ON surveying the works of Aleister Crowley the two essential facts that grip our understanding are: firstly, the superabundance of his genius; and secondly, the diversity of his form. “My womb is pregnant with mad moons and suns,”1 he writes, and though we could hardly agree to endow so virile a master with so feminine an organ, yet we can attribute something very like it to his brain. Pregnant it certainly is, and more, being already the mother of a large family, a family as diverse as the offspring of Uranus, father of the Gods, born to him by Earth, earthy and celestial. Sweet lyrics are crushed cheek by jowl with the most corrosive satire, sonorous heroics and blank verse at times merge into the most raucous of Hudibrasian doggerel, rimes of the sweetest and the most perverse character ring in our astonished ear, tragedy and farce, ever extremes: Paul and Virginie sitting on the knees of Pantagruel, blowing kisses through the Sephirotic circle of eternity. At times we listen to the yearning hopes of a Paracelsus, or the noble words of a Tannhäuser; at times warm arms are flung around us, and the hot kisses of some Messaline suffocate our very breath, leading us into the mansions of a de Sade and through the gardens of an Aretino, horrid with the frenzy of Eros. Or, again, we are treading with the sages of philosophy, or ‘midst the stars in search of the Psyche of events; dreams almost monstrous in their intensity seize our troubled brain, deep problems of psychology, of sex, of the carnal, of the pathic, and of evil, all inter-webbed and woven with the eternal filament of good. And so if we read this strange poet aright, we shall see as we progress onwards, that he has struck a sonorous note from the rim of Time, fulfilled of the knowledge of good and evil, sweet to the ears of those who are born children by the daughters of men to the sons of God, sweet as that mystic fruit was to the lips of Eve, daughter of God, child of the mystic Man. But we must speed on, taking in this chapter swift glances at the magnificent scenery that these volumes offer up to us, plucking the lilies of spring and the roses of summer, and weave them into a laureate wreath with the fiery leaves of the dying year.
Poe, in that little masterpiece of his, “The Poetic Principle,” lays down that the value of a poem lies in the ratio of its elevating excitement, the excitement being the power it has in elevating the soul. And here we think, were Poe still living, he would have found no small part of his ideal realized. By soul we naturally do not mean a haloed fowl strumming dithyrambs on a harp, or the mere döppelganger of the living; but that inner power of good and evil which lies latent in self, controlled by that intuitive consciousness within us, and manifested in our appetites and desires; this intangible soul aspiring upwards is called Virtue, sinking downwards Vice; finding infinity in the conceptions of nether and upper, heaven and hell, paradise and gehenna; and finality on earth – its sporting ground. Further Poe states: that an epic was of itself a nullity, and that a poem of great length, commencing as it might in exaltation, ended in nine cases out of ten in somnolence. Poetry must stimulate, it must irritate the soul in some definite manner, or else it ceases to be poetry. For when once poetry exerts a soporific power its whole object is lost, and, as a flash of lightning, it must he vivid, bright, flaming for a moment, awful, eloquent, rushing from the darkness of night through the flashing elements of day into the silence of eternity.
And this is exactly the poetry we here find. No poems are of any great length, no poems here contain a labour on the part of the reader to attain the end,2 though in some places the labours of Hercules seem insignificant compared with the labours of mental unknotting, but even in such places (where the sense becomes tangled in the reader’s mind)’ he loses none of the beauty of rime and rhythm, he never becomes bored, never weary. Set in the pure gold of verse and line, lie lyrics of surpassing beauty: Tannhäuser (the longest of the poems) would be a magnificent contemplation even if we cut from it its sparkling songs, but with them it becomes superb, neither are there too many; the queen of our poet’s ideals is no gilded prostitute, no Theodora hung with a myriad flashing jewels, but rather some chaste priestess carrying on her breast the mystic symbol of Isis, whose belt is a jewelled Zodiac, and in whose hand is the eternal Ankh.
This interspersing of lyrics has been carried to a charming intensity of expression and their effect on the mind is one full of joy, no cloying, no surfeit, no repletion; the variety of the dishes is extraordinary in delicacy and piquancy as well as in number.
The morals of a nation can with fair accuracy be gauged from the condition of its arts and literature, and in what a state are ours? Our music the jangling ditties of the streets, our paintings, posters and bedizened Jewesses; and our literature, heroically vulgar, vulgarly obscene, and obscenely insipid. Morals, the nation has none, merely a better art in disguising than in former times, that is all. We no longer can produce a Swift, a Congreve, or a Dryden, a Smollett, a Lever, or a Sterne, and yet our writers are legion – and as feculent as the flabby prostitutes of the street. The facetiae of the fifteenth century, “Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles,” “The Decameron,” “The Heptameron,” “The Nights of Straparola,” “Brantôme,” etc., etc., are not only masterpieces for all time, but are pure, even chaste, compared with the virginal lusts that are becoming so fashionable in our modern literature, whose maidens are Lesbians, and whose heroes are satyrs. Europa is no longer satisfied with her bull, but seeks an ichor-maddened elephant; Leda disdains her swan, and burns for a straddling ostrich; the goat of lechery sits enthroned o’er us, and is fast coupling with the mind of the nation, and spawning offspring effeminate, lustful, and degenerate. Tribades with their evil-smelling kisses swarm over our pages, heroines are no longer satisfied with mere men, but must strain to their breasts legless monsters; whilst a hero will listen to his loved one snorting in the arms of some lusty Păthān. Such literature is revolting, not in its mere descriptions, for these are nothing to the student, being generally but poorly described realities, but they are horrible when strewn broadcast among the children of the nation. We still have our Bible and need no more erotica. Filth has been defined as matter out of place, and so is this pathic literature, relegated to the realms of sexual psychology in the works of an Ellis or an Ebing is one thing, yet the government of this nation cannot stomach them thus, and seizes, expels, and burns; but if these horrid sores of the human soul are cut out and plastered on the pages of the fickle fiction of the day, then are they passed in seductive covers as proper nourishment for the nation; and devoured with relish and avidity. One minute, impatient reader, for I hear you mutter: “Are not these very aberrations set forth with no mean lustre on the pages of the works of Aleister Crowley?” Listen. Have any of Crowley’s works been printed pueris virginibusque? Are they intended for the gaping public? Are they devoured by mental babes and sucklings, or worse, forcibly crammed down their throats in simple or other forms? I think not. To some it may seem curious that these poems are published by a society called “The Society for the Propagation of Religious Truth.” By whom is the Bible published? Is it not also a religious society, and is the Bible immaculate? Was it not Sir Richard Burton, the greatest of Orientalists, who resolved in case the rabid pornophobic suggestions of certain ornaments of the home press were acted upon, to appear in court with the Bible and Shakespeare under one arm, and Petronius Arbiter and Rabelais under the other? And I remember a certain sentence – characteristic of the man – he was describing those people who are unable to read crude texts, arid needs must have them bowdlerized and expurgated, lest they fall into a priapic frenzy: “The man must be prurient and lecherous as a dog-faced baboon in rut to have aught of passion excited by either.”
This is all true enough; but I must call a halt. I had not intended here to write a series of apologetics, for I leave that to the poet and his pen, who can well look after themselves; but what I wished to point out was the deplorable state into which our literature has fallen. Its ever increasing demand for sensation has been its destruction; everyone now is a mental Trimalchio whose appetite has to be awakened by the most piquant and fantastic of dishes. Scott, Dickens, and Thackeray are still (I believe) read by an ever decreasing number of school-girls; Flaubert, Gautier and Balzac – who would have shocked the youthful years of our parents – have become dull and tedious; a few cranks praise Tourgenief, Tolstoi and Gorky, whilst one out of every hundred thousand may know that there was such a man as Dostoieffsky. And poetry, O greatest of the Muses, thy fate is truly a sad one! Much verse is produced which might be placed with last year’s store lists – you know where; some is distinctly good, but it is soon lost in the raging sea of poetic dialect, and hackneyed naïveté. Here and there we come across a charming lyric, which the carping whisky-and-water critic will at once demolish as weak, troubled, vague, etc., etc. Not long ago my eyes lit on the following which I considered a charming verse from a poetic point of view, if not from that of a morbid anatomist:
Look down into the river. Can you see
The mingled images the water shows?
So lies my soul in yours. As close as lie
The folded petals in an unblown rose.
Yet the little thing who “stinks and stings” was not satisfied, the second metaphor actually weakened the effect of the first, etc., etc. With such have poets to contend, but I do not think such homunculi worry Aleister Crowley much. His poetry is his own, and he gives it us as it is written without respect of persons or opinions, for his masters have been the greatest of our race.
In these poems we find a certain preponderance of Swinburne, Blake, Browning, Keats, Shelley, and Rossetti. In the dedication to “Jephthah,” which is addressed to Algernon Charles Swinburne, we read the following:
As streams get water of the sun-smit sea,
Seeking my ocean and my sun in thee.3
And this discipleship to the greatest and last of the Victorian poets has given us many a subtle and enthralling line. The scene when Charicles wakes and catches Archais to his breast is worthy of the bard who sang of “Tristram and Iseult.” It is as follows:
He sprang, he caught her to his breast; the maid
Smiled and lay back to look at him. He laid
Her tender body on the sloping field,
And felt her sighs in his embraces yield
A sweeter music than all birds. But she,
Lost in the love she might not know, may see
No further than his face, and yet, aware
Of her own fate, resisted like a snare.
Her own soft wishes. As she looked and saw
His eager face, the iron rod of law
Grew like a misty pillar in the sky.
In all her veins the blood’s desires die,
And then – O sudden ardour! – all her mind
And memory faded, and looked outward, blind,
Beyond their bitterness. Her arms she flung
Around him, and with amorous lips and tongue
Tortured his palate with extreme desire,
And like a Mænad maddened; equal fire
Leapt in his veins; locked close for love they lie,
The heart’s dumb word exprest without a sigh
In the strong magic of a lover’s kiss.4
These superb lines, like those of Swinburne, are in reality a series of brilliant lyrical illustrations depicting the story in measures of divine song. More we find in this same poem, and in others also; the following fine sonnet entitled “The Summit of the Amorous Mountain,” is distinctly Swinburnian; I give it in its entirety:
To love you, Love, is all my happiness;
To kill you with my kisses; to devour
Your whole ripe beauty in the perfect hour
That mingles us in one supreme caress;
To drink the purple of your thighs; to press
Your beating bosom like a living flower;
To die in your embraces, in the shower
That dews like death your swooning loveliness.
To know you love me; that your body leaps
With the quick passion of your soul; to know
Your fragrant kisses sting my spirit so;
To be one soul where Satan smiles and sleeps—
Ah! in the very triumph-hour of Hell
Satan himself remembers whence he fell!5
Again, such lines as these from the “Triumph of Man”:
And all the earth is blasted; the green sward
Burns where it touches, and the barren sod
Rejects the poison of the blood of God.
To tread base thoughts as our high thoughts have trod,
Deep in the dust, the carrion that was God;6
remind us strongly of such pieces as “Before a Crucifix,” whilst others take us into the mystic and simple land of Blake, such as the duet of Charicles and Archais:
Hush! the music swells apace,
Rolls its silver billows up
Through the void demesne of space
To the heavens’ azure cup!
Hush, my love, and sleep shall sigh
This is immortality!7
Other lines again hold us enthralled with the extraordinary power they contain, expressed in a single word. Thus in the poem “The Lesbian Hell,” we find ourselves in the unutterable void of Orcus, where kisses are flung in vain, and where around us pale women fleet:
Whose empty fruitlessness assails the night
With hollow repercussion, like dim tombs
Wherein some vampire glooms.8
This last line is one of the most expressive ever written by Crowley, and in the last word “glooms” is concentrated more than terror or fear, a brooding unnameable horror, comparable to the word “crowd” that Blake makes use of in his “Mad Song”:
Like a fiend in a cloud.
With howling woe
After night I do crowd
And with night will go.
Both poets have chosen here not the only word that could be chosen, but the only word that would in the above poems express the maximum amount, of horror in the one case; and of desire in the other.
Very different from Blake do we find such a poem as “Vespers,” which, though differing in rime, in cadence and spirit; is reminiscent of Rossetti’s “Blessed Damozel”:
Still in those avenues of light,
No maid, with golden zone,
And lily garment that from sight
Half hides the ivory throne,
Lay in my arms the livelong night
To call my soul her own.9
Whilst parts of the poem “Messaline” with which “Alice” opens remind us of poor “Jenny.”
Tennyson, if we are to judge from the introduction to “Alice,” does not seem to hold a very high position in the opinion of Aleister Crowley. “He is a neurasthenic counter-jumper” certainly would not have pleased Poe, who regarded him as the noblest poet that ever lived. Nevertheless we find traces of the great laureate’s work in these poems, such as the idea contained in the following verse of “De Profundis”:
I have dreamed life a circle or a line,
Called God, and Fate, and Chance, and Man, divine.
I know not all I say, but through it all
Mark the dim hint of ultimate sunshine!10
which is almost identical with that in Canto LIV of “In Memoriam.” A poem written in the metre of Tennyson’s most famous work, yet differing in cadence, is “The Blood Lotus.”
Quaint carven vampire bats, unseen in curious hollows of the trees,
Or deadlier serpents coiled at ease round carcases of birds unclean;
All wandering changeful spectre shapes that dance in slow sweet measure round
And merge themselves in the profound, nude women and distorted apes
Grotesque and hairy, in their rage more rampant than the stallion steed;
There is no help: their horrid need on these pale women they assuage.11
Another poem that in parts reminds us of the “In Memoriam” is “The Nameless Quest,” such lines as:
I was wed
Unto the part, and could not grasp the whole.12
breathe a great and similar doubt. As in many respects the agnosticism of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” resembles the atheistic free thought of FitzGerald’s “Omar Khayyám,” so do both the above-mentioned poems, and the first is of similar metre, its quatrains containing, as those of the poet of Khorassán, flights of great power of thought; the following five quatrains are well worth quoting:
We weep them as they slip away; we gaze
Back on the likeness of the former days—
The hair we fondle and the lips we kiss—
Roses grow yellow and no purple stays.
Why not with time? To-morrow we may see
The circle ended – if to-morrow be—
And gaze on chaos, and a week bring back
Adam and Eve beneath the apple tree.
Join’st thou thy feeble hands in foolish prayer
To him thy brain hath moulded and set there
In thy brain’s heaven? Such a god replies
As thy fears move, So men pray everywhere.
God did first work in earth when womankind
He chipped from Adam’s rib – a thankless task
I wot His wisdom has long since repined.
When I am dead remember me for this
That I bade workers work, and lovers kiss;
Laughed with the Stoic at the dream of pain,
And preached with Jesus the evangel–bliss.13
Whilst such lines as the following in the second poem also remind us of the astronomer poet:
O thou, zelator of this Paradise,
Tell thou the secret of’ the pillar! None
Can hear thee, of the souls beneath the sun.
Speak! or the very Godhead in thee dies.
For we are many, and thy name is One.14
Before we leave the glowing east, one more curious similarity still strikes us, it is that though in so many ways the ideas of Aleister Crowley are akin to those of Omar Khayyám, yet his fertile imagination also engenders flights as spiritual as those contained in the melodious ghazals of Jeláladdín. In more than one place we come across lines similar to these in Tannhäuser:
I say, then, “I;” and yet it is not “I”
Distinct, but “I” incorporate in All.
I am the Resurrection and the Life!
The work is finished, and the Night rolled back!
I am the rising Sun of Life and Light,
The Glory of the Shining of the Dawn!
I am Osiris! I the Lord of Life
Triumphant over death—
O Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow of the World!15
That such similarities as we have pointed out above show Aleister Crowley to be a copyist, must be far from the minds of all his readers. Youth most certainly tends towards certain ideals, and frequently results in a definite hero-worship; but genius cannot be bound for long; it will eventually find its own level. The mere fact that certain forms of thought and modes of expression occur here as they have occurred elsewhere, should he as a literary barometer, enabling us to judge the mental standard of the writer. All great writers will have many points in common. It is more than probable that Aleister Crowley had already read most of Shakespeare before he wrote “The Mother’s Tragedy,” and yet, because of this we should not necessarily say that the following magnificent lines were due to the influence of the great master, notwithstanding the fact that they are in many respects equal to much of his best:
Your breath, that burns upon me, wraps me round
With whirling passion, pierces through my veins
With its unhallowed fire, constrains, compels,
Drags out the corpse of twenty years ago
From the untrusty coffin of my mind,
To poison, to corrupt, to strike you there
Blind with its horror.16
Many other pieces are almost equally grand, the last speech of Tannhäuser to Heinrich is truly magnificent:
My life was borne on the dark stream of death
Down whirling aeons, linked abysses, columns
Built of essential time…17
In “The Violet’s Love Story,”18 or in “Dora,”19 we have as simple a poem as could be written, and in one of the verses of a chorus in “Jephthah,” beginning “There flashes the heart of a rose,”20 one of the most mystical. Here is a furious inspiration in blank verse (the prophet in “Jephthah” speaks):
Ha! The rose has washed its petals, and the blood
Pours through its burning centre from my heart.
The fire consumes the light; the rosy flame
Leaps through the veins of blue, and tinges them
With such a purple as incarnadines
The western sky when storms are amorous
And lie upon the breast of toiling ocean,
Such billows to beget as earth devours
in ravening whirlpool gulphs. My veins are full,
Throbbing with fire more potent than all wine,
All sting of fleshly pangs and pleasures. Oh!
The god is fast upon my back; he rides
My spirit like a stallion; for I hate
The awful thong his hand is heavy with.21
Again, in “The Nameless Quest”:
Then surged the maddening tide
Of my intention. Onward! Let me run!
Thy steed, O Moon! Thy chariot, O Sun!
Lend me fierce feet, winged sandals, wings as wide
As thine, O East wind! And the goal is won!22
Little, if any, poetry of a truly epic nature can we find; the nearest is the song of Tannhäuser, somewhat of a prophecy, somewhat of an anthem:
I rose within the elemental ball,
And lo! the Ancient One of Days did sit!
His head and hair were white as wool. His eyes A flaming fire: and from the splendid mouth Flashed the Eternal Sword!
Lo! Lying at his feet as dead, I saw
The leaping-forth of Law:
Division of the North wind and the South,
The lightning of the armies of the Lord;
East rolled asunder from the rended West;
Height clove the depth; the Voice begotten said:
“Divided be thy ways and limited!”
Answered the reflux and the indrawn breath:
“Let there be Life, and Death!”23
Worthy of the author of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell!”
“Let there be Life and Death,” and the link between these two is Love. Here we will give but one or two curious examples, dealing with the great songs of love in the next chapter. As a singer of love-songs Aleister Crowley excels. The following is from “The Star and the Garter”:
Your lips are gathered up to mine;
Your bosom heaves with fearful breath;
Your scent is keen as floral wine,
Inviting me, and love, to death.24
Also the following is charming in its simplicity:
She has a lithe white body, slim
And limber, fairy-like, a snake
Hissing some Babylonian hymn
Tangled in the Assyrian brake.25
A curious Swinburnian strain of passion is found wedged in the satiric lines of “Why Jesus Wept.” Percy, the youth flatulent with love, chants to his Angela — society — thus:
To me she is
The rosy incarnation of a kiss,
The royal rapture of a young delight,
The mazy music of virginity,
Sun of the day, moon of the night,
All, all to me!26
Love, love, these raptures are like springtide rain
Nestling among green leaves.27
One more example of the diversity of Crowley’s pen, before we deal with his place in the history of poetry. In the “God-Eater” we come across a most weird form of poetic imagination in the chants of Rupha — the hag of Eternity:
That is the omen.
Fear not the foemen! [She rises up.
Mine is the spoil
Of the grimly toil.
Ah! but I laugh.
He is but a fool.
He has lost!
He is lost!
Take the staff!
Trace the rule
Of the circle crossed!28
We have now seen, more or less, some of the chief influences which have exerted their sway over our poet’s mind; and I think we have shown him to be a worthy pupil of the great masters we have had occasion to name. Now that I have pointed out these certain influences, illustrating them by means of a few quotations, I intend to enter more into the history of his poetry and also the place it fills in the history of English poetry generally. This is not altogether an easy matter. Firstly, in selecting distinctive specimens it is difficult not to help being guided by individual taste; secondly, the labour of sorting the finest out of the fine is a work which needs no small powers of application; and thirdly, how often may not the individual selector be wrong in his choice? But this latter difficulty is easily overcome by the reader, who has only to pick and choose for himself; the work of an appreciative essayist being merely that of producing a characteristic display of what he considers the most attractive wares. It is not intended here in any way to assume immaculacy for our author, far from it, for faults are to be found here as in every other work, great or small, false rime and metre, half a step left out here and there, sometimes a whole one: but taking these poems as a whole, these lapses are remarkably few, and it must also be borne in mind that in nearly every case they are intentional lapses from the orthodox rules of poetic cadence and metre. One command Crowley alone obeys, and that is: that all verse — rime, rhythm, and metre — to be considered as poetry, must be musical.29 Without music there can be no poetry, at best but a kind of poetic prose as found in the Prophetic Books of Blake, and in the works of Walt Whitman. Yet in Blake, I think, we do find many consistent irregularities, which have been entirely misunderstood by many of his editors and critics. However, it was not till Swinburne loomed athwart the conscious regularity of the Tennysonian era, a poetic pre-Raphaelite, that, strictly speaking, a conscious and musical irregularity became admissible, wedging its way in, and splitting up the metrical structure of perfect scansion.
In “Atalanta in Calydon” we find a further breaking away from the dramatic formalities inaugurated during the post-restoration era: Swinburne seeking a more perfect model in the old Tragedies of Greece. This had already been partially carried out by Keats, who definitely broke away from the Miltonic style of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and was more than half completed by his contemporary, Shelley. But it was not till Swinburne himself seized the finely-strung lyre of the unconsciously irregular author of “Prometheus,” and attuned it to the rustle of Blake’s angel-winged voice, that it can be said that a certain system of irregularities in metre became admissible in the formal court of poetry.
As the Rossetti brotherhood of painters returned to the stiff and simple elegance as displayed in the “Primavera” of Botticelli, so did Swinburne go back to the simple beauty of Greek tragedy as depicted in Euripides.30 Crowley does the same, as we see in “The Tale of Archais,” also in “The Mother’s Tragedy” and “The Fatal Force”; but in these two latter dramas with this important difference, that instead of applying Greek style to Greek scenery, he applies it to a totally different end, namely to the expression of modern surroundings, or to his own intrinsic ideas, as in the last-named play, which, even more so than in “The Mother’s Tragedy” is, as we shall see later on, a subtle discount on present-day morality.
What Beardsley and Whistler did for art, Crowley is now doing for poetry. Beardsley, especially, succeeded Rossetti just as Crowley is now superseding Swinburne. A poetic iconoclast to the very backbone, we find Crowley, especially in his later works, breaking away from every poetic convention and restraint. At first it makes itself apparent in “The Star and the Garter,” which was unwound from that same tangled skein from out of which Browning had ravelled “Fifine,” and then, in the full power of manhood, in “Why Jesus Wept”; which one day will find its historic niche in the temple of Poetry, somewhere between the “Hudibras” of Butler and the “Endymion” of Keats.
Though Crowley, as can be clearly seen throughout his works, is not only a great admirer but also a disciple of Browning’s, he nevertheless vigorously attacks that great master’s cacophony and wilful obscurity of meaning, in that eccentric curiosity of diction “The Sword of Song,” in which our ears are assailed by the most monstrous diversity of noises, following in a rapid and dazzling succession till the ideas engendered in our brains are sporting in an outburst of mental leap-frog. The following are a few:
“Fleas kill us” with “Aeschylus” “Trough hock lees” " “Sophocles” “Globule us” " “Aristobulus”31
And here is a good example:
Let me help Babu Chander Grish up!
As by a posset of Hunyadi
Clear mind! Was Soudan of the Mahdi
Not cleared by Kitchener? Ah, Tchhup!
Such nonsense for sound truth you dish up,
Were I magician, no mere cadi,
Not Samuel’s ghost you’d make me wish up,
Nor Saul’s (the mighty son of Kish) up,
But Ingersoll’s or Bradlaugh’s, pardie!
By spells and cauldron stews that squish up,
Or purifying of the Nadi,
Till Stradivarius or Amati
Shriek in my stomach! Sarasate,
Such strains! Such music as once Sadi
Made Persia ring with! I who fish up
No such from soul may yet cry: Vade
Retro Satanas! Tom Bond Bishop!32
We have mentioned “Why Jesus Wept” as one of the most irregular of Crowley’s poems, yet its irregularities are regularly irregular throughout, bearing a similar relationship to a true poem like “Rosa Mundi” that a comic song would to a great oratorio. “Why Jesus Wept” is a satiric farce, “Rosa Mundi” a great love anthem, almost we might say a Wagnerian opera in rime, and comparable in many respects in its continuous though irregular symphony to the “Lycidas” of Milton. Yet, nevertheless, “Why Jesus Wept” is the more characteristic of the two, and certainly the most iconoclastic of any.
In “Orpheus,” Books I and II, we find a poetic regularity almost strictly adhered to, not so, however, in Book III, and in “The Argonauts.” But it is not till we get to “Rodin in Rime” that we find practically every sonnet and quatorzain possessing some infringement of the orthodox rules of poetry; yet it cannot be said that these poems, chiefly in iambic verse broken by the occasional introduction of another foot, usually an anapaest, read unmusically on account of its presence. Take for instance:
Cloistral seclusion of the galleried pines
Is mine to-day: these groves are fit for Pan—
O rich with Bacchic frenzy, and his wine’s
Atonement for the infinite woe of man!33
Here “cloistral” is a spondee; “eried pines,” an (imperfect) anapaest; and so on.
Again in “La Fortune”:
“Hail, Tyche! From the Amalthean horn
Pour forth the store of love! I lowly bend
Before thee: I invoke thee at the end
When other gods are fallen and put to scorn.
Thy foot is to my lips; my sighs unborn
Rise, touch and curl about thy heart; they spend
Pitiful love. Lovelier pity, descend
And bring me luck who am lonely and forlorn.”34
Here “piti” is a trochee; “lovelier,” a spondee; “pity,” a trochee. The whole metre breaks up, as if the singer’s heart burst in despair.
Whilst in “Bouches d’Enfer” we find such lines as:
From the long-held leash! The headlong, hot-mouthed girl,35
in which, as we read, we feel a veritable stretching of the mental leather, as it were; our minds being held back a space by the introduction of the word “long.” This quatorzain ends:
Of smouldering infamy. Bow down in awe!
It is enough. The Gods are at feast. Withdraw!36
Again the same mental stress.
All the above are contrary to the rules of scansion, yet nevertheless they are musical. And though in “Rodin in Rime” perhaps Crowley slightly overdoes this introduction of irregular lines, yet they add a great charm, as they do in many of his other poems, producing in their lingering pause or quick jump an ecstatic spasm, if we may so call it, which renders so many of these poems unique. Such as in “Styx” we find:
The fourth, to draw her kisses and to keep;
The fifth, for love; the sixth, in sweet despair;
The seventh, to destroy us unaware;
The eighth, to dive within the infernal deep.37
“In” would scan better; but by replacing it by “within” we can feel the dark waters close over us as we are borne down their unfathomable depths. Similarly in the following:
Aching with all the pangs of night
My shuddering body swoons; my eyes
Absorb her eyelids’ lazy light,
And read her bosom…38
The extra h…-step in “shuddering” in place of discordantly jarring on the metre produces a keener sense of agony in the reader’s mind than a word which scanned correctly would do.
In the next passage, taken from “Tannhäuser,” we find the introduction of a spondee carrying with it a curious sensation of slowness:
Chaos, a speck; and space, a span;
Ruinous cycles fallen in,
And Darkness on the Deep of Time.
Murmurous voices call and climb;
Faces, half-formed, arise; and He
Looked from the shadow of His throne,
The curtain of Eternity;39
whilst in the last verse of “The Palace of the World” the sudden dropping of a whole foot produces with it a sudden sense of finality:
Thine be the kingdom! Thine the power!
The glory triply thine!
Thine, through Eternity’s swift hour,
Eternity, thy shrine—
Yea, by the holy lotus-flower,
Further on in the same series of poems a sudden whirring sense of madness is produced by introducing the word “lunatic” into an otherwise regular line:
Silence, deep silence. Not a shudder stirs
The vast demesne of unforgetful space,
No comet’s lunatic rush: no meteor whirs,
No star dares breathe…41
Again, in such lines as:
Secure the sacred fastness of the soul,
Uniting self to the absolute, the whole,42
our ears tell us at once that the extra half-step is intentionally introduced. Whilst in such a line as:
And loving servant of my lady and lord,43
they do not. The “y” in lady might by some be considered an admissible elision with the “and.” But I myself should not pass it, though in the following I should:
Many the spirits broken for one man;
Many the men that perish to create
One God the more; many the weary and wan44
In the last line of the succeeding verse the metre (I should say) is not unimpeachable:
Lower, an ocean of flowers,
Trees that are warmer and leafier,
Starrier, sunnier hours
Spurning the strain of all grief here,
Bringing a quiet delight to us, beyond our belief, here.45
Whilst in the next three cases I consider it distinctly faulty:
I see the thin web binding me
With thirteen cords of unity
Toward the calm centre of the sea.46
Where larkspur and cornflower
Are blue with sunlight’s hour,47
Ring out your frosty peal, and smite
Loud fingers on the harp, and touch
Lutes, and clear psalteries musical,
And all stringed instruments, to indite48
The first two of the above are quoted from poems published in 1898, and the last from those published a year later. I will not say that they are the only imperfections to be found throughout these works, but I will say that there are very few others. And considering that Aleister Crowley has written about one hundred thousand lines in the space of ten years, or half the quantity produced by Robert Browning in fifty-six, the fewness of imperfections in his work is truly remarkable.
Let us now pass from what I may call the Poetic Iconomachy to the Poetic Iconolatry of these poems; from Aleister Crowley’s war against poetic form, to his adoration of poetic imagery; and then to the keynote of the whole of his poetry, and, as we shall presently see, his philosophy as well, namely— Ecstasy.
In “Gargoyles” we find several truly wonderful picture poems. Thus in “The White Cat”:
Hail, sweet my sister! hail, adulterous spouse,
Gilded with passionate pomp, and gay with guilt:
Rioting, rioting in the dreary house
With blood and wine and roses splashed and spilt
About thy dabbling feet, and aching jaws
Whose tongue licks mine, twin asps like moons that curl,
Red moons of blood! Whose catlike body claws,
Like a white swan raping a jet-black girl,
Mine, with hysteric laughter…49
And the following four verses in “Saida” are superb:
The spears of the night at her onset
Are lords of the day for a while,
The magical green of the sunset,
The magical blue of the Nile.
Afloat are the gales
In our slumberous sails
On the beautiful breast of the Nile.
We have swooned through the midday exhausted
By the lips — they are whips — of the sun,
The horizon befogged and befrosted
By the haze and the grays and the dun
Of the whirlings of sand
Let loose on the land
By the wind that is born of the sun.
Thrilled through to the marrow with heat
We abode (as we glode) on the river.
Every arrow he launched from his seat,
From the white inexhaustible quiver,
Smote us right through,
Smote us and slew,
As we rode on the rapturous river.
Sweet sleep is perfection of love.
To die into dreams of my lover,
To wake with his mouth like a dove
Kissing me over and over!
Better sleep so
Than be conscious, and know
How death hath a charm to discover.50
But not until we read “The Eyes of Pharaoh” do we read one of the most astounding paintings in words, I make bold to say, that has ever been written in any language:
And death’s insufferable perfume
Beat the black air with golden fans
As Turkis rip a Nubian’s womb
With damascenéd yataghans.51
This one astonishing verse upsets the equilibrium of the whole poem, as it would of any poem; for if the remaining thirteen had been penned in an equivalent vividness of colouring, the effect would have been one of complete overpowerment rather than of a sudden and dizzy joy.
As the aristocratic virtues of one century become the democratic vices of the next, so do the noble renderings of one age of literature become the hackneyed phraseology of the following, this being true whether we are speaking of poetry or prose. Vet one attribute alone remains ever youthful as the ages roll by into the aeons, and that is — Ecstasy; whether we find it in the rapture of Love, the melody of Song, or the fire of Deity, it is what Poe meant by “elevating excitement,” and as we have seen, it was because of its absence that he attacked the Epic school of verse.
Ecstasy lies beyond our gnosis; as we shall hereafter see, it carries us out of ourselves, beyond the mere shell of existence, into the very depths of the profound. For the fraction of a second the whole ocean of our being is whirled through a narrow gorge, then once again we are hurled forth into the eddying cataracts of life, an essential spirit light gilding once again the sepulchral abode of a corpse. For a moment we behold God, face to face, but for a moment only, then all again is night. Keats attained, and so did Shelley and Browning. Read the last verses of the “Prometheus Unbound” and “A Grammarian’s Funeral,” and all will be plain; and it is this same ecstasy that burns white in these two superb poems, which flames a bright star of beauty guiding us on our long journey across the hundred thousand leagues of the empire of Crowley’s pen. We find it shining brightly over almost every page, a fact which renders the task of quoting nigh endless. Already we have cited a dozen or more examples. Volume I flames like a subtly gemmed ring with the ecstasy of many moments, and many of the following citations in this essay will be both brilliant and flashing; and as are the sides of the Heptagonal Vault, so also will be the contents of these seven chapters. But here at least we shall alone content ourselves with quoting from one poem— “Orpheus,” and then only loose from the massive setting a few of its flashing stones.
In Book I the invocation of Venus is very fine. The third verse being:
Down to the loveless sea
Where lay Persephone
Violate, where the shade of earth is black,
Crystalline out of space
Flames the immortal face!
The glory of the comet-tailéed track
Blinds all black earth with tears.
Silence awakes and hears
The music of thy moving come over the starry spheres.52
The song of “The Hours,”53 and “Spring,”54 are also magnificent, as are the Invocation of Hecate;55 the three Judges,56 and the Furies;57 the latter of which is one of the most musical lyrics Crowley has as yet written. The Song of Orpheus flashes and flames as we read it:
The magical task and the labour is ended;
The toils are unwoven, the battle is done;
My lover comes back to my arms, to the splendid
Abyss of the air and abode of the sun.
The sword be assuaged, and the bow be unbended!
The labour is past, and the victory won.
The arrows of song through Hell cease to hurtle.
Away to the passionate gardens of Greece,
Where the thrush is awake, and the voice of the turtle
Is soft in the amorous places of peace,
And the tamarisk groves and the olive and myrtle
Stir ever with love and content and release.
O bountiful bowers and O beautiful gardens!
O isles in the azure Ionian deep!
Ere ripens the sun, ere the spring-wind hardens
Your fruits once again ye shall have me to keep.
The sleep-god laments, and the love-goddess pardons,
When love at the last sinks unweary to sleep.58
As also does the song of Orpheus:
O Hawk of gold with power enwalled,
Whose face is like an emerald;
Whose crown is indigo as night;
Smaragdine snakes about thy brow
Twine, and the disc of flaming light
Is on thee, seated in the prow
Of the Sun’s bark, enthroned above
With lapis-lazuli for love
And ruby for enormous force
Chosen to seat thee, thee girt round
With leopard’s pell, and golden sound
Of planets choral in their course!
O thou self-formulated sire!
Self-master of thy dam’s desire!
Thine eyes blaze forth with fiery light;
Thine heart a secret sun of flame!
I adore the insuperable might:
I bow before the unspoken Name.
For I am Yesterday, and I
To-day, and I to-morrow, born
Now and again, on high, on high
Travelling on Dian’s naked horn!
I am the Soul that doth create
The Gods, and all the kin of Breath.
I come from the sequestered state;
My birth is from the House of Death. ………….
I have risen! I have risen! as a mighty hawk of gold!
From the golden egg I gather, and my wings the world enfold.
I alight in mighty splendour from the thronéd boats of light;
Companies of Spirits follow me; adore the Lords of Night.
Yea, with gladness did they pæan, bowing low before my car,
In my ears their homage echoed from the sunrise to the star.
I have risen! I am gathered as a lovely hawk of gold,
I the first-born of the Mother in her ecstasy of old.
Lo! I come to face the dweller in the sacred snake of Khem;
Come to face the Babe and Lion, come to measure force with them!
Ah! these locks flow down, a river, as the earth’s before the Sun,
As the earth’s before the sunset, and the God and I are One.
I who entered in a Fool, gain the God by clean endeavour;
I am shaped as men and women, fair for ever and for ever.59
Such is the living poetry that abides and ever lives on, knowing no youth or age, alone an eternal manhood. Lavishly scattered, we find it throughout the works before us; in “Aceldama,” “Mysteries: Lyrical and Dramatic,” “The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “Tannhäuser,” “Rosa Mundi,” and “Alice.” Ecstasy is the keynote here, as it is of all poetry, all literature — aye! of all Life. Without it we cease to be even animals — a dog will bay the moon — mere lumps of sodden clay; with it a flaming crown of glory, angel-voiced, singing amidst the stars the anthem of Eternity.
1 The Temple of the Holy Ghost, vol. i, p. 166.
2 Except perhaps in Orpheus.
3 Jephthah, vol. i, p. 66.
4 The Tale of Archais, vol. i, p. 11.
5 The Temple of the Holy Ghost, vol. i, p. 181.
6 Mysteries: Lyrical and Dramatic, vol. i, pp. 106, 107.
7 The Tale of Archais, vol. i, p. 27.
8 The Temple of the Holy Ghost, vol. i, p. 185.
9 Songs of the Spirit, vol. i, p. 53.
10 Mysteries: Lyrical and Dramatic, vol. i, p. 113.
11 Oracles, vol. ii, p. 13.
12 The Temple of the Holy Ghost, vol. i, p. 191.
13 Mysteries: Lyrical and Dramatic, vol. i, pp. 109-112. (The metre though not the cadence is that of “Laus Veneris.”)
14 The Temple of the Holy Ghost, vol. i, p. 191.
15 Tannhäuser, vol. i, p. 261.
16 The Mother’s Tragedy, vol. i, p. 160.
17 Tannhäuser, vol. i, p. 261.
18 Songs of the Spirit, vol. i, p. 38.
19 Rosa Mundi and other Love Songs, vol. iii, p. 59.
20 Jephthah, vol. i, p. 77.
21 Jephthah, vol. i, p. 67.
22 The Temple of the Holy Ghost, vol. i, p. 191.
23 Tannhäuser, vol. i, p. 252.
24 The Star and the Garter, vol. iii, p. 11.
25 The Star and the Garter, vol. iii, p. 10.
26 Why Jesus Wept, vol. iii, p. 39.
27 Why Jesus Wept, vol. iii, p. 40.
28 The God-Eater, vol. ii, p. 135.
29 As a good example I will quote the following opening lines of a sonnet addressed to “the Secretary of State,” by Wilson Bonchord in Poems composed in Prison:
When Crime’s sad victim has been tried and brought
Within the circle of the difficult sphere
Which England’s penal statutes appoint him here:
To expiate by patient toil and thought.
Neither the second nor the third line scans; nevertheless the second is good, as it is musical: the extra half-step in the word “difficult” carrying with it a difficulty, and thus emphasizing the meaning; whilst in the third, there is neither scansion nor music.
30 Rather than Sophocles or Aeschylus.
31 The Sword of Song, vol. ii, p. 145.
32 The Sword of Song, vol. ii, p. 148. Browning’s cacophony in “The Flight of the Duchess” is truly extraordinary:
“Soul a stir up” with “streaky syrup” “Went trickle” " “ventricle” “Sperm oil” " “turmoil” “Wreathy hop” " “Æthiop” “Matters equine” " “French weak wine.”
33 W.E. Henley, Rodin in Rime, vol. iii, p. 119.
34 W.E. Henley, Rodin in Rime, vol. iii, p. 120. Compare the following verse in Swinburne’s poem, The Centenary of the Battle of the Nile:
The strong and sunbright lie whose name was France
Arose against the sun of truth, whose glance
Laughed large from the eyes of England fierce as fire
Whence eyes wax blind that gaze in truth askance.
35 Rodin in Rime, vol. iii, p. 119.
36 Rodin in Rime, vol. iii, p. 119.
37 The Temple of the Holy Ghost, vol. i, p. 183.
38 Jezebel, vol. i, p. 131.
39 Tannhäuser, vol. i, p. 251. (The italics are mine.)
40 The Temple of the Holy Ghost, vol. i, p. 205.
41 The Temple of the Holy Ghost, vol. i, p. 209.
42 Mysteries: Lyrical and Dramatic, vol. i, p. 107.
43 Mysteries: Lyrical and Dramatic, vol. i, p. 98.
44 The Temple of the Holy Ghost, vol. i, p. 210.
45 Mysteries: Lyrical and Dramatic, vol. i, p. 125.
46 Songs of the Spirit, vol. i, p. 31.
47 Mysteries: Lyrical and Dramatic, vol. i, p. 103.
48 Jephthah, vol. i, p. 74.
49 Gargoyles, vol. iii, p. 86.
50 Gargoyles, vol. iii, p. 94.
51 Gargoyles, vol. iii, p. 100.
52 Orpheus, vol. iii, p. 168.
53 Orpheus, vol. iii, pp. 145.
54 Ibid, vol. iii, pp. 146, 147.
55 Ibid, vol. iii, p. 177.
56 Ibid, vol. iii, p. 182-187.
57 Ibid, vol. iii, p. 194-199.
58 Orpheus, vol. iii, pp. 200.
59 Orpheus, vol. iii, pp. 209, 210.