illiam Sharp is probably remembered these days--if at all--as the original, albeit less adventuresome, Fernando Pessoa. Sharp's sole heteronym was the "Celtic Twilight" poet and dramatist Fiona MacLeod, who, as fate would have it, was more highly regarded as a creative talent than her originator. Nevertheless, Sharp, writing under his own name, was not without his gifts. He was a serviceable, if unimaginative critic. His volume of dramatic sketches Vistas (1894) was the closest that any British writer of his time ever got to creating pure Symbolist theater in the manner of Maeterlinck. Then there are the poems that appeared in his 1891 collection Sospiri di Roma.
The "Sospiri" poems have never been easy to obtain. The original volume has never, to the best of my knowledge, been reprinted. Sixteen of the poems were selected for inclusion in a 1909 volume Songs and Poems, and this volume is somewhat easier to locate, though it's far from common. However, I suspect it has been reprinted and should be available for study. Sharp has never been an especial favorite of anthologists, and, ironically, the best "advertisement" for these poems has come from a non-literary source, namely, the American composer Charles T. Griffes who transformed several of them into piano and small orchestral sketches. Clearly the composer was drawn to Sharp's Roman dream world, albeit not sufficiently to set his words directly to music. Perhaps Griffes felt that the words, if spoken aloud, contained enough music of their own, and so was content to compose a series of interpretations that can almost serve as accompaniments to the poet's words.
What especially interests me about these poems is the way in which they prefigure Imagism. Although they may have little in common with Pound's celebrated "In a Station of the Metro," they are quite close to the Richard Aldington of "Choricos." Not only are Sharp's poems clearly concerned with painting word-pictures for the readers, they are written in free verse. This last point is itself worth noting. If Sharp was not the first English poet to experiment with "cadenced lines" in lieu of strict meter-and-rhyme, he was surely one of the first. In this regard, the poems of Sospiri di Roma are far more advanced than anything being offered by the Rhymers at that time.
One problem in dealing with Sharp is that he is not a poet of notable lines. Although the "Sospiri" poems are highly imagistic, you really have to quote large blocks of verse to arrive at the single image. Indeed, the most famous of them, "The White Peacock," one of the poems chosen by Griffes for musical transformation, is actually an unfolding image. To arrive at "the image" you literally have to read the entire poem. In fact the first forty-six lines constitute a single, immensely long sentence preparing us for the appearance of the rara avis! In many of Sharp's other poems, especially in his many ballads, there is a more highly developed narrative thrust with a lot of colorful action and swaggering rhymes. The "Sospiri" poems are closer to the mystical nature lyrics of Fionna MacLeod--except that they are not especially mystical. Rather, they are detached, extended contemplations of beauty. The closing lines of "The White Peacock" sum it up as well as any in the collection:
Here, as the breath, as the soul of this beauty
White as a cloud through the heats of the noontide
Moves the White Peacock.
Clearly no single line is especially memorable, but the three lines taken together as an elegant whole serve to give Sharp's poem a memorable conclusion, as well as providing the image for which we have been searching. This is not Sharp's typical narrative strategy. For instance, in "The Swimmer of Nemi" he gives us the image immediately.
White through the azure,
The purple blueness,
Of Nemi's waters
The swimmer goeth.
The remainder of the poems serves as an adumbration of this image.
The adjective "white" appears in both poems. The colors white or yellow appear in most of these poems and although I would not go so far as to say that they are the major motifs of the collection, I will say that in all nineteen of the poems I have read, Sharp admirably succeeds in capturing the "white heat" sensations of a summer day. Sospiri di Roma is a surprisingly sensuous collection. If its theme had been love rather than nature, it probably would have been banned.
There is no great theme running through the poems. Instead there is a continuing mood of dreamy languor. Sharp quotes popular Italian songs as mottoes to several of the poems, but whether his English words would fit the Italian melodies, we have no way of knowing. The fact that Sharp uses songs, and folk songs at that, as references suggests that he wants to look upon his collection as something less that great art. (Though I can't imagine that he would have expected these poems with their rarified atmosphere to be popular favorites on the order of Kipling's "Barrack-Room Ballads," either.) The poems are conventionally, though not slavishly, Romantic. For instance, in "Thistledown," he passes up the chance to exalt the religion of paganism making instead the starkly commonsensical observation
Where long, long ago
The swarthy priests
Worshipped their Gods,
The Gods now less than
The very dust
Whence the green grass springeth.
"The Mandolin" is something of a ghostly serenade, but Sharp evokes a sense of psychological unease rather than indulging in the more conventional atmospherics of a poem like Francis Saltus Saltus' "The Andalusian Sereno." The music of the mandolins may indeed be omnipresent, but as presented by Sharp their existence is less accurate reportage than an intuition of some unseen life force.
William Sharp is yet another of a minor writer in need of further study. (In fact, he's two writers in need of further study since his Fiona MacLeod oeuvre offers challenges of its own.) I would suggest that the short dramas collected in Vistas and the poems of the Sospiri di Roma collection are an excellent starting point for this research.
Last modified 26 November 2004