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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Philip James Bailey (1816–1902)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IN Bailey we have a striking instance of the man whose reputation is made suddenly by a single work, which obtains an amazing popularity, and which is presently almost forgotten except as a name. When in 1839 the long poem ‘Festus’ appeared, its author was an unknown youth, who had hardly reached his majority. Within a few months he was a celebrity. That so dignified and suggestive a performance should have come from so young a poet was considered a marvel of precocity by the literary world, both English and American.  1
  The author of ‘Festus’ was born at Basford, Nottinghamshire, England, April 22nd, 1816. Educated at the public schools of Nottingham, and at Glasgow University, he studied law, and at nineteen entered Lincoln’s Inn. In 1840 he was admitted to the bar. But his vocation in life appears to have been metaphysical and spiritual rather than legal.  2
  His ‘Festus: a Poem,’ containing fifty-five episodes or successive scenes,—some thirty-five thousand lines,—was begun in his twentieth year. Three years later it was in the hands of the English reading public. Like Goethe’s ‘Faust’ in pursuing the course of a human soul through influences emanating from the Supreme Good and the Supreme Evil; in having Heaven and the World as its scene; in its inclusion of God and the Devil, the Archangels and Angels, the Powers of Perdition, and withal many earthly types in its action,—it is by no means a mere imitation of the great German. Its plan is wider. It incorporates even more impressive spiritual material than ‘Faust’ offers. Not only is its mortal hero, Festus, conducted through an amazing pilgrimage, spiritual and redeemed by divine Love, but we have in the poem a conception of close association with Christianity, profound ethical suggestions, a flood of theology and philosophy, metaphysics and science, picturing Good and Evil, love and hate, peace and war, the past, the present, and the future, earth, heaven, and hell, heights and depths, dominions, principalities, and powers, God and man, the whole of being and of not-being,—all in an effort to unmask the last and greatest secrets of Infinity. And more than all this, ‘Festus’ strives to portray the sufficiency of Divine Love and of the Divine Atonement to dissipate, even to annihilate, Evil. For even Lucifer and the hosts of darkness are restored to purity and to peace among the Sons of God, the Children of Light! The Love of God is set forth as limitless. We have before us the birth of matter at the Almighty’s fiat; and we close the work with the salvation and ecstasy—described as decreed from the Beginning—of whatever creature hath been given a spiritual existence, and made a spiritual subject and agency. There is in the doctrine of ‘Festus’ no such thing as the “Son of Perdition” who shall be an ultimate castaway.  3
  Few English poems have attracted more general notice from all intelligent classes of readers than did ‘Festus’ on its advent. Orthodoxy was not a little aghast at its theologic suggestions. Criticism of it as a literary production was hampered not a little by religious sensitiveness. The London Literary Gazette said of it:—“It is an extraordinary production, out-Heroding Kant in some of its philosophy, and out-Goetheing Goethe in the introduction of the Three Persons of the Trinity as interlocutors in its wild plot. Most objectionable as it is on this account, it yet contains so many exquisite passages of genuine poetry, that our admiration of the author’s genius overpowers the feeling of mortification at its being misapplied, and meddling with such dangerous topics.” The advance of liberal ideas within the churches has diminished such criticism, but the work is still a stumbling-block to the less speculative of sectaries.  4
  The poem is far too long, and its scope too vast for even a genius of much higher and riper gifts than Bailey’s. It is turgid, untechnical in verse, wordy, and involved. Had Bailey written at fifty instead of at twenty, it might have shown a necessary balance and felicity of style. But, with all these shortcomings, it is not to be relegated to the library of things not worth the time to know, to the list of bulky poetic failures. Its author blossomed and fruited marvelously early; so early and with such unlooked-for fruit that the unthinking world, which first received him with exaggerated honor, presently assailed him with undue dispraise. ‘Festus’ is not mere solemn and verbose commonplace. Here and there it has passages of great force and even of high beauty. The author’s whole heart and brain were poured into it, and neither was a common one. With all its ill-based daring and manifest crudities, it was such a tour de force for a lad of twenty as the world seldom sees. Its sluggish current bears along remarkable knowledge, great reflection, and the imagination of a fertile as well as a precocious brain.  5
  Bailey’s death, which took place at Nottingham on September 6th, 1902, reawakened to some extent the interest taken in his work, and ‘Festus’ was the subject of a careful article by Edmund Gosse in the Fortnightly Review of the following November. Next year saw a new edition of the poem, but the liberal ideas at which orthodoxy stood aghast in mid nineteenth century attracted little attention in the early twentieth. The length of the poem also make against its chances of perusal in a busier age, in spite of the fine things it undoubtedly contains.  6
 
 
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