Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by John Drinkwater
Philip Bourke Marston (18501887)
[Born on August 13, 1850, in London. He was the son of the physician and dramatist J. Westland Marston. Blindness in boyhood was followed by a life of misfortune; he lost his mother, his betrothed, his dearly loved and devoted sister, and his closest friend, Oliver Madox Brown, in bewildering and rapid succession. He met these and yet later disastersone friend following another, so that scarcely one survived his own short lifewith unfailing courage, but he looked pathetically enough for the death which came on February 14, 1887. His published poems were Song-tide, 1871; All in All, 1875; Wind Voices, 1883; Garden Secrets, 1887.]
AS was inevitable with men who, endowed with great energy, instead of being engaged as it were in some morning adventure of the world looked back regretfully to a long-past age of clean beauty across a civilization that had violated all in life that they cherished, there was in the temper of the Pre-Raphaelite poets a deep strain of wistfulness which is rarely found in great poetry, and is a different thing from the tragic intensity that is found there commonly enough. Even Keats, whose work is as poignant as that of any poet, leaves us with the impression that in creation, even the creation of tragic beauty, he was possessed entirely with the artists joy, while in reading the great Pre-Raphaelites we feel always, touching all their splendid exuberance, a tremulous sadness: some touch of inescapable regret. The individual genius of Rossetti, Swinburne, Morris, was more than equal to disciplining this plaintiveness until it became no more than an added loveliness in their work, which remained positive and quick with assertion. With lesser poets, however, authentic though they were, who came under this same influence, made more intimate by the example of these masters themselves, there was a likelihood of this plaintiveness becoming over-insistent; and this is what happened, until the poetic emotion became diluted, the values of life were lowered a little, and there developed the delicate and fragrant but slightly insignificant decadent poetry of the nineties. Philip Marston was one of the most notable of the poets with whom this group began, and although in him poetry kept its high dignity, and it was not until a little later that it became fashionable to write of life as a pack of cards or a Chinese lantern, the over-prevalence of plaintiveness is already clearly marked in his verse. It is not that his work is the reflection of a life that was almost epic in its sorrows. Marston was afflicted with a wrath that was terrible as some visitation of the Old Testament, but while remorseless personal misfortune emphasized the natural attitude to life which he inherited from his masters, it could not produce the precise quality of which we speak in his poetry. This was, rather, the product of an imagination that was never quite of the highest intensity. His lamentable life, indeed, far from inevitably influencing his work in this manner, might have touched it to a magnificent though profound gloom, as such misfortune has done with other poets. But it is as though his griefs had struck beyond his happiness and had impaired his poetic energy, so that he was unable fully to control, as the greater poets of his time controlled, an emotion that in its place may even be admirable in poetry, but which, out of its place, makes for enervation. And it is exactly in this way that Marstons work suffered. His natural gifts were fine ones, and he cultivated them with splendid devotion. To the expression of an extremely delicate susceptibility and sometimes of a thrilling passion, he brought a just and varied sense of word-values and an artistic discretion that rarely failed him, so that his work is hardly ever without a distinct and personal beauty. But, also, it is hardly ever bracing, and poetry, even in its forlorn moods, should brace. This same central infirmity kept him, in most of his poems, from achieving those radiant touches, living in the use of a word or the turn of a syllable, half chance and almost remote from reason, that so often makes the difference between a poem in which it is difficult or impossible to find a flaw, and one that is of manifest excellence. This is strikingly so in most of Marstons sonnets, of which he wrote a large number. In reading through them we find great technical sureness; more than that, we are constantly aware of a fine poetic temper, that keeps us securely above any feeling of tediousness, and we gladly allow a sweet musical movement. But it is only very rarely that we are stirred to the delighted admiration that greets those fortunate strokes that are a poets chief glory. We feel constantly that Marston, charming poet as he was, was within a phrase of being a first-rate one.
His best poems are certain of the sonnets and a few voluptuously passionate love-poems in which he attained an intensity that was far more admirable and of far more durable worth than the rather trivial prettiness of The Rose and the Wind and the other Garden Fancies through which the anthologies have made him most generally known. There is, too, a grave beauty in The Old Churchyard of Bonchurch and such lyrics as From Far that shows with what poetic dignity his spirit could work when most truly moved.