I am not yet done with minor, or even major, poets of or around the 1890s. A bit of Robert Bridges is in progress, Thomas Hardy is next, I think, then maybe Francis Thompson and A. E. Housman, who I like to much write about. Perhaps I will push on a bit to G. K. Chesterton or Walter de la Mare? Perhaps I will get sick of the whole thing.
I began this little digression several months ago when I read the extant works of Enoch Soames, the most minor of the minor poets of the 1890s, so minor that he is fictional, the creation of Max Beerbohm in the “sumwot labud sattire” “Enoch Soames” (1916) found in Seven Men and Two Others. Soames, a Catholic Diabolist, is the author of two slim volumes of poems – in the 1890s, volumes were always slim or slender – Nocturnes and Fungoids. The young Beerbohm was one of the few readers of Soames:
He looked at me across his glass of absinthe and asked if I had bought a copy. His publisher had told him that three had been sold. I laughed, as at a jest. (16)
Wait, I see there was a third book. “I meant, but forgot, to buy it” (18).
Soames is visible, just barely, in the upper right of “Some Persons of ‘the Nineties,’” where he is enduring the gesticulations of William Butler Yeats. Beerbohm is the dandy between Yeats and Wilde, the one with the faraway gaze and unnaturally slender legs. The conceit of “Enoch Soames” is that Soames is only barely visible, that no one notices him or will remember him in the future (a deal with the devil and time travel are involved) except as the subject of a Max Beerbohm story.
Soames is invented, but boy is he also Ernest Dowson, in the samples of his verse, at least. Beerbohm never met Dowson, so he is what Beerbohm imagined Dowson must be like.
‘You read only at the Museum now’ asked I, with attempted cheerfulness. He said he never went there now. ‘No absinthe there,’ he muttered. It was the sort of thing that in the old days he would have said for effect; but it carried conviction now. (19)
I do not know who the two novelists in “Hilary Maltby and Stephen Braxton” are meant to be, if anyone. The first is the author of Ariel in Mayfair, the second of A Faun of the Cotswolds. Beerbohm is always good with phony titles.
From the time of Nathaniel Hawthorne to the outbreak of the War, current literature did not suffer from any lack of fauns. But when Braxton’s first book appeared fauns had still an air of novelty about them. We had not yet tired of them and their hoofs and their slanting eyes and their way of coming suddenly out of woods to wean quiet English villages from respectability. We did tire later. (47)
That last line is a good test case. The reader who does not recognize it as comic should avoid Beerbohm.
Another conceit, running through many stories, is that writers are insane, or were back in the 1890s. Writers other than Max Beerbohm.
If possible, you want Seven Men and Two Others (1950), which adds “Felix Argallo and Walter Ledgett” to the 1919 Seven Men. Sorry, NYRB Classics fans. Page numbers refer to the Prion edition. “Some Persons of ‘the Nineties’” can be seen on p. 77 of Max Beerbohm Caricatures by N. John Hall, and also on the book’s cover, except that Enoch Soames is of course cut out.