Sins of the Sesh

THE SESSION OF THE POETS.—August, 1866.

Dî magni, salaputium disertum* — CAT[ullus]. Lib. LIII.

AT the Session of Poets held lately in London,
   The Bard of Freshwater was voted the chair:
With his tresses unbrush’d, and his shirt-collar undone,
   He loll’d at his ease like a good-humour’d Bear;
“Come, boys,” he exclaimed, “we’ll be merry together!”
   And lit up his pipe with a smile on his cheek;
While with eye like a skipper’s cock’d up at the weather,
   Sat the Vice-Chairman Browning, thinking in Greek.

The company gather’d embraced great and small bards,
   Both strong bards and weak bards, funny and grave,
Fat bards and lean bards, little and tall bards,
   Bards who wear whiskers, and others who shave.
Of books, men, and things, was the bards’ conversation
   Some praised Ecce Homo, some deemed it so-so —
And then there was talk of the state of the nation,
   And when the unwash’d would devour Mr. Lowe.

Right stately sat Arnold — his black gown adjusted
   Genteelly, his Rhine wine deliciously iced, —
With puddingish England serenely disgusted,
   And looking in vain (in the mirror) for “Geist.”
He heark’d to the Chairman, with “Surely!” and “Really?”
   Aghast at both collar and cutty of clay, —
Then felt in his pocket, and breath’d again freely,
   On touching the leaves of his own classic play.

Close at hand lingered Lytton, whose Icarus-winglets
   Had often betrayed him in regions of rhyme —
How glitter’d the eye underneath his grey ringlets,
   A hunger within it unlessened by time!
Remoter sat Bailey — satirical, surly —
   Who studied the language of Goethe too soon,
Who sang himself hoarse to the stars very early,
   And crack’d a weak voice with too lofty a tune.

How name all that wonderful company over —
   Prim Patmore, mild Alford — and Kingsley also?
Among the small sparks who was realler than Lover?
   Among misses, who sweeter than Miss Ingelow?
There sat, looking moony, conceited, and narrow,
   Buchanan, — who, finding when foolish and young,
Apollo asleep on a coster-girl’s barrow,
   Straight dragged him away to see somebody hung.

What was said? what was done? was there prosing or rhyming?
   Was nothing noteworthy in deed or in word?
Why, just as the hour for the supper was chiming,
   The only event of the evening occurred.
Up jumped, with his neck stretching out like a gander,
   Master Swinburne, and squeal’d, glaring out through his hair,
“All Virtue is bosh! Hallelujah for Landor!
   I disbelieve wholly in everything! — there!”

With language so awful he dared then to treat ’em, —
   Miss Ingelow fainted in Tennyson’s arms,
Poor Arnold rush’d out, crying “Sæcl’ inficetum!”
   And great bards and small bards were full of alarms;
Till Tennyson, flaming and red as a gipsy,
   Struck his fist on the table and uttered a shout:
“To the door with the boy! Call a cab! He is tipsy!”
   And they carried the naughty young gentleman out.

After that, all the pleasanter talking was done there
   Whoever had known such an insult before?
The Chairman tried hard to re-kindle the fun there,
   But the Muses were shocked, and the pleasure was o’er.
Then “Ah!” cried the Chairman, “this teaches me knowledge,
   The future shall find me more wise, by the powers!
This comes of assigning to younkers from college
   Too early a place in such meetings as ours!”

CALIBAN, The Spectator, September 15, 1866


*Dî magni, salaputium disertum = “Great gods, an eloquent mannikin!”
†”The Bard of Freshwater” is Tennyson, who lived at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight
‡”Sæcl’ inficetum!” = “Uncouth age!”

Caliban was Robert Buchanan (1841-1901), later the author of “The Fleshly School of Poetry”, an attack on immorality and sensuality in the poetry of Swinburne and Rossetti.

Lost Lustre

Adonis, M. Cytheris, and M. Menelaus, is indescribable; the eyes are pained as they gaze upon it; yet there is said to be an unnamed species from the emerald mountains of Bogota, of which a single specimen is in a private cabinet in London, which is far more lustrous than these.” — The Romance of Natural History (1861), Philip Henry Gosse

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #54

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Protean ProseThe Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, Charles Kingsley (1863)

SchmetterlingsschmuckButterfly, Thomas Marent (Dorling Kindersley 2013)

Criblia – ბიბლია / Biblia (Georgian Bible) (2013)

Micro MacroSuper Bugs: The Biggest, Fastest, Deadliest Creepy Crawlies on the Planet, John Woodward with Dr George McGavin (Dorling Kindersley 2016)

Chute: The LotThe Fallen: Life In and Out of Britain’s Most Insane Group, Dave Simpson (Canongate paperback 2009)

Twice Has Thrice the VicePisces, Peter Sotos, with an introduction by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (TransVisceral Books 2017)


• Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Playing on the Nerves

Front cover of In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le FanuIn A Glass Darkly, Sheridan Le Fanu

Far less known than his great admirer M.R. James, the Dubliner Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-73) may be an even better and more haunting writer. And yet he doesn’t rely much on the supernatural. Some of his stories seem to be more about neurological disease than about ghostly visitation. That kind of disease was much more common in his Georgian and Victorian day, when the toxicity of many chemicals wasn’t understood properly and people could be poisoned by arsenic in their wallpaper. But the horrors conjured by a diseased brain can be both stronger and more mysterious than a ghost or demon, because they’re more intimate and less easy to escape.

Le Fanu is intimate in another way: he has Robert Aickman’s ability to start currents swirling in your subconscious. You can feel yourself being drawn down into the abysses that wait there, dark and mysterious with sex, death and primal instinct. “Carmilla”, his classic tale of adolescent lesbian vampirism, is a good example. It also reveals his wider sympathy with humanity. M.R. James would not have written about women or about that kind of sex. Homosexuality and necrophilia seem to inform James’ stories; Le Fanu’s have the richness and bittersweetness of a man with wider sexual interests. Like Frankenstein or Sherlock Holmes, “Carmilla” may be more famous than its author is. It still appears in horror anthologies, partly because of its theme, partly because it’s probably his best work.

It’s also written more simply than, say, “The Familiar”. You often have to pay attention when you read Le Fanu’s prose:

The mind thus turned in upon itself, and constantly occupied with a haunting anxiety which it dared not reveal, or confide to any human breast, became daily more excited, and, of course, more vividly impressible, by a system of attack which operated through the nervous system; and in this state he was destined to sustain, with increasing frequency, the stealthy visitations of that apparition, which from the first had seemed to possess so unearthly and terrible a hold upon his imagination. (“The Watcher”)

If you don’t concentrate as Le Fanu throws you the words, you drop them and can’t juggle the whirl of metaphor and concept he wants you to experience. The effort required to read his stories is no doubt part of why he isn’t as well-known as he should be. But what you invest is repaid with interest and this collection, in Oxford’s World Classics series, is well represented by the painting on the cover: a detail from the great John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Dulce Domum (1885), with a melancholy-dreaming young woman sitting in a house rich with detail, from peacock feathers to Chinese vases.