The Hound of Heaven, Cat and Mouse: Stories of Conversion

hound of heaven  Ives Gammell IIWhen I was young, I had no idea that there was such a terrifying concept as an all-loving, ever-pervasive God who sought not intellectual precision or ritualistic elegance or even sheer human kindness, but who sought the elusive self-honesty that hides within our heart of hearts—a God who would hunt down the slickest rebel but, when the game was lost for the sinner, still wait for surrender. I had no notion that such a thing existed, not in fiction, in fantasy, in myth, or in religion—and certainly not waiting in the little white church down the road or dwelling evermore in the works of human hands or the breathtaking landscapes of my material worlds.

As a young adult the deep reality of God came to me as a great shock. One moment I was walking in my way, somewhat listless I suppose. Suddenly, without warning, I was swept up into another Way. The change was immediate and absolute. But for the pain in the world and the lack of evidence of change in my own tepid frame, I have no doubt. Before I knew there was a trap, I was caught. For me it was all delight.

Surprised by Joy by C.S. LewisC.S. Lewis might have said, “the game was done.” He wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy:

“People who are naturally religious find difficulty in understanding the horror of such a revelation. Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat” (Surprised by Joy, ch. XIV).

It is a line that has always struck me, because it was so unlike my experience. When I was found, it was more than I could have hoped for. For Lewis, it was different. He always knew it was there, and always dreaded it would find him. Can you imagine living like that? Ultimately, it did find him, “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised by Joy, ch. XIV).

hound of heaven  Ives Gammell IIII’m not sure when the phrase “the Hound of Heaven” seeped into my consciousness. When it did, I immediately assumed that it was a phrase of George MacDonald’s—whose understanding of Heaven was that it would seek that sinner into the darkest parts of the antiverse of hell. As it turns out, “The Hound of Heaven” was actually the title of a popular Christian poem from the late Victorian era. Once you have the image in your mind, it finds its way to verse quickly. Here is how “The Hound of Heaven” begins:

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.’

We can see how Lewis’ image of cat and mouse is an echo of Thompson’s hound, and I’ve included the entire poem below. Lewis also likened “the unperturbèd pace” of God to a chess game, which he was losing, move by move. And we must remember: it was the mice who chewed the ropes through to free the great cat Aslan.

Carpenter Tolkien LettersFor J.R.R. Tolkien, it was not “the Hound of Heaven, but the never-ceasing silent appeal of Tabernacle, and the sense of starving hunger” (Letter 250, to Michael Tolkien). I find this view even harder to sympathize with than Lewis’. The structures of religion have never done anything but repel me—though the hunger does resonate. For me it was neither the hunt, nor the lure. I rose up in the universe and discovered there was more than “I,” that a redemptive God is.


“The Hound of Heaven”

by Francis Thompson  (1893)

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.         5
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,                  10
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.’          15

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            20
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,                25
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;                 30
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,          35
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,         40
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.               45
Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet,
And a Voice above their beat—          50
‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’

hound of heaven  Ives Gammell II 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,           55
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.                 60
‘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,
Wantoning         65
With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses,
Banqueting
With her in her wind-walled palace,
Underneath her azured daïs,
Quaffing, as your taintless way is,           70
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.          75
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                80
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          85
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;                90
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.         95
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,                100
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,            105
With unperturbèd pace,
hound of heaven panels gammell  Deliberate speed, majestic instancy
And past those noisèd Feet
A voice comes yet more fleet—
‘Lo! naught contents thee, who content’st not Me!’                  110
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,       115
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—                120
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;                 125
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               130
A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed,
Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?
Ah! must—
Designer infinite!—
Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?        135
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.               140
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;       145
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;           150
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        155
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!          160
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—           165
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?             170
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:                175
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,             180
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’

Illustrations by R. H. Ives Gammel from A Pictorial Sequence Painted by R. H. Ives Gammell Based on The Hound of Heaven.

hound of heaven 3 panels Ives Gammell.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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22 Responses to The Hound of Heaven, Cat and Mouse: Stories of Conversion

  1. jubilare says:

    I wonder, sometimes, out of the variants of all human experiences, what stories there are. We have many, but, all-told, so few of those which exist in time that we have practically nothing. Just glimpses that echo each other, sometimes, but no two alike.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. traildustfotm says:

    Wonderful article!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great poem. I had never heard of it, until a friend of mine adapted it into a short film. I don’t know what the film is doing now, but it went to Raindance: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/watch-trailer-hound-heaven-inspired-736518

    Like

  4. Hanna says:

    I always thought the phrase “the Hound of Heaven” was an invention of G. K. Chesterton’s. :-/

    Like

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I understand that there is a recording of Richard Burton reading it, but have not caught up with that, yet! But I’d never encountered anything of the 23 paintings in A Pictorial Sequence Painted by R. H. Ives Gammell Based on The Hound of Heaven before: wow!

    Like

    • I thought so too. The Gammell pieces lack that weak, soft, water-colourish pale look of late Victorian prints. I was thrilled with many of them.
      Wow, Richard Burton. I wonder how he compares to Propaganda in the film link.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I’ve caught up: Richard Burton takes it at an astonishing pace (on the run from the Hound?), but intelligently and impressively! I need to listen again, with your text before me, and, probably, ready to ‘pause’ repeatedly. What a poem: there’s so much more than I remembered (or, perhaps, ever noticed before). A first thought: a great poem to think of in the background of The Great Divorce.

        You’re right about Gammell! (I wonder if there are less-fitting late Victorian prints contemporary with the poem?)

        Williams quotes it in his Arthurian Commonplace Book – whether he knew it before he became acquainted with Meynells (those great supporters of Thompson) in person, I don’t know, but I’d guess he did.

        And Humphrey Carpenter noted in his biography (ch. 4: p. 48 in ed. 1) Tolkien’s “enthusiasm for the Catholic mystic poet Francis Thompson. By the end of his school career he was familiar with Thompson’s verse, and later became something of an expert on him”!

        Like

        • Here’s the link to the Burton reading: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gToj6SLWz8Q. Wow, very cool!
          It doesn’t surprise me that Williams read it, but I’m amazed that all these post-Victorians had some appreciation of it.
          “Something of an expert?” I’d love to see something of that.

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Unlike The Inklings (1978), the Tolkien biography doesn’t have handy page-by-page source notes. There are no index entries for Thompson in the Letters or Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth (the only one of his books we own, so far!). Someone must have followed this up, but, where to start? Warnie mentions looking into Thompson on 7 April 1930 and especailly liking “Hound of Heaven”, and seems to include him among the “old favourites” he wants “to hand” in setting his poetry books in order on 26 April 1967, but the index does not lead me to any Inklings discussions of him, in between!

            Like

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Here I go again! Not that “The Hound” is s Psalm adaptation like those in The Great Divorce, but I wonder if Psalm 139 [Vulgate, 138], verses 1-18 might not be one (major) point of departure for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Once you turn on your intertextuality lenses, you see literature in a whole knew way.
      Have you ever watched “The Truman Show”? If not, do so with Psalm 139 on your lips. I have used it as a way of looking at God seeing and knowing and the human condition.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I’d never even heard of it! (And it has 835 “user” reviews on IMDB…) Nor had I realized how varied Peter Weir’s work was. Thanks for the suggestion!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. The prevenience of Grace…ahh, hope for the world. My very good friend, Beth, told me that your blog was instrumental in her rise “in the universe” . Many thanks.xx

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Random Thoughts on my 400th Post! | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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