by Philip James Bailey
Edited by Mischa Willett
Edinburgh University Press, 2021
Edinburgh Critical Editions of Nineteenth-Century Texts
The Edinburgh Festus will be the first scholarly edition of Philip James Bailey’s cosmic epic, a crossover that was a bestseller both in England and America and an acknowledged influence on major Victorian authors. It will provide a fixed edition for a fluid text and feature authoritative annotation, a scholarly introduction, and illustrations from lithographer Hammett Billings.
forthcoming in 2021
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. 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).
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