Phantasmagoria

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            “Empress of Art, for thee I twine
This wreath with all too slender skill.
Forgive my Muse each halting line,
And for the deed accept the will!”

                                                       Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll published Phantasmagoria and Other poems in 1911. It is a long poem, written in six Cantos, but is of light enough fair that I’ll break the rules on sharing long poems in honor of Halloween.   Here is Canto I and if you are interested in finding out more I have included a link to the entire poem at the end.

Phantasmagoria Canto I (The Trysting)

by Lewis Carroll

ONE winter night, at half-past nine,
Cold, tired, and cross, and muddy,
I had come home, too late to dine,
And supper, with cigars and wine,
Was waiting in the study.

There was a strangeness in the room,
And Something white and wavy
Was standing near me in the gloom –
I took it for the carpet-broom
Left by that careless slavey.

But presently the Thing began
To shiver and to sneeze:
On which I said “Come, come, my man!
That’s a most inconsiderate plan.
Less noise there, if you please!”

“I’ve caught a cold,” the Thing replies,
“Out there upon the landing.”
I turned to look in some surprise,
And there, before my very eyes,
A little Ghost was standing!

He trembled when he caught my eye,
And got behind a chair.
“How came you here,” I said, “and why?
I never saw a thing so shy.
Come out! Don’t shiver there!”

He said “I’d gladly tell you how,
And also tell you why;
But” (here he gave a little bow)
“You’re in so bad a temper now,
You’d think it all a lie.

“And as to being in a fright,
Allow me to remark
That Ghosts have just as good a right
In every way, to fear the light,
As Men to fear the dark.”

“No plea,” said I, “can well excuse
Such cowardice in you:
For Ghosts can visit when they choose,
Whereas we Humans ca’n’t refuse
To grant the interview.”

He said “A flutter of alarm
Is not unnatural, is it?
I really feared you meant some harm:
But, now I see that you are calm,
Let me explain my visit.

“Houses are classed, I beg to state,
According to the number
Of Ghosts that they accommodate:
(The Tenant merely counts as WEIGHT,
With Coals and other lumber).

“This is a ‘one-ghost’ house, and you
When you arrived last summer,
May have remarked a Spectre who
Was doing all that Ghosts can do
To welcome the new-comer.

“In Villas this is always done –
However cheaply rented:
For, though of course there’s less of fun
When there is only room for one,
Ghosts have to be contented.

“That Spectre left you on the Third –
Since then you’ve not been haunted:
For, as he never sent us word,
‘Twas quite by accident we heard
That any one was wanted.

“A Spectre has first choice, by right,
In filling up a vacancy;
Then Phantom, Goblin, Elf, and Sprite –
If all these fail them, they invite
The nicest Ghoul that they can see.

“The Spectres said the place was low,
And that you kept bad wine:
So, as a Phantom had to go,
And I was first, of course, you know,
I couldn’t well decline.”

“No doubt,” said I, “they settled who
Was fittest to be sent
Yet still to choose a brat like you,
To haunt a man of forty-two,
Was no great compliment!”

“I’m not so young, Sir,” he replied,
“As you might think. The fact is,
In caverns by the water-side,
And other places that I’ve tried,
I’ve had a lot of practice:

“But I have never taken yet
A strict domestic part,
And in my flurry I forget
The Five Good Rules of Etiquette
We have to know by heart.”

My sympathies were warming fast
Towards the little fellow:
He was so utterly aghast
At having found a Man at last,
And looked so scared and yellow.

“At least,” I said, “I’m glad to find
A Ghost is not a DUMB thing!
But pray sit down: you’ll feel inclined
(If, like myself, you have not dined)
To take a snack of something:

“Though, certainly, you don’t appear
A thing to offer FOOD to!
And then I shall be glad to hear –
If you will say them loud and clear –
The Rules that you allude to.”

“Thanks! You shall hear them by and by.
This IS a piece of luck!”
“What may I offer you?” said I.
“Well, since you ARE so kind, I’ll try
A little bit of duck.

“ONE slice! And may I ask you for
Another drop of gravy?”
I sat and looked at him in awe,
For certainly I never saw
A thing so white and wavy.

And still he seemed to grow more white,
More vapoury, and wavier –
Seen in the dim and flickering light,
As he proceeded to recite
His “Maxims of Behaviour.”

 

For the next installment, Canto II (Hys Fyve Rules) and a complete reproduction of the original book, check out the link to Project Gutenberg below:

Phantasmagoria and Other Poems by Lewis Carroll.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/651/651-h/651-h.htm#page1

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The Art of Dying

 

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Pride of The Spirit – Woodcut by Master E. S. circa 1460

 

Sonnet

Evelyn Douglas

Starry mystery of the eternal skies!
To-night I walk the verges of the grave:
The shallow things that charm life and enslave
Fall off: the gaunt world stands without disguise.
Hope, starry mystery, to the world-sick eyes:
Unfold, thou aching void, to thoughts that crave
The secret of thy secret, though I rave.
Better to rave than live in sick surmise.

The moon, and all the stars about the pole.
Swim round me, and I travel in dull pain,
A dumb Want in the solitude of Time.
What means it all ? Whence comes, and to what goal?
Whence, what am I whose life seems all in vain?
— Earth, sea, and sky stand silent and sublime.

Happy Halloween.  This trick or treat connects sonnets of Evelyn Douglas (John Barlas), the theater of Phantasmagoria and the Christian text, The Art of Dying.    Where do I see a common thread? The answer is in the imagery of the macabre, which today we associate with Halloween, but was common in religion, architecture, art and literature from the middle ages through the early 1900’s.

Deaths constant presence, a source of mystery, solace and sorrow, for the whole of human history has diminished in our sanitized modern experience. Health care having changed, for most of us, our first hand knowledge of death, relegating it to an infrequent stranger, an antiseptic ghost that exists outside of our homes and daily lives.  Death in the middle ages and Victorian England was an ever-present master,  a very real specter that haunted from the miracle of birth to all facets of life.   The language and experience of death, a central inspiration of classical poetry,  is spoken more seldom today.  We have turned the macabre into a mere light-hearted entertainment of October, not a reflection of our human experience, reconciling Life with the inevitability of Death, light with dark.

Ars Morendi, The Art of Dying,  is a Christian text.  Published first in Germany in the 1400’s and then revised and republished in the 1500’s.  It was written during the context of the Black Death, the depopulation of parts of Europe and the following social unrest that occurred.   Illustrated with graphic woodcuts like the one above, it provides instruction in how to approach death with propriety.  It was an unexpected response by the Roman Catholic Church, whose ranks were hard hit by plague.  It gave to laymen,  the precepts of preparing for a good death.  The idea of the Art of Death, became popular among both Protestants and Catholics, lessening fear and providing relief to both the living and the dying.

The imagery of the Art of Dying may appear graphic to current religious sensibilities; with demons alongside angels,  both waiting for the soul to emerge from the dying man’s mouth, but was common in churches and religious texts of its era.  It should be no surprise then that the macabre made the jump from religious to theatrical.  Phantasmagoria, a common theatrical experience across Europe in the 1800s, combined elements of what we would consider a séance with good old-fashioned scare tactics with projected imagery of skeletons, shadowy apparitions, sound effects and theatrical tricks.  Think of phantasmagoria as the Friday The Thirteenth horror movies of their day.

John Barlas, an under appreciated sonneteer, a friend of Oscar Wilde, an anarchist and ardent socialist, published remarkable poems and sonnets under the name Evelyn Douglas.    Barlas also wrote for the phantasmagoria in London.   His connection to sonnets and phantasmagoria may seem at odds,  but fits together seamlessly with his poetic vision.   Barlas’ use of color, flames, lust and passion in his writing, weave imagery of  romantic beauty with the macabre as part of the natural order.  A perspective that would feel perfectly at home,  if we were able to walk the landscape of the grime infested alleys of London in the late 1900’s.

Barlas’ book, Phantasmagoria: Love Sonnets,  delves deeply into the themes of love, passion, life and death.   Here are two of his sonnets for your Halloween pleasure.  For a complete collection check out the website Sonnet Central.

LIII

Evelyn Douglas

As a flower springs up out of dark and cold,
Drawn by the gracious beauty of the light,
A bud that knows not all its own delight,
Till opening to one blaze of red and gold
Its deep-involvèd splendours, fold by fold,
It yields the perfume of its being one night,
Touches with conscious joy its nature’s height,
Then withers back into the crumbling mould:
So love from the human spirit’s lonely lair,
Nourished in moving darkness and damp gloom;
And peeps forth shyly to the golden air,
–A mere bud, but a blossom in its womb,
That knows itself a moment of brief bloom,
Then withers back into the soul’s despair.

 

LIV

Evelyn Douglas

Wave after wave arises from the deep,
And slips back into silence and the grave:
It matters not whether it fret and rave
And foam at lip with fury, or still keep
A quiet motion: both sink into sleep,
The same cold sleep, and the great sea, that gave,
Receives again their life, wave after wave.
Shall we who think of it give thanks or weep?
I know not; only would the law not lay
With love as life! for as our lives emerge
From the vague sea to sing their own brief dirge;
So out of each of these, and vain as they,
Love after love arises like a surge,
And sighs, and passes in the sigh away.

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Poems Lyrical and Dramatic, by Evelyn Douglas. 1894.

Phantasmagoria: Love Sonnets, by Evelyn Douglas, 1887.

©2017 Original material copyright T. A. Fry.  Other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.