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Produced by Judith Boss.








Enoch Soames

A Memory of the Eighteen-nineties


By

MAX BEERBOHM



When a book about the literature of the eighteen-nineties was given by
Mr. Holbrook Jackson to the world, I looked eagerly in the index for
Soames, Enoch. It was as I feared: he was not there. But everybody
else was. Many writers whom I had quite forgotten, or remembered but
faintly, lived again for me, they and their work, in Mr. Holbrook
Jackson's pages. The book was as thorough as it was brilliantly
written. And thus the omission found by me was an all the deadlier
record of poor Soames's failure to impress himself on his decade.

I dare say I am the only person who noticed the omission. Soames had
failed so piteously as all that! Nor is there a counterpoise in the
thought that if he had had some measure of success he might have
passed, like those others, out of my mind, to return only at the
historian's beck. It is true that had his gifts, such as they were,
been acknowledged in his lifetime, he would never have made the bargain
I saw him make - that strange bargain whose results have kept him always
in the foreground of my memory. But it is from those very results that
the full piteousness of him glares out.

Not my compassion, however, impels me to write of him. For his sake,
poor fellow, I should be inclined to keep my pen out of the ink. It is
ill to deride the dead. And how can I write about Enoch Soames without
making him ridiculous? Or, rather, how am I to hush up the horrid fact
that he WAS ridiculous? I shall not be able to do that. Yet, sooner
or later, write about him I must. You will see in due course that I
have no option. And I may as well get the thing done now.

In the summer term of '93 a bolt from the blue flashed down on Oxford.
It drove deep; it hurtlingly embedded itself in the soil. Dons and
undergraduates stood around, rather pale, discussing nothing but it.
Whence came it, this meteorite? From Paris. Its name? Will
Rothenstein. Its aim? To do a series of twenty-four portraits in
lithograph. These were to be published from the Bodley Head, London.
The matter was urgent. Already the warden of A, and the master of B,
and the Regius Professor of C had meekly "sat." Dignified and
doddering old men who had never consented to sit to any one could not
withstand this dynamic little stranger. He did not sue; he invited: he
did not invite; he commanded. He was twenty-one years old. He wore
spectacles that flashed more than any other pair ever seen. He was a
wit. He was brimful of ideas. He knew Whistler. He knew Daudet and
the Goncourts. He knew every one in Paris. He knew them all by heart.
He was Paris in Oxford. It was whispered that, so soon as he had
polished off his selection of dons, he was going to include a few
undergraduates. It was a proud day for me when I - I was included. I
liked Rothenstein not less than I feared him; and there arose between
us a friendship that has grown ever warmer, and been more and more
valued by me, with every passing year.

At the end of term he settled in, or, rather, meteoritically into,
London. It was to him I owed my first knowledge of that
forever-enchanting little world-in-itself, Chelsea, and my first
acquaintance with Walter Sickert and other August elders who dwelt
there. It was Rothenstein that took me to see, in Cambridge Street,
Pimlico, a young man whose drawings were already famous among the
few - Aubrey Beardsley by name. With Rothenstein I paid my first visit
to the Bodley Head. By him I was inducted into another haunt of
intellect and daring, the domino-room of the Cafe Royal.

There, on that October evening - there, in that exuberant vista of
gilding and crimson velvet set amidst all those opposing mirrors and
upholding caryatids, with fumes of tobacco ever rising to the painted
and pagan ceiling, and with the hum of presumably cynical conversation
broken into so sharply now and again by the clatter of dominoes
shuffled on marble tables, I drew a deep breath and, "This indeed,"
said I to myself, "is life!" (Forgive me that theory. Remember the
waging of even the South African War was not yet.)

It was the hour before dinner. We drank vermuth. Those who knew
Rothenstein were pointing him out to those who knew him only by name.
Men were constantly coming in through the swing-doors and wandering
slowly up and down in search of vacant tables or of tables occupied by
friends. One of these rovers interested me because I was sure he
wanted to catch Rothenstein's eye. He had twice passed our table, with
a hesitating look; but Rothenstein, in the thick of a disquisition on
Puvis de Chavannes, had not seen him. He was a stooping, shambling
person, rather tall, very pale, with longish and brownish hair. He had
a thin, vague beard, or, rather, he had a chin on which a large number
of hairs weakly curled and clustered to cover its retreat. He was an
odd-looking person; but in the nineties odd apparitions were more
frequent, I think, than they are now. The young writers of that
era - and I was sure this man was a writer - strove earnestly to be
distinct in aspect. This man had striven unsuccessfully. He wore a
soft black hat of clerical kind, but of Bohemian intention, and a gray
waterproof cape which, perhaps because it was waterproof, failed to be
romantic. I decided that "dim" was the mot juste for him. I had
already essayed to write, and was immensely keen on the mot juste, that
Holy Grail of the period.

The dim man was now again approaching our table, and this time he made
up his mind to pause in front of it.

"You don't remember me," he said in a toneless voice.

Rothenstein brightly focused him.

"Yes, I do," he replied after a moment, with pride rather than
effusion - pride in a retentive memory. "Edwin Soames."

"Enoch Soames," said Enoch.

"Enoch Soames," repeated Rothenstein in a tone implying that it was
enough to have hit on the surname. "We met in Paris a few times when
you were living there. We met at the Cafe Groche."

"And I came to your studio once."

"Oh, yes; I was sorry I was out."

"But you were in. You showed me some of your paintings, you know. I
hear you're in Chelsea now."

"Yes."

I almost wondered that Mr. Soames did not, after this monosyllable,
pass along. He stood patiently there, rather like a dumb animal,
rather like a donkey looking over a gate. A sad figure, his. It
occurred to me that "hungry" was perhaps the mot juste for him;
but - hungry for what? He looked as if he had little appetite for
anything. I was sorry for him; and Rothenstein, though he had not
invited him to Chelsea, did ask him to sit down and have something to
drink.

Seated, he was more self-assertive. He flung back the wings of his
cape with a gesture which, had not those wings been waterproof, might
have seemed to hurl defiance at things in general. And he ordered an
absinthe. "Je me tiens toujours fidele," he told Rothenstein, "a la
sorciere glauque."

"It is bad for you," said Rothenstein, dryly.

"Nothing is bad for one," answered Soames. "Dans ce monde il n'y a ni
bien ni mal."

"Nothing good and nothing bad? How do you mean?"

"I explained it all in the preface to 'Negations.'"

"'Negations'?"

"Yes, I gave you a copy of it."

"Oh, yes, of course. But, did you explain, for instance, that there
was no such thing as bad or good grammar?"

"N-no," said Soames. "Of course in art there is the good and the evil.
But in life - no." He was rolling a cigarette. He had weak, white
hands, not well washed, and with finger-tips much stained with
nicotine. "In life there are illusions of good and evil, but" - his
voice trailed away to a murmur in which the words "vieux jeu" and
"rococo" were faintly audible. I think he felt he was not doing
himself justice, and feared that Rothenstein was going to point out
fallacies. Anyhow, he cleared his throat and said, "Parlons d'autre
chose."

It occurs to you that he was a fool? It didn't to me. I was young,
and had not the clarity of judgment that Rothenstein already had.
Soames was quite five or six years older than either of us. Also - he
had written a book. It was wonderful to have written a book.

If Rothenstein had not been there, I should have revered Soames. Even
as it was, I respected him. And I was very near indeed to reverence
when he said he had another book coming out soon. I asked if I might
ask what kind of book it was to be.

"My poems," he answered. Rothenstein asked if this was to be the title
of the book. The poet meditated on this suggestion, but said he rather
thought of giving the book no title at all. "If a book is good in
itself - " he murmured, and waved his cigarette.

Rothenstein objected that absence of title might be bad for the sale of
a book.

"If," he urged, "I went into a bookseller's and said simply, 'Have you
got?' or, 'Have you a copy of?' how would they know what I wanted?"

"Oh, of course I should have my name on the cover," Soames answered
earnestly. "And I rather want," he added, looking hard at Rothenstein,
"to have a drawing of myself as frontispiece." Rothenstein admitted
that this was a capital idea, and mentioned that he was going into the
country and would be there for some time. He then looked at his watch,
exclaimed at the hour, paid the waiter, and went away with me to
dinner. Soames remained at his post of fidelity to the glaucous witch.

"Why were you so determined not to draw him?" I asked.

"Draw him? Him? How can one draw a man who doesn't exist?"

"He is dim," I admitted. But my mot juste fell flat. Rothenstein
repeated that Soames was non-existent.

Still, Soames had written a book. I asked if Rothenstein had read
"Negations." He said he had looked into it, "but," he added crisply,
"I don't profess to know anything about writing." A reservation very
characteristic of the period! Painters would not then allow that any
one outside their own order had a right to any opinion about painting.
This law (graven on the tablets brought down by Whistler from the
summit of Fuji-yama) imposed certain limitations. If other arts than
painting were not utterly unintelligible to all but the men who
practiced them, the law tottered - the Monroe Doctrine, as it were, did
not hold good. Therefore no painter would offer an opinion of a book
without warning you at any rate that his opinion was worthless. No one
is a better judge of literature than Rothenstein; but it wouldn't have
done to tell him so in those days, and I knew that I must form an
unaided judgment of "Negations."

Not to buy a book of which I had met the author face to face would have
been for me in those days an impossible act of self-denial. When I
returned to Oxford for the Christmas term I had duly secured
"Negations." I used to keep it lying carelessly on the table in my
room, and whenever a friend took it up and asked what it was about, I
would say: "Oh, it's rather a remarkable book. It's by a man whom I
know." Just "what it was about" I never was able to say. Head or tail
was just what I hadn't made of that slim, green volume. I found in the
preface no clue to the labyrinth of contents, and in that labyrinth
nothing to explain the preface.


Lean near to life. Lean very near -
nearer.

Life is web and therein nor warp nor
woof is, but web only.

It is for this I am Catholick in church
and in thought, yet do let swift Mood weave
there what the shuttle of Mood wills.


These were the opening phrases of the preface, but those which followed
were less easy to understand. Then came "Stark: A Conte," about a
midinette who, so far as I could gather, murdered, or was about to
murder, a mannequin. It was rather like a story by Catulle Mendes in
which the translator had either skipped or cut out every alternate
sentence. Next, a dialogue between Pan and St. Ursula, lacking, I
rather thought, in "snap." Next, some aphorisms (entitled "Aphorismata"
[spelled in Greek]). Throughout, in fact, there was a great variety of
form, and the forms had evidently been wrought with much care. It was
rather the substance that eluded me. Was there, I wondered, any
substance at all? It did not occur to me: suppose Enoch Soames was a
fool! Up cropped a rival hypothesis: suppose _I_ was! I inclined to
give Soames the benefit of the doubt. I had read "L'Apres-midi d'un
faune" without extracting a glimmer of meaning; yet Mallarme, of
course, was a master. How was I to know that Soames wasn't another?
There was a sort of music in his prose, not indeed, arresting, but
perhaps, I thought, haunting, and laden, perhaps, with meanings as deep
as Mallarme's own. I awaited his poems with an open mind.

And I looked forward to them with positive impatience after I had had a
second meeting with him. This was on an evening in January. Going
into the aforesaid domino-room, I had passed a table at which sat a
pale man with an open book before him. He had looked from his book to
me, and I looked back over my shoulder with a vague sense that I ought
to have recognized him. I returned to pay my respects. After
exchanging a few words, I said with a glance to the open book, "I see I
am interrupting you," and was about to pass on, but, "I prefer," Soames
replied in his toneless voice, "to be interrupted," and I obeyed his
gesture that I should sit down.

I asked him if he often read here.

"Yes; things of this kind I read here," he answered, indicating the
title of his book - "The Poems of Shelley."

"Anything that you really" - and I was going to say "admire?" But I
cautiously left my sentence unfinished, and was glad that I had done
so, for he said with unwonted emphasis, "Anything second-rate."

I had read little of Shelley, but, "Of course," I murmured, "he's very
uneven."

"I should have thought evenness was just what was wrong with him. A
deadly evenness. That's why I read him here. The noise of this place
breaks the rhythm. He's tolerable here." Soames took up the book and
glanced through the pages. He laughed. Soames's laugh was a short,
single, and mirthless sound from the throat, unaccompanied by any
movement of the face or brightening of the eyes. "What a period!" he
uttered, laying the book down. And, "What a country!" he added.

I asked rather nervously if he didn't think Keats had more or less held
his own against the drawbacks of time and place. He admitted that
there were "passages in Keats," but did not specify them. Of "the
older men," as he called them, he seemed to like only Milton.
"Milton," he said, "wasn't sentimental." Also, "Milton had a dark
insight." And again, "I can always read Milton in the reading-room."

"The reading-room?"

"Of the British Museum. I go there every day."

"You do? I've only been there once. I'm afraid I found it rather a
depressing place. It - it seemed to sap one's vitality."

"It does. That's why I go there. The lower one's vitality, the more
sensitive one is to great art. I live near the museum. I have rooms
in Dyott Street."

"And you go round to the reading-room to read Milton?"

"Usually Milton." He looked at me. "It was Milton," he
certificatively added, "who converted me to diabolism."

"Diabolism? Oh, yes? Really?" said I, with that vague discomfort and
that intense desire to be polite which one feels when a man speaks of
his own religion. "You - worship the devil?"

Soames shook his head.

"It's not exactly worship," he qualified, sipping his absinthe. "It's
more a matter of trusting and encouraging."

"I see, yes. I had rather gathered from the preface to 'Negations'
that you were a - a Catholic."

"Je l'etais a cette epoque. In fact, I still am. I am a Catholic
diabolist."

But this profession he made in an almost cursory tone. I could see
that what was upmost in his mind was the fact that I had read
"Negations." His pale eyes had for the first time gleamed. I felt as
one who is about to be examined viva voce on the very subject in which
he is shakiest. I hastily asked him how soon his poems were to be
published.

"Next week," he told me.

"And are they to be published without a title?"

"No. I found a title at last. But I sha'n't tell you what it is," as
though I had been so impertinent as to inquire. "I am not sure that it
wholly satisfies me. But it is the best I can find. It suggests
something of the quality of the poems - strange growths, natural and
wild, yet exquisite," he added, "and many-hued, and full of poisons."

I asked him what he thought of Baudelaire. He uttered the snort that
was his laugh, and, "Baudelaire," he said, "was a bourgeois malgre
lui." France had had only one poet - Villon; "and two thirds of Villon
were sheer journalism." Verlaine was "an epicier malgre lui."
Altogether, rather to my surprise, he rated French literature lower
than English. There were "passages" in Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. But,
"I," he summed up, "owe nothing to France." He nodded at me. "You'll
see," he predicted.

I did not, when the time came, quite see that. I thought the author of
"Fungoids" did, unconsciously of course, owe something to the young
Parisian decadents or to the young English ones who owed something to
THEM. I still think so. The little book, bought by me in Oxford, lies
before me as I write. Its pale-gray buckram cover and silver lettering
have not worn well. Nor have its contents. Through these, with a
melancholy interest, I have again been looking. They are not much.
But at the time of their publication I had a vague suspicion that they
MIGHT be. I suppose it is my capacity for faith, not poor Soames's
work, that is weaker than it once was.


TO A YOUNG WOMAN

THOU ART, WHO HAST NOT BEEN!

Pale tunes irresolute

And traceries of old sounds

Blown from a rotted flute
Mingle with noise of cymbals rouged with rust,
Nor not strange forms and epicene

Lie bleeding in the dust,

Being wounded with wounds.

For this it is
That in thy counterpart

Of age-long mockeries
THOU HAST NOT BEEN NOR ART!


There seemed to me a certain inconsistency as between the first and
last lines of this. I tried, with bent brows, to resolve the discord.
But I did not take my failure as wholly incompatible with a meaning in
Soames's mind. Might it not rather indicate the depth of his meaning?
As for the craftsmanship, "rouged with rust" seemed to me a fine
stroke, and "nor not" instead of "and" had a curious felicity. I
wondered who the "young woman" was and what she had made of it all. I
sadly suspect that Soames could not have made more of it than she.
Yet even now, if one doesn't try to make any sense at all of the poem,
and reads it just for the sound, there is a certain grace of cadence.
Soames was an artist, in so far as he was anything, poor fellow!

It seemed to me, when first I read "Fungoids," that, oddly enough, the
diabolistic side of him was the best. Diabolism seemed to be a
cheerful, even a wholesome influence in his life.


NOCTURNE

Round and round the shutter'd Square
I strolled with the Devil's arm in mine.
No sound but the scrape of his hoofs was there
And the ring of his laughter and mine.
We had drunk black wine.

I scream'd, "I will race you, Master!"
"What matter," he shriek'd, "to-night
Which of us runs the faster?
There is nothing to fear to-night
In the foul moon's light!"

Then I look'd him in the eyes
And I laugh'd full shrill at the lie he told
And the gnawing fear he would fain disguise.
It was true, what I'd time and again been told:
He was old - old.


There was, I felt, quite a swing about that first stanza - a joyous and
rollicking note of comradeship. The second was slightly hysterical,
perhaps. But I liked the third, it was so bracingly unorthodox, even
according to the tenets of Soames's peculiar sect in the faith. Not
much "trusting and encouraging" here! Soames triumphantly exposing the
devil as a liar, and laughing "full shrill," cut a quite heartening
figure, I thought, then! Now, in the light of what befell, none of his
other poems depresses me so much as "Nocturne."

I looked out for what the metropolitan reviewers would have to say.
They seemed to fall into two classes: those who had little to say and
those who had nothing. The second class was the larger, and the words
of the first were cold; insomuch that

Strikes a note of modernity. . . . These tripping numbers. - "The
Preston Telegraph."

was the only lure offered in advertisements by Soames's publisher. I
had hoped that when next I met the poet I could congratulate him on
having made a stir, for I fancied he was not so sure of his intrinsic
greatness as he seemed. I was but able to say, rather coarsely, when
next I did see him, that I hoped "Fungoids" was "selling splendidly."
He looked at me across his glass of absinthe and asked if I had bought
a copy. His publisher had told him that three had been sold. I
laughed, as at a jest.

"You don't suppose I CARE, do you?" he said, with something like a
snarl. I disclaimed the notion. He added that he was not a tradesman.
I said mildly that I wasn't, either, and murmured that an artist who
gave truly new and great things to the world had always to wait long
for recognition. He said he cared not a sou for recognition. I agreed
that the act of creation was its own reward.

His moroseness might have alienated me if I had regarded myself as a
nobody. But ah! hadn't both John Lane and Aubrey Beardsley suggested
that I should write an essay for the great new venture that was
afoot - "The Yellow Book"? And hadn't Henry Harland, as editor,
accepted my essay? And wasn't it to be in the very first number? At
Oxford I was still in statu pupillari. In London I regarded myself as
very much indeed a graduate now - one whom no Soames could ruffle.
Partly to show off, partly in sheer good-will, I told Soames he ought
to contribute to "The Yellow Book." He uttered from the throat a sound
of scorn for that publication.

Nevertheless, I did, a day or two later, tentatively ask Harland if he
knew anything of the work of a man called Enoch Soames. Harland paused
in the midst of his characteristic stride around the room, threw up his
hands toward the ceiling, and groaned aloud: he had often met "that
absurd creature" in Paris, and this very morning had received some
poems in manuscript from him.

"Has he NO talent?" I asked.

"He has an income. He's all right." Harland was the most joyous of
men and most generous of critics, and he hated to talk of anything
about which he couldn't be enthusiastic. So I dropped the subject of
Soames. The news that Soames had an income did take the edge off
solicitude. I learned afterward that he was the son of an unsuccessful
and deceased bookseller in Preston, but had inherited an annuity of
three hundred pounds from a married aunt, and had no surviving
relatives of any kind. Materially, then, he was "all right." But there
was still a spiritual pathos about him, sharpened for me now by the
possibility that even the praises of "The Preston Telegraph" might not
have been forthcoming had he not been the son of a Preston man He had a
sort of weak doggedness which I could not but admire. Neither he nor
his work received the slightest encouragement; but he persisted in
behaving as a personage: always he kept his dingy little flag flying.
Wherever congregated the jeunes feroces of the arts, in whatever Soho
restaurant they had just discovered, in whatever music-hall they were
most frequently, there was Soames in the midst of them, or, rather, on
the fringe of them, a dim, but inevitable, figure. He never sought to
propitiate his fellow-writers, never bated a jot of his arrogance about
his own work or of his contempt for theirs. To the painters he was
respectful, even humble; but for the poets and prosaists of "The Yellow
Book" and later of "The Savoy" he had never a word but of scorn. He
wasn't resented. It didn't occur to anybody that he or his Catholic
diabolism mattered. When, in the autumn of '96, he brought out (at his
own expense, this time) a third book, his last book, nobody said a word
for or against it. I meant, but forgot, to buy it. I never saw it,
and am ashamed to say I don't even remember what it was called. But I
did, at the time of its publication, say to Rothenstein that I thought
poor old Soames was really a rather tragic figure, and that I believed
he would literally die for want of recognition. Rothenstein scoffed.


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