Crowley is a disciple of Swinburne, Rossetti and
Symons—especially Symons. The burden of his song is “desire.”
He appears to be one of those anæmic creatures who find an
embrace unsatisfactory unless accompanied by bites. “All my
limbs were bloody with your mouth.” This may be mayhem, but is
it poetry? This occurs in “The Gate of the Sanctuary” and “The
Holy Place” to “The Holy of Holies,” we shall, of course, escape
this sort of thing. Shall we? Not if the author knows
himself. For even here we have “libertine touches of small
fingers,” and a “beloved mouth that beats and bleeds.” Beyond
this “Holy of Holies” comes an epilogue; and this is all there
is of it: “The epilogue is SILENCE.” Paresis, more likely!
Critic, September 1901.
swallows do not make a nightingale; but weather for swallows is
weather for nightingales. So, when minor poets are in season,
we may hope an occasional major one. (We use the term “minor
poet” in the sense given it by modern journalism, though with
protest that the title borne by Crashaw, Vaughan, Collins and
Gray should be put to such unworthy use.) Nor is the minor poet
without his own value. We have heard of Single-speech
Hamilton—who made several speeches. But the minor poet often
does flower capriciously in one or more poems unforgettable, or
which deserve not to be forgotten: Wolfe’s “Burial of Moore” is
the best-known example. Unfortunately, he usually lives on that
success, writing reams of unnoticeable poems on the strength of
it. One would like a legal enactment for muzzling all such
poets once they had fulfilled their natural function. But it is
impossible to resist the plea that they might do it again;
though you know they will not, any more than a man can regain
the pleasant climax of intoxication by persevering drinks.
Their repeated indulgence in “blushful Hippocrene” has mush the
same steadily deteriorating effect. But, though long experience
plentifully chastens any over-sanguine expectation, we always
approach a fresh “catch” of minor verse with the hope that it
may contain at least one specimen of fortuitous and fortunate
hardly say that such hope is fulfilled by the array of volumes
before us. Yet we are far from disappointment. For at least
one writer shows a promise, in certain qualities, above any
recent poets we have seen. Mr. Crowley, in his Soul of
Osiris, has what hardly any of them have—a forceful, if
narrow inspiration, both in respect of imagination and emotional
power. It is forceful rather than forcible, influent rather
than affluent; not broad and opulent, but straight and intense.
It is a geyser rather than an ample and irresistible river. For
he is, alas! often tense instead of intense, and always more or
less troubled by violence; but it is, on the whole, not the
violence of weakness, but of somewhat anarchic strength. There
is no necessity that this Nazarene should be shorn, but he would
be the better for having his hair combed. For (dropping all
metaphor), apart from his violences, Mr. Crowley has defective
technique. Strange as it appears in one with such evident force
and glow, it would seem as if “the sweet trouble” of the poet
were too often a burden of spirit to him and the bands of rhyme
too strong for him. Those flowery shackles clearly cut into the
flesh of his expression in more than one place. Thus—
mystic mortal and a maid,
Filled with all things to fill the same,
awkwardness of diction which can only be explained by the
supposition that he found it uneasy to fill up the rhyme to
“name” and “flame.” Another instance of poor technique follows
overflow the shores of God,
Mingling our proper period.
discern at first sight that the sense of the last line
is—“Confusing our natural limits.” The obscurity is caused by
the ungrammatical use of “mingling” with a singular noun. We
do, indeed, say “he has mixed the idea,” or, “he has mixed the
whole business.” But these are sufficiently loose
colloquialisms, and should have no place in literature.
Moreover, in the second case, “business” is regarded as a
collective noun. “Period” here is not. We might point, also,
had we space, to cases of grammatical ambiguity, which would be
easily neglected in an easy poem, but in abstruse poetry (like
Mr. Crowley’s) are swiftly resented by the strained attention.
And the reader does well to be angry. A broken round in the
ladder makes small odds when we are mounting the garden wall:
it is quite another thing in the rope ladder whereby we are
scaling a precipice. The harder the theme the more severely
should a poet close up every rivet in the expression. But from
this same poem (“Asmodel”) may be quoted stanzas showing Mr.
Crowley at his best. It describes a dream-woman, the woman of
Only to me looks out for ever
From her cold eyes a fire like death;
Only to me her breasts can never
Lose the red brand that quickeneth;
Only to me her eyelids sever
And lips respire her equal breath;
Still in the unknown star I see
very god that is of me.
day’s pale countenance is lifted,
The rude sun’s forehead he uncovers;
soft delicious clouds have drifted,
No wing of midnight’s bird that hovers;
still the hard blind blue is rifted,
And still my star and I as lovers
Yearn to each other through the sky
With eyes held closed in ecstasy.
poem, like all the poems, must be read entire to appreciate it.
It will be obvious, even from this specimen, that they are
mystical and therefore difficult. Strength and emotional
intensity are what distinguish Mr. Crowley from a score of
others with far greater gift of technique. They are what
excuse—and cause—much that needs excuse. They are what should
bring him to a prominent place among later poets, when he has
learned to possess instead of being possessed by them, and to
master technique, instead of suffering his inspiration violently
to break open the gates of speech.
Academy, 15 June 1901.
similar to these have been often written before, but have not
the words, simple as they are, the ring of genuine poetry?
Religious poetry is not always poetic. This cannot,
however, be said with regard to the volume of verse entitle
The Soul of Osiris, by Aleister Crowley. There is much in
the volume which will excite admiration, and much that will
perplex and irritate the unintiated reader. The poet is,
indeed, a mystic, and veils a morbidly exaggerated Catholicism
under an ultra-Egyptian passion for death. Take as an example
of the sickly mysticism of these poems the following:
“I stood within Death’s gate,
And blew the horn of Hell;
Mad laughter echoing against fate,
Harsh groans less terrible,
from beneath the vault; in night the avenging thunders swell’d.”
the opening of a poem called “Cerebus.”
“Nature is one with my distress,
The flowers are dull, the stars are pale,
I am the Son of Nothingness.
I cannot lift the golden veil.
O Mother Isis, let thine eyes
Behold my grief, and sympathise!”
a lack of virility in poetry of this sort, but it cannot be
denied that Aleister Crowley is a true poet—a poet of the school
of Baudelaire and Poe.
Westminster Review, October 1904.
This is one
way into Dreamland. Aleister Crowley, in “The Soul of Osiris”
(London: Kegan Paul), reveals what seems to him an even more
excellent way. He calls his volume with its four books “a
history, evidently, of a very modern spirit as it has passed
from the rule of the bodily senses and Baudelaire to the most
exalted moods of mysticism. “Man’s approach to God is regulated
by the strictest laws, and follows a true mathematical
curve”—these words from Mr. Thorold Roger’s Introduction to the
‘Dialogue of St, Catherine’ might well serve as a motto for “The
Soul of Osiris;” and the rationale of the transformation might
be summed up in these other words of Mr. Rodgers:
for ecstasy is at the very root and heart of our nature. Human
life is informed at every stage by this desire for ecstasy, of
self-escape into something higher. Mysticism alone affords to
those favored beings who are competent in brain and will for its
ardors a true and lasting realization of this desire. Neither
the sensual nor the sentimental life can do so, for nature or
society constantly throws us by illnesses or laws on the hither
or farther side of its perfect realization.
“The Soul of
Osiris” begins with a prologue, “Obsession,” addressed to
Charles Baudelaire. Book I., “The Court of the Profane,” is
given over to more or less symbolic portrayal of a life of
surrender to the senses. Book II., “The Gateway of the
Sanctuary,” portrays the struggle between the senses and the
spirit. Book III., “The Holy Place,” describes the soul’s
earliest moments of triumph. Book IV., “The Holy of Holies,” is
the imaginative record of typical phases of mystical ecstasy.
The depth and volume and the passionate intensity of the feeling
in many of these poems are unmistakable, as are also the
frequent richness and visionary splendor of the imagery and the
aptness and transfiguring of the rhythms. But equally clear is
the fact that the usual faults of the mystical imagination are
already hurting the poet’s work. We all know what happened to
the transcendently beautiful lyrical genius of Blake. Aleister
Crowley should keep a copy of the “Prophetic Books” next to the
whipcord scourge in his anchorites cell. Already the world he
bodies forth in his verse is too often merely a clotted mass of
willful emotional symbols.
need not be so, such stanzas as the following from “Jezebel”
prove beyond cavil:
mane, a leopard’s skin
dusty shoulders thrown:
fierce face, with eyes where sin
Lurks like a
serpent by a stone.
A man driven
forth by lust to seek
himself on Carmel’s peak.
with wild hair behind,
fiery clusters! Yea,
vehemence of the wind,
with the tears that slay;
And all my
face parched up and dried,
And all my
Spirit of the Lord
roods me with his breath
My words are
fashioned as a sword,
My voice is
like the voice of death.
of the Spirit’s wings
to the hearts of kings.”
plastic enough, and so is the entire long narrative poem of
which it is a part—plastic
and immensely dramatic. Other poems show the same qualities.
Of the mystical ardor that finds often beautiful are often
wearisomely vague and wordy expression in the later poems, the
following stanzas may stand as representative:
guardian of the pallid hours of night!
watcher of the smitten noon!
with the majesty of light.
with the glory of the moon!
absolute splendor! Link of mine
spirit with the All-Divine!
shalt carry me by many winds
the limitless ocean! Mighty sword
By which I
force that barrier of the mind’s
Miscomprehension of its own true lord!
answer, and behold my brow
hope! Bend down and touch it now!
twin dawn of thy desirous lips
swart masses of my hair: bent close
all earth in masterless eclipse,
heart’s murmur through the being flows,
up the prayer, as incense teems
to those immeasurable streams!”
No one who
reads such poems as these, and in addition the strangely
visionary “Nameless Quest,” the sonnet to Allan MacGregor” and
“The Rosicrucian,” can doubt that this poet is authentic and
will reveal to the world much new beauty.
Evening News, 26 October 1901.
Mr. G. K. Chesterton also
writes a column anda quarter in praise of this book in
the Daily News; we quote the following:
To the side of a mind concerned with idle merriment [sic!] there is
certainly something a
little funny in Mr. Crowley’s passionate devotion to
deities who bear such names as Mout, and Nuit, and Ra, and Shu,
and Hormakhou. They do not seem to the English mind to lend
themselves to pious exhilaration. Mr. Crowley says in the same
The burden is too hard to bear;
I took too adamant a cross ;
This sackcloth rends my soul to wear,
My self-denial is as dross.
O, Shu, that holdest up the sky,
Hold up thy servant, lest he die !
all possible respect for Mr. Crowley’s religious symbols and we
do not object to his calling upon Shu at any hour of the night.
Only it would be unreasonable of him to complain if his
religious exercises were generally mistaken for an effort to
drive away cats.
Moreover, the poets
of Mr. Crowley’s school have, among all their merits, some
genuine intellectual dangers from this tendency to import
religious, this free-trade in Gods. That all creeds are
significant and all Gods divine we willingly agree. But this is
rather a reason for being content with our own than for
attempting to steal other people’s. The affectation in many
modern mystics of adopting an Oriental civilization and mode of
thought must cause much harmless merriment among actual
Orientals. The notion that a turban and a few vows will make an
Englishman a Hindu is quite on a par with the idea that a black
hat and an Oxford degree will make a Hindu an Englishman. We
wonder whether our Buddhistic philosophers have ever read a
florid letter in Baboo English. We suspect that the said type
of document, is in reality exceedingly like the philosophic
essays written by Englishmen about the splendours of Eastern
thought. Sometimes European mystics deserve something worse
than mere laughter at the hands of Orientals. If ever was a
person whom honest Hindus would have been justified in tearing
to pieces it was Madame Blavatsky.
That our world-worn
men of art should believe for a moment that moral salvation is
possible and supremely
important is an unmixed benefit. If Mr. Crowley and the
new mystics think for one moment that an Egyptian desert is more
mystic than an English meadow, that a palm tree is more
poetic than a Sussex beech,
that a broken temple
of Osiris is more supernatural than a Baptist Chapel
in Brixton, then they are
sectarians. . . . But Mr. Crowley is a strong and
genuine poet, and we have little doubt that he will work up from
his appreciation of the Temple of Osiris to that loftier and
wider work of the human imagination, the
appreciation of the Brixton
Daily News, date unknown.
The power . . . which is undeniable, cannot hide from us either
its extreme unpleasantness or the gratuitously offensive
treatment. . . . There is a wearisome occurrence of all the ugly
machinery with which the fleshly school of poetry has made us
We are compelled to read even where the subject matter fails to
attract, and we venture to think that in Aleister Crowley we
have found a poet, whose genius has yet to unfold. . . .
—The Western Morning News, date unknown.
The Soul of Osiris,
by Aleister Crowley (Kegan Paul, 5s. net.), is a volume of
ambitious verse, exhibiting considerable technical skill and a
blatant disregard of good taste. What shall be said of a writer
who puts into the mouth of Elijah such lines as these:—
Now let me die, to mix my soul
With thy red soul, to join our hands,
To weld us in one perfect whole
To link us with desirous hands.
Now let me die, to mate in hell
With Thee, O harlot Jezebel!
—The Church Times, 31 May 1901.