Poor Theo Marzials. Born on this day in 1850, he was one of the most appealing characters of 1890s English letters, the self-styled “darling of the British Museum reading room“. Sadly his scant stock of posthumous distinction rests almost entirely on one admittedly ill-judged verse, “A Tragedy“, described by some as the world’s worst poem. While I imagine it is unlikely to replace Auden as a funeral favourite, it really isn’t that bad, and in any case represents a very small part of Marzials’ output. It’s like judging Woody Allen solely on unwatchable dreck like Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex… (or Shadows and Fog, or Cassandra’s Dream, or You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, or…OK maybe Woody Allen was a bad example).
Let’s put Marzials up against another poetaster by way of comparison. Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart earlier this year penned a poem entitled “Our Future”, whose self-serving agenda is as monstrous as its offences against metre, rhyme and euphony. It’s been called “the universe’s worst poem“, and frankly I have no quarrel with that. It is probably no coincidence that it was written by one of the universe’s most appalling people.
But Theo? He was just having a bad day. The rest of the pieces in The Gallery of Pigeons and Other Poems, published in 1873 (and available online here), are far better, and usually much longer, than “A Tragedy”. Not to be confused with that poem, “Tragedies”, for instance, reads like a Nick Cave murder ballad. Or there’s “Nocturne”, in which a private recital and noises off harmonise in a concerto of abstract longing with a faint chord of homoerotica, and begins thus:
He sat at a spinet and played.
He play’d—my beautiful soul with the earnest eyes,
My friend !—my soul, if the soul is the part that can rise
To the heights of God, as with wings, —to the greatest sublimities.
He sat at a spinet and play’d.
His long firm hands on the music lingered, and stray’d
Longingly, lovingly—I— (did he know I was by ?)
I sat in the shade,
Away at the window ; —’twas night ; there were stars in the sky,
And the lone moon rose, as afraid
To look on the lovers that stay’d
On the terrace below and whisper’d ; and high, up high,
The full-leaved trembling trees, deep in the night were laid;
Sitting there in the shade,
Could hear in the distance the hum of the town, and the low soft sighs
Of the wind in the trees, and the soothing hushes that stray’d
Over the flowers in the garden, that longed and look’d up to the skies
In silence of expectation,—the pause as of one that had prayed.
And below in the lounge and the rise
And silent ceaseless tides of the river, some sort of music was made,
As it glided along to the moon. In my heart was a music likewise,—
And he sat at the spinet and play’d.
My beautiful, beautiful soul, with the earnest eyes.