"SPLENDID TWADDLE": O'NEILL AND RICHARD MIDDLETON
Rereading Agnes Boulton's Part of a Long Story (Doubleday: Garden City, N.Y.: 1958), I came across a reference which eventually led me to the basement of the university library, there to poke around the bins of unshelved, uncalled for, and forgotten books. In the fall of 1917, Agnes recalled, Eugene O'Neill "often carried in his pocket a small blue volume of poems "which really dramatized something of himself as he was then" (pp. 61-62). "He would read and quote these poems often," Agnes wrote. "It disturbed me because I began to wonder which was Gene and which was the poem--was it that the poem expressed him and what he felt? Or had he read the poem and from it created an image of himself?.... These poems of Richard Middleton's-how many people know about them, or read them now?" (p. 62).
Richard Middleton? Indeed, a forgotten name. Who was he? What kinds of poems had he produced? Was he undeservedly forgotten? What manner of influence had he had on the young, impressionable O'Neill? After a lengthy search I found that "small blue volume of poems" at the bottom of a dusty bin; intrigued, I set out to discover what I could about its author.
A few years older than O'Neill, Middleton was a lonely soul who yearned for literary recognition. Alas, the description Joyce gives of Tristan Tzara in Tom Stoppard's Travesties would have fit him wonderfully: "an over-excited little man with a need for self-expression far beyond the scope of (his) natural gifts."1 Apparently Middleton found it easier to affect the manner, dress, and mores of a London poet than to actually produce the art for which he might have been remembered. His Edwardian childhood, spent in fashionable despondency, was given over almost entirely to solitude and moping. The main event of these early years, according to the poet's own account, was probably a bout with measles which afforded him a paradisal interlude from contact with the boys at school who taunted him.2 Adolescence was, of course, a nightmare. Then, in his early twenties Richard was placed for a short while in the office of a business corporation--which, quite, predictably, he abandoned for Bohemia. The remainder of his life was an extended literary cliché. Encountering Middleton in a cafe during this period, the critic Arthur Ransome characterized his poetry and conversation as "twaddle, but such downright, spirited splendid twaddle, flung out from the heart of him in a grand, careless way that made me think of largesse scattered royally on a mob."3
What followed in due course were years of alcohol, carousing, brief affairs, poverty, much verse--and dark, intractable obscurity. The end came on December 1, 1911 when Middleton, aged twenty-nine, poured chloroform over a handkerchief, covered his face, and permanently went to bed. What weighed most heavily on Middleton's mind, according to Henry Savage, his friend and humorless biographer, was "love, poverty and neuralgia."4 More likely the main motive for Middleton's suicide was the hope of posthumous fame. Indeed, to complete the romantic scenario, his works (unmarketable during his lifetime) were actually in print within a year. The books were published in London by T. Fisher Unwin and ran to five volumes, all bound in blue buckram and lettered on back and front in gilt. One of these surely was the volume of poems mentioned by Agnes Boulton. In 1917 O'Neill had discovered Middleton at the height of the poet's brief span of popularity.
Today Middleton is no longer read--and for very good reasons. His poems, like his life, unfortunately are indulgent, derivative, selfcentered, melodramatic, and at times unintentionally comic. What O'Neill found to admire in them is difficult to discern. In his finest moments Middleton could offer a dreamy, pseudo-Keatsian melodic line, as in "The Last Serenade":
And no doubt O'Neill, recollecting his sailing adventures, was stirred by the romanticism of "The Last Cruise":
After all, Edmund speaks in similar accents in Act IV of Long Day's Journey Into Night.
But the majority of Middleton's poems are dull and silly and eminently worthy of oblivion. Like Edmund, Richard may have had "the makings of a poet," but he lacked the skill and genius to develop. His favorite themes recur with numbing regularity and include the idealization of dreamers, children, starry nights, Bohemia, Bacchus, fame, pain, love, fate, early death, and--most insistently--himself.
Only with dead or dying children could he identify completely. After his own sorrows, they were his favorite subjects, and his poems ("Dorothy," for instance) abound with the patter-patter of little ghostly footsteps. On brighter days the poet's chief happiness lay in picturing his eventual canonization and (in comtemplation of that event) anticipating the pleasures of old age.
But more often Middleton grappled with his anonymity and suffered the pangs of unrequited love. In this mood he was forever visualizing his own death and consoling himself with the conviction that after he was gone (and all his words in print) the world would surely miss him.
The girl in question, though she had not seen Middleton for more than a year, on hearing of his suicide wrote to Mr. Savage a long and tearstained letter professing that the news caused her to fall in a dead faint, but that she would "be ever so pleased if you will kindly send me the names of the publishers where his books are to be published that I may buy them. I cannot write more now because I am too upset. Kindly write soon and give me all the details."5
would have been pleased. He would have been pleased, too by the
extravagant eulogies his friends poured forth on the occasion of his
death. Minor poets throughout England rose to pluck their lyres in
tribute to the fallen Adonais. William Kean Seymour addressed him as
a "Dreamer with Love's roses on thy brow/ Entwined with bitter
sprays of mournful yew" ("Richard Middleton: In Memoriam"),
and Mr. Arthur Coles Armstrong immortalized him as "He of the
straggled beard, the Vulcan frame,/ The tender voice, the ego
undefiled" ("With Richard Middleton Along the Dover
Road"). Finally, he was apostrophized as follows by W. R.
Thus in life poor Middleton wrote bad poetry, and in death he was the cause of it in others.
Concerning the value of his poems, Middleton hoped and prentended, yet he knew himself but slenderly and did not seem able to distinguish sham from genuine emotion. At best his verse is shallow, imitative, limp--at worst, ridiculous. His fin de siècle attitudes, stale diction, images, and swelling rhyme assured his oblivion when a new generation of poets returning from the Great War determined to bury the past and modernize the British poetic tradition. As Mr. Ransome perceptively remarked, it all was splendid twaddle, and by "the brave year nineteen fifty," Richard Middleton's star had been eclipsed.
What influence did Middleton's poems have on the artistic development of young O'Neill? Thankfully, very little, as far as can be judged. But the affinity O'Neill felt for the unfortunate poet was real and understandable. At twenty-three and in despair of ever becoming a great poet, O'Neill had attempted suicide by drug overdose in January of 1912; Middleton had succeeded in taking his own life a month earlier in similar circumstances and for precisely the same reasons. That year remained important for O'Neill: The Iceman Cometh as well as Long Day's Journey Into Night take place in 1912. But perhaps the closest link between the famous playwright and the failed poet is found in O'Neill's dreamy autobiographical play, Ah, Wilderness! Set six years earlier, the play (sometimes satirically) depicts the growing pains of a love-sick, moody, poetical young man. Was Richard Miller named for Richard Middleton?--Michael Hinden
1Tom Stoppard, Travesties (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), Act I, p. 62.
2 Richard Middleton, "A Drama of Youth" in The Ghost Ship and Other Stories (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1912). Subsequent poetry quotations are from Poems and Songs (same date and publisher) and Richard Middleton: Richard's Shilling Selections from Modern Poets, ed. John Gawsworth London: The Richards Press, 1937).
3 Quoted by Henry Savage, Richard Middleton: The Man and His Work (Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, n.d.), p. 47.
4 From one of the chapter headings of Savage's biography.
5 Ibid., p. 84. In addition to the biography, Savage produced Richard Middleton's Letters To Henry Savage, edited with an introduction and comments by the recipient (London: The Mandrake Press, 1929). Most of the letters ask for money.
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