Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Marston, Philip Bourke

MARSTON, PHILIP BOURKE (1850–1887), poet, son of John Westland Marston [q. v.], was born in London 13 Aug. 1850. Philip James Bailey and Dinah Maria Mulock were his sponsors, and the most popular of the latter s short poems, 'Philip, my King,' is addressed to him. When only three years old he experienced the irreparable misfortune of loss of sight, occasioned by the injudicious administration of belladonna as a prophylactic against scarlet fever, aggravated, it was thought, by an accidental blow. The privation of vision was not for many years so complete as to prevent him from. seeing, in his own words, 'the tree-boughs waving in the wind, the pageant of sunset in the west, and the glimmer of a fire upon the hearth;' and this dim, imperfect perception must have been more stimulating to the imagination than a condition of either perfect sight or total blindness. He indulged, like Hartley Coleridge, in a consecutive series of imaginary adventures and in the reveries called up by music, for which he exhibited the usual fondness of the blind. The inevitable effect was to excite the ideal side of a powerful mind into premature and excessive activity while discouraging reflection and mental discipline, to which he remained a stranger all his life. His extraordinary gifts of verbal expression and melody were soon manifested in poems of remarkable merit for his years, and displaying a power of delineating the aspects of nature which, his affliction considered, seemed almost incomprehensible. These efforts met full recognition from the brilliant literary circle then gathered around his father, and he was intensely happy for a time in the affection of Mary Nesbit, a young lady of great personal and other attractions. The death of his betrothed from rapid consumption, in November 1871, absolutely prostrated him, and was the precursor of a series of calamities which might well excuse the morbid element in his views of life and nature. In 1874 a kindred genius and most faithful friend, Oliver Madox Brown [q.v.], died after a short and entirely unforeseen illness. In 1878 he was bereaved with equal suddenness of his sister Cicely, to whom one of his most beautiful poems is addressed, and whose devotion to him was absolute. His surviving sister, Eleanor, died early in the following year; her husband, Arthur O'Shaughnessy [q. v.], followed shortly, and a few years later Marston lost a sincere friend and literary comrade in the gifted and unhappy James Thomson [q. v.] His sight had also become extinct, and his pecuniary means were greatly diminished.

The sadness of his poetry is therefore no subject for surprise, and is chiefly to be regretted as a barrier in the way of a literary renown which might have stood much higher under happier circumstances. The three volumes of poetry published in his lifetime, 'Song-Tide and other Poems' (1871), 'All in All' (1875), and 'Wind Voices' (1883), abound with beautiful thoughts expressed in beautiful language, but soon become tedious from the monotony, not merely of sentiment, but of diction and poetical form. The sonnet was undoubtedly best adapted to render his usual vein of feeling; and that or allied forms of verse became so habitual with him that he seemed to experience a difficulty in casting his thoughts into any other mould. Supreme excellence, however, is at once so indispensable in the sonnet and so difficult to attain, that although Marston did not always fall short of it, the greater part of his work in this department can only be classed as second-rate. He also suffered from the too faithful following, degenerating into imitation, of a greater master, Rossetti. It was, however, Rossetti's kindly appreciation of his disciple, and like generosity on the part of Mr. Swinburne, that formed the main solace of Marston's infelicitous life. His own generous and open disposition procured him many warm friends, among them his subsequent editors and biographers, Mrs. Louise Chandler Moulton, the American poetess, and Mr. William Sharp. The former was especially instrumental in finding a public in America for the numerous short stories by which the author partly supported himself, and which, after his death, were collected by Mr. Sharp under the title of 'For a Song's Sake and other Stories' (1887, 8vo).

Marston's relations with his father also were singularly affectionate; he usually accompanied him in a summer tour, and it was an one of these excursions that he received the sunstroke which accelerated the paralytic attack that befell him early in 1887, and proved fatal on 13 Feb. His memory was honoured by a fine elegy from Mr. Swinburne's pen, printed in the 'Fortnightly Review' for January 1891; and two posthumous collections of his poems were published by Mrs. Moulton, under the titles of 'Garden Secrets' (1887) and 'A Last Harvest' (1891 ). She also published in 1892 'The Collected Poems of Philip Bourke Marston, with Biographical Sketch and Portrait.'

[Memoirs of Philip Bourke Marston, by L. C. Moulton and W. Sharp, prefixed to A Last Harvest and For a Song's Sake; personal knowledge.]

R. G.