Richard Middleton Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 Following Middleton's death, his friend Henry Savage gathered both unpublished manuscripts and previously published works in The Ghost Ship, and Other Stories and Poems and Songs.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.

Critical Reception

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.