Philip James Bailey (22 April 1816 – 6 September 1902), English poet, author of Festus, was born at Nottingham.
His father, who himself published both prose and verse, owned and edited from 1845 to 1852 the Nottingham Mercury, one of the chief journals in his native town. Philip James Bailey received a local education until his sixteenth year, when he matriculated at Glasgow University. He did not, however, take his degree, but moved in 1835 to London and entered Lincoln's Inn. Without making serious practice of the law he settled at Basford, and for three years was occupied with the composition of Festus, which appeared anonymously in 1839. Its success, both in England and America, was immediate. It passed through a dozen editions in the country of its birth, and nearly three times as many in the United States; and when in 1889 its author was able to publish a "Jubilee Edition," he could feel that it was one of the few poems of his time which was known to both the older and the younger generations.
Bailey was a man of strikingly handsome appearance, and gentle and amiable character, whose life was a singularly uneventful one. He travelled a good deal in mainland Europe. He lived at Nottingham, Jersey, Ilfracombe, London, and again at Nottingham, where he died.
Its author is known almost exclusively by his one voluminous poem, for though Bailey published other verses he is essentially a man of one book. Festus underwent many changes and incorporations, but it remains a singular example of a piece of work virtually completed in youth, and never supplanted or reinforced by later achievements of its author. It is a vast pageant of theology and philosophy, comprising in some twelve divisions an attempt to represent the relation of God to man and of man to God, to emphasize the benignity of Providence, to preach the immortality of the soul, and to postulate "a gospel of faith and reason combined." It contains fine lines and dignified thought, and for the daring of its theme and the imaginative power and moral altitude which it displays, it is one of the most notable of the century; as the work of one little past boyhood it is a prodigy of intellectual precocity. Along with its great qualities it has many faults in execution, a certain incoherency in the manner in which it is worked out preventing it from being easily readable by any but the most sympathetic student, and its final place in literature remains to be determined. Among its greatest admirers was Tennyson.
The subsequent poems of Bailey, The Angel World (1850), The Mystic (1855), The Age (1858), and The Universal Hymn (1867), were failures, and the author adopted the unfortunate expedient of endeavouring to buoy them up by incorporating large extracts in the later editions of Festus, with the effect only of sinking the latter, which ultimately extended to over 40,000 lines.
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