Friday, May 8, 2015

We did tire later - Max Beerbohm examines some persons of 'the Nineties'

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.


  1. Ah, Enoch Soames, nou ur tahkin! Eet iz isily my faivrit stauri by a mainer riter ov th ninteen senchri. It iz olmos laik Borges b4 Borges, seriusli.

  2. "I am not yet done with minor, or even major, poets of or around the 1890s....Robert Bridges...Thomas Hardy...Francis Thompson ... A. E. Housman...G. K. Chesterton ... Walter de la Mare"
    There were writers of the 1890s and there were writers who were around in the 1890s. Beerbohm continued to be in the 1890s more than fifty years after they ended.
    A. E. Housman, like the other writers you list there, except Thomson. was in rather than of the 1890s. His own revealing remark, refusing to let his poems appear in an anthology of 1890s verse, was:
    "To include me in an anthology of the Nineties would be just as technically correct, and just as essentially inappropriate, as to include Lot in a book on Sodomites."

    Wendy Cope on Housman is wonderful:

    Another Unfortunate Choice

    I think I am in love with A E Housman.
    Which puts me in a worse than usual fix.
    No woman ever stood a chance with Housman
    AND he's been dead since 1936.

    1. Whoops!
      Beerbohm continued to be of the 1890s more than fifty years after they ended, of course.

  3. Yes, "in" and "of" are good distinctions. The '90s are partly so strange because of Wilde, the epitome of "in" and "of" for the period, while Housman and Hardy are just there by temporal coincidence.

    I love the Housmania you supply. He is a great favorite of mine.

    Cleanthess, Beerbohm's joke is becoming less funny and more prophetic as text-message-style spelling spreads.

  4. Reading Chesterton's poetry, I see. My favorite poem from that god-obsessed book:


    Chattering finch and water-fly
    Are not merrier than I;
    Here among the flowers I lie
    Laughing everlastingly.
    No: I may not tell the best;
    Surely, friends, I might have guessed
    Death was but the good King's jest,
    It was hid so carefully.

  5. Oh yes, that poem jumped right out of the book and did the Danse Macabre.