Aubrey Beardsley

Enoch Soames:
The Critical Heritage


The Calumny of Beerbohm
The Anxiety of Influence
New Light on Soames
Enoch’s Castle
In Praise of Christian Diabolism
Iconographia Fungosiana
Strange Growths
A Letter to the Editor
List of Illustrations
Le Diaboliste Catholique
Portrait Study of Enoch Soames
En Attendant
Crème de Menthe and Nicotine
A Man of Letters
Enoch Soames, Esq.
The Bad Homburg

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The Arms of a PoetEnoch Soames - The Critical Heritage
The Bad Homburg, by William Nicholson
The Bad Homburg
Woodcut by William Nicholson

The Calumny of Beerbohm

In “Enoch Soames”, his memoir of a slight acquaintance with the great poet and petit viveur of that illustrious name, Max Beerbohm speaks with forked tongue. So seductive is his essay, that a first reading would suggest that an infinitely superior Beerbohm was in the ascendant and Soames in decline— or even condemned by Beerbohm to a plane of existence so lowly that for Soames to fall any lower would be a physical and metaphysical impossibility. But no sooner does one begin to relish Beerbohm’s self-deprecatory tone, than it rings as false as his pretence of sympathy for his subject. The tenor of his comment is indeed a “pale tune irresolute,” “blown from a rotted flute.”
     He salutes William Rothenstein’s swift yet brusque acknowledgement of Soames’s presence (even though WR called him “Edwin”), and the artist’s later generosity in drawing his portrait; yet Beerbohm, on the few occasions when he met Soames, felt mortified by his own meretriciousness, and Rothenstein’s generosity served simply to rub salt into the wound. Beerbohm may well have wished that he himself had been endowed with the same spirit as Rothenstein, for, deep-down, he knew that, in Soames, he had encountered something rare indeed in Decadent literary circles: sheer genius, even though that genius inhabited the seemingly dingy soul of a plain, unvarnished Preston man.
     Beerbohm remained hypnotised by The Yellow Book, which beckoned like a gas flare in the ’Nineties fog, and bewitched by the glittering Henry Harland, who twinkled like a star hovering above the Savoy; but Soames, steady as a weed-grown rock pounded by the ocean, was the voice of Beerbohm’s uneasy conscience, and an uncomfortable challenge to the essayist’s fragile integrity.
     Beerbohm had published no fewer than eleven prose works and volumes of caricatures by 1919, the year in which he immortalised Enoch Soames. But during the course of a long life he was to produce little else and—crucially—was never a poet. He may well have been profoundly envious of the dim, lank-haired Northerner in his outlandish waterproof cape, who could record and proclaim, not in merely “tripping numbers”, as the Preston Telegraph commented dutifully, but with the ring of dreadful truth:
     Round and round the shutter’d Square I stroll’d with the Devil’s arm in mine. No sound but the scrape of his hooves was there And the ring of his laughter and mine. We had drunk black wine.
     Few mortals may have read “Nocturne”, but its tripping numbers echoed down the caverns of Hell, and reminded the Devil of that agreeable evening he had spent with Soames in Soho (that “black wine” may have been from Cahors, on the fringe of that Cathar country which had yielded him so rich a harvest of the damned). He was flattered by Soames’s beautifully-judged poem, and the hunger for appreciation, the longing to be liked, understandable in so great a Potentate, was to be his downfall. He recalled that Soames had proclaimed himself a Diabolist, failing to remember that the poet—always a master of ambiguity—had hedged his bets by calling himself a Catholic Diabolist. Mind you, the Prince of Darkness always deeply resented the fact that it had been the Catholic Church who had invented him in the first place.
     Thus it was that he struck his bargain with Soames, and it must be admitted that Soames’s request was somewhat foolhardy: to be swept a hundred years hence, on into the Reading Room of the British Museum of 3 June, 1997 in order to examine the plethora of critical comment that would by that time surely surround his name and reputation. But all Soames found was an idle critic’s reference to Beerbohm’s essay, implying, without a shred of evidence, that he had never existed...
     While one can only hope and pray that Soames’s reputation, indeed his very person, will be restored to the literary canon, one can be sure of two things. The first is that Beerbohm was an unreliable witness, jealous of Soames’s dedication to his art and even, perhaps, of the sizeable annuity which enabled him so single-mindedly to court his Muse. The second is that the Devil lost the bargain: his enthusiasm for Soames’s poor soul, fuelled by Soames’s thirst for recognition, made him careless. He gave Soames an afternoon of his own private Hell, once-for-all; and the agonising glimpse the writer had of that place was—as any good Diabolist should know—to suffice for all Eternity. Once in Hell itself, Soames, in common with countless lesser souls, remains condemned endlessly to repeat his most selfish and unproductive desires. These were few indeed, but continually to supply the poet with absinthe and cigarettes makes him an expensive guest, and his host has no option but to pay up.
     Beerbohm made one significant error of fact: Soames’s voluminous cape may have been waterproof, but was, in fact, lined with asbestos.

Enoch Soames