“…most charming of men.”
And that, my friends, is the perfect description of the ultimate strange flower: Count Eric Stenbock, the most outrageous poet you’ve (probably) never heard of.
The four slim volumes which Stenbock published in his lifetime – three of poetry and one of short stories – are ridiculously rare, the only biography dedicated to him long out of print. Written by John Adlard, it bears the title Stenbock, Yeats and the Nineties, but apart from supplying that alluring opening description, Yeats is barely mentioned in the book; it appears the publishers were hoping a better known name might improve the book’s chances. Of his subject Adlard curtly states at the outset, “he was a sick man, a pervert, and his life was short.”
Stenbock was born in 1860 to an aristocratic Baltic German family and numbered a queen of Sweden among his ancestors. Largely raised in England, he produced his first collection of poetry in 1881 while at Oxford. Love, Sleep and Dreams was dedicated to Charles Bertram Fowler, a boy with whom Stenbock was infatuated, who died of consumption at age 16; Stenbock himself was ill for much of his short life, shortening the odds of an early death with alcohol and opium.
Stenbock inherited extensive estates in Estonia in 1885, and must have been quite the eyeful when he turned up in a green suit with an orange silk shirt. The conservative Baltic German gentry (a milieu memorialised by Marguerite Yourcenar in her novel Le Coup de Grâce), were not ready for such exotic plumage. There was more to come: Stenbock set about turning his grand neo-classical manor into a hothouse cum menagerie, with red walls, tropical blooms and a variety of free-range fauna, including tortoises, monkeys, parrots, doves, lizards and salamanders.
The count’s bedroom featured a pentagram over the bed, and there he would smoke opium and play piano late into the night, emerging the next day – late, naturally – in a dressing gown with a snake wrapped around his neck. Even these quirks were not enough to dissuade misguided local landowners who hoped their marriageable daughters might catch Stenbock’s eye; when invited to dinner with them he would turn up with a pet monkey.
But realising there was more to life than freaking out Baltic blue bloods, Stenbock returned to Britain in 1887. Both his life and work perfectly captured the mood of the Decadent movement then in the ascendant, and not surprisingly this doomed, bizarre being made a lasting impact on his contemporaries. Arthur Symons, for instance, memorably categorised him as “bizarre, fantastic, feverish, eccentric, extravagant, morbid and perverse…” (which makes you realise how much more fun Snow White and the Seven Dwarves would have been as a Yellow Book rather than a Golden Book publication).
Symons deserves to be quoted at length on the subject of Stenbock: “There was in him something fascinating, disconcerting; the manners of the man might easily have become repulsive; yet, all the same, he might, for all I knew, have strayed out of a wild beast show, without any intention of returning thither. Then, as always, he was one of the most inhuman beings I have ever encountered; inhuman and abnormal; a degenerate, who had I know not how many vices.”
Writer Ernest Rhys remembers Stenbock taking five sugars in his tea and playing a Ukrainian lullaby on the piano. In the poet’s rooms he was welcomed by Stenbock with his “familiar” mounted on his shoulder: a toad called Fatima. Elsewhere Rhys discovered a devotional red lamp burning between a Buddha and a bust of Shelley. This eccentric shrine was even visited by Oscar Wilde himself, though he made the mistake of lighting a cigarette from that red lamp, much to his host’s horror.
Stenbock’s grandfather had once left him a sum of money, to be claimed not when but “if” he reached 21 and the poet’s persistent ill health mean he experienced his mortality more vividly than most. There may have been an element of camp to Stenbock’s morbid fixations, but in the 1890s his vision, dark at the best of times, was sunk in Stygian gloom. In 1893 he published a mournful collection under the name The Shadow of Death; the following year he claimed “the highest odds on my life now is five weeks”.
By this time, things were getting really weird. Stenbock could consume nothing heartier than bread and milk and his alcoholism brought on terrifying deliriums. Travelling for various cures, he was steadily losing his grip on sanity, accompanied everywhere by a dog, a monkey and a life-sized doll, whom he referred to as “le petit comte” and insisted was his son.
April 26, 1895 would prove a fateful date for both Oscar Wilde, the public face of Decadence, and Eric Stenbock, arguably its purest exponent. For Wilde, it was the first day of the trial which would eventually see him sentenced to hard labour, which would in turn hasten his death.
For Stenbock, that appointment could be postponed no longer. In one of his last verses he had exclaimed “Why/Should I, whose shaft has withered without bloom/Seek fallen flowers and fruit? – leave me alone to die”. He got his wish; at home in Brighton, he hit his head on a grate after lashing out at a member of his household with a poker and died, aged just 35.
Stenbock, unruly even in death: the sorry state of his Brighton grave.