Cyril Tourneur – Tragic Poet

July 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

As far as patron saints go, a blog could certainly worse than Cyril Tourneur — or, at least the Cyril Tourneur of Marcel Schwob’s telling, in his delightfully weird “underground” work of fabulistic genius, Vies Imaginaires [Imaginary Lives].

Cyril Tourneur was born out of the union of an unknown god with a prostitute. Proof enough of his divine origin has been found in the heroic atheism to which he succumbed. From his mother he inherited the instinct for revolt and luxury, the fear of death, the thrill of passion and the hate of kings. His father bequeathed him his desire for a crown, his pride of power and his joy of creating. To him both parents handed down their taste for nocturnal things, for a red glare in the night, and for blood.

The exact date of his birth is not known, though we are told that he appeared one dark day during a pestilential year.

No celestial protector watched over the woman whose body was swollen with this infant god, for the plague touched her several days before her confinement, and the door of her little house was marked with a red cross. At the moment when Cyril Tourneur was coming into the world the sexton at the cemetery began to toll the bell for the burial of the dead. Then, quite as his father had disappeared into that heaven common to all gods, so a green cart dragged his mother away to the common grave of men.

That night is said to have been so dark that the sexton had to hold a torch by the pesthouse door while the grim carter gathered his load. Another historian tells us how the mists upon the river Thames (by Cyril Tourneur’s birthplace) were shot with scarlet rays while the sound of the bells was the barking of cynocephales. There is little doubt but that a real star rose flaming over the house-tops. The new-born child shook his feeble fists as its fiery, malevolent gleams mottled his upturned face. So came Cyril Tourneur into the empty vastness of the Cimmerian night.

It is impossible to discover what were his thoughts or habits before he reached the age of thirty. The signs of his latent divinity had no record, nor do we know how he first recognized his hidden sovereignty. An obscure list of his blasphemies has come to light. Form this document we know that he declared Moses nothing more than a juggler, while one named Heriot, he said, was an infinitely cleverer juggler than Moses. The beginning of religion, according to Cyril, consisted in terrorizing man. Christ, he held, merited death more than Barabbas, though Barabbas were thief and murderer. Should he, Cyril Tourneur, write a new religion, he said, he could vow to establish it upon a finer, more admirable basis. He thought the style of the New Testament wholly repugnant. He declared that his right to coin money was as good as the queen of England’s, and furthermore, that he knew a man named Poole, a prisoner at Newgate, with whose aid he meant some day to strike gold pieces in his own image. A pious soul has erased the more terrible affirmations from this document.

Cyril Tourneur’s words have been overheard and his gestures thought to indicate an atheism even more vindictive. He has been represented to us cloaked in a long black robe, a glorious twelve-starred crown on his head, his feet resting on the celestial sphere while he holds the terrestrial globe in his right hand. Pale as a wax taper on an altar, with his eyes deeply aglow like burning incense, he walked the streets on stormy nights when the pest was over the city. Some have said he had a strange mark like a seal on his right thigh, but the point will never be verified since no one saw his body naked after death.

For mistress he took a prostitute from Bankside, a girl who had haunted the waterfront streets. He called her Rosamonde. His love for her was unique. On her blonde, innocent face the rouge spots burned like flickering flames, and she was very young. Rosamonde bore Cyril Tourneur a daughter whom he loved. Having been looked at by a prince Rosamonde died tragically, drinking emerald-colored poison from a transparent cup.

Vengeance merged with pride in Cyril’s soul. Night came . . . he walked the Mall, down the full length of that royal promenade, flourishing a torch of burning horsehair to illuminate his face, this poisoner prince. Hatred of all who reign was in his mouth and on his hands. So he became a highwayman, not to steal but to assassinate kings. Various princes who disappeared in those days were lighted to their death by Cyril Tourneur’s torch before he killed them.

He would lie in wait along the queen’s highway, hiding near some gravel pit or lime kiln. Selecting his victim from a group of travelers he would offer to guide the gentleman through the quagmires. At the  mouth of the pit he would extinguish his torch and hurl the unsuspecting man into the black hole. The gravel always gave way under their feet and Cyril would roll two enormous stones down to stifle the cries. In the dull glow of the kiln, he would sit through the night watching the cadaver as the lime consumed it.

When Cyril Tourneur had thus satisfied his hatred for kings he was assailed by his hatred of the gods. The divine spark within him urged him on to original creation. He dreamed of founding an entire generation out of his own blood—a race of gods on earth. He looked at his daughter. She was pure and desirable. To carry out his plan under the eyes of heaven he chose a cemetery as the most appropriate scene. Vowing to brave death and create a new humanity in the heart of that destruction decreed by the gods, Cyril Tourneur sought among old, dead bones to engender new ones. He carried out this project on the roof of a charnel-house.

The end of his life is lost in a haze of obscurity. We may not be sure what pen has given us The Atheist’s Tragedy and The Revenger’s Tragedy. One legend pretends that the pride of Cyril Tourneur went still farther. He is said to have raised a black throne in his garden. Several persons have seen him sitting there with his gold crown on his head, though they all ran away, frightened by the long blue aigrettes waving to and fro above him. He read the poems of Empedocles in the manuscript. He often expressed his admiration for the manner in which the ancient poet died. No one saw the manuscript of Empedocles after Cyril Tourneur disappeared. That year the plague was come again, and the people of London took refuge on barges floating midstream in the Thames. One night a meteor flashed across the face of the moon. Moving with a sinister roar it whirled like a globe of white fire toward Cyril Tourneur’s house. On his black throne, in his black robes and his golden crown, the man waited for the comet. Like a battle on the stage, an ominous blast of trumpets sounded a funereal fanfare across the night. In a shimmering, sanguine blaze, Cyril Tourneur was borne away to some unknown god in the somber, stormy regions of the sky.

* * *

Also while I’m quoting Marcel Schwob, I would be remiss if I did not also take the opportunity to display Geroge Barbier’s hypnotic illustrations that grace the pages of the 1929 edition of Vies Imaginaires. So very happy this is available:

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