In the spring of 1908, Max Beerbohm and Edmund Gosse sent a message back and forth, each adding a line until they had composed a sonnet to Henry James, whose incomprehensible novels they both admired. The odd-numbered lines are Beerbohm’s, the even-numbered Gosse’s:
To Henry James
Say, indefatigable alchemist,
Melts not the very moral of your scene,
Curls it not off in vapour from between
Those lips that labour with conspicuous twist?
Your fine eyes, blurred like arc-lamps in a mist
Immensely glare, yet glimmering intervene,
So that your May-Be and your Might-Have-Been
Leave us still plunging for the genuine gist.
How different from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, —
As clear as water and as smooth as oil,
And no jot knowing of what Maisie knew!
Flushed with the sunset air of roseate Rye
You stand, marmoreal darling of the Few,
Lord of the troubled speech and single Eye.
“The sonnet was never shown to James himself,” writes J.G. Riewald in Max Beerbohm’s Mischievous Wit, “because, according to Max, ‘he would be too complex to understand our special brand of sincere reverence.'”