Selected Writings, Vol. 3, William Sharp

PHILIP BOURKE MARSTON

"IN this life calamity follows calamity by no apparent law of cause and effect. In the web that destiny spins there is a terrible and a cruel symmetry, which no theory of 'circumstance' can explain. When once the pattern of their tapestry is sombre, the Fates never leave it incomplete." To no one could these words by the author of Aylwin be more applicable than to Philip Bourke Marston, whose death brought him the surcease for which he had long yearned with an intensity which had in it no shadow of affectation or superficial emotion. He dwelt continually in the shadow of a great gloom, for in addition to the physical affliction which in the most literal sense darkened his whole life, the evil mischances of Fate sorely wrought against him. "If one were not too insignificant for the metaphor," he once remarked, "I could with bitter truth assert that the stars in their courses have ever fought against me." It is not given to many men of letters to experience so much sorrow with such little alloy of the common pleasures of life. Those who are most cruelly afflicted are not those who make loudest wail; hence the mis- apprehension of some among the casual acquaintances of "the blind poet" who believed that Marston's compensations must have been numerous to enable him to bear the brave front before the world which was his characteristic attitude. But till fatal illness overcame him he could laugh with or take keen interest in the affairs of a friend, as if for him life had but the same significance as for the majority of men.
Philip Bourke Marston was the third child and only son of the well-known dramatist and poet, Dr. Westland Marston. His mother was a woman of as great charm of mind as of body, and endeared herself to her son by her penetrative sympathy and tenderness. Philip was born in London on August 13, in the year 1850; his first name was given to him out of Dr. Marston's affectionate regard for his friend, Philip James Bailey, the author of Festus. Miss Dinah Muloch (Mrs. Craik) became godmother to the little boy, and it was for him that the popular authoress of John Halifax, Gentleman, wrote the familiar and lovely lyric entitled Philip, my King. An unconscious prophecy was uttered in one of the stanzas of this poem, a prophecy to be only too adequately realised;

                  One day,
          Philip, my king,
Thou too must tread, as we trod, a way
Thorny and cruel and cold and gyey.

Philip had two sisters; the elder, Eleanor (Nellie), who afterwards became the wife of Arthur O'Shaughnessy, author of The Epic of Women and of other volumes of poetry and the younger, Ciceley, who in days to come was to prove to him a second self. While in his fourth year, his sister Nelllie was prostrated by scarlatina, and in order to render Philip as secure as practicable from the insidious disease he was given quantities of belladonna, probably an excellent remedy, but one which proved overpotent in the case of Dr. Marston's delicate and sensitive little boy. The eyes are supposed to have suffered from the action of the medicine, but further, and probably more irremediable, harm was endowed by a blow which the child received during play with some boisterous companions. It was soon after this that it became evident his sight was seriously affected. Some years later, an  operation was performed, and a measure of temporary relief was thus afforded ; but in a brief while it became plain that a doom of hopeless blindness was in store for him. The best oculists were consulted, and everything that loving anxiety suggested was done, but unavailably.
Marston's mental powers began to exert themselves at a very early period, although of necessity his opportunities toward intellectual development were sadly modified by his blindness. As it was, he produced while yet in his teens some very noteworthy poetry. Poems such as A Christmas Vigil, lyrics like The Rose and the Wind, do not read as if they were immature efforts. The latter is perhaps unsurpassed by any poem in our modern literature. written in an author's nonage. Marston was then not wholly blind---that is to say, he not only easily distinguished night and day, and even sunshine and cloud-gloom, but could discern the difference between men and women by their relative sizes and the shape of their garments : the morning, during his boyhood and early youth, was not wholly deprived of its beauty, and moonlight evenings were a source of infinite solace and delight. For the sea he early conceived a passion. It afforded him an ecstasy of enjoyment---wherein pain almost as largely prevailed as pleasure---and, taking his blindness into account, there have been few more daring swimmers than he. He would listen to the shingly roar upon the beach, or to the strange rhythmical tumult of the seaward waves, innumerably marching in vast battalions, or to the murmur of the fretful surge where the sea swept against the shell-strewn sand, with an expression so rapt, so intensely absorbed, that for the time his soul seemed to look through his shadowy eyes and to animate his face with the glow of its spiritual presence. If throughout his weary latter years he yearned for anything more than for death, it was for the neigbbourhood of the sea---its ultimate silence to be about him, its moving music to be his requiem. And thus it was that among the most treasured reminiscences of his desolate years of darkness were those of broad spaces of moonlight and of the deep lustrous green of sea. water.
To a dear friend, Mrs. Moulton, he once energetically stated, "No!  I was not blind, then. I couldn't read, of course, or see the faces of people; but I could see the tree-boughs waving in the wind, and I could see the pageant of sunset in the west, and the glimmer of a fire upon the hearth, and oh, it was such a different thing from the days that came afterwards, when I could not see anything ! "
Philip Marston's first and not least loving amanuensis was his mother, who not only wrote out for her blind boy his early attempts in prose and verse, but also acted delicately and wisely the part of critic. To her love he owed much, nor was he ever chary of acknowledgment of his indebtedness. But partly as cares accumulated upon Mrs. Marston, thus preventing her from such
ceaseless devotion to her son as she would fain have given, and partly from purely natural reasons, Philip's most incessant and most loving companion was his sister Ciceley, who may without exaggeration be said to have devoted her whole life to her afflicted brother.  A touching tribute to her ceaseless sympathy and love was given by the latter in the pathetic verses inscribed to Ciceley Narney Marston, two stanzas of which I may here appropriately quote:

Oh, in what things have we not been as one ?
    Oh, more than any sister ever was
To any brother ! Ere my days be done,
    And this my little strength of singing
pass,
I would these failing lines of mine might show
    All
thou hast been, as well as all thou art.
And yet what need ? for all who meet
thee know
    Thy queenliness of intellect and heart.

Oh, dear companion in the land of thought,
    How often hast thou led me by thy voice
Through paths where men not all in vain have sought.
    For consolation, when their cherished joys
Lie dead before them. . . .
           *           *           *           *

    Thy love to me is as thy precious hand
Might be upon my forehead if it burned
    In hell, of some last fever : hold me fast,
Oh thou to whom in joy's full noon I turned,
    As now I turn, the glory being past.

If it had not been for his blindness, Philip Marston's youth would have been fortunate beyond comparison with that of almost any other young poet of whom there is record. Dr. Westland Marston was not only a successful dramatist, but one of the most popular literary men in London. There were few houses in London where were frequent réunions more enjoyable than those in the hospitable abode near Chalk Farra. There, occasionally, would be Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William, Dr. Gordon Hake, William Morris, Swinburne, and many other celebrities and "coming men." Philip turned as naturally towards those benign intellectual influences as the heliotrope to the sun : his poetic developrpent was rapid, and before he had emerged from his teens he had written---as has already been said---some eminently noteworthy poetry.
While he was putting together the poems which were to make up his first volume (a few of which, it may be mentioned here, had already appeared in the Cornhill and other magazines) his mother was prostrated by what proved to be a fatal illness. All who knew Mrs. Marston loved her, but to no one was her loss a greater blow than to that son whom she had so lovingly tended.
But the elasticity of youth and the quick succession of new and vivid interests overcame his despair, and it still seemed as if his coming years were not to be devoid of happiness and prosperity.
It was about this time that he won the love of Miss Nesbit. Perhaps if his eyes had not been dimrned he would have. foreseen the shadow of a new and irremediable disaster. Miss Nesbit was far from robust,. but  only a few. friends knew that she had devoloped symptoms of consumption. She bore her unseen crown of sorrow bravely, and only when it became certain that her life was no longer secure for any length of time did she endeavour to warn her lover of the inevitable. But love had blinded his inner vision, and he either did not realise or else refused to allow himself to believe what was with infinite gentleness hinted to him.
Before I pass away from the record of his youth---for with the next and most terrible calamity he became old beyond the warrant of his years---I may quote a few passages from an obituary notice by one of Marston's most intimate and most loyal friends, Mrs. Louise Chandler Moulton, American poet and novelist, prefixing to these passages an excerpt describing her first meeting with the young poet when in his twenty-sixth year:
" I first met him," wrote Mrs. Moulton, at a literary evening---a sort of authors' night---at a well-known London house, and I knew the blind poet would be among the guests; the one, indeed, whom I felt most interest in meeting. I soon perceived him, standing beside his sister Ciceley---a slight, rather tall man of twenty-six, very young-looking even for his age. He had a wonderfully fine brow. His brown eyes were still beautiful in shape and colour. His dark-brown hair and beard had glints of chestnut ; and all his colouring was rich and warm. His was a singularly refined face, with a beautiful expression when in  repose---keenly sensitive, but with full, pleasure-loving lips, that made one understand how hard his limitations must be for him to whom beauty and pleasure were so dear. At that time the colour came and went in his cheeks as in those of a sensitive girl. . . . How many tales he has told me of his darkened, dream-haunted childhood ! He began very early to feel the full pain of his loss of vision. He fell in love, when he was not more than ten years old, with a beautiful young lady, and went through all a lover's gamut of joys and pains and sometimes the torture of not being able to behold the beauty of his adored was so extreme that he used to dash his head against the wall in a sudden mad longing to be done at once with life and sorrow. Yet the love of life was keen in him, and his earliest childhood was haunted by visions of future fame, which should make people acknowledge that though blind his soul yet saw unshared visions. His life was his education.
His father's house was the resort of many of the intellectual giants of that time; and every day's guests were his unconscious teachers. He was fourteen, I think, when he first met Swinburne, who was just then the idol of his boyish worship. At that time--- so wonderful was his memory----he actually knew by heart the whole of the first series of Poems and Ballads. He was taken to see his demi-god, and entered the sacred presence with a heart beating almost to suffocation ; and went home feeling that his hopes and dreams had been, for once, fulfilled. To the very end of his days Swinburne's friendship was a pride and joy to him."
In 1871 a great event occurred. Song-Tide, the first fruits of the young poet's genius, was published, and instantaneously received a warm and unmistakably genuine welcome. The leading literary journals hailed the advent of a new poet, and that cultivated section of the public which is ever alert for a new thing of promise speculated with interest as to the possibilities of the new singer.
While there was still hope that Miss Nesbit might recover---and by this time the lover's heart was often sore beset with terrible forebodings--the young poet was gladdened by the receipt of the first copy of the book over which he had long been lovingly engaged. In it he had enshrined his love in many a beautiful sonnet and lyric, and in the delight of placing the first copy in the hands of his betrothed he almost overlooked what to every one else was becoming too evident. In the autumn of that year the life of the girl he so passionately loved flickered to a close.
With this great sorrow the youth of Philip Marston died an early death. Simultaneously, the faint, glimmering light deserted the dimmed eyes ; bitter tears, tears of many hopeless days and sleepless nights, of unavailing regret and speechless yearning, quenched the flickering flame. Thenceforth darkness settled down upon his life. Verily, it seemed as if indeed, in his own words, " the gods derided him."
More and more Ciceley devoted herself to her unhappy brother, alleviating much of his grief, endlessly helping, amusing, suggesting to and acting for him. She became to him almost a necessity of life; without her he did not consider it possible he could endure the infinite weariness and sorrow which encompassed him.
Brother and sister went to live together in lodgings, firstly at Notting Hill, and later in the Euston Road. They had sufficient means between them to enable them to live comfortably, and Philip was entering upon that sustained intellectual drudgery which brought him such bitterly inadequate monetary recompense, but which continually extended his sympathies and won for him new friends and admirers. Henceforth, except for an interval when Ciceley stayed with the Madox Browns, the two lived together in their London lodgings, save when they went into the country, or to the seaside, to France, and once to Italy. For certain golden weeks, a "sovereign season," Philip Marston revelled, sightless as he was, in the manifold delights of Italy ; Florence and Venice especially enthralled him, and throughout his life the memory of this happy time remained unseared. He was wont to speak of his experiences in a manner that puzzled new acquaintances. He would dwell longingly on the splendour of the view from Fiesole or Bellosguardo, of the glory of light and shade athwart the slopes of Vallombrosa, of the joyous aspects of Florence itself, of the transmuting glamour of the scirocco, of sunset and moonrise upon the Venetian lagunes. Still more would he puzzle people by such remarks as " I don't like So-and-so's appearance : he has a look on his face which I mistrust," or " London looks so sombre ; I like to see a place looking as if it were aware of such things as sunlight and flowers." In this there was nothing of affectation, although it is undeniable that Marston was always very sensitive to any reference to his blindness : his sister Ciceley had become his second sight. Through her he saw and understood, and had pleasure in those things which otherwise would have been for him more or less sealed mysteries.
After this happy experience---too short, alas ! and clouded with sad memories--- Marston settled down to a regular literary life. His means, he used to say half-humorously, were children of Mercury : every note, every sovereign was winged, and departed from his possession with an expedition which was at once mysterious and alarming. In fact, then as always, his generosity and hospitality knew no limits. As these means gradually began to disappear, and as the struggle for existence became keener, his open-handedness knew no difference, and to the end he practised the same liberality.
While never tired of the company of that well-loved sister, naturally he also formed new and valued friendships. From first to last, however, no one ever quite usurped the place of Ciceley Narney Marston. Dr. Gordon Hake, an old friend of the Marstons, and as a poet the possessor of Philip's admiring regard, has, in his beautiful poern, The Blind Boy, perpetuated the significance of the love of this brother and sister---two exquisite stanzas from which I am tempted to quote:

She tells him how the mountains swell,
    How rocks and forests touch the skies
He tells her how the shadows dwell
    In purple dimness on his eyes,
Whose tremulous orbs the while he lifts,
As round his smile their spirit drifts.

More close around his heart to wind,
    She shuts her eyes in childish glee,
    To share," she said, " his peace of mind
    To sit beneath his shadow-tree."
So, half in play, the sister tries
To find his soul within her eyes.

The friend of his own age and sex whose companionship he most cherished at this time (1872), was the late Oliver Madox Brown. An acquaintanceship, much appreciated on either side, developed into a friendship which, to the blind poet especially, meant much. The two young men saw each other regularly; innumerable literary schemes were talked over ; poems, stories, studies from life were discussed and criticised in Marston's rooms. There one evening Oliver Brown withdrew a bulky MS. from his pocket, informed his friend that an acquaintance had sent him the manuscript of a romance for his perusal and suggestions, and forthwith began to read the strange and thrilling story of one Gabriel Denver. Once or twice Philip's suspicions were aroused, chiefly on account of the emotion which the reader could not refrain from exhibiting, but still he was unprepared for what followed. The tale excited at once his astonishment and his admiration, and on its conclusion he expressed what he felt in the most emphatic manner.
"What did you say was the name of that story ? " he asked.
"The Black Swan," was the reply, in a voice husky with emotion.
" And its author ? Tell me at once the author's name."
"Oliver Madox Brown."
Sincere were the congratulations, and genuine the mutual joy and pride: that night Oliver went home with a foretaste of fame making his heart beat wildly, while Philip sat awhile in his darkness, and indulged in many a fair visionary dream for his loved friend's future.
When the two were apart, each wrote to the other: in a word their comradeship was complete, and to the older of the twain it meant more than anything else, save the devotion of his sister Ciceley. A deep and all-embracing humour was one of the chief characteristics of Oliver Brown, and he was a delightful raconteur ; he was thus just the right companion for his blind friend. The latter had of course other friends, among whom may be mentioned his brother-in-law, the late Arthur O'Shaughnessy : indeed, Philip Marston was one of those men possessed of an occult, magnetic quality of attraction which few people could resist. Wherever he went he made would-be friends, and without any apparent effort to please he seemed to exercise a pleasant fascination over all who came in contact with him. And down to his last days he was, in company, cheerful and animated, often merry, and always genial. He never wore his heart upon his sleeve, and even to fairly intimate friends he so rarely betrayed his secret desolation that many of them have been quite unable to realise what depths of wretchedness his forlorn spirit was wont to dwell within. Perhaps there is only one living friend of the dead poet who ever fully knew how dire was the grief and despair which gnawed at his life.
Suddenly Oliver Brown became unwell. Philip was anxious but never looked for any permanent ill-result. When, all unexpectedly, he was told that Oliver Madox Brown was dead, the shock was so great that years elapsed before he could speak calmly of his loss. Of another bereavement, soon to follow, he never spoke at all. Apart from his keen personal sorrow he deplored the untimely passing away of a young writer of such extraordinarily brilliant promise, believing as he did that no one of such precocious mental powers had appeared since Chatterton.
The young painter-romancist died in 1874. The poems comprised in Marston's volume, All in All, had been read seriatim to Oliver Brown, but the book was not actually published till after his death. At best it was a volume of sad memories, and now one of the expected pleasures attendant upon
its publication was not to be realised. All in All had only a limited success: its sadness was too extreme for the majority of readers, and though, in point of workmanship, it was superior to its predecessor, it was practically voted too gloomy. Some critics went the length of complaining that such a sombre tone as prevailed throughout this volume was either morbid or affected: it is almost needless to say that neither surmise was correct. Irremediable grief, as distinct from more or less placid sorrow, is so rarely experienced by men that it is not strange there should be a tendency to consider it a symptom of weakness or affectation ; but if those of this bent of mind will put themselves in the place of Philip Marston---unhappy, often lonely, smitten cruelly by adverse fate, and dwelling continually in blank and terrible darkness---they will not, in all probability, find themselves strongly impelled towards the composition of very joyous verse. We are at best waifs and strays before the wind of circumstance, but when one is whirled hither and thither in absolute darkness the outlook does not become enlivening.

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