Thursday, November 22, 2007

I Very Nearly Love This Book

This book didn't quite make it into my 'I Love This Book' series, but as I have just finished getting to grips with it, after having had it languish on my shelves for some months, I have to say it came close.

Christ in Hades was the poem that made Stephen Phillips his notable 1890s reputation as a poet and has ensured a much smaller but respectable reputation since. The poem was first published with others in 1897, sold out, and was immediately reissued in January 1898. This edition was published (all three by John Lane at the Bodley Head) in 1917.

This edition is made remarkable for a number of reasons and perhaps the poem itself is the least of those. First we should take note of the cover design which demonstrates quite clearly the continued quality of some Bodley Head publications even after the initial bloom in the 90s. The book is illustrated, and the artwork for cover and endpapers are created by Stella Langdale. There is something rather wonderful about the somewhat misty charcoal images of Hell during the harrowing which, although perhaps don't make the best illustrations for a book are nonetheless very attractive. What I like in particular is that when one takes the cover, endpapers and illustrations together there's a very clear sense of the Nineties 'at work': the slightly oriental look to the sun on the cover, the obviously Beardsley-esque figures on the endpapers and the misty, tortured and slightly pungeant look of the illustrations all speak the Nineties very strongly despite the later publication date. There is a very good potted bio of Langdale here.

But this is not really a poetry book, it is a retrospective. There is a so-called 'introduction' by C. Lewis Hind which, if I mention runs to 69pp and is subtitled 'Relating some literary episodes of the Nineties, which culminated in the "crowning" by "The Academy," of "Christ in Hades", might reveal itself as rather more than a traditional introduction. It is in fact a short memoire of the kind I love because, often overlooked by biographers of major figures, it is sometimes this kind of short work which gives a more anecdotal and dare I say, gossipy sense of 'what it was like to be there.'

Hind was primarily an editor during the Nineties and most notably of the journal The Academy. He lays claim to introducing Beardsley to the world - but who didn't? - and was great friends with the sometime arch-enemy of Oscar Wilde: W. E. Henley. Having just published Aspects of Wilde and read more than a little about Wilde's relationship with Henley through the somewhat jauniced eyes of Vincent O'Sullivan, I was intrigued to read this little note of a meeting between the two in Hind's introduction:

"and of all the splendid talk I heard that night, the most splendid was a duel, poetry the subject, between Henley and Oscar Wilde. It was a broad-sword against rapier, and I knew not which won: the give and take, the hammer and dart were too dazzling. I suppose Wilde won, because a time came when Henley ceased, and Wilde delivered a melodious monologue on Shelley, one of the most beautiful excursions into appreciative criticism that I have ever read or heard."

one has to imagine that Hind was one of those false friends about whom O'Sullivan is so bitter in Aspects who deserted Wilde after his trials, although, from what he goes on to say, a residual affection is clearly present and perhaps can be stated in 1917 more than it could be acted on during Wilde's life:

"I shut out the latter years and think only of his tender and loving understanding of the most ethereal of poets. How strange it will be if, when we awake from the dream of death, we find that we are judged only by the good we have done."

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