Idyll Macabre

by Josie Sullivan

“Idyll Macabre” was written in 1920 and originally published in Mary Stella Edwards’ first collection of poetry, Time and Chance, in 1926. Despite being published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf themselves during the early years of Hogarth Press, the collection has been largely left behind, obscured by more strident modernist works of the time. As Edwards’ good friend Gilbert Murray wrote in the book’s preface, “[The poems] are not markedly in the fashion or out of the fashion, nor indeed affected by such outward and irrelevant things as the passing currents of taste.” While this may have precluded Edwards’ writing from notoriety, it gives much of her work an air of timelessness. As a visual artist, as well as a poet, Mary Stella Edwards writes with a painterly and intimate gaze that is intoxicating, even to a modern reader. A few years after writing “Idyll Macabre,” Edwards began to spend summers in the seaside town of Bucks Mills in North Devon with her partner Judith Ackland where they set up a studio in a fisherman’s shack just above the beach. 

This July, I got the opportunity to visit their studio and the surrounding area and film images from the coast and along the nearby River Torridge. I was accompanied by my dear friend Chloe Walker who graciously performed the poem for this project. Choosing which of Edwards’ poems to accompany this footage was a difficult task. Gilbert Murray wrote further of Time and Chance, “The poems are, as good poems ought to be, acts of worship.” This piety is what I most desired to capture with this project and while many of Edwards’ poems are more directly linked to North Devon’s natural beauty, none display this worship more than “Idyll Macabre.” The lyrical speaker’s love of her partner shines hotly against the perverse intimacy of the poem, and that need to look, to touch, to taste settled in me the more I saw of Buck Mills. Mary Stella Edwards understood that in order to authentically capture a subject—in poetry or in painting—the true requisite is simply the respect to look deeper and attempt to understand, whether that subject is a partner or a place.