Thursday, April 11, 2013

Richard Middleton: the too-late decadent

Richard Barham Middleton was born a decade too late, he came to his maturity in the first decade of the twentieth century and thus missed his chance to wallow in the decadence and dark romanticism that filled his soul and, instead, found himself stranded in a time of ever more upright Edwardian probity. More concretely, he was born in Staines on 28th October, 1882 and spent his schooldays at Quernmore House, St Paul's and Merchant Taylors'. If his two autobiographical stories "A Drama of Youth" and "The New Boy" are any indication, he was fairly traumatised by school. John Gawsworth described the first story as a "superb paean of hate" and Middleton himself describes the Smithfield surroundings of his school as "made hideous with mosaics of the intestines of animals, as if the horror of suety pavements and bloody sawdust did not suffice." It is perhaps significant that his autobiographical material is about schooldays as his fictional stories also often featured an unfortunate child as the central character. From school he could have gone on to a University education but chose, instead, the life of a Bank Clerk. His story "Journal of a Clerk" gives a clear impression of the drudgery that he found in the work and, after six years, he decided at last to follow his heart and attempted the life of the decadent artist.
Middleton moved out of his parents' home and into rooms at Blackfriars. He joined the drinking club, "The New Bohemians" and thus began to nurture some literary contacts: Arthur Machen, Louis McQuilland, Christopher Wilson and others. Alfred Douglas gave him book reviewing work for The Academy, and Edgar Jepson at Vanity Fair gave him work sub-editing. And for a brief moment it seemed he might become the writer he dreamed of being. The stories and poems began to flow from him and they found a home in the periodicals of the day. Austin Harrison who published Middleton's work in The English Review called him "our Verlaine". But it was not to be. Middleton suffered what Gawsworth described as "the most overwhelming melancholy" and what we would surely call today, clinical depression. He was always short of money, suffered from intermittent neuralgia and had a series of unhappy love affairs. Eventually, Middleton deserted Britain for continental Europe and pitched up in Brussells in February 1911 to live the life of the poet. It lasted about nine months before his ravening depression got the better of him and he took an overdose of the chloroform he was prescribed for his neuralgia. He was twenty-nine years old.
He was never published in book form in his lifetime but his merits were widely recognised and through the efforts of the likes of Machen and Gawsworth, his stories and poems were eventually collected and published in a series of uniform volumes in the twenty years after his death. Of his supernatural stories, it is "The Ghost Ship" and "On the Brighton Road" which have been most anthologised in the twentieth century, both of them quite humorous ghost stories but most of his work in that vein was of a considerably darker timbre. This popularisation of his work, of course, came too late for Middleton himself, but it wasn't too late to include him, vicariously, in the remains of the 1890s set: Alfred Douglas wrote an introduction in The Pantomime Man and perhaps characteristically used it more to settle old scores than to introduce Middleton. Douglas writes, "I take this opportunity of putting on record the fact that Richard Middleton was writing for me long before Frank Harris ever saw him. I mention this because Harris, who always helped himself with both hands to anything he could get hold of, either in the way of cash, credit or ideas, was given to boasting in later years that he had "discovered Richard Middleton"; as a matter of fact it was I that sent him to Harris, who gave him work on Vanity Fair": yes, Bosie, that's what's important. Fin-de-siecle bitchiness aside, Middleton survives now in the appreciation of a select few and even gets an honourable mention in Timoth d'Arch Smith's book Love in Earnest for his poem "The Bathing Boy" which, given the normal flavour of this blog seems a good place to leave him.
The Bathing Boy
I saw him standing idly on the brim
    Of the quick river, in his beauty clad,
So fair he was that Nature looked at him
        And touched him with her sunbeams here and there
        So that his cool flesh sparkled, and his hair
    Blazed like a crown above the naked lad.
And so I wept; I have seen lovely things,
    Maidens and stars and roses all a-nod
In moonlit seas, but Love without his wings
        Set in the azure of an August sky,
        Was all too fair for my mortality,
    And so I wept to see the little god.
Till with a sudden grace of silver skin
    And golden lock he dived, his song of joy
Broke with the bubbles as he bore them in;
        And lo, the fear of night was on that place,
        Till decked with new-found gems and flushed of face
    He rose again, a laughing, choking boy.

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