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The poison pen of the Fairy Prince. Available at:
THE EIGHTEEN-NINETIES. A Period Anthology in Prose and Verse,
Chosen by Martin Secker. London: The Richards Press. p. xvi, 616.
(Review from the Dalhousie Review, Volume 32, Number 2, 1952)
This new edition of the Anthology first published in 1948, is another indication of the considerable revival of interest in the fin de siecle which has been evident during the past few years. This phenomenon in literary taste is probably due to reaction against much hasty and slovenly writing in an age of rage, pain and uncertainty.
The inner resources are once more being summoned-by the few, at least-as providing the only solace, the only verities. It is this unconscious quest for the felicity that comes with “. . . the cultivation of the self, the consolations of art”, as John Betjeman puts it in his Introduction, that identifies the modern reader with the writers of the period . “If we do not recognize the note of rebellion,- we will hear, those of us who can hear rhythm and rhyme, the accom- paniment of sound craftsmanship.” This is what is too often neglected by the critics of the Nineties. The revolt, the determination to shock, and the Victorian social climate which brought forth such lush and often over-exuberant manifestations being now vivid only to specialists, the often exquisite manner and matter of the writers of the day – all gone now, sadly, except Max Beerbohm – seem too often to have been overlooked. They are slowly earning acceptance once more. Certainly the spell is an entrancing one, and once it claims a happy victim, holds him fast. In the Introduction, Mr. ·Betjeman has slipped into the very polished periods of the decadence to tell of the publisher-compiler Martin Secker, worthy successor John Lane, and of the reading and sifting that finally resulted in this book.
Appropriately (and inevitably, to any lover of the period) the Dedication is to Sir Max Beerbohm. In Eighteen-Eighty and Diminuendo. selected from his writings, “The Incomparable Max” gives the flavor of an age as savoured by his bitter-sweet palate. As Hotbrook Jackson points out, the New Urbanity was finely exemplified in Max’s strangely modern personality, and one sees the decadence smiling at itself in his pages. ·
It appears that the arrangement of the selections is alphabetical by author and, therefore, it is only accidentally felicitous that Aubrey Beardsley should be first on the list. One has always been curious about Under the Hill, of course, and it is re-prin ted here. :Like a good many other things in this book, it is quite unobtainable and long out of print, and one has never seen it. Beardsley died early and this unfinished fragment is his only prose work. His amazing versatility is made apparent in this collection whose frontispiece is his illustration to The Three Musicians, which poem is also reproduced.
Beardsley may not have been essential to the period but he would have been out of place elsewhere and in his brief career he epitomized the courageous and often bizarre creative personality of the day. It was, as Max Beerbohm called it, ” … the Beardsley Period.”
At times, the peculiar flavour of much Nineties writing becomes only too apparent. It reads almost as if Dawson, Olive Custance, Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde and Beardsley were all one. The passion for close description of lush detail, of beauty grafted to elegance ; the preoccupation with the esoteric in all manner of luxurious trappings, outlandish sights and sounds and ‘scarlet’ sins, becomes mere posing at its worst. and most ingenious invention at its best.
But there is so much more here: George Moore, HenryHarland (editor of The Yellow Book), Arthur Symons (editor of The Savoy), Richard La Gallienne, perhaps most capable of evoking the true Nineties aura, as in A Ballad of London with its much-quoted ” … iron lilies of the Strand”. Here one will find also his exquisite, wonder-inspired Ode to Spring which is far from the Strand and patchouli and Bohemia. To browse through these pages is to come across many an example of the very special concern of the Nineties men with acute observation of externals and of the things of the mind. The long complete Lovers of Orelay of George Moore is quite typical prose in this sense, while Vincent O’Sullivan’s The Lady and Arthur Symons’ In Bohemia are poems which could, one might almost say, have been written at no other time.
This eloquent and elegant selection may well inspire the desire to write well, and if it does it will justify itself even beyond its inimitable period attraction. In the broader view, the attempt being made at the end of the last century to find a way for art in a bourgeois industrial society is still going on, and the contemplation of the earlier attempts makes the Nineties of real interest and importance to-day.
R. A. O’BRIEN
Taken from Pall Mall Magazine, 1900, pp 498-499.
It is significant that this, the first of the poems in the ‘Fairy Prince’ series collected in 1902 in Rainbows, cannot have been written for Lord Alfred Douglas. It is dated 1899. The prince of this poem was probably the future Canon John Gray whom she had met in 1890, nine years before, when she was only sixteen. She corresponded with him and he advised her on her poems. But a few months before she wrote this poem, he suddenly left his work in the Foreign Office (in November 1898) and went to Rome to study for the priesthood. He was ordained in December 1901.
Olive began to write to Lord Alfred Douglas only in the spring of 1901. They were married in March 1902.
At sixteen Olive Custance was introduced into the literary society of 1890s London, meeting such men as the publisher John Lane, the writer and critic Richard Le Gallienne, the future Father John Gray, and many others of the fin de siècle literary scene. One of these was also the now largely forgotten Scottish lyric poet , John Davidson. Davidson visited London, joined the Rhymers’ Club and frequented Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, as literary men still do (eg. www.edmundburke.club)
Davidson was immediately taken by what Le Gallienne called the “flower-like charm” of the young Olive, and he made an eery prophecy about her, predicting both the course of her poetry and the nature of her marriage. It begins like this:
“At sixteen years, she knew no care:
How could she, sweet and pure as light?
And there pursued her everywhere
Butterflies all white.”
And ends like this:
“There only came to her forlorn
Butterflies all black.”
The poor man walked into the sea in 1909 and was never seen again. May he rest in peace.
Source: Manuscript in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library.
O words of all my songs . . . black butterflies!
Wild words of all the wayward songs I sing . . .
Called from the tomb of some enchanted past
By that strange sphinx, my soul, they slowly rise
And settle on white pages wing to wing . . .
White pages like flower-petals fluttering
Held spellbound there till some blind hour shall bring
The perfect voice that, delicate and wise,
Shall set them free in fairyland at last!
That garden of all dreams and ecstasies
Where my soul sings through an eternal spring,
Watching alone with enigmatic eyes,
Dark wings on pale flower-petals quivering . . .
O words of all my songs . . . black butterflies!