This year marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of two great Elizabethan writers: Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Though William Shakespeare is known as the author of some of the most famous plays and poems in the English-speaking world, Christopher Marlowe, if he is known at all, is known chiefly (though inaccurately) as a drunken brawler who was stabbed through the eye at the age of 29. It's every writer's worst nightmare: Break new ground and become a key influence on a contemporary, only for their work to eclipse yours entirely. Here are some other genius writers who suffered the same fate.
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Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath -- both "confessional" poets -- met in Boston in 1958 as members of Robert Lowell’s poetry class and instantly became friends. Sexton encouraged Plath to write from her experiences and from a more feminine perspective. Their first collections, both published in 1960, were critically acclaimed. Plath’s, however, was to be the only book of poems published in her lifetime. In September 1962, she separated from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and wrote at least 26 poems in a fierce burst of creativity. Five months later she put her head in a gas oven. Hughes’s publication of her final poems in Ariel (1965) precipitated the rise to fame that would eventually overshadow Sexton. Both women were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Plath posthumously. But though Sexton’s poems are still read and appreciated, Plath’s contentious relationship with Hughes and her dramatic death made her a phenomenon. Sexton said of Plath “We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric light bulb, sucking on it.” After several more collections, which critics met with increasing indifference, Sexton, too, committed suicide.
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By 1914, expatriate American poet Ezra Pound was a prominent fixture in the burgeoning Modernist movement. Pound advanced the careers of many contemporaries, including James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway, but perhaps none more than T.S. Eliot. He ensured the publication of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and was so influential in shaping Eliot's masterpiece, The Wasteland, that Eliot dedicated it to him, calling Pound "the better craftsman." Pound's downfall was anti-Semitism--disillusioned by Britain's role in World War One, he moved to Italy, embracing Mussolini, supporting Hitler, and criticizing the United States. In 1945, he was arrested for treason but escaped a life sentence when he was declared insane, subsequently spending 12 years in a psychiatric hospital. Three years after Pound's arrest, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. These days Eliot, not Pound, is regarded as the figurehead of Modernist poetry. At the end of his life, Pound admitted, "My worst mistake was the stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice, all along that spoiled everything."
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Both born in 1907, Louis MacNeice and W. H. Auden met at Oxford University in 1926. In 1937, they published a joint book, Letters From Iceland, based on their travels there the previous year. Both men, though chiefly remembered as poets, wrote in several different genres and styles: MacNeice wrote a large number of plays for BBC radio, Auden was a prolific reviewer and essayist. By the 1950s, though, MacNeice’s heavy drinking began to affect his work; his later collections were poorly received. He died of pneumonia in 1963, followed by Auden 10 years later. Auden garnered far higher recognition thanks to a handful of works, most significantly “Funeral Blues.” Written originally as a satirical eulogy for a politician in the anti-capitalist play The Ascent of F6, the poem catapulted him into the realm of the Literary Greats when it was read in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. A pamphlet of 10 Auden poems subsequently sold more than 275,000 copies. Auden and MacNeice’s centenary year, 2007, was marked by broadcast tributes and public readings for Auden -- but not MacNeice.
In 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth launched the English Romantic Movement when they published their joint poetry volume, Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth contributed more poems, but Coleridge’s "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" drew the most praise and attention. Unfortunately, Coleridge was emotionally unstable and unhappily married. He took to self-medicating with laudanum. Within 10 years of Lyrical Ballads’ publication, his opium addiction was out of hand. He separated from his wife in 1808, fell out with Wordsworth in 1810, lost part of his annuity in 1811. Finally, Coleridge put himself under the care of a doctor and remained creatively unproductive for the rest of his life. Coleridge is still remembered for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Kubla Khan," and a handful of other poems, but Wordsworth built the lasting reputation. Appointed Poet Laureate nine years after Coleridge’s death, Wordsworth’s long poem to his dead friend, "The Prelude," is now hailed as a masterpiece.
Gore Vidal and Truman Capote were born a year apart. Vidal’s third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), coincided with Capote’s debut Other Voices, Other Rooms. The City and the Pillar sparked a public scandal as the first novel to depict an openly gay protagonist as masculine and homosexuality as natural. Vidal claimed that as a result, The New York Times refused to review his next five books. Capote’s 1948 debut, also featuring a gay (albeit more effeminate) protagonist, became an instant hit, spending nine weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. So began a lifelong rivalry between the two, leading Tennessee Williams to observe: “You would think they were running neck-and-neck for some fabulous gold prize.” Vidal’s essays, novels, plays and screenplays never matched the level of recognition Capote achieved with Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Addiction to drink and drugs eventually silenced Capote’s writing talent. Though he maintained his celebrity through talk show appearances, he never finished another book, and died of liver cancer in 1984. Vidal lived for another 28 productive years without achieving the literary recognition of his rival.
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Ford Madox Ford published his first novel in 1892 when he was just 20. Three years later, 38-year-old Joseph Conrad published his debut. Conrad went on to publish four more novels by 1900, including Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, while Ford would publish more than two dozen books before achieving critical success with The Good Soldier (1915). He was constantly outgunned by his friend despite the fact English was Conrad’s third language. "I helped Joseph Conrad, I helped Hemingway,” Ford told George Seldes. “I helped a dozen, a score of writers, and many of them have beaten me. I'm now an old man and I'll die without making a name like Hemingway." Seldes observed, "At this climax Ford began to sob. Then he began to cry."
In 1915, Gerald Duckworth, Woolf’s step-brother, published the first novels of both Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf. Richardson’s debut, Pointed Roofs, was the first stream-of-consciousness novel in English, ahead of both Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Richardson bent the rules of punctuation and sentence length to create what has been called a “feminine prose.” Paying tribute to Richardson’s influence, Woolf said, “She has invented a sentence we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender." But whereas Woolf’s novels entered both the popular and critical canon and are still read today, those of Dorothy Richardson languish in obscurity. The reason? One critic claims that Richardson might have been “the Gertrude Stein of the English novel if she had been more self-promoting and more affluent." Born into wealth, Woolf was at the center of the influential Bloomsbury group and ran her own publishing house. By contrast, Richardson left London to live in Cornwall early in her career. Without literary friends to champion her long unstructured style and difficult prose, she now has few fans outside academia.
Ros Barber is the author of The Marlowe Papers, now available in paperback from St Martin's Griffin.