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Algernon Charles Swinburne: A Study – by Theodore Wratislaw.
Published in 1900 this 212 page volume is a brilliant critical analysis of A. C. Swinburne (1837-1909) the ‘singer of abnormal loves’ and his poetry, by the little known British poet Theodore Wratislaw (1871-1933); concerning his poetry he goes into quite some depth and breathes new life into some of his more tired compositions. The author gives us a brief biography of the flame-haired poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne who in facial features resembles a missing-link between Poe (1809-49) and Paderewski (1860-1941), later alighting perhaps upon Charles Dickens (1812-70), was born in London in 1837 and educated at Eton and Balliol (he left Oxford without his degree). At
he became acquainted with D. G. Rossetti, Edward Burne Jones and William Morris
and published his ‘Undergraduate Papers’ in 1858 which consisted of essays on:
‘The Early English Dramatists’ (Marlowe and Fletcher), ‘Church Imperialism’ and
‘The Monomaniac’s Tragedy and Other Poems by Ernest Wheldrake, Author of Eve: A
Mystery. 1858’. In Oxford
he met the poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) whom he admired immensely.
When he was twenty-three he published ‘The Queen Mother and Rosamund’ (1860),
two plays, the former the Shakespearean influenced play concerning Catherine de
Medici and the latter, a Browning-esque drama in five scenes about the mistress
of Henry II. Italy
His next work, ‘Dead Love’ of 1864, is a prose story about a French Lady named Madame Yolande who falls in love with the dead body of a French gentleman! But it is his masterpiece of 1865 which cemented Swinburne’s name in literary history – ‘Atalanta in
a play of perfection in blank verse which soars with lyrical metre: Calydon
‘O fair-faced sun, killing the stars and dews
And dreams and desolation of the night,
Rise up, shine, stretch thine hand out with the bow
Touch the most dimmest height of trembling heaven,
And burn and break the dark about thy ways,
Shot through and through with arrows; let thine hair
Lighten as flame above that flameless shell
Which was the moon, and thine eyes fill the world
And thy lips kindle with swift beams; let earth
Laugh and the long sea fiery from thy feet…’
[Prologue. Atalanta in Calydon.]
Wratislaw swoons like a blushing schoolgirl over ‘Atalanta’ where we find Althaea, thinking of her son Meleager, dying with his ‘loveliest loving lips’ and ‘little lightening eyes’ and well he should for it is a masterful work of art by a highly skilled poet, a poet on everybody’s lips whose dark mystery is born where the ‘hoofed heel of a satyr crushes/ the chestnut-husk at the chestnut-root’. The play is, as Wratislaw rightly says ‘as musical as Shelley, as noble as Sophocles, as pathetic as Shakespeare’. (p. 24) Then, ‘when the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces…’ Wratislaw turns his attention to ‘Chastelard’ (1865), a dramatic poem which he rates highly; ‘Chastelard’ is the first in a trio of Mary Stuart plays, the others being the historic drama in five acts, ‘Bothwell’ (1874) and ‘Mary Stuart’ (1881), but it is with the poet’s magnum opus, his ‘Poems and Ballads’ of 1866 that Wratislaw sings with ecstatic wonder over its originality and its variety of metre combined with its lyric quality and erotic imagery woven in rhythm and rhyme in such poems as: ‘The Triumph of Time’, ‘Dolores’, ‘Laus Veneris’ with its Tanhauser theme, ‘Itylus’, ‘Anactoria’, ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, ‘Ilicet’, ‘Faustine’, ‘The Garden of Proserpine’, ‘Hesperia’ and ‘Felise’. The volume caused praise and scandal in equal measure. Leaving ‘Poems and Ballads’ (which was also published in a second series in 1878 and a third series in 1889) he has good things to say about ‘Songs before Sunrise’ (1871) and ‘Songs of Two Nations’ (1875) before moving on to ‘Erectheus’ a tragedy in Greek imitation of 1876 which he finds ‘intolerable’; neither does he like ‘Studies in Song’ (1880) with its fifty stanzas of sixteen lines each. The long narrative in heroic couplets of ‘Tristram of Lyonesse’ of 1882 comes under his watchful eye and he discredits Tennyson’s ‘objective prejudice’ in his ‘The Last Tournament’ from ‘Idylls of the King’ and Matthew Arnold’s ‘stupid doggerel’ in his ‘Tristram and Iseult’ (1852) and elevates Swinburne’s telling of the lovers tale to the height of Wagner in his musical rendition which some would say is sacrilegious but Swinburne captures the mood of the romance between Tristram and his beloved Queen Iseult of Brittany, their marriage and his death perfectly.
The later works come under the author’s scrutiny such as ‘A Century of Roundels’ (1882) and ‘A Midsummer Holiday’ (1884) which are easily dismissed and he fixes his attention upon ‘Marino Faliero’ of 1885, a quite unremarkable dramatic poem upon which he scatters passionate petals of praise before slumping disparagingly through the poet’s most recent work to date (1900): ‘Locrine’ (1887); a mediocre play titled ‘The Sisters’ (1892), ‘Astrophel’ (1894), ‘The Tale of Balen’ (1896) and finally ‘Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards’ (1899). It can be seen that Swinburne has lost the fiery passion of youth, the erotic inspiration of the likes of Byron and Baudelaire, and withered, faded into a pale version of Browning.
The second half of the volume is concerned with Swinburne’s prose: ‘Notes on Poems and Reviews’ (1866), ‘William Blake’ (1868), ‘Under the Microscope’ (1872) and his excellent ‘Essays and Studies’ of 1875 which is a high watermark in literary criticism. This is followed by ‘George Chapman’ (1875) the Elizabethan dramatist, ‘Notes on Charlotte Bronte’ (1877) and then comes the highly praised ‘A Study of Shakespeare’ (1880), ‘A Study of Victor Hugo’ (1886) whom Swinburne greatly admires – alas Wratislaw does not share the enthusiasm; ‘Miscellanies’ (1886) in which he sings of his admiration for Charles Lamb and attacks Byron, literally demolishing his work and calling into question his quality as a man! But Swinburne is not done yet, in ‘Studies in Prose and Poetry’ (1894) it is Keats, that beautiful boy whom he wields his sword against, mercilessly attacking him for what he sees as his ‘abject unmanliness’.
Swinburne clings to life for another nine years so we do not have the luxury of knowing what Wratislaw would have made of his ‘A Channel Passage and Other Poems’ (1904), ‘The Age of Shakespeare’ (1908) and ‘Shakespeare’ (1909) but we can guess. In the ‘Epilogue’ he says that Swinburne is the ‘greatest living English poet’ and that his early works with their erotic emotion are greater than Tennyson or Browning, or at the very least equal to them but he fails to mention (and who can blame him with the object of his study and his admiration still resisting death) that Swinburne succumbed to alcohol and other excesses which almost destroyed him around 1878 and if it were not for his friend (whom Wratislaw touches upon in the Prologue) Theodore Watts-Dunton (1832-1914) he would have died before his later achievements. In 1879 he moved to the Pines in Putney with Watts-Dunton who weaned him from the drinking and restored his health. It is easy to let personal opinions cloud one’s critical judgement and Swinburne’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare, Victor Hugo and Walter Savage Landor (another notable Wratislaw does not share enthusiasm for) may be a point in case, but who is to say that Wratislaw is not guilty of the same critical errors in his own admiration for Swinburne and his works? Much of Swinburne’s ‘appetites’ it has been suggested were merely a pose adopted to create an air of wild excesses, yet here is something unspeakable about Swinburne of which it is not spoken! But who is this man Wratislaw? Who is this admirer who dares to trample in the temple of decadence? Perhaps a brief outline of the author’s life is in order as many will not have heard of Wratislaw, the elusive ‘decadent’ of the eighteen-nineties ‘fin de siecle’ who was himself greatly influenced by Swinburne in his poetry. Theodore William Graf Wratislaw, (the ‘Graf’ is German for ‘Count’), was born in Rugby, Warwickshire on 21st April 1871 and educated at Rugby School from 1885-88. After leaving school he entered his father’s firm of solicitors; his relationship with his father was always strained. His first volume of self-published poetry ‘Love’s Memorial’ appeared in 1892 together with a second volume ‘Some Verses’, both printings limited to 35 copies. Wratislaw saw himself as a decadent poet and in the early nineties dallied on the fringes of Oxford University’s homosexual aesthetes, known as the Uranians, such as Charles Kains Jackson; and he became friends with Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Symons, Lord Alfred Douglas and the ‘tender soul’, Ernest Dowson. In 1893 he moved to
and published his third collection of poems ‘Caprices’, in a run of 120 copies.
In September of that year he spent a weekend as Oscar Wilde’s guest at
Goring-on-Thames where he probably made little impression upon the great wit
but he did become known amongst certain literary circles and his poems were
published in The Strand magazine and The Yellow Book. In November he passed his
final law exams and briefly returned to Rugby before returning to London in the
autumn. Two years later in 1895 he published ‘The Pity of Love’, a verse play
and in August of that year entered the civil service at the Estates Duty Office
at Somerset House in London which he described in a letter of 1914 as ‘penal
servitude’. In May 1896 his fourth collection of poetry ‘Orchids’ was published
as a limited edition. In 1899 he married a Jewish London opera singer named
Sarah Esther Caroline Harris (born 1875) who contracted tuberculosis and died
in 1901 aged twenty-six. He published his much praised study of Swinburne in
1900 and in April 1908 he married his second wife, Theodora Russell (nee
Bankes, born 1875) which was a disaster and they divorced in 1912. He became
bankrupt in 1914 but fortunes began to turn when he met the wealthy Ada Ross
(born 1878) and they were married in May the following year. They moved to York
Lodge, Walton on Thames in Surrey in 1927 and three years later, after
suffering ill health he retired from the Duty Office, began an unfinished
memoir called ‘Salad Days’ and died on 13th September 1933 following
his last published work, a translation of Francois Villon’s ‘Two Ballades’ (60
Wratislaw, who has been sadly too overlooked as a poet, has written an admirable introduction to Swinburne and his works and I consider his slim literary output as something rather strange and beautiful, not merely because I so happen to share the same birthday as Wratislaw, but because through all the commonplace annoyances of life he adhered to his poetic principles. Like the author, I too was infatuated with Swinburne in my undergraduate days and ‘touched gently’ the gate of the poet at The Pines in Putney where the poet died on 10th April 1909, aged 72; two decades later I ‘hath sat upon the great man’s grave at Bonchurch and inwardly wept and warbled my inadequacies and unworthiness as a fellow poet!’ A marvellous book indeed!
Caprices: Poems – by Theodore Wratislaw.
This slim volume of 44 poems which drips with ‘eighteen-nineties decadence’ was published at the end of 1893 in 120 copies by Gay & Bird. It is Theodore Wratislaw’s third published work after ‘Love’s Memorial’ and ‘Some Verses’ both 1892 and these ‘symbolist’ impressions in verse sing with his favourite themes: the pleasure of music halls and dancing (he was infatuated by dancing girls) – ‘You, fair as heaven and as rainbow bright, /You, queen of song and empress of the dance, /Flower of mine eyes, my love, my heart’s delight!’ (The Music Hall); the transient nature of love: ‘Sweet love, thy heart is red and deep,/O take me in thine arms to sleep/Within this bosom all the night.’ (Song in Spring), and ‘In the crepuscule’s dying gleam/Love’s tears and kisses vainly pass:/Our days have faded like a dream, /And like a dream our nights, alas.’ (The Relic).
But throughout the collection there is the distinctive scent of death, as in this poem ‘Trance’:
‘Ah! Press thy heart to mine and lay
Thy lips upon my lips and heed
No whit the griefs that rose today
Nor those the dawn is sure to lead.’
And the poem continues in darker mood – ‘Swooning deathwards blend/Our spirits in one perfect kill!’
Wratislaw also touches upon his own death in the poem ‘Inscription’ (he is only twenty-two years old) and imagines his body in the ground, as a stranger passes; his lifeless shell sleeping amongst the ‘silent dead’ beneath ‘withered flowers and faded ivy wreath,’ – beautiful.
Like Dowson’s remarkable works there lingers a dark melancholy which permeates the collection and seems to cloud the poems in a sad and wistful mist that shall ‘weep for pleasures dead too soon,’ (Odour) as in the poem ‘Le Piano Que Baise’ where the poet asks: ‘What is this sudden lull so quickly born/That slowly sways my poor heart to despair?’
Many of the poems recall the sea and flowers which he uses to good effect but it is the overwhelming sense of desire and inner longing which remains un-satiated: ‘O flower of flesh, O beauty rare,/Yield up thy pagan grace to me!’ (In Summer) and when it is satiated he wearies ‘of the heat of hell, /The perfumed palace of thy love;’ (Satiety).
The mention of ‘perfume’ evokes the two poems ‘Opoponax’ and ‘Frangipani’ named after perfumes, something the decadents, with their love of the ‘artificial’, especially Oscar Wilde, held in high importance – Wratislaw was Wilde’s guest for a weekend in September 1893 at The Cottage, Goring-on-Thames which he rented from June to October of that year; Wilde’s family and Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’) stayed there (Bosie worked on a translation of Wilde’s ‘Salome’): ‘Oscar proposed to spend the morning on the river and later on joined me, clearly spraying himself with a scent which filled the room. I inquired its name. “It is white lilac.” he said. “A most insidious and delightful perfume.” [Oscar Wilde: A Memoir. Theodore Wratislaw (John Betjeman and Karl Beckson).
. Eighteen Nineties Society. 1979] London
Wratislaw, who is not homosexual – ‘God is with me, God who for my right/Of old took arms against the sodomite!’ (L’Eternal Feminin) is probably most well-known for his uranian poem ‘To a Sicilian Boy’ which captures perfectly the atmosphere of the fin de siecle’s sexual ambivalence and predilection towards taboo subjects:
‘Love, I adore the contours of thy shape,
Thine exquisite breasts and arms adorable;
The wonders of thine heavenly throat compel
Such fire to love as even my dreams escape:
I love thee as the sea-foam loves the cape,
Or as the shore the sea’s enchanting spell:
In sweets the blossoms of thy mouth excel
The tenderest bloom of peach and purple grape.
I love thee, sweet! Kiss me again, again!
Thy kisses soothe me, as tired earth the rain;
Between thine arms I find mine only bliss;
Ah let me in thy bosom still enjoy
Oblivion of the past, divinest boy,
And the dull ennui of a woman’s kiss!
Wratislaw has so often been classed as a uranian poet on the basis of this one poem when really he was on the circumference of the Oxford poets and although in some ways these poems fail to strike the perfect chord (some readers may even find him dull) I find these simple and in many cases short verse rather enchanting!
Eros’ Throne – by George Ives.
This little book of poems published in 1900 by George Cecil Ives (1867-1950) contains forty poems over ninety-five pages, some of which are quite good. Ives, a campaigner for penal reform as well as a poet, manages to capture, intentionally or unintentionally, an odour of confinement amongst his verse (mostly written between 1898 and 1899), many of which are love songs – ‘The fairy span of heavens bow,/ Valhalla’s bridge to Spirit-land,/Shines while the cloister-arch lies low/And rock-piled cities are but sand;’ (‘A Recollection’). Amongst the sense of claustrophobia comes a quite moving piece entitled ‘An Eton Boy’ which deifies a ‘widow’s only son; crushed by a train when returning to school.’ A boy with ‘fifteen summers’ work so well/ To break the mould of the spirit ere clay was hard.’ A boy whose unstained soul death came and ‘snatched the agile form, untimely in earth laid.’ Unfortunately I found that many of his so called ‘love poems’ failed to attain any level of conviction: ‘So true love lifts the weight of all the world/ In scorn of gravity and man’s restraint,/And casting up the many-towered hill/He bids it circle as a satellite.’ (‘Mark how the Sea’) or this from the end of ‘My Soul’ which almost becomes a religious experience, or would have been in a greater poet’s hands: ‘And blessed and cursed are those who feel/Condemned to greatness, thus, to pain,/Where Nature makes its mute appeal,/And stars give not their light in vain.’ Other poems reek with a sense of darkness (or just a little shade) such as ‘For the Funeral’, ‘The Plague’ and the delightful ‘The Autumn Bud’ and ‘In Camera’ and this revelatory stanza from ‘Shrine of Huitzilopochtli’: ‘Man hath a soul, they say, and yet no beast/Hath dug down to the depth of his disgrace/To offer up the font of human love/Before the nightmare spectre of his brain.’ Perhaps the greatest work in the volume is ‘Eros’ Throne: The Ascent of Life and Love’, an ambitious piece in nineteen parts which goes from ‘Boyhood’, ‘Girlhood’, ‘Divergence’, ‘Will’, ‘Emotion’ and ‘Beauty’ etc. The first section, ‘Boyhood’ contains these rather good lines: ‘Under all the sun’s vast vision/ He is the most lovely.’ and ‘Sappho sang in vain to Phaon, /Venus mourned her sylvan boy, /And another than Briseis/Steeped in blood the plains of Troy.’ Not a bad collection but I thought much of it fell short of the mark and there was that overwhelming smell of the prison which lingered and spoilt my enjoyment, but on the whole no too bad!
The Magic of My Youth – by Arthur Calder-Marshall.
Published in 1951 by the novelist and critic Arthur Calder-Marshall (1908-1992), ‘The Magic of My Youth’ is a beautifully written autobiography which moves serpent-wise through the threads of the author’s past, gently alighting upon distant visions and occurrences, but mostly the book recounts his fascination with magical and spiritual themes and his acquaintance with ‘Vickybird’ (Victor Neuburg, the poet and disciple of occultist Aleister Crowley) – ‘having spent the first fifteen years of my life in ignorance of Crowley’s existence, I became aware of him from four separate sources in the course of six months: from a Sunday newspaper, from my brother at Oxford; from a vision of the Tiger Woman, Betty May, in full Bacchanal at a Bloomsbury Hotel and, most remarkable of all, from the Steyning Poet.’ [Neuburg] (The Poet and the See-er: The Illusionist of Islington. p.19.) Calder-Marshall summons up the way in which magic (or magick as it is rightly spelt) seems to occur naturally, as if events are subtly manipulated so that the desired intention is brought to pass, almost unobserved; this is described perfectly in the tale told by Tom Driberg concerning ‘Cosmo the Great Illusionist’ in the opening chapter, the Prelude. The author evokes a picturesque vision of Steyning in the 1920’s and of the poet, Neuburg, who ‘each morning’ would ‘emerge from Vine Cottage with a string bag and an obese white bitch and make for the High Street.’ (p.23) Vickybird really comes to life through Calder-Marshall’s tender descriptive touches: ‘He carried an ash stick, and he was always dressed in a Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers, with stockings which rode in rucks around his spindly legs, and shoes so old that the leather was cracked.’ With his ‘thin venous hands’ and a ‘head which, by nature disproportionately large for his body, was magnified by dark Medusa locks which rose from his scalp and tumbled curling down his forehead.’ The bedraggled poet with his razor cuts and threadbare clothing must have been quite a sight in quaint old-fashioned Steyning!Young Arthur and his brother Robert, four years his senior, made friends with the odd poet as children and later when Robert went to Oxford Arthur learnt all sorts of tales handed down from ‘Bobby’ concerning the adventures of the harmless and amusingly eccentric poet, Victor Neuburg and his relationship with notorious magician Aleister Crowley – “In the first decade of the century, it appears that he went into the middle of the Sahara with Aleister Crowley and, drawing a circle in the sand, they summoned up the Devil.” (p.31) As in all books which reference the Beast Crowley the usual sensational diabolic nonsense surfaces because as humans we naturally gravitate towards the exaggerated truth spiced with a little ‘invented myths’ which is after all more interesting than the mundane. Neuburg corrects Arthur on their meeting, saying “in the first place, we did not go into the middle of the
There are some fascinating reminiscences of Arthur aged fifteen living in Bloomsbury when his brother was at Oxford, of seeing the ‘Epstein model’ Betty May, the Tiger Woman, which leads us naturally into Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu and the young St John’s College, Oxford poet who married Betty May: Raoul Loveday (1900-1923) whose ‘poetry was as wildly romantic as his love-making. He admired immensely decadents like Dowson and Lionel Johnson who hid the pretty in grandiloquence, bridging the gulf between reality and splendour with alcohol. He drank whisky by the toothglass.’ (p. 111) A man who, Calder-Marshall tells us was ‘more than half in love with death.’ (p.113)
At Oxford Arthur performs a ‘Black Mattins’ in his college rooms and rumour of the Black Mass swept through the colleges and an hour after it was performed he was sent for by the Dean and asked if a Black Mass took place and if he had ‘the Consecrated Host and a defrocked priest.’ Actually it was a harmless ‘Esbath’ celebration, but he was almost sent down for it! He became Secretary of the Oxford Poetry Society and he invited Neuburg to give a talk which he at first declined but accepted on the promise of a suit from Arthur to wear for the occasion. He was originally to lecture on Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ but decided upon ‘Poetry and Poesy, or the Making, Mating and Matching of the Word’, spending two months in preparation for it; the lecture was terrible but Neuburg felt invigorated by it and deemed it a wonderful success! Arthur tells Vickybird that he intends to invite
“And then,” said Vickybird, “instead of declaring that the
Towards the end of the book Arthur writes his first rejected novel having taken three months to create it and he takes a six weeks teaching job as Senior Classics Master at Bogglesham Grammar School. In the Epilogue, ‘The Ship Comes In’, there is a delightful re-acquaintance between Arthur and Vickybird in
‘The Magic of My Youth’ has been a wonderful experience and Calder-Marshall practices no pretence and indeed it shall be a book I will turn to again. Being a great admirer of Crowley it is nice to get this different perspective of him from one who met him; a picture which does not place the great magician centre stage but like a prowling tiger around the circumference and of course anything on Neuburg is a delightful revelation as there is not enough on this gentle magician-poet. The author keeps the narrative light and introduces some wonderful moments of humour throughout the 226 pages. This really is an immaculate little book (my copy has acquired a ‘loving energy’ from sensitive hands and a delicate aged aroma familiar to all book lovers!) Excellent!