Introduction 'The Book of Jade' (Durtro)

Mark Valentine

Introduction from: Barnitz, Park. The Book of Jade . (Reprint of 1901 edition, with poems from Overland and essay from Poet-Lore added). Durto Press (At the Sign of the Sigh), London.

Some books become talismans. Because they are strange, wildly different to the common run of literature; because they are scarce, and only a few precious copies are known to exist; because, perhaps, they liberate by transgressing the moral limits of the day; because their authors are lonely, elusive visionaries; because, sometimes, there is an inexplicable glamour about the book, so that its readers seem to be lured into a preternatural reverie.

This book possesses all those attributes.

You could characterise it, if you wished, as the jejune posturings of an overly-bookish pastor's son from the American Midwest, in heady revolt against the pieties and provincialism of his upbringing. That would have a certain truth, as even its author might well have conceded. But if it is an outburst of youthful arrogance and bombast, it is nevertheless also a book of power. In its sustained extremities of idol-breaking and bourgeois-baiting it belongs with Le Gomte de Lautr é amont's equally enigmatic prose work Les Chants de Maldoror, or with Aubrey Beardsley's impudent pictures. Like both of these, David Park Barnitz died very young: it is difficult to resist the belief that all of them achieved such feverishly provocativeoriginality only because their familiarity with the fatal freed them from more mundane fears.

The outer facts of David Park. Barnitz's life are brief. Born on July 24 1878 to a Lutheran preacher and his second wife, in West Virginia, he was brought up in Des Moines, Iowa from the age of four, went to college in Kansas at 15 and was admitted to Harvard University in 1897. There he became the youngest member of the prestigious Oriental Society while still in his twentieth year, and received his degree in 1899. He returned home to Des Moines, where he died on October 10 1901, apparently of heart failure. Shortly beforehand his first and only volume, The Book of Jade, had been published in New York.

The almost comically constrained description of him by a local obituarist gives us some clue that Barnitz could both act the conventional part ascribed to him in life and yet retain his own separateness:

"Mr Barnitz was very reticent, went into company but little, but was a daily prominent figure at the libraries. He detested shams of every kind, and in some of his criticisms would have been regarded severe. His tall, erect presence will be missed at the libraries and on the streets. Mr Barnitz was devoted to his parents, sisters and brother, and was what is often termed a home boy."

One can sense the homilist trying to be tactful about the youth whom the townsfolk would recall as, probably, moody, haughty, disdainful, perhaps even contemptuous: the almost visible effort of the last sentence, an afterthought of the "but after all he was kind to his mother" type, is suspicious.

In fact, during his five years or so of adult life, this 'home boy' forged for himself, almost wholly from his reading one must surmise, an affected alter ego, a dilettante, dandy, cynic, sybarite, nihilist, and the sixty or so poems which he collected anonymously in this volume are the luxuriant expression of that pose. Its very first lines sound the keynote:

I am a little tired of all things mortal;
I see through half-shut eyelids languourous...

This image of a weary, jaded artist who has experienced what the world can offer and is enervated by the effort matches the caricature decadent of the English jingoist papers in the last years of the 19th century. What follows swoons with the invocation of incense and scents, sad sinuous music, purple vestments, sacred vessels, opiate fumes, and the summoning of strange sins personified for the poet's idle diversion. Barnitz has compressed into his verses the quest for sensation exemplified in such Decadent works as Huysmans' A Rebours and Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray or in the half-mocking lifestyles affected by such figures as Count Stenbock. But none of this voluptuousness can serve to sustain the poet's interest, for he is sated by existence, "all art, all knowledge, and all passion" have been his. In its extravagant phantasy and its image of an infinitely knowing savant, the poem is reminiscent of M.P. Shiel's Prince Zaleski, another work of the English Decadence.

The Book of Jade is a volume which must be considered in its entirety, to appreciate the intensity and consistency of the poet's vision: but individual pieces have their attractions too. 'Sombre Sonnet' is one of the most graceful celebrations of that saturnine vision: the litany of dark things the poet loves has a strange sense of affirmation to it, even in the ultimate subject of his adoration, she "Within whose subtile beauty slumbereth/ The twain solemnity of life and death".

This mingling of love and death is a constant refrain, an obsession evoked in language as richly sensuous as Poe's tales, which were assuredly amongst its inspirations: as in 'Ligeia', 'The Fall of the House of Usher', 'Berenice', there is a perverse delight in pallid maidens, cerements, flowers of the tomb, decay. In 'Parfait Amour', this singular taste is laced with the typically Decadent pleasure in the concept of sin. It is not only the flavour of the grave which creates the perfect love:

Sweet incense offered for my bliss
Is thy corrupted breath
And on thy stained lips I kiss
The holy lips of death

it is also:

Because thy soul is utterly Sinful unto the core—
Therefore my heart is bound to thee, Dear love, forevermore!

'Requiem' is perhaps the most delicately done of the verses in this vein, for there is a sweet regret at the loss of living beauty "unto the clay" and a gentleness in the description of the obsequies:

White-rose perfume
Go with thee on thy way
... Odour of musk and roses
Make sweet thy crimson lips
Whereon my soul has gone to sweet eclipse.

'Languor', by contrast, is more starkly necrophiliac:

Then may thy buried body turn to me
With new love on thy changed lips like fire

and there are numerous verses even more brutally direct about this fascination with the corruption of the dead.

Although Barnitz is clearly partly inspired by the example
of Poe, and was probably seeking both to outdo his master and to send a thrill of disgust coursing through his readers' bodies, this morbid dalliance with death is also the logical outcome of his nihilist vision. In 'Mankind', he observes that our lives are no more than a preparation for the end: "Long time their bodies hunger for the grave"; we are "to the worm given o'er"; in reaction to this senselessness, he demands "When shall the earth be clean of humankind?". Furthermore, as 'Corpse' makes clear, the poet's desolation is intensified because he sees that only a few can pierce through the mystical mists with which we console ourselves to the dead futility which is our true reality. Those that do are "accurst", for they can have nothing but contempt for existence, "Life's poor processional, Time's lowly dole" as he calls it in 'Pride'. The thought of final human oblivion is his sole succour, as he tells us in 'Consolation': "I know that earth shall be for death a throne": and in the opium vision of 'Poppy Song' he dreams that:

...the whole world fades like a fading star
Dies like the perfume of a dying rose.

I have quoted passages from a number of verses to show how they all derive from the same implacably dark stance. These are not the occasional verses of many moods which were the popular fare of the time, nor the chronicle of a spiritual struggle which one might expect from a thoughtful youth's first book: they are all aspects of a tenaciously held philosophy. If Park Barnitz ever did subscribe to the faith of his father he does not allow this to taint his sardonic testament to its very opposite. He had clearly decided to side himself with the poets maudit, his dedicatee Baudelaire, de l'lsle Adam, Rimbaud, Nerval, Poe: and with the great godless egoists of the day, Nietzsche, d'Annunzio, Zola; and The Book of Jade is his virulent, violent celebration of that decision.

We are bound to wonder how seriously Barnitz held the views he expressed so pungently. An element of affectation, self-mockery, badinage is nearly always present in the work of similar Decadent devotees: Wilde is the obvious example, but it is true too of Stenbock, Dowson, Johnson and others, and more especially of the next generation, the youths of the Great War period, such as Rupert Brooke, James Elroy Flecker, Ivar Campbell, who self-consciously embraced the shunned martyrs of their fathers' age (Wilfred Owen, for example, wore purple socks out of sympathy for the flagship colour of the aesthetes).

The very extravagance of Barnitz's work suggests he too was simply glorying in its provocation and naughtiness: yet sometimes there seems to be an edge of genuine desperation, such as in 'Mad Sonnet', with its bitter evocation of the concept of God - "that lidless Eye" - and its final urgent cry, "Send thou down Death into my loathed sty!"

Ironically, one of the few definite indications we have as to Barnitz's personal tastes comes from his funeral notice, which records that "vases of autumn leaves, of which he was very fond, were placed about the parlor." This at least suggests that some element of his expressed pleasure in decay was well-known: to what extent else his macabre obsessions were made visible to polite society we shall probably never know.

It would be natural to expect one so oppressed by mortality and supposedly disenchanted by life to have induced his own end. The local reports of the time say, however, he had long suffered from "enlargement of the heart". Unless this is to be regarded as a discreet veil over a more self-willed form of decease, we must therefore discount H.P. Lovecraft's report thirty years later that he took his own life. But whatever the cause, so brief a life is tragedy enough: and we must suppose that a consciousness of the imminence of death was ever in the poet's thoughts as he wrote this volume; that he meant it to outlive him, to stand as his sole summation of the strong, sardonic truths he had discovered for himself.

Yet hundreds of volumes of verse were published each year in the English-speaking world. How does it happen that this one has survived? The Book of Jade was first published in 1901 by William S. Doxey, who seems to have been sympathetic to the avant-garde and outre, since, amongst other curious works, he had earlier published an almost equally legendary volume, Emma Frances Dawson's An Itinerant House and Other Stories (1897), rife with diabolism, orientalism, suicide, and the blackly amoral: the themes are favourites fin de sieclèe literature, so we do not need to suppose direct influence upon Barnitz, but the book gives the flavour of the sort of thing he must have relished.

Doxey published Barnitz's book in New York, where he had recently moved, though most of his publishing was done in the San Francisco milieu in which moved George Sterling, whose A Wine of Wizardry, from about the same period, has parallels with Barnitz's work in its brocaded imagery and charnel house atmosphere. There was clearly 'something in the air' amongst the young literati of the period, probably founded upon a slightly delayed response to the French and English Decadence: though Poe and Bierce both provide a sufficient native tradition to draw upon.

The first edition of The Book of Jade was limited to 600 copies: it is doubtful if more than a handful exist today outside the eminent libraries. Though a few poems have been revived in amateur press publications since, this is the first full reprint as well as the first British edition.

It is possible that The Book of Jade might have remained utterly in the shadows had it not been for passing references in the voluminous correspondence of that venerable fantasist H.P. Lovecraft (published in his Selected Letters, volume IV), evoking it as "nasty cynical" (this intended as praise) and "a remarkable volume of decadent verse". These remarks have whetted the curiosity of Lovecraft's followers in recent years, including, in America, writers David E. Schulz and S.T. Joshi, and culminating in a mercilessly comprehensive contribution about Barnitz and his family background in the latter's journal Studies in Weird Fiction, by Gavin Callaghan. In Britain, I think I may have been mostly responsible for stimulating interest in the book, with an article in the now defunct Lovecraft journal Dagon, and I owe my interest to the artist Nicholas Blinko, who first drew my attention to Lovecraft's letters. The happenstance that so few stray words from Lovecraft have preserved Barnitz's work from the dust is a fine trick of chance that I like to think the poet would have relished: it so easily might have been otherwise.

Revel then in what follows and remember as you read that you hold in your hands a rare talisman, with proven powers of persistence, which can sublimely endarken your imagination and nurture your insouciance against the indifference of existence.

Mark Valentine
April 1997

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