The City as Countertype

 Sharp's first attempt at popular biography, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Record and a Study, marked the beginning of a long period, though not a completely unbroken one, of potboiling and hack work, of city life and literary editorships. Some idea of this maelstrom of activity can be suggested by a summary of the work that engaged his energies between 1882 and 1890. The Life of Rossetti was published late in 1882. By 1885 this inconspicuous beginning as a biographer had been expanded by the enterprising young writer into a lucrative portfolio. Hired by Eric Robertson of the Great Writers series, he was already at work in that year on a biography of Shelley, with two more, of Heine and Browning, in the offing. He became a contributor to Ernest Rhys's Camelot Classics, and an editor of the Canterbury Poets series, writing numerous introductory essays for that comprehensive, though uneven, five-foot shelf of Victorian "culture." He was a member of the staffs of both the Glasgow Herald and the Art Journal in the capacity of art critic, these posts providing him with the opportunity in 1884 for a subsidized fling in Paris, where he was sent to report on the Salon exhibitions.

Late in 1882, while he was still trying to find his footing in the London publishing quagmire, the gifts of some considerate friends allowed him another bit of travel for which he had long been yearning, and he took his first trip to Italy. Though it too was a kind of junket required by his apprenticeship as an art critic, he turned it to his own uses, and Italy, true to its Victorian reputation, left its mark permanently on his character and his work.

Meanwhile, he continued exercising his imaginative talents to the extent permitted by time and energy. After The Human Inheritance in 1882, he produced two more volumes of poetry, Earth's Voices in 1884, and Romantic Ballads and Poems of Phantasy in 1888. The second of these marks a shift to folkloristic subject matter, but a tentative one only. By the date of its publication he had already begun to write, under the stimulus of a fresh look at Walt Whitman and at the free verse of Ernest Henley, one or two of the poems later included in a very different kind of work, the Sospiri di Roma, a volume that would be filled out during a second stay in Italy in 1890. Two novels also saw completion in this period, The Sport of Chance (published in serial form in 1887, as a book in 1888), and The Children of Tomorrow (1889). Among his other prose were several short stories and a bundle of travel sketches.

Some years later, Arthur Waugh described the Sharp of this hectic writing and publishing circuit as one who had adapted himself well to the demands of such a life. He was, says Waugh, "a familiar apparition in editorial offices and literary gatherings":

With his Olympian stature, bright complexion, full head of hair, and well-kempt beard, he attracted attention at once, and took good care to retain it. His manner was a mixture of suavity and aggression, and he knew (no man better) bow to overcome the hesitation of editors. He was at the birth of every new literary journal, and comfortably absent at its death. He knew whose money was behind every fresh venture, and exactly how much money there was. He was early on the scene with a string of suggestions, and editors found it more convenient to accept two or three of them off-hand than to await the outburst of a fresh barrage . . . He knew all the big men, and could quote their judgments at first hand.1

Ernest Rhys, one of Sharp's closest acquaintances and an editor in his own right, bore Waugh out: "Thanks to his large and imposing presence, his sanguine air, his rosy faith in himself, he had a way of overwhelming editors that was beyond anything, I believe, ever heard of in London, before or since."2 Rhys amplified this characterization in Everyman Remembers in 1931, with Rhys himself playing the overwhelmed editor:

[Sharp] burst in impetuously one summer morning as I was having a bath. . . . His fine figure and exuberant contours, set forth in unusually resplendent clothes, suggested a stage Norseman. He talked very fast and excitedly, his bright yellow hair brushed up from an open brow, under which blue eyes, rosy checks, full red lips, and a pointed yellow beard suggested a staring picture by some impressionist painter.

Then came the pitch:

He had been editing the Canterbury Poets, in which series my George Herbert volume appeared, and had heard from the publishers of my prose argosy [the Camelot series]. Here was an opening after his own heart. In half an hour he had proposed half a dozen books which he would like to edit for me, and De Quincey's Opium-Eater was there and then allotted to him.3

As though something were driving him despite himself to achieve the "success" his family had desired for him, Sharp seems to have cultivated every manner that would make him popular and "well liked." But this image of himself was acquired at great cost. If one is to believe his wife's testimony, this suavely aggressive literary hack was not the true Sharp at all, or rather was an affectation that succeeded eventually in dividing him irrevocably from himself---the self, that is, that longed for true artistic glory and the fulfillment of his creative dreams. The picture she gives of her husband even at this time, when he appeared to others so happily cast in the role of publishing entrepreneur, is that of a man profoundly discontented with city and publishing life, despising all the subjection to others' opinions that is the price often exacted by worldly success. Sharp's writing reveals his exacerbated awareness of the dilemma of such success. Very often in his fiction, an artist-hero is found in the midst of a crisis of choice between the demands of success and those of the genuine artistic self. And, probably owing to his private turmoil on this issue, many of the subjects of his criticism and biography seem to have been presented with the same choice, and resisted the same temptation. Apparently Sharp came to see how naive were any expectations he might have had of second-rate fame as a bright light in publishing. He felt the longing, the often frustrated longing, to give them up. After the death of Rossetti, and later of Marston, his remaining friendships began to pall, the constant reminder of his own charm and personal success to seem a hollow kind of glory, the need of turning every pleasure into profit to take the pleasure even out of those trips abroad other men might consider diversions. He could not have been totally unaware that, in the eyes of friends like Richard Le Gallienne, the "disappointing inadequacy" of his work "was a secret source of distress."4 He could hardly, in fact, have helped being aware of all this and growing to hate the atmosphere that encouraged him to create for himself a personal image that was shallow and commonplace beside those of his idols.

In 1894, Sharp worked into his memorial essay on Walter Pater many parallels between himself and the mentor of the aesthetes, and he was undoubtedly thinking of his own experience when he said of Pater that "for a time, London gave him a fresh and pleasant stimulus; but later it began to weary, to perturb, and at last to allure him into even deeper despondencies than his wont."5 The statement provides a succinct, though if anything understated, equivalent to a reversal of feeling in himself that by 1894 Sharp could thoroughly document from personal experience. In the years preceding that article he had certainly recognized his own urban malaise, even to the point, in 1890, of relecting city life and the pace it required to make a trek through Europe. What the statement also makes clear is that Sharp had waited too long to make that break. A deep resentment toward urban life had already taken root in him and become a permanent part of his creative vision.

In order to trace the development of Sharp's attitude toward the city---the first major realization of the "place" mentality in his work---we must go back not only to London in 1882 but perhaps still further, to that uncertain time in his London life when he began drafting The Sport of Chance, a novel he must have worked on sporadically until its completion in 1887. It is based in part on his experiences "down under," but also on his life in Scotland before them and his life in the city after them.

The Sport of Chance is the longest of the novels Sharp wrote in his lifetime, comprising the three standard volumes of Victorian fiction. It is also the most surcharged with adventure, containing a bewildering variety of those "vicissitudes" about which Pater, in 1881, had been so eager to hear.6 The hero, Hew Armitage, like Othello almost damned in his fair wife, suffers unbelievable torments at the hands of Charles Leith, an Iago-like villain whose pointless malevolence wrecks his marriage. Armitage's alienated wife, Mona, spirits away their only child to the Isle of Arran for seventeen or eighteen years' safekeeping, and the here himself is sent off on the wildest of wild-goose chases to track the villain through endless miles of Australian desert.

Several features of Sharp's treatment of this unpromising material indicate the permanence of some of his thematic interests. His eagerness to make the novel marketable no doubt accounts for his padding it with layer upon sensational layer of accident and happenstance. But there is much in his handling of the material to suggest that Sharp was also inspired by a sincere belief in fate.7 Numerous appeals to destiny and fate, and even to some occult superior power, are in harmony with the determinism prefigured in such early pieces as "A Note on Climate and Art." These forces cause the rootlessness and scattering of all the central characters. And it is Armitage's suspicion that Charles Leith (alias Charles Cameron, Mona's brother) may himself be operating his evil will through some kind of occult magnetism, for there seems almost no other way of explaining his extraordinary powers of persuasion. Nevertheless, Leith is also the traditional romantic villain. One of Sharp's typical disinherited sons, he has been cut off by his father from his natural share in the joys of family and the peace of home, and seeks his perverse consolation by denying them to others.

Sharp's emerging consciousness of place is apparent in various ways in the desolate Australian landscape, background for Armitage's nightmarish journey of vengeance, and in the primitively beautiful isolation of Arran, where the lovely daughter Lora is raised. It is also present in the significant role the Cameron-Armitage home, Fern Place, plays in this overacted drama.8 Leith attempts to burn it down just as Lora, rediscovering her parentage after many years, has reinherited it. Fern Place is, in fact, a Poe-esque symbol for the continuity of the family and forms the setting for the maudlin final scene in which the longlost Armitage at last dies peacefully on the front porch, his young granddaughter playing at his heels. There may also be a hint of the occult in Sharp's frequent use of the word "atmosphere," a technical term for the force exerted by place in the jargon of the spiritualism for which he had so strong a sympathy.

Amid all of its use of the English countryside, Arran, and Australia as background or "atmosphere," however, The Sport of Chance contains an undercurrent of subdued animadversion upon the city that provides a form of antiphony to its larger bucolic setting. The city is the scene for some of the characters' most terrifying experiences. It has also nurtured the viper who destroys the happiness of an entire generation, for Leith is a city slicker cut from the most obvious of molds. And finally, in the tale's significant and appropriate epilogue, this same villain receives his overdue comeuppance at the hands of American justice during a final debauch in New York. The irony of Leith's being taken in exile and receiving his due from a relatively impersonal and distant power is undoubtedly intentional. But it is even more interesting that, at this early date in the chronicle of the birth and death of American cities, New York could function as a last pit of infamy for the outcast and derelict. When he wrote, Sharp had not yet been there himself, and he probably would not have employed it thus in his novel if he had, for he came later to associate New York with some of his closest friends and most fervent admirers. Until such time, however, it could be used to convey a moral judgment that the novel had already frequently urged, and could function as a convenient (and probably common) type for the corrupt and corrupting city---no longer for Sharp merely the "busy haunts of men," but a sink of iniquity, a bed of chaos and degeneration.

The mood of this implicit attack was one long familiar to romanticism. From the time Rousseau had cried, "The breath of man is fatal to his fellows . . . Cities are the burial pit of the human species,"9 and Blake had decried London's "charter'd streets" and "charter'd T'hames," the loudest anti-urban screeds since Sodom and Gomorrah had been delivered to the civilized world. "The city as vice" had found its image in Wordsworth's carnival:

What a shock
For eyes and ears! What anarchy and din,
Barbarian and infernal-a phantasmal
Monstrous in color, motion, shape, sight, sound!

. . . All out-o'-the-way, farfetched, perverted things,
All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man, his dullness, madness, and their feats

All jumbled up together, to compose
A Parliament of Monsters . . .
Oh, blank confusion! True epitome
Of what the mighty city is herself . . . 10

The image had been altered, but not in intensity of disgust, by Keats's "the weariness, the fever, and the fret" and Arnold's "disease" of modern life; such cries, amid growing grime and poverty, had echoed their way through the increasingly industrialized nineteenth century.

Sharp's progress to utter sympathy with these lamentations in The Sport of Chance, probably the effect of the later London years of the novel's long gestation, is not very devious. He came to it by the same deductive logic as the romantics: if nature is right then civilization must be wrong. Perhaps he also came to it by the same inductive logic, as a result of the sheer physiological discomfort he suffered amid the "noise and confusion"11 of London. It may not be too literal-minded to suggest that possibly all the anti-urban romantics possessed extremely high auditory sensibilities.12 Certainly Sharp did witness his passionate fondness for music and his almost obsessive attraction to the whispering sounds of wind and water. "What noise there was"---a reaction he attributes to Mona Cameron in Glasgow---is a summary of the many reactions to London and other cities with which his prose work is filled at this time. In one of his short stories, "Madge o' the Pool," London's Pool evokes an opening passage pervaded with contrasts between sound and silence. These are the sounds, catalogued with almost excruciating accuracy:

the dull roar of omnibuses and cabs on the bridges, the muffled scraping sound of hundreds of persons moving rapidly afoot, and, from the banks, the tumult of indiscriminate voices and sounds of all kinds round and beyond the crank-crank of the cranes on the grainwharves and the bashing of the brick and coal barges against the wooden piers.13

A little further on:

The wharf-rats are so fat that they make a stone-like splash when they plunge through the grain-dollops; but only a practised ear could recognise the sound in the rude susurrus of the current, or "spot" the shrill squeaks, as of a drowning and despairing penny-whistle, when a batch of these "Thames-chickens" scurries in sudden flight down a granary-slide and goes flop into the quagmires of mud left uncovered by the ebb. But at the Pool there is never complete silence. Even if there be no wind, the curses of the Poolites . . . would cause enough current of air to crease the river's dirty skin here and there into a grim smile.14

Among Sharp's travel sketches is a curious report on a faraway place that is very close to home, the old veterans' hospital in Chelsea. Here the hospital garden's very air of remoteness has a special charm for eyes and ears weary of the noise and confusion of the dusty streets . . . At noontide is

heard no other sound than the long caw-caw of a restless rook, the drowsy toll of a bell, or the chiming of the hours from the clock in the grey old spire.15

A sketch entitled "A Memory of Verona" from the log book of his first Italian journey contains these details:

Somewhere, not far away, a curious flute-like hooting betokened the presence of one of those small owls ... which Shelley loved to hear; and from the hollows in the quarry, dark with shadow, came intermittently a blithe echo of the song, lessening as the singer passed into the distance, of a Tabourer or peasant, "'Italya! Oh Italia-a-a! Oh, bell-la, bell-bell-la!"16

But Sharp does not require twilight in Italy to augment his sensitivity to sound, as demonstrated by this vivid auditory description of the Verona marketplace at midday:

With what appalling shrillness yon good-wife recommends her fragole, uva, limoni; with what stentorian voice the vendor of oranges proclaims their speculative worth! Everybody shouts at once, apparently indifferent to audience, scales clash, merchandise falls with a clatter, dogs bark, donkeys bray, and below all there is a kind of whispering sound of laughter and the indescribable susurrus of actively moving human beings.17

And similarly, in an introductory essay for a collection of short stories by P. B. Marston, an essay in which the communion of spirit between himself and Marston is conveyed with fervid intensity, Sharp says of Marston---who was blind---as he would say of himself, that he had a horror of "the noise and bustle of the City."18

Sharp's other senses must also have been irritated in the city, for "the storm cloud" Ruskin saw had rolled inexorably over nineteenth century London, and cast its shadow upon many other British cities. "Dust and Fog" is, in fact, the title of one of Sharp's earliest articles, published in Good Words in 1883.19 This article sheds light on the development of Sharp's attitude toward the city and shows that the city engaged him early as a subject of concern.

"Dust and Fog" is not a thoroughgoing diatribe. Possibly drafting it in 1880 or 1881 under the supervision of some of his university professors, the young poet---still, indeed, poet-scientist---struck in the article a tone of scientific detachment that excluded the rhetoric of personal feeling. Thus, with a generous breadth of outlook that the city's first "fresh and pleasant stimulus" had not yet discouraged, he deplored the presence of increasing fog in northern cities, but at the same time credited "bearable fog" with having some "highly antiseptic properties."20 But the story of "Dust and Fog" does not end there, for a good deal more than Sharp's scientific curiosity was awakened by the subject. Early in the article he alludes to a "recent" and "well-known" work entitled "The Doom of the Great City,"21 which he briefly and casually describes as prophesying the "dismal ending" of London. And indeed it did. Published as a pamphlet in 1880, W. D. Hay's The Doom of the Great City; being the narrative of a survivor written A.D. 1942" provided a deliciously horrendous account of how a fatal fog, one terrible day in 1882, settled down over London and caused "the greatest calamity that perhaps this earth has ever witnessed."22 The story is laced with generous amounts of jeremiad, the event having been for the author more than just a technical fluke, a failure of the city to get rid of its industrial waste products. It was a fit punishment dealt out to London's degenerate populace by the just hand of God. The fog is merely a symptom, if not a symbol, of "the black enormity of London sin."23 London, growls Hay, "was foul and rotten to the core, and steeped in sin of every imaginable variety." Even as a mercantile center, a model for other nations, it was declining, overwhelmed by "the avaricious selfishness that had supplanted the old British feeling." "Republicanism," says the author with terrible foreboding, "whispered." "Socialism . . . was not unknown."24

These are scarcely the words of a great social prophet, though the great social prophet John Ruskin was shortly to scan with larger vision the same dismal scene. Yet they do suggest with a certain crude strength the desperate horror with which the simplest man might survey the dark spectacle of the modern city. Even Ruskin, perceiver of The Storm-Cloud, or James Thomson, creator of "The City of Dreadful Night," might not have gone untouched by some of Hay's lurid descriptions:

Everything was wrapped in murky gloom, though it wanted quite an hour of sunset, and the gas lamps that were alight all day were wholly insufficient to penetrate the cloudy atmosphere with their sickly lights . . . A London fog was no mere mist . . . Its density turned day into night, and clothed night in impenetrable obscurity.25

The intuitive leap from the pollution of the atmosphere to the pollution of the human soul is not a long one. Romantic anti-urban sentiment, already strong, thrived on it, and the fog itself became its own demonic advocate during the so-called "Black Winters" of the eighties. All this, combined with Sharp’s gradual psychological breakdown under the stress and demands of his frenetic career, eventually had its subverting effect on his imagination. By 1889 he could say "a great city is a great ulcer";26 and by 1896 the anguish was complete: "God need not send poets to Hell: London is nearer and worse to endure."27

It was during the years in London after Rossetti’s death, his wife tells us, that Sharp began conceiving his one short story exclusively about the "great city." Although it did not come to be published until 1895, "Madge o’ the Pool: A Thames Etching"28 is clearly a result of firsthand observations of the waterfront life of the poor that Sharp could not have gathered except in those lean early years of his struggle to make literary headway in London. Perhaps Dickens too had played a part in impressing the more sordid facts of city life on Sharp’s imagination, for in many ways the story is remarkably similar to Our Mutual Friend. Both make use of the river and its slushy scenery as setting; in both the "river rat" and his unwittingly-begotten, noble-minded daughter are dramatis personae; and in both river intrigues assist the basic action. But there the similarity ends. Sharp’s Madge and Dickens’ Lizzie have quite different fortunes, and Madge’s is in some ways closer to the fate of Stephen Crane’s "Maggie, a Girl of the Streets" than to that of Dickens’s heroine.

Madge’s failure of respectability, however, in no way impairs her nobility in her creator’s eyes. Quite the opposite: respectability, for Madge, is an irrelevant standard. When Madge questions the virtue of matrimony for its own sake, the narrator explains that "she was one of those rare natures to whom the thing was everything and the symbol of no moment."29 Basically one of the simple, naturally innocent souls of whom Sharp was so fond, Madge remains impeccably faithful to her lover, a river policeman, but resists agreeing to marry him even when she is five months pregnant with his child. Fate does not allow him to realize his honorable intentions; he is killed in a river feud. She comes near drowning in the Thames, suffers a stillbirth, and eventually drowns herself in the Pool whence she came.

Although, as with many of Sharp’s plots, there is some conflict here between the melodramatic and the naturalistic, Sharp does attempt to mediate between them by stressing the union of the heroine’s surroundings and her fate. His description of those surroundings is thus both graphic in its unpleasant detail and impressionistically beautiful in its total effect-much like a Turner painting. It is as if Sharp meant to create a scenic metaphor of unsavory beauty for the same strange composite of these qualities in Madge herself:

When the January fog hangs heavy upon London it comes down upon the Pool as though it were sluiced there like a drain, or a mass of garbage shot over a declivity in a waste place. The Pool is not a lovely spot in winter, though it has a beauty of its own on rare days when the sun shines in an unclouded frosty sky, or when a northwester comes down from the distant heights of Highgate and Hampstead, and slaps the incoming tide with short splashes of waves washed up by the downward current, till the whole reach of the Thames thereabouts is a jumble of blue and white and of gleaming if dirty grays and greens. On midwinter nights too, when the moon has swung up out of the smoke, like a huge fire-balloon adrift from the Lambeth furnaces, and when the stars glint like javelin points, there is something worth seeing down there, where the forest of masts rises sheer and black, and where there is a constant cross-flash of red and green rays from innumerable bow-lamps and stern-windows and tipsy lanterns trailed awry through the rigging . . . A disjointed passenger-boat, with spelican funnel darting back to perpendicular, shoots from under a bridge, and paddles swiftly down-stream like a frightened duck; a few moments, and it is out of sight, swallowed in a haze, or swung round a bend. A trio of barges, chained to each other like galley-slaves, passes up-stream, drawn by what looks like a huge bluebottle-fly. The bluebottle-fly is a tug-boat, a "barge-bug" in river parlance; and as it flaps the water with a swift spanking smash of its screw, the current is churned into a yeast of foam that is like snow against the bows of the first barge, and thin as dirty steam when washed from the sternmost into a narrow vanishing wake.30

Madge, the product and human symbol of this atmosphere, undergoes her crisis, and foreshadows her doom, when her love for Jim Shaw becomes inextricably bound up with a totally different atmosphere from that in which she has been bred. Sharp has already described how that love has been an exaltation, a source of discriminative judgment between the tawdry and the beautiful. Now Jim has decided to take her on an outing up the Thames, and the discriminative power has a real chance to work.

The beauty even of the winter riverscape affected her painfully. That great stillness, that indescribable calm, that white peace, that stainless purity of the snowy vicinage of the Thames near Windsor, was an overwhelming reproach upon life as she knew it, and upon herself.31

Sharp persuasively conveys how deeply and fatally Madge’s Pool upbringing had marked her nature, and sensitively expresses the emotional confusion caused by so jarring a rejoinder to all her previous experience. The complication and resolution of the story consist entirely of Madge’s fruitless struggle to extricate herself from the sordidness that clings to her soul like the rust and slime of the Pool:

She had nothing to distract her from her inner self, nothing to ease her from the dull perplexity and pain of that incessant if almost inarticulate soul-summons of which she was dimly conscious. More than once, even, a great home-sickness came upon her; a bodily nostalgia for that dirty, congested, often hideous, always squalid life, to which she had been born, and in which she had been bred.32

The sentimental prolongation of Madge’s distress, as she suffers the death of her lover, the stillbirth and water-burial of her child, and the anguish that precedes her own suicide, tends to obtrude on this developing theme by turning our attention from the symbolic nature of Madge’s experience to the poignancy of these events in all their uniqueness and particularity. But Sharp recaptures his theme at the end, providing a strong closing picture that represents his final revulsion from the city river-described earlier with such ironic poetry, seen fully now as setting and cause of awful human suffering and disintegration. "For an hour or more thereafter, till the river police discovered it, a woman’s body was tossed to and fro in the Pool, idly drifting and bumping against the slimy piers, along the gaunt, deserted wharves."33 The coldness of distance is definitive: here is a life wasted in every sense. Madge’s very womanhood, her own "woman’s body," like the body of the child she had borne and seen deposited into the river, has now become the refuse of an impersonal and indifferent urban civilization.

"Madge o’ the Pool" and The Sport of Chance display several close parallels that testify to their contemporaneous composition. The heroines themselves both wander off after premature childbirth, though Madge’s has been fatal to her child, and Mona’s has not. There is also Sharp’s emphasis on the "irresistible attraction of the river," though in the novel the river is in Liverpool, not London. This attraction corresponds especially to a state of emotional despondency---a state that could well have been similar to Sharp’s own in those years. It leads Madge to drown herself and nearly has the same effect upon Mona. The descriptions of the city rivers are themselves alike, those in The Sport of Chance being only more definitive, if that is possible, in their indictment of the life of the city. This scene is in Liverpool:

There is, at low-tide, at a certain part of the eastern side of the Mersey, a stretch of muddy ground whereon is generally to be seen, by the bargemen, water-police, or street---, who know the dismal spot, a collection of broken tin and china vessels, dead cats and dogs, the nameless and foul refuse which such places attract, and during tidal intervals retain. On the same night that Mona Armitage arrived in the great city, a mixture of frost and malodorous fog brooded above the river, and along this dreary stretch of mud the former had caused a glittering sheen, which had the same kind of evil sparkle that may be seen on a toad’s back, or in the repellent gleam of stagnant ditchwater.34

Mona’s flight northward takes her to Glasgow as well, a city with whose failings Sharp was even more familiar.

[She] was at once submerged in the dense and fast flowing human stream, and even as a broken flower is swept along by some current, so was she carried Eastward in the direction of the Irongate as if she had no volition of her own. What noise there was, what glare of lights, what brutal faces and brutal words, and brutal laughter, what evil and hollow mockery of gaiety, what drunkenness, what loathesome and omnipresent vice. In the midst of this human maelstrom, Mona felt as if she were in some dreadful nightmares.35

These vicious pictures were reinforced by the somber testimonials of Sharp’s biographical studies. His Life of Heine, published in 1888, is pitted with evidence of his acid urban discontent. There is much of the biographer in his guess that, to Heine, Hamburg seemed "a town of automata, machinery, and grim facts, with nothing of what makes life beautiful."36 There is peculiar pleasure in his repetition of Heine’s opprobrious epithet for that city, "bedammtes Hamburg"; and he triumphantly observes that for Heine, as for himself, the escape from such a city to the seashore was the fulfillment of a profound and urgent desire, and the return to the true source of "native inspiration."

Only in his essay on Browning (1889), where the nature of his subject made it essential that he sympathetically delineate a highly urban temperament, does Sharp bold fire. But even there the hesitancy and qualification of his remarks suggest a failure of real sympathy. Typically, of course, Sharp attributes to the place of Browning’s birth the most permanent and important influences on his character. For Browning to be born in London, he says, was "singularly appropriate: it would seem as though something of that mighty complex life, so confusedly petty to the narrow vision, so grandiose and even majestic to the larger ken, had bent with his being from the first."37

But as the same passage continues, Sharp more and more betrays the reluctance of his sympathy. First he reveals the provincial’s resentment of the city-dweller’s arrogant belief that the city and the city alone is the breeding place of genius. "A man may be in all things a Londoner and yet be provincial. The accident of birthplace does not necessarily involve parochialism of soul. It is not the village which produces the Hampden," he goes on, "but the Hampden who immortalizes the village." Then, while striking a further blow for the country cousin, he retreats again: "Though the strongest blood insurgent in the metropolitan heart is not that which is native to it, one might well be proud to have one’s atom-pulse attune from the first with the large rhythm of the national life at its turbulent, congested, but ever ebullient center."38 Later Sharp pauses imaginatively at one of the places Browning must also have paused in his walks through the city. He cannot entirely enjoy the large vista, but he makes a vigorous attempt:

The coming and going of the cloud-shadows, the sweeping of sudden rains, the dull silver light emanating from the haze of mist shrouding the vast city, with the added transitory gleam of troubled waters, the drifting of fogs, at that distance seeming like gigantic veils constantly being moved forward and then slowly withdrawn, as though some sinister creature of the atmosphere were casting a net among all the dross and débris of human life for fantastic sustenance of its own all this endless, everchanging, always novel phantasmagoria had for him an extraordinary fascination."39

The "fascination" is, in effect, a weird compound of beauty and horror. The light over the city is "dull," the haze "shrouds," the waters are "troubled," the presiding genius of the city is "some sinister creature," casting among the "dross and debris" of life. And only the allure of it mitigates the fundamental terror of this extraordinary "phantasmagoria."

When for a moment, however, the city vista takes on an emotionally definable character, we can see Sharp discovering one means of validating through his own perception the attraction the city holds for temperaments unlike his own:

There was something ominous in that heavy pulsating breath: visible in the waning and waxing of the tremulous ruddy glow above the black enmassed leagues of masonry; audible, in the low inarticulate moaning borne eastward across the crests of Norwood. It was then and there that the tragic significance of life first dimly awed and appealed to his questioning spirit, that the rhythm of humanity first touched deeply in him a corresponding chord.40

Herein lies Sharp’s fleeting sympathy with Browning’s passion for the city, for at this moment Sharp too can recognize "the rhythm of humanity" in its "tragic significance." But, paradoxically, herein may also lie the reason for his distinct and pitiable alienation. There is absolutely no joy in this perception. The city is "tragic," and the source of the tragedy urbanization itself---the crowding of human beings among those "black enmassed leagues of masonry." Sharp shared with many others of his time this axiom of the socialist revolution and most insistent argument of urban critics---a simple moral and physical revulsion from the damage done to human nature by the misery and crowding of the city.

But there is another kind of city feeling not necessarily a logical judgement based on observation, suggested by Sharp’s sense of London’s "heavy, pulsating breath," a feeling that comes of investing it with powers beyond the sum of its human and material parts and giving it an effective life of its own. For us today the idea is a commonplace---such a commonplace that we are scarcely aware of it. But for the nineteenth century the idea must have been tinged with the awe and wonder of discovery. We might take Ernest Rhys as a convenient and appropriate test of how compellingly this discovery was working on the minds of the young men of the eighties. Rhys’s memoir, Everyman Remembers---one might be inclined to say his life---has as its prevailing theme "the spirit of place." The episodes he collects and recollects he intended quite consciously to represent a "London log-book": "London indeed, when all is said, is the chief character, the real protagonist of the drama . . . It was with some hope of becoming its interpreter, and with Dickens and William Morris to point the way, its ideal citizen, that I turned Londonward."41 That Rhys was looking on London from the retrospective vantage point of 1931 does not alter the conclusion that his wonder was a Victorian remnant. Indeed, if anything, it supports it. The twentieth century has been so sated with characterizations of place that no man of Rhys’s sophistication would so naively warm them over unless his youthful sense of discovery had overwhelmed him to the extent that it overflowed into another era. Before the Victorians, of course, there had been no lack of London-lovers, nor even evokers of its infernal horrors. But for these---among them, Nashe, Defoe, Gay, Hogarth, Johnson---London might have been a smorgasbord of human virtue and vice or, even at its most symbolic, an apocalyptic, biblical vision of sin. It took the Victorians to eschew the traditional categories, to discover the living and actual symbolism of the London atmosphere, as it took a Dickens to evoke one of its numerous faces with the piercing expressionism of the opening pages of Bleak House and a Thomson to label it "the city of dreadful night." Nor did they stop with London and perhaps there lay the clue to their new kind of vision. Was Paris really the "city of light" before it had undergone its full philosophical enlightenment and could stand for the luminosity of French culture itself? Was Venice the city of death before Ruskin came to see in its opulent decadence a metaphor for the moral decay of an entire civilization? The cliches of modern tourism indicate how the most common sensibility has been schooled in a technique born of the romantic "peculiar" and the "pathetic fallacy" and bred of Victorian cosmopolitanism, a talent for travel that led Victorians to see themselves anew because they had seen the differences in others.

Rhys was one such traveler and had proved travel’s inevitable effects. Yet for Rhys, quite clearly, the "spirit" of London was the antithesis of what it was for Sharp. A colloquy with a "red-faced cabby" could leave him "with a delicious feeling that . . . London was a grand adventure and every public house a side door into Paradise."42 And it could inspire him with a sense of mission:

The spirit of place, that subtle essence which first enters the fibres of man like the sap in a tree, was gaining on me daily. London, in its smoky sunshine, its myriad streets, its colours, noises, and specific odours, its individuality, held me with a spell. How was I to get its equation into art, its expression into verse or prose?43

Obviously Rhys was one Victorian who had inherited an outlook quite different from that of the Brahmin caste of romantics. The enlightenment-bred doctrine of the city as the vital center of man’s civilizing power had, like its opposite, grown strong amid the Victorians---was disurely," as one historian has said, "the unspoken assumption of the great middle class of the nineteenth century,"44 even the assumption of the same Wordsworth who decried its stifling frivolity. This was the tradition of Rhys, and, though he might not have wanted to express it as such, of his socialist mentor Morris, who could well see the sordid pathos of the city, but who could translate this perception into a desire, not to excise the city from the life of the nation, but to shape it into new and beautiful life-to make it the best possible representative of the national life for which it stood.45

This is where the extremes meet. For both schools of thought as represented by Rhys and Sharp, the city was the core, the palpable expression of the national life as it appeared to the nation-conscious Victorians,46 though one thought it vital and the other diseased. From both points of view the city, equated with the national spirit, was sufficient to characterize it, whatever the temperament and tradition of the spectator. For a man like Sharp London was "the national life at its turbulent, congested . . . center," it was the materialist Philistine spirit, it was the name for urban gravitation, for the calloused crowding, the industrial exploitation, the moral parsimony. Its facts as hard as its "enmassed masonry," London was the whole Gradgrind civilization of England trying to proselytize the "uncivilized" world.

It was thus that Sharp, like others of his era, gave a name and a character to the repelling qualities of the city. Yet this character was only obliquely connected with the real source of his private distress---the city’s indescribable variety, its unnameable chaos. Anyone who has lived for any length of time in an urban center might document the paradox of feeling from which Sharp suffered. The city’s "individuality" begins to blur. It becomes, possibly, a place of "contrasts," a form of characterization abused by travel literature to the point of insufferable insipidity. Yet to the alert this device is all too simplistic. After a time, no means of generalizing remains sufficient to handle the city’s diversity; any such means decreases in efficacy in proportion to the increase in time spent there.

Such a response to the city is more characteristic of Sharp’s psychological make-up than any efforts to handle that response with which he may have temporized. The ordinary city-dweller, conscious of the city’s diversity, may become content not to care about its character, at best limiting himself to identifying with his particular smaller community within the larger, wavering, and unidentifiable entity of the city itself. But this does not seem to have been the case with Sharp. His mind, oversensitive to impression, could not relax into a state of insouciance before the urban "phantasmagoria."

In his essay on Heine, Sharp had tried to describe, through his subject, the sort of mind he possessed. He called it "the genuine poetic temperament of swift respondence to the mood of whatever companion he might be with, and of intense susceptibility to all extraneous influences."47 His wife, well aware of a similar variability in her husband, quoted Ernest Rhys’s judgment on it as valid and acceptable:

He had quite peculiar powers of assimilating to himself foreign associations---the ideas, the colours, the current allusions of foreign worlds . . . The same susceptibility marked his intercourse with his fellows. Their sensations and emotions, their whims, their very words, were apt to become his, and to be reproduced with an uncanny reality in his own immediate practice.48

In response to this same impression of Sharp, Rhys in 1908 published a memorial poem on his friend, entitled "Proteus":

Is he a part with wind and morning light?
His ashes lie far south in Sicily,
Not far from Etna; but the flame they spent
It is a spirit, one with day and night,
Changed with the changes of the earth and sea,
And wrapt about with fire’s old element.49

Such evidence of Sharp’s "protean" temperament may fall short of being conclusive, yet it is fairly persuasive. It was apparently well within Sharp’s nature both to approve and to convey in himself a tendency to play any and every role offered to him. If we are therefore justified in deducing anything from this fact, it would have to be that when this role-playing nature confronted some configuration of facts in city or landscape, its human dynamic required something sure and yet flexible in the surroundings themselves, the flexibility to demand his control, and the sureness to control him. In the city Sharp could find no equal balance of both. The city’s clumsy variety was too "turbulent" to control, too "complex," too "ebullient," too shifting to permit him to dominate it. In its interminable novelty-a result of impressions not slowly giving way to one another, but all crowding in at once---it became instead the source of physical, emotional, and psychological distress. On the other hand, when for an evanescent moment that city might present a single face, it was too "mighty," too "sinister," too "ominous," too "tragic," too overpowering. Instead of attracting him, its force was sufficient to alienate and revolt. The result was a series of breakdowns that by slow degrees depleted Sharp’s resources for withstanding the city’s disintegrating effect upon him.

It is thus hardly surprising that a travel essay on the Isle of Arran (1885) should open with these words: "The writer is one of those persons on whom the sense of the sublime in nature is most borne where there are vast spaces . . . He feels the grandeur of mountains to be less impressive than that of boundless sea or limitless desert."50 "Vast spaces, the sea, the desert-and in his other writings, the sky, the wind, clouds---vague and amorphous entities that control, but do not overwhelm, that evoke a describable emotional state, but may also be imaginatively peopled, imaginatively wrought, imaginatively controlled---these are "impressive." If the city was hateful, it was thus paradoxically because it lent itself to neither of these uses, being too elusive in its phantasmagoric variety, too oppressive in its might.

One wonders if Sharp’s "peculiar" susceptibilities were really quite so peculiar as Ernest Rhys would lead us to believe. H. G. Wells thought that a tendency to self-dramatization and role-playing, the adoption of what be calls personas, was one of the most striking characteristics of his generation of writers and thinkers toward the turn of the century.51 Lafcadio Hearn, whose mind and career bear an almost uncanny likeness to Sharp’s at certain points, found occasion in a letter (1889) to express a psychological and physical distress remarkably similar to Sharp’s, from the sense of lost, confused identity to the explicit equation of the city with all that was hateful in the civilization. He had been trying to meet a friend in New York and records his failure in words that evoke a surrealist nightmare.

The moment I get into all this beastly machinery called New York, I get caught in some belt and whirled around madly in all directions until I have no sense left. This city drives me crazy, or, if you prefer, crazier; ---I have no peace of mind or rest of body till I get out of it. Nobody can find anybody, nothing seems to be anywhere, everything seems to be mathematics and geometry and enigmatics and confusion worse confounded: architecture and mechanics run mad. One has to live by intuition and run by steam. I think an earthquake might produce some improvement. The so-called improvements in civilization have apparently resulted in making it impossible to see, hear, or find anything out. You are improving yourselves out of the natural world . . . This is frightful, nightmarish, devilish! Civilization is a hideous thing . . . I came in by one door as you went out the other. Now there are cubic miles of cut granite and iron fury between us. I shall at once find a hackman to take me away. I am sorry not to see you, but since you live in hell, what can I do?

He seeks emotional relief in representing the landscape in which his spirit might be clear and free:

I want to get back among the monkeys and parrots,-under a violet sky among green peaks, and an eternally lilac and lukewarm sea . . . Blessed is savagery ... Surely a palm 200 feet high is a finer thing in the natural order than seventy times seven New Yorks.52

Perhaps the "protean" uncertainty Rhys ascribed to Sharp might account not only for a record like this, but also for the insatiable travel hunger exhibited by Victorian journalism everywhere and for the frenzied quest by writers of every stamp for a place they could endure. Indeed, had Rhys been reflexive enough to turn his analysis upon himself, he might well have seen how far it went in accounting for his own susceptibility to the power of London.

contents   next