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"Frederick Rolfe & John Clare".

("To have a splinter in one's soul". Amaranthe)
Last updated here in August 2020.

Should those stumbling on these recollections be averse to anecdotes and epigrams, then maybe these pages are not for them. On the other hand my sympathies lie both with the writer and the reader. There is a peculiar sense in which these words remind one of casting these paragraphs into a vast ocean of information....(will it sink or swim?). One never knows where it may drift ashore and who may pick it up and read. Perhaps that is the fun? To pursue the sailing metaphor, there is a fascination with those writers who circumstance made shipwrecks of their lives., set right by a wish to honour them here when full recognition eluded them during their mortal span...

Who could not but be moved by John Clare's 1848 “I Am”......?
(seen above in the two right hand images)

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:

I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

Any reader unaware of Clare's* sad story would be moved by finding the third stanza and the tragedy that unfolds.

*“Edge of the Orison”. Iain Sinclair. 2005. Hamish Hamilton.

I wonder how many of our readers remember Frederick Rolfe? Self styled Baron Corvo and perhaps best remembered obliquely through Julian Symonds ground breaking biography “Quest for Corvo”*.
(Seen above in the two left hand images)

Autodidact, homosexual, antisocial, aggressive, would be Catholic priest,  and yet, and yet...very gifted novelist, and letter writer extraordinaire.

Symonds account of his life is of great interest in it's own right. In fact, an early biography in the format of a detective novel. The reader is carried along in the sweeping narrative of the biographer's search for clues...only to end in the pitiful drama of the poor man's demise. Well worth seeking out and still readily available in orange Penguin paperback. Our interest stems from the fact that we respond best to any art form that gets the “Ah..that is interesting!” reaction, and Rolfe does it for us in spades.

Take a look at this. It's from “The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole” ***.....

[This is not from Plato direct....but a marvellous transcription, written in 1934  by Rolfe..….and described by a critic as: “…..one of the great passages in English literature”].


 ........................."Thus are things blended and balanced---at least, as far as we know. For we know very little; and most of us are too proud, and all of us are too hysterical, to sit down and work out a really satisfying method of fitting together the parts of the puzzle of life.

 People did make a beginning, once upon a time.

Plato......(I implore you, o most affable reader, not to be a fool)....Plato did it.

 His ingenious theory was that, in the beginning of all things, the Father and King of Gods and men, created Man whole, totus teres atque rotundus, a whole smooth round man, complete in himself and absolutely apt in all ways, with two faces that looked before and behind, and four arms which fought behind and before, and four legs which went backward and forward, all at the bidding of the one will: which whole round man, becoming very much bucked by his own potentiality, was misguided enough to give himself airs and to get up and cough at the immortal gods, making himself a most accented nuisance to those divine ones who inhabit Olympian mansions: wherefore High Zeus, in ire, cut his creature in half, leaving the trimmings of the moieties to the tasty fingers of Phoibus Apollon.

And the healed halves he cast down, at random into the world, from the height of lofty Olympos, there to wander to and fro while life should last, performing the punishment fitted to the crime of presumption. For, each half, being aware of and ashamed of and ultimately discontented with its condition of bisection, yearns most voraciously, and goes about most phrenetically, to seek and be joined and knit to and ultimately united to and dissolved in its other half.

Hence says Plato, summing up his theory: "The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole is called Love".

And, as far as I know dear reader (admitting freely, of course, that I do not know much).....I really do think that Plato has touched the spot".


There are a number of things going on here. Note the construction of new words, the command of Greek classical mythology, the gentle conversation with the reader and all without talking down. It's a masterpiece.

Rolfe had an argumentative nature and had a tendency to fall out spectacularly with most of the people who tried to help him and who offered him room and board. Eventually, out of money and out of luck, he died abandoned in Venice in 1913. He was buried there on the Isola di San Michele. Bodies were carried to the island on special funeral gondolas. Among those buried there with Frederick Rolfe are none other than: Igor Stravinsky, Joseph Brodsky, Jean Schlumberger, Sergei Diaghilev and Ezra Pound, The cemetery is still in use today.

Poor old Rolfe. He never saw any financial gains from his work, left no dependants. Poverty stricken and embittered to the very end, his legacy lives on in the legion of enthusiasts who still enjoy his work.

Interestingly, his novel Hadrian V11 was revived for the West End Theatre in 1968, by Peter Luke . Here he imagines his call to the priesthood, culminating in his elevation to Pope. Far fetched? Yes. But he carries it off as a tour de force through his sheer fluency in Catholic ritual and language.

***You will need to dig out Frederick Rolfe Baron Corvo's “The Desire & Pursuit of the Whole”. Cassell & Co. London. 1934. pp 12 & 13.

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