is not often that one is able to close a book of modern verse,
and by a hitherto unknown author, with the feeling that here is
the promise of a new poet. Of course, the occurrence must be, of
necessity, of extreme rarity. In “The Soul of Osiris” there is
no doubt that there is the fairest promise of not only good but
great work to come, and one can only hope that the author will
go on from the achievement of this volume to higher achievements
in the near future. When we reflect on the considerable bulk of
the book and the equality of its several poems, we are assured
of the justice of our first impression, and it is therefore with
some feeling that we announce it. In “The Soul of Osiris” we
have a human document, and we can only compare it with those
which Charles d’Orleans, Francoise Villon, and Paul Verlaine
have given us. Everyone who is a student of the personal note in
art knows what these great masters have given us, the value and
the truth of it all. To such the work to be found in “The Soul
of Osiris” will be a joy. Our comparison is, of course, limited:
we are not dealing with the whole work of a poet who has passed
away and comparing it with the whole work of other poets; we
have but the beginnings of a body of work, but the spirit is
present, and the achievement accomplished in this first fragment
is such as warrants us in making our somewhat bold comparison.
The spirit of it is entirely akin to the suffering which was
part physical but in greater part mental. It was the stress of
poetic emotion, an emotion which was so keen as to be a part of
every waking moment of life, that renders all such poetry so
poignant, and there is this poignancy of emotion in “The Soul of
Osiris.” And yet there is joy in the book: joy over
accomplishment. The accomplishment of a great travail resulting
in the birth of something fine and lovely, travail because of
the immensity of the problem and the doubt of its complete
solution. Solution there is, however. Mr. Crowley had the
prophet’s vision when he wrote at the end of the book, “The
Epilogue is Silence.” That chapter of his life is securely ended
and he wakes to new things, and we shall be glad indeed to
witness his solution of those also, as we have participated in
the solved problem he has already presented in verse worthy of
the greatness of his theme. As poetry this book reaches a high
technical excellence: there are some small inequalities, but
they are not worth calling attention to, for the general level
of the verse is so high. Mr. Crowley seems to possess all the
attributes of a true poet, and we sincerely trust that the
promise of this—as far as we know his first volume—will be
speedily followed by its successor.
Birmingham Daily Gazette, 28 June 1901.
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.
Soul of Osiris. By Aleister Crowley. (Kegan, Paul & Co.)—This
new volume by Mr. Crowley fuses heathen and Christian elements
in a remarkable manner. It consists of detached poems dealing
with some of the great elemental facts of life as expressed in
Egyptian and Christian symbols. The difference between them,
however, is by no means so great as the ordinary reader
supposes. Anticipations of what are commonly deemed especially
Christian truths are found in Egyptian religion as in many
others, and they lend themselves to mystic representations in
symbol language. Mr. Crowley presses these symbols into his
service, and his poetic treatment of them is very striking. The
poems contain much fluent versification, and will familiarize
thoughtful readers with the great and numerous common elements
between the Egyptian and Christian mysteries.
Bradford Observer, 24 May 1901.
book of picturesque poems, called “A History”: they are forceful
and effective, taken in small quantities; but inclined to be too
Bookman, May 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.
The more anarchic poets of the early part of the century devoted
themselves largely to the exhilarating task of attacking the
supernatural wholesale. With Mr. Swinburne at their head, they
quoted whole passages of the Old Testament, with negatives and
irreverent applications interspersed, and by this commodious
method succeeded in combining the advantages of being original
and profane with the advantages of drawing on an old and
excellent stock of literary images. Like Mr. Swinburne, they set
Paganism against Christianity: like him they could not tolerate
a single Deity, but seemed, for some singular reason, to got
very comfortably with a great many. The same remarkable
idiosyncracy was to be remarked in their attitude towards the
ladies whom they tragically and ecstatically adored. But the
dominant note Swinburnianism, beyond all question, was the
attack upon religion; the vast and incredible conception which
has been swallowed by the secularist school, that the religious
sentiment, which stretches from one end of history to the other,
is one vast hereditary malady and unbroken nightmare. This view
seems to us to-day as hard to believe as any fable the legends
of the saints.
But the remarkable story has been the story of the
conversion of the poets. Whoever else is satisfied with the of
age science, they clearly are not. They have divided the human
soul by every conceivable scientific number, and they find there
is always something over. Philosophers may draw the boundary of
human knowledge and human utility in one place or another, as
they please: but to the poets it will always be the tree or
hedge that is just beyond the boundary that is beautiful,
alluring, and imperative. Thus it has happened that the poets
have gradually faced round, and are now, in most cases,
thoroughly fanatical upholders of the supernatural. The new
school of mystics, rather than be for one single moment
degradingly connected with common sense, will maintain that the
changes and adventures of their lives are really traced out in
the rotation of colossal planets or the common creases in their
hands. The poets exaggerate it, as they exaggerate everything,
since exaggeration is the definition of art. But the great fact
remains, Swinburne, at the period of “Poems and Ballads,” would
certainly have used the word “saint” and “artist” as
antagonistic, with some very fine lines about tyrannous praises
and pallid, and also about songs made sweet of desire. Mr. W. B.
Yeats uses “saint” and “artist” as almost interchangeable.
Mr. Yeats is, of course, the most striking example of this
transition. So far is he from thinking the spirit world
illusory, that it would appear to be the actual world about
which he has his doubts. He hears of green grass with well-bred
humour, and is informed that the sun in the sky with the air of
one who is not to be taken in. But there are more definitely
minor poets (if the appalling double comparative may be
permitted) who are even more decided examples of the extent to
which the poets have “got religion.” One of those is Mr.
Aleister Crowley, whose book “The Soul of Osiris” seems to us to
show a power and promise above the average of minor poetry.
Frequently, no doubt, there are painful examples of the
affectations of his school; but while there are some who are too
old to be natural, there are others who are too young to be
natural, and we fancy Mr. Crowley is of the latter class. An
instance of this elaborate and perverse way of doing things may
be found in a fine eulogistic sonnet to Wagner, which is headed
“Before hearing ‘Siegfried.’ ” The Philistine cannot help asking
if Mr. Crowley felt less agreeable after hearing “Siegfried.”
Mr. Crowley follows the old Swinburne tradition in all the
externals. The most irresistible trait he can find in a maiden
is that she should bite like a mad dog. When he wishes to
eulogise a friend he indicates that the friend’s garden is full
of sunset-coloured sins (we make Mr. Crowley a present of this
phrase), and then everyone is happy. In the poem of “Jezebel” he
again obtains a somewhat cheap effect of unconventionality by
creating a scandal between the Queen and Elijah. We can only say
that if those characters whose acts are recorded in the Book of
Kings really did feel a tender affection for each other, they
both adopted a thoroughly a Swinburnian mode of expressing it.
It may be an imaginative defect in ourselves, but we have never
been able to understand the peculiar poetry which appears to
attach in the decadent mind to the sex element in persons who
have not only desecrated, but almost certainly exhausted it.
Jezebel appears to us merely prosaic.
But though Mr. Crowley, whom we have taken as a type of the
converted decadent, is thoroughly Swinburnian in his odd taste
in “painted lips” and such things, he exhibits in the most
startling form the great return to the shrine of the praeter-natural
of which we have spoken. His whole book, “The Soul of Osiris” is
devoted to the conception of the gradual return of a passionate
and fickle spirit to holiness. He offers a remarkable tribute to
the almost forgotten truth than man is never genuinely at home
except in goodness, that artistic emotions can no more refresh
the nature than a liqueur can quench the thirst. His last poem,
the “Litany,” at the end of the section called “The Holy of
Holies,” is a very powerful lyric, expressing in lines that have
all the smoothness of true force and all the lucidity of true
mysticism, the cry of man in his last and worst agony, the agony
of desolate frivolity and hopeless freedom:
Nature is one with my distress,
The flowers are dull, the stars are pale;
I am the Soul of Nothingness,
I cannot life the golden veil.
O, Mother Isis, let thin eyes
Behold my grief and sympathise!
To the side of a mind concerned with idle merriment 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 poem:
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!
We have 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 religions, 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 the actual
Orientals. The notion that a turban and a few vows will make an
Englishman a Hindu is quite on 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.
Sometime European mystics deserve something worse than mere
laughter at the hands of Orientals. If there ever was one person
whom honest Hindus would have been justified in tearing to
pieces it was Madam 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. But to believe for a moment that it is to be
found by going to particular places or reading particular books
or joining particular societies is to make for the thousandth
time the mistake that is at once materialism and superstition.
If Mr. Crowley and the new mystics think for one moment than 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, and only sectarians, of no
more value to humanity than those who think that the English
soil is the only soil worth defending, and the Baptist chapel
the only chapel worthy of worship. 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
Daily News, 18 June 1901.
“The Soul of
Osiris: a History,” by Aleister Crowley (Kegan Paul, Trench, and
Co., 5s. net), is an ambitious piece of work. We cannot pretend
to have mastered the historical scheme, which is implied in the
sub-title; but we presume that the books of this “history” are
“The Court of the Profane,” “The Gate of the Sanctuary,” “The
Holy Place,” and “The Holy of Holies,” while its chapters are
composed of the poems on various subjects and in various metres
which the several books contain. There, we fear, we must leave
Mr. Aleister Crowley’s production in order to turn to a work,
absolutely different in kind, but alike in the claim it makes on
the time and patience of its readers. . . .
—The Morning Post, 24 May 1901.
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.