Saturday, 2 April 2016

Maude Egerton King - A Portrait in Miniature Part 4

The Portrait in Miniature of Maude Egerton King's life continues:

"In her verse quite as much as in her fiction-portraiture - and much of her best poetry was written before and just after her twentieth year - her power is realized.  Thus "Forgiven Sin" (My Books of Songs and Sonnets, p.20) has all the vigour, even in its strange imagery, of William Blake, though it is quite free of his obscurity.  I am assured by more than one of her sisters and contemporary friends that many years elapsed before she knew anything of that sublime rebel but his "Songs of Innocence"; otherwise a tendency to imitation, of which her art was quite incapable, might be suspected.  The poem is too long to quote, but, remembering that a botanical diagram may tempt a student to search for its flower, I may be pardoned if I epitomise it and venture an interpretation:  A good man once sinned, yet, forgiven by God, became happy again and died in honour, unaware that the tears of spirits watching around that sin's grave were so moistening its seed that it sprang up into a tree, from whose deadly wood they fashioned a cradle for his first-born.

My Book of Songs and Sonnets, Maude Egerton King, 1893

Then they watched the blameless young life as the poison infected it, till in manhood it burst into

                                "Fiercest flame,
And drove him for its fuel through shame to shame."

Next this damaged man left a child who became "mere ashes of his father's fire," but was still follows by the spirits, who made him a coffin from the "branches dire" of that same tree.  At last -

"Alone of all that race, one little child
Played in the meadows, glad and undefiled
Fresh as their flowers..."

Yet the pursuing spirits said-
                             "the tale is told,"
And stirred the hearts of men, and made them wild
For his young blood: "His sires", they said, "of old
Planted this tree now grown hundred-fold;
It shades our land, it shuts out heaven's light,
We weary of the race, and of the blight,
Therefore he dies!" They found him in his glee,
And wreaked on him long ages of despite
Who least deserved it, all too brutally,
And crucified his body on the tree."

"Had this been written some years later, it might be conjectured that she had in mind the doom of Piers Ploughman (which doom is the leading note in her only love, The Archdeacon's Family, 1909) or had read Maurice Hewlett's "Song of the Plow".  Yet, however one may interpret "Forgiven Sin", even if we take it only as symbolic of the pharisaism in all religions, one point can hardly be disputed, namely her belief in the elemental purity of life, however marred by things alien to itself, and however scorned and hated by a worldly law which claims from it the uttermost farthing to the third and fourth generation.  Indeed in everything she wrote, or spoke, or wove on her loom (were it possible, pictorial quotations of her own lovely weavings and textile designs ought to be given along with specimens of her writing), this passionate belief in the purity and beauty of life is manifest - as over against money, machinery and the coarsening which comes from unprotesting acceptance of their service ; it remains the source of all her inspiration.

"One reason why she published comparatively little, even though constantly approached by editors, was her conscientious devotion to an inexorable Muse.  Some who were privileged to see her stories in their first script could not but regret the merciless pruning and re-writings of much that was beautiful - a habit intensified, if it did not date from, a passing intimacy with a well-known novelist.  While obeying her Muse, she failed to realise that she herself was hardly other than that Muse.  In this distrust of her own pen - contrasting notably with the gentle if keen criticism and generous help which she gave so freely to inexperienced writers (one of her near followers and lovers says: "She made us all feel that we ourselves as well as our work - 'all we could never be '- were somehow required in the divine scheme.") - one sees how impersonal to her was ordinary success.  She must serve her Art and its high intent in entire humility : the while she lavished domestic tending and pity upon, well, simply anyone needing her.  Her recognition by the world was of no more account to her than her typewriter, or than, say, were his pigments and brushes to her father, that consummate interpreter of the South Downs' magic, Henry George Hine, V.P.R.I.  Just as he, so I am told by another of his daughters, refused highly remunerative transactions with picture-dealers lest they should endanger his powers, so she was never tempted to supply the market with what might prove second-rate work.  Perhaps some of her writing might appeal less instantly to uncritical readers because of this meticulous doubting of her powers; yet whether because of or in spite of this ruthlessness one consequence was very notable and again akin with her father's work: though much was never finished, nothing was poor, trivial or unvital.  And there are few great writers or painters of whom as much as can be said."

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