“He who created us yearns for our love… And we shall never be happy until we give it.”
In her book, The Flawless Mirror, in which she records her twenty-seven-year association with her guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, Kamala Silva writes: “One Christmas, Master gave me a lovely printing of ‘The Hound of Heaven’ by Francis Thompson. On long-past occasions I had heard him give part of it on the lecture platform. Now, in his room, sitting by him quietly, I referred to this poem he loved. His face lit up, and to my delight, as I had hoped, he began to repeat the immortal lines which picture God ever-pursuing while we run from Him…”. Not only did Yogananda refer to the poem in his lectures, but he even mentions it in his spiritual classic, The Autobiography of a Yogi, and a recording of him reciting it can be found on the CD “Songs of My Heart”. We might, therefore, justifiably ask what it was about this poem that so appealed to him?
Though the 182-line poem itself is well-known, it was written by a little-known English poet, Francis Thompson (1859-1907), and was first published in the literary magazine Merry England in July 1890 and subsequently in Thompson’s first volume of poems in 1893. Thompson was born in the provincial industrial town of Preston into a devout catholic family. He had a love of literature from an early age, but his sensibility was not shared by his family and he was sent away to study in a seminary to test his vocation for the priesthood. When it became evident that this was not to be his life and given the fact that his father was a doctor, he entered medical school. But repeatedly failing his medical exams and amid growing tension with his family, he went, in 1885, to London to pursue his wish to write, believing this to be his true vocation. He very soon found himself destitute and living on the streets. But he had a more serious problem. Having fallen ill with fever at medical school, he had been treated with laudanum, the medicinal liquid form of opium, and had become addicted. Urged by the publisher of Merry England, he was persuaded to seek help and retired to the countryside to recover in the priory at Storrington. It was there, in that pastoral setting, that he wrote “The Hound of Heaven”.
After the publication of “The Hound of Heaven”, Thompson continued to write poetry and literary essays for another seventeen years until his death from tuberculosis in 1907, aged forty-seven. However, it is primarily for this poem that he is remembered. It has been called a Christian poem and Thompson did become more and more “ecclesiastical”, as G.K. Chesterton puts it, in his later writings, but the poem’s appeal is due to the fact that it transcends religion and expresses a universal spiritual experience that speaks to the souls of all sincere truth seekers. In fact, J.R.R. Tolkein, who declared the poem had had a profound influence on his own writing, hailed it as: “one of the most profound expressions of mature spiritual experience.”
It is not a difficult poem in the sense that its allegorical meaning is easily understood. In an early study of the poem in 1912, John Francis Xavier O’Conor writes: “As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and unperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit.”
It is obviously not possible in the space of a short article to attempt a full textual analysis of the poem and to show how the poem in many ways exhibits similarities with the teachings of Yogananda, but a few salient points may be mentioned. In what follows, I juxtapose lines from the poem with quotes from Yogananda’s teachings and add a brief commentary.
“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him, down the arches of the years; / I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears / I hid from him, and under running laughter.” (ll. 1-5)
“The soul cannot find its lost happiness in material things for the simple reason that the comfort they offer is counterfeit. Having lost contact with divine bliss within, man hopes to satisfy his need for it in the pseudo-pleasures of the senses. On deeper levels of his being, however, he remains aware of the former, supernal state in God. True satisfaction eludes him, for what he seeks, while rushing restlessly from one sense pleasure to another, is his lost happiness in the Lord.” (Paramhansa Yogananda)
Everyone seeks happiness and it is their fundamental right to do so, but their fundamental error is to seek it in the world of the senses and not in God, for such outer happiness is only ever transitory. For those, however, who seek it and find it in God, the search is over, for He is the only lasting happiness. As St Augustine so succinctly put it: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” And this is what the protagonist of the poem comes to realize at the end of the poem; namely that the thing he is fleeing from is the one thing he has always been looking for: “‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, / I am He whom thou seekest.” (ll.180-1)
“…and a Voice beat, / More instant than the feet:” (ll.13-14)
“‘All things betray thee, who betrayest me.’” (l. 15)
“’Nought shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’” (l. 51)
“’Lo! nought contents thee, who content’st not Me!’” (l. 110)
“’Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest me!’” (l. 160)
“’Thou dravest Love from thee who dravest Me.’” (l. 182)
“God calls to you from beyond life’s little pleasures. He calls to you from beyond pain, pleasure’s twin. ‘Seek Me,’ he calls, ‘Find in Me the changeless joy that you’ve sought so long on the waves of change. All that you’ve wanted for incarnations you shall find forever in Me alone.’” (Paramhansa Yogananda)
Fortunately, there is always the insistent divine voice deep in our hearts, reminding us of our true nature; reminding us that there is no security, no respite, no contentment, no permanence, no love to be found other than in God. In the Yogic tradition, knowledge of Self or Self-realization is an act of remembering (smriti). The true Self (the immortal soul) is already divine, so knowledge of Self or Self-realization means remembering who and what we truly are; remembering our divine nature, remembering, like the prodigal son, that the Father awaits us even after all our misguided pursuits and transgressions.
“For, though I knew His love who followèd, / Yet was I sore adread, lest having Him, / I should have nought beside.” (ll. 19-21)
“The purpose of human life is to find God. That is the only reason for our existence. Job, friends, material interests—these things in themselves mean nothing. They can never provide you with true happiness, for the simple reason that none of them, in itself, is complete. Only God encompasses everything. That is why Jesus said, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.’ Seek ye first the Giver of all gifts, and you shall receive from Him all His gifts of lesser fulfillment.” (Paramhansa Yogananda)
Our tendency, however, is to seek to attain “all these things” (whatever they may be for each one of us) and only then -if at all- to seek God. For we are afraid, like the poem’s protagonist, to let go of our attachments to the things in which we may find a little temporary happiness in order to find lasting happiness in God’s love. All the spiritual Masters concur that in order to have God, we must relinquish all other desires, realize that the only thing worth having is Him, love Him, as Jesus said, with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul and with all our strength.
“All which I took from thee, I did’st but take, / Not for thy harms, / But just that thou might’st seek it in my arms” (ll. 171-3).
“Through trials we learn life’s lessons. Trials are not intended to destroy us, but to help us develop our power. They are part of the natural law of evolution and are necessary if we are to advance from a lower to a higher level.” (Paramhansa Yogananda)
It goes against all our ingrained and inculcated beliefs to view affliction, loss and suffering not as a calamity but as a God-given opportunity for spiritual growth, and yet it is the way for the realization of God as this line of Thompson’s poem suggests. A similar idea is expressed by the psalmist (119:71): “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes”. There is always a lesson to be learned from suffering and we ourselves are responsible for how many times we have to suffer in the same way before learning our lesson and attaining a higher level of divine consciousness.
“Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee, / Save me, save only me?” (ll. 169-70).
“I sought love in many lives. I shed bitter tears of separation and repentance to understand what love is. I sacrificed everything, all attachment and delusion, to learn at last that I am in love with Love—with God—alone. Then I drank love through all true hearts. I saw that He is the One Cosmic Lover….” (Paramhansa Yogananda)
The poem talks of the great love affair (the “divine romance” according to Yogananda) between God, who is “the tremendous lover” (l. 32) and the soul. The love between God and the soul is the perfect love. It is the only love that is ever truly requited, for, as Yogananda says: “God understands us when all others misunderstand. God loves us when others turn against us. God remembers us when everyone forgets us.” It is only when the soul meets “the greatest lover of the universe”, that the love we have been seeking for incarnations through human loves is at last ours.
The poem is clearly autobiographical as was the poem “Amazing Grace”, written over a hundred years earlier by John Newton. Yet both poems are also universal and archetypal as they describe the devotee’s spiritual experience of his return to God. Thompson’s poem, in particular, may be seen as an elaboration of the parable of the Good Shepherd, who leaves his flock to go in search of the lost sheep. In this case, the Hound of Heaven, God’s grace, pursues the prodigal human soul until the soul realizes there is nowhere for it to flee except back to God. No matter where the soul seeks happiness in the world, it will inevitably be disillusioned, for happiness, as Yogananda repeatedly stated, will never come from anything less than the return to God. Given the poem’s exposition of some of Yogananda’s basic teachings, it is easy to see why he so loved and so often quoted from this poem.
The Hound of Heaven
I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’
I pleaded, outlaw-wise,
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,
Yet was I sore adread
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside).
But, if one little casement parted wide,
The gust of His approach would clash it to.
Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.
Across the margent of the world I fled,
And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
Smiting for shelter on their clangèd bars;
Fretted to dulcet jars
And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.
I said to Dawn: Be sudden—to Eve: Be soon;
With thy young skiey blossoms heap me over
From this tremendous Lover—
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!
I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy,
In faith to Him their fickleness to me,
Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.
To all swift things for swiftness did I sue;
Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.
But whether they swept, smoothly fleet,
The long savannahs of the blue;
Or whether, Thunder-driven,
They clanged his chariot ’thwart a heaven,
Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their feet:—
Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.
Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet,
And a Voice above their beat—
‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’
I sought no more that after which I strayed
In face of man or maid;
But still within the little children’s eyes
Seems something, something that replies,
They at least are for me, surely for me!
I turned me to them very wistfully;
But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair
With dawning answers there,
Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.
‘Come then, ye other children, Nature’s—share
With me’ (said I) ‘your delicate fellowship;
Let me greet you lip to lip,
Let me twine with you caresses,
With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses,
With her in her wind-walled palace,
Underneath her azured daïs,
Quaffing, as your taintless way is,
From a chalice
Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.’
So it was done:
I in their delicate fellowship was one—
Drew the bolt of Nature’s secrecies.
I knew all the swift importings
On the wilful face of skies;
I knew how the clouds arise
Spumèd of the wild sea-snortings;
All that’s born or dies
Rose and drooped with; made them shapers
Of mine own moods, or wailful or divine;
With them joyed and was bereaven.
I was heavy with the even,
When she lit her glimmering tapers
Round the day’s dead sanctities.
I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
Heaven and I wept together,
And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine;
Against the red throb of its sunset-heart
I laid my own to beat,
And share commingling heat;
But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.
In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek.
For ah! we know not what each other says,
These things and I; in sound I speak—
Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.
Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth;
Let her, if she would owe me,
Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me
The breasts o’ her tenderness:
Never did any milk of hers once bless
My thirsting mouth.
Nigh and nigh draws the chase,
With unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy;
And past those noisèd Feet
A voice comes yet more fleet—
‘Lo! naught contents thee, who content’st not Me!’
Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke!
My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me,
And smitten me to my knee;
I am defenceless utterly.
I slept, methinks, and woke,
And, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep.
In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust o’ the mounded years—
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.
Yea, faileth now even dream
The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist;
Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist
I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist,
Are yielding; cords of all too weak account
For earth with heavy griefs so overplussed.
Ah! is Thy love indeed
A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed,
Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?
Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?
My freshness spent its wavering shower i’ the dust;
And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever
From the dank thoughts that shiver
Upon the sighful branches of my mind.
Such is; what is to be?
The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?
I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;
Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlements of Eternity;
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsèd turrets slowly wash again.
But not ere him who summoneth
I first have seen, enwound
With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;
His name I know, and what his trumpet saith.
Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
Thee harvest, must Thy harvest-fields
Be dunged with rotten death?
Now of that long pursuit
Comes on at hand the bruit;
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
‘And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!
Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught’ (He said),
‘And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
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.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’