Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Sidney Calvin
Stephen Phillips (18681915)
[Born at Summertown, near Oxford: eldest son of Stephen Phillips, D. D; Precentor and Hon. Canon of Peterborough. Educated at the Grammar School, Stratford-on-Avon, and Oundle School: was intended for the civil service but took to the stage, joining the travelling company of his cousin F. R. Benson. He had a genius for poetic reading and recitation, but small talent as an actor. Leaving the stage he joined the staff of an Army tutor near London. After a few experimental volumes of verse (Primavera, 1890; Eremus, 1894; Christ in Hades, 1896) he gained sudden reputation and success on being awarded in 1897 a prize for the best volume of poems of the year offered by the proprietors of The Academy. The volume included one of his finest things, Marpessa, and won immediate popularity, as did several of the poetical dramas which soon afterwards he wrote for the stage. Then the critical fashion changed; nor were his later works up to the standard of their predecessors. He continued to produce both dramas and volumes of occasional verse, and died at Hastings, December 9, 1915. The list of his published writings after the Poems of 1897 is as follows: Paolo and Francesca, 1899; Herod, 1900; Ulysses, 1902; New Poems, 1903; The Sin of David, 1904; Nero, 1906; The Last Heir (drama), 1908; Pietro of Siena, 1910; The New Inferno, 1910; The King, 1912; Lyrics and Dramas, 1913; Iole, 1913; Armageddon, 1915; Panama, 1915.]
IN regard to this poet the critical pendulum had for some years before his death swung sharply from the side of over-praise to that of over-neglect. It will some day recover its equilibrium, and Phillips will then be recognized as having belonged, by the gift of passion (the all-in-all in poetry, as Lamb has it,) by natural largeness of style and pomp and melody of rhythm and diction, as well as by intensity of imaginative vision in those fields where his imagination was really awake, to the great lineage and high tradition of English poetry. Yes, too directly to the lineage and too faithfully to the tradition, the advocatus diaboli may interpose. It has been especially charged against him that his blank verse too closely reproduces the cadences of Milton and of Tennyson. But this is to mistake absorption, which is one thing, for imitation, which is quite another. It is true that he was no great metrical inventor or innovator, though some of his experiments in unrhymed lyricfor instance, A Gleam and The Revealed Madonna cited beloware to my mind among the most successful that have been tried in English. But he was able to stamp an individuality, strong though not revolutionary or eccentric, on blank verse whether narrative or dramatic, on the closed heroic couplet, that form almost disused since the romantic revival, and on such ancient and popular never-to-be-worn out measures as the familiar alternately rhyming eight and six. As to originality not of form but of matter, it may be observed that when Phillips chose to rehandle themes on which predecessors, even the greatest, had set their mark, so far from imitating, he for better or worse always attacked them according to conceptions of his own. His Endymion, a thing over-mannered and far from first-rate, is in conception and treatment wholly independent of Keats. Other good cases in point are the two short pieces, The Parting of Launcelot and Guinevere, a Tennysonian theme wrought without Tennysons cunning technique but with an intensity of passion beyond his reach, and the admirably vivid tragic vision of Beatrice Cenci in the little lyric so named, which might have been written just as it is had Shelley not existed.
Other criticisms directed against Phillipss work have more foundation than the charge of imitativeness. He worked more by gusts of inspiration than by sustained care in craftsmanship, and often allowed a lax or feeble line to intrude even into his finest passages. He was also too prone to self-repetition and to that form of poetical rhetoric which consists in trying to reinforce an idea or heighten an image by rewording it over again with no essential change of thought.
Subject to these besetting flaws, he has left achievements of striking personality and power in a wide range of themes. In handling the simple, direct, universal human joys and sorrows, the longings and regrets, connected with the sexual and conjugal, the parental and filial relations, his touch is often as new and revealing as it is tender. For the sense of the past in the present, the stirrings of far-off legendary association, the apprehension of vibrating cosmic sympathies between the external universe and man aroused in the human spirit in moments of emotional tension or tragic passionfor these he found forms of utterance which were beautiful and entirely his own. Themes of mystical religion and gropings beyond the grave were never far from his thoughts and inspired much of his work, to my mind rarely of his best, from Christ in Hades down to The New Inferno. There is a distressful power and sadness, a sadness sometimes rising to the pitch of agony, in some poems of personal confession and supplication forced upon him by the struggle against enemies within himself stronger than he could resist.
Passing to work done in more objective moods, he has left some presenting with true power and originality impressions of character and destiny among crushed and suffering city lives. His surface observation both of the crowd and individuals was intense: his divination and suggestion of histories behind the surface imaginative and penetrating: The Fireman and The Revealed Madonna are the only specimens in these veins for which I have found space. In his later years he was accustomed to take poetic note of the changing aspects brought into the world by the progress of mechanical invention, the disappearance of sails from the sea, the invasion of the sky by aëroplanes and the like. Such notes, adroitly and tellingly written as they often are, hardly rise sufficiently above the level of newspaper verse to survive for their own sake as poetry, though they will be of interest in retrospect as marking the effect of these changes on a powerful and sensitive spirit in their day.
So far I have said nothing of the dramas which after the year 1900 absorbed most of Phillipss energies and constitute by far the chief bulk of his work. His later attempts in that form, Iole, The Adversary, The King, and Armageddon, may, I think, be dismissed as giving evidence of exhausted faculties and containing only here and there a phrase or line or two of the old power. Faust was a collaboration piece and made small pretension to originality. There remain the five, Paolo and Francesca, Herod, Ulysses, Nero, and The Sin of David. Several of these have proved successful on the stage: all have scenes and passages of stirring beauty and power. It has been objected to them that the poet, having been an actor and working with actors, has constructed his plays with too obvious and mechanical a stagecraft; that they are weak in the elements of character creation; that the persons are not made to speak vitally from within, but to describe and expound themselves in speeches put into their mouths from without, as it were decoratively and artificially; that the speeches themselves are too rhetorical, and the rhetoric often too ornate and flowery and sometimes redundant and tautological. Against this it may justly be urged that, after all, knowledge of stagecraft is a good thing in a playwright, and that Phillipss aim in drama was intended to be on Greek lines much rather than on Shakespearian: that the intense, the Shakespearian individualization of characters has been no part of the aim, still less of the achievement, of tragic drama in some of the great literatures of the world,it is not a capital element either in the Greek drama or the classical French: and again, that rhetoric in poetic drama there needs must be, and between the right and appropriate rhetoric of a situation, when it is touched with passion and imagination, as much of it in these plays truly is,between such rhetoric and truly great dramatic poetry the line is difficult to draw, if it can be drawn at all.
In the following examples none are included from Phillipss dramatic work, and from his longer poems only one, a part of the forecast by which Marpessa justifies her choice of her mortal lover Idas against her divine lover Apollo. The other specimens are complete short pieces chosen, so far as was possible within the necessary limits of space, to illustrate the range and varieties of the poets manner.