We have received a curious volume, by Mr. Aleister Crowley, in
the form of a poetic and lyrical drama in five acts. Mr.
Crowley has written several volumes of verse, and has a fair
poetic equipment, especially in the matter of technique. He has
a smooth sweetness, a pleasant harmony, which he appears to have
acquired by a study of the methods of Mr. Swinburne. His drama,
in our opinion, is remarkable, less for its action than for its
lyrics and for its dedications. Its lyrics are good, though we
praise them with the reserve due to imitations. They are gentle
flatteries of distinguished modern writers. No man has ever
paid a more subtle tribute to the beauty of “Ave atque Vale”
than the following, the Orpheus song, from Act IV.:
Light shed from seaward over breakers bending
Kiss-wise to the emerald hollows: light divine
Whereof the sun is God, the sea His shrine;
Light in vibrations rhythmic; light unending:
Light sideways from the girdling crags extending
Unto this lone and languid head of mine;
Light that fulfils creation as with wine,
Flows in the channels of the deep: light rending
The adamantine columns of the night,
Is laden with the lovesong of the light.
A page or two further on Mr. Crowley gives Orpheus a second
lyric, which is less derivative, more individual, and more
beautiful, though too long to quote in its entirety. We quote
the first two stanzas:
I hear the waters faint and far,
And look to where the Polar star,
Half hidden in the haze, divides
The double chanting of the tides;
But, where the harbour’s gloomy mouth
Welcomes the stranger to the south,
The water shakes, and all the sea
Grows silver suddenly.
As one who standing on the moon
Sees the vast horns in silver hewn,
Himself in darkness, and beholds
How silently all space unfolds
Into her shapeless breast the spark
And sacred phantom of the dark;
So in the harbor horns I stand’
Till I forget the land.
We have mentioned the remarkable dedications in this volume.
Each act is dedicated, for stated reasons, to some person or
persons, though as yet we have failed to discover the hidden,
and perhaps religious, truth these dedications would convey.
Their symbolism escapes us, though we think them, on the whole,
the most successful portions of the book. What could be subtler
than the following:
The British Army
reading “Man and Superman.”
Daily News, 14 September 1904.
Constant complaints are uttered by publishers and booksellers
alike that nobody buys verse. But this seems to have no effect
upon the amount of verse published, for a constant succession of
little volumes by new writers, issues from the press. We are
bound to say the quality of the contents too often justifies the
public’s refusal to buy. . . .
. . . Verses of this sort should remain unpublished or, better
still, unwritten. But one of the heart-breaking things about
the minor poet is the truly abject standard of technique with
which he seems to be contented. Thus the Rev. John Cullen,
whose volume, “Poems and Idylls,” we see, is marked “Third
Edition,” writes thus:—
“Two saintly women I behold,
Who have had a peaceful war in hand,
For God and Home in every land,
Fair Temperance Standard they unfold.”
That three editions of this kind of thing can possibly have been
demanded speaks volumes for the devotion of Mr. Cullen’s
Mr. Walter Malone’s “Poems” are even more deplorable:—
“No red deer’s skin, no tawny lion’s hide,
No woven fabric round his shoulders hung,
For young Narcissus roamed in beauty nude:
His soft round limbs, fair as a lily’s bud,
Were never hidden in a useless garb.
The flush of boyhood still adorned his face,
A childish beauty budding into youth;
He scampered nimbly like a half-grown god.”
Mr. Aleister Crowley’s blank verse drama, “The
Argonauts,” is equally banal in workmanship and more
pretentious. The task of reading it, however, is lightened by
moments of unconscious humour, as when Pelias remarks [aside]:—
“Even so, beware!
Victory ill-nurtured breeds the babe defeat.”
or when Argus opines—
“A fool allows a moment’s irritation
To move the purpose of a thousand years.”
Indeed, the scene in which Medea is persuading Pelias’ children
to chop their aged sire into convenient pieces and stew them in
a cauldron, with a view to renewing his youth, reached a height
of absurdity rarely found in serious drama.
Graphic, 3 September 1904.
Alaister [sic] Crowley has before now shown himself to possess a
strong imagination and a forceful, though too often confused,
power of expression. “The Argonauts,” though it has his poetic
quality in passages, by no means shows him at his best; and this
though it is much clearer than his wont. Indeed, compared with
his previous work, it attains actual lucidity. It is carefully
modeled on the forms of Greek classic drama. But the Greek
spirit is wholly alien from Mr. Crowley’s own, and indeed
opposed to his native quality, which is essentially Teutonic.
The excellences of one are adverse to the excellences of the
other. In pursuing the Greek spirit Mr. Crowley has merely
weakened and diluted his own style. He is best, because nearer
himself, in parts of the dialogue. The choral portions are not
strong; they are lacking in sheer poetic substance; they are
dilute—a thing one could not say of his previous poems. In some
places Mr. Crowley would have been well served by a sense of
humour, which is too clearly lacking in him. He would then have
cut out or altered certain lines which provoke an undersigned
Academy and Literature, 3 September 1904.
not think that Mr. Aleister Crowley was well advised in choosing
for his poetical drama a subject so hackneyed as the Quest of
the Golden Fleece, or that he has handled it more
successfully than did William Morris in his epic, The Life
and Death of Jason. The Argonauts less resembles a
classical Greek play than one of Senaca’s rhetorical tragedies.
The experiment itself was at best an unpromising one, seeing
that the Atlanta in Calydon is the only instance in which
an English poet has produced a drama at once Hellenic in form
and spirit. The influence of Mr. Swinburne is obvious in:
“O happy of mortals,
O fronter of fear,
The impassable portals!
Ye heavens, give ear.
shall be rolled in the praise of the fold, and its glory be told
where the heavenly fold rejoices to hold the stars in
Mr. Swinburne would have shunned as cacophonous the fivefold
iteration of a single rhyme in an overgrown line. The lyric
speeches of Orpheus are sometimes of exquisite beauty:
“Light pearly glimmering through dim gulf and hollow,
Below the foam-kissed lips of the sea;
Light shines from all the sky and up to me
From the amber floors of sand: Light calls Apollo!
shafts of fire fledged of the eagle follow
The crested surf, and strike the shore and flee
Far from green cover, nymph-enchanted lea,
Fountain, and plume them white as the sea-swallow,
And turn and quiver in the ocean seeming
The glances of a maiden kissed, or dreaming.”
Westminster Review, October 1904.
The severity and chasteness of the ancient
Greek drama are very evident
in this five-act play, but the true spirit is not here. Mr.
Crowley's talent is not, we think, suited to the subject he has
chosen; he has undoubted poetic gifts, and at times attains to a
height not often reached by our minor poets, but he would have
been more successful had he chosen a more modern theme.
—The Publishers’ Circular,
24 September 1904.
We have read from the beginning to the end, sometimes
with amazement, sometimes with amusement, sometimes with
admiration. We are puzzled to know how it comes to pass that a
writer of what is best in the “Argonauts” can possibly put into
print what is worst. . . . It is a great pity the Mr. Aleister
Crowley’s muse is so capricious.
—The Literary World, date unknown.
Beginning with a feeling of prejudice, we are soon beguiled into
genuine interest. . . . The admirable thing is the author’s
skill as a craftsman of verse. In blank verse he shows an easy
and assured grace of style, and the lyrical portions are
distinguished by exquisite metrical beauty. . . . In spite of
his oddities, he possesses a real and rare poetical gift.
—The Manchester Guardian, date unknown.
the Society for the Propagation of Religious Truth, Boleskine,
Foyers, Inverness, comes a poetic play in five acts, written by
Mr Aleister Crawley, and entitled, “The Argonauts.” Following at
an independent distance the old Greek tragic forms, and
developing its action in lyrical passages and dialogue, it makes
an adaptation at once scholarly and interesting of the ancient
legend of the golden fleece and the ill-starred loves of Jason
and Medea. It will not prove the less attractive to sympathetic
readers because its charm is derived rather from classical
culture than from original poetical inspiration.
—The Scotsman, 25 July 1904.