|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;
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.
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
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:
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.
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.