London and Boston: John Lane at the Bodley Head / Copeland and Day, 1895. First edition. Small quarto (8 inches tall), original gilt-decorated beveled brown cloth, uncut. Bookplate, discrete repair to front joint, original tissue-guard partially detached, boards toned but gilt bright and corners sharp. A near-fine copy. Item #1420
"THEY SAY EARTH'S BEAUTY SEEMS COMPLETEST / TO THEM THAT ON THEIR DEATH-BEDS REST / GENTLE LADY! SHE SMILES SWEETEST / JUST ERE SHE CLASP US TO HER BREAST"
First edition of Francis Thompson's poem—"A book which Shelley would have adored" (William Archer)—in the original Arts-and-Crafts binding with an illustrated frontispiece and a letterpress title page, all designed by Laurence Housman. A lovely book.
"If Alice Meynell is the central figure of the Catholic Revival in the middle phase, Francis Thompson is its greatest figure. He belongs to the 1890s" (Calvert Alexander). For Thompson the years (1885-88) on the streets of London were a time of "spiritual training. During these years he learnt what sin was...later he was to learn what God was, thus encompassing the two poles of the spiritual life, according to the words of St. Augustine, Noverim Me, Noverim Te" (Calvert Alexander). The poem is printed in two parts with a concluding Inscription. Thompson's brief Preface dates the composition of Sister Songs to the same year (1891) as the Hound of Heaven and acknowledges a debt ("an unconscious plagiarism") to Coventry Patmore's St. Valentine's Day.
Hailed in a contemporary reviews: "To childhood and innocence Francis Thompson raised a magnificent temple in Sister Songs" (The Spectator), Sister Songs was originally "scribbled in a penny exercise book" and "presented to Wilfrid and Alice Meynell as a Christmas gift." It was the Meynell family which had rescued Thompson from his "midnight time" of homelessness and addiction but Thompson, Calvert Alexander says, benefited from an earlier female protector who intervened on his behalf: "a woman of the streets befriended him when he was most in need of assistance. He speaks of her in Sister Songs: 'She passed, - O brave, sad, lovingest, tender thing! / And of her own scant pittance did she give, / That I might and eat and live: / Then fled, a swift and trackless fugitive.' Her flight, we learn, was occasioned by the news brought to her by Thompson, after his first interview with Wilfrid Meynell, that his poetry had been praised and salvation was in sight." Sister Songs is preceded by a publisher's note: "Uniform with this: Poems by Francis Thompson with frontispiece, title-page and cover design by Laurence Housman." A leaf advertising the fourth edition of "Poems" along with a publisher's catalogue ("List of Books of Belles Lettres") is bound in at the end of the text. Calvert Alexander. The Catholic Literary Revival.