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
Enoch Soames
The Arms of a Poet

Not passed into oblivion

Ah, this is it, is it not? The day so many of us have waited for? Waited years, decades, a century. It is, I submit a very real day for us. For, surely, Soames lives, suffers, exists. His story has entered into our lives; or, we have entered into his history, else why are we here tonight? Are we not the creatures he saw on 3 June 1997 in the Reading Room of the British Museum? Have we not become those people in strange-to-Soames clothes, with our strange accents and the scent of carbolic about us?
     We are allied with Soames today. We are allied, too, with his friend—not great, intimate friend, but friend nonetheless—Max Beerbohm. How else, except through those three little catalogue-pasted slips that Soames knew so well, should we know anything much of Soames?
     When Max was asked why he had left London, in 1910 at the age of thirty-seven, for self-exile to Rapallo he replied, “How many people were there in London? Eight Million. I knew them all.” He had known the departed Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, Dan Leno and Whistler and Swinburne and Meredith; and he now knew Henry James, and J. M. Barrie and John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett and Chesterton and Belloc. He left marvellous caricatures, and some telling comments, on all of them: he could be quite critical, really.
     Of G. B. Shaw, Max said he had only two thoughts for the man: a wish that he had never been born, and a kind hope that he would never die. He said of Frank Harris that Frank did occasionally tell the truth... “when his imagination flagged.” Of the self-puffing novelist Hall Caine he said, no, we must not despise him altogether, rather “we should be grateful to any man who makes himself ridiculous.”
     Rudyard Kipling was a particular bête noire: an “Apocalyptic Bounder who can do such fine things... but mostly prefers to stand (on tip-toe and stridently) for all that is cheap and nasty.” He could not, on the other hand, appreciate W. B. Yeats’s mysticism; Yeats always made him feel "rather uncomfortable, as though I had submitted myself to a mesmerist who somehow didn’t mesmerise me.” Privately, he wrote, “Me [Yeats] drives to excesses of grossest philistinism, sympathetic though I generally am to men of genius. A genius he is of course; and geniuses are generally asinine; but his particular asinineness bores me and antagonises me.”
     Samuel Behrman recalled that Max “shied away from lunacy not only in its violent forms but also in its milder forms, one of these being utopianism”; and of H. G. Wells’s utopianism Max remarked that “good sense about trivialities is better than nonsense about things that matter.” When Reggie Turner sent him Wells’s A History of the World, Max retorted, only half in jest, “You couldn’t have given me a present that I should have hated more.”
     Of course Max had many positive things to say, too. Of George Moore, for example, he wrote that he was a writer who, apparently, had been given by Nature no gift whatever for literature:
     Some of the good writers have begun with a scant gift for writing. But which of them with no gift at all? Moore is the only instance I ever heard of. Somehow, in the course of long years, he learned to express himself beautifully. I call that great.
     But enough of other writers. We are here tonight because of Enoch Soames, Catholic Diabolist poet, a writer of small talent but large ambitions and grand designs on posterity. And of Enoch Soames Max wrote, in effect, a whole history—practically all we have of the man. He has made him live for us—for Soames does live, does he not? Why else would we be here tonight? Has not Enoch Soames entered into our very lives— and for that matter, we into his?
     Some people have asserted that, in giving us the troubled history of Enoch Soames, Max perfectly anticipated that vague business—encompassing structuralism, post-structuralism, new historicism, new Marxism, Lacanian Freudianism, deconstruction and so on—called post-modernism. What a terrible thing to say of anyone. I think I can safely tell you what he would have thought about that label, and about Barthes and Foucault and Derrida. I know because he wrote it down in an essay, published some eighty years ago:

         M. Bergson, in his well known essay on laughter says... well, he says many things; but none of these, though I have just read them, do I clearly remember, nor am I sure that I understood any of them. That is the worst of these fashionable philosophers... Somehow I never manage to read them till they are just going out of fashion, and even then I don’t seem able to cope with them. About twelve years ago, when every one talked to me about Pragmatism and William James, I found myself moved by a dull but irresistible impulse to try Schopenhauer, of whom, years before that, I had heard that he was the easiest reading in the world, and the most exciting and amusing. I wrestled with Schopenhauer for a day or so, in vain. Time passed; M. Bergson appeared “and for his hour was lord of the ascendant”; I tardily tackled William James. I bore in mind, as I approached him, the testimonials that had been lavished on him by all my friends. Alas, I was insensible to his thrillingness. His gaiety did not make me gay. I could make nothing of William James. And now, in the fullness of time, I have been floored by M. Bergson.
         It distresses me, this failure to keep pace with the leaders of thought as they pass into oblivion.

Max gave us a profound lesson when he taught us to be “grateful to any man who makes himself ridiculous.” And Enoch Soames has not altogether passed into oblivion. We, here tonight, attest to his existence. His literary remains: are they not on exhibition in the manuscript gallery tonight? And is not his memory yet very real?
     As blurred as are the lines between the black and the white, the written and the verbal, the dance and the dancer, the living and the dead, the text and the non-text, the representation and represented, past and present, time-past and time-present, fiction and fact, reality and illusion, tonight we bear witness to the effect that the past can have on this our own poor, diminished and vulgar present.
     The one who has made all this possible in telling us the history of Soames—of the desperate bid for posterity’s gaze by that very limited but devoted poet; the man who has done so much for Soames’s memory and, accordingly, so much for us; the man who has shown us what it means to take chances, even desperate and losing ones; the man who has done this for us is Max Beerbohm.
     I call that great.

Enoch Soames