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Boston College collection of Francis Thompson

Collection MS-2006-023: Boston College collection of Francis Thompson


  • Creation: 1876 - 1967
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1896 - 1962

Scope and Contents

Collection documenting the career of British Catholic author Francis Thompson, through correspondence; manuscripts of essays, plays, poetry, and reviews; notebooks; works by others regarding Thompson in the form of biographies, criticism, translation, and performing and visual arts inspired by his poetry.

Insight into Thompson's life is provided by his correspondence with publishers and friends, particularly the editors at The Academy and the Meynell family. His financial reality is demonstrated by royalty statements and pawn tickets, while his activities and interests are captured through ephemera from libraries and social events.

Thompson's poetry manuscripts include draft and fair copies of many individual poems, as well as complete manuscripts of his two books of poetry assembled for the publisher. His creative writing is further documented through five unpublished plays. Essays cover topics from literary criticism to religion and philosophy, and his views on contemporary authors are summarized in his reviews of their books. All of this writing also appears throughout Thompson's notebooks, along with his reflections, daily observations, and research, particularly on mythology and symbolism in classical literature. Highlights of Thompson's writing include drafts of his poem "The Hound of Heaven," his essay on the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and reviews of his peers Alice Meynell and Coventry Patmore.

Thompson's literary influence is documented through scholarship--ranging from newspaper articles to book-length critical theses--analyzing his life and works. Thompson's poetry inspired art, drama, and music, which are substantiated by scores, audio and video recordings, and photographs in this collection. Also included are translations of the poems "The Hound of Heaven" and "To W.M." into more than fifty languages.


Restrictions on Access

Collection is open for research.

Recordings on audio cassette and phonograph disc have been digitally copied; all original media was retained, but may not be played due to format. Digital use copies can only be accessed in the Burns Library Reading Room. Recordings on audio reel and motion picture film are not available for playback due to format impermanence and can not be reformatted by Burns Library at this time. Please let Burns Library Public Services know of your specific interest; when it becomes possible we will schedule reformatting.

Conditions Governing Use

These materials are made available for use in research, teaching and private study, pursuant to U.S. Copyright Law. The user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, infringement of copyright and publication rights of reproduced materials. Any materials used for academic research or otherwise should be fully credited with the source. The original authors may retain copyright to the materials.

Biographical note

Francis Joseph Thompson was born on 1859 December 18 in Lancashire, England, to Charles and Mary Turner Morton Thompson. Thompson's sisters Mary (later Mother Mary Austin) and Margaret were born in 1861 and 1863 respectively. After Mary Turner’s death, Charles Thompson married Anne Richardson and had one more son, Norbert. Both of Francis Thompson's parents were converts to Roman Catholicism, joining the faith in support of Cardinal Newman as a result of the Oxford Movement.

Beginning in 1870, Thompson attended St. Cuthbert's College and then Ushaw College in order to pursue an education that would lead to the priesthood. While at St. Cuthbert's Thompson began his life-long habit of keeping notebooks documenting his daily activities and his literary efforts. These notebooks would total over a hundred by the end of his life.

Thompson decided against pursuing a religious life and left Ushaw College in 1877 to follow in his father's footsteps as a doctor. He began medical school at Owens College, University of Manchester but struggled with his studies. After a long illness, followed by the death of his mother in 1880, Thompson became addicted to opium and ultimately left medical school.

In 1885 Thompson moved to London where he was unable to obtain work and began to live on the streets. In 1887 Thompson sent manuscripts of several poems to Wilfrid Meynell, editor of Merry England, a Catholic literary journal. Meynell published the poem "The Passion of Mary,” which began a lifelong friendship between the two.

In 1888, due in large part to the support of Meynell and his wife Alice, a poet and critic, Thompson went into a rehabilitation center in order to overcome his opium addiction. During this time, Thompson wrote two of his best-known poems, "Ode to the Setting Sun" and "The Hound of Heaven," both of which explore the theme of Christian rebirth and a rediscovery of God's goodness.

Throughout the 1890s Thompson worked closely with the Meynells, writing poetry, book reviews, and essays for Merry England as well as other London literary journals. He also spent time at the Guildhall Library and the National Gallery researching ancient belief systems and their symbolism.

By 1892 Thompson was again taking opium, and the Meynells suggested that he spend time at a Franciscan friary in north Wales in order to recover. Thompson spent the next four years there, where he was greatly inspired by the scenery and was immensely productive. Thompson's first volume of poetry, Poems, was published in 1893 to mixed critical reaction. Sister Songs followed in 1895 and New Poems was published in 1897. Both volumes received somewhat poor critical reception. In 1898 Thompson joined the staff of The Academy, and he began contributing to Athenaeum around the same time. His publications after 1897 shifted from a mixture including poetry to become predominantly literary criticism and scholarly essays, including on St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. John Baptist de La Salle, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

During the late 1890s Thompson developed a close friendship with Katharine “Katie” Douglas King. Thompson shared King's concern for the London poor and her love of writing. King's death in 1900 left Thompson in a state of depression and he once again began to take opium.

Thompson died on 1907 November 13 at the Hospital of St. John and St. Elizabeth, London, and was buried on November 16 at Kensal Green Roman Catholic cemetery. His papers, including manuscripts and notebooks, passed to Wilfrid Meynell, who edited the poetry and prose for a posthumous publication, Works of Francis Thompson, in 1913.


Boardman, Brigid M. Between Heaven and Charing Cross. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

Boardman, Brigid M. "Thompson, Francis Joseph (1859-1907)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 24 Jan. 2006 [].

Thomson, John. Francis Thompson, The Preston-born Poet. 2d ed. London: Simpkin Marshall Hamilton Kent, 1912.


24 Linear Feet (34 containers)

6 Gigabytes (11 files with 3 hours and 43 minutes of audio)

Language of Materials



Collection documenting the literary career of British Catholic author Francis Thompson through his correspondence, financial records, and manuscripts of book reviews, essays, plays, and poetry. Of note are notebooks spanning his career, in which he recorded daily thoughts and formulated the ideas and structures for what would become his published works. In addition to Thompson's own papers, the collection documents his impact on other scholars and artists via their biographical works, criticism, translations, and performing and visual arts inspired by his poetry.


Organized in two series: I. Created or collected by Thompson, and II. About Thompson.

Series I. is further divided into five subseries: A. Correspondence, B. Drawings, C. Ephemera, D. Finances, and E. Writings. Subseries E. Writings includes seven sub-subseries: 1. Biography, 2. Essays, 3. Notebooks, 4.Plays, 5. Poetry, 6. Proofs, and 7. Reviews.

Series II. is further divided into six subseries: A. Biographical, B. Correspondence, C. Critical, D. Ephemera, E. Images of Thompson and his circle, and F. Works based on Thompson's poetry. Subseries F. Works includes four sub-subseries: 1. Illustrations, 2. Sheet music, 3. Performances, and 4. Translations.


Most of this collection was acquired prior to the establishment of the current accessioning system in January 1986. However, library files show that the bulk of materials were gifts of or purchases from Wilfrid Meynell in the 1930s and 1940s. Another portion of the collection was purchased from the collector Seymor Adelman in the late 1930s, subsequent to its exhibition at Boston College. Many translations of the "Hound of Heaven" were listed as a gift of Mary O'Connor, who may have been a relative of their collector, Daniel O'Connor. Many benefactors of Boston College donated dedicated funds to purchase individual items over time.

Related Materials

Boston College collection of the Alice and Wilfrid Meynell family, MS.1986.061, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Coventry Patmore collection, MS.1986.062, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Separated Materials

Published works associated with this collection have been transferred within the Burns Library and can be found in the Boston College Library catalog.

Processing Information

Prior to 2019 the Boston College collection of Francis Thompson was available for research as multiple collections: Francis Thompson collection, MS.1986.101; Francis Thompson papers, MS.2006.027; Meynell family-Francis Thompson collection, MS.2006.028; and the Seymor Adelman collection of Thompsoniana, MS.2006.058. This finding aid represents reprocessing all those collections into this single one for ease of use.

At the time of reprocessing, papers belonging to Wilfrid Meynell and former Boston College Librarian Terence Connolly, SJ, regarding Thompson were separated for reintegration with their papers also held by Burns Library, Boston College. Materials remain in the collection which could not conclusively be determined to be Meynell or Connolly's transcriptions rather than Thompson's typescripts. Connolly's indices to Thompson's notebooks have also been left in the collection for context.

Boston College Collection of Francis Thompson
1876-1966 (bulk 1896-1962)
Lynn Moulton
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the John J. Burns Library Repository

John J. Burns Library
Boston College
140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill MA 02467 United States