As a writer of verse drama, Bottomley emphasized poetic language over theatrical concerns. Many of his plays were offered without costumes or props, and the lines recited rather than conventionally acted out. Stylistically and thematically, his works resemble those of the great Irish modernist William Butler Yeats.
Bottomley was born February 20, 1874, in Yorkshire, England, where his education began. However, he suffered from a chronic bleeding disorder, which took him away from a banking career and greatly reduced his activity. He relocated to Silverdale, a Lancashire village near the Scottish border, and in 1905 married Emily Burton from a nearby town. The two were said to have had a profound bond, enjoying literature and the arts.
Bottomley published his first collection of poetry, The Mickle Drede and Other Verses, in 1896 but later attempted to destroy all copies of this book, which he considered to be immature. With The Crier by Night (1902) and Midsummer Eve (1905), he turned to verse drama, setting out to revive the art in England. His early plays were respected for their poetic qualities but did not result in long-lasting productions. His King Lear's Wife (1920), however, was produced by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and became a success despite negative reviews from the critics. Gruach (1921), similar to King Lear's Wife, was written as a prelude to a Shakespeare tragedy. The play was performed at the Atheneum Theatre in Glasgow in 1923 and the St. Martin's Theatre in London in 1924.
Bottomley told an interviewer from Bookman magazine, “I have no biography. Nothing ever happened to me,” and, indeed, he ventured out very little, spending most of his adult life taking pleasure in the paintings and finery that surrounded him. Given the limitations of his physical condition, Bottomley still managed to kindle associations with leading literary figures of the era, including John Drinkwater, Lascelles Abercrombie, and Paul Nash. He also served as president of the Scottish Community Drama Association and vice-president of the British Drama League. Bottomley's last published work was A Stage for Poetry: My Purposes with My Plays (1948), in which he expounded on theatrical concerns and recounted his close associations with two drama teachers, Marjorie Gullan and Duncan Clark.
Bottomley found inspiration in the literature of the past. Besides Shakespeare, he looked to classical Greek and Roman literature, William Morris, and Oscar Wilde for the material from which he formed his plays. The Riding to Lithend, written in 1907 but not produced until 1928, is based on a Norse saga. The hero refuses to join his fellow Icelanders in battle and is ostracized. Britain's Daughter (1921) takes place at the height of the Roman Empire. The English heroine defies the invaders and is taken to Rome as a prisoner.
The two plays based on Shakespeare are regarded as Bottomley's finest works. In King Lear's Wife, Bottomley portrayed the life and death of Lear's neglected wife Hygd in a drama rife with betrayal and greed. Gruach is the tale of Lady MacBeth before she became Lady MacBeth, at the time in her life when she is about to marry a different Scottish nobleman before the man she is destined to wed finally appears.
Encouraged by Yeats's success, Bottomley wrote a great many short verse plays dealing with the extremes of human experience. He felt the influence of Jacobean drama and Japanese Noh theater, and the resulting dramas are said to contain a sense of history and a moral outlook comparable to what is found in Yeats's verse dramas The Shadowy Waters and Deirdire.
Critics who read Bottomley's plays tended to appreciate them more than those who saw them performed. William S. Braithwaite described The Riding to Lithend as “vigorous with passion and character.” Abercrombie called Bottomley “a poet who certainly ought to be better known than he is.” On the other hand, the headline of a newspaper review of King Lear's Wife called it “a Gifted Mistake.”
From a modern perspective, Bottomley's plays are considered poetic successes but dramatic failures. The language is rich and noble, but the characters are not convincing and the plots are not coherent. William V. Spanos described Bottomley as a transitional figure; Bottomley’s use of verse cleared the way for later work by the modernists, including T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. Some critics have noted that virtually all of Bottomley's protagonists are female. In this, too, he is a transitional figure, but his efforts do not compare favorably with those of George Bernard Shaw in his Saint Joan and Pygmalion.
SOURCE: A review of A Vision of Giorgione, in The Dial, Vol. XLIX, No. 579, August 1, 1910, p. 69.
[In the following excerpt, McMahan offers a favorable review of A Vision of Giorgione.]
[A] beautiful specimen of book-making is Mr. Gordon Bottomley's A Vision of Giorgione, which has all the dainty features we have learned to expect in a Mosher book. There is scarcely another painter of equal rank with Giorgione of whom we know so little. Vasari mentions his fondness for music and his love for a lady. This furnishes Mr. Bottomley the inspiration for his sequence of three poems (rather than dramas) called “A Concert of Giorgione,” “A Pastoral of Giorgione,” and “The Lady of Giorgione.” The poet has caught the Venetian atmosphere very perfectly in his charming verse; perhaps he has also caught the secret of the painter's method in a passage such as this:
I pose models no more,
But find adorable ladies with such fair minds
They may be trusted to express themselves
Graciously, perfectly in perfect gowns;
I ask them to come here quite half in secret,
Wearing the gowns they think for quiet joy;
Sometimes I play them music of subtle discords,
Or tell them casual fragmentary stories
About the sudden things women do
Which no man understands. And I watch,
I paint and watch; they think they are but broidering,
Or wondering, or resting from their fate.
SOURCE: A review of Laodice and Danaë, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 103, No. 2676, October 12, 1916, p. 348.
[In the following excerpt, Firkins reviews Laodice and Danaë.]
In Laodice and Danaë an Oriental queen of sunken authority kills a maid of honor who has saved her conspiring lover from the penalties of his transgression. Mr. Bottomley takes the homicide very calmly; what excites him is the picturesqueness of the attendant ceremony. What he aims to do is to show fell passions, wrath, revenge, hatred, wandering luxuriously amid arcades, braziers, carpets, divans, unguents, roses, coffers, lamp-chains, brocades, jewels, lattices of cedar, and...
SOURCE: A review of Gruach and Britain's Daughter, in The Yale Review, Vol. XII, No. 1, October, 1922, p. 194.
[In the following excerpt, Firkins reviews Gruach and Britain's Daughter.]
Mr. Gordon Bottomley in his early British plays [in Gruach and Britain's Daughter] takes us so very far in so short a time that we are surprised to perceive that in a much longer time he has taken us so very little farther. He is shaggy where Mr. Yeats is threadlike, and there is a good growl in his verse, which, however, shows itself less and less susceptible of reduction to a tune. Britain's Daughter, the second play, hardly counts, but in Gruach, a story...
SOURCE: A review of King Lear's Wife and Other Plays, in The Yale Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, January, 1922, pp. 426-27.
[In the following excerpt, Jameson discusses strengths and weaknesses in King Lear's Wife.]
Mr. Gordon Bottomley is … a poet. King Lear's Wife is a poem, arranged in the form of dramatic dialogue. The verse has a sombre beauty. In the song of Goneril over her dying mother, it has a sharp edge. In such moments as Goneril's scorn of Regan it flashes, suddenly and briefly:
Does Regan worship anywhere at dawn?
The sweaty, half-clad cookmaids render lard
Out in the scullery, after pig-killing,
And Regan sidles among their...
SOURCE: A review of Gruach and Britain's Daughter, in Theatre Arts Magazine, Vol. VI, No. 4, October, 1922, p. 347.
[The following review offers a positive assessment of Gruach and Britain's Daughter.]
How large Mr. Bottomley's audience for his verse dramas is going to be, either in the theatre or in the library, will depend largely upon how many there are among the people who have the good fortune to come upon his work who, having visual imagination themselves, enjoy adding it to the imagination of a poet to recreate stories on great and universal tragic themes. Mr. Bottomley's audience must play his plays with him, to make them live. These are distinguished...
SOURCE: A review of A Vision of Giorgione, in The Bookman,London, Vol. 64, No. 379, April, 1923, pp. 45.
[In the following excerpt, Bryant reviews A Vision of Giorgione.]
These poems of Mr. Bottomley's—stories of Giorgione—were published in a collected edition twelve years ago in America. They now appear for the first time in this country [as A Vision of Giorgione]. As the works of Gordon Bottomley they have a passport to any country, but alas! there are no “Cartmell Bells” among them. It is a book of long emotional utterances on music, philosophy and love, but the startling clarity that Mr. Bottomley's admirers have learnt to expect of him is...
SOURCE: “The Poetry of Mr.Gordon Bottomley,” in The Bookman, London, Vol. 68, No. 405, June, 1925, p. 176.
[In the following essay, Warren reviews Poems of Thirty Years.]
Perhaps one of the best known of Mr. Bottomley's poems is “The End of the World.” In frozen phrases, light as the flakes that drift down from the closing sky, it pictures the desolation of the End. The cow-house where hitherto the snow had always melted “with yellow stains from the beasts' breath inside,” is quite thatched over now; the snow slides from the over-weighted leaves (or is it a dead bird falling?); inside the house the clock has stopped and a butterfly drops from the ceiling's...
SOURCE: “More Mavericks,” in Religious Trends in English Poetry, Vol. V: 1880-1920, Gods of a Changing Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1962, pp. 306-311.
[In the following excerpt, Fairchild discusses major themes and ideas in Bottomley's poetry.]
Born in 1874, Gordon Bottomley published two immature and derivative volumes of verse in the nineties, the first depending mainly on Rossetti and the second mainly on Yeats. In The Gate of Smaragdus (1904) he began to walk alone, and in Chambers of Imagery (1907) he emerged as his uneven, restlessly searching true self. But by 1912, when a second series of Chambers appeared, he had already...
SOURCE: “The Historical Pageant: The Rhetoric of Action,” in The Christian Tradition in Modern British Verse Drama: The Poetics of Sacramental Time, Rutgers University Press, 1967, pp. 58-63.
[In the following excerpt, Spanos focuses on the religious pageant The Acts of Saint Peter.]
Like the post-Romantic poetic Histories, the pre-Canterbury Pageant drama sought to infuse poetry into Biblical events by locating the action, through verbal and visual decor, in a remote past. It achieved instead a “charming medievalism” and a pious sentimentality. Charles Clay's famous The Joyous Pageant of the Holy Nativity, written in the early twenties, is a notable...