Tag Archives: Poetry

E. Nesbit: The Husband of Today and The Wife of All Ages

Often, poetry is where we find the truth. March 21 is World Poetry Day and to celebrate I’m posting two companion poems written by Edith Nesbit during the early years of her marriage to Hubert Bland, a notorious philander who fathered children with at least two other women.

Lays&Legends

The first of these poems, ‘The Husband of Today,’ was written in the early 1880s and included in Nesbit’s published collection, Lays and Legends (1886). Here, a straying husband assures his wife that only his fancy has been fired and not his soul. These fleeting passions, he insists, will never usurp the ‘love that lights life’.

The Husband of Today

Eyes caught by beauty, fancy by eyes caught;

Sweet possibilities, question, and wonder –

What did her smile say? What has her brain thought?

Her standard, what? Am I o’er it or under?

Flutter in meeting – in absense dreaming;

Tremor in greeting – for meeting scheming;

Caught by the senses, and yet all through

True with the heart of me, sweetheart, to you.

Only the brute in me yields to the pressure

Of longings inherent – of vices acquired;

All this, my darling, is folly – not pleasure,

Only my fancy – not soul – has been fired.

Sense thrills exalted, thrills to love-madness;

Fancy grown sad becomes almost love-sadness;

And yet love has with it nothing to do,

Love is fast fettered, sweetheart, to you.

Lacking fresh fancies, time flags – grows wingless;

Life without folly would fail – fall flat;

But the love that lights life, and makes death’s self stingless

You, and you only, have wakened that.

Sweet are all women, you are the best of them;

After each fancy has sprung, grown, and died,

Back I come ever, dear, to your side.

The strongest of passions – in joy – seeks the new,

But in grief I turn ever, sweetheart, to you.

The wife answers in a companion poem, ‘The Wife of All Ages,’ also published in Lays and Legends, directly after ‘The Husband of Today’. Here, she dismisses his entreaties and insists that, as far as she is concerned, his ‘meeting, scheming, longing, trembling, dreaming’ is simply love and nothing less. Were their roles reversed, she suggests, he would have little patience with such fine distinctions.

In this powerful response to her husband’s justification of his disloyalty, the wife insists that she would withdraw were she not bound to him, against her better judgement it seems:

The Wife of All Ages

I DO not catch these subtle shades of feeling,

Your fine distinctions are too fine for me;

This meeting, scheming, longing, trembling, dreaming,

To me mean love, and only love, you see;

In me at least ’tis love, you will admit,

And you the only man who wakens it.

Suppose I yearned, and longed, and dreamed, and fluttered,

What would you say or think, or further, do?

Why should one rule be fit for me to follow,

While there exists a different law for you?

If all these fires and fancies came my way,

Would you believe love was so far away?

On all these other women—never doubt it—

‘Tis love you lavish, love you promised me!

What do I care to be the first, or fiftieth?

It is the only one I care to be.

Dear, I would be your sun, as mine you are,

Not the most radiant wonder of a star.

And so, good-bye! Among such sheaves of roses

You will not miss the flower I take from you;

Amid the music of so many voices

You will forget the little songs I knew—

The foolish tender words I used to say,

The little common sweets of every day.

The world, no doubt, has fairest fruits and blossoms

To give to you; but what, ah! what for me?

Nay, after all I am your slave and bondmaid,

And all my world is in my slavery.

So, as before, I welcome any part

Which you may choose to give me of your heart.

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‘Nellie Sickert, from her friend Oscar Wilde

Image result for matthew arnold selected poems

On 2 October 1879, Oscar Wilde sent a gift to his young friend Helena Sickert, aged sixteen. It was a copy of Selected Poems of Matthew Arnold, inscribed to ‘Nellie Sickert, from her friend Oscar Wilde’; he described it in the letter he enclosed with the package:

Dear Miss Nellie,

Though you are determined to go to Cambridge, I hope you will accept this volume of poems by a purely Oxford poet. I am sure you know Matthew Arnold already but still I have marked just a few of the things I like best in the collection, in the hope that we may agree about them. ‘Sohrab and Rustom’ is a wonderfully stately epic, full of the spirit of Homer, and ‘Thyrsis’ and ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ are exquisite idylls, as artistic as ‘Lycidas’ or ‘Adonais’: but indeed I think all is good in it.”

Oscar encouraged Helena’s love of poetry and had recited his poem ‘Ravenna’ to her as they sat beneath the gnarled and fragrant apple trees at her home in Neuville near Dieppe in the summer of 1878.

During that holiday, he also invented, ‘poetical nonsense of exactly the right blend’ for her little brothers, Oswald aged seven and Leo, aged five, before joining in with the rough and tumble of their games, as he would one day with his own two sons.

Struck by his unfailing ‘joyousness’, Helena would later recall:

 I have never known any grown person who laughed so wholeheartedly and who made such mellow music of it.

When the Sickerts moved to London, Oscar became a welcome visitor who ‘poured out the riches of his talk’ for hours at a time. In her memoir, I Have Been Young, Helena  conjured up those delightful days, writing:

When I try to recapture the enchantment I see the big indolent figure, lounging in an easy chair, his face alive with delight in what he was saying, pouring out stories and descriptions whose extravagance piled up and up till they toppled over in a wave of laughter….I can’t remember any of his countless witty sayings, but his laughter I shall hear till I die. His extravaganzas had no end, his invention was inexhaustible, and everything he said was full of joy and energy.

She recognised that the only stimulus Oscar needed to tell a story was to be in the company of good listeners, and she describes him:

…his indolent figure, lounging in an easy chair, his face alive with delight in what he was saying, pouring out stories and descriptions, whose extravagance piled up and up.

Once, when she allowed her scepticism to show, he enquired playfully: ‘You don’t believe me, Miss Nelly? I assure you… well, it’s as good as true.’

Image result for helena swanwick

Helena Sickert, later Swanwick, went on to have a long and very remarkable life…but that’s another story.

Sources:

H. M. Swanwick, I Have Been Young (London: Victor Gollancz, 1935), p.65

The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Eds: Merlin Holland & Rupert Hart-Davis, p.83

Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was shaped by the women he knew by Eleanor Fitzsimons

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Amy Levy: ‘a touch of genius’

Image result for Amy Levy

Amy Levy, born at Percy Place in Clapham, London on 10 November 1861, had a precocious talent. At 13, she won a junior prize for her criticism of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s proto-feminist epic Aurora Leigh; her essay was published in the children’s periodical Kind WordsMonths later, her first poem, ‘Ida Grey: A Story of Woman’s Sacrifice’, was published in the moderate feminist journal The Pelican. Aged 17, she became the second Jewish woman to attend Cambridge University and the first to be admitted to the prestigious Newnham College. The fact that she left in 1881 without taking her degree may be an early indication of her troubled mind and poor sense of self-worth.

During her short career, Amy wrote political articles including her letter ‘Jewish Women and Women’s Rights,’ which revealed a liberal feminist ethos and was published in the Jewish Chronicle. She also completed three volumes of poetry, one published posthumously, and three exceptionally progressive novels, and she contributed pioneering journalism and brilliant short stories to several periodicals including Oscar Wilde’s Women’s World.

Image result for Amy Levy

The best article in the December 1887 issue, Wilde told poet Louise Chandler Moulton, is ‘a story, one page long, by Amy Levy’. Levy had sent her story unsolicited. Recognising ‘a touch of genius’ in it, Wilde described her writing as ‘as admirable as it is unique’ and commissioned a second story, two poems, a profile of the poet Christina Rossetti, and an article, ‘Women and Club Life’. Levy herself was a member of ‘A Men and Women’s Club’, a radical debating club founded by Karl Pearson, who was a socialist and mathematics professor.

Although she had to all appearances, a successful and fulfilling life, Levy suffered from a desperately melancholic nature. She was hugely talented but desperately troubled and she experienced debilitating bouts of depression exacerbated by failing physical health that had blighted her life since childhood. She was partially deaf. Hailed as a pioneer of early lesbian writing, her own sexuality was never firmly established, although she did form an exceptionally close friendship with cross-gender writer Vernon Lee, born Violet Paget.

On the night of Monday, September 9, 1889, two months short of her twenty-eighth birthday, Levy locked herself into a room at her parents’ house in Bloomsbury, blocked all possible sources of ventilation, and left a charcoal fire burning when she went to bed. She must have realised that the poisonous carbon monoxide fumes would be fatal, and she left instructions that she be cremated; she was the first Jewish woman in England to do so.

Wilde was dreadfully upset to learn of the death of this brilliant woman: ‘the world must forgo the full fruition of her power,’ he lamented in a heartfelt obituary that he published in The Woman’s World.

Image result for Amy Levy

For more on Amy Levy, truly one of Wilde’s Women, read the very comprehensive timeline of her life on The Victorian Web here. Also, this article from Tablet Magazine here and her entry at the Jewish Women’s Archive here.

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Julia Constance Fletcher

In 1876, when she was eighteen, Julia Constance Fletcher, an American-born author who was living in Venice at the time, published A Nile Novel, or Kismet under her pseudonym, George Fleming. It was a huge success and is considered a minor American classic to this day. Months after its publication, Julia bumped into Oscar Wilde, who was holidaying in Rome with friends.

Wilde found Julia absolutely fascinating, particularly when he learned of her brief, tempestuous affair with Byron’s grandson Ralph Gordon Noel Milbanke, thirteenth Baron Wentworth and second Earl Lovelace. The son of the brilliant Ada Lovelace, who had died when he was thirteen,  he was, by then, two decades older than Julia. There were scandalous whispers of a broken engagement, prompted apparently by Lovelace’s discovery that Julia’s parents were divorced. Afterwards, Lovelace engaged in several desperate but futile attempts to retrieve letters and keepsakes that had belonged to his celebrated grandfather.

JCF

There are no confirmed photographs of Julia Constance Fletcher but she is thought to be the woman in the middle

On returning to Oxford, Wilde begged a mutual friend to supply Julia’s address ‘immediately’. Her reply to the letter he sent so delighted him that he told his friend she wrote ‘as cleverly as she talks,’ adding, ‘I am much attracted by her in every way’.[i]

When Wilde won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for his poem Ravenna, he dedicated the published version:

TO MY FRIEND

GEORGE FLEMING,

AUTHOR OF “THE NILE NOVEL,” AND “MIRAGE”

Their friendship endured. A decade later, when he was editor of The Woman’s World, Wilde serialised Julia’s novel The Truth about Clement Ker. In 1894, the year before he was imprisoned, he attended the first night of Mrs. Lessingham, a dramatic exploration of female solidarity that Julia staged in collaboration with pioneering actress Elizabeth Robins.

Julia Constance Fletcher outlived Oscar Wilde by almost four decades. Although she never married, and devoted the latter half of her life to the care of her ailing mother, she had several affairs including one with Siegfried Sassoon’s father, Alfred, who subsidised the publication of her novel Andromeda, published in 1885, and introduced her to his wife Theresa in Venice in 1888.  Alfred moved out of the family home in 1891, but did not move in with Fletcher, choosing to remain in Britain instead. In The Old Century, Sassoon writes very movingly about his father leaving, but makes no mention of an affair.*

When war broke out in 1914, Julia worked tirelessly as a volunteer nurse in the military hospitals of Venice. Her wartime services to her adopted nation earned her the Croce de Guerra, the Campaign Ribbon with two stars, the medal for epidemics, the Duke of Aosta’s medal of the Tirza Armata, and the silver medal of military merit. An obituary in The Times of 11 July 1938, lamented the loss of, ‘her brilliant personality and exceedingly witty talk’.[ii]

She is deservedly one of Wilde’s Women.

PBCover

* My thanks to carolenoakes.co.uk for this information.
[i] Letter to William Ward, July 1877, Complete Letters, p.58
[ii] ‘“George Fleming” novelist and dramatist’, The Times, 11 June 1938, p.14

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The Great Famine: Speranza Responds

Speranza, Lady Jane Wilde

Jane Wilde

When she decided to send poetry to The Nation newspaper in response to a call for contributors, Jane Elgee, who would become Jane Wilde on marriage, chose the pseudonym Speranza, the Italian word for hope, which she described as her, ‘nom de guerre, or rather nom de vers,’ and which formed part of her motto ‘Fidanza, SperanzaCostanza’ (Faith, Hope, Constancy).

The first poem from the pen of ‘Speranza’ was ‘The Holy War’, translated from a German original and published The Nation on 21 February 1846. Jane signed the accompanying letter ‘John Fanshaw Ellis’, a pseudonym adopted to conceal her activities from her unsympathetic family; she may also have assumed, with good reason, that a male contributor would be looked upon more favourably.

In February 1847, the Great Famine in Ireland reached it’s height. The horror of this tragedy radicalised poet Jane Elgee, in her mid-twenties by then, prompting her to adopt the name ‘Speranza’ and write inflammatory poetry  in response. Later, she would marry William Wilde and become the mother of Oscar. Here’s an excerpt from Wilde’s Women describing her response to the famine:

In 1847, Jane found a catastrophe to write about: Ireland’s rich soil yielded an abundance of high quality grain, meat and dairy products, and landowners sold the bulk of their produce overseas. When the price of grain became artificially inflated during the campaigns against the French, it was designated a cash crop for export. At the same time, the Irish population was growing inexorably, from five million in 1800 to in excess of eight million by 1841. The teeming families that farmed thousands of sub-divided smallholdings, half of them covering less than five acres, were required to survive on the potato crop alone. When the blight that ravaged America in 1842, crossed the Atlantic in the years that followed, the subsistence farmers of Ireland were hardest hit. Harsh governance and the laissez-faire trading policies adopted in Westminster exacerbated the problem, leading to famine in one of the most fertile countries in the world.

Jane’s words had a galvanizing effect: ‘a nation is arising from her long and ghastly swoon’, she declared.* In ‘The Lament’, she gave voice to the Young Irelanders’ criticism of the increasingly ineffectual Daniel O’Connell: ‘gone from us…dead to us…he whom we worshipped’, she wrote. In ‘The Voice of the Poor’, she railed against the horrors of famine, writing, ‘before us die our brothers of starvation’; ‘The Famine Year’ condemned the arrival of, ‘stately ships to bear our food away’; ‘The Exodus’ lamented the ‘million a decade’ forced to flee their homeland. The most popular of Jane’s compositions was ‘The Brothers’, a rousing ballad eulogising Henry and John Sheares, one a lawyer, the other a barrister, both United Irishmen hanged for their part in the rising of 1798. In tone and theme it shares much with her son’s Ballad of Reading Gaol and it was taken up by the street balladeers of Dublin.

Snow lay deep when the famine reached its height in February 1847, and a typhus epidemic raged uncontrollably. The non-interventionist policies adopted by the newly installed Whig government were proving disastrous, and the soup kitchens and relief works set up to help the starving population were woefully inadequate. As the country headed inexorably towards insurrection, Jane’s contributions became increasingly provocative. Her poem, ‘The Enigma’ described how the living envied the dead as Ireland’s abundance was, ‘taken to pander a foreigner’s pride’. She lamented the loss of, ‘the young men, and strong men,’ who, ‘starve and die, for want of bread in their own rich land’.

When the offices of the Nation newspaper were raided in July 1848, editor, Charles Gavan Duffy was arrested and charged under the new Treason-Felony Act for publishing a newspaper article advocating the repeal of the Act of Union, a crime that carried the penalty of transportation. While he was in prison awaiting trial, he entrusted editorship of the Nation to his sister-in-law, Margaret Callan, aided by Jane. On 22 July the Nation carried Jane’s inflammatory poem, ‘The Challenge to Ireland’. The following week, she wrote an unattributed leader titled ‘Jacta Alea Est’(the die is cast); it was an unmistakable call-to-arms:

‘O! for a hundred thousand muskets, glittering brightly in the light of Heaven, and the monumental barricades stretching across each of our noble streets made desolate by England…’

As if this were not sufficiently treasonous, she beseeched:

‘Is there one man that thinks that Ireland has not been sufficiently insulted, has not been sufficiently degraded in her honour and her rights, to justify her now in fiercely turning on her oppressor?’

* From ‘Forward!’ by Jane Wilde, originally titled ‘To My Brothers’ in Poems by Speranza (Dublin, James Duffy, 1864), p.35

Source: Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons

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Bosie: A Search for the Positive

oscar_wilde_bosie

It can be difficult to find any positive aspects to the character of Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s beloved Bosie and the man generally regarded as the architect of his downfall. Almost every account of Bosie portrays him as a volatile, petulant young man who sacrificed his lover in order to score a point off his brutal and intolerant father, The Marquess of Queensberry.

Yet, friends testify that Bosie could be charming and Wilde’s great ally Ada Leverson, one of the stars of Wilde’s Women, described him in glowing terms in Letters to the Sphinx, her memoir of friendship with Oscar:

Very handsome, he had a great look of Shelley. Not only was he an admirable athlete, he had won various cups for running at Oxford, but he had a strong sense of humour and a wit quite of his own and utterly different from Oscar’s. His charm made him extremely popular, and he wrote remarkable poetry.

The fact that Bosie, notoriously litigious, was hovering close by while she wrote this may have had a bearing on her published opinion of him. In the end, he approved of Letters to the Sphinx and told Ada he would have written an introduction had she asked.

Lord Alfred Douglas’s poetry has not withstood the passage of time nor the scandal that overshadowed it. Yet, he was not without talent. The two poems I have reprinted below appeared in an 1894 issue of The Chameleon, an Oxford University periodical that Wilde also contributed to. Both were admitted as evidence during Wilde’s trial and the first, ‘Two Lovers’ contains the phrase ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, often assumed to have been coined by Wilde but composed by Douglas. I’ll leave you to read both and decide for yourselves how talented the generally detested Bosie was. I still can’t warm to him to be honest.

 

Two Loves

I dreamed I stood upon a little hill,
And at my feet there lay a ground, that seemed
Like a waste garden, flowering at its will
With buds and blossoms. There were pools that dreamed
Black and unruffled; there were white lilies
A few, and crocuses, and violets
Purple or pale, snake-like fritillaries
Scarce seen for the rank grass, and through green nets
Blue eyes of shy peryenche winked in the sun.
And there were curious flowers, before unknown,
Flowers that were stained with moonlight, or with shades
Of Nature’s willful moods; and here a one
That had drunk in the transitory tone
Of one brief moment in a sunset; blades
Of grass that in an hundred springs had been
Slowly but exquisitely nurtured by the stars,
And watered with the scented dew long cupped
In lilies, that for rays of sun had seen
Only God’s glory, for never a sunrise mars
The luminous air of Heaven. Beyond, abrupt,
A grey stone wall. o’ergrown with velvet moss
Uprose; and gazing I stood long, all mazed
To see a place so strange, so sweet, so fair.
And as I stood and marvelled, lo! across
The garden came a youth; one hand he raised
To shield him from the sun, his wind-tossed hair
Was twined with flowers, and in his hand he bore
A purple bunch of bursting grapes, his eyes
Were clear as crystal, naked all was he,
White as the snow on pathless mountains frore,
Red were his lips as red wine-spilith that dyes
A marble floor, his brow chalcedony.
And he came near me, with his lips uncurled
And kind, and caught my hand and kissed my mouth,
And gave me grapes to eat, and said, ‘Sweet friend,
Come I will show thee shadows of the world
And images of life. See from the South
Comes the pale pageant that hath never an end.’
And lo! within the garden of my dream
I saw two walking on a shining plain
Of golden light. The one did joyous seem
And fair and blooming, and a sweet refrain
Came from his lips; he sang of pretty maids
And joyous love of comely girl and boy,
His eyes were bright, and ‘mid the dancing blades
Of golden grass his feet did trip for joy;
And in his hand he held an ivory lute
With strings of gold that were as maidens’ hair,
And sang with voice as tuneful as a flute,
And round his neck three chains of roses were.
But he that was his comrade walked aside;
He was full sad and sweet, and his large eyes
Were strange with wondrous brightness, staring wide
With gazing; and he sighed with many sighs
That moved me, and his cheeks were wan and white
Like pallid lilies, and his lips were red
Like poppies, and his hands he clenched tight,
And yet again unclenched, and his head
Was wreathed with moon-flowers pale as lips of death.
A purple robe he wore, o’erwrought in gold
With the device of a great snake, whose breath
Was fiery flame: which when I did behold
I fell a-weeping, and I cried, ‘Sweet youth,
Tell me why, sad and sighing, thou dost rove
These pleasent realms? I pray thee speak me sooth
What is thy name?’ He said, ‘My name is Love.’
Then straight the first did turn himself to me
And cried, ‘He lieth, for his name is Shame,
But I am Love, and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.’
Then sighing, said the other, ‘Have thy will,
I am the love that dare not speak its name.’

In Praise of Shame

Last night unto my bed bethought there came
Our lady of strange dreams, and from an urn
She poured live fire, so that mine eyes did burn
At the sight of it.  Anon the floating fame
Took many shapes, and one cried: “I am shame
That walks with Love, I am most wise to turn
Cold lips and limbs to fire; therefore discern
And see my loveliness, and praise my name.”

And afterwords, in radiant garments dressed
With sound of flutes and laughing of glad lips,
A pomp of all the passions passed along
All the night through; till the white phantom ships
Of dawn sailed in. Whereat I said this song,
“Of all sweet passions Shame is the loveliest.”

There is a short biographical sketch of Lord Alfred Douglas here. You can read more about his relationship with Oscar Wilde and his circle in my book Wilde’s Women.

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