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Upward, Allen (1863-1926)
by Vaughn, Matthew

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Allen Upward (1863-1926)

Born of Welsh parentage in 1863, Upward left for Dublin in 1882 to study at the Royal University of Ireland; soon he was publishing anonymous prose and poetry in support of Irish Home Rule. Upward displayed a lifelong sympathy for nationalist movements and would later take similar stands on behalf of Wales and Greece (while serving as a barrister in Cardiff, he often defended Welsh labor leaders in court). Upward also harbored political ambitions, although he was defeated when he stood for Parliament in Wales. A recurring column he wrote promoting his 1917 parliamentary campaign, called “Producers by Brain,” can be found in volume 22 of The New Age (nos. 1-21). Upward describes the column as his attempt to “justify the claims of the artist, the writer and the thinker to direct representation in Parliament, not merely in their own interest but in the greater interest of the nation, which suffers in its intellectual and spiritual growth from the absorption of its politicians in material interests” (NA 22.1: 17).

Upward followed a path of continual movement and change, and his extensive travels provided a wealth of material for his literary endeavors. In 1897 he sought single-handedly to run the blockade of Crete set up by the League of Nations and was befriended afterwards by many high-ranking Greek officials. Upward would return to Greece again in 1908 to assist the Macedonians against Bulgarian aggression. His continued interest in Greek affairs is evident in a 1916 article he published in The New Age, titled “The Choice of Hellas,” in which he advises the Greeks to abandon futile political concerns and to focus on recapturing a passion for science and art which is their heritage (NA 19.23: 538). In 1901, Upward also travelled to Nigeria, to serve as proconsul. While there, he had the opportunity to observe native customs first-hand, and would later incorporate these observations into The Divine Mystery, a folkloric and anthropological work in the vein of Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Upward’s review of a new edition of The Golden Bough in 1911 offers insight into his own anthropological thinking (NA 9.5 literary supplement: 1-2).

Upward began writing for The New Age in 1909. The paper's editor, A. R. Orage, whom Upward had known since 1900, originally approached him to write something on the subject of Nietzsche and the Übermensch. This resulted in a series of three articles in 1910, titled “The Order of the Seraphim,” in which Upward outlined his philosophy of individual genius. He had long advocated the creation of a cooperative society of intellectuals, and with L. Cranmer Byng he had even participated in an abortive attempt to create such a group in the late 1890’s. Through Byng, Upward was first introduced to James Legge’s translations of Chinese poetry and philosophy, which had a significant impact on Upward’s development as a poet. “The Order of the Seraphim” equates men of genius with the highest order of angels and proposes that “the Seraphim, being wiser than mankind, ought not to wait for mankind, but to undertake first the organisation of themselves, and so free themselves from that old reproach to the Son of Man—'He saved others; himself he cannot save’” (NA 6.15: 349).

Upward continued to contribute regularly to The New Age for the rest of Orage’s tenure as editor. His articles dealt with a wide range of topics including philosophy, religion, history, politics, and literature. Noteworthy columns include his “Bankrupt Turkey” series in 1910, which warns that the Young Turk revolt of 1908 was little more than the “revolt of Islam against Christendom” (NA 8.2: 27), a series of religious articles in 1917 that Upward wrote under the pseudonym “Saint George,” and a three-part series on “The Nebular Origin of Life” published in the winter of 1921-22.

In 1913 a series of Upward’s poems, “Scented Leaves—From a Chinese Jar,” was published by Harriet Monroe in Poetry magazine (2.6). Ezra Pound was so impressed by this collection that he included nine of Upward’s poems in Des Imagistes, the first anthology of the Imagist movement. When Upward's work was later left out of The Egoist's “Special Imagist Number” in May 1915, he responded to this snub by sending the magazine a humorous autobiographical poem titled “The Discarded Imagist” (which Poetry also published in its September issue that year). In the poem, Upward explains that:

Ezra Pound the generous rose up and called me an
Imagist. (I had no idea what he meant.)
And he included me in an anthology of Imagists.

This was a very great honour.
But I was left out of the next anthology.
This was a very great shame. (Poetry 6.6: 318)

The poem is now mostly remembered because of a specific allusion Pound makes to it in the Cantos.

Pound was also a great admirer of Upward’s prose work, specifically The New Word and The Divine Mystery, and he gave both of these books enthusiastic reviews. The influence of Upward’s philosophy on Pound’s thinking is evident in the latter’s review of The New Word, which appeared in the April 23rd, 1914 issue of The New Age. Pound praises the book’s “clarity and hard writing” and its recognition of the importance of the individual genius (NA 14.25: 779). The review also dwells at length on Upward’s career as a popular novelist. Pound laments the fact that Upward will never be “taken seriously” as a philosophical writer, due to his success as a writer of light fiction. “If you refer to him as a thinker,” he says, “they tell you he writes detective stories. Yet if 'The New Word' and 'The Divine Mystery' had been written by a civil servant or a clerk in a dry goods shop, or by a broken-down parson, they would have been acclaimed as great works.”

At several points during his career Upward was “reduced,” as he put it, “to grind romances,” but this is an unfair assessment of his interesting collection of fiction works, which includes spy novels, ghost stories, and scientific fiction. His book The Discovery of the Dead, for example, was highly praised for its originality in a letter that appeared in The New Age (December 1, 1910; NA 8.5: 119). In this supernatural novel, a German professor discovers a way to detect the shapes of the dead and communicate with them. According to Upward, an American doctor was so excited by the “discovery” that he wrote to Upward asking for Professor Lücke’s original manuscripts, “which he was anxious to publish” (NA 22.3: 56). Lord Alistair’s Rebellion is a somewhat more serious allegorical novel that equates “the decadent” with Christ. Upward explains this association in a New Age article from December 2, 1909: “In the old sacred language, the decadent is the sin-bearer, the one man who is put to death for the sake of the people—in a word, the saviour. The sinner is the christ of the righteous, bearing his sicknesses and carrying his pains ” (6.5: 106). For Upward, Lord Alistair is an example of the unrecognized genius who is able to see beyond the kind of hypocritical religiosity that Christ so adamantly condemned.

Like Lord Alistair, Allen Upward would remain a largely unrecognized genius, his philosophical works never receiving the recognition he had hoped for. Upward's 1921 autobiography, Some Personalities, reflects his feelings of obscurity: he published the book under the pseudonym “20/1631,” the number assigned to him as a child by the English school system. Upward committed suicide in 1926 at the age of sixty-three. In a letter to a friend written a decade later, Pound satirically attributed Upward's suicide to his disappointment at losing the Nobel Prize to George Bernard Shaw.

―Matthew Vaughn

Selected Works by Allen Upward

  • The Divine Mystery: A Reading of the History of Christianity Down to the Time of Christ. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1915.
  • Lord Alistair’s Rebellion. New York: Kennerley, 1910.
  • The New Word. New York: Kennerley, 1910.
  • Scented Leaves From a Chinese Jar. Budleigh Salterton: Interim Press, 1987.
  • Some Personalities. Boston: Cornhill, 1922.

Works Cited and Suggestions for Additional Reading

  • Knox, Bryant. “Allen Upward and Ezra Pound. ” Paideuma: A Journal Devoted to Ezra Pound Scholarship 3. Spring (1974): 71-83.
  • Moody, A. D. “Pound’s Allen Upward. ” Paideuma 4. Spring (1975): 55-70.
  • O’Toole, Mary A. “Allen Upward.” British Novelists, 1890-1929: Modernists. Vol. 36. Ed. Thomas F. Stanley. Detroit: Gale, 1985: 268-272.
  • Skinner, Paul. “Of Owls and Waterspouts.” Paideuma 17. Spring (1988): 59-68.
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