The Match-seller of the Strand

Rev David Clarke.
Rev David Clarke.

Last week’s episode of ‘Victoria’ gave a fascinating insight into two sides of nineteenth –century England.

On one side was the wealthy and urbane Lord Melbourne acting as a father figure for the young new monarch.

On the other was an impoverished young girl, offering matches for sale to aristocratic passers-by.

Right in the capital of the mighty British Empire there were thousands who lived in abject poverty.

Albert, the German prince who was to wed Victoria, soon voiced his concern about the wide social divide.

Among those striving to keep body and soul together by selling matches on the Strand, and holding horses heads for a sixpence, was a young man destined to write one of the world’s most anthologised poems.

His name was Francis Thompson.

Reared in a devoutly Catholic home in the north of England, Francis was a failed priest, deemed too absent-minded for the role he aspired to.

Six years of medical study then terminated in failure, and he drifted off to London, where an opium habit held him in its grip.

All the while, he was reading and writing poetry, and he eventually submitted a manuscript anonymously to a monthly periodical. He included a letter which asked the editor to send his rejection to Charing Cross Post Office.

Despite his poverty he was conscious always of the presence of God, seeing as his lyrics put it, ‘Christ walking on the water, not of Gennesareth, but Thames’, and ‘the traffic of Jacob’s ladder, pitched betwixt heaven and Charing Cross’.

His greatest poem, ’The Hound of heaven’ tells of God’s search for man, and how, though he had sought to escape God’s approach, God never gave up in his search.

He discovered that the God he sought to escape was not a joy-denying ogre to be avoided, but One who promised him all that he truly sought.

The poem concludes with the divine invitation, ‘Rise, clasp My hand, and come’. In the life of Francis Thompson, the promise of Christ, ‘Come unto me all who labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28,) was gloriously fulfilled. And so it is for all who accept the gracious invitation.