'Faithful, All Too Faithful' by David Cormack (Part 3)



Little William Ashton Ellis grew up with that monumental three-volume Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition, full of engravings, pull-out charts, appendices and schedules. Here may be the origin of his own obsessive indexing and cross-referencing. His father’s preface to the Catalogue had referred the reader deferentially to Tenniel’s title-page design with its inscription ‘The Earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is, The compass of the world and they that dwell therein’, praying that if the Catalogue should survive the Crystal Palace exhibition, it should be remembered that ‘while descriptive of the successful labours of men, may it not be forgotten that the glory and praise are due to God alone.’ [182] Robert Ellis had catalogued the detail of the material world’s success (including a patent safety gun and an ‘original percussion gun’ from Forsyth & Co.). But William Ashton Ellis would fail to find spiritual reassurance in the present world’s celebration of industry, science and technology.

Robert Ellis probably had little musical inclination. For him harmony was to be found in nature and in science. Yet as he reflected in the Chemistry of Creation on the physical attributes of a wave’s crest, front, height, amplitude, and the tidal effect, Robert Ellis detected an ‘abstruse’ philosophy behind the science:

It may appear that little interesting to the student or to the philosopher is to be found in the phenomena of waves, beyond their beauty, or their sublimity, or their force. To look upon this widely agitated surface, it would seem a vain attempt to discover anything like harmony or order in phenomena so apparently confused and irregular as those of waves. Yet there is much philosophy, and that of a very abstruse order, concerned in the explanation of their movements; and, incredible though it would seem, there is a real harmony and order of a very beautiful kind, observable in these seemingly disordered and commingled masses of water. […] How striking the thought, not one of these apparently free and fetterless billows, which have supplied poets with the most beautiful similes of liberty and unrestrained action, can move but in obedience to certain laws which control and direct them. To us nothing in nature appears so unshackled; in reality not a wave heaves but is under the influence of laws which prescribe its movement, velocity, and form. Is it not so in life? The movements of an hour, the fresh-rising events which appear to us as the most fortuitous things in the world – these all have their time, their form, and presence, and place appointed, in the hands of Him in whom we live, and move, and have our being. [183]

At the same time, as a scientist Ellis made frequent reference to Darwin’s 1831 Journal of Researches made during the voyages of the Beagle. It was in a scientific rather than ‘philosophical’ mode that The Chemistry of Creation gave this description of the observable natural cycle of life and death:

The interchange of ingredients never ceases. Millions of animals feed upon the vegetation nourished by the decay of former myriads. Their time is then completed; their period of utility is ended: they die. The air again receives their elements, and again with continually succeeding generations do these enter into activity in the economy of the world. [184]

Pragmatically, in Disease in Childhood Robert Ellis proposed practical, common-sense measures to reduce infant mortality - cleanliness, light, breastmilk, exercise, diet. That ethos, as well as a sense of an ‘abstruse’ philosophy behind it, would be handed down to his son, but not the sanctimonious Victorian insistence that chemistry, natural science, medicine were God’s gifts, practised by Men for the Glory of God. Theosophy was to suggest to William Ashton Ellis a new vocabulary, reaching behind the material world and the cycle of life and death. Richard Wagner, who had abandoned Feuerbach’s anti-religion for Schopenhauerian metaphysics, unveiled a beckoning ‘astral light’ to Ellis, who saw himself as Wagner’s English medium. And this was how the first canon of English Wagnerism came into being, during a period when materialists such as Marx, Engels, Lenin, and even Bernard Shaw himself, would have walked the same London pavements, sat in the same concert-halls, and rubbed elbows in the reading room of the British Museum, with William Ashton Ellis.


In the March 1887 number of La Revue Wagnérienne, its London correspondent Louis N. Parker reported:

La Société Wagnérienne de Londres a commencé le nouvel an avec courage et bon espoir. Nous avons à présent cent soixante-dix associés dont la plupart sont très connus dans la monde musical. Nous espérons augmenter ce nombre jusqu’à mille pendant l’année afin de pouvoir enfin donner les représentations, ou bien même UNE représentation d’un drame wagnérien: ce n’est pas la bonne volonté qui nous manque, mais l’argent. La Société s’occupe aussi de fonder un journal wagnérien qui doit paraître tous les trois mois seulement, car, quoique la Revue Wagnérienne soit bien connue en Angleterre il nous manque un journal anglais qui soit à nous. [185]

The renowned French journal ran for a mere three years; its English counterpart would run for seven. With the solemn anniversary date 13 February 1888, the first issue of The Meister made its appearance. ‘THE WAGNER SOCIETY of London makes to-day its bow to the public, and begs to introduce its friend the “MEISTER.” That gentleman must now say a few words for himself, or themselves; for the editorial “we” will betoken the impersonal character of the undertaking, and therein be more consistent with the true facts of the case than when employed by journals carried on for the purposes of private gain.’ [186] Its editor would defend its macaronic title – bestowed on it by himself - by pointing out that no-one had scruples about ‘the Czar’ or ‘the Lama’. [187] The first two annual volumes of The Meister were published by George Redway, who had been selected as the publisher of Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine in 1888 (A.P. Sinnet had investments in the publishing firm). However, Redway’s proposals for the latter turned out not to be ‘financially satisfactory’ and his occult list, and The Meister itself, were soon afterwards acquired by Kegan Paul, Trench & Trübner. Throughout its eight years of publication, the first and second quarterly numbers of The Meister each year bore the date of Wagner’s death and birth respectively. (A minor fetish for coincidences of dates is to be found elsewhere in Ellis’s writings.) Where The Meister aimed to be symbolic, it did so clumsily. The first issue bore a truly awful frontispiece attributed to ‘Mr Percy Anderson, a well-known artist and steadfast admirer of Richard Wagner’s dramas’. Bernard Shaw described it kindly as ‘slapdash’, and recommended the journal to look to Selwyn Image or Walter Crane for models of title-page designs. But to the end of its days The Meister continued unabashed to carry Anderson’s design – ‘executed’ (or so it thought) ‘in the style of the German art of the 15th and 16th centuries’, as if the English nineteenth century Arts and Crafts movement had never existed. [188] There was another defect Shaw wished to see improved – for all its claim to impersonality ‘the editorial “we”’ had ‘an evident indisposition to provoke hostility.’

When reading The Meister it’s as instructive as it is entertaining to have to hand Shaw’s books London Music in 1888-89 as heard by Corno di Bassetto, and Music in London 1890-94. They form a commentary on almost the exact period of The Meister’s existence. The ‘Notes’ generally appearing at the back of each quarterly number of The Meister have the greatest interest for anyone curious about Wagner’s reception in London. It can safely be said that Ellis contributed them all with the exception of those few signed with other initials. On the one occasion when he rose to Shaw’s taunt of failing to be provocative - when he first poured scorn on Ferdinand Praeger’s Wagner as I knew him, in May 1892 - no-one took up his invitation to submit an alternative point of view in the next or indeed any subsequent number. [189]

The Meister sought early on to establish that its credentials were other than parochial. Its inaugural number included ‘an original article contributed by C.F. GLASENAPP, of Riga, author of “Richard Wagner’s ‘Leben und Wirken’.”’ The translator of this article, ‘Richard Wagner and the “Bayreuther Blaetter”’, was anonymous, but it was of course Ellis. The article recognised that Wagner’s reception earlier in the century had been difficult, particularly in England, but there now existed a journal, the Bayreuther Blätter, whose purpose was to bridge the gulf between ‘the spirit’ of Wagner’s writings – ‘as whose fulfilment it must to a certain extent be regarded’ – and ‘the spirit of our modern reading-world’. Indeed, it went on, ‘[It] is a matter of no less moment than a complete revolution of our whole modern culture; and the most resolute upholder of this culture should not stand aside from this work, even should he take up the position of an attentive onlooker.’ Even less should he be ‘inclined to stray away at every moment from the grand simplicity of the Bayreuth ideal, - when, for instance,’ [had he Bernard Shaw in mind?] ‘this or that literary free-lance is clamouring in hot haste for the superseding of the Bayreuth Festpielhaus by a “Wagner-Theatre” of similar construction in Berlin or elsewhere’. [190] Glasenapp firmly asserted that the ‘Scientific-Historical School’ is inimical to this ‘revolution’, being ‘in such a hurry to prove every prominent individual to be merely the product of his surroundings in Time and Space’ that it fails to explain ‘the real harmonious relation in which the sudden appearances of intellectual giants stand to one another and to the inner spirit of their people. Conversely it sees in the Jew of to-day, not the booty-loving Son of the Desert, who has preserved his character unchanged through thousands of years, but the modern citizen of the Mosaic confession. The racial ideal is for it an abstraction, no living and realisable perception.’ The Bayreuther Blätter, Glasenapp pronounced, is ‘the only journal in Germany, or even in Europe, which, in loyal following of the Meister’s lead, sets up, in opposition to that critically-destructive form of culture, the method of artistic comprehension, and in this sense keeps its eye steadfast upon the unworthiness of modern art no less than on the seeds and blossoms of the worthier things to come.’ [191]

Glasenapp continued: ‘We consider the moment at which the London Branch of the “Wagner-Verein” (Wagner Society) has founded a special organ in the English tongue as peculiarly appropriate wherein to indicate the wide-reaching significance of the Bayreuther Blätter as set out above.’ The appearance of ‘the journal of the English Wagner Society’ signified the common cause between ‘our brothers across the Channel’ and those ‘on the ancestral German soil’, to gain ‘victory over the intellectual forces that have made so hard the task of clearing away the hindrances to the life-work of Richard Wagner, and the education of a new and better generation. So willed the Meister.’ [192] This early identification of The Meister with the reactionary nationalism of the Bayreuther-Kreis is undeniable. Yet it’s questionable how far Ellis personally endorsed these views. Clearly he was flattered to have won recognition in Bayreuth for his English efforts, but the political undertones in Glasenapp’s article must have jarred with his theosophical principles. As exemplified by B.L. Mosely, many of the Wagner Society’s members, whatever their ‘confession’, held office without any discernible adverse discrimination. In 1893 The Meister would rebuff as ‘foolish’ the attempt by the Daily Telegraph ‘to prove our London Wagner Society was “German,” by discovering on our list of members the gigantic proportion of about one-sixth whose names it could remotely trace to German derivation!’ [193] The ‘clearing away of hindrances’ was not on the English agenda.

From the start The Meister enlisted established and respected writers and critics such as its ‘Sub-Editor’ for a time Edgar F. Jacques (1850-1906); he was also editor successively of the Musical World (1888-91) and the Musical Times (1892-97); and Charles A. Barry (1830-1915), former editor (1874-76) of the Monthly Musical Record. Aiming to join this tradition, The Meister’s ‘Notes’ are where reviews of performances in London and Bayreuth were to be found. These are of musical rather than of political or theoretical interest, and they demonstrate that Ellis himself had a fair critical talent (at least in matters Wagnerian). He could be surprisingly generous too. In a review of ‘Recent Wagner-Literature: French’ (Ellis seems to have been pretty fluent in that language as well), he wrote of Georges Noufflard’s Wagner d’après lui-même (1885, reprinted 1891): ‘Here we have, among others, an exposition of Opera and Drama which I cannot do better than advise any reader who may have lost patience with my own translation of that work, to study with the greatest care; it is lucid, logical, impartial, and full of original ideas, as a modern criticism should be.’ [194] Amen to that.

The Meister’s Notes provide useful observations on first performances in London of Wagner’s Symphony in C, the Siegfried Idyll, the Kaisermarsch with chorus, the complete Fünf Gedichte (Wesendonck songs), and on singing style and staging at home and abroad. At the 1889 Bayreuth Festival, Ellis was received personally by Cosima Wagner:

We cannot, however, close this review of the Bayreuth season without a cordial word of thanks to Madame Wagner for her courtesy to us personally, and for the kind way in which she expressed her complete satisfaction with our London efforts to spread the knowledge of her late husband’s many-sided genius, and for the hospitable manner in which she threw open her salons every Tuesday evening to all whose visits were prompted by any feeling but that of idle curiosity’. [195]

An impression of the individual Cosima Wagner received can be seen in the recently-discovered signed photo of the balding, mustachio'd, thirty-seven year-old William Ashton Ellis, reproduced with this article.

Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was also in Bayreuth in 1889, attending his first Festival. He mentions meeting several individuals closely connected with the London Wagner Society (Charles Dowdeswell, Carl Armbruster, Pauline Cramer) - but not Ellis. [196] But then Shaw did not meet Cosima either, who would never have invited to her salons a man who wrote as Shaw did, after describing a mix-up with the spear business in the second act of Parsifal:

Now if you, my Wagnerian friends, wonder how I can scoff thus at so impressive a celebration, I reply that Wagner is dead, and that the evil of deliberately making the Bayreuth Festival Playhouse a temple of dead traditions, instead of an arena for live impulses, has begun already. It is because I, too, am an enthusiastic Wagnerite that the Bayreuth management cannot deceive me by dressing itself in the skin of the dead lion. [197]

Shaw was definitely of the opposing party with regard to Bayreuth. He was even prepared to promote a British Wagner Society at its expense:

I have in my hands the report of the London branch of the Wagner Society, which I peruse with mingled feelings. It is satisfactory enough that the 52 members of 1884 are now [i.e. 1890] 309; but the balance-sheet is enough to drive any sensible Englishman mad. In German-speaking cities at present Wagner’s operas are paying enormously. In Dresden, for instance, the announcement of an opera by any other composer empties the house. Even the Bayreuth performances were a financial success last year. In this miserable country a man who has seen Die Walküre on the stage is a much greater curiosity than one who has explored the Congo. Clearly, then, the business of an International Wagner Society is to transfer money from the prosperous Wagnerism of Germany to the languishing Wagnerism of Britain. Yet the London Wagner Society actually sent £46:12:6 to Berlin (of which city, London, it appears, is a suburb) out of its income of £271:19s. In return they got sixty-four free tickets for the Bayreuth performances, which were balloted for by gentlemen in a position to spend £20 on a fortnight’s holiday, to the unspeakable edification and Wagnerian enlightenment of the English nation at large. [198]

The same article is valuable for Shaw’s report on how the London Wagner Society actually functioned:

There was no chairman, no discussion, no orderly procedure, no opportunity whatever of raising any question connected with the subject of the evening or with the society. Mr Ellis, the secretary, simply came out; fed us with lecture as if we were a row of animals in the Zoo; and walked off and left us there. [199]

On the other hand, Shaw expressed genuine appreciation of Ellis’s efforts. He dutifully purchased each copy of The Meister, despite being sent review copies, [200] pronouncing it ‘good value for the money’ and ‘good Wagner and good English’: Shaw was even able to use the unexpected epithet ‘really readable’, at least à propos Ellis’s translation of A Pilgrimage to Beethoven. [201] Shaw wasn’t entirely uncritical, however. ‘I am a member of the Wagner Society,’ he wrote, ‘and am therefore ready to roll its log at all times, but I do not think I shall contribute to its journal, the Meister. I can stand a reasonable degree of editing, but not even from the all but omniscient editor of The Star [202] would I bear a series of footnotes contradicting every one of my opinions.’ And ‘Corno di Bassetto’ goes on to give a swingeing parody of ‘the Meisterful method’ - Ellis’s compulsion to insert editorial parentheses even when ostensibly in agreement (‘on the whole’) with the writer:

One Tuesday last a numerous and crowded audience were attracted to St James’s Hall by the announcement that Miss Pauline Cramer would sing Isolde’s death song, that most moving piece of music ever written. (Note by ED. – Surely our most gifted contributor has forgotten Let Erin remember the days of the old, in making this sweeping statement.) It is unquestionably the greatest of Wagner’s works, and is far superior to the compositions of his earlier period. (We agree, on the whole; but would point out that both in his Tannhäuser March and in his well-known William Tell overture, Wagner has attained a more engaging rhythmic emphasis, and, at least, equal sweetness of melody. – ED.) Those who heard Miss Cramer’s performance must have forgotten for the moment all previous experiences of the kind. (Has our critic ever heard Miss Bellwood’s rendering of What cheer, Ria? If so, we can hardly let this statement pass without a protest. - ED.) And so on. [203]


In its first number for 1891, The Meister announced ‘the commencement of a series of translations of the lengthier of Richard Wagner’s prose-works. The London Branch of the Society has long felt that its duty to the Cause was only half fulfilled until such an undertaking as this was set about; and indeed the primary object of founding “THE MEISTER” was a first attempt at bringing this to pass.’ [204] Members of the Branch would receive, free, the 32-page ‘Demy-octavo’ parts, six per year, which, when they had accumulated to book-size, would be bound as such. The zoo-keeper to dole out these chunks of meat singlehandedly would be, of course, William Ashton Ellis.

Ellis explained his intentions in a lecture given to the Musical Association (since 1944 the Royal Musical Association) on 13 December 1892. Earlier translations of Wagner’s prose, in particular the 1856 version of Opera and Drama, had been more-or-less deliberate travesties; English versions of Wagner’s libretti had been ‘worthy alone of the immortal Fitzball’ (a further reference comes shortly); and a philosophical appreciation of Wagner had been altogether absent. Ellis gave his audience a physician’s diagnosis of the influences on Wagner of other thinkers (and possibly of other stimulants):

indeed, it was not the substance of thought that he ever borrowed, but merely its formula, and therefore I think that the simile of a dose of medicine would be far more to the point. When he went to Dr. Heine, he was ordered Iron and Acid; but he found the tonic too bitter, and it set his teeth on edge. He then consulted Dr. Feuerbach, who prescribed him Arsenic; the immediate result was a brilliance of complexion and a glistening of the eye; but he soon discovered that the brilliance was but skin-deep, the eye began to smart, and warning internal pains compelled him to throw aside the medicine. He had not, however, given up the thought of finding a physician who should understand his constitution, and at last he found one in Arthur Schopenhauer, who simply advised him to continue the form of mental exercise he had already discovered for himself, with the addition of an occasional grain of Indian hemp whenever he found the trials of the world too insupportable. [205]

Ellis was aware of what he called Wagner’s ‘fugitive essays’:

[As] usual with the nimble foe, these fractions have been singled out as thorough representatives of the whole. I allude, of course, to ‘Judaism in Music,’ to portions of the essay ‘On Conducting,’ and to the attacks on Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Hiller, &c. Of these it is better not to enter into any discussion here;

and another – ‘the only one that I should honestly like to see suppressed - the “Capitulation”.’ [206] It was generally thought (not least by Ellis himself) that the first English translation of the notorious Judaism in Music was the one that would be included in Prose Works III in 1894. In fact, an unattributed nine-part translation, probably by the American John Vipon Bridgeman (1819-1889), had begun to appear in the Musical World only six weeks after Wagner’s expanded revision was published in March 1869. Though Ellis had denigrated the Musical World’s (mis)translation of Opera and Drama, he seems to have missed this example. [207] In any event, Ellis now turned to the mainstream essays, and went on to compare The Artwork of the Future - that is, his own translation of Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft - with Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture, quoting without compunction several lengthy purple passages, more suggestive of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, from his own Prose Works translation. There are many examples to be mocked of Ellis-speak in print, but this would have been Ellis-speak in viva voce, without the saving grace of ironic mediation by Teufelsdröckh’s ‘editor’:

There sate she then, the lonely sullen sister [Poetry], behind her reeking lamp in the gloom of her silent chamber, - a female Faust, who, across the dust and mildew of her books, from the everlasting rack of fancies and of theories, yearned to step forth into actual life; with flesh and bone, and spick and span, to stand and go mid real men, a genuine human being. [...] [Music] must willy-nilly twist and turn the empty cobweb, which none but the nimble play-seamstress herself can plait into a tissue: and there she chirps and twitters, as in the French confectionery-operas, until at last her peevish breath gives out [...]

Perhaps it was out of a degree of embarrassment, mingled with respect for the sheer audacity of Ellis’s style, that the contributors to the Musical Association’s discussion afterwards (C.A. Barry in the chair) dwelt on Wagner’s views on his contemporaries’ music (Brahms in particular), rather - to Ellis’s evident annoyance - than on the substance of his prose. [208] The discussion included Bernard Shaw and a Mr Newman who was probably not Ernest but the Queen’s Hall impresario Robert Newman (1858-1926), who would suggest the idea of prom concerts to Henry Wood the following year. (At this time Ernest Newman (1868-1959) was still in the banking profession and had barely begun his music critic’s career.) [209]

Ellis knew that translation itself was something that could never be brought to perfection. In the second volume of The Meister in 1889 he had serialised a translation of Religion and Art. Eight years later, in re-translating the essay for the Prose Works, he professed astonishment that he had earlier had ‘the temerity to storm a work whose peculiarities of style demand at least a long and close acquaintance with the master’s mode of thought, to say nothing of a systematic pursuit of his ideal through all the essays which that treatise crowns [...].’ [210] But The Meister’s version of Religion and Art is far fresher and less ponderous than the ‘official’ Prose Works translation. The paradox is that the harder Ellis worked at faithfulness through a ‘systematic pursuit’ of the ideal, the less he was able to render it idiomatically in English. It may be another paradox that the more we sense we might actually share Ellis’s apprehension of an unattainable ‘ideal’ in Wagner, the more we might forgive him his idiosyncrasies and occasional incoherence.

The flimsy brown paper covered parts of the first volume of Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, annual subscription for the six annual parts 5s. to the public but ‘Issued Gratis to Members of the Wagner Society’, were received by members during 1891 and 1892. On each back cover an advertisement for Steinway Pianofortes carried an endorsement – ‘A Beethoven Sonata, a Bach Chromatic Fantasie, can only be fully appreciated when rendered upon one of your pianofortes’ – purporting to be from the Meister himself. The Times noticed the pamphlets on 27 March 1891:

WAGNER’S PROSE WORKS. – The first instalment of a complete edition of the prose works of Richard Wagner, translated by W. Ashton Ellis, is issued for the Wagner Society by Messrs. Kegan Paul and Co. Six parts are promised in the year, and the first contains an admirable version of the short autobiographic sketch, and the introduction and a portion of the pamphlet ‘Die Kunst und die Revolution.’ The serial publication of the composer’s works should be welcomed by all who care for artistic progress, and even those who are familiar with ordinary German need not despise the help of an English version, since Wagner’s style abounds in difficulties of no usual kind.

The first bound volume of Richard Wagner’s Prose Works appeared in the bookshops in January 1893. Two months later the Bayreuther Blätter paid Ellis the compliment of publishing his ‘Vorwort’, that is, his ‘Translator’s Preface’ dated December 1892, in faithful German and introduced by Hans von Wolzogen, under the heading ‘Richard Wagner’s (prosaische) Schriften, in das Englische übertragen durch Mr. William Ashton Ellis’. [211]

During this time Ellis continued to edit The Meister, with no apparent loss of energy. In the ‘Notes’ to the May 1891 number, he commented on the recent production of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden with Emma Albani (1843-1930) in the role of Elisabeth, with a foreshadowing of future dramaturgical debates: ‘Who, for instance, can patiently tolerate a “Venus” attired in the ball-room costume of the nineteenth century, and thereby impressing on the opening scene a character of “modern”-ness which robs it of all sublimity, even if it do no worse? High heels do not a goddess make!’ [212] The Meister regularly focused its attention on a work (Tannhäuser in this case) that was making its Bayreuth debut that year, though Ellis was later to deplore mugging-up on Wagner in advance:

In 1901, wandering up and down a corridor-train on the way from Cologne to Frankfort, I came across a large ‘personally-conducted’ party of Anglo-Saxons of uncertain age; each pair of eyes, male or female (mostly female), was bent on the study of a popular guide-book to the RING, neglecting what of natural charm the factory-chimneys have spared to the banks of the Rhine; and I saw the young ‘personal conductor’ (who doubtless knew everything, from the pyramid of Cheops to the geysers of the Yellowstone) implored at least once to throw light on some mythical problem. [...] My own advice is: let no one rack his head with interpretations, whether of Wagner’s music or his poem, until after he has seen the actual drama on the stage [...]; then the ‘motive-book’ and the ‘interpretation’ may stand him in good stead - provided always that he declines pointblank to be bound by the explanations or opinions of the learned or unlearned author (including myself), but determines to ‘prove all things’ on his own account. [213]

The next number of The Meister reported in glowing terms the ‘delightful concert’ given by the London Wagner Society’s president, Lord Dysart, on Wagner’s birthday. According to Ellis, Dysart’s home, Ham House on the Thames opposite Twickenham, ‘and the pastoral surroundings gave the performance somewhat of the “echt” Franconian flavour, which was helped out by the wein-kraut and leberwurst which figured among the other dainties of the refreshment tent.’ [214] Shaw’s version of the event is more droll: ‘Lord Dysart did what a man could: he annihilated the very memory of the Theatre Restaurant by a marquee in which I took my very sober Wagnerian meal of brown bread and lemonade next to disciples who were trying reckless experiments with sauerkraut and rum custard.’ And Shaw returned to his hobbyhorse theme: ‘I strongly urge Lord Dysart to secede from the useless London branch of the German Wagner Society, and form a really important English society with the object of building a Wagner Theatre within ten minutes’ walk of his own door.’ [215] Lord Dysart was shortly to resign as president of the London Wagner Society, but for less than patriotic reasons.

Whether Ellis knew as much of Shaw’s activities as Shaw did of his seems doubtful. However, in the last number of The Meister for 1891 Ellis squeezed into his ‘Notes’ a recommendation to his readers of the recently published Quintessence of Ibsenism, congratulating Shaw

on the lucidity and boldness of his exposition, though it goes without saying that the analysis is not intended for Mr. Gilbert’s ‘young lady of fifteen’ [...] but it would be beside our present purpose, and beyond our limits, to do more than thank Mr. Shaw for the following, among other references to Wagner: ‘Tannhäuser’s passion for Venus is a development of the humdrum fondness of the bourgeois Jack for his Jill [...]’ ‘When Blake told men that through excess they would learn moderation, he knew that the way for the present lay through the Venusberg [...]’ [216]

This hardly repaid the compliment Shaw frequently paid to Ellis, but perhaps Shaw was happy with at least a little puff of wind in a stale quarter. To a different end, Ernest Newman was later to cite another of Shaw’s half-dozen references to Wagner in The Quintessence of Ibsenism, to the effect that only when man follows ‘that inner natural necessity which is the only true necessity’,

‘Then will he first become a living man, who now is a mere wheel in the mechanism of this or that Religion, Nationality, or State.’ Wagner did not know, and Mr. Shaw knows but will not tell, that any amount of following ‘natural inner necessity’ will not alter the constitution of things. [217]

Newman’s quotation came from the end of Shaw’s closing Appendix to the 1891 first edition of The Quintessence. That passage did not survive into later expanded editions, but Newman would hardly have dissented from one of Shaw’s more lasting remarks in the book, which he might have applied to Ellis:

Those who give up Materialism whilst clinging to rationalism generally either relapse into abject submission to the most paternal of the Churches, or are caught by the attempts, constantly renewed, of mystics to found a new faith by rationalizing on the hollowness of materialism. The hollowness has nothing in it; and if you have come to grief as a materialist by reasoning about something, you are not likely, as a mystic, to improve matters by reasoning about nothing. [218]

The conflict between the metaphysical and the rationalist view of Wagner in England was first explored by Anne Dzamba Sessa. More on Ellis and Newman will be said shortly.


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