KR Reviews

On Beatrice Hastings: On the Life & Work of a Lost Modern Master

Edited by Benjamin Johnson and Erika Jo Brown. Warrensburg, MO: Pleiades Press, 2016. 260 pages. $12.99.

In Beatrice Hastings: On the Life & Work of a Lost Modern Master—the 2016 offering from The Unsung Masters Series—we find the fullest portrait yet of a poet and polemicist little known today. Unlike most writers in the series, Hastings sought anonymity. She wrote under fifteen different pen names; “Beatrice Hastings” was only her best-known. This choice makes her a poet of her time, as personas were in vogue in the 1910s. Frost wrote poems like little dramas; in Spoon River Anthology (1915), Edgar Lee Masters made a graveyard sing. But Hastings, a London-based writer born in 1879, took personas to the extreme. As “T.K.L.,” she championed, attacked, and parodied Ezra Pound. As “Beatrice Tina,” she railed against childbirth. As Hastings, she settled scores. All three wrote poems. One reason the word “lost” appears in this book’s title is that she hid so well. It is hard to enter the canon when it cannot find your name.

Which begs the question that hovers over this book: why use pseudonyms? According to Benjamin Johnson, one of Hastings’s new editors, she hoped to dupe the readership of The New Age—the journal she edited with her lover, A. R. Orage—into believing it had a more robust stable of contributors. As Hastings later wrote, “I cared for nothing but the paper, that was my life.” By multiplying herself, Hastings enlarged her publisher. Carey Snyder notes that the pseudonyms let Hastings argue the women’s suffrage question from both sides. She played the misogynist “Edward Stafford,” the level-headed “D. Triformis,” and the militant reformer “Beatrice Tina.” This gave The New Age a political diversity it might otherwise lack. Today we might imagine Beatrice Hastings as a one-woman comments section. She is the moderator, the troll, and the voice of reason all in one.

She is also a chameleon of genres. This volume is divided into her political essays, parodies, poems, fiction, memoirs, and Paris impressions. Reading through them, I wondered if Hastings had another reason for the pseudonyms. Although she practiced many genres, she mastered none, and the pen names built firewalls between her failures. Her fiction is unreadable; her essays can amaze, if only in parts. The parodies of Pound and the Futurists are delectable but also niche. On a Futurist’s infatuation with speed, she cheekily writes that he “pops across [the Atlantic] to see how fast he can go!” (“Wake Up, England!”). The joke’s good, but for how many does it sting? Still, I found Beatrice Hastings an invigorating read, and I’d recommend it to general readers and Modernist devotees alike. Why?

The subject matter is one reason. This book captures the hothouse world of London’s avant-garde in the teens, doing so through the eyes of a woman who tried not to be seen. At a time when male poets raged for recognition, Beatrice Hastings skirted the spotlight. She complicates a well-known milieu. The book’s editing is another. Benjamin Johnson and Erika Jo Brown’s sectional prefaces help us navigate Hastings’s genres. Johnson’s general introduction successfully combines close reading, biography, and recuperative criticism. The real prize, though, is Hasting’s poetry. As Johnson notes, she is a “compelling writer of formal verse.” This too sets her against Pound, who exhorted his contemporaries “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.” Like Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hastings refused:

I’ll tear me a robe from a tiger’s spine,
I’ll bind up my ruddy hair
In a band of tendrils plucked from the vine,
And ivy and grapes I will wear.

And I’ll leap the meadows toward the city,
Where the mortals dance to-night,
And wrench from the breast of the loved one pity,
And fill it with mad delight.

I’ll work in the milky heart of the maid.
With magic I’ll ripen her bosom scanty,
Till her lover gasp nor know that he clasp
No mortal maid, but a lost Bacchante.

These are the last three stanzas of “The Lost Bacchante,” Hastings’s best-known poem and part of her claim to the title “a minor poet of the first class.” Although she inverts her syntax and archaizes her diction, she breaks boundaries with gender roles. Her narrator is a bacchanalian straggler, and her “victim” is a city girl, whom she magically possesses. In a separate essay on Hastings’s verse, Johnson reads “The Lost Bacchante” as a meditation on the “Madonna-whore-complex”—men love what they “do not desire” and desire what they “cannot love”—but the poem is as much about masks as it is about madness. The bacchante wanders into the city and, like her author Emily Alice Beatrice Haigh, becomes someone else. This leads to a threesome, the last stanza as lurid and fixated on fluids as premium cable: True Blood, say, or Penny Dreadful. Urbanity allows for anonymity. Anonymity allows dangerous liaisons to occur.

If “The Lost Bacchante” finds violence where one might expect sex, the poem “Comrades” alludes to sex where one might expect violence. Both poems date to 1910; both were published in the New Age. In “Comrades,” a soldier speaks, one more persona to unmask:

Into the desert I will dare
   My willing foot with you,
If you will give me all my share
   Of toil and danger too.

By the night-fire, beneath the tree
   I’ll lightly, lightly sleep,
If you will surely waken me
   The second watch to keep.

Exiled, beside you I will stand,
   Proud in degraded line,
If the same chain which binds your hand
   In tyrant grip, binds mine.

Like Wilfred Owen, Beatrice Hastings lyricizes the semisexual bond between soldiers. Exiles and watchmen, desert-bound but joined in danger, these comrades clasp hands to feel each other’s touch. We see as much when the embrace returns:

In winter-work and summer-play
   We’ll spend our joy and strength,
Till the soft hand which closes day
   Shall lead us home at length.

Hastings’s war poem lacks the verisimilitude of Owen’s, and one might argue that the trope of the warrior-lover is as old as Achilles and Patroclus. Still, Hastings achieves a gloomy tenderness when, in those final lines, she equates man-to-man domesticity with death. Hastings may allude here to her own distrust of the domestic. In Woman’s Worst Enemy: Woman (1909) she writes that “[n]ever, at any time of my whole existence, did I want to become a mother.”

Hastings’s poetry expands further when read alongside the volume’s six critical essays. These essays address some of the thornier questions that Hastings poses: what is the status of her feminism? What compelled her to take her own life in 1943? One may not agree with Hastings’s polemics or accept the use of “Master” in this title—it seems hyperbolic—but these essays fill in some fascinating gaps in the Modernist world. Celia Kingsbury tells how, in advance of a costume party, the painter Amedeo Modigliani ripped Hastings’s dress and then painted both dress and dress-wearer alike. Erin Kingsley situates Hastings’s stance against maternity in a larger debate about pregnancy, suffrage, and birth rates in prewar England.

The essays accomplish what all criticism should aspire to and what the best poetry, according to Sir Philip Sidney, achieves: “to teach and delight.” This is a hallmark of the Unsung Masters Series, which combines scholarly rigor with poetic chutzpah. The editions return lost writers to print through collaborations between the English Department’s unruly siblings: the scholar and creative writer. (Johnson is a professor of Modernism; Brown is a poet and editor at Gulf Coast.) It is the collective glee, however, in “discovering” Hastings that I found most endearing throughout. As Tyler Babbie writes, to read Beatrice Hastings is to experience “serendipity” and “déjà vu.”

Derek Mong is the author of two poetry collections from Saturnalia Books, Other Romes and The Identity Thief, as well as a chapbook from Two Sylvias Press, The Ego and the Empiricist. The Byron K. Trippet Assistant Professor of English at Wabash College, he holds degrees from Stanford, the University of Michigan, and Denison University. His work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Blackbird, Pleiades, and elsewhere. He and his wife, Anne O. Fisher, received the 2018 Cliff Becker Translation Award for The Joyous Science: Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin. He blogs at the Kenyon Review Online.