Crime and Historical Novelist
Francis Youlgreave, Priest and Poet
The Reverend Francis St John Youlgreave enjoyed modest literary fame in his lifetime. Even before his death, however, his reputation declined, partly for reasons that had more to do with the man than the work.
As most scholars who know his work agree, an objective reassessment is long overdue. An annotated selection of his verse is at present in preparation. The following notes give a brief account of the man and his work.
Francis Youlgreave was born in 1863 at Roth, in Middlesex. He was the younger son of Sir George Youlgreave, Bt, and was educated privately and at St John's College, Oxford. While still an undergraduate, he published Last Poems, a privately printed selection of his juvenilia. After taking his degree, he read for the Church, becoming one of the first ordinands at the newly-founded Rosington Theological College. Several curacies followed in parishes in Middlesex. In 1891, he moved to London to become the vicar of St Michael's, Beauclerk Place.
During the following decade, he produced some of his best-known work and formed many significant friendships. He also established a reputation for eccentricity, both in his private life and in his theological beliefs and liturgical practices. Despite this, in 1900, he was appointed a canon residentary of Rosington Cathedral. (His mother's cousin was then the dean, and there were uncharitable rumours that the family had used its influence to remove Youlgreave from the temptations of London.) His Rosington years were marred by theological controversy and other difficulties of a personal nature.
In 1904, Youlgreave suddenly retired on the grounds of persistent ill-health. He spent the last months of his life at his brother's house, Roth Park, where he died on 30th July 1905, after a fall. He is buried in the family vault at St Mary Magdalene's, Roth. There is a memorial tablet to him in the chancel. He never married.
Last Poems (1884) is best considered as a young man's jeu d'esprit. Some poems are crudely satirical - "The Peepiad", for example, attacks those who use their religion to attack others, and indeed hints at the poet's disillusion with the established church and its adherents:
Shall worldlings, traitors to the Saviour's blood,
Who stab the gospel for their daily food,
Drawl solemn nonsense, call it heavenly news,
Condemn the soul...?
From "The Peepiad"
Other poems celebrate simple country joys. A third category is unexpectedly and crudely facetious in tone (a sense of humour is not a quality one usually associates with Youlgreave). One poem celebrates his taste for tobacco in mock heroic style:
Had Job thy potent stem but tried
Old Satan scared would from him hied,
As calmly on the dunghill's side,
He smoked the Pipe.
From "The Pipe"
Perhaps understandably, Youlgreave never republished these early poems, and indeed he mentions in one of his few extant letters (to Francis Thompson) his regret that he allowed them into the world. They are poor, sickly things, he wrote, sharp-flavoured and premature, written in haste and repented at leisure. He seems to have written little verse for at least five years afterwards - only in the 1890s did he begin to produce a significant volume of new work, perhaps stimulated by the friendships he made after his move to St Michael's, Beauclerk Place.
Then came The Judgement of Strangers (Gasset & Lode, 1896), the collection of poems for which Youlgreave was best known his lifetime, and on which his reputation must to a large extent depend. The contents include two of his most widely quoted works, "The Four Last Things" (the longest poem he ever wrote) and the eponymous "The Judgement of Strangers" (the latter is said to have been much admired by W.B.Yeats and James Elroy Flecker). Taken as a whole, the collection betrays a growing fascination with the eschatological, with death and punishment, with the shedding of blood as a means of redemption, of attaining eternal life:
When Time awaits the tolling bell,
When Death brings judgement to thy Hell –
Then Heaven grows, the Angel sings,
Thy tears shall feed the Four Last Things.
The Judge demands; the Stranger pays;
For tears are blood when nights are days.
Thy Angel weeps for words unsaid
And chants the Office of the Dead.
From "The Four Last Things"
"The Four Last Things" dealt with these themes in terms of Catholic theology, but "The Judgement of Strangers" (Youlgreave's most anthologised poem) is a narrative poem believed to be based on a since vanished account of a witch trial near Rosington in the fifteenth century. In the poem, the unfortunate woman seems to stand accused of charges ranging from heresy to murder; and she is eventually burned at the stake. The motif of spiritual pollution runs through the poem, and the poet seems to suggest that, when judgement is perverted, everything will fall apart. The poem is admittedly uneven, but there are some passages of great power. The sense is often obscure - some scholars have attributed this to Youlgreave's well documented dependence on opiates and brandy - but it is clear that his sympathies are with the victim:
Then darkness descended; and whispers defiled
The judgement of stranger, and widow, and child...
With flames to the flesh, with brands to the burning,
As incense to heav'n the soul is returning...
From "The Judgement of Strangers"
In 1897, "The Four Last Things" was published separately in volume form, also by Gasset & Lode, under that title and with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. At least one scholar has inaccurately assumed that this volume was a separate collection of new work, rather than a reissued poem.
The Tongues of Angels (Gasset & Lode, 1903) was Youlgreave's final book. There is evidence to suggest that most of it was written during his Rosington years. The thirty-eight poems were divided into seven sections. Each of the sections had the name of an archangel - Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Sariel, Gabriel and Remiel. The poems themselves, however, explore historical or mythological themes, and often concern children and animals, treated in an unsentimental and even macabre fashion at odds with contemporary taste.
One poem concerns the Spartan boy who ran with a fox gnawing his vitals and saved his country at the cost of his own life. At the end of it, in Youlgreave's version, the fox runs off laughing. In another, a cat at the court of Egypt, older and more mysterious than the Sphinx, watches with unblinking eyes as the children of the pharaoh die of the plague.
The last poem in the collection is "Breakheart Hill". It tells in language sometimes reminiscent of "St Agnes' Eve" the story of a hunt in a pseudo-medieval forest. The quarry is a hart, the noblest in the country, and the king, his huntsmen and his hounds pursue it all day. At last the light begins to fade and the king commands the huntsmen to drive the stag up a steep hill near the royal hunting lodge. The king's son, who is on his first hunt, begs his father to spare the gallant hart which has given them so much sport. But the king will not. The pack of hounds, baying with frenzy, drives the stag up the hill. There, on the summit, the animal's great heart breaks open and it dies of exhaustion just before the hounds leap at its throat. The king orders his huntsmen to drive the dogs back. He takes his son by the hand and leads him to the stag. He draws his dagger and cuts deep into the still warm animal. He cuts out the heart and then lifts it high, dripping with blood. The boy watches and weeps. The king daubs blood on his son's face and kisses his forehead.
"For hart's blood makes the young heart strong," quoth he.
"So hunt, my son, and in thy strength be free."
From "Breakheart Hill"
Youlgreave also published a privately printed variant edition of this collection, entitled The Voice of Angels. It contains an extra poem, bringing the number up to thirty-nine. (The total may well be significant, since we know that Youlgreave dabbled in numerology.) The poem is entitled "The Children of Heracles" and it is not found elsewhere. Based on the Greek myth, it describes in perhaps distasteful detail how the hero cut up his own children because a goddess had put him under a spell which made him believe they were his deadly enemies. It is not known how many copies of this edition were printed, but it is extremely rare.
After Youlgreave's death a holograph poem "The Office of the Dead" was discovered among his papers. When it was printed in the Times Literary Supplement, it attracted a number of letters from readers who found hints of cannibalism in it:
Enough! I cried. Consume the better part,
No more. For therein lies the deepest art...
From "The Office of the Dead"
The Critical Verdict
Youlgreave's poetry was never less than controversial, though this was largely due to its contents. Hostile reviewers pointed, with some justification, to the frankly humdrum nature of much of his work, with its jog-trot rhythms, grandiose and archaic language, clumsy scansion and unadventurous verse forms. Some saw hints of blasphemy, and it is true that he held some unorthodox theological views. Others were prejudiced by his interest in psychic research or his choice of friends (his correspondents included Oscar Wilde and Aleister Crowley).
The teasing obscurity of so much of Youlgreave's work was not to the taste of his contemporaries. In this, as in other matters, he was in advance of his time, and he suffered because of it. As the quotations above reveal, there are many internal references between the poems, suggesting that he was methodically developing a coherent metaphysic. One would not like to claim too much for his achievement, but the time is long overdue for a reassessment of his work and its place in the modern literature. For example, T.S.Eliot is known to have read Youlgreave's work and it is possible to trace the faint outlines of the latter's influence in some passages of "The Waste Land" and the Four Quartets. One day, perhaps,Youlgreave's poetry may be recognized for what it almost certainly is: a small but crucial bridge between the Victorians and the Modernists.