Sunday, February 8, 2015

'Strange is the Gift of Visiak' - Ernest Marriott's Poetic Tribute


E.H. Visiak (1878-1972) was a dedicated man-of-letters who is known now mainly for three things. He was an early champion of the work of David Lindsay, whom he befriended, and wrote about him (with Colin Wilson and J.B. Pick) in The Strange Genius of David Lindsay (1970). He was the author of a seafaring fantasy, Medusa (1929), frequently reprinted, and a few fantastical short stories. And he was also an eminent Milton scholar and editor.

However, earlier in his literary career, Visiak was known, if at all, as a poet. He published five volumes of verse: Buccaneer Ballads (1910, with an introduction by John Masefield); Flints and Flashes (1911); The Phantom Ship (1912); The Battle Fiends (1916); and Brief Poems (1919). As most of these titles suggest, Visiak often wrote swashbuckling pieces about pirates and the high seas, and these and other verses also had a gleefully macabre aspect to them.

Visiak was a conscientious objector during the Great War, and his views are expressed in the latter two of these poetry volumes. When a worthy on a tribunal considering his case for exemption from military service queried why he wrote about bloodthirsty naval fights if he were really a pacifist, Visiak pointed out that Milton wrote about demons but was hardly a diabolist.

The delight in Visiak’s pirate verses and grim themes is expressed in a poetic tribute to him, ‘The Verses of Visiak’ by Ernest Marriott, which has perhaps not been noticed before. This was published in the modernist magazine The Egoist: An Individualist Review, Vol 2 No 12, December 1st, 1915, edited by Harriet Shaw Weaver.

The author was probably the Manchester librarian and essayist Ernest Marriott (1882-1918), whose life and work has been commemorated in a monograph, ‘A Tricksy Sprite’ by Bryan Haworth (with Stewart Platts) published by the city’s Portico Library. This records that “Marriott was only twenty when appointed Librarian at the Portico in March 1903” and worked there until 1912.

Ernest Marriott was an artist, who illustrated an edition of stories from Don Quixote and wrote an early study of the art of Jack B. Yeats. He also wrote travel essays, published in Manchester journals, on wanderings in the Low Countries. After he left the Library, he joined the theatre director Gordon Craig in a tour of Europe, helping to design sets, and writing about some of their performances.

The Portico monograph describes how Marriott returned to England at the outbreak of the Great War. He became a quartermaster at the Brabyns Military Hospital, near Marple, Cheshire, where he also taught and gave talks on art to the troops. He died of heart failure on March 8, 1918.

E.H. Visiak lived in Manchester for a while when he was a clerk in the Indo-European Telegraph Company, and seems to have been there at more or less the same period that Marriott was the Librarian at the Portico. He would certainly have mingled in the literary circles in the city, as he was already a highly bookish young man trying to write. The likelihood is, therefore, that the two got to know each other and that ‘The Verses of Visiak’ is a homage to a friend. Sources show that Marriott had a lively wit and imagination, and enjoyed irreverent pastiche, and this piece is another charming example of that.

Ernest Marriott also contributed two more poems to The Egoist (Vol 3 No 10, October 1916), both with a late-decadent flavour: ‘Slain Roses’ and ‘Tædium Vitæ’, both somewhat in the vitiated style of Ernest Dowson or Arthur Symons. His poems in the magazine have not been noticed before, and, though perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the work has a wistful piquancy which adds to our picture of this spirited individual.

Here are the three poems by Ernest Marriott:

The Verses of Visiak

Drops of poetic essence
Distilled in queer little jars,
Dusky blossoms from gardens
That burn under lunatic stars.

Impish magical fiddles
Sobbing in dream-bazaars
Where boggle-boes and hobgoblins
Ramp in Rococo cars.

Blazing beaches and coral
Fifes and tum-tummy guitars
Fleering hints of the horrible lives
Of pirates and gashed old tars.

Strange is the gift of Visiak
When singing of sailors and spars ;
Strange is his talent for garnering
Such rummy particulars.

Tædium Vitæ

Sodden yellow leaves
Drift all about the town
I slink under the eaves
And smirk like a foolish clown.

I am deep-soaked in dolour
I rejoice in the fall of the leaf
These murky roads of squalor
Pander to my grief.

Gur-r-r, you’ll see me jut out my tongue
With a swollen purple grin when I’m hung
To the lamp with my neckerchief.

Slain Roses

Pale roses
From the green brier scattered
Your moist young petals are flung
Broken in creamy snow among
The undergrowth.
I see you torn and slain,
Dashed from the flexible stems
By the silver diagonal rain.

Your perturbing dim odour floats by
Returns and vanishes
Lingers, advances again,
Then surrounds me, almost—
Hesitating and doubtful—
Like a chaste
Shy ghost.


(Mark Valentine)

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