If Theophilus Julius Henry (a.k.a. Théophile Jules Henri or Theo.) Marzials (1850–?1920?) is remembered at all, it is for writing ‘A Tragedy’, which is now considered one of worst poems in the English language. A selection of his verse, edited by J. M. Munro, was reprinted in 1974 by the American University of Beirut; I have, unfortunately, been unable to consult that edition, and doubtless this has impaired my judgement.
To begin, however, with the little I have gathered in my desultory researches: Marzials appears to have been of Belgian extraction and worked as a clerk in the British Museum which seemed to collect more than its fair share of vaguely literary hangers-on (cf. New Grub Street). A biographer of Edmund Gosse (one of said hangers-on) noted: ‘When the Museum authorities learnt that while in receipt of £90 a year for cataloguing he was making £1000 a year by his songs outside, they suggested that he should make way for a more needy worker.’1 He was of sufficient presence there to draw the attention of Max Beerbohm, who called him, rather kindly, a ‘poet and eccentric’.2
Marzials’s major collection of poetry, The Gallery of Pigeons, was first published in 1873, but by 1895 still had not sold out.3 The general contemporary reaction was not particularly enthusiastic, and can best be summed up in a postscript to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s April 19 (1873) letter to Ford Madox Brown, where he writes:
Have you received this Pigeon book by Marzials? Good God! And Scott tells me it produces exactly the same impression on him that my things did when he first saw them!4
After this reaction to his poetry, Marzials appears to have turned to music to soothe his misunderstood soul, although he did publish a few more poems in periodicals. He produced a volume of songs called Pan-Pipes, illustrated by Walter Crane. He also asked for and received permission from Christina Rossetti to set one of her poems to music (M11 2.6), about which I dare not offer an opinion. At this point my knowledge of Marzials’s life and career ends, as does my access to the apparatus of a research library sufficiently extensive to make further search worthwhile.
In parting, though, I would like to mention that Marzials also has the dubious distinction of being mentioned by Jack Kerouac in Big Sur (ch. 22); I include the entire sentence for your amusement and edification:
I make a wood run, axe and yank logs outa everywhichawhere and leave em by the side of the road to leisurely carry home — I investigate a cabin down the creek that has 15 wood matches in it for my emergency — Take a shot of sherry, hate it — Find an old San Francis Chronicle with my name in it all over — Hack a giant redwood log in half in the middle of the creek — That kind of day, perfect, ending up sewing my holy sweater singing “There’s no place like home” remembering my mother — I even plunge into all the books and magazines around, I read up on ’Pataphysics and yell contemptuously in the lamplight “ ’T’sa’n intellectual excuse for facetious joking,” throwing the magazine away, adding “Peculiarly attractive to certain shallow types” — Then I turn my rumbling attention to a couple of unknown Fin du Siècle poets called Theo Marzials and Henry Harland — I take a nap after supper and dream of the US Navy, a ship anchored near a war scene, at an island, but everything is drowsy as two sailors go up the trail with fishing poles and a dog between them go make love quietly in the hills: the captain and everybody know they’re queer and rather than being infuriated however they’re all drowsily enchanted by such gentle love: you see a sailor peeking after them with binoculars from the poop: there’s supposed to be a war but nothing happens, just laundry…
More or less in order of usefulness:
- John M. Munro. ‘D. G. Rossetti, William Bell Scott, Theo. Marzials and a letter that came too late.’ Notes and Queries 22 (1975): 441–3.
Publishes the text of a letter from William Bell Scott to Marzials (preserved as a typescript in the Arthur Symons Papers (C0182) 12.12Janet Camp Troxell Collection of Rossetti Manuscripts (C0189), 27.19 at Princeton University) concerning the D. G. Rossetti’s opinion of Marzials’ verse.
- W. D. Paden. ‘A Neglected Victorian Poet: Theo Marzials.’ Notes and Queries 12 (1965): 60–62.
- The Biograph and Review, Volume 3: For the First Six Months of 1880. London: E.W. Allen, n.d., pp. 212–214.
- Oswald Doughty & John Robert Wahl, eds. Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. vol. 3(/5) Oxford: Clarendon, 1967.
- Florida State University has one of Marzials’ letters to William Michael Rossetti (July 6, 1887) Shaw Box 1662.24 (it is not online, however, so don’t get your hopes up)
- W. Minto, ed. Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott and Notices of His Artistic and Literary Friends, 1830–1882. 2vols. London: Osgood, McIlvaine &co, 1892.
- Evan Charteris, The Life and Letters of Edmund Gosse (London: Heinemann, 1931), p. 14. [↩]
- The Works of Max Beerbohm, 1880. [↩]
- It is advertised in E. Nesbit’s A Pomander of Verse (John Lane/A. C. McClurg, 1895) as follows:
MARZIALS (THEO.). THE GALLERY OF PIGEONS AND OTHER POEMS. Post 8vo. 4s. 6d. net. Very few remain. Transferred by the Author to the present Publisher.’[↩]
- Doughty & Wahl (1967) #1331, p. 1163. [↩]