This poem by Francis Thompson speaks of a man’s effort to avoid God and his love at all costs. God is represented metaphorically as a hound chasing a man throughout the course of his life in an effort to bring him into His loving presence. The man, fully aware of the hound’s intent, avoids him because he is not prepared to give up the world of temporal pleasures: “…Though I knew His love who followèd, Yet was I sore adread Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside…” In his flight from this “tremendous lover,” the man looks for happiness in his fellow men and in nature. However, his hopes of contentment apart from the hound are shattered. Men display a “traitorous trueness” to the hound, and communion with nature leaves his soul thirsting for something more: “Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drought…” In a cry of total desperation, the man addresses the hound. He realizes that his search has been fruitless and now asks the hound why he has to suffer so much before realizing his dependence on him: “Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields Thee harvest, must thy harvest fields Be dunged with rotten death?” The hound replies: “All which I took from thee I did but take, Not for thy harms, But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.” God, as represented by the hound, takes away temporal pleasures not as a punishment but because He wants men to know Him first so that all other things will bring pleasure as revelations of the Creator. He pursues us throughout our lives, constantly seeking to draw us closer to Him, and waiting for us to realize our emptiness without Him.
The imagery in the poem is well-executed; when Thompson compares men’s souls to wood, for example, a brilliant image accompanies it: “Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?” The language, while ornate, is not excessively so. The lines are clear and the vocabulary is very suggestive to the imagination. Although it is perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be, the length makes evident God’s patience with us and emphasizes the futility of our waywardness. In addition, the extended excitement of the pursuit holds the reader’s attention so that the end of the search brings a sigh of relief.
Theologically, the poem is very effective. By speaking of man’s universal search for personal fulfillment, the poem testifies to the Word and man’s natural hunger for a relationship with it. The Word (the Voice of the hound) is inescapable, surrounding the man “like a bursting sea” and reminding him that he must depend on God: “Whom will thou find to love ignoble thee, Save Me, save only Me?” The unworthiness of man is counterpoised by the boundless love of God, and the last few verses achieve a distinctively Catholic understanding of God as Father: “All which thy child’s mistake Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home; Rise, clasp My hand, and come!” The image is of a compassionate Father who cares deeply about His children and wants to lead them to His house where they will find eternal security and contentment.
Thompson centers the poem around the man’s heart as it searches for completion. The heart is the still point of the poem, the place where the Lord can be found struggling to make a resting place for Himself. There is a sense of urgency to the poem; the pursuit of the hound signifies the ongoing efforts of God to draw men to Himself. The poem concentrates on the present moment, the kairos, that moment at which divinity extends its hand to mankind in an effort to bring about eternal communion, a moment which penetrates all time.
I think the poem definitely supports Henri Brémond’s thesis of poetry as “an activity essentially directed towards prayer.” The man in the poem is brought to his knees by the realization that he cannot find happiness apart from his divine Master. He begins his search in a state of self-absorption, trying desperately to avoid coming to terms with the Other. Finally, however, he reaches out to the divine in complete awe and self-abandonment. Thus, the poem begins with the immanent but reaches out finally to the level of the transcendent.