IN “Frazer’s Magazine” of November, 1866, may be found the following:
“Wherever there is any kind of true genius, we have no right to drive it mad by ridicule or invective; we must deal with it wisely, justly, fairly. Some of these passages which have been selected as evidence of (the poet’s) plain speaking, have been wantonly misunderstood. The volume, as a whole, is neither profane nor indecent. A little more clothing in our uncertain climate might perhaps have been attended with advantage… To us this volume, for the first time, conclusively settles that Mr.— is not a mere brilliant rhetorician or melodious twanger of another man’s lyre, but authentically a poet.”
So writes the critic. The name I have omitted is that of the last of the great Victorian poets, Algernon Charles Swinburne. In the dying glory of this last great singer of the nineteenth century, the deepening twilight shows but few rising stars; alone perhaps amid the younger generation of poets – alas, how many and yet how few – Aleister Crowley stands forth with no little of the glory of the great Victorian cast o’er him; enhancing our pleasures, and enchanting our senses. The Sun kisses the Moon, and through the diaphanous veil of the vestal is seen the subtle contour of her form. But no vestal is Crowley, no mere milk-and-bun-walk, where we may rest and take our fill; for he has unstrung the mystic lyre of life from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and of Evil, singing old songs and new, flinging shrill notes of satire to this tumultuous world, as some stormy petrel shrilly crying to the storm; or sweet notes of love, soft as the whispering wings of a butterfly.
Here are the jewels of Heaven, of Havilah, and of Eden, with not a little of the fire of Hell, the flames of Gehenna, and the darkness of Dûat. If we look for pyramids and colossi disappointment will be our lot; we cannot hold, as Hanuman of Ind, a mountain in one hand and a forest in the other, neither can we gaze on a celestial Meru or Olympus; but as we look, and here it is only the searcher who is rewarded, we find a little jewel, then another, and still another, till, as we grasp them, their very light is caught by their unfound fellows, and our path is lit as a fairy dell by a thousand wonders of light and of beauty.
“A little more clothing,” the critic writes, as he perused the “Poems and Ballads,” perhaps, yet we do not feel its need in the glowing works before us. Forty long years have passed, and the world moves. Crowley fairly puts his characters to bed, tucks them up, and does not blow the candle out with cryptic Morse-like dot and dash, leaving the imagination to wallow in the dark, intelligible to the baby-mind of sucklings, and we admire him all the more for not doing so; his undraped virginity is delightful, and if his maidens lack vestments and his matrons mantles, it is a hearty sight, a robust sight, it flushes the drains of our mind, and discloses a heart lying beneath all the conventional tweeds and silks of our sleek respectability. The stale odour of Mrs. Grundy’s petticoats vanishes, neither is it replaced by the patchouli of Thais, nor the musk of Aspasia; and if the aroma of a little human sweat does salute our nostrils, it is at least a healthy human smell – an odour of sanctity – infinitely preferable to all the ancient pot-pourri of Philistia, that young and old ladies are alike so fond of distributing among their pretty speeches, as well as their pretty garments.
“Is life, then, to resolve itself for us into a chain of exhilarating pangs?” asked Pallas, in Mr. Gosse’s “Hypolympia,” in answer to the query of Æsculapius, “What is pleasure?” We see the mortal form of the immortal healer climbing along the jutting cornice of some cliff, in search for the simples of life; and as the zephyrs waft his long ashen locks around his furrowed brow, his trembling hand clutches some rugged crag, more perhaps from joy than fear. And so, as we now open the works of Aleister Crowley, we are filled with an exhilarating chain of pangs; mortal-like we are never sated, and as our lips taste the nectar of true poetry we tremblingly clutch the crags of Parnassus in search for the Asphodel of Love, Wisdom, and Beauty. Here, as we turn some beetling height, the dying rays of the Swinburnian sun sink, those rays that ruffled the vestal purity of the clouds to the rosy blush of a lover’s kiss, and in the departing light we again find the mystic Trinity midst the hellebore and thistles of existence, enthroned, eternal. The sun sinks, and the last notes of the nightingale die into the stillness of falling night. The emerald sky like the robe of some car-borne Astarté, slashed with an infinite orange and red, fades into the sombre garment of night; and above silently breaks a primal sea gemmed with all the colours of the opal, deepening into a limitless amethyst, darkens, and the sun goes out. The spangled pall of Night is drawn, and the lull of death is o’er us; but no, hark! the distant boom of a beetle is carried across the still glowing welkin, it is the signal drum announcing the marriage of Night and Day. The crescent moon rises, diaphanous and fair, and the world wakes to a chant:
I bring ye wine from above,
From the vats of the storied sun;
For every one of ye love,
And life for every one.
Ye shall dance on hill and level;
Ye shall sing in hollows and height
In the festal mystical revel,
The rapturous Bacchanal rite!
The rocks and trees are yours,
And the waters under the hill,
By the might of that which endures,
The holy heaven of will!
I kindle a flame like a torrent
To rush from star to star;
Your hair as a comet’s horrent,
Ye shall see things as they are!
I lift the mask of matter;
I open the heart of man;
For I am of force to shatter
The cast that hideth – Pan!
Your loves shall lap up slaughter,
And dabbled with roses of blood
Each desperate darling daughter
Shall swim in the fervid flood.
I bring ye laughter and tears,
The kisses that foam and bleed,
The joys of a million years,
The flowers that bear no seed.
My life is bitter and sterile,
Its flame is a wandering star.
Ye shall pass in pleasure and peril
Across the mystical bar
That is set for wrath and weeping
Against the children of earth;
But ye in singing and sleeping
Shall pass in measure and mirth!
I lift my wand and wave you
Through hill to hill of delight;
My rosy rivers lave you
In innermost lustral light.
I lead you, lord of the maze,
In the darkness free of the sun;
In spite of the spite that is day’s,
We are wed, we are wild, we are one!*
* Orpheus, vol. iii, p. 207.