Friday, July 31, 2015

Poet-Masochist A. C. Swinburne Dead at 72 After Lurid Life of Vice (Supposedly)

The fanciful English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne delighted in making people think he was a flagrant sexual debauchee who indulged in every known vice—and then some. As an Eton schoolboy, he learned to take pleasure in masochistic flagellation and devoured the licentious writings of the Marquis de Sade and the adventurer Richard Burton. During a year that he lived at the home of Oxford classmate Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he annoyed  Rossetti and interrupted his painting by whooping and hollering as he and a boyfriend slid naked down the banisters. Rossetti once tried to enlist the help of the infamous American actress Adah Isaacs Menken to introduce Swinburne to heterosexual copulation, but she gave up, claiming, “I can’t make him understand that biting is of no use.”  Swinburne even spread stories that he had once had sex with a monkey, which he then ate.

Fellow poet and pederast Oscar Wilde thought these lurid tales were gross exaggerations or pure fiction. Swinburne, he insisted, was “a braggart in matters of vice, who has done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.” There is no question, however, that the diminutive Swinburne, who was just over five feet tall, was a serious alcoholic, who would undoubtedly have been dead in his forties, if he hadn’t been rescued and dried out by a friend.

This peculiar and paradoxical chap was born April 5, 1837, in Grosvenor Place, London, the eldest of six children of an admiral and the daughter of an earl. He led a privileged childhood, growing up on the Isle of Wight, where he was known as a “demoniac boy,” who would sometimes skip about the room reciting poetry at the top of his lungs. After Eton, he studied (or not) at Balliol College, Oxford, but was rusticated before earning a degree. After that he lollygagged around literary circles in London, gaining a reputation as a poet, novelist, and critic, as well as a dissolute roué. His most famous poetical works were Atalanta in Calydon, Poems and Ballads, Songs Before Sunrise, and Tristram of Lyonesse. He also wrote novels, plays, and critical studies of Shakespeare, Jonson, Hugo, Blake, Shelley, and Baudelaire. A poet noted for his metrical dexterity and a contributor to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Swinburne was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature six times—but never won it. 

Although raised as a high-church Anglican, Swinburne was a pagan at heart and savagely satirized all organized religion. A frail man, with an excitable disposition and an abnormally large head, he was subject to frequent seizures and falls, which left him bruised and bloody, and which may have been the result of epilepsy, not to mention excessive drinking. In 1879, at the age of forty-two, he suffered a complete physical breakdown. 

His friend and literary agent, Theodore Watts-Dunton, intervened and sequestered Swinburne at The Pines, his suburban home in Putney, weaning  him from drink and isolating him from his former rowdy companions. Swinburne remained under Watts-Dunton’s care for the next thirty years, leading a sober and sedate life, growing increasingly deaf and reclusive, and continuing to write verse, drama, and criticism. In the spring of 1909 Swinburne contracted influenza, which developed into pneumonia, and he died April 10 at the age of seventy-two. He was buried at St. Boniface Church in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight, his boyhood home.

Note: Portrait of Swinburne at age 23 by William Bell Scott, online collection of Balliol College, Oxford

Friday, July 24, 2015

Notorious ‘green fairy’ took its toll on Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine at 51

French poet Paul Verlaine was far too fond of the “green fairy”—the popular nickname for absinthe, a potentially lethal 140-proof anise-flavored spirit that flowed freely in nineteenth-century Parisian cafes. In a messy life, marked by frequent self-indulgent debauchery, Verlaine abandoned his wife and infant son for a steamy affair with seventeen-year-old Arthur Rimbaud, served eighteen months in prison for shooting Rimbaud in a lovers’ quarrel, converted to Catholicism while incarcerated, had a weird relationship with another teenaged youth, and finally died miserably at fifty-one in the home of a retired prostitute. Though denied membership in the Académie Française, he was given the coveted title of  “Prince of Poets” and is regarded today as one of France’s most important literary figures.

This paradox of a man was born March 30, 1844, in Metz, a northeastern French city, and moved with his family to Paris at age seven. He attended the neighborhood lycée, then earned a bachelor’s degree and went to work as a clerk at City Hall. The job was a sinecure in which he showed up at ten, had a two-hour liquid lunch, staggered back to his office to shuffle papers until five, and then repaired to the Café de Gaz for aperitifs. He hung out with bohemian writers and artists, wrote poetry and art criticism, and in 1866 published a volume of his verse, rich with mystical images of Symbolism. The poems were praised by Stéphane Mallarmé and Victor Hugo, and they earned Verlaine a secure place in the literary world. 

In 1870, when he was twenty-six, he married a sixteen-year-old girl, Mathilde Mauté, and shortly they had a son whom they called Georges. Two years later, Verlaine received a fan letter from an admiring provincial youth and fledgling poet named Arthur Rimbaud.  So smitten was he by this hero worship that he sent the young man, not yet seventeen, trainfare to join him in Paris. Rimbaud moved in with Verlaine, his wife and infant son, and Mathilde’s parents. He was not an ideal house guest: he loved to sunbathe naked in the front garden, where he combed his filthy hair and flicked lice on passers-by; he trashed his room; and he mutilated the family’s heirloom crucifix.

Despite—or maybe because of—this behavior, Verlaine was fascinated with the young man. He described him as “tall, well built, almost athletic, with the perfectly oval face of an angel in exile, with unruly light chestnut hair and eyes of a disquieting blue.” They made an odd couple. Verlaine, according to friends, was indisputably ugly, with an over-large skull, unaligned eyes, tiny pug nose, sparse strands of hair on his head, and scraggly whiskers on his chin. When the mother of one of Verlaine’s friends met him, she said, "My God, he made me think of an orangutan escaped from the zoo!"

Verlaine fell in willingly with Rimbaud’s disreputable lifestyle. They even collaborated on a graphic homoerotic sonnet whose title is best translated “Sonnet in Praise of the Butthole.” Their steamy affair culminated in late 1872, when Verlaine and Rimbaud went to London together, and then to Brussels. It was there that they fell into a ferocious fight, and Verlaine pulled out a pistol and shot Rimbaud, hitting him twice in the arm. Although Rimbaud was not seriously wounded, Verlaine was arrested and sentenced to eighteen months in prison.  While there he underwent a religious conversion and resumed his Catholic faith, renouncing his bohemian life.

While the conversion was evidently sincere, the renunciation of la vie de bohème was not long-lasting. Verlaine resumed his lifelong dependency on absinthe, and in 1877, he fell in love with another seventeen-year-old boy, Lucien Létinois, a student of his at the College de Notre Dame in the town of Rethel. While there is evidence that their relationship remained platonic, at least in its early years, they were both dismissed from the school for “inappropriate behavior.” They continued to see each other, but in 1883 Lucien died of typhoid fever. 

Lucien’s death marked Verlaine’s abandonment of his literary work and the beginning of his physical and mental decline into alcoholism, drug addiction, and poverty. He was able to eke out a living with a few lectures in France, England, and Belgium. He was sent to prison again briefly for trying to strangle his mother. (She later died of pneumonia after venturing out in nasty weather to buy tobacco for her son.) Verlaine spent time in hospitals for treatment of infections and miscellaneous diseases. He lodged with various friends, and in 1896 he wound up in a fourth-floor room at 39 rue Descartes, the home of his friend Eugénie Krantz, a retired prostitute. The critic Saint-Georges Bouhélier gave this account of his last day in an article in Le Figaro: 

     "January 8 was not a bad day, at last no more so than other days, and with Andre Cornuty, Frédéric-Auguste Cazals, and other comrades, Verlaine traded stories, mixed with his habitual complaints. It was all quite normal, passing easily from laughter to sadness and tears.  Towards evening, his friends left, leaving Eugénie at his bedside. What happened between them?  Most likely Verlaine wanted    
something and asked her to fetch it. She answered crossly, he became annoyed, and she hurled insults at him. Whenever he  became angry, she could always dish it out as well as he could. Verlaine tried to get out of bed to attack her.  He fell on the floor—perhaps pushed by Eugénie.  She left him lying there, half-naked, in a badly heated room, on a night that was especially cold. From her room she could hear him whimpering. But she dared not poke her nose into his business!  Every household finds its own kind of peace, as the simple folk  say.  Early in the morning, Eugénie came back to Verlaine’s room.  She found him in the same place, in agony, and covered in sweat."

Eugénie summoned a doctor, who applied a mustard plaster. “That bites,” winced Verlaine. Those were his last intelligible words. He died later that evening, officially of “pulmonary congestion,” but his doctor concluded, “He had at least ten mortal maladies—he was worn out—a mere husk of a human being.” Verlaine was fifty-one.

His funeral was two days later at the Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. Gabriel Fauré was the organist, and the mourners included much of the Parisian literati. Verlaine was buried in the Cimitière des Batignolles. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Conflicted priest-poet Hopkins died of typhoid at 44, declaring “I am so happy”

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest and a strikingly innovative poet, who was torn by a lifelong conflict between these two vocations. He destroyed many of his youthful poems when he was ordained, and the slim body of work that survived was not published until years after his early death. 

Eldest of nine children, he was born in Essex, in the east of England, on July 28, 1844.  After Highgate School, where he won the poetry prize, he studied at Balliol College, Oxford, where he took a double-first class degree in classics. At Balliol he was drawn to the Oxford Movement, a group of high-church Anglicans who favored more Catholic practices in the Church of England—and in 1866, Hopkins “went over to Rome,” under the spiritual guidance of John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman. After studying for the priesthood at St. Beuno’s Jesuit house in North Wales, Hopkins was ordained a Catholic priest in 1877 and thereafter served as a missioner, curate, and teacher in Jesuit schools in London, Oxford, Liverpool, Glasgow, Chesterfield, and Stonyhurst.  In 1884, just five years before his death, he was appointed professor of classics at University College, Dublin, the institution founded by Cardinal Newman.

Philosophically, Hopkins was much influenced by Duns Scotus, as well as by the discipline of Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola. Hopkins’ surviving poetry, much of it written in what he called “sprung rhythm,” a ragged meter, with unusual accents indicated, deals mainly with religious topics, such as original sin (“Spring and Fall”), the wonders of creation (“Pied Beauty” and “God’s Grandeur”), the redemptive power of Christ (“The Windhover”), and the anguish of doubt (“Carrion Comfort”). Hopkins sought to see the inner truth of creation through a quality he referred to as “inscape,” derived from Scotus’ concept of “thisness” (haecceitas), which can be defined as the harmony, unity, and beauty perceived in the natural world.

Religious feeling, as well as poetic innovation, can be seen in a poem such as Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall: to a young child”:

                  Márgarét, are you gríeving
                  Over Goldengrove unleaving?
                  Leáves, líke the things of man, you
                  With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
                  Áh, ás the heart grows older
                  It will come to such sights colder
                  By and by, nor spare a sigh,
                  Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
                  And yet you wíll weep and know why.
                  Now no matter, child, the name:
                  Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same;
                  Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
                  What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
                  It ís the blight man was born for,
                  It is Margaret you mourn for.

The last five years of Hopkins’ life were beset by illness—constant eye pain and frequent diarrhea, now thought to be Crohn’s disease, plagued him, and he had recurring bouts of depression, now believed to be a symptom of undiagnosed bipolar disorder. His mental state was also probably affected by lifelong repressed homoerotic impulses, which he had first experienced as an Oxford undergraduate, and over which he had exercised rigorous control throughout his celibate life.

In May of 1889, Hopkins fell ill with what he first thought was rheumatic fever.  He consulted a doctor, who treated him for fleabite. The illness turned out to be typhoid fever, complicated by peritonitis. The typhoid was caused by Salmonella Typhi bacteria, found in food and water contaminated by sewage in the inadequate drainage system of University College. He was moved out of his own cramped quarters at the college to a large, airy room, where he was tended by nurses from nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital. On the morning of June 8 he received the last rites of the Church, and he died at 1:30 that afternoon, at the age of forty-four. His last words were, “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.”

His funeral mass, concelebrated by three fellow Jesuits, and with a large number of priests and students in attendance, was on June 11 at Dublin’s St. Francis Xavier Church. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Following his death, Hopkins’ good friend, the poet Ralph Bridges, began to submit his verses for inclusion in various anthologies, so that he became gradually known as a poet for the first time. In 1918, when Bridges had become England’s Poet Laureate, he secured the first publication of Hopkins’ collected poems in an edition of 750 copies.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Symbolist poet Mallarmé was suffocated by series of laryngeal spasms at 56

French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé claimed he had no biography—writing to his fellow poet Paul Verlaine in response to a request for a headnote in an edition of his poems, he replied, “My life is devoid of anecdote.” 

Born in Paris March 18, 1842, to a middle-class family, he was raised by his maternal grandparents after his mother died when he was five. He was educated in a series of boarding schools, where he abandoned his Catholic faith at an early age. Although he was christened Étienne, he preferred to style himself Stéphane, which is an older French form of Stephen.

Mallarmé took a government job and a mistress, a German governess named Marina Christina Gerhard. In 1862 the pair ran off to London and married.  Returning to France, Mallarmé accepted a post teaching English in a secondary school, and his professional career consisted of a series of such jobs, first in the provinces and finally in Paris. He also began turning out a body of fairly unremarkable poetry, much of it derived from the works of Charles Baudelaire.

Amid the whirl of Paris literati, Mallarmé presided over a salon, which attracted celebrated authors and artists—including W. B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Paul Verlaine, André Gide, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, James McNeil Whistler, and Auguste Rodin. Quite a crowd! They meet on Tuesdays and came to be known as Les Mardistes, from the French mardi.

Mallarmé also became more experimental with his poetry and in 1876 published the finished version of “L’après-midi d’un faune,” a landmark of Symbolist poetry, and the inspiration for Claude Debussy’s Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune and ballets by Nijinsky, Jerome Robbins, and others. It recounts the experiences of a faun who wakes from his afternoon sleep and has sensual encounters with several nymphs. For the last fifteen years of his life Mallarmé was a well-known and influential figure in French literature.

On September 9, 1898, at his home in Valvins, a village northeast of Paris, now known as Vulains-sur-Seine, Mallarmé had a sudden series of throat spasms. In these laryngeal spasms the vocal cords abruptly close when taking in a breath, blocking the flow of air into the lungs. They can be triggered by a variety of causes—allergy, asthma, exercise, irritants such as smoke or dust, stress, or acid reflux disease. In any event, Mallarmé was unable to breathe and died of suffocation at the age of fifty-six.

He was buried in the nearby Samoreau Cemetery, and the eulogist was his friend and fellow poet Valéry. In an eerie echo of Mallarmé’s cause of death, Valéry found his words stuck in his throat and he was temporarily unable to speak.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Poet Joyce Kilmer, known for “Trees,” cut down at 31 by sniper’s bullet in his brain

Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree”?  Just about everyone is familiar with Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” published in 1913. Kilmer was a well-known Roman Catholic poet and lecturer, often compared with G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and he achieved considerable fame before his early death as a soldier in World War I. 
Born December 6, 1886, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Joyce was the youngest of four children of a physician and chemist who invented Johnson’s baby powder. His full name was Alfred Joyce Kilmer—in honor of two Episcopalian priests at the Kilmers’ church.  Joyce attended Columbia University and shortly after graduation married fellow poet Aline Murray, with whom he had five children. The Kilmers converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism in 1913, when their one-year-old daughter was paralyzed by poliomyelitis and they turned for comfort to a Catholic priest. 

Kilmer taught Latin for a while, then obtained work as a definition-writer for Funk & Wagnalls dictionary, for which he received five cents for each word defined.  He later worked as a reviewer for The New York Times and other publications and became known as a leading poet—although even then some critics thought his work superficial and overly sentimental. The publication of “Trees” in 1913 brought him great popular fame. A lecturer who was greatly in demand as an after-dinner speaker, he had such a huge fund of knowledge that he often chose the topic of his speech only after the dinner had started, and then spoke eloquently at length without any notes.

Although he was a family man and could have avoided fighting in World War I, he enlisted in the famous “Fighting 69th” infantry regiment and was sent into the midst of battle in France. On July 18, 1918, he was serving as an aide to Major “Wild Bill” Donovan (who later founded the OSS, forerunner of the CIA). Near Meurcy Farm during the Second Battle of the Marne, Kilmer led a scouting party to rout a German machine-gun installation. He was found by his comrades at the top of a ridge, dead from a sniper’s bullet through his brain. He was thirty-one.

Kilmer was buried in Plot B, Row 9, Grave 15 in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Picardy, France. A requiem mass was celebrated for him on October, 1918, at Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A cenotaph now stands on the family plot in Elmwood Cemetery in his birthplace of New Brunswick.