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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Stephen Phillips (1868–1915)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Walter Brooks Drayton Henderson (1887–1939)
 
STEPHEN PHILLIPS may be looked upon as the first of the modern and as the last of the mid-Victorian poets. Coming at a time when style had been carried to a high pitch of elaborate perfection, and when English poetry had been made free of most of the great stories of the world, he inherited much from his forbears. And from the first he was careful of this inheritance. But he was not content to do no more than exploit it. He was an individualist seeking expression—as is often to be seen in the technique of his verse. He demanded actual contact with this present world, where pre-Raphaelite beauty is not omnipresent; and being of a tragic cast of mind, was early led to make studies of drab circumstances in the lower orders of society which had little sponsorship among his immediate predecessors. This work, which produced such poems as ‘The Wife,’ and ‘The Woman with the Dead Soul’ was experimental. Further, it was of uneven merit. But it did discover for poetry values where values had long been unsought, and reclaim for art fields of experience which, since Crabbe’s secession from an earlier Augustan age, had been little tilled. In them, modern art labors plentifully.  1
  Interesting as is this phase of his work, it is exceeded in importance by what he did more in accord with immediate tradition—the retelling of old tales. Here his individuality showed to better advantage, whether he chose to make out of them drama or narrative poems. The themes are still for the most part, tragic. But the “lonely antagonists of destiny” are worthier. “The half of music” it may be, “to have grieved”—but here also is the second half, “to have loved.” ‘Endymion’ and ‘Marpessa’ are exquisite realizations of this double truth. Endymion is content with that “sorrow more supreme than joy” of a brief union with Cybele, which leads to the immortal dream in which (an allegory of the poet’s life as Phillips conceived it) he is, even though apart, yet thrilled with all the “arrows of mankind.” Marpessa is happy in her choice of a mortal lover and the joys and sorrows of mortality, in preference to Apollo and Olympian calm.  2
  This introduction of the philosophy of grief into the old tales was Phillips’s distinct contribution—in addition to marked if incidental, stylistic beauty—in retelling them, as narrative poems. In his drama, however, this value is but one of many. It is subordinate to his dramatic imagination, rich in tender sympathy and poetic revelation of character, in its sense of situation—informed, too, as is the case with few poet-dramatists, as to the technical requirements of the actual stage. Paolo and Francesca live again under his hands—and (at the other extreme) Nero. Wide as is this range, his style is equal to it—and in the first case is as restrained and full of delicate beauty as in the latter it is opulent and suffused with an Elizabethan fervor. It is by reason of such work that his fame is secure.  3
  His publications cover the period from 1890, when ‘Marpessa’ appeared, up to 1915 when, shortly before his death, in ‘Armageddon,’ an “epic drama” he gave utterance to his feelings about the Great War. Among his most famous volumes the following deserve especial notice: ‘Poems’ (1897) (which includes ‘Marpessa’ and ‘Christ in Hades’), ‘New Poems’ (containing ‘Endymion’ and other pieces) ‘Paolo and Francesca’ (1897), ‘Ulysses’ (1902), and ‘Nero’ (1906).  4
 
 
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