questions that disturb his mind. The uneasiness of his rebellion would be destroyed and the daunting shadow of the hound would no longer worry him because it will never be able to overwhelm him. He begins with a delicate love for nature expecting that to be the one he sought and he also hoped that it would prove that the pursuit of the hound was merely an “illusion”. His desire for knowledge turns into wanton lust, he knew in his heart that he is not capable of true love because he is far away from the source, for the “Lord” holds the monopoly of love, there is no love but the Love of Christ. He still relentlessly seeks to fill himself with this knowledge for it might be used as a weapon to defend himself lest the hound draws too near. He did not gently sing his praises to nature as St Francis of Assisi did but rather greedily sought to quench himself with the ‘waters” of “forbidden” knowledge”. He was not well acquainted with the wisdom of the ancients for if he were he would take the preacher’s warning that “With much knowledge cometh much sorrow”. He looked to quench his parched throat (for fleeing from the hound would make one weary and thirsty) with the liquid of knowledge. He did not know like the Samaritan woman that the hound possessed waters that satisfies eternally for Jesus says in John 4:13-14 that “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life”.
The poet now for the first time feels a sense of satisfaction when he for the first time in his life come into terms with “the goodness” that lies within creation. Although his intentions were evil he is rewarded with goodness and his satisfaction is glorious. His wanton desire he believes has led him to a “better” place. He fails to acknowledge the “Glory of God” in all of creation although this goodness was a taste of the eternal goodness that only his pursuer can offer. The almighty could have in his divine providence chosen to send him a taste of his love that he poured out on the creatures so that the poet may not fear his overwhelming awesomeness and know that his goodness cannot be compared to the goodness found in these creatures. The poet also experiences “oneness” with nature, he might have counted himself among other creatures thinking that his life is no different from the lives of these beings and that he has no need for love for these creatures do not seek love nor do they burst forth with love but they have satisfaction and this the poet feels is the real meaning of life; “to be one among nature”. Little did he know that nature did not rebel against the “Lord” and that nature is satisfied in the providence of the almighty and is one in accordance to his will. It is man who has sinned against God and it is he who will never find rest until he realizes his destiny and his destiny being “in complete fellowship with God”. Jesus says in Matthew 11:28 "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”, St Augustine says that “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee”. The first chapter of the Bible tells us that God created for man but man he created for himself, thus although these creatures might give him temporary pleasures his rest comes only when he surrenders to the hound. For there is a hymn that says “At the cross where I first saw the light and the burdens of my heart were rolled away; it was there by faith I received my sight and now I am happy all the way”. Nature may satisfy but can never fill the tremendous appetite of man, the appetite he has for true love but alas he does not know it for if he did he would throw away “vanities” and worship the “Lord” of his heart but God has his own ways of awakening our consciousness.
The fickleness and the feebleness of nature soon reveal itself. The drink that once satisfied him was now the cause of his belly’s trouble and his life’s grief. Nature was intellectually and morally inadequate to satisfy his eternal thirst. Man was created in the image of God, man is created in such a way that only God can fill him up and satisfy him. The psalmist says “As the hart panteth for water so my soul longs for thee”. Such is the nature of human desire and satisfaction; it does not find true happiness in the elements that surround it. Like the Samaritan woman traveled to Jacob’s well everyday to draw water, the poet too labors relentlessly to feed his desires. The harder his labor the more his greed, he moves his feet fast but his vision is never in sight, it eludes him everyday like a mirage. He does not know that which he seeks after desires him more than he does it but unlike him his pursuer is eternally satisfied and blissful and he is in want and in sorrow. A lover pursues his beloved for his want of love but this almighty lover pursues his beloved so that he might pour his excess love into his soul. The lover’s passion is so intense that he offer’s his body as bread and his blood as drink, for these elements carry eternal bliss. With all this available with his pursuer, the vagabond still travels to the well to fetch his drink and his weary bones crack under the weight of his burden. The “lover of the soul” knocks and knocks, St Francis De Sales says “See the divine lover at the gate. He does not simply knock once. He continues to knock. He calls the soul: come arise my beloved, hurry! and He puts his hand on the lock to see if He can open it…”. He knocks not to seek shelter but to lay the soul to rest. In the famous song by Kansas on the prodigal son he says “Carry on my wayward son there’ll be peace when you are done, lay your weary head to rest don’t you cry no more”. Such is the love that he resists but alas what pity! Even the magnificence, the beauty, the fragrance and the charms of nature does not quench the soul’s thirst for nature was created not to quench the thirst of the son of man but for man to caress it, tend it and care for it. The man who is filled with the glory of God becomes the channel of grace for nature to partake of God’s grace but such is the condition of man that he seeks to be fulfilled from nature and nature gives all she can but loses her glory. Man consumes all he can and punishes nature because of her inadequacy. The poet echoes these sentiments when he says “Never did any milk of hers once bless my thirsting mouth”. The pursuing hound then shares with the rebel another dimension of his glory. He says “Although nature cooperates she will never satisfy you because you are fleeing me, the one who owns all; I am the mighty “Lord” who satisfies you for in my right hand are pleasures evermore. I am the absolute and she is just a fragile contingent, like a shadow when compared to my glory”.
The outlaw now surrenders to the might of the approaching hound for he knows and acknowledges the supremacy of the hound and realizes his helpless estate. Many hymns attempt to depict the surrender of the soul, the helplessness experienced by the vain warrior when he has a skirmish with the divine. Jacob in the Bible also engages the almighty in a duel, although the “Lord” is depicted as one who struggles with Jacob but he effortlessly cripples him in the end and gives the credit to Jacob for his strength. Jacob knew that it was by God’s own strength that he prevailed against him and he knew that this was God’s way of blessing him. Likewise the poet here expresses in words his surrender to “the divine”. This was not a pleasant feeling for he is in faced with that which he feared the most and awaits his judgment. He recalls the days when he was full of youth and zeal to pursue his dreams but now his “mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap” and his days “have crackled and gone up in smoke”. The surrender of the soul to the divine thus causes tremendous pain and he feels like he is a “prisoner of war” awaiting his trial. Stricken with guilt and helplessness he awaits the hound killing blow, the jaws of the hound waters to grant him his desire, his desire for true love. This has been expressed by Kansas in the song Hold On “Don't you recall what you felt when you weren't alone someone who stood by your side a face you have known where do you run when it's too much to bear who do you turn to in need when nobody's there. Outside your door He is waiting, waiting for you sooner or later you know he's got to get through no hesitation and no holding back let it all go and you'll know you're on the right track”. The hymn Rock of Ages by Augustus Toplady conveys the same state of the poets soul by these words “Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy law's commands;
could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone .Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die”. This state of the soul is inexpressible that is the reason why the poet uses a lot of allegorical language to be his ally.
Now the soul awaits the verdict of the “Lord of the souls”, like the woman accused of adultery was brought to Jesus for judgment, the soul is violently thrown at the feet of the “Lord”. With tears and anguish the accused awaits his verdict but he is only greeted with “amaranthine love”. The joy of the soul knows no bounds to find the sweetness of the love. The poet now knows that his days of being an outlaw were mere foolishness and that he fled from the very thing that would be his potion forever. A revelation then dawns the poet he hears the hound telling him that “All things flee thee, for thou fliest me”. He accepts this with a smile.
The poet finally ponders his lowly estate. He knows how unworthy he is for that precious love and that he has done nothing to merit it. The Psalmist says “He knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are dust.As for man his days as grass, like the flower of the field so he flurisheth for the the wind passeth over it and it is gone and the place thereof shall know it know more”. Thus knowing our estate God still in his divine wisdom chooses to pour out his own love upon our souls by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Words would now defy the sanctity of this mysterious love; minds should cease inquiring but should relish the goodness of the love only by divine grace. The “Lord” alienates us from the pleasures of this world so that we can seek it in his arms and this is what the poet expresses, this the Lord does for his own name’s sake. He ends appropriately by saying “Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me”. The author has now realized his destiny.