Saturday, December 20, 2008

Frederick Rolfe and his Percies




Today I was flicking through Rolfe's Collected Poems. Published in 1974 by Cecil Woolf, this was the very first thing of Rolfe's which I came across and is the book that got me hooked. I think it's fairly typical however, when one collects a particular author, that there are some books which you read and then put to one side and you may not come back to them for some years by which time your knowledge base has increased massively and you see things in them that you didn't see before.

One of Rolfe's poems, is called 'Ballade of Boys and in Particular the Percies'. It relates his affection for two boys named Percy. One who is 'near' and one who is 'from far across the sea'. The poem was never published in the conventional sense but Rolfe produced an illuminated version of it which he reproduced photographically a few times to give to friends. One copy has been pasted into one of the notebooks in the Martyr Worthy collection in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and this page was reproduced in the Collected Poems.

There are indeed two Percies known to have played an important role in Rolfe's life. The first is one of his younger brothers. Percy was the odd one out among the boys in many ways and became a Ship's Master in the Merchant Navy. It is not at all clear that this Percy would have inspired such terms of endearment as are in the poem as the two were never very close, nor that the erotically charged language of the poem would be entirely appropriate to writing about the author's brother. On the whole, it seems unlikely to me that one of the two Percies was Percy Rolfe.
However, it has always been fairly clear that one of the Percies, possibly the one 'from far across the sea' was Percy O'Sullivan. What was new when I looked again at the illustrated version of the poem was that I now know what Percy O'Sullivan looked like. Percy O'S was the brother of the 1890s decedant writer Vincent and both attended Oscott Seminary when they were boys and were tutored by Rolfe. Rolfe took quite a shine to Percy and tried to track him down in later life and gave him a place of honour in Hadrian VII. All of this and more is related in Robert Scoble's Raven monograph number 6 The Ruin of The O'Sullivans. But also for that publication a photograph of the boys was tracked down from Oscott. In the photo above Percy is the seated on a chair on the far right with his hand on his lapel. Looking at the nose, the side parting and the ears I was fairly convinced that the face illuminating the uppercase 'I' was a portrait of Percy and, given the line "That bond of friendship which enchains us three" I think the illustration at the top of this post, which sits over the Envoy to the poem is a self portrait of Rolfe in the centre, Percy O'Sullivan on the right and the as yet unidentified Percy on the left.
It's all speculation of course and it has been pointed out that in trying to identify portraits like this, that way lies madness. But I managed to convince myself at least.

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