The Hound of Heaven
By John Kelman
In the study of the long battle between paganism and idealism,—between the life which is lived under the attraction of this world and which seeks its satisfaction there, and that wistful life of the spirit which has far thoughts and cannot settle down to the green and homely earth,—it is natural that we should look for some literary work which will describe the decisive issue of the whole conflict. Such a work is Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, which is certainly one of the most remarkable poems that have been published in England for many years.
To estimate its full significance it is necessary in a few words to recapitulate the course of thought which has been followed in the preceding chapters. We began with the ancient Greeks, and distinguished the high idealism of their religious conceptions from the paganism into which these declined. The sense of the sacredness of beauty, forced upon the Greek spirit by the earth itself, was a high idealism, without which no conception of life or of the universe can be anything but a maimed and incomplete expression of their meaning. Yet, for lack of some sufficiently powerful element of restraint and some sufficiently daring faith in spiritual reality, Hellenism sank back upon the mere earth, and its dying fires lit up a world too sordid for their sacred flame. In Marius the Epicurean the one thing lacking was supplied by the faith of early Christianity. The Greek idealism of beauty was not only conserved but enriched, and the human spirit was revived, by that heroic faith which endured as seeing the invisible. The two Fausts revealed the struggle at later stages of the development of Christianity. Marlowe’s showed it under the light of mediæval theology and Goethe’s under that of modern humanism, with the curious result that in the former tragedy the man is the pagan and the devil the idealist, while in the latter this order is reversed. Omar Khayyám and Fiona Macleod introduce the Oriental and the Celtic strains. In both there is the cry of the senses and the strong desire and allurement of the green earth; but in Fiona Macleod there is the dominant undertone of the eternal and the spiritual, never silent and finally overwhelming.
The next two lectures, in a cross-section of the seventeenth century, showed John Bunyan keenly alive to the literature and the life of the world of Charles the Second’s time, yet burning straight flame of spiritual idealism with these for fuel. Over against him stood Samuel Pepys, lusty and most amusing, declaring in every page of his Diary the lengths to which unblushing paganism can go.
Representative of modern literature, Carlyle comes first with his Sartor Resartus. At the ominous and uncertain beginning of our modern thought he stood, blowing loud upon his iron trumpet a great blast of harsh but grand idealism, before which the walls of the pagan Jericho fell down in many places. Yet such an inspiring challenge as his was bound to produce reactions, and we have them in many forms. Matthew Arnold presses upon his time, in clear and unimpassioned voice, the claim of neglected Hellenism. Rossetti, with heavy, half-closed eyes, hardly distinguishes the body from the soul. Mr. Thomas Hardy, the Titan of the modern world, whose heart is sore with disillusion and the bitterness of the earth, and yet blind to the light of heaven that still shines upon it, has lived into the generation which is reading Mr. Wells and Mr. Shaw. These appear to be outside of all such distinctions as pagan and idealist; but their influence is strongly on the pagan side. Mr. Chesterton appears, with his quest of human nature, and he finds it not on earth but in heaven. He is the David of Christian faith, come to fight against the heretic Goliaths of his day; and, so far as his style and literary manner go, he continues the ancient rôle, smiting Goliath with his own sword.
Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven is for many reasons a fitting close and climax to these studies. He is as much akin to Shelley and Swinburne as Mr. Chesterton is akin to Mr. Bernard Shaw. From them he has gathered not a little of his style and diction. He is with them, too, in his passionate love of beauty, without which no idealist can possibly be a fair judge of paganism. “With many,” he tells us in that Essay on Shelley which Mr. Wyndham pronounces the most important contribution to English letters during the last twenty years—”with many the religion of beauty must always be a passion and a power, and it is only evil when divorced from the worship of the Primal Beauty.” In this confession we are brought back to the point where we began. The gods of Greece were ideals of earthly beauty, and by them, while their worship remained spiritual, men were exalted far above paganism. And now, as we are drawing to a close, it is fitting that we should again remind ourselves that religious idealism must recover “the Christ beautiful,” if it is to retain its hold upon humanity. In this respect, religion has greatly and disastrously failed, and he who can redeem that failure for us will indeed be a benefactor to his race. Religion should lead us not merely to inquire in God’s holy place, but to behold the beauty of the Lord; and to behold it in all places of the earth until they become holy places for us. Christ, the Man of Sorrows, has taught the world that wild joy of which Mr. Chesterton speaks such exciting things. It remains for Thompson to remind us that he whose visage was more marred than any man yet holds that secret of surpassing beauty after which the poets’ hearts are seeking so wistfully.
Besides all this, we shall find here something which has not as yet been hinted at in our long quest. The sound of the age-long battle dies away. Here is a man who does not fight for any flag, but simply tells us the mysterious story of his own soul and ours. It is a quiet and a fitting close for our long tale of excursions and alarums. But into the quiet ending there enters a very wonderful and exciting new element. We have been watching successive men following after the ideal, which, like some receding star, travelled before its pilgrims through the night. Here the ideal is no longer passive, a thing to be pursued. It halts for its pilgrims—”the star which chose to stoop and stay for us.” Nay, more, it turns upon them and pursues them. The ideal is alive and aware—a real and living force among the great forces of the universe. It is out after men, and in this great poem we are to watch it hunting a soul down. The whole process of idealism is now suddenly reversed, and the would-be captors of celestial beauty are become its captives.
As has been already stated, we must be in sympathetic understanding with the pagan heart in order to be of any account as advocates of idealism. No reader of Thompson’s poetry can doubt for a moment his fitness here. From the days of Pindar there has been a brilliant succession of singers and worshippers of the sun, culminating in the matchless song of Shelley. In Francis Thompson’s poems of the sun, the succession is taken up again in a fashion which is not unworthy of the splendours of paganism at its very highest.
“And the sun comes with power amid the clouds of heaven,
Before his way
Went forth the trumpet of the March
Before his way, before his way,
Dances the pennon of the May!
O Earth, unchilded, widowed Earth, so long
Lifting in patient pine and ivy-tree
Mournful belief and steadfast prophecy,
Behold how all things are made true!
Behold your bridegroom cometh in to you
Exceeding glad and strong!”
The great song takes us back to the days of Mithra and the sol invictus of Aurelian. That outburst of sunshine in the evening of the Roman Empire, rekindling the fires of Apollo’s ancient altars for men who loved the sunshine and felt the wonder of it, is repeated with almost added glory in Thompson’s marvellous poems.
Yet for Francis Thompson all this glory of the sun is but a symbol. The world where his spirit dwells is beyond the sun, and in nature it displays itself to man but brokenly. In the bloody fires of sunset, in the exquisite white artistry of the snow-flake, this supernatural world is but showing us a few of its miracles, by which the miracles of Christian faith are daily and hourly matched for sheer wonder and beauty. The idealist claims as his inheritance all those things in which the pagan finds his gods, and views them as the revelations of the Master Spirit.
It is difficult to write about Thompson’s poetry without writing mainly about himself. In The Hound of Heaven, as in much else that he has written, there is abundance of his own experience, and indeed his poems often remind us of the sorrows of Teufelsdröckh. That, however, is not the purpose of this lecture; and, beyond a few notes of a general kind, we shall leave him to reveal himself. Except for Mr. Meynell’s illuminative and all too short introduction to his volume of Thompson’s Selected Poems, there are as yet only scattered articles in magazines to tell his strange and most pathetic story. His writings are few, comprising three short books of poetry, his prose Essay on Shelley, and a Life of St. Ignatius, which is full of interest and almost overloaded with information, but which may be discounted from the list of his permanent contributions to literature or to thought. Yet that small output is enough to establish him among the supreme poets of our land.
Apart from its poetic power and spiritual vision, his was an acute and vivid mind. On things political and social he could express himself in little casual flashes whose shrewd and trenchant incisiveness challenge comparison with Mr. Chesterton’s own asides. His acquaintance with science seems to have been extensive, and at times he surprises us with allusions and metaphors of an unusually technical kind, which he somehow renders intelligible even to the non-scientific reader. These are doubly illuminative, casting spiritual light on the material world, and strengthening with material fact the tenuous thoughts of the spiritual. The words which he used of Shelley are, in this respect, applicable to himself. “To Shelley’s ethereal vision the most rarefied mental or spiritual music traced its beautiful corresponding forms on the sand of outward things.”
His style and choice of words are an achievement in themselves, as distinctive as those of Thomas Carlyle. They, and the attitude of mind with which they are congruous, have already set a fashion in our poetry, and some of its results are excellent. In Rose and Vine, and in other poems of Mrs. Rachel Annand Taylor, we have the same blend of power and beauty, the same wildness in the use of words, and the same languor and strangeness as if we had entered some foreign and wonderfully coloured world. In Ignatius the style and diction are quite simple, ordinary, and straightforward, but that biography is decidedly the least effective of his works. It would seem that here as elsewhere among really great writings the style is the natural and necessary expression of the individual mind and imagination. The Life of Shelley, which is certainly one of the masterpieces of English prose, has found for its expression a style quite unique and distinctive, in which there are constant reminders of other stylists, yet no imitation of any. The poetry is drugged, and as we read his poems through in the order of their publication, we feel the power of the poppy more and more. At last the hand seems to lose its power and the will its control, though in flashes of sheer flame the imagination shows wild and beautiful as ever. His gorgeousness is beyond that of the Orient. The eccentric and arresting words that constantly amaze the ear, bring with them a sense of things occult yet dazzling, as if we were assisting at some mystic rite, in a ritual which demanded language choice and strange.
Something of this may be due to narcotics, and to the depressing tragedy of his life. More of it is due to Shelley, Keats, and Swinburne. But these do not explain the style, nor the thoughts which clothed themselves in it. Both style and thoughts are native to the man. What he borrows he first makes his own, and thus establishes his right to borrow—a right very rarely to be conceded. Much that he has learned from Shelley he passes on to his readers, but before they receive it, it has become, not Shelley’s, but Francis Thompson’s. To stick a lotos-flower in our buttonhole—harris-cloth or broadcloth, it does not matter—is an impertinent folly that makes a guy of the wearer. But this man’s raiment is his own, not that of other men, and Shelley himself would willingly have put his own flowers there.
Those who stumble at the prodigality and licence of his style, and the unchartered daring of his imagination, will find a most curious and brilliant discussion of the whole subject in his Essay on Shelley, which may be summed up in the injunction that “in poetry, as in the Kingdom of God, we should not take thought too greatly wherewith we shall be clothed, but seek first—seek first, not seek only—the spirit, and all these things will be added unto us.” He discusses his own style with an unexpected frankness. His view of the use of imagination is expressed in the suggestive and extraordinary words—”To sport with the tangles of Neæra’s hair may be trivial idleness or caressing tenderness, exactly as your relation to Neræa is that of heartless gallantry or of love. So you may toy with imagery in mere intellectual ingenuity, and then you might as well go write acrostics; or you may toy with it in raptures, and then you may write a Sensitive Plant.” If a man is passionate, and passion is choosing her own language in his work, he may be forgiven much. If he chooses strange words deliberately and in cold blood, there is no reason why we should forgive him anything.
So much has been necessary as an introduction, but our subject is neither the man Francis Thompson nor his poetry in general, but the one poem which is at once the most characteristic expression of his personality and of his poetic genius. The Hound of Heaven has for its idea the chase of man by the celestial huntsman. God is out after the soul, pursuing it up and down the universe. God,—but God incarnate in Jesus Christ, whose love and death are here the embodiment and revelation of the whole ideal world. The hunted one flees, as men so constantly flee from the Highest, and seeks refuge in every possible form of earthly experience—at least in every clean and noble form, for there is nothing suggestive of low covert or the mire. It is simply the second-best as a refuge from the best that is depicted here—the earth at its pagan finest, in whose charm or homeliness the soul would fain hide itself from the spiritual pursuit. And the Great Huntsman is remorseless in his determination to win the soul for the very best of all. The soul longs for beauty, for interest, for comfort; and in the beautiful, various, comfortable life of the earth she finds them. The inner voice still tells of a nobler heritage; but she understands and loves these earthly things, and would fain linger among them, shy of the further flight.
The whole conception of the poem is the counterpart of Browning’s Easter Day, where the soul chooses and is allowed to choose the same regions of the lesser good and beauty for its home. In that poem the soul is permitted to devote itself for ever to the finest things that earth can give—life, literature, scientific knowledge, love. The permission sends it wild with joy, and having chosen, it settles down for ever to the earth-bound life. But eternity is too long for the earth and all that is upon it. It wears time out, and all the desire of our mortality ages and grows weary. The spirit, made for immortal thoughts and loves and life, finds itself the ghastly prisoner of that which is inevitably decaying; but its immortality postpones the decent and appropriate end to an eternal mockery and doom. At last, in the tremendous close, it wakens to the unspeakable blessedness of not being satisfied with anything that earth can give, and so proves itself adequate for its own inheritance of immortality. In Thompson’s poem the soul is never allowed, even in dream, to rest in lower things until satiety brings disillusion. The higher destiny is swift at her heels; and ever, just as she would nestle in some new covert, she is torn from it by the imperious Best of All that claims her for its own.
There is no obvious sequence of the phases of the poem, nor any logical order connecting them into a unity of experience. They may or may not be a rescript of Thompson’s own inner life, but every detail might be placed in another order without the slightest loss to the meaning or the truth. The only guiding and unifying element is a purely artistic one—that of the Hound in full cry, and the unity of the poem is but that of a day’s hunting. One would like to know what remote origin it is to which we owe the figure. Thompson was a Greek scholar, and some such legend as that of Actæon may well have been in his mind. But the chase of dogs was a common horror in the Middle Ages, and many of the mediæval fiends are dog-faced. In those days, when conscience had as yet received none of our modern soporifics, and men believed in hell, many a guilty sinner knew well the baying of the hell-hounds, masterless and bloody-fanged, that chased the souls of even good men up to the very gates of heaven. Conscience and remorse ran wild, and the Hound of Hell was a characteristic part of the machinery that made the tragedy of life so terrific in those old days. But here, by a tour de force in which is summed up the entire transformation from ancient to modern thought, the hell-hounds are transformed into the Hound of Heaven. That something or some one is out after the souls of men, no man who has understood his inner life can question for a moment. But here the great doctrine is proclaimed, that the Huntsman of the soul is Love and not Hate, eternal Good and not Evil. No matter what cries may freeze the soul with horror in the night, what echoes of the deep-voiced dogs upon the trail of memory and of conscience, it is God and not the devil that is pursuing.
The poem, by a strange device of rhythm, keeps up the chase in the most vividly dramatic realism. The metre throughout is irregular, and the verses swing onward for the most part in long, sweeping lines. But five times, at intervals in the poem, the sweep is interrupted by a stanza of shorter lines, varied slightly but yet in essence the same—
“But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
By this device of rhythm the footfall of the Hound is heard in all the pauses of the poem. In the short and staccato measures you hear the patter of the little feet padding after the soul from the unseen distance behind. It is a daring use of the onomatopoeic device in poetry, and it is effective to a wonder, binding the whole poem into the unity of a single chase.
The first nine lines are the story of a soul subjective as yet and self-absorbed. The first covert in which it seeks to hide is its own life—the thoughts and tears and laughter, the hopes and fears of a man. This is in most men’s lives the first attempt at escape. The verses here give the inner landscape, the country of a soul’s experience, with wonderful compression. Then comes the patter of the Hound’s feet, and for the rest we are no longer in the thicket of the inner life, but in the open country of the outer world. This is but the constantly repeated transition which, as we have already seen, Browning illustrates in his Sordello, the turning-point between the early introspective and the later dramatic periods.
Having gained the open country of the outward and objective world, the inevitable first thought is of love as a refuge from spiritual pursuit. The story is shortly told in nine lines. The human and the divine love are rivals here; pagan versus ideal affection. The hunted heart is not allowed to find refuge or solace in human love. The man knows that it is Love that follows him: yet it is the warm, red, earthly passion that he craves for, and the divine pursuer seems cold, exacting, and austere.
Finding no refuge in human love from this “tremendous Lover,” he seeks it next in a kind of imaginative materialism, half-scientific, half-fantastic. He appeals at “the gold gateways of the stars” and at “the pale ports o’ the moon” for shelter. He seeks to hide beneath the vague and blossom-woven veil of far sky-spaces, or, in lust of swift motion, “clings to the whistling mane of every wind!” Here is a choice of paganism at its most modern and most impressive. The cosmic imagination, revelling in the limitless fields of time and space, will surely be sufficient for a man’s idealism, without any insistence upon further definition. Here are Carlyle’s Eternities and Immensities—are they not enough? The answer is that these are but the servants of One mightier than they. Incorruptible and steadfast in their allegiance, they will neither offer pity nor will they allow peace to him who is not loyal to their Master. And the hunted soul is stung by a fever of restlessness that chases him back across “the long savannahs of the blue” to earth again, with the recurring patter of the little feet behind him.
Doubling upon the course, the quarry seeks the surest refuge to be found on earth. Children are still here, and in their simplicity and innocence there is surely a hiding-place that will suffice. Here is no danger of earthly passion, no Titanic stride among the vast things of the universe. Are they not the true idealists, the children? Are they not the authentic guardians of fairyland and of heaven? Francis Thompson is an authority here, and his love of children has expressed itself in much exquisite prose and poetry. “Know you what it is to be a child? It is to be something very different from the man of to-day. It is to have a spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism; it is to believe in love, to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief; it is to be so little that the elves can reach to whisper in your ear; it is to turn pumpkins into coaches, and mice into horses, lowness into loftiness, and nothing into everything, for each child has its fairy godmother in its own soul; it is to live in a nutshell and to count yourself the king of infinite space.” “To the last he [Shelley] was the enchanted child…. He is still at play, save only that his play is such as manhood stops to watch, and his playthings are those which the gods give their children. The universe is his box of toys. He dabbles his fingers in the day-fall. He is gold-dusty with tumbling amidst the stars. He makes bright mischief with the moon. The meteors nuzzle their noses in his hand. He teases into growling the kennelled thunder, and laughs at the shaking of its fiery chain. He dances in and out of the gates of heaven; its floor is littered with his broken fancies. He runs wild over the fields of ether. He chases the rolling world.” He who could write thus, and who could melt our hearts with To Monica Thought Dying and its refrain,
“A cup of chocolate,
One farthing is the rate,
You drink it through a straw, a straw, a straw”
—surely he must have had some wonderful right of entrance into the innocent fellowships of childhood. Still more intimate, daring in its incredible humility and simpleness, is his Ex Ore Infantium:—
“Little Jesus, wast Thou shy
Once, and just as small as I?
And what did it feel like to be
Out of Heaven, and just like me?…
Hadst Thou ever any toys,
Like us little girls and boys?
And didst Thou play in Heaven with all
The angels, that were not too tall?…
So, a little Child, come down
And hear a child’s tongue like Thy own;
Take me by the hand and walk,
And listen to my baby-talk.”
But not even this refuge is open to the rebel soul.
“I turned me to them very wistfully;
But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair
With dawning answers there,
Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.”
Driven from the fairyland of childhood, he flees, as a last resort, to Nature. This time it is not in science that he seeks her, but in pure abandonment of his spirit to her changing moods. He will be one with cloud and sky and sea, will be the brother of the dawn and eventide.
“I was heavy with the even,
When she lit her glimmering tapers
Round the day’s dead sanctities.
I laughed in the morning’s eyes,
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather.”
Here again Francis Thompson is on familiar ground. If, like Mr. Chesterton, he holds the key of fairyland, like him also he can retain through life his wonder at the grass. His nature-poetry is nearer Shelley than anything that has been written since Shelley died. In it
“The leaves dance, the leaves sing,
The leaves dance in the breath of spring,”
“The great-vanned Angel March Hath trumpeted
His clangorous ‘Sleep no more’ to all the dead—
Beat his strong vans o’er earth and air and sea
And they have heard;
Hark to the Jubilate of the bird.”
These, and such exquisite detailed imagery as that of the poem To a Snowflake—the delicate silver filigree of verse—rank him among the most privileged of the ministrants in Nature’s temple, standing very close to the shrine. Yet here again there is repulse for the flying soul. This fellowship, like that of the children, is indeed fair and sheltering, but it is not for him. It is as when sunset changes the glory from the landscape into the cold and dead aspect of suddenly fallen night. Nature, that seemed so alive and welcoming, is dead to him. Her austerity and aloofness change her face; she is not friend but stranger. Her language is another tongue from his—
“In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek,”
—and the padding of the feet is heard again.
Thus has he compassed the length and breadth of the universe in the vain attempt to flee from God. Now at last he finds himself at bay. God has been too much for him. Against his will, and wearied out with the vain endeavour to escape, he must face the pursuing Love at last.
“Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke!
My harness piece by piece thou hast hewn from me,
And smitten me to my knee.
I am defenceless utterly.”
So, faced by ultimate destiny in the form of Divine Love at last, he remembers the omnipotence that once had seemed to dwell in him, when
“In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me,”
“The linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist
I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist.”
All that is gone, and he is face to face with the grim demands of God.
There follows a protest against those demands. To him it appears that they are the call for sheer sacrifice and death. He had sought self-realisation in every lovely field that lay open to the earth. But now the trumpeter is sounding, “from the hid battlements of Eternity,” the last word and final meaning of human life. His is a dread figure, “enwound with glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned.” His demand is for death and sacrifice, calling the reluctant children of the green earth out from this pleasance to face the awful will of God.
It is the Cross that he has seen in nature and beyond it. Long ago it was set up in England, that same Cross, when Cynewulf sang his Christ. On Judgment Day he saw it set on high, streaming with blood and flame together, amber and crimson, illuminating the Day of Doom. Thompson has found it, not on Calvary only, but everywhere in nature, and by tour de force he blends the sunset with Golgotha and finds that the lips of Nature proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the garden of the monastery there stands a cross, and the sun is setting over it.
“Thy straight Long beam lies steady on the Cross.
Ah me! What secret would thy radiant finger show?
Of thy bright mastership is this the key?
Is this thy secret then, and is it woe?
Thou dost image, thou dost follow
That king-maker of Creation
Who ere Hellas hailed Apollo
Gave thee, angel-god, thy station;
Thou art of Him a type memorial.
Like Him thou hangst in dreadful pomp of blood
Upon thy Western rood;
And His stained brow did veil like thine to night.
Now, with wan ray that other sun of Song
Sets in the bleakening waters of my soul.
One step, and lo! the Cross stands gaunt and long
‘Twixt me and yet bright skies, a presaged dole.
Even so, O Cross! thine is the victory,
Thy roots are fast within our fairest fields;
Brightness may emanate in Heaven from Thee:
Here Thy dread symbol only shadow yields.”
This is ever the first appearance of the Highest when men see it. And, to the far-seeing eyes of the poet, nature must also wear the same aspect. Apollo, when his last word is said, must speak the same language as Christ. Paganism is an elaborate device to do without the Cross. Yet it is ever a futile device, for the Cross is in the very grain and essence of all life; it is absolutely necessary to all permanent and satisfying gladness. Francis Thompson is not the first who has shrunk back from the bitter truth. Many others have found the bitterness of the Cross a lesson too dreadful for their joyous or broken hearts to learn. Who are we that we should judge them? Have we not all rebelled at this bitter aspect of the Highest, and said, in our own language—
“Ah! is Thy love indeed
A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed
Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?”
Finally we have the answer of Christ to the soul He has chased down after so long a following—
“Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of nought (He said),
And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou mightst seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp my hand, and come.”
And the poem ends upon the patter of the little feet—
“Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou drovest love from thee, who drovest Me.”
It is a perfect ending for this very wonderful song of life, and it tells the old and constantly repeated story of the victory of the Cross over the pagan gods. It is through pain and not through indulgence that the ideals gain for themselves eternal life. Until the soul has been transformed and strengthened by pain, its attempt to fulfil itself and be at peace in a pagan settlement on the green earth must ever be in vain. And in our hearts we all know this quite well. We really desire the Highest, and yet we flee in terror from it always, until the day of the wise surrender. This is perhaps the greatest of all our paradoxes and contradictions.
As has been already pointed out, the new feature which is introduced to the aspect of the age-long conflict by The Hound of Heaven is that the parts are here reversed, and instead of the soul seeking the Highest, the Highest is out in full cry after the soul. In this the whole quest crosses over into the supernatural, and can no longer be regarded simply as a study of human nature. Beyond the human region, out among those Eternities and Immensities where Carlyle loved to roam, there is that which loves and seeks. This is the very essence of Christian faith. The Good Shepherd seeketh the lost sheep until He find it. He is found of those that sought Him not. Until the search is ended the silly sheep may flee before His footsteps in terror, even in hatred, for the bewildered hour. Yet it is He who gives all reality and beauty even to those things which we would fain choose instead of Him—He alone. The deep wisdom of the Cross knows that it is pain which gives its grand reality to love, so making it fit for Eternity, and that sacrifice is the ultimate secret of fulfilment. Truly those who lose their life for His sake shall find it. Not to have Him is to renounce the possibility of having anything: to have Him is to have all things added unto us.
So far we have considered this poem as a record of personal experience, but it may be taken also as a message for the age in which we live. Regarded so, it is an appeal to pagan England to come back from all its idols, from its attempt to force upon the earth a worship which she repudiates:
“Worship not me but God, the angels urge.”
The angels of earth say that, as well as those of heaven—the angels of nature and the open field, of homes and the love of women and of men, of little children and of grave science and all learning. The desire of the soul is very near it, nay, is pursuing it with patient and remorseless footsteps down every quiet and familiar street. The land of heart’s desire is no strange land, nor has heaven been lifted from about our heads.
“Not where the whirling 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-splendoured 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 between Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry;—clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Genesareth, but Thames.”
This is taken from Among Famous Books.