Philip James Bailey

Philip James Bailey

Festus by Philip James Bailey

Edited by Mischa Willett, Ph.D.

The EUP Festus will be the first scholarly edition of this cosmic epic, a rare crossover that was both a bestseller both in England and America and an acknowledged influence on writers considered major, providing a fixed edition for a fluid text with authoritative annotation, a scholarly introduction, and illustrations from famed lithographer Hammett Billings.


I am pleased to announce that my critical edition of Philip James Bailey’s epic, Festus, will be published in 2022 by Edinburgh University Press, under the auspices of Edinburgh Critical Editions of Nineteenth Century Texts. Currently, there is no authoritative text for Bailey's enormously popular epic poem, Festus. Though it is among the best-selling poems of the nineteenth-century and though it had an outsized impact on major Victorian literary figures, the poem has never been made available in a scholarly edition. The most recent popular edition was published in 1901 by George Routledge and Sons and exists without introduction, critical commentary, explanatory notes, or line numbers. The Routledge Festus is not only out-of-date, but also corrupt. Scholars agree that Bailey ruined his masterpiece by folding large sections of his less-successful productions into the text of Festus, which grew to elephantine proportions by the century's end. 

This volume will restore the poem to the version and length with which most readers were familiar. Festus is a major Victorian text. Elizabeth Barrett Browning called Bailey one of the five greatest authors in the English language. Lord Tennyson said he scarcely trusted himself to say how much he admired the poem, "for fear of falling into ecstasy." Dante Gabriel Rossetti, according to family letters, read the poem over and over again and could recite the introduction from memory. Ralph Waldo Emerson made a personal pilgrimage to visit Bailey's house, telling him that Transcendentalism was sparked in large part by Festus. A reviewer in 1865 wrote "we suppose that no poem of our time as had a larger acceptance [than Festus]." Even Modernists acknowledged the poem's impact, Conrad Aiken paying it the sincerest form of flattery with his The Pilgrimage of Festus (1923). Scholars such as Cronin, Armstrong, and Tucker claim that Festus launched an entire school of popular writers, known as the Spasmodics, with this text. 


We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;

In feelings, not in figures on a dial.

We should count time by heart--throbs. He most lives

Who thinks most--feels the noblest--acts the best.

Life's but a means unto an end--that end

Beginning, mean and end to all things--God.

The dead have all the glory of the world.

Why will we live and not be glorious?

We never can be deathless till we die.

It is the dead win battles. And the breath

Of those who through the world drive like a wedge,

Tearing earth's empires up, nears Death so close

It dims his well-worn scythe.


There is great exuberance of thought and imagery throughout this work, and a profuse expenditure of both, fearless of exhaustion of the author's stores. One feels as if one had ‘eaten of the insane root that takes the reason prisoner’ in many passages; or ‘of the tree of knowledge of good and evil,’ with strange elevations of spirit, and stranger misgivings, alternately glowing and shivering through the bosom.

— James Montgomery

In inspiration, in prophecy, in those flashes of the sacred fire which reveal the secret places where time is elaborating the marvels of nature, [Festus] stands alone. This book is a precious, even a sacred book….England has now only two poets that can be named near him.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson


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