A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Has anyone nowadays heard of W H Mallock, author of Every Man His Own Poet? Unless you are researching why Walter Pater withdrew from the Oxford Professorship of Poetry competition in 1877, probably not. Mallock’s satirical novel The New Republic attached Pater’s name to the caricature of what Josephine Guy described as “’Mr. Rose’– an effete, impotent, sensualist with a penchant for erotic literature and beautiful young men”. The whole novel was apparently filled with caricatures of important Oxford men of the period, and naturally we cannot make any sense of this nowadays.
That novel was published shortly after Mallock had left Oxford, and before he began what looks like a dull and worthy life as a vicar, writing tomes on economics and vast numbers of book reviews in the heavyweight quarterly and monthly periodicals of the time. But before all that, Mallock was a fun-loving satirist who was no mean poet himself. He won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry in 1872 (a prize also won by John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Oscar Wilde, John Buchan and Laurence Binyon, and, much more recently, Jon Stallworthy, Alan Hollinghurst, and Andrew Motion). In the same year he published, as ‘Newdigate Prizeman’ (not the most discreet of pseudonyms) a volume of poetical instruction called Every Man His Own Poet, or, The Inspired Singer’s Recipe Book.
The Contents page will give you a hint of what we can expect:
How to make an Ordinary Love Poem
How to make a Pathetic Marine Poem
How to write an Epic Poem like Mr Tennyson
How to write a Poem like Mr Matthew Arnold
How to write a Poem like Mr Browning
How to write a Modern Pre-Raphaelite Poem
How to write a Narrative Poem like Mr Morris
How to write a Satanic Poem like the late Lord Byron
How to write a Patriotic Poem like Mr Swinburne
It tickles me that these giant heavyweights of classic English poetry were once considered ‘modern’. The idea of a modern pre-Raphaelite poem interests me. Let us turn to that page on the invaluable Project Gutenberg edition of Mallock.
Take a packet of fine selected early English, containing no words but such as are obsolete and unintelligible. Pour this into about double the quantity of entirely new English, which must have never been used before, and which you must compose yourself, fresh as it is wanted. Mix these together thoroughly till they assume a colour quite different from any tongue that was ever spoken, and the material will be ready for use.
Take three damozels, dressed in straight night-gowns. Pull their hair-pins out, and let their hair tumble all about their shoulders. A few stars may be sprinkled into this with advantage. Place an aureole about the head of each, and give each a lily in her hand, about half the size of herself. Bend their necks all different ways, and set them in a row before a stone wall, with an apple-tree between each and some large flowers at their feet. Trees and flowers of the right sort are very plentiful in church windows. When you have arranged all these objects rightly, take a cast of them in the softest part of your brain, and pour in your word-composition as above described.
This has promise. I like Mr Mallock’s youthful style. Let us examine his recipe for satanic poetry a la Lord Byron.
Take a couple of fine deadly sins; and let them hang before your eyes until they become racy. Then take them down, dissect them, and stew them for some time in a solution of weak remorse; after which they are to be devilled with mock-despair.
Hmm. Not so witty. Perhaps Byron just bored him. How about a Tennysonian epic?
Take one blameless prig. Set him upright in the middle of a round table, and place beside him a beautiful wife, who cannot abide prigs. Add to these, one married goodly man; and tie the three together in a bundle with a link or two of Destiny. Proceed, next, to surround this group with a large number of men and women of the nineteenth century, in fancy-ball costume, flavoured with a great many very possible vices, and a few impossible virtues. Stir these briskly about for two volumes, to the great annoyance of the blameless prig, who is, however, to be kept carefully below swearing-point, for the whole time. If he once boils over into any natural action or exclamation, he is forthwith worthless, and you must get another. Next break the wife’s reputation into small pieces; and dust them well over the blameless prig. Then take a few vials of tribulation and wrath, and empty these generally over the whole ingredients of your poem: and, taking the sword of the heathen, cut into small pieces the greater part of your minor characters. Then wound slightly the head of the blameless prig; remove him suddenly from the table, and keep in a cool barge for future use.
I do like Mr Mallock. It isn’t often that undergraduate humour wears so well. I recommend this volume to collectors of sharp satire and poetical excess.
W H Mallock, Every Man His Own Poet (1872), available on Project Gutenberg and in a free Kindle download, as well as in needlessly expensive print-on-demand editions.
Thanks to Christoph Singer for drawing our attention to this gem of Victorian silliness.