A "Little World" in Decadence: Marjorie Pickthall’s Poems on Nature and on Religion

by Anne Compton


The poetry of Marjorie Pickthall (1883-1922) was published to exaggerated critical acclaim. A "singing bird" of "lyrical genius" (Ritchie 158), she was for some the "greatest" poet to appear in thirty years (MacMechan 2). Any abatement in the applause was apologetic: "[she] must be accorded a relatively respectable, possibly high, place in the history of English literature…produced in Canada" (Logan, "Genius" 155). Ten years after her death, W.E. Collin read her poetry in terms of "repressed desire," a tantalizing, but undeveloped, thesis. Identifying her as a poet of the Celtic twilight, Collin ascribed to her a Celtic lineage, much as Lionel Johnson in the ‘nineties claimed one for himself in order to participate in the Celtic revival, but Collin found this "disposition to revery and yearning," aggravated by "the feminine temperament," to be "disastrous" for her art since "revery is only second-hand vision" (357-58). Collin struck the note that E.J. Pratt, E.K. Brown, and Desmond Pacey would echo: "little direct experience of life upon which to draw" (Pacey Creative Writing 98). Although patronizing about Pickthall’s "handicap" of birth, the misfortune of being "born a woman" (352), Collin successfully argues the Symbolist nature of her work; establishes her familiarity with "Verlainian precepts" of prosody (369); emphasizes, as earlier critics had, her "paganism," and suggests a sexual ambiguity—"she usually transfers her feelings to a male character" (374)—all of which link her to the Decadents of the ’nineties. Commenting not only on the Symbolist aspect of her work, but also on its Impressionistic qualities,("‘the impression of the moment followed to the letter’" [Verlaine, qtd. in Symons 140]), Collin began an archaeology that remains incomplete. In spite of his anti-feminism, Collin cannot be held responsible for the later critics’ dismissal of Pickthall since his essay has the merit, at least, of conferring serious attention upon her work.

By mid-century, Marjorie Pickthall’s poetry had been vaporized. Canada’s major male poets and critics decided she lacked psychological sophistication (Pratt 335) and was "quite helpless to apprehend [the immediate present] in its poetic significance" (Brown 66). The problem, Pacey suggested, was that "[k]nowing little of the world of men and affairs, she was compelled to draw her inspiration from books, and about all her work there is a bookish, indoor atmosphere" (Creative Writing 99). True poetry, Pacey argued, is a "public act….a man speaking to men" ("Poems" 149), not the inaudible and monotonous (148) "‘private acts of devotion’" practised by Pickthall (149). Even Lorne Pierce, once the guardian of her reputation, came to "deplore [the] failure to face her own age, and [the] tendency to take refuge in the past," that Pacey notices ("Poems" 146), although when the Pre-Raphaelites did this, it was thought a gorgeous strategic response to their "immediate present," mid-Victorian industrialism. In the Literary History of Canada, Roy Daniells concluded, "with regret," that Pickthall was "at too many removes from the original sources of strength" (425), whatever those may be. On the air, as well as in print, the revisionists proclaimed her "outmoded," "inadequate," a sample of "derivative literary culture" (Phelps 2). In her bookishness she was, the men said, Pre-Raphaelite and Yeatsian: a second-hand rose. Dismissing it as "derivative," they ignored her "literary culture."

Turning, quite decidedly, from "the world of men and affairs," Pickthall sought a world of sensations in nature, art, religion, and the past; in anyone else this would be called aestheticism not "failure." The religious-erotic sensibility of Pickthall’s poetry links her to the nineteenth-century movement that had its beginnings in Tennyson, its culmination in the decade at the end of the century that was famous for its exotic flora. Successive apostles of art—or of "art for art's sake"—sought authority for their views of art in their immediate precursors. "If [Dante Gabriel] Rossetti was a subconscious influence, and perhaps the most powerful of all, we looked consciously to Pater for our philosophy," said Yeats of his group, the ’nineties poets (201). Pickthall was not living life and writing poetry second-hand through books; she believed as Pater did that "the love of art for art's sake" gives "the highest quality to your moments as they pass…" (252), or as Wilde prophesied, that "the elect spirits of each age, the critical and cultured spirits, will grow less and less interested in actual life, and will seek to gain their impressions almost entirely from what Art has touched" ("Critic as Artist" 375). Writing in 1922, Albert Hassard recalls a letter (20 May 1904) from Pickthall about her reading and remarks "the absolute possession which literature seemed to have taken of her mind" (159), a view confirmed by Pickthall herself in a letter to Helena Coleman: "O me, the call of these old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago" (12 April 1912).1 Reading biblical legends, the classics, medieval lore, and her contemporaries, Pickthall refracted the only part of the "actual" world that mattered to her (nature) through the impression she gained there. Like Pater and Wilde, she approached reality through the mediating agency of art. Her excursions into nature are, however, excavations of her own desires, and as Alex Kizuk remarks, there is an "intense bond between literariness and desire in her verse" (23). Like her precursors and contemporaries in Canadian poetry, she writes of nature, but her Decadent imagination and feminine sensibility (and the combination is problematic) result in a view of nature very different from theirs.

Reading Pickthall’s letters and diary entries, generously, although partially, quoted by Pierce in A Book of Remembrance, reveals Pickthall’s interests, from earliest childhood, in music, books, and nature. In her detailed observations of nature, and in her paintings and drawings, she was, says Pierce, "always bent upon some quest for beauty" (12). Because she painted and played, she naturally incorporated into her poetry the other arts. Her letters contain discussions of Robert Browning, Yeats (with whom she had "‘friends in common’" [65]), Ibsen ("‘deadly dull’"), Swinburne (admired for the "‘swing and surge’" of his lines), Poe, and Conrad (letters, qtd. in Pierce 51-54). Not only Swinburne’s cadence, but also his phrases permeate her poetry and correspondence. In another letter to Coleman, Pickthall re-works Swinburne’s line "A little soul for a little bears up this corpse which is man" ("Hymn to Proserpine" [82]) to grisly effect: "What do people do when their corpses grow mature and their ghosts stay young [?]…My corpse is going to be a great nuisance to me" ([n.d.] Sept. 1918). With correspondent Alfred Gordon of Montreal, whose "In Memory of Ernest Dowson" she praised, she discussed poetics. Her advice was "‘let some of your rules [as to form] go, and sing’" (66). As to her own practice, she claimed to have forgotten "‘all about iambics and spondees,’" and to judge the rhythm of a line "‘by ear alone’" (letters, qtd. in Pierce 88-89). She spoke enthusiastically about William Morris, and described herself as "‘after [Dante Gabriel] Rossetti’" (letters 76-77). "I wish you were here to have Morris’ queer, stiff, gorgeous things hurled at your head," she told Coleman on 14 November, 1911. (Pierce, who is always concerned to present Pickthall as a decorous lady, omitted this energetic endorsement of Morris when he quoted the letter [76-77]). In her correspondence, she expressed a preference for "‘pure singing’" rather than for "‘moralizing things’" (75), an echo of Swinburne’s view: "a poet’s business is presumably to write good verses, and by no means to redeem the age and remould society" ("Charles Baudelaire" 28). To rescue the world by poetry was not her intention. Her poetry, the product of a finely-tuned sensibility, might have remained private, or at least fugitive, if Sir Andrew Macphail and others had not "solicited" for its publication (Pierce 64). In the greenhouse-grooming provided by her parents (Pierce 4), she cultivated a leisured sensibility. An aristocrat by nurture, Pickthall had no wish, no will, no opportunity, to participate in the ordinary activities of a productive, progressive economy. Sidelined by gender, she did not have to adopt the role of bohemian dandy. Poor health may have contributed to her embowered existence, but she was no fragile, or sexless, Ariel as some have said (Logan, "Genius" 156). Powerful longings reverberate in this poetry. Nor was she "‘the soul of sweet, simple goodness’" that Pierce kept company with while he wrote A Book of Remembrance (Campbell 91). Pierce’s diminution of her powerful personality can be seen in the gap that exists between the "Biography," which Arthur Pickthall (her father) provided, and what Pierce made of it. When her father writes that "she developed a great personal dignity, which does not quite express it. One should perhaps [rather] say that she became intensely conscious of her Ego" (2), Pierce translates, "Marjorie was endowed with a certain degree of wholesome self-respect, an unmistakable personal dignity, which sat quaintly upon the little figure" (emphasis added; 3).

Read in quantity, Pickthall’s poetry, like Swinburne’s, is monotonous. A single poem dazzles; ten poems daze. Perhaps it is the musical cadence; or, the particular (and seemingly talismanic) colours, flowers, and birds, so often repeated; or, the vague but intense emotions. And these emotions are hard to get a hold on because, as Arthur Henry Hallam said in writing of Tennyson’s first volume, "[t]he tone becomes the sign of the feeling" (856); the feeling remains undenominated although one recognizes its pitch, its intensity. There is, however, a third stage in this engagement. Pickthall repays, in revelations, one’s willingness to be dazed. A close friend of Pickthall reminisced, "‘[s]he was so many people,’" and to Pierce she "was not one, but many things" (Pierce 94, 169). Continuing the archaeology of desires, begun by Collin, might disclose something of the complexity of Marjorie Pickthall, and correct, perhaps, the modernist dismissal of her "little world." Nor does the more recent description of her work as "fading romanticism" (MacGillivary 648) adequately describe a poetry so decadently dark. Pickthall’s predilection for the autumnal and crepuscular phases of nature, which gives her poetry its melancholy tone, and her imagery, drawn from legend and dream, are qualities of English poetry in the ’nineties and of the entire poetic movement in France in the last decades of the nineteenth century (Pierrot 7). Placing her in literary history, one might find her again.


The writers whom Pickthall admired and the poetic that she claimed for herself ("‘pure singing’") locates her not only in the company of the Pre-Raphaelites and Swinburne, but also in the company of the ’nineties poets. Arthur Symons, sometime-member of the Rhymers’ Club, proclaimed the group’s oppositional stance to "‘impurities’": "‘[w]e are concerned with nothing but impressions’" (Yeats 111-12). By the ‘nineties, aestheticism had incorporated Impressionism, both Pater’s "philosophy" and the painters’ practice of it. Not only from Baudelaire, but also from Impressionism, late aestheticism got its driving thesis—art for art’s sake: the Impressionist landscape or object is treated "‘for the sake of the tones, and not for the sake of the subject itself’" (qtd. in Hauser 162). From Impressionism, aestheticism drew a philosophy, and in its "evanescent light," the aesthetes lived their lives. Analysing late-stage aestheticism, or Decadence, Arthur Symons identifies its components:

[W]e find that the terms Impressionism and Symbolism define correctly enough the two main branches of that movement. Now Impressionist and Symbolist…are really working on the same hypothesis, applied in different directions. What both seek is not general truth merely, but la vérité vraie, the very essence of truth—the truth of appearances to the senses, of the visible world to the eyes that see it; and the truth of spiritual things to the spiritual vision. (136)

"[T]he truth of appearances to the senses," as handed on by Impressionism, prompted certain aspects of the Decadent turn in aestheticism. Recognizing the instability of light and atmosphere, the French Impressionists developed a range of techniques through which they incorporated fleeting change into their representations of nature. Their canvases revealed that to each beholder—indeed to the same beholder at different moments—truth is different. Not only is each beholder walled in, as Pater says (248), by the individual subjective impression, but also all impressions "burn and are extinguished with our consciousness of them" (248). In the achievement of the impression lies its extinction. The "continual vanishing away" of the Impressionist moment, as theorized by Pater, and as represented in painting, is prescient of death. "[W]hat at first sight seems like mere self-indulgence [the Decadents’ attitude] turns out to be a means of keeping something ominous at bay"—"the self’s constant vulnerability to change, to the future and to mortality" (Nicholls 43-44). In response to the threat implied in Impressionism, the Decadents shifted the emphasis in Pater’s formulation: whereas Pater advocated a mind continuously alert to fresh impressions, the Decadents emphasized the voltage of the moment, the receipt of the exceptional sensation. The Decadents traded quantity—"getting as many pulsations as possible" (Pater 252)—for intensity. They laid emphasis upon the effect of the sensation—its pain or pleasure— rather than upon the impression itself. The "stylistic extravagance" of the Decadents’ language reported on an "interiorised world" (Nicholls 53), presenting the personality of the perceiver, not the perceived object. Enjoyment of pleasure, or pain, takes the form of amplification, forgets precision. Vagueness, as well as extravagance, characterizes Decadence due to the attenuation of sensation as it is researched for its voltage, its intensity.

The Decadents responded to the Impressionists’ idea that all is passing, with a nostalgia for the immediate moment past (melancholy), and with a nostalgia for the remote past (despair): "Gone now, the carven work! Ruined, the golden shrine!" (Johnson, "The Age of a Dream" 24). Only through ritual might the present be protected from vanishment. Or, translated into another sense—the visual heard (Whistler’s Nocturnes and Symphonies); the auditory tasted (Des Esseintes’ liquors in symphonic arrangement [Au Rebours 50-53])—sensation might be reduplicated. Strangeness, too, heightened the experience of beauty. But perhaps—and here one encounters Symons’ other branch of Decadence—the phenomenal world (and the Impressionists recognized no other), in its colours, perfumes, and sounds, is only a reflection of another world, of a higher, spiritual beauty. So that, the poet’s task, according to Baudelaire, is to interpret symbolically the vast storehouse of signs in the "visible universe" that reveal the spiritual (187). And even if this higher domain is not transcendental, does not art itself, the artist himself or herself, complete the harmonies that nature left incomplete (Whistler 899), creating a better, a perdurable beauty?

In a complicated relationship, Impressionism both endorsed nineteenth-century aestheticism and helped to engender Decadence. The aesthetes shared with the Impressionists the belief in art for art’s sake, but the "continual vanishing away" of the Impressionist moment contributed a sense of mutability—ultimately, fatality—that turned aestheticism Decadent, death-obsessed and, in a higher and higher pitch of sensation, death-defying. Impressionism raised the "moment" to acute attention; the Decadents, in defiance, spiritualized it. No wonder Rossetti was the powerful "subconscious influence," as Yeats said; the Decadents were recuperating Rossetti’s hope that "[t]he moment of most intense sensuous perception is at the same time a moment of spiritual insight…" (Charlesworth 9). The Decadents took up the empirical moment of Impressionism, intensifying it with nostalgia, ritual, strangeness, synaesthesia, hoping to gain in intensity what was lost in duration. Pickthall is an aesthete in her "quest for beauty" and in her elevation of "pure singing" over "moralizing things." Beyond that, attentive to, even obsessed with, certain phases of light, and aware of the evanescent moment, Pickthall, in her glittering gloom, is a Decadent. Her poetic tactic—situating herself in autumn or at evening, on the brink of passing light—and her anti-naturalistic procedures constitute a defence against the vanishing moment.


Like Charles G.D. Roberts and Bliss Carman, Pickthall subscribes to "the kinship of beauty and holiness" (Ross 17). The early (1908) poem "The Immortal" (Drift 12) reveals what Pickthall worships and shows how the god, Beauty, fits into her High-Anglican theology. Her confirmation (six years before the poem) took place in the Chapel of Bishop Strachan School, where she had been educated by the Sisters ("Memorabilia"), from whom, perhaps, she acquired that strong interest in Catholic ritual and doctrine (of which more in a moment) that emerges in her second volume. "The Immortal" sets forth her creed, and, combined with "Dawn," which directly follows in Drift of Pinions, illustrates her poetic practice. Even if the present is intent upon extinguishing beauty—six adverbial clauses anticipate the extinction—she continues to believe the god immortal:

Beauty is still immortal in our eyes;
When sways no more the spirit-haunted reed,
When the wild grape shall build
No more her canopies,

•      •      •

When the last moon burns low, and, spark by spark,
The little worlds die out along the dark?

Although "little worlds"—moments of exquisite sensation—"die out along the dark," Beauty upholds the firmament and guarantees that God can continue to provide, or to renew, sensational moments. At once a version of the Holy Spirit and a Pan-deity ("spirit-haunted reed"), Beauty displays and relays to the earth-bound, God’s creativity: Beauty "hear[s] new stars come singing from God’s hand." This is religion combined with beauty; this is the religion of beauty—aestheticism. In Pickthall’s poetry, beauty is a refuge. Certainly the "little worlds" lost were canopied moments when life was "stilled" and "lulled." Clearly Pickthall thinks that refuge menaced: "Beauty is still immortal" (emphasis added) is oppositional. This poem sets forth the poetic of her first volume, Drift of Pinions (1913), whose title, drawn from Francis Thompson’s "No Strange Land," echoes the psalmist—"He will cover you with His pinions / And under His wings you may seek refuge" (91:4)— who also speaks of a sanctuary for those who worship in "the beauty of holiness" (29:2). For Pickthall, the equation worked in the other direction: her refuge was "the holiness of beauty."

"O keep the world forever at the dawn," published in 1900, is Pickthall’s prescription for the century. Imperiously she commands a halt to time: "Fling back the chariot of encroaching day / …and let the hastening sun / Along his path in heaven no higher run…" (Drift 13). In the pause, she seeks a finer tuning of hearing, seeing, feeling. The half-light and the barely audible—"all things hushed"—refine sensual discernment. She has no use for "encroaching day," just as she has no interest in the "passive pageantries" of summer ("Frost Song," Drift 21). To read Drift of Pinions is to pass from dawn to dusk, from spring to fall, skipping what lies in between. Only transitional light interested her:

O keep the world forever at the dawn,
Yet, keeping so, let nothing lifeless seem,
But hushed, as if the miracle of morn
Were trembling in its dream.

Pickthall thought the world dreamed itself completer, finer—"trembling in its dream"—and through her poetry, she was carrying out the world’s dream of itself. The artist, Whistler argues, "does not confine himself to purposeless copying" but by selecting "brilliant tones and delicate tints" completes the harmony nature left incomplete (899). The half-light opened, for Pickthall, on a world of enchantment, a world delicately perceived and more than half created in her imagination. Nor did she want more "earthlier sounds than these [of dawn]" (14).

Like Tennyson, in "The Lady of Shalott," Pickthall poses the problem: how to keep the world of imagination uncontaminated but how, at the same time, to keep it alive: "let nothing lifeless seem…." The Lady of Shalott makes art neither from her own experience nor from others’ activities directly witnessed; she weaves the reflections of a mirror. In self-enclosure, Pickthall also created a dream of nature out of nature as reflected in her imagination. This "better" nature combined finely discriminated perceptions of the real with an ideal world glimpsed in literature. She was the quintessential literary impressionist; her impressions of the exterior world were refracted through literature. The medievalism of her "Vision" is obvious in the posthumously published last poem she wrote (MacKay 7):

I have not walked on common ground,
Nor drunk of earthly streams;
A shining figure, mailed and crowned,
Moves softly through my dreams.

He makes the air so keen and strange,
The stars so fiercely bright;
The rocks of time, the tides of change,
Are nothing in his sight.
                                (Little Songs 11)

Pickthall suspected that it was impossible to carry alive the imagination into the forms of busy, daily life, but nature in its nocturnal and autumnal moods sustained, even invited, the play of imagination. She resisted, as "Dawn" illustrates, the frontal assault of a noisier, brighter day; she cultivated sensations in transitional light, feared loss of imagination in full day. Like the Lady of Shalott, she could be heard only by those "reaping early" or reaping "by the moon" (Tennyson 26). The critics of the nineteen twenties loved her best when she was dead; she was the woman of unique soul (Logan, Genius 154). Later, in the nineteen fifties, the knights at a new Camelot decided she just could not manage the world outside the tower. Her poetics, "The Immortal" and "Dawn," explain why she chose the tower and what she did there—improve upon nature. In "The Princess in the Tower," published posthumously in Collected Poems (1927), the speaker, who might be the Lady of Shalott herself or William Morris’ "Rapunzel," regrets that she has left the tower, coming "A long way down": "I was happier up in the room / At the head of the long blue stair…" (121). Significantly, happiness is identified with the pool—"I was happy and lonely / As the heart of a mountain pool"—the symbol through which Pickthall signalizes her relationship to nature in successive landscape poems. Tower and pool, enclosure and mirror, structure her imagination. She depicted nature "out there" as she saw it reflected in literature, up a flight of "long blue stair[s]." Nature, the "pool," mirrored her self-enclosure. To understand her imagination one must look at the mirror image.


Pickthall is overheard, not heard, as D.C. Scott said (189), because this is a poetry of mood rather than of action or event. And what one "overhears" in this kind of poetry ("self-dependent" soliloquizing) is, according to John Stuart Mill, "feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude" (73, 71). Murmuringly, Pickthall describes dream-claimed characters or is herself hypnotically held by a dream atmosphere. Hearing "Elfin voices call[ing] her" ("Armorel," Drift 3), she, or her character, is overtaken, spell-bound like Proserpine, bound for Hades, listening to "Little Fauns," itemizing a world of autumn and evening, a world closing down (Drift 5). Sensual surfeit is keyed to separation, and to the passing of season or day, occasions replete with "exquisite vision[s]" of sleep ("To Alcithoë," Drift 10). Evening is seductive; sleep is surrender. Not surprisingly when "Sleep like a lover faithfully hath sought me," the speaker bids "Evening," "Give me to night again…Give me to day no more" (Drift 16-17). Dusk is the entrance to a dream world: "Lord, there lies / Dew on Thy rose and dream upon my eyes" (16). Evening and autumn are conjunctive with the dream state.

Languor pervades the presentation of evening and autumn although energetic and vigorous speech, urgent openings, invokes them. Thereafter, a poem drifts into lassitude, an effect of the cadence of the sentences. Harmonics of alliteration and assonance, the movement of phrases in long lines, and phrasal parallelism weave a monotony conducive to sleep and dream. "Evening," for example, drifts to a lull rather than to a climax of closure: "Light as the long wave leaves the lonely shore, / Our boughs have lost the bloom that morning bore. / Give me to day no more" (17). The crepuscular, or autumnal, world is a Decadent one, not only because, like Dorian Gray’s, it is suffused with a sensual weariness—"[t]he evening darkened in the room. Noiselessly, and with silver feet, the shadows crept in from the garden. The colours faded wearily out of things" (Wilde 117)—but also, in Pickthall, evening and autumn are conceived of as beckoning presences. The seductiveness of such a presence is obvious in "Song of Late September," modelled probably on the goblins’ song in Christina Rossetti’s "Goblin Market." September entices the listener with fruits, herbs, "[a]ll sweet-smelling things there be…" (Drift 19). The song is an inveiglement of soporific sensations, inducements to sleep. September refers to, and offers, eyes, lips, fingers, and hand: "In my eyes the dawns are shown. / On my lips the summer lingers…" (20). Cataloguing delicacies for a willing auditor, September offers sensual ravishment. In Pickthall’s poetry, nature is a landscape of desires.

The urgent openings in the nature poems of Drift of Pinions express a will to surrender. Sometimes nature’s creatures are imperatively bidden to rest: "O little hearts, beat home, beat home, / Here is no place to rest," but the speaker joins them—"We pass and have no care"—in the flight to "A place where wandering wings may sleep" ("Swallows," Drift 23). Typically the self (the speaker) slips into the scene about mid-way. Apparently impersonal, being about nature or nature’s creatures, Pickthall’s poetry is, in fact, deeply personal. What matters to her is the effect an object or scene is having on her, the mood it is creating, its stimulation of fancy. Nature was Pickthall’s narcotic. Poems moving from urgent openings to easeful surrender, report its effect, a slippage into spell.

More often the auditor in the invitation poem is unspecified although urgently enjoined to "Come with me, follow me, swift as a moth, / Ere the wood-doves waken" ("The Pool," Drift 24). The pool, a place of beauty and enclosure, is presented at dawn and at night. As a day-time place, it is the site of play. The auditor, addressed in the opening lines, is invited, in this dawn escapade, to "Lift the long leaves and look down, look down / Where the light is shaken, / Amber and brown," but the safety of this leaf-hidden enclosure is doubled at night: "Sweet, O sweet my dreams should be / As the dark, sweet water enfolding me / Safe as a blind shell under the sea" (25). The insensate "blind shell" is a death fancy. Lover-like, evening and autumn arouse sensual appetite; the pool, which is both the culmination and the cessation of the flood of sensations, combines perfect beauty with annihilation. "The Pool" is an occasion of immersion and descent. In its depth and darkness, the speaker will dream "emerald light," "amber shade," and "golden glooms," sensations of light and colour refined of the dross of earth. The dream is presented in a web of alliterative sounds, mimicing the surrender. Pickthall’s depiction of the watery embrace, whether it is motivated by a desire for death or for purified vision ("Clear, O clear my dreams should be… / [with] the dark, sweet water enfolding me"), uncannily participates in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s "Subtle-scented transports" wreathed by "mounting vapours" ("Love’s Nocturn" 9) except Pickthall imagines herself not listening to "[s]ecret waters," but laved by them.

The symbol of the pool and the tactic of enclosure recur in "Dream River," the first stanza of which illustrates how Pickthall enters, and descends into, a landscape, moving between an edge and a centre:

Wind-silvered willows hedge the stream,
And all within is hushed and cool.
The water, in an endless dream,
Goes sliding down from pool to pool.
And every pool a sapphire is,
From shadowy deep to sunlit edge,
Ribboned around with irises
And cleft with emerald spears of sedge.

Precision of image gives way to decorative detail as dream effect takes over. The underside of willow leaves are precisely observed as "Wind-silvered," being flapped upward by the wind, but as the natural river "flows" into the dream river, the pool appears as a sapphire studded with "emerald spears." In Decadent fashion, the natural image is transformed to precious jewellery. Epithets of value—"amber bars" of sunlight and "silver brede" of stars—convey the incalculable worth of aestheticized nature. Certain states of nature provoke the dream, and in the dream-state, nature is transvalued. The pool of "Dream River," like "The Pool," the chief symbol in the nature poetry, enables the dream of perfect beauty which it is her business, in the room at the head of the "blue stair[s]," to get into the web.

One can almost feel Pickthall slide into a scene as she surrenders to its spell; and under that spell, specific details of an actual scene give way to artifice. The flowers of Pickthall’s world are stellar; the stars are scented "like jasmine of the skies" ("Evening" 16). The actuality of the scene dims; emotions, although intense, are blurry, dissolving into the cadence of the line. About nature she was observant—"she rivals Lampman" (Toye 15)—and friends marvelled at her powers of perception (De Bertrand Lugrin 72). That acuity did not result, obviously, in an empirical account of nature. On the contrary, the receiving consciousness transformed and transposed impressions of natural objects into a symbolic coinage suggestive of their extra-sensory worth.

Choosing moments of transition in nature, dawn on the brink of day, evening shifting into night, Pickthall’s desire is to halt such moments and to wrest from them an experience that is interior, esoteric, and intense. Sensations in nature, in Pickthall’s poetry, are spiritualized. Although she had an Impressionist’s sense of the transitory light and his, or her, appreciation of colour in light, her poetry is Decadent rather than Impressionist because she is not specializing vision, as an Impressionist would; sensation is not retinal. The stimulus is valued for its dream-provoking capabilities. To the eye of the Impressionist, the moment is evanescent due to constant change in climatic, atmospheric, and light conditions: "[e]very moment," writes Pater, "some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest….[And of these a] counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life" (249). Aware that the "moment" is mercurial and finite, Pickthall’s desire is to hold off day and change ("O keep the morning forever at the dawn") and to amplify the present moment.

Certain verbal practices, or habits, in Pickthall’s poetry parallel her wish to be enfolded in nature and her sense that nature is capable of offering that enclosure. Thus flowers are frequently presented as enveloping other forms: "the white iris folds the drowsing bee" ("Evening" 16), and darkness "Fold[s] my faint olives" (16). Earth "fold[s] them [shepherd, king] safe from their sorrowing" ("The Shepherd Boy," Drift 60). More often, however, earth discloses an entrance to be gained "ere the gates unclose" ("Little Fauns" 5). "[W]hen the mists unclose" ("The Pool" 24) or when "the first star uncloses" ("Serenade," Drift 68) is a crucial moment. Dawn or dusk "open[s] on the silence" she can enter ("Evening" 16), but there is also the sense that nature is a disclosure of who she is as well as an enclosure. It is herself she sees in nature, but, as further analysis will show, the reflection is problematic.

A second semantic practice accounts for the vagueness that accompanies amplification. Pickthall creates verbs or participles out of flowers and colours: Beauty "rosed the moth-wing" ("The Immortal" 12) and "glooms were rosed with wings" ("Mary Tired," Wood Carver's Wife 20). September offers an "irised net" (19) and "[s]apphired flies" delight the new mother in "Mary Tired." "[L]ilied thoughts of her," preoccupy "The Gardener’s Boy" (Wood Carver's Wife 26). Reaching for nature’s affect, not its objects, Pickthall depicts not flowers and colours, but a flowering and a colouring occurring in the mind. Rather than presenting the "‘integrity of the first impression’" (McConkey 149), Pickthall yields to the mood the impression inspires. Her scenes are tinted rose, sapphire, amber: each scene is awash in a particular hue. The fleeting moment, for Pickthall, was access to dream, not occasion for scientific inquiry. Pickthall’s scenes are closer to the tonal harmonies of Whistler, who thought art bettered nature, than to the pure colours of the Impressionists. Her verbal habits reflect her relationship to nature. It was to enfold her in dream ("unclose"/"fold"); so possessed, she experiences a rose-or-otherwise toned world. The elegiac coloration in her poetry implies sentiment not exactitude, but there is a desperation in that sentiment. The selective moments of nature upon which she focuses involve separation and leave-taking. Loss is implicated in the moment. In defence, objects are charged with an extra-sensory value (jewelled) in a dream of preservation and perfection. Moreover, to be enclosed in nature at just that moment, through immersion and descent ("The Pool"), puts an end to loss—the loss of beauty and of the self, that "perpetual weaving and unweaving" of the self that accompanies the "vanishing away" of the "moment" (Pater 249). Certainly, as Diana Relke says, "the poet is often absorbed by her own landscapes" (32), but the particularity of those landscapes (evening, autumn), and what she does with them, and through them, tells of her fears and her desires.

Pickthall’s novel Little Hearts (1915) reveals an Impressionist’s awareness of light and confirms Robert Garrett’s observation that "[f]ew writers know how to paint air as she does" (21). Light erases outlines, turns landscapes fluid: "[b]etween the cloud-soft shapes of two of the larger hills…a small wood lay, long and narrow, like a river turned to trees" (207); "[t]he hut was only a few yards away, but in the milky light that rested on it, it looked ready to dissolve" (266). A two-part novel, Little Hearts tells of the eighteenth-century relationship between Michael Sampson, a reclusive philosopher, and Anthony Oakshott, who is thought to be a Jacobean sympathizer fleeing Hanoverian soldiers. Sampson gives shelter to the fugitive. Its subject—Jacobean politics—is further evidence of the Catholic and Royalist interests that Pickthall shares with the writers of the ‘nineties. Throughout, but especially in the second half of the novel, the journey and seclusion of the two men, Little Hearts is an adventure keyed to light. Not only landscapes, but also characters, and their conditions, are depicted in terms of light. Oakshott, as Sampson observes, is "a bright thing shadowed" (68), and the mood of a character, whether the mood is anticipation or deflation, is registered in terms of light. As Oakshott expectantly enters the wood for a meeting, "the world was a cool silver light that dazzled him" (264).

In spite of the novel’s precision as to flora, fauna, and seasonal change, the light, as the last quotation illustrates, is fabulous, gemmy, ornamental—Decadent rather than Impressionistic. The Decadent sensibility bejewels the light of a fallen world. Between ennui and gorgeous light there is a proportional relationship. Oakshott, as only Sampson discovers, is driven not by principles but bailiffs, a fugitive from debts, unconcerned with political loyalties, and as the sordid side of his life emerges, the light falls with increasing artificiality: "[t]he world was as weary and unreal to him as it is to a man after long illness or grief—a thin bright painted veil of the appearance of things, so fragile…" (264). As events move toward a climax—the death of Oakshott—the capacity of light to re-write the world increases: "[t]he light grew more and more confused, coming from no centre, but resting and enlarged with the air. It was a light that seemed to herald something, setting back the clock" (290). Killed by the King’s soldiers, Oakshott is preserved, like an insect in amber, in his hero status. Only Sampson knows the truth, and even for Sampson, this death obliterates the revelation he was privy to, "setting back the clock" to his first meeting with Oakshott, when the beautiful youth, thrown by his horse, lay pale and still in the bed of violets. In the Decadent world, only death rescues the beautiful from the corruption of living. Death rescued Dowson and Johnson from shambling, old-man vagrancy, and Yeats immortalized them as the heroic figures of a "tragic generation." This is the formula of Little Hearts. Death preserves beauty, precludes change. Decadence is an intensely romantic mode, intolerant of the ruthless light that exposes. Romantic, not empirical, Decadence veils the world in perfume and elegizes colour: "For the eyes of youth are blinded with light, his feet trip over his own wing feathers: poor heavenly vans, soon mired. Is that youth going by thee? Take him, give him a patch to his eye…" (217). Decadence recoils from naturalism: dream, fantasy, imageries from the past, and fantastic sensations are all "a patch to the eye." Pickthall’s "patch" on retinal truth included all the Decadent strategies.


As well as the easily discerned eroticism of the nature poems, there is, Collin writes, a sexual ambiguity in Pickthall’s poetry. "The Bridegroom of Cana" is only one of several poems supporting Collin’s claim that Pickthall often writes from a male point of view (374). In addition to the poems with a male speaker, there are narratives, such as "In a Monastery Garden," about men, and poems named for characters—"Timarion" and "Wanderlied"—are ambiguous in gender. This "crossing" of gender in the speaking voice may be linked to the obsession, at the end of the century, with androgyne (Praz 206); or, more likely—at least in Pickthall’s case—female eroticism could only be expressed as the fantasy of a male speaker. Similarly, in Isabella Valancy Crawford’s Malcolm’s Katie, Katie sings "a lily song that Max had made, / That spoke of lilies—always meaning Kate" (527). Here, too, a woman poet imagines a man (Max) imagining the erotic receptivity of his beloved: "the pearly cup" desires "But to be filled…." Although many of Pickthall’s nature poems are suggestively erotic, "O Silver Rose" (Drift 26) is obviously so, and it is a male eroticism. A warrior-knight, describing the evening hour in familiar Pickthall epithets (slow, sweet, soft), addresses the "Silver Rose," the "Rose of all Shiraz," whom "[t]o-morrow" he will kneel to, delivered into her presence by death, through suicide or surrender. The language is biblical (echoing the "Rose of Sharon" in the Song of Songs), but the "[d]iscrowned, dis- honoured" speaker, "reft of pride and power," shares qualities with Johnson’s King Charles, "The saddest of all kings/Crowned, and again discrowned," similarly overcast by "Great glooms, and starry plains…" ("By the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross" 8). "From the red battle where they hailed me lord," Pickthall’s knight turns to the "sword" with the expectation that "To-morrow I may rest upon thy heart / For death shall prove more kind" than life which "hath so snared me, bound and made me blind." As in Johnson’s poem, the world is unequal to the figure. Desiring to turn from the "red battle" to a silvery rest, the speaker expresses, in the second stanza, an eroticized ennui:

Lay wide thine amorous lattice to the south,
O Silver Rose, when roses breathe thy name,
And thou at dawn shalt feel upon thy mouth
The kiss I dared not claim.

The "amorous lattice," like Crawford’s "pearly cup," although the fantasy of a desiring man, is itself the site of desire. The poem’s linguistic "lattice"-work—medieval protagonist/male speaker—dissembles female desire. The erotic and biblically-cadenced "O Silver Rose" shifts easily into the biblical subject "The Bridegroom of Cana," the poem which immediately follows it in Drift of Pinions.

If Pickthall often uses a male speaker, she as frequently writes of the femme fatale of the Decadents. Men avoid the beautiful and dangerous "Sea Witch" (Drift 11) in her coastal tower: "The fisher steered him further west," and the wild swan "Was laggard through her loveliness" (11). The most striking example of the femme fatale is "The Bridegroom of Cana" who is divided from the call of Christ by the lure of the bride. The male speaker and the femme fatale in Pickthall’s poetry reflect what must have been for her a problem of position in the worship of beauty. In aestheticism, love of beauty is frequently love of a beautiful woman, a reflection of the aesthete’s own soul. In "The Lady of Shalott," Shalott is an emanation of the poet’s soul; for the knight in Laus Veneris, "Venus [is] my soul’s body" (Swinburne 14), and in Pre-Raphaelite art, writes Jan Marsh, woman "represented the artist’s own soul, the creative impulse of his art, in an idea repeatedly elaborated in a metaphor of the male artist and his ideal woman" (Pre-Raphaelite Women 12). The Pre-Raphaelites depicted the "Soul’s Beauty" in the female form; Rossetti was her "allotted bondman":

This is that Lady Beauty, in whose praise
   Thy voice and hand shake still,—long known to thee
     By flying hair and fluttering hem,—the beat
     Following her daily of thy heart and feet,
   How passionately and irretrievably,
In what fond flight, how many ways and days!

If the poet becomes entangled in "Body’s Beauty," the service to beauty can end in death: "And round his heart one strangling golden hair" (Rossetti 142), but generally, in Pre-Raphaelitism, the incarnation of Beauty, as woman, results in a languid, dreamy figure—beheld, becalmed and, therefore, unthreatening. It is in the Decadence, after Impressionism has contributed fatality to aestheticism, that the female figure combines beauty and ominous threat. In "Leonardo Da Vinci," Pater finds "a touch of something sinister" in the "unfathomable smile" of the Mona Lisa: "she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave" (128, 130). Michael Field (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper), too, focuses on the "implicating eyes" of "La Giocondo" (103). For Pickthall, devotee of beauty, the problem is this: she is the object whom the subject, in the cult of beauty, worships. If beauty is figured in the female form, how does a female aesthete position herself relative to herself as embodiment of beauty? If, following the Pre-Raphaelites, woman is one incarnation of beauty, how but narcissistically does a female poet participate in the worship of beauty? The pool—symbol of all nature to Pickthall—reflected back to her this key aesthetic image. If, however, the best of beauty is, as the Decadents thought, death, then projecting one’s own death is both a limit to narcissism and the ultimate ideal of beauty.

The best of beauty in nature, according to Pickthall, invites sleep and death. Her nature poems thus present a consciousness, subtle in perception, moving easefully towards that death. The wish to be given "to day no more" ("Evening" 17), the longing for "dark, sweet water enfolding me" ("The Pool" 25), is both a merging with nature, whose beauty is her own reflection, and a death wish. In these poems, as in the other early nature poems, Pickthall begins a poem as nature description, but mid-way, or further, places herself within the poem. She becomes a portion of the beauty she describes, but within that landscape, she is supine, impassive—Ophelia (Millais) floating on her bier. In other words, she is the image of the aesthetic images she has seen. The self is figured sleeping, dreaming, in the gorgeous wrap of evening, or autumn, or watery light. The self is located by indirection—through descriptions of nature. When, however, she speaks directly, speaking from the outset in the first person—and this is rare—she writes poems of self-rebuke. "Youth’s End" reproaches an insufficient passivity: "I have held my life too high….I have held my death too dear…" (Drift 55). As a model of aesthetic beauty, her passivity is insufficient. Self-effacing as the aesthetic object, Pickthall was nevertheless self-assertive in her priestly claims for beauty ("The Immortal," "Dawn"). Sometimes, however, the complications which this dual role enforced upon her elicited rage:

"To me the trying part is being a woman at all. I've come to the ultimate conclusion that I'm a misfit of the worst kind, in spite of a superficial femininity—emotion with a foreknowledge of impermanence, a daring mind with only the tongue as an outlet, a greed for experience plus a slavery to convention—what the deuce are you to make of that?—as a woman?" (letter, 1914, qtd. in Pierce, Remembrance 104).

By the time of The Wood Carver’s Wife and Later Poems (published after her death in 1922), Pickthall is imagining not a poetic dying but a woman dead. "Miranda" lies in a tomb where the craftsman Ilario has "Carved her in garments ‘scutcheoned to the knees,/ Holding one orchard-spray as fresh as foam" ("Miranda’s Tomb" 14). The decorative detail is voluptuous. Or, alternatively in "Quiet," Pickthall imagines a woman’s unvisited grave "in the immortal empire of the grasses" (25). Whether imagining the beautiful death or the dead woman—richly entombed or as empress of "grasses"—Pickthall, following the Decadents, equated beauty with death: "welcome, O welcome the dark death in!" (Drift 57). Since she is, according to Pre-Raphaelite aestheticism, the aesthetic object, and according to Decadent aestheticism, portentous, Pickthall imagines the female figure dying or dead. Although "[t]he closest that Pre-Raphaelite art comes to presenting femininity in wicked or ugly guise is in the delineation of woman as enchantress or witch," and "even here," the images are "idealized and beautiful" (Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Women 109), "[e]verywhere in the literature and visual art of the period [Decadence] there is the association of women with death, and of erotic desire with murderous instincts" (Nicholls 54). The sleeping, dreaming, or dead woman was all Pickthall could see when, from her tower, she looked out upon the world of nature. In the nature poems, Pickthall is unempirical and anti-naturalistic; nature is a reflection, a pool, of her own desires, sensual and aesthetic. The literariness of her aestheticism— the traditional identification of woman with the aesthete’s soul in the highest sensual moments—causes, however, some troubling ripples on the pool surface. To the female asesthete, nature’s mirror reflects images of her own death.


The religious impulse, or at least the religious subject, is present from the beginning in Pickthall’s poetry although critics have postulated a shift from aesthetic to ascetic in her work (Logan 13-14; Toye 18). "A Mother in Egypt" (April 1905) and "The Bridegroom" (October 1907) are as early as the so-called "pagan" poems of nature such as "Evening," first published in 1908 (letter, qtd. in Pierce, Remembrance 68; 203). At no stage is Pickthall either an ascetic or a "restrained" mystic (Pierce, "Introduction" 15) since excess not restraint characterizes her language. Nor does she aim for a mystical communication with God. There are poems, such as the prefacing "Dedication" to The Wood Carver’s Wife, addressed to God but these are gestural not communicative. Pickthall’s mysticism, interwoven with the life of the senses, focuses upon Catholic ritual and doctrine. "Père Lalemant" begins with the ritual of the mass—"I lift the Lord on high, / Under the murmuring hemlock boughs…" (Drift 46). "Pieter Marinus" (Drift 40-41) and "The Lamp of Poor Souls" (Lamp 13-14) are based upon the Catholic doctrine of purgatory; and the mystery of the incarnation is presented in "A Child’s Song of Christmas" (Drift 54). Such poems, father F.J. O’Sullivan believes present a "Catholic heritage" viewed "from without" (2). Her attraction to Anglo-Catholicism is not unlike Johnson’s regret: "No more the glorious organs pour their voice divine; / No more rich frankincense drifts through the Holy Place" ("The Age of a Dream" 24). Her Anglo-Catholic mysticism co-exists with her "paganism" and with the spiritualism of ghost-haunted poems such as "The Lovers of Marchaid" and "Jasper’s Song" (Drift 69-71; 56-57); and "The Wife," who could make "no claim" on her husband’s "great hours" in life, becomes, in death, his inseparable ghostly mate (Wood Carver’s Wife 39-40). In his "Biography," Arthur Pickthall remarks the spiritualist quality in his daughter: "she loved the Downs—when she walked there alone—she was never alone— it was as if there was always a presence with her—"(6), and some months after her death, Francis Arthur Jones, Pickthall’s New York agent, congratulates Arthur Pickthall: "[t]hank you for telling me of that wonderful revelation of your daughter’s presence which came to you recently. It must have been a great comfort…a great joy" (3 July 1922). Pickthall’s religion is an amalgam of "paganism," Anglo-Catholicism, and spiritualism, but in the poetry as a whole the predominant type of religious poem is the scenic tapestry created from biblical stories, or around religious figures, either biblical or medieval. This practice would have been familiar to her from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poems such as "Ave" and "Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee." She was, as she said in her correspondence, "‘after Rossetti’" (Pierce, Remembrance 77). She adapted religious devotion—the role of the apostle, prophet, monk—to aesthetic devotion. The "beauty of holiness" easily became the "holiness of beauty." Pickthall invested herself in biblical and religious characters in the same way in which she submerged herself in nature, re-imagining both nature and the characters in intense sensual terms.

In "The Bridegroom of Cana," the harp-player addresses his beloved at break of day, setting forth the competing claims of love and service. The domestic-erotic world of the groom is a vine-bound house; the "[s]ighing" leaves and the murmuring doves "bind our house," and the bride, in her attributes, is a "net" and a "lure." The bridegroom fears extinction in the light of her eyes, intoxication through her words, and death in her kiss:

Honey and wine in thy words are stored,
Thy lips are bright as the edge of a sword
That hath found my heart,
That hath found my heart.

In the language of the Song of Songs and adapting an image from Psalm 59—"Swords are in their lips"—Pickthall creates an eroticism comparable to Salomé’s when she saw Jokanaan: "[i]n the whole world there was nothing so red as thy mouth. Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music" (Wilde 236). The situation—Christ’s presence coming between lovers—is reminiscent, however, of Rossetti’s "Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee" (141). Typically in these religious poems, Pickthall’s narrative technique is Pre-Raphaelite; her language is that of Swinburne and the Decadents of the ’nineties. In "The Bridegroom of Cana," the bride’s erotic power has been challenged by Jesus’ presence at the feast. In the coming of the light, the bridegroom is tempted to follow Jesus, "Royal and sad" (28). Daytime clarities—"the dawn strikes clear and sharp"— challenge the erotic dream of the bride with which the groom awakens. Although torn between day and dawn, service and sensuality, the harpist must sing the song of the bridegroom; he cannot deny who he is. He is as eager for her "glowing grace / As the pool for the star" and urges her to "mirror me / As the star in the pool…," the familiar Pickthall symbol. The bridegroom reflects (in song and music) the bride as inevitably as the pool does the star, and his composition (as the transposition of star and pool indicates) creates a mirror of himself. There can be no service but this song. "Bridegroom of Cana" is self-referential. The bridegroom chooses imprisonment—the music-and-vine bound house—just as Pickthall chose self-enclosure and experienced self-reflection in nature. Beginning in resistance, the Bridegroom ends in absorption. The discipleship to beauty excludes daytime duty:

Cling to me, cleave to me, prison me
As the mote in the flame, as the shell in the sea,
For the winds of the dawn say, "Follow, follow
Jesus Bar-Joseph, the carpenter’s son."

The Bridegroom swerves from the call ("‘Follow, follow’") in an incantatory re-dedication to sensual love. Although the source material is biblical, Pickthall’s handling of it is erotic. Focusing on the couple, not the miracle, she creates a zone of "sensual aestheticism" (Bentley 146).

Apostle or monk, the result is the same—sensuality is superior to service. A beneficent God prefers for his people, according to Pickthall, sensual absorption or aesthetic pleasure. Ideal worship is a receptive appreciation of beauty. The monks "In a Monastery Garden" (Drift 51-52), on a seashore that is not remotely recognizable, build for themselves "A church and a cloistered green," but "when they were done with their praises, / …They laid them down in a row / / …Tired of their drones and their dirges…" (51). Even in his sleep, the youngest brother, Joachim, is pleasurably aware of bird flight and falling fruit. Any hopes he has are of earthly not heavenly beauty, the pleasure of discriminating "violets one by one," watching "the young leaf seeking the sun" (52). All this "He dreams in the hands of God" (51), the same God who in "The Immortal" dispenses singing stars to the faithful. "[O]n the rim of the deep" (51), the artist converts thrush song to psalter: praise for the god of Beauty.

Pickthall’s discipleship is confirmed in "The Little Sister of the Prophet" (Drift 38-39), a poem as sumptuously detailed as a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Rossetti would pose himself as the prophet, one of William Morris’ girls as the "little sister."

I have left a basket of dates
In the cool dark room that is under the vine,
Some curds set out in two little crimson plates
And a flask of the amber wine,
And cakes most cunningly beaten

•      •      •

And all to lighten his spirit and sweeten his rest.

The little sister adores her prophet-brother for his otherworldiness, dreaminess, and impassioned language, this brother to whom is revealed "‘The strength and the beauty of God out-rolled in a fiery screed!’" (39). Eroticism is intermixed with the hand-maid's admiration: "Will he note? Will he mind? / Will he touch my cheek as he used to…" (39). The sister’s decorative preparation, morning and evening, of fruits for her prophet-brother is her homage to creativity. As a speaker in her own narrative, she recognizes, however, that what he sees "out-rolled" is "only the dawn outspread o’er our father’s field, / And the house of the potter white in the valley below" (38). Nonetheless, unlike his mother, who rebukes his distractedness, the little sister values "the weight of the words of his passion," through which an ordinary dawn, ordinary house, are translated to "‘fiery screed.’" "Not to discriminate every moment," Pater writes, "some passionate attitude in those about us…is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening" (250). The sister, at one remove from her brother’s experience, can, as Pickthall did in relation to literature, feel the "pulsation." The little sister, who desires the touch of her inspired brother, ritualistically invites contact with that "pulsation."

The bridegroom chooses the bride, not Christ; "little sister" responds to the passion of belief, not to belief. With "A Mother in Egypt" (Drift 30-33), Pickthall identifies herself totally, entering into the mother’s grief, accommodating and expressing loss in a variable line and in a musical language which modulates the stunned shock, poignant memories, and imprecative anger of the mother. Ostensibly an elegy moving from grief to solace, "A Mother in Egypt" verges on anathema. Indignant mother-love interrogates patriarchy—"who would descend… / To war on a child?" (32). The "drift of pinions" in this case bears a sword, hacking not healing. Descending in a nocturnal wind, sounding "like a soul in sin," the angel wrecks havoc in the "hush" that follows descent: "Something I saw of the broad, dim wings half folding / The passionless brow. / Something I saw of the sword the shadowy hands were holding…" (32). Although many innocents are slain, the poem expresses an individual sorrow: "Is the noise of grief in the palace over the river/For this silent one at my side?" (30). The maid-servant (that she is a maid-servant accentuates the pointlessness of the angel's wrath) speaks on the day after the angel’s night-work. Day moves toward sundown: "O small still feet, rise up, for the hour is late!" (30). Senselessly, she urges the child awaken. She reviews the night events and connects them to the "low voiced" market-place stories she has heard "Of a god who is stronger than ours, and who knows not changing nor pity…" (32). At the end of the day with her son lying "so whitely…in the curve of [her] arm," she sings a mill song, and from this gains the consolation that just as he played while she worked and sang, so now he plays with the gods, her gods Amun and Hathor, the "gentle" and "mild." The hope is not without fear that the "Other / Should reach to him there!" (33). Clearly, Pickthall believed the actions of the "Other" were not always benign, always beautiful. This terrible angel ought to drive out any notions of putti in Pickthall’s poetry.

Pickthall enters into the mother’s feelings by calling upon her own intense feelings for nature. The strategy resembles Swinburne’s in "Hymn to Prosperine," where a fourth-century "pagan" speaker pours out "grievous" pain (in maternal and natural images) because his gods, including Proserpine, have been "dethroned" by the "pale Galilean," whose mother "came pale and a maiden, and sister to sorrow; but ours, / …Came flushed from the full-flushed wave…" (80). "It is so heathenishly lovely that poem. And so deadly true," Pickthall observed in a letter to Coleman (4 Aug. 1910). Pierce omitted this portion of the letter when he quoted it in A Book of Remembrance. The Egyptian mother’s loss is imagined as "silence unbroken" in "sorrowful dawns hereafter" (31), and the child’s horror in the moment of visitation is registered as a trope of nature: "he rose with his hands a-quiver / Like lotus petals adrift on the swing of the tide" (30). Not only in figurative language but in anaphora—"O small soft hands… / O small still feet…"—and anastrophe, Pickthall creates a speech that vibrates with the mother’s emotion. Excessive grief expresses excess. The lines run long, are pulled short, without pattern. Lament finds its own rhythm. Indignant love probes, "‘Who could see him, and harm?’" Is the eloquent singing of a mother over her angel-slain son ascetic? "Restrained"? The emotion-driven religious pieces—spoken by the bridegroom, the little sister, and a mother—indicate that Pickthall reacted to the intersection of the divine and the human by identifying in those moments intense human passions.


"Lamp of Poor Souls," the title poem of Pickthall’s second collection (1916), signals the change in this volume, which added a mere sixteen pieces to Drift of Pinions, included in it. The quatrain stanzas of "Lamp," introducing the section of new poems, announces an increased attention to form. Half of the new poems are written in quatrains or in double quatrains. Poems on religious subjects in this volume (although not in her third volume, The Wood Carver’s Wife) reveal an enervation of intensity. "Mary Shepherdess," written in verse triplets, "pretty posies," has, interestingly, a sociological genesis: "[i]t was after this visit [to Chillesford, Suffolk] that Marjorie Pickthall wrote her charming idyll, ‘Mary Shepherdess.’ She was deeply impressed by the deplorable condition of unmarried mothers in this rural district" (Pierce, Remembrance 90). Pickthall’s excursion may have been partly inspired by Christina Rossetti who, from 1859 until 1864, did voluntary work at the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary (for "fallen girls") in London (Marsh, Christina Rossetti 218-28). The conditions that Pickthall saw did not evoke, however, the rage she felt with "A Mother in Egypt," confirming the fact that the past of legend and literature spoke to her in a way the present could not. Imagery in this second volume, stripped of colour and detail, is less remarkable. The notable poem is "Improvisation on the Flute" (18-19), an expression of ambiguous desire, which breaks open the quatrain form. Written in the first-person, it illustrates, when compared to the poems based on biblical legend, a difference within similarity.

"Improvisation on the Flute," reminiscent of the harpist, the earlier "Bridegroom," is also a love poem, but whether it reveals or conceals is hard to say. Troubled about self-revelation in art, Basil Hallward, who painted Dorian Gray, speculates hopefully "that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him" (Wilde, Dorian 128). Pickthall’s title, like those of Whistler’s Harmonies and Nocturnes, eclipses the subject of the poem—the identity of the "guest" who visits in the night—and its improvisational nature, the free verse extemporizing on the quatrain melody, ensures things will remain unformed and unformulated. No poem so illustrates Pickthall’s anti-formalist tendencies—"‘rigid rules’" as to form fetter (letter, qtd. in Pierce, Remembrance 66)—a poem whose form arises out of unsatisfied desire. In spite of the return to the quatrain in the end, the improvisation trails off in incompletion, decadently extending the unsatisfied desire.

"Delight" has fled the sleeper upon her awakening. In the darkness "delight," "crouch[ing]," "hid[ing] as a hare in the meadows of night" (18), visits the speaker and is gone "[w]ith the day." Stirring consciousness drives the "guest" away. The metaphor hauls the outside, the natural world, in, and in so doing, transforms meadows’ blossoms to stars, and then naturalizes them again. Moths cling to the flowers, anemone and crocus, as if the metaphorical transformations wrought on the image had uncovered, in darkness, "the moths that are the longings of men" (18). Like certain birds and flowers, the moth is a recurring image of talismanic value in Pickthall’s poetry. Having built up, from early childhood onward, a vocabulary of natural images, her imagination converts her deepest wishes, her fantasies, to natural images. In a diary entry of August 1910 she writes, "‘[t]he moths you see here are really exquisite. Some of the small ones are actually gold and silver…like bits of moonlight. Then there are the big, heavy milky-whites…’" (qtd. in Pierce, Remembrance 24). Exteriorizing her desire, in "Improvisation," as night visitor, as "guest" (the strategy of the formal quatrain), she is free thereafter to trace her "delight" to its intimate association with "the longings of men." When she returns to the quatrain, after improvisation, beckoning back "my lost delight," she begs it "Come nearer, star by star" (19), wanting again the "splendour in the grass," hidden and secret, extinguished by day. Pickthall could not bring her own desires—"My shadow, my desire"—across the threshold of day. When she wrote through the characters of biblical legend, she was less inhibited. "Improvisation," written without a persona, is a complex and layered figuring of desire.

"There between the day and the night," the optimum poetic moment in this verse, Pickthall locates the weariness and acute sensations of the Virgin Mary, in the dawn following the "travail of the Light" ("Mary Tired," Wood Carver's Wife 20-21). Even Rossetti’s more ambitious "Ave," depicting Mary before and after the birth of Christ, says little (as does the Bible) about Mary’s travail and exhaustion. Mary, in Pickthalll’s telling, is an ordinary woman more than usually exhausted from childbirth. Delivering God out of the "bright abyss" fatigues mortal strength, even the strength of a woman formerly known to "the Spirit’s Kiss" (20). "[T]ired of heavenly things," she is gratified by the look and sound of the creatures of the stable yard. Kneeling seraphs go unnoticed although she is comforted by the sight of a mouse "curled / Near the Ransom of the World" (21). In her sensational awareness of physical things—and in her supervaluing of them ("Sapphired flies")—Mary substitutes aestheticism for devotion. Even with "God beside her in the straw," Mary’s pleasure is in the physical things of the stable yard (20). Pickthall humanizes the Virgin Mary and attributes to her a heightened sensual awareness, the accompaniment of weariness. In "The Garden of Weariness," where "gleaming death-white poppies grow," she again couples languor and narcotic sensuality (Complete Poems 50). With a truly ‘nineties reflex, Pickthall places Christ’s pain, "Love the crucified" ("Christ in the Museum" 22), immediately after Mary’s ennui ("Wearied of the bright abyss"). In her third volume, "the agony of God" (26) is, in one way or another, the object of fantastic focus.

If Pickthall’s Mary is blasé about angels, although preternaturally delighted by her surroundings, her poem "Sleep" (Wood Carver’s Wife 11) enforces a very strange, even macabre, turn on a sacramental idea. In iambic tetrameter couplets, the speaker describes those sleeping in "a vast room strewn with straw," lit by a single "Lamp," "Christ’s own heart laid here to heal it." The bleeding heart of Christ in a houseloft—even as metaphor—is a fantastic image. The notion that souls enjoy wholesome sleep by this Lamp is traditional; the imaging of the scene is not. Similarly strange is the sonnet describing a crucifix "[N]umbered and ticketed" in a museum ("Christ in the Museum," Wood Carver’s Wife 22). Pickthall may feel the Museum Christ is a sacrilege, but the presentation is so artful—Christ among "Bronze bells and incense burners, and a flight / Of birds born out of iron, and fine as spray"—and the expression of emotion for the misplaced Christ so intense—"No lips may kiss, no grieving hands have clung…"—that the poem itself becomes, like the museum image, a highly wrought metalwork. In Pickthall’s poetry, metalwork, jewelry, and carving are metaphors for achieved aesthetic expression; in her third volume, the implied analogy becomes an explicit equivalency in the title piece, "The Wood Carver’s Wife," which begins with Jean Marchant’s singing:

Hard in the frost and the snow,
The cedar must have known
In his red, deep-fibred heart,
A hundred winters ago,
I should love and carve you so.
And the knowledge must have beat
From his root to his height

                                •      •      •

Then, were you then a part
Of the vast slow life of the tree?

The natural and human worlds, according to the carver’s song, anticipate their full expression in art form, and as is usual in Pickthall’s poetry, the woman is contained within the "vast slow life" of nature. Among the Pre-Raphaelites and Decadents, the word aspires to the condition of precious metals or materials. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s idea of the poem, "Carve it in ivory or ebony" ("The Sonnet" 212), is echoed in Symons’ praise of Pater’s prose as "goldsmith’s work" ("Decadent" 150). In Pickthall’s work, life itself aspires to art, but beauty—because Pickthall is a female aesthete— is always already dead or dying: art’s function is to "Snare" "dead beauty in undying stone" ("To Alcithoë," Drift 10).

In the title poetic drama, "The Wood Carver’s Wife," Pickthall yokes aestheticism and violence, connects religious to human passion, and subordinates both to the perfect art work. That is to say, her title character, the wood carver, does these things. This is the piece Pickthall considered "higher in her own estimation than almost anything else she had written" (Pierce, Remembrance 108). Carving the Pieta in red cedar wood, Marchant poses his wife, Dorette, for the Madonna as she leans "o’er her murdered Christ" (48). A profane artist of the religious image, Jean relishes the idea that what will be the grieving head of Mary has been the "head I kiss in darkness all night long…" (48). He will so translate Dorette’s sensual physicality—"those round limbs, those prosperous lips" (82)— into his Mary that not only will Dorette exist in Mary’s niche—"You will taste / The year-long incense and the holy heat / Of candles" (76)—but also Dorette’s beauty, as Mary, will bring beholders to worship: "They’ll see you there between the candle flames / A hundred years….Your beauty will lift many souls to God" (56). As Decadent artist, Jean knows this carved face must express "[t]he grief that cannot weep, for if it could / It would be less grief" (49). To achieve this, he mixes the blood that saved the world (76) with passion’s blood; he murders Dorette’s lover to get the grief right for his Madonna. He places on his wife’s lap the sword of the slain lover so as to get upon his model’s face "the ache of day and day / Monotonous in want…" (85). Moreover, he believes this art-form is her fulfillment. Just as the tree has always been preparing for its sacrifice to art, so "Your touches, your slow smiles, your delicate mirth, / All leading up to this!" (84). Revealing a violent aesthetic, "The Wood Carver’s Wife" proposes that the value of art—"now my virgin’s perfect"—exceeds the value of life. Life is murdered for art, for religious art.

Like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other poets in the continuity that leads from Pre-Raphaelitism to Decadence, Pickthall re-tells biblical accounts of great events—the Passover, Nativity, and the Wedding at Cana—as character-centered stories. In the dramatic moment, these characters are intensely passionate ("A Mother in Egypt") or sensationally alert ("Mary Tired"), transformed by the encounter with the divine, but not divinely transformed. For Pickthall, the iconic figures, Mary, the Bridegroom, the Mother, are remarkable in their human intensities. In "Sleep" and in "Christ in the Museum," strangeness is added to beauty. Finally, in "The Wood Carver’s Wife," Pickthall suggests, through the artisan Jean, that religious art is about perfect art or about the aesthetics of its creation. Whether she writes about a biblical event or an aspect of nature, Pickthall is an excavator of the exceptional sensation. If she lived away from "the world of men and affairs," it was because she thought only art could elevate life to that pitch. Edith Cooper observed that "‘what makes Ricketts [a ‘nineties artist of woodcuts and bronzes] so essentially an artist in conversation and in composition is the quality of strangeness by which Life becomes Art….that kingdom that must differ from the world if it is to exist’" (Delaney iv-v). In a tower of "that kingdom," Pickthall created her filigree work. Her repudiation of the daily mundane world, and its changeability, is certainly more complicated than a refusal of its "affairs" or an inability to deal with them.

"The Wood Carver’s Wife" is consistent with the aesthetes’ conviction concerning the autonomy of art. The "perfect virgin" is, however, synonymous with death—the death of the lover, the wreckage of Dorette, and Jean’s impending doom: "Will the light hold until they come for me?" (87). The autonomy of art has a purchase on death. Like other Decadents, Pickthall inherited the fatality of Impressionism, the one unrepeatable moment of light. The intensities experienced, and recorded in poems, by this precocious and doomed poet belong to evening and to autumn, the hour and the season that herald the end of light. The glittering gloom of Pickthall’s poetry is her response to that reality: the light does not hold.

Awareness of the Decadents’ reflex to Impressionism helps one to understand her penchant for certain states of nature. Seeking enclosure (and an escape from evanescence), Pickthall discloses through her recurring symbol, the pool, a conflicted image of herself. As aesthete and as aesthetic object, she is, respectively, self-assertive and self-effacing. As aesthetic object, she sees reflected in nature the sleeping, dying, or dead woman. As priestly advocate of beauty—as aesthete—she converts religious worship to the worship of beauty, which, in its admixture of eroticism and strangeness, is progressively Decadent. Subscribing to the values of nineteenth-century aestheticism, Pickthall, in her double role, reveals a complexity which should no longer be described, or dismissed, as unsophisticated daydream.




  1. The Marjorie Pickthall Papers are part of the Lorne and Edith Pierce Collection of Canadian Manuscripts in the Queen’s University Archives. Items cited are indicated by box and file (for example, 56.07). I would like to thank Mr. George Henderson and the other archivists at Queen’s for their helpfulness and kindness to me during my research there. [back]

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