Richard Middleton Essay - Critical Essays

Middleton, Richard


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 Following Middleton's death, his friend Henry Savage gathered both unpublished manuscripts and previously published works in The Ghost Ship, and Other Stories and Poems and Songs.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

Principal Works

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


W. A. MacKenzie (essay date 1912)

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 Middleton was a dreamer." That is just what he was not; he was a man who said he had had dreams, but if dreams he had he kept them jealously to himself, and the hungry of the earth want more from their poets than a disdainful or a pitiful:

I have seen God: but, hush! I may not speak.

And so, because Richard Middleton does not tell his dream, we are minded to fit him with Mr. Arthur Symons' estimate of that other strange departed sprite, Ernest Dowson: "He was not a dreamer; destiny passes by the dreamer, sparing him because he clamours for many things. He was a child, clamouring for so many things, all impossible."

In the intervals of "clamouring for so many things," Richard Middleton sang some fine things, things quite pure and exquisite. Almost perfect is this "Nocturne":

When Sleep puts on the cloak of Death,
And in the city masquerades,
Earth's tired children fight for breath,
And they who sought the dreamy glades
Fall panting on the road, and lie
Like clods beneath the sombre sky.


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The Spectator (essay date 1912)

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...

(The entire section is 1564 words.)

The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1913)

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...

(The entire section is 1247 words.)

Richard Middleton (essay date 1913)

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...

(The entire section is 1817 words.)

Joyce Kilmer (essay date 1914)

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...

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Frank Harris (essay date 1920)

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...

(The entire section is 2449 words.)

Stewart Marsh Ellis (essay date 1922)

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...

(The entire section is 1786 words.)

S. P. B. Mais (essay date 1923)

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...

(The entire section is 3381 words.)

J. A. Chapman (essay date 1929)

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...

(The entire section is 1906 words.)

Alfred Douglas (essay date 1933)

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...

(The entire section is 1301 words.)

Suzanne Ferguson (essay date 1974)

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:...

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Further Reading


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.


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