Yesterday, I wrote about the question of poetry and employment. Today’s posting is closely related. If you’re a poet, what do you do with yourself? Consider poor Francis Thompson, an English poet from the late 1800s who was not wealthy but who nevertheless, to his own grave disadvantage, sought no means of work at all. Wikipedia refers to him charitably as an ascetic. The voice below is neither Thompson’s, nor mine, but Philip Larkin's. The quoted text is from Larkin’s essay on Thompson, called “Hounded” (from Required Writing, with a foreword by David Lehman!). Because my sense of humor is rather dark, these passages always have me doubled-over. Here’s Larkin (the book he’s referring to is J. C. Reid’s Francis Thompson: Man and Poet, London: Routledge, 1959):
“This book is fascinating because Thompson is fascinating, with all the fascination of character produced to excess. Born in Ashton-under-Lyne in 1859, the son of a Catholic-convert doctor, he had a happy childhood—indeed, too happy: after the nursery fantasies of dolls and his toy theatre, adult life was an anticlimax. An attempt to enter the priesthood was foiled by the percipient Fathers at St. Cuthbert’s, Ushaw, and he was sent instead to study medicine at Owens College. Daily he went by train to Manchester, to please his father, but once there he spent his time wandering about, reading and sleeping in Manchester Public Library, and watching cricket, in this way pleasing, or at least not displeasing, himself. Every so often he failed an examination. Incredibly, he kept this up for six years, and would no doubt have been content to spend the rest of his life travelling backwards and forwards on this misunderstanding if his father had not lost patience, and demanded at last that his son go to work. It was too late. Thompson had already found the answer to growing up: laudanum.
“Sooner than work, he quitted Ashton for London. Whether this sole decisive action of his life was simply an evasion, or whether it was in its pitiful, maimed way a gesture of independence, its consequences were terrible. Between 1885 and 1888 Thompson lived as miserably as any English poet before or after. Begging, selling papers or matches, running errands for a kind of bookmaker, spending what money he had on laudanum while he ate vegetable refuse in Covent Garden and slept on the Embankment, it is unbelievable that any many of sensibility could have voluntarily endured it—voluntarily, because his father sent him an allowance of seven shillings a week to a reading room in the Strand. But to collect it would have required conscious exercise of the will, a recognition of reality, a degree of self-discipline. Thompson preferred to starve.
“[He] just wanted to escape crushing responsibilities like getting up in the morning. Though there had been some talk of a literary career at home, he wrote nothing—certainly no poetry—and it was not until a tentative and long-disregarded contribution to Merry England had aroused the curiosity and compassion of the editor, Wilfrid Meynell, not until Thompson had been persuaded into a private hospital and broken of his addiction, that ‘from this man of thirty who had had only two rather mediocre poems printed, poetry now poured in a turbid torrent.’ In 1893 Elkin Mathews and John Lane published his first book, Poems. From then on he lived the rest of his life—another fourteen years only—in the Meynell’s kindly ambience. He was no more efficient, and not much happier, but at least he was never without food and lodging. Laudanum reasserted its hold, perhaps to dull consumption, and he died in 1907, murmuring ‘My withered dreams, my withered dreams’.”
This is Larkin at his bitter best, and it’s a good argument for poets to seek refuge in the Church, the Corporation, the Academy, or perhaps the Military. The message: get a job.