Stephen Phillips

(1868 - 1915)


I read recently a reference to Phillips as a forgotten poet,
but if that includes these two poems […]
I must consider the oblivion as a considerable loss.


from Marpessa

O gradual rose of the dim universe!
Whose warmth steals through the grave unto the dead,
Soul of the early sky, the priest of bloom!
Who beautifully goest in the West,
Attracting as to an eternal home
The yearning soul. Male of the female earth!
O eager bridegroom springing in this world
As in thy bed prepared! Fain would I know
You heavenly wafting through the heaven wide,
And the large view of the subjected seas,
And famous cities, and the various toil
Of men: all Asia at my feet spread out
In indolent magnificence of bloom!
Africa in her matted hair obscured,
And India in meditation plunged!
Then the delight of flinging the sunbeams,
Diffusing silent bliss; and yet more sweet, —
To cherish fruit on the warm wall; to raise
Out of the tomb to glory the pale wheat,
Serene ascension by the rain prepared;
To work with the benignly falling hours,
And beautiful slow Time. But dearest this
To gild the face that from its dead looks up,
To shine on the rejected, and arrive
To women that remember in the night;
Or mend with sweetest surgery the mind.
And yet, forgive me if I can but speak
Most human words. Of immortality
Thou singest: thou wouldst hold me from the ground,
And this just opening beauty from the grave!

Sri Aurobindo’s remarks:

«The love of Ida for Marpessa is not satisfied with the old forms of passion and feeling and imaginative idealism, there are here other notes which carry the individual emotion out of itself and strive to cast it into unity with the life of Nature and the whole past life and love of humanity and the eternal continuity of passion and seeking and all the suggestion of the Infinite. The very passion for physical beauty takes on this almost mystic character; it is the passion for a body

...packed with sweet
Of all this world, that cup of brimming June,
That jar of violet wine set in the air,
That palest rose sweet in the night of life.

But, says Idas,

Not for this only I love thee, but
Because Infinity upon thee broods,
And thou art full of whispers and of shadows.
Thou meanest what the sea has striven to say
So long, and yearned up to the cliffs to tell:
Thou art all the winds have uttered not,
What the still night suggesteth to the heart.
Thy voice is like to music earth ere birth,
Some spirit lute touched on a spirit sea;
Thy face remembered is from other worlds.
It has been died for though I know not where,
It has been sung of though I know not when.
I am aware of other times and lands,
Of births far back, of lives in many stars.

Here we have the reconciliation, already suggested by Whitman, of the full power and meaning of the individual with the full power and meaning of the universal, eternal and infinite, but it is concentrated and brought to bear on a single feeling for its enlargement with a great power of intuitive and revealing suggestion.»

«Phillips’ blank verse […] is of a very original mould […]. The poet first gets as his basis the most simple, direct and easy form possible of the metre, which he can loosen as much as possible, suppress or shift or add as many stresses as he chooses, or on the contrary weigh extraordinarily upon his stresses so as to give an impression of long space or burdened lingering or some echo of infinite duration; but in either case the object is to get free room for the play of tone. Four lines come together,

The history of a flower in the air
Liable but to breezes and to time,
As rich and purposeless as is the rose,
Thy simple doom is to be beautiful,

in which there are only three stresses, in the last one might almost say two and a half, a small number of quantitatively long syllable are the physical support of the verse, — as if quantity were trying to come back to first importance in a language of stresses, — and the rest is made up of varying minor tones. Or the long drawn syllables are brought in in great abundance, in a variety of combinations, closely packed and largely spaced, as in

The fiery funeral of foliage old,


With slow sweet surgery restore the brain,

or again,

The vault closed back, woe upon woe, the wheel
Revolved, the stone rebounded, for that time
Hades her interrupted life resumed.

These and others are the means used, but at their back is the principle of a free intonation. It is the tone that builds the verse, gives it its real form and the metrical mould, forced to become and to do whatever the tone chooses, whatever is needed for the intonation of the inmost thought, is a flexible convenience and a needed restraint, — for if loosened of freely spaced, it is not broken, — but no longer a chain and hardly felt even as a limitation. The significance is that the poet has a rhythm of thought and spirit already sounding somewhere within him and in bringing it out he imposes it consciously on his outer instrument with an imperious sovereignty and does not get to it, like the older masters, as the result of a faithful observance of the metrical harmony.»