Richard Middleton 1882-1911
(Full name Richard Barham Middleton) English short story writer, essayist, and poet.
A moderately successful contributor of poetry and prose to prominent English periodicals during the early twentieth century, Middleton is best remembered for his often-anthologized story "The Ghost Ship." Throughout his career Middleton's writings revealed his frustration with what he perceived as England's indifference toward art and artists. After he committed suicide at the age of twenty-nine, he was characterized by critics as the stereotypical Romantic writer—talented, sensitive, and tragically unappreciated. Only after his death were Middleton's poems, stories, and essays collected and published in book form, gaining him posthumous popular and critical recognition.
Middleton was born at Staines, Middlesex, and took pride in being related, through his mother, to Richard Harris Barham, author of The Ingoldsby Legends. He was an introspective and emotional student whose academic career included a year at the University of London and the passing of Oxford and Cambridge higher certificate examinations in mathematics, physics, and English. In spite of his lifelong interest in literature, Middleton did not pursue a university scholarship, choosing instead a job as a clerk in the Royal Exchange Assurance Corporation. During these years he published short stories and essays in various periodicals, and in 1905 joined the "New Bohemians," a loose-knit group of London writers. Middleton quit his office job in 1907, intending to earn his living as a writer. He spent the next few years writing pieces he described as "little articles for newspapers that don't want 'em," hoping ultimately to achieve recognition for his work as a poet. In what some commentators suggest was one of several journeys he made in search of literary inspiration and a social climate hospitable to his artistic ideals, Middleton spent the last nine months of his life in Brussels. There, in December 1911, he took his life by poisoning himself with chloroform.
Middleton saw his writings published in such periodicals as The Academy, under the editorship of Alfred Douglas, and Vanity Fair, during the tenure of editor Frank Harris. Following Middleton's death, his friend Henry Savage gathered both unpublished manuscripts and previously published works in The Ghost Ship, and Other Stories and Poems and Songs. Additional collections of fiction, letters, sketches, and miscellanea were published by Middleton's admirers between 1924 and 1933. His literary essays, as evidenced by those collected in The Pantomime Man, generally echo perspectives established by late nineteenth-century writers on topics including the women's suffrage movement, organized religion, and the state of literary art in England, while the autobiographical essays that Middleton himself arranged and titled for The Day Before Yesterday reveal his special aptitude for vividly representing the experiences of childhood. Traditional in subject and imagery, his verse has been likened to the lyric poetry of the 1890s in structure and tone, and his short stories, which typically center on themes of death, hardship, and poverty, often reflect the experience of lonely, neglected children in harsh circumstances. "The Ghost Ship," the story for which Middleton is best remembered, is praised for its unusual combination of humor and the supernatural.
Middleton's stories and verse received little critical attention until they were collected and published after his death. Response to these posthumously published works ranges from high praise for the work of a literary genius to a dismissive appraisal of his style as unoriginal and firmly rooted in the sentimental literary tradition of the late nineteenth century. While differing in their assessments of the ultimate merit of Middleton's literary efforts, his critics, citing his graceful prose and intricately constructed verse, have generally agreed that Middleton's writings exhibit his delicate sensibility, notable literary talent, and unfulfilled promise.
The Day Before Yesterday (essays) 1912
The Ghost Ship, and Other Stories (short stories) 1912
Poems and Songs (poetry) 1912
The District Visitor (drama) [first publication] 1924
Letters to Henry Savage (letters) 1929
The Pantomime Man (stories, sketches, and essays) 1933
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SOURCE: "The Works of Richard Middleton," in The Bookman, London, Vol. XLII, No. 250, July, 1912, pp. 172-73.
[In the following review of Poems and Songs and The Ghost Ship, and Other Stories, MacKenzie lauds the strength of Middleton's prose while suggesting that his poetry lacks "nerve and vigour.'"
One rises from the reading of [Poems and Songs and The Ghost Ship and Other Stories] with the feeling that the end of Richard Middleton came all too soon; that his passage under the stars finished at too early an hour; that his nine and twenty years were but so much promise; and that full achievement lay just beyond the short Night he did not fear but rather sought. One feels that; and yet the feeling may be but a will o' the wisp to lead us astray; very likely it is. Must we consider the man and his work? Must we sever the work from the man? It is not given to all to know the singer, but the first man met in the street may judge the song.
I am, for the moment, concerned with Richard Middleton's song; and I confess that I find it of a monotony which may be divine, but which is—there can be no denial—wearisome. He had many rhythms—he sought variety as he sought pleasure, avidly—but the song was the same, the substance and stuff of it were ever the same: he did not sing dreams, he sang of dreams he had had. The casual reader will say at once: "Richard...
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SOURCE: "Richard Middleton," in The Spectator, Vol. 109, No. 4390, August 17, 1912, pp. 238-39.
[In the following review, the critic characterizes Poems and Songs and The Ghost Ship, and Other Stories as "remarkable, "praising Middleton's technical excellence and sensitivity.]
Richard Middleton was a young English writer who died a year ago in Brussels at the age of twenty-nine. He had never published a book, and his work consisted of a few poems, essays, and short stories in the pages of several contemporary journals. Happily there are a few people left who appreciate good literature, and in [The Ghost Ship, and Other Stories and Poems and Songs] we have a collection of the tales and poems. They are in the highest degree remarkable; remarkable in mere accomplishment, for no younger writer of our day has excelled Middleton in the technical arts of verse and prose, and more remarkable still for their strange individuality of spirit. Our poets are apt to be propagandists and enforce, like Mr. Masefield, moral and social lessons; or they are stirred into revolt by the ironies of life, and, according to their temperament, are weeping or scoffing satirists. But Middleton cared for none of these things. His short life was spent in a ceaseless quest of beauty, beauty of sensuous form and delicate imagery, but far more that sublimated beauty of the spirit towards which all forms of...
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SOURCE: "Poet Who Failed," in The New York Times Book Review, February 16, 1913, p. 77.
[In the following review of Middleton's verse and prose, the critic asserts that Middleton's works were published and given critical attention primarily because of the author's suicide.]
Something of the enthusiasm with which England has received Middleton's work since his death is indicated by Henry Savage in his introduction to Poems and Songs: "Of his genius I am not using words idly when I say that it is of that rare quality which will sooner or later insure him a recognized position in the front rank of English poets. Those who are not moved by the beauty of the poetry in this volume may find beauty elsewhere, and had better seek it elsewhere. There is that in it beyond the reach of mere criticism. It is of that substance which lives." This hyperbole, for such it is as far as the present volume of verse is concerned, must be construed as the effect of remorse for the thorough neglect which the author suffered during his lifetime and which drove him to suicide at the age of 29....
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SOURCE: Monologues, 1913, pp. 9-18.
[In the following essay, Middleton reveals his idealistic approach to writing and discusses his views on the value of the essay as a literary genre.]
Owing to the general laxity with which men and women use the language they inherit, in the course of years words are apt to be broadened and coarsened in their meaning. Striving against this tendency, every scrupulous writer is in danger of robbing words of a part of their birthright: through fear of letting them mean too much he makes them mean too little. Ultimately, of course, the popular meaning prevails, and we suck our fountain-pens in vain who seek to preserve a kind of verbal aristocracy; but it is a pleasant game while it lasts, and it does no one any harm.
For instance, there is this word "essay." It is used to-day loosely to mean almost any kind of prose article, especially when such articles are rescued from periodical literature and reprinted in book form. Mr. Chesterton's twisted allegories are essays, and so are Mr. Lucas's pleasant pilferings from queer books, and Mr. Shaw's dramatic criticisms. So, too, for that matter, are Earle's characters, and the Roger de Coverley papers, and Swinburne's laudations of the Elizabethan dramatists. Confronted with this embarrassing promiscuity, the critic who really wishes the word "essay" to mean something is forced to give it a purely arbitrary...
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SOURCE: "A Suicide's Book," in The New York Times Book Review, August 16, 1914, p. 349.
[Kilmer was an American educator, journalist, and poet. In the following review ofMonologues, he offers a negative appraisal ofMiddleton's posthumously published collection of essays.]
It is of no use to say that people ought not to kill themselves. They will do it.
Yes, they will do it. Richard Middleton, the brilliant young poet who wrote these words, died by his own hand soon after they were published.
"Suicide and the State" is by no means the best of the essays that make up the volume called Monologues but on account of his untimely death it has special and lamentable interest. Richard Middleton was one of those essayists who gain their effects by writing seriously of trifles and flippantly of great things. Therefore it might be expected that his treatment of suicide would be fantastic, humorous; that he would write an extravagant eulogy of self-destruction and playfully consider the relative merits of shooting, drowning, and taking poison. It is true that there is occasionally a specious mirth in this essay, a humorous phrase or two thrown in as a sop to the superficial reader. But the tone of the essay is serious—deadly serious. Here was a subject on which Middleton had strong convictions, and these convictions he expressed...
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SOURCE: "Richard Middleton: Ad Memoriam," in his Contemporary Portraits, Brentano's Publishers, 1920, pp. 159-77.
[Harris was a highly controversial English editor, critic, and biographer whose fame as a critic rests primarily upon his five-volume Contemporary Portraits (1915-30), which contain essays marked by the author's characteristically vigorous style and patronizing tone. In the following excerpt, Harris recalls his impressions of Middleton.]
It was in the autumn of 1907 that Edgar Jepson introduced me to Richard Middleton in the office of Vanity Fair. A big man and perfectly self-possessed, his burly figure, thick black beard and furrowed forehead made him look ten years older than he was: five and thirty, at least, I thought him till I caught the laughing, boyish gleam in his grey-blue eyes. He had assisted Jepson in the editing of the paper while I was in America, and on my return he helped me for some little time. He was casual, cheerfully unpunctual, careless rather than critical in correcting other men's work, and these ordinary shortcomings were somewhat harassing. One day he remarked in the air, that if he could get paid for poetry he'd prefer writing to editing. I was a little surprised: I had not thought of him as a poet; but we soon came to an arrangement. His first verses surprised me; there was the singing quality in them, a happy ease of melody, a sureness and...
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SOURCE: "Richard Middleton" in his Mainly Victorian, Books for Libraries Press, 1969, pp. 252-56.
[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in The Fortnightly Review, October, 1922, Ellis discusses Henry Savage's assessment of Middleton's life and work.]
Richard Middleton distinctly had a touch of genius. His fantastic stories—"The Ghost Ship," "On the Brighton Road," and "The Coffin Merchant"—will always stand in the van of bizarre literature; his rather morbid studies of himself as a boy—"A Drama of Youth" and "The New Boy"—are marvels of introspection; and much of his poetry has beauty and charm. We were indebted to Mr. Henry Savage for collecting and supervising the publication of Middleton's work in prose and verse—five volumes, which commenced to appear a year after the young author's mournful death. The same devoted and enthusiastic friend has now come forward as the biographer of Richard Middleton [in Richard Middleton, The Man and his Work].
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SOURCE: "Richard Middleton," in his From Shakespeare to 0. Henry: Studies in Literature, revised edition, 1923. Reprint by Books for Libraries Press, 1968, pp. 221-33.
[Mais was a prolific English writer, editor, and critic. In the following excerpt, he offers a sympathetic appraisal of Middleton's works.]
Whether it be that famous story of "The Ghost Ship," where we seem really to see the fairy barque sailing away over the turnip field, through the windy stars, its portholes and bay-windows blazing with lights to the accompaniment of singing and fiddling on deck on the part of all the village ghosts who have been inveigled away on it, or that incident in "The Brighton Road," where the dead boy is eternally condemned to go on tramping—tramping… in all [Middleton's] stories there is an uncanny something which makes them take wing beyond the author's conception, that elusive quality which, for want of a better word, we call genius.
His stories are woven like delicate spiders' webs, besprinkled with dew; they are pure gossamer, unbelievably beautiful; but touch them and they fall to pieces in your hand. They must be read in their entirety to be appreciated: quotation in this case is like Dr Johnson's brick, no criterion whatever of the excellence of the building.
The effect is always heightened by a sure sense of humour which crops up in all sorts of unexpected places...
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SOURCE: "Richard Middleton," in his Papers on Shelley, Wordsworth & Others, 1929. Reprint by Books for Libraries Press, 1967, pp. 128-35.
[In the following essay, Chapman offers a negative assessment of Middleton's poetry.]
Dear God, what means a poet more or less?
Richard Middleton wrote that. He was of our time; had he not died as a young man (he was only twenty-nine), he would still be alive. He belongs to that group of latter-day English poets—Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, John Davidson, and Stephen Phillips—who, if they have not this or that in common, have all of them this, that they, dying young, added their names to those others who died young; the roll, the chief names in which are Chatterton and Keats. A roll to which one may add Shelley's name, though his was a violent death, and the names of those whom the Great War took away; the last, in their fate, more fortunate, perhaps, than the others. One broods over the long list of names until one can hardly bear to think of the men any longer. What went so wrong with them? Why should Milton, Goethe, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning have proved so much tougher? There is perhaps a key to the mystery in a phrase in one of Richard Middleton's last letters:—'I feel drawn towards young children and people who are simple and kindly and not too clever. They give me a glimpse of the life that I have missed in my passionate search...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Pantomime Man by Richard Middleton, edited by John Gawsworth, Rich & Cowan Ltd., 1933, pp. xvii-xxi.
[Douglas was an English poet, critic, and editor. In the following introduction to The Pantomime Man, he characterizes Middleton's poetry as exquisite, and contends that he, rather than Vanity Fair editor Frank Harris, was the first to publish Middleton's work]
Having been asked to write an Introduction to [The Pantomime Man], by the poet Richard Middleton, I hope I may be excused for informing, or reminding, my readers that, as Editor of The Academy in 1907, I was the first to give him recognition. I have been casting back in my mind for recollections of the man himself which, slight as they are, may have that interest which attaches to personal reminiscences of a dead poet.
Shortly after I became Editor of The Academy I was invited by a literary society called the "New Bohemians" to attend one of their dinners. I had never heard of the "New Bohemians," but I was young enough in those days to be gratified by the attention, and I attended their dinner, where I met for the first time, among a lot of charming and talented people, Arthur Machen and Richard Middleton, both of whom became contributors to The Academy.
Middleton must have been about twenty-four then, and in spite of his black beard,...
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SOURCE: "A Spectral Beauty: The Writings of Richard Middleton," in English Literature in Transition: 1880-1920, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1974, pp. 185-96.
[Ferguson is an American educator and author of essays and reviews of modern and Victorian literature. In the following excerpt, she offers a thematic overview of Middleton's poetry, essays, and short stories.]
An aesthete just a few years past the time when his gifts and prejudices might have been better appreciated, Middleton wrote poetry and essays that recall in general the best lyric poetry and the sophisticated magazine essays of the nineties. His imagery, in the poetry, is drawn from the most traditional of sources: sea and stars, flowers and rural landscapes, light and dark, music, especially the songs of birds, and sometimes from earlier poetic traditions, especially pastoralism. His poetic subjects are love and death; his chief influences apparently the Elizabethans, Donne and Marvell, and Keats, while the more recent models seem to be Swinburne and Dowson. Of their kind, his poems are pleasing, graceful, and even at times fairly striking. A passage will indicate some of their characteristic gestures:
Come, Death, and free me from these earthy walls
That heaven may hold our final festivals
The white stars trembling under:
I am too small to keep this passionate wonder
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Savage, Henry. "Richard Middleton: 1882-1911." The English Review XI (April-July, 1912): 551-55.
Recollections of Middleton by the friend who collected his works for posthumous publication.
. Richard Middleton, The Man and His Work. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1972, 209 p.
Primary source of biographical information about Richard Middleton.
Gawsworth, John. Foreword to The Pantomime Man, by Richard Middleton. London: Rich and Cowan Ltd., 1933, pp. vii-xiv.
Sympathetic assessment of Middleton and his work.
Starrett, Vincent. "Two Suicides." In his Buried Caesars: Essays in Literary Appreciation, pp. 133-145. Chicago: Covici-McGee Co., 1923.
Comparision of the lives, deaths, and literary achievements of Hubert Crackanthorpe and Richard Middleton.
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