Thursday, October 24, 2013
'OR OPALINE ALGOL' - A Lost Edwardian Poet
The offices of provincial printers, booksellers and stationers (they were often in one place) sometimes saw their everyday fare of tradesmen’s handbills, notices, business cards and brochures enlivened by more exotic literature. It was a printer in Chelmsford, Essex, who first saw the languorous verses of Evelyn Douglas, later to earn repute as the anarchist firebrand and dandy John Barlas. A works in Rugby, Warwickshire, produced the rural verses of the Nineties minor poet Norman Gale, a nightingale of the shires. A Hereford stationer undertook the publication of Arthur Machen’s Eleusinia, his now fabulously rare poem of the ancient Mysteries, the first work by the later master of supernatural horror and supernal wonder. Some printer unknown, but possibly in Yorkshire, did a job for ‘N.B.’, entitled A Book of Deadly Sonnets, the work of the Edwardian fantasy and nonsense poet Norman Boothroyd. These examples suggest to the seeker after the recondite in literature that there may yet be other volumes of rare and precious lyrics awaiting discovery. In some archive, in some filing cabinet, in boxes in some musty stock room, what may still be found?
These reflections are prompted by just such an unknown book, Verses and Translations, in tawny paper wrappers, printed by Hills and Co of 19 Fawcett Street, Sunderland, in 1910. The book is anonymous, and there is no introductory matter, nor are there any notes to give any clue as to who wrote it. The only very slight hint is that my copy, on the last page, has the initials 'H M' in light pencil, but they could be those of a previous owner or bookseller, and have no link with the author. There does not appear to be a copy in the British Library. Some of the original work is very well done, rather in the manner of Swinburne or Rossetti. There are translations of French decadent and symbolist poets such as Paul Verlaine, Henri de Regnier and Jules Laforgue, and versions also from the Greek Anthology. Whoever wrote the verses had a certain taste in exquisite phrasing and strange incantation.
Probably the book was printed at the author's expense and undertaken by Hills & Co as a piece of jobbing printing, rather than in the role of publisher. The newsletter of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society has carried an article on Hills & Co, who were evidently a much-respected local firm of long standing, principally a bookshop and stationers. They opened in the High Street in Sunderland in 1852, moved to 6 Fawcett Street in the Eighteen Nineties, and to 19 Fawcett Street a few years later, and, after other moves, only closed as recently as 2008.
There are other books to their name as printer around the same period as Verses and Translations. In 1910 they also produced (with Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co) Bungalow Ballads – Echoes from the East by G.P.P. Randell, a collection of Kiplingesque verses composed in North India: these are probably not by our anonymous poet, unless he was very versatile. A year after, they did print another anonymous book, Three Plays – Dr Sylvester’s Supper; The Last Day of Daphne; Cythera: and another anonymous title was The Story of a Little Pool (1915).
They also printed local guides and histories and folk-lore, lives and memoirs of local worthies, a book of sermons, and the rather splendidly entitled Catalogue of 9842 Stars, or All Stars Very Conspicuous to the Naked Eye, For the Epoch of 1900, With preface explanatory of the construction of the Catalogue, and its application to the use of 14 large star maps on the gnomic projection, designed for meteoric observations by T.W. Backhouse, complete with the fourteen large star charts. The poet of Verses and Translations invokes several stars by name, and ponders whether they are responsible for his fate. It is therefore tempting to wonder if there might be a connexion here, particularly as one piece speaks of the marvels seen through a telescope (“The moon, that great white vampire of the skies.”) But usually astronomy and astrology do not mingle, and Backhouse, it seems was also a keen weather-watcher who kept records for over sixty years. This doesn’t sound very like our aesthetical poet.
There are perhaps a few clues in passing references in the poems. One, a fine tale of faery trickery, has the narrator take a route past what is evidently Durham Cathedral, and beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Another poem speaks of a “Firth”, a Northern name for a river estuary. Several poems speak of scenes by the sea. But these tell us only what we could already guess, that the poet was probably local to the coastal North East. A single poem refers to a room in London: another is inspired by an epitaph in Derbyshire; they do not take us too much further. There is an opening dedicatory poem, not listed in the contents, ‘The Lamp (Salve Amica Lux),’ which laments a “well-lov’d light” that has been quenched: but the name of the mourned, who had “a beauty strange and fine” is not given. Notable, however, is the poet’s pagan invocation: “O God, O Pan, O flame-bestower,/Somewhere, somehow, the lamp, anew/With its essential flame endower…”, suggesting the ardour of his love and longing for the lost friend.
I am afraid we may never know who wrote all these rather swooning Swinburnean lines in the brittle beige paper wrappers. That seems a loss, but it must be a fate the poet foresaw when they refrained from putting their name or even a pseudonym to the pamphlet. There is a pessimism about human vanities in most of the verses, and several times the poet, perhaps in their own person and not as a posed character, speaks of a doom upon their destiny. They must, however, have hoped the verses themselves would find appreciative readers – else why issue them? – and so, in recognition of that fragile trust placed in us in that last Edwardian year, over a century ago, here is one of them, the last original verse of the volume, on the riddle of their sidereally blighted fate:
I call to the clear unanswering sky –
‘Where lurks my foe, inimical stars ?
‘Silver Procyon, ruby Mars ?
‘A gem of the glittering galaxy ?’
Was it Aldeboran’s rusted gold
Mis-ruled my wayward destiny ?
Whose was the influence malign ?
Emerald Altair, was’t thine ?
Thine leaden Saturn, heavy and cold ?
Or opaline Algol’s evil eye ?