Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Mysteries of The Tempest - A Note on Colin Still

Names & Natures: Memories of Ten Men (1968) is a volume of autobiographical essays by Richard Heron Ward, told through his encounters with friends and acquaintances, in a similar way to Frank Baker’s I Follow But Myself (1968) and Julian Symons’ Notes from Another Country (1972). This is an approach I always find attractive and interesting.

Richard Heron Ward (1910-1969) is probably best known now for his The Powys Brothers: A Study (1935), written in his early twenties. He became a versatile writer, playwright and broadcaster, with over thirty titles to his name in the British Library catalogue. His A Drug-Taker’s Notes (1957) records his experiments with LSD.

One essay in Names & Natures is on Edgar Jepson, whom he knew as an old man in Chesham Bois, Bucks, an affectionate portrayal of this worldly, witty novelist, who was also interested in the esoteric. There is a brief vignette about Jepson’s friend Arthur Machen, with further testimony to his lethal punch drink, as concocted and freely dispensed on the occasion of Amersham Fair.

As is often the case in memoirs, it is the minor figures who prove unexpectedly interesting. Ward has a chapter on Colin Still, who described himself as a ‘literary journalist’, which Ward rather unkindly translates as ‘hack’. He did editing, of the anonymous sort, for publishers, and was a reader for publishers too, and also wrote articles and reviews. Ward describes the somewhat frowsty and shabby top floor flat that Still and his wife Ella occupied in London, with their cat. Ward, who regarded himself as an aesthete, thought it was furnished and ornamented in garish taste, and that Still himself only just avoided this in his tailoring.

As will be gathered, Ward presents himself as a frank writer who sees and describes his subjects, including himself, ‘warts and all’. Another chapter gives a harsh critique of Charles Williams, whom he barely knew. He found Williams physically repellent because he ‘writhed’ so much and had a ‘common’ accent. These points say more about Ward than Williams, who ‘writhed’ because of a childhood illness which left him with a hand tremor, and whose accent was that of his upbringing in lower-middle-class London. 

His portrait of Still's lodgings is intended as a contrast to the majesty and wonder of Still’s ‘one book’, The Timeless Theme: A Critical Theory Formulated and Applied (Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1936). Ward is astounded by the contrast between the man he knew, and his surroundings and circumstances, and the beauty of thought and breadth of scholarship in the book. 

There had in fact, he explains, been an earlier volume, Shakespeare’s Mystery Play: A Study of the Tempest (Cecil Palmer, 1921), but the later one was an elaboration of this, and incorporated within it, so he regards them as one work. The earlier title in some ways gives a better sense of his theory, essentially that The Tempest is closely shaped in the form of an initiation into the Greek Mysteries.

Still’s work is in type quite like those of the Renaissance scholar Dr Frances Yates, in that he follows in illuminating detail the development of a system of symbolism. He proposes that the influence of the  initiatory rites of the Greek Mysteries pervades much great literature, and he illustrates this with examples, culminating in his study of The Tempest. The book is informed by a deep understanding of mythology and of occult or esoteric ideas: another comparison might be with Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.

Both of Still’s books, which came out from relatively small publishers and perhaps not in great numbers, are now very uncommon in their original editions, although photocopied reprints of the first one may be found. The later book, in particular, seems still to have admirers and a word-of-mouth reputation. It is perhaps necessary to add that it does not belong to any of the more peculiar byways of Shakespeare scholarship, but is closely and thoughtfully argued, and won respect from scholars such as G. Wilson Knight and Northrop Frye.

According to the British Library catalogue, Colin Still was born in 1888. Ward reports that he went to King Edward’s School, Birmingham (and had a faint Birmingham accent). Presumably this would have been around the years 1899-1906, when he was 11 to 18 years old. If so, he would have been a near-contemporary there of J R R Tolkien, four years his junior, and Eric Brett Young, five years his junior, the brother of the Worcestershire novelist Francis Brett Young, and also an author. After leaving school, Still seems to have made his way as a jobbing journalist and man-of-letters, but all the while meditating his real work on the Tempest theme.

Ward relates that he met Still’s wife by chance in the street in the early years of the Second World War and learned then that his former acquaintance was dead, but he does not say when, and perhaps did not find out. Nor does he say why, but he had earlier noted that Still seemed to have indifferent health, so presumably it was due to some long-standing illness.

In fact, Still died on 7 May 1940 at University College Hospital, London W1. He had been living at The Goodwins, St Margaret’s Bay, Kent. This cliffside settlement near Dover was also the home at various times of Peter Ustinov, Noel Coward and Ian Fleming. His fairly modest effects of about £2,000 were left to his wife, whose full name was Ellen Jessie Eugenie Still. There is no record of her death under that name, though she may have remarried

Ward frankly admits that, though he admired the Tempest book greatly, he did not feel any personal loss— he had not known Still all that well— but at least we must be grateful to him for this personal portrait of an otherwise largely forgotten figure, and in particular for drawing attention to his interesting and profound theory, his 'one book'. The story of Colin Still is also emblematic of the devoted and inspired scholar working away in obscurity on a singular work, never properly acclaimed, yet never quite forgotten.

 (Mark Valentine)

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