I like his lyrical pieces better than his dramas. His verse-plays are good, but not supremely good; and I find it difficult to read either blank verse or rimed drama, unless it is in the first class, where assuredly Mr. Rice's meritorious efforts do not belong.
His songs are spontaneous, not manufactured. He is a natural singer with such facility that it is rather surprising that the average of his work is so good. A man who writes so much ought, one would think, to be more often than not, commonplace; but the fact is that most of his poems could not be turned into prose without losing their life. He has limitations instead of faults; within his range he may be counted on to give a satisfactory performance. By range I mean of course height rather than breadth. He is at home all over the earth, and his subjects are as varied as his style.
Josephine Preston Peabody (Mrs. Marks) was born at New York, and took her degree at Radcliffe in 1894. For two years she was a member of the English department of Wellesley (two syllables only). Her drama Marlowe (1901) gave her something like fame, though I have always thought it was overrated; it is certainly inferior to The Death of Marlowe (1837), by Richard Hengist Horne. In 1910 her play The Piper won the Stratford-on-Avon prize, and subsequently proved to be one of the most successful plays seen on the American stage in the twentieth century. It was produced by the New Theatre, the finest stock company ever known in America.
Josephine Peabody has written other dramas, and has an enviable reputation as a lyric poet. The burden of her poetry is Sursum Corda! As I read modern verse, I am forced to the conclusion that men and women require a vast deal of comforting. The years preceding the war seem in the retrospect happy, almost a golden age; homesickness for the England, France, Italy, America that existed before 1914 is almost a universal sentiment; yet when we read the verse composed during those days of prosperous tranquillity, when youth seemed comic rather than tragic, we find that half the poets spent their time in lamentation, and the other half in first aid. An enormous number of lyrics speak as though despondency were the normal condition of men and women; are we really all sad when alone, engaged in reading or writing? "Every man is grave alone," said Emerson. I wonder.
So many poets seem to tell us that we ought not absolutely to abandon all hope. The case for living is admittedly a bad one; but the poets beseech us to stick it. Does every man really go down to business in the morning with his jaw set? Does every woman begin the day with compressed lips, determined somehow to pull through till afternoon? Even the nature poets are always telling us to look at the birds and flowers and cheer up. Is that all botany and zoology are good for? Have we nothing to learn from nature but—buck up?
I do not mean that Josephine Peabody's poems resemble glad Polyanna, but I was driven to these divagations by the number of cheery lyrics that she has felt it necessary to write. Now I find it almost as depressing to be told that there is hope as to be told that there isn't.
I met Poor Sorrow on the way As I came down the years; I gave him everything I had And looked at him through tears.
"But, Sorrow, give me here again Some little sign to show; For I have given all I own; Yet have I far to go."
Then Sorrow charmed my eyes for me And hallowed them thus far; "Look deep enough in every dark, And you shall see the star."
The first two poems in The Harvest Moon (1916) are very fine; but sometimes I think her best work is found in a field where it is difficult to excel—I mean child poetry. Her Cradle Song is as good as anything of hers I know, though I could wish she had omitted the parenthetical refrain. I hope readers will forgive me—though I know they won't—for saying that Dormi, dormi tu sounds a triumphant exclamation at the sixteenth hole.
An American poet who won twenty-two years ago a reputation with a small volume, who ten years later seemed almost forgotten, and who now deservedly stands higher than ever before is Edwin Arlington Robinson. He was born in Maine, on the twenty-second of December, 1869, and studied at Harvard University. In 1896 he published two poems, The Torrent and The Night Before; these were included the next year in a volume called The Children of the Night. His successive books of verse are Captain Craig, 1902; The Town Down the River, 1910; The Man Against the Sky, 1916; Merlin, 1917; and he has printed two plays, of which Van Zorn (1914) despite its chilling reception, is exceedingly good.
Mr. Robinson is not only one of our best known American contemporary poets, but is a leader and recognized as such. Many write verses today because the climate is so favourable to the Muse's somewhat delicate health. But if Mr. Robinson is not a germinal writer, he is at all events a precursor of the modern advance. The year 1896 was not opportune for a venture in verse, but the Gardiner poet has never cared to be in the rearward of a fashion. The two poems that he produced that year he has since surpassed, but they clearly demonstrated his right to live and to be heard.
The prologue to the 1897 volume contained his platform, which, so far as I know, he has never seen cause to change. Despite the title, he is not an infant crying in the night; he is a full-grown man, whose voice of resonant hope and faith is heard in the darkness. His chief reason for believing in God is that it is more sensible to believe in Him than not to believe. His religion, like his art, is founded on common sense. Everything that he writes, whether in drama, in lyrics, or in prose criticism, is eminently rational.
There is one creed, and only one, That glorifies God's excellence; So cherish, that His will be done, The common creed of common sense.
It is the crimson, not the grey, That charms the twilight of all time; It is the promise of the day That makes the starry sky sublime.
It is the faith within the fear That holds us to the life we curse;— So let us in ourselves revere The Self which is the Universe!
Let us, the Children of the Night, Put off the cloak that hides the scar! Let us be Children of the Light, And tell the ages what we are!
This creed is repeated in the sonnet Credo, later in the same volume, which also contains those rather striking portraits of individuals, of which the most impressive is Richard Cory. More than one critic has observed that these dry sketches are in a way forerunners of the Spoon River Anthology.
The next book, Captain Craig, rather disappointed the eager expectations of the poet's admirers; like Carlyle's Frederick, the man finally turns out to be not anywhere near worth the intellectual energy expended on him. Yet this volume contained what is on the whole, Mr. Robinson's masterpiece—Isaac and Archibald. We are given a striking picture of these old men, and I suppose one reason why we recognize the merit of this poem so much more clearly than we did sixteen years ago, is because this particular kind of character-analysis was not in demand at that time.
The figure of the man against the sky, which gives the name to the work published in 1916, does not appear, strictly speaking, till the end of the book. Yet in reality the first poem, Flammonde, is the man against the sky-line, who looms up biggest of all in his town as we look back. This fable teaches us to appreciate the unappreciated.
Mr. Robinson's latest volume, Merlin, may safely be neglected by students of his work. It adds nothing to his reputation, and seems uncharacteristic. I can find little in it except diluted Tennyson, and it won't do to dilute Tennyson. One might almost as well try to polish him. It is of course possible that Mr. Robinson wished to try something in a romantic vein; but it is not his vein. He excels in the clear presentment of character; in pith; in sharp outline; in solid, masculine effort; his voice is baritone rather than tenor.
To me his poetry is valuable for its moral stimulus; for its unadorned honesty and sincerity; for its clear rather than warm singing. He is an excellent draughtsman; everything that he has done has beauty of line; anything pretentious is to him abhorrent. He is more map-maker than painter. He is of course more than a maker of maps. He has drawn many an intricate and accurate chart of the deeps and shallows of the human soul.
VACHEL LINDSAY AND ROBERT FROST
Lindsay the Cymbalist—first impression—Harriet Monroe's Magazine—training in art—the long vagabond tramps—correct order of his works—his drawings—the "Poem Game"—The Congo—General William Booth—wide sweep of his imagination—sudden contrasts in sound—his prose works—his interest in moving pictures—an apostle of democracy—a wandering minstrel—his vitality—a primary man—art plus morality—his geniality—a poet and a missionary—his fearlessness—Robert Frost—the poet of New England—his paradoxical birth—his education—his career in England—his experiences on a farm—his theory of the spoken word—an out-door poet—not a singer—lack of range—interpreter as well as observer—pure realism—rural tragedies—centrifugal force—men and women—suspense—the building of a poem—the pleasure of recognition—his sincerity—his truthfulness.
"But you—you can help so much more. You can help spiritually. You can help to shape things, give form and thought and poignancy to the most matter-of-fact existence; show people how to think and live and appreciate beauty. What does it matter if some of them jeer at you, or trample on your work? What matters is that those for whom your message is intended will know you by your work."
—STACY AUMONIER, Just Outside.
Of all living Americans who have contributed to the advance of English poetry in the twentieth century, no one has given more both as prophet and priest than Vachel Lindsay. His poems are notable for originality, pictorial beauty, and thrilling music. He belongs to no modern school, but is doing his best to found one; and when I think of his love of a loud noise, I call him a Cymbalist.
Yet when I use the word noise to describe his verse, I use it not only in its present, but in its earlier meaning, as when Edmund Waller saluted Chloris with
While I listen to thy voice, Chloris! I feel my life decay; That powerful noise Calls my flitting soul away.
This use of the word, meaning an agreeable, harmonious sound, was current from Chaucer to Coleridge.
My first acquaintance with Mr. Lindsay's poetry began with a masterpiece, General William Booth Enters into Heaven. Early in the year 1913, before I had become a subscriber to Harriet Monroe's Poetry, I found among the clippings in the back of a copy of the Independent this extraordinary burst of music. I carried it in my pocket for a year. Nothing since Francis Thompson's In No Strange Land had given me such a spinal chill. Later I learned that it had appeared for the first time in the issue of Poetry for January, 1913. All lovers of verse owe a debt of gratitude to Miss Monroe for bringing the new poet to the attention of the public; and all students of contemporary movements in metre ought to subscribe to her monthly magazine; the numbers naturally vary in value, but almost any one may contain a "find"; as I discovered to my pleasure in reading Niagara in the summer of 1917.
Nicholas Vachel Lindsay—Vachel rimes with Rachel—was born at Springfield, Illinois—which rimes with boy—on the tenth of November, 1879. His pen name omits the Nicholas. For three years he was a student at Hiram College in Ohio, and for five years an art student, first at Chicago, and then at New York. This brings us to the year 1905. From that year until 1910 he drew strange pictures, lectured on various subjects, and wrote defiant and peculiar "bulletins." At the same time he became a tramp, making long pilgrimages afoot in 1906 through Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and in 1908 he invaded in a like manner some of the Northern and Eastern States. These wanderings are described with vigour, vivacity, and contagious good humour in his book called A Handy Guide for Beggars. His wallet contained nothing but printed leaflets—his poems—which he exchanged for bed and board. He was the Evangelist of Beauty, preaching his gospel everywhere by reciting his verses. In the summer of 1912 he walked from Illinois to New Mexico.
To understand his development, one should read his books not according to the dates of formal publication, but in the following order: A Handy Guide for Beggars, Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty, The Art of the Moving Picture—these three being mainly in prose. Then one is ready for the three volumes of poetry, General William Booth Enters into Heaven (1913), The Congo (1914), and The Chinese Nightingale (1917). Another prose work is well under way, The Golden Book of Springfield, concerning which Mr. Lindsay tells me, "The actual Golden Book is a secular testament about Springfield, to be given to the city in 2018, from a mysterious source. My volume is a hypothetical forecast of the times of 2018, as well as of the Golden Book. Frankly the Lindsay the reviewers know came nearer to existing twelve years ago than today, my manuscripts are so far behind my notes. And a thing that has helped in this is that through changing publishers, etc., my first prose book is called my latest. If you want my ideas in order, assume the writer of the Handy Guide for Beggars is just out of college, of Adventures While Preaching beginning in the thirties, and the Art of the Moving Picture half-way through the thirties. The Moving Picture book in the last half embodies my main social ideas of two years ago. In mood and method, you will find The Golden Book of Springfield a direct descendant of the general social and religious philosophy which I crowded into the photoplay book whether it belonged there or not. I hope you will do me the favour and honour to set my work in this order in your mind, for many of my small public still think A Handy Guide for Beggars the keynote of my present work. But it was really my first wild dash."
The above letter was written 8 August, 1917.
Like many creative writers, Mr. Lindsay is an artist not only with the pen, but with the pencil. He has made drawings since childhood; drawing and writing still divide his time and energy. The first impression one receives from the pictures is like that produced by the poems—strangeness. The best have that Baconian element of strangeness in the proportion which gives the final touch to beauty; the worst are merely bizarre. He says, "My claim for them is that while laboured and struggling in execution, they represent a study of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Japanese art, two most orthodox origins for art, and have no relation whatever to cubism, post-impressionism, or futurism.... I have been very fond of Swinburne all my life, and I should say my drawing is nearer to his ornate mood than any of my writing has been. But that is a matter for your judgment." I find his pictures so interesting that I earnestly hope he will some day publish a large collection of them in a separate volume.
One of his latest developments is the idea of the Poem Game, which is elaborated with interesting poetic illustrations in the volume called The Chinese Nightingale. In giving his directions and suggestions in the latter part of this book, he remarks, "The present rhymer has no ambitions as a stage manager. The Poem Game idea, in its rhythmic picnic stage, is recommended to amateurs, its further development to be on their own initiative. Informal parties might divide into groups of dancers and groups of chanters. The whole might be worked out in the spirit in which children play King William was King James's Son, London Bridge.... The main revolution necessary for dancing improvisers, who would go a longer way with the Poem Game idea is to shake off the Isadora Duncan and the Russian precedents for a while, and abolish the orchestra and piano, replacing all these with the natural meaning and cadences of English speech. The work would come closer to acting than dancing is now conceived."
Here is a good opportunity for house parties, in the intervals of Red Cross activities; and at the University of Chicago, 15 February, 1918, The Chinese Nightingale was given with a full chorus of twelve girls, selected for their speaking voices. From the testimony of one of the professors at the university, it is clear that the performance was a success, realizing something of Mr. Lindsay's idea of the union of the arts, with Poetry at the centre.
Among the games given in verse by the author in the latter part of The Chinese Nightingale volume is one called The Potatoes' Dance, which appears to me to approach most closely to the original purpose. It is certainly a jolly poem. But whether these games are played by laughing choruses of youth or only by the firelight in the fancy of a solitary reader, the validity of Vachel Lindsay's claim to the title of Poet may be settled at once by witnessing the transformation of a filthy rumhole into a sunlit forest. As Edmond Rostand looked at a dunghill, and saw the vision Of Chantecler, so Vachel Lindsay looked at some drunken niggers and saw the vision of the Congo.
Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room, Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable, Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table, Pounded on the table, Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom, Hard as they were able, Boom, boom, BOOM, With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom, Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM. THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision, I could not turn from their revel in derision. THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK, CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK. Then along that river bank A thousand miles Tattooed cannibals danced in flies; Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.... A negro fairyland swung into view, A minstrel river Where dreams come true. The ebony palace soared on high Through the blossoming trees to the evening sky. The inlaid porches and casements shone With gold and ivory and elephant-bone.... Just then from the doorway, as fat as shotes, Came the cake-walk princes in their long red coats, Canes with a brilliant lacquer shine, And tall silk hats that were red as wine. And they pranced with their butterfly partners there, Coal-black maidens with pearls in their hair, Knee-skirts trimmed with the jassamine sweet, And bells on their ankles and little black-feet.
There are those who call this nonsense and its author a mountebank. I call it poetry and its author a poet. You never heard anything like it before; but do not be afraid of your own enjoyment. Read it aloud a dozen times, and you, too will hear roaring, epic music, and you will see the mighty, golden river cutting through the forest.
I do not know how many towns I have visited where I have heard "What do you think of Vachel Lindsay? He was here last month and recited his verses. Most of his audience were puzzled." Yet they remembered him. What would have happened if I had asked them to give me a brief synopsis of the lecture they heard yesterday on "The Message of John Ruskin"? Fear not, little flock. Vachel Lindsay is an authentic wandering minstrel. The fine phrases you heard yesterday were like snow upon the desert's dusty face, lighting a little hour or two, is gone.
General William Booth Enters into Heaven—with the accompanying instruments, which blare out from the printed page—is a sublime interpretation of one of the varieties of religious experience. Two works of genius have been written about the Salvation Army—Major Barbara and General William Booth Enters into Heaven. But Major Barbara, with its almost appalling cleverness—Granville Barker says the second act is the finest thing Shaw ever composed—is written, after all, from the seat of the scornful, like a metropolitan reporter at a Gospel tent; Mr. Lindsay's poem is written from the inside, from the very heart of the mystery. It is interpretation, not description. "Booth was blind," says Mr. Lindsay; "all reformers are blind." One must in turn be blind to many obvious things, blind to ridicule, blind to criticism, blind to the wisdom of this world, if one would understand a phenomenon like General Booth.
Booth led boldly with his big bass drum— (Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?) The Saints smiled gravely and they said: "He's come." (Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?).... Walking lepers followed, rank on rank, Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank, Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale— Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail:— Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath, Unwashed legions with the ways of Death— (Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?).... And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer He saw his Master thro' the flag-filled air. Christ came gently with a robe and crown For Booth the soldier, while the throng knelt down. He saw King Jesus. They were face to face, And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place. (Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
Dante and Milton were more successful in making pictures of hell than of heaven—no one has ever made a common conception of heaven more permanently vivid than in this poem. See how amid the welter of crowds and the deafening crash of drums and banjos the individual faces stand out in the golden light.
Big-voiced lassies made their banjos bang, Tranced, fanatical they shrieked and sang.... Bull-necked convicts with that land make free... The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world.... Gone was the weasel-head, the snout, the jowl! Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean, Rulers of empires, and of forests green!
It is a pictorial, musical, and spiritual masterpiece. I am not afraid to call it a spiritual masterpiece; for to any one who reads it as we should read all true poetry, with an unconditional surrender to its magic, General William Booth and his horde will not be the only persons present who will enter into heaven.
Vachel Lindsay needs plenty of room for his imagination—the more space he has in which to disport himself, the more impressive he becomes. His strange poem, How I Walked Alone in the Jungles of Heaven, has the vasty sweep congenial to his powers. Simon Legree is as accurate an interpretation of the negro's conception of the devil and of hell as General William Booth is of the Salvation Army's conception of heaven, though it is not so fine a poem. When he rises from hell or descends from heaven, he loves big, boundless things on the face of the earth, like the Western Plains and the glory of Niagara. The contrast between the bustling pettiness of the artificial city of Buffalo and the eternal fresh beauty of Niagara is like Bunyan's vision of the man busy with the muck-rake while over his head stood an angel with a golden crown.
Within the town of Buffalo Are prosy men with leaden eyes. Like ants they worry to and fro, (Important men, in Buffalo). But only twenty miles away A deathless glory is at play: Niagara, Niagara....
Above the town a tiny bird, A shining speck at sleepy dawn, Forgets the ant-hill so absurd, This self-important Buffalo. Descending twenty miles away He bathes his wings at break of day— Niagara, Niagara.
True poet that he is, Vachel Lindsay loves to show the contrast between transient noises that tear the atmosphere to shreds and the eternal beauty of unpretentious melody. After the thunder and the lightning comes the still, small voice. Who ever before thought of comparing the roar of the swiftly passing motor-cars with the sweet singing of the stationary bird? Was there ever in a musical composition a more startling change from fortissimo to pianissimo?
Listen to the iron-horns, ripping, racking, Listen to the quack-horns, slack and clacking. Way down the road, trilling like a toad, Here comes the dice-horn, here comes the vice-horn, Here comes the snarl-horn, brawl-horn, lewd-horn,
Followed by the prude-horn, bleak and squeaking:— (Some of them from Kansas, some of them from Kansas) Here comes the hod-horn, plod-horn, sod-horn, Nevermore-to-roam-horn, loam-horn, home-horn, (Some of them from Kansas, some of them from Kansas)
Far away the Rachel-Jane Not defeated by the horns, Sings amid a hedge of thorns:— "Love and life, Eternal youth— Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, Dew and glory, Love and truth, Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet."
Of Mr. Lindsay's prose works the one first written, A Handy Guide for Beggars, is by all odds the best. Even if it did not contain musical cadenzas, any reader would know that the author was a poet. It is full of the spirit of joyous young manhood and reckless adventure, and laughs its way into our hearts. There is no reason why Mr. Lindsay should ever apologize for this book, even if it does not represent his present attitude; it is as individual as a diary, and as universal as youth. His later prose is more careful, possibly more thoughtful, more full of information; but this has a touch of genius. Its successor, Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty, does not quite recapture the first fine careless rapture. Yet both must be read by students of Mr. Lindsay's verse, not only because they display his personality, but because the original data of many poems can be found among these experiences of the road. For example, The Broncho That Would not Be Broken, which first appeared in 1917, is the rimed version of an incident that happened in July, 1912. It made an indelible impression on the amateur farmer, and the poem has a poignant beauty that nothing will ever erase from the reader's mind. I feel certain that I shall have a vivid recollection of this poem to the last day of my life, assuming that on that last day I can remember anything at all.
A more ambitious prose work than either of the tramp books is The Art of the Moving Picture. It is rather singular that Mr. Lindsay, whose poetry primarily appeals to the ear, should be so profoundly interested in an art whose only appeal is to the eye. The reason, perhaps, is twofold. He is professionally a maker of pictures as well as of chants, and he is an apostle of democracy. The moving picture is the most democratic form of art that the world has ever seen. Maude Adams reaches thousands; Mary Pickford reaches millions. It is clear that Mr. Lindsay wishes that the limitless influence of the moving picture may be used to elevate and ennoble America; for here is the greatest force ever known through which his gospel may be preached—the gospel of beauty.
Like so many other original artists, Mr. Lindsay's poetry really goes back to the origins of the art. As John Masefield is the twentieth century Chaucer, so Vachel Lindsay is the twentieth century minstrel. On the one occasion when he met W. B. Yeats, the Irishman asked him point-blank, "What are we going to do to restore the primitive singing of poetry?" and would not stay for an answer. Fortunately the question was put to a man who answered it by accomplishment; the best answer to any question is not an elaborate theory, but a demonstration. As it is sometimes supposed that Mr. Lindsay's poetry owes its inspiration to Mr. Yeats, it may be well to state here positively that our American owes nothing to the Irishman; his poetry developed quite independently of the other's influence, and would have been much the same had Mr. Yeats never risen above the horizon. When I say that he owes nothing, I mean he owes nothing in the manner and fashion of his art; he has a consuming admiration for Mr. Yeats's genius; for Mr. Lindsay considers him of all living men the author of the most beautiful poetry.
Chants are only about one-tenth of Vachel Lindsay's work. However radical in subject, they are conservative in form, following the precedents of the ode from its origin. It is necessary to insist that while the material is new, the method is consciously old. He is no innovator in rime or rhythm. But the chants, while few in number, are the most individual part of his production; and up to the year 1918—the most impressive.
For in The Congo we have real minstrelsy. The shoulder-notes, giving detailed directions for singing, reciting, intoning, are as charming in their way as the stage-directions of J. M. Barrie. They not only show the aim of the poet; they admit the reader immediately into an inner communion with the spirit of the poem.
Every one who reads The Congo or who hears it read cannot help enjoying it; which is one reason why so many are afraid to call it a great poem. For a similar reason, some critics are afraid to call Percy Grainger a great composer, because of his numerous and delightful audacities. Yet The Congo is a great poem, possessing as it does many of the high qualities of true poetry. It shows a splendid power of imagination, as fresh as the forests it describes; it blazes with glorious colours; its music transports the listener with climax after climax; it interprets truthfully the spirit of the negro race.
I should not think of attempting to determine the relative position of Percy Grainger in music and of Vachel Lindsay in poetry; but it is clear that both men possess an amazing vitality. Is it not the lack of vital force which prevents so many accomplished artists from ever rising above the crowd? I suppose we have all read reams on reams of magazine verse exhibiting technical correctness, exactitude in language, and pretty fancy; and after a momentary unspoken tribute the writer's skill, we straightway forget. But a poem like Danny Deever appears, it is to call it a music-hall ballad, or to pretend it is not high art; the fact is that the worst memory in the world will retain it. Such a poem comes like a breeze into a close chamber; it is charged with vitality. We are in contact with a new force—a force emanating from that mysterious and inexhaustible stream whence comes every manifestation of genius. To have this super-vitality is to have genius; and although one may have with it many distressing faults of expression and an unlimited supply of bad taste, all other qualities combined cannot atone for the absence of this one primal element. Indeed the excess of wealth in energy is bound to produce shocking excrescences; our Springfield poet is sometimes absurd when he means to be sublime, bizarre when he means to be picturesque. The same is true of Walt Whitman—it is true of all creative writers whom John Burroughs calls primary men, in distinction from excellent artists who remain in the secondary class. Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Walt Whitman, John Masefield, Vachel Lindsay are primary men.
I have often wondered who would write a poem worthy of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Vachel Lindsay is the only living American who could do it, and I hope he will accept this challenge. Its awful majesty can be revealed only in verse; for it is one of the very few wonders of the world which no photograph and no painting can ever reproduce. Who ever saw a picture that gave him any conception of this incomparable spectacle?
In order to understand the primary impulse that drove Mr. Lindsay into writing verse and making pictures, one ought to read first of all his poem The Tree of Laughing Bells, or The Wings Of the Morning. The first half of the title exhibits his love of resounding harmonies; the second gives an idea of the range of his imagination. His finest work always combines these two elements, melody and elevation, "and singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest." I hope that the picture he drew for The Tree of Laughing Bells may some time be made available for all students of his work, as it was his first serious design.
Vachel Lindsay is essentially honest, for he tries to become himself exactly what he hopes the future American will be. He is a Puritan with a passion for Beauty; he is a zealous reformer filled with Falstaffian mirth; he goes along the highway, singing and dancing, distributing tracts. "Apollo's first, at last the true God's priest."
We know that two mighty streams, the Renaissance and the Reformation, which flowed side by side without mingling, suddenly and completely merged in Spenser's Faery Queene. That immortal song is a combination of ravishing sweetness and moral austerity. Later the Puritan became the Man on Horseback, and rode roughshod over every bloom of beauty that lifted its delicate head. Despite the genius of Milton, supreme artist plus supreme moralist, the Puritans managed somehow to force into the common mind an antagonism between Beauty and Morality which persists even unto this day. There is no reason why those two contemporaries, Oscar Wilde and the Rev. Charles H. Spurgeon, should stand before the London public as the champions of contending armies; for Beauty is an end in itself, not a means, and so is Conduct.
In the best work of Vachel Lindsay, we find these two qualities happily married, the zest for beauty and the hunger and thirst after righteousness. He made a soap-box tour for the Anti-Saloon League, preaching at the same time the Gospel of Beauty. As a rule, reformers are lacking in the two things most sedulously cultivated by commercial travellers and life-insurance agents, tact and humour. If these interesting orders of the Knights of the Road were as lacking in geniality as the typical reformer, they would lose their jobs. And yet fishers of men, for that is what all reformers are, try to fish without bait, at the same time making much loud and offensive speech. Then they are amazed at the callous indifference of humanity to "great moral issues."
Vachel Lindsay is irresistibly genial. Nor is any of this geniality made up of the professionally ingratiating smile; it is the foundation of his temperament. What has this got to do with his poetry? It has everything to do with it. It gives him the key to the hearts of children; to the basic savagery of a primitive black or a poor white; to peripatetic harvesters; to futurists, imagists, blue-stockings, pedants of all kinds; to evangelists, college professors, drunken sailors, tramps whose robes are lined with vermin. He is the great American democrat, not because that is his political theory, but simply because he cannot help it.
His attitude toward other schools of art, even when he has nothing in common with them, is positively affectionate. Could there be two poets more unlike in temperament and in style than Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Masters? Yet in the volume, The Chinese Nightingale, we have a poem dedicated "to Edgar Lee Masters, with great respect." He speaks of "the able and distinguished Amy Lowell," and of his own poems "parodied by my good friend, Louis Untermeyer." He says, "I admire the work of the Imagist Poets. We exchange fraternal greetings.... But neither my few heterodox pieces nor my many struggling orthodox pieces conform to their patterns.... The Imagists emphasize pictorial effects, while the Higher Vaudeville exaggerates musical effects. Imagists are apt to omit rhyme, while in my Higher Vaudeville I often put five rhymes on a line."
Impossible to quarrel with Vachel Lindsay. His stock of genial tolerance is inexhaustible, and makes him regard not only hostile humans, but even destructive insects, with inquisitive affection.
I want live things in their pride to remain. I will not kill one grasshopper vain Though he eats a hole in my shirt like a door. I let him out, give him one chance more. Perhaps, while he gnaws my hat in his whim, Grasshopper lyrics occur to him.
During his tramps, the parents who unwillingly received him discovered, when he began to recite stories to their children, that they had entertained an angel unawares; and I have not the slightest doubt that on the frequent occasions when his application for food and lodging was received with a volley of curses, he honestly admired the noble fluency of his enemy. When he was harvesting, the singing stacker became increasingly and distressingly pornographic; instead of rebuking him for foulness, which would only have bewildered the stacker, Mr. Lindsay taught him the first stanza of Swinburne's chorus. "The next morning when my friend climbed into our barge to ride to the field he began:
When the hounds of spring are on winter's traces, The mother of months, in meadow or plain, Fills the shadows—
'Dammit, what's the rest of it? I've been trying to recite that piece all night.' Now he has the first four stanzas. And last evening he left for Dodge City to stay overnight and Sunday. He was resolved to purchase Atalanta in Calydon and find in the Public Library The Lady of Shalott and The Blessed Damozel, besides paying the usual visit to his wife and children."
If a man cannot understand music, painting, and poetry without loving these arts, neither can a man understand men and women and children without loving them. This is one reason why even the cleverest cynicism is never more than half the truth, and usually less.
Mr. Lindsay is a poet, and a missionary. As a missionary, he wishes all Americans to be as good judges of poetry as they are, let us say, of baseball. One of the numerous joys of being a professional ball-player must be the knowledge that you are exhibiting your art to a prodigious assembly of qualified critics. John Sargent knows that the majority of persons who gaze at his picture of President Wilson are incompetent to express any opinion; his subtlety is lost or quite misunderstood; but Tyrus Raymond Cobb knows that the thousands who daily watch him during the summer months appreciate his consummate mastery of the game. Vachel Lindsay, I suppose, wants millions not merely to love, but to detect the finer shades of the poetic art.
If he set out to accomplish this dream by lowering the standards of poetry, then he would debase the public and be a traitor to his guild. But his method is uncompromising—he taught the harvester not Mrs. Hemans, but Swinburne. He calls his own verse the higher vaudeville. But The Congo is the higher vaudeville as Macbeth is the higher melodrama. And there is neither melodrama nor vaudeville in Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight—a poem of stern and solemn majesty.
Mr. Lindsay is true to the oldest traditions of poetry in his successful attempts to make his verses ring and sing. He is both antique and antic. But he is absolutely contemporary, "modern," "new," in his fearlessness. He has this in common with the practicers of free verse, with the imagists, with the futurists; he is not in the least afraid of seeming ridiculous. There can be no progress in art until artists overcome wholly this blighting fear. It is the lone individual, with his name stamped all over him, charging into the safely anonymous mass; but that way lies the Advance.
When Thomas Carlyle took up the study of Oliver Cromwell, he found that all previous historians had tried to answer this question: What is the mask that Oliver wore? And suddenly the true answer came to him in the form of another question: What if it should prove to be no mask at all, but just the man's own face? So there are an increasingly large number of readers who are discerning in the dauntless gambols of Vachel Lindsay, not the mask of buffoonery, worn to attract attention, but a real poet, dancing gaily with bronchos, children, field-mice and potatoes.
Such unquenchable vitality, such bubbling exuberance, cannot always be graceful, cannot always be impressive. But the blunders of an original man are sometimes more fruitful than the correctness of a copyist. Furthermore, blunders sometimes make for wisdom and truth. Let us not forget Vachel Lindsay's poem on Columbus:
Would that we had the fortunes of Columbus, Sailing his caravels a trackless way, He found a Universe—he sought Cathay. God give such dawns as when, his venture o'er, The Sailor looked upon San Salvador. God lead us past the setting of the sun To wizard islands, of august surprise; God make our blunders wise.
The difference between Vachel Lindsay and Robert Frost is the difference between a drum-major and a botanist. The former marches gaily at the head of his big band, looking up and around at the crowd; the latter finds it sweet
with unuplifted eyes To pace the ground, if path be there or none.
Robert Frost, the poet of New England, was born at San Francisco, and published his first volume in London. Midway between these two cities lies the enchanted ground of his verse; for he belongs to New England as wholly as Whittier, as truly as Mr. Lindsay belongs to Illinois. He showed his originality so early as the twenty-sixth of March, 1875, by being born at San Francisco; for although I have known hundreds of happy Californians, men and women whose love for their great State is a religion, Robert Frost is the only person I ever met who was born there. That beautiful country is frequently used as a springboard to heaven; and that I can understand, for the transition is less violent than from some other points of departure. But why so few natives?
Shamelessly I lift the following biographical facts from Miss Amy Lowell's admirable essay on our poet. At the age of ten, the boy was moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts. He went to school, and disliked the experience. He tried Dartmouth and later Harvard, staying a few months at the first and two years at the second. Between these academic experiences he was married. In 1900 he began farming in New Hampshire. In 1911 he taught school, and in 1912 went to England. His first book of poems, A Boy's Will, was published at London in 1913. The review in The Academy was ecstatic. In 1914 he went to live at Ledbury, where John Masefield was born, and where in the neighbourhood dwelt W.W. Gibson. His second volume, North of Boston, was published at London in 1914. Miss Lowell quotes a sentence, full of insight, from the review in the Times. "Poetry burns up out of it, as when a faint wind breathes upon smouldering embers." In March, 1915, Mr. Frost returned to America, bringing his reputation with him. He bought a farm in New Hampshire among the mountains, and in 1916 appeared his third volume, Mountain Interval.
Was there ever a better illustration of the uncritical association of names than the popular coupling of Robert Frost with Edgar Lee Masters? They are similar in one respect; they are both poets. But in the glorious army of poets, it would be difficult to find two contemporaries more wholly unlike both in the spirit and in the form of their work than Mr. Frost and Mr. Masters. Mr. Frost is as far from free verse as he can stretch, as far as Longfellow; and while he sometimes writes in an ironical mood, he never indulges himself in cynicism. As a matter of fact, Mr. Frost is nearer in his art to Mr. Lindsay than to Mr. Masters; for his theory of poetry, which I confess I cannot understand, requires the poet to choose words entirely with reference to their spoken value.
His poetry is more interesting and clearer than his theories about it. I once heard him give a combination reading-lecture, and after he had read some of his poems, all of which are free from obscurity, he began to explain his ideas on how poetry should be written. He did this with charming modesty, but his "explanations" were opaque. After he had continued in this vein for some time, he asked the audience which they would prefer to him do next—read some more of his poems, go on talking about poetry? He obtained from his hearers an immediate response, picked up his book, and read in admirable fashion his excellent verse. We judge poets by their poems, not by their theories.
Robert Frost is an out-door poet. Even when he gives a picture of an interior, the people are always looking out of the windows at something or other. In his poems we follow the procession of the seasons, with the emphasis on autumn and winter. One might be surprised at the infrequency of his poems on spring, were it not for the fact that his knowledge of the country is so precise and definite. Spring is more beautiful in the city than in the country; it comes with less alloy. No one has ever drawn a better picture of a country road in the pouring rain, where "the hoof-prints vanish away."
In spite of his preoccupation with the exact value of oral words, he is not a singing lyrist. There is not much bel canto in his volumes. Nor do any of his poems seem spontaneous. He is a thoughtful man, given to meditation; the meanest flower or a storm-bedraggled bird will lend him material for poetry. But the expression of his poems does not seem naturally fluid. I suspect he has blotted many a line. He is as deliberate as Thomas Hardy, and cultivates the lapidary style. Even in the conversations frequently introduced into his pieces, he is as economical with words as his characters are with cash. This gives to his work a hardness of outline in keeping with the New England temperament and the New Hampshire climate. There is no doubt that much of his peculiarly effective dramatic power is gained by his extremely careful expenditure of language.
It is, of course, impossible to prescribe boundary lines for a poet, although there are critics who seem to enjoy staking out a poet's claim. While I have no intention of building futile walls around Mr. Frost's garden, nor erecting a sign with the presumptuous prohibition of trespassing beyond them, it is clear that he has himself chosen to excel in quality of produce rather than in variety and range. In the first poem of the first volume, he concludes as follows:
They would not find me changed from him they knew— Only more sure of all I thought was true.
This is certainly a precise statement of the impression made on the reader who studies his three books in chronological order. A Boy's Will, as befits a youth who has lived more in himself than in the world, is more introspective than either North of Boston or Mountain Interval; but this habit of introspection gave him both the method and the insight necessary for the accurate study of nature and neighbours. He discovered what other people were like, simply by looking into his own heart. And in A Boy's Will we find that same penetrating examination of rural scenes and common objects that gives to the two succeeding the final stamp of veracity. I do not remember ever having seen a phrase like the following, though the phrase instantly makes the familiar picture leap into that empty space ever before the reader's eye—that space, which like bare wall-paper, seems to demand a picture on its surface.
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.
It is fortunate that the law of diminishing returns—which every farmer is forced to heed—does not apply to pastoral poets. Out of the same soil Robert Frost has successfully raised three crops of the same produce. He might reply that in the intervals he has let the ground lie fallow—but my impression is that he is really working it all the time.
The sharp eye of the farmer sees nothing missed by our poet, but the poet has interpretation as well as vision. He not only sees things but sees things in their relations; and he knows that not only is everything related to every other thing, but that all things are related to the eternal mystery, their source and their goal. This is why the yellow primrose is so infinitely more than a yellow primrose. This also explains why the poems of Mr. Frost, after stirring us to glad recognition of their fidelity, leave us in a revery.
His studies of human nature are the purest realism. They are conversations rather than arias, for he uses the speaking, not the singing voice. Poets are always amazing us, and some day Robert Frost may astonish me by writing a romantic ballad. It would surely be a surprise, for with his lack of operatic accomplishment, and his fondness for heroes in homespun, he would seem almost ideally unfitted for the task. This feeling I find strengthened by his poem called An Equal Sacrifice, the only one of his pieces where anything like a ballad is attempted, and the only one in all three books which seems to be an undeviating failure. It is as flat as a pancake, and ends with flat moralizing. Mr. Frost is particularly unsuccessful at preaching.
No, apart from his nature poems, his studies of men and women are most impressive when they follow the lines of Doric simplicity in the manner of the powerful stage-plays written by Susan Glaspell. The rigidity of the mould seems all the better fitted for the suppressed passion it contains, just as liquid fire is poured into a vessel with unyielding sides. His two most successful poems of this kind are Home Burial, in North of Boston, and Snow, in Mountain Interval. The former is not so much a tragedy as the concentrated essence of tragedy. There is enough pain in it to furnish forth a dozen funerals. It has that centrifugal force which Mr. Calderon so brilliantly suggests as the main characteristic of the dramas of Chekhov. English plays are centripetal; they draw the attention of the audience to the group of characters on the stage; but Chekhov's, says Mr. Calderon, are centrifugal; they throw our regard off from the actors to the whole class of humanity they represent. Just such a remark applies to Home Burial; it makes the reader think of the thousands of farmhouses darkened by similar tragedies. Nor is it possible to quote a single separate passage from this poem for each line is so necessary to the total effect that one must read every word of it to feel its significance. It is a masterpiece of tragedy. And it is curious, as one continues to think about it, as one so often does on finishing a poem by Robert Frost, that we are led first to contemplate the number of such tragedies, and finally to contemplate a stretch of life of far wider range—the broad, profound difference between a man and a woman. Are there any two creatures on God's earth more unlike? In this poem the man is true to himself, and for that very reason cannot in his honest, simple heart comprehend why he should appear to his own wife as if he were some frightful monster. He is perplexed, amazed, and finally enraged at the look of loathing in the wide eyes of his own mate. It was a little thing—his innocent remark about a birch fence—that revealed to her that she was living with a stranger. Grief never possesses a man as it does a woman, except when the grief is exclusively concerned with his own bodily business, as when he discovers that he has cancer or toothache. To the last day of human life on earth, it will seem incomprehensible to a woman that a man, on the occasion of a death in the family, can sit down and eat with gusto a hearty meal. For bodily appetite, which is the first thing to leave a woman, is the last to leave a man; and when it has left every other part of his frame, it sometimes has a repulsive survival in his eyes. The only bridge that can really cross this fathomless chasm between man and woman is the bridge of love.
The dramatic quality of Snow is suspense. The object through which the suspense is conveyed to the reader is the telephone, employed with such tragic effect at the Grand Guignol. Mr. Frost's art in colloquial speech has never appeared to better advantage than here, and what a wave of relief when the voice of Meserve is heard! It is like a resurrection.
In order fully to appreciate a poem like Mending Wall, one should hear Mr. Frost read it. He reads it with such interpretative skill, with subtle hesitations and pauses for apparent reflection, that the poem grows before the audience even as the wall itself. He hesitates as though he had a word in his hands, and was thinking what would be exactly the best place to deposit it—even as the farmer holds a stone before adding it to the structure. For this poem is not written, it is built. It is built of separate words, and like the wall it describes, it takes two to build it, the author and the reader. When the last line is reached, the poem is finished.
Nearly every page in the poetry of Robert Frost gives us the pleasure of recognition. He is not only sincere, he is truthful—by which I mean that he not only wishes to tell the truth, but succeeds in doing so. This is the fundamental element in his work, and will, I believe, give it permanence.
I had for my winter evening walk— No one at all with whom to talk, But I had the cottages in a row Up to their shining eyes in snow.
And I thought I had the folk within: I had the sound of a violin; I had a glimpse through curtain laces Of youthful forms and youthful faces.
I had such company outward bound. I went till there were no cottages found. I turned and repented, but coming back I saw no window but that was black.
Over the snow my creaking feet Disturbed the slumbering village street Like profanation, by your leave, At ten o'clock of a winter eve.
A poem like that gives not only the pleasure of recognition; it has an indescribable charm. It is the charm when joy fades, not into sorrow, but into a deep, abiding peace.
AMY LOWELL, ANNA BRANCH, EDGAR LEE MASTERS, LOUIS UNTERMEYER
Amy Lowell—a patrician—a radical—her education—her years of preparation—vigour and versatility—definitions of free verse and of poetry—Whitman's influence—the imagists—Patterns—her first book—her rapid improvement—sword blades—her gift in narrative—polyphonic prose—Anna Hempstead Branch—her dramatic power—domestic poems—tranquil meditation—an orthodox poet—Edgar Lee Masters—his education—Greek inspiration—a lawyer—Reedy's Mirror—the Anthology—power of the past—mental vigour—similarity and variety—irony and sarcasm—passion for truth—accentuation of ugliness—analysis—a masterpiece of cynicism—an ideal side—the dramatic monologue—defects and limitations—Louis Untermeyer—his youth—the question of beauty—three characteristics—a gust of life—Still Life—old maids—burlesques and parodies—the newspaper humourists—F. P. A.—his two books—his influence on English composition.
Among the many American women who are writing verse in the twentieth century, two stand out—Amy Lowell and Anna Branch. And indeed I can think of no woman in the history of our poetry who has surpassed them. Both are bone-bred New Englanders. No other resemblance occurs to me.
It is interesting that a cosmopolitan radical like Amy Lowell should belong ancestrally so exclusively to Massachusetts, and to so distinguished a family. She is a born patrician, and a reborn Liberal. James Russell Lowell was a cousin of Miss Lowell's grandfather, and her maternal grandfather, Abbott Lawrence, was also Minister to England. Her eldest brother, nineteen years older than she, was the late Percival Lowell, a scientific astronomer with a poetic imagination; he was one of the most interesting and charming personalities I ever knew. His constant encouragement and example were powerful formative influences in his sister's development. Another brother is the President of Harvard, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, through whose dignified, penetrating, sensible, authoritative speeches and writings breathes the old Massachusetts love of liberty.
Courage is a salient characteristic in Amy Lowell. She is afraid of nothing, not even of her birthday. She was born at Brookline, on the ninth of February, 1874. "Like all young poets, I was influenced by everybody in turn, but I think the person who affected me most profoundly was Keats, although my later work resembles his so little. I am a collector of Keats manuscripts, and have spent much time in studying his erasures and corrections, and they taught me most of what I know about poetry; they, and a very interesting book which is seldom read today—Leigh Hunt's Imagination and Fancy. I discovered the existence of Keats through that volume, as my family read very little of what was considered in those days 'modern poetry'; and, although my father Keats in his library, Shelley was barred, on account of his being an atheist. I ran across this volume of Leigh Hunt's when I was about fifteen and it turned me definitely to poetry." (Letter of March, 1918.)
When she was a child, her family took her on a long European tour; in later years she passed one winter on the Nile, another on a fruit ranch in California, another in visiting Greece and Turkey. In 1902 she decided to devote her life to writing poetry, and spent eight years in faithful study, effort, and practice without publishing a word. In the Atlantic Monthly for August, 1910, appeared her first printed verse; and in 1912 came her first volume of poems, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, the title being a quotation from the forbidden Shelley. Since that year she has been a notable figure in contemporary literature. Her reputation was immensely heightened and widened by the publication of her second book, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, in 1914. In 1916 came the third volume, Men, Women, and Ghosts.
She has been a valiant fighter for poetic theory, writing many articles on Free Verse, Imagism, and kindred themes; and she is the author of two works in prose criticism, Six French Poets, in 1915, and Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, in 1917, of which the former is the more valuable and important. In five years, then, from 1912 to 1917, she produced three books of original verse, two tall volumes of literary criticism, and a large number of magazine poems and essays—a remarkable record both in quantity and quality.
Vigour and versatility are the words that rise in one's mind when thinking of the poetry of Amy Lowell. It is absurd to class her as a disciple of free verse, or of imagism, or of polyphonic prose; she delights in trying her hand at all three of these styles of composition, for she is an experimentalist; but much of her work is in the strictest orthodox forms, and when she has what the Methodists used to call liberty, no form or its absence can prevent her from writing poetry.
I can see no reason for either attacking or defending free verse, and if I had any influence with Miss Lowell, I should advise her to waste no more time in the defence of any school or theory, because the ablest defence she or any one else can make is actually to write poetry in the manner in which some crystallized critics say it cannot be done. True poetry is recognizable in any garment; and ridicule of the clothes can no more affect the identity of the article than the attitude of Penelope's suitors toward the rags of Ulysses affected his kingship. Let the journalistic wits have their fling; it is even permissible to enjoy their wit, when it is as cleverly expressed as in the following epigram, which I believe appeared in the Chicago Tribune: "Free verse is a form of theme unworthy of pure prose embodiment developed by a person incapable of pure poetic expression." Not at all bad; but as some one said of G. K. Chesterton, it would be unfair to apply to wit the test of truth. It is better to remember Coleridge's remark on poetry: "The opposite of poetry is not prose but science; the opposite of prose is not poetry but verse." Perhaps we could say of the polyphonic people that they are well versed in prose.
The amazing growth of free verse during the last ten years has surprised no one more than me, and it has convinced me of my lack of prophetic clairvoyance. Never an idolater of Walt Whitman, I have also never been blind to his genius; as he recedes in time his figure grows bigger and bigger, like a man in the moving pictures leaving the screen. But I used to insist rather emphatically that although he was said to be both the poet of democracy and the poet of the future, he was in fact admired mostly by literary aristocrats; and that the poets who came after him were careful to write in strict composition. In the 'nineties I looked around me and behold, Kipling, Phillips, Watson and Riley were in their work at the opposite extreme from Walt Whitman; he had not a single disciple of unquestioned poetic standing. Now, in the year of grace 1918, though he is not yet read by the common people—a thousand of whom read Longfellow to one who reads Whitman—he has a tribe of followers and imitators, many of whom do their utmost to reach his results by his methods, and some of whom enjoy eminence.
Those who are interested in the growth of imagist poetry in English should read the three slender anthologies published respectively in 1915, 1916, and 1917, called Some Imagist Poets, each containing poems nowhere previously printed. The short prefaces to the first two volumes are models of modesty and good sense, whether one likes imagist poetry or hates it. According to this group of poets, which is not a coterie or a mutual admiration society, but a few individuals engaged in amicable rivalry at the same game, the principles of imagism are mainly six, of which only the second is a departure from the principles that have governed the production of poetry in the past. First, to use the exact word: second, to create new rhythms: third, to allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject; fourth, to present an image: fifth, to produce poetry that is hard and clear: sixth, to study concentration.
There are six poets adequately represented in each volume; but the best poem of all is Patterns, by Amy Lowell. In spite of having to carry six rules in her head while writing it—for if one is determined to be "free" one must sufficiently indicate the fact—she has written a real poem. It strictly conforms to all six requirements, and is at the same time simple, sensuous, passionate. I like it for many reasons—because it is real, intimate, confidential; because it narrates a tragic experience that is all too common in actual life; because its tragedy is enhanced by dramatic contrasts, the splendour of the bright, breezy, sunlit garden contrasting with the road of ashen spiritual desolation the soul must take; the splendour of the gorgeous stiff brocade and the futility of the blank, soft, imprisoned flesh; the obstreperous heart, beating in joyous harmony with the rhythm of the swaying flowers, changed by one written word into a desert of silence. It is the sudden annihilation of purpose and significance in a body and mind vital with it; so that as we close the poem we seem to see for ever moving up and down the garden path a stiff, brocaded gown, moving with no volition. The days will pass: the daffodils will change to roses, to asters, to snow; but the unbroken pattern of desolation will change not.
Publication is as essential to a poet as an audience to a playwright; Keats realized this truth when he printed Endymion. He knew it was full of faults and that he could not revise it. But he also knew that its publication would set him free, and make it possible for him immediately to write something better. This seems to have been the case with Amy Lowell. Her first book, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, does not compare for a moment with Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. It seems a harsh judgment, but I find under the dome hardly one poem of unusual merit, and some of them are positively bad. Could anything be flatter the first line of the sonnet To John Keats?
Great master! Boyish, sympathetic man!
The second volume, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, which came two years later, showed a remarkable advance, and gave its author an enviable position in American literature. An admirable preface reveals three characteristics—reverence for the art of poetry, determination not to be confined to any school, and a refreshingly honest confession of hard labour in learning how to make poems. As old Quarles put it in the plain-spoken seventeenth century,
I see no virtues where I smell no sweat.
The first poem, which gives its name to the volume, is written in the lively octosyllabics made famous by Christmas Eve. The sharpness of her drawings, one of her greatest gifts, is evident in the opening lines:
A drifting, April, twilight sky, A wind which blew the puddles dry, And slapped the river into waves That ran and hid among the staves Of an old wharf. A watery light Touched bleak the granite bridge, and white Without the slightest tinge of gold, The city shivered in the cold.
Soon the traveller meets a man who takes him to an old room, full of the symbols of poetry-edged weapons, curiously and elegantly wrought together with seeds of poppy. Poems may be divided into two classes, stimulants and sedatives.
All books are either dreams, or swords, You can cut, or you can drug, with words.
Tennyson's poetry is mainly soothing, which is what lazy and tired people look for in any form of art, and are disappointed when they do not find it; the poetry of Donne, Browning, Emerson is the sword of the spirit; it is the opposite of an anaesthetic. Hence when readers first meet it, the effect is one of disturbance rather than repose, and they think it cannot be poetry. Yet in this piece of symbolism, which itself is full of beauty, Amy Lowell seems to say that both reveill and taps are wrought by music—one is as much the legitimate office of poetry as the other. But although she classifies her poems in this volume according to the opening pair of symbols, and although she gives twice as much space to poppies as to swords, her poetry is always more stimulating than soothing. Her poppy seeds won't work; there is not a soporific page in the whole book.
One of the reasons why her books are so interesting is because she knows how to tell a story in verse. In her romances style waits on matter, like an attentive and thoroughly trained handmaid. Both poetry and incident are sustained from beginning to end; and the reader would stop more often to admire the flowers along the path if he were not so eager to know the event. In this particular kind of verse-composition, she has shown a steady development. The first real illustration of her powers is seen in The Great Adventure of Max Brueck, in Poppy Seed, though why so stirring a poem is thus classified is to me quite mysterious; yet when we compare this "effort" with later poems like Pickthorn Manor and The Cremona Violin we see an advance both in vigour and in technique which is so remarkable that she makes her earlier narrative seem almost immature. A poet is indeed fortunate who can defeat that most formidable of all rivals—her younger self. In The Cremona Violin we have an extraordinary combination of the varied abilities possessed by the author. It is an absorbing tale full of drama, incident, realism, romanticism, imagism, symbolism and pure lyrical singing. There is everything in fact except polyphonic prose, and although I am afraid she loves her experiments in that form, they are the portion of her complete works that I could most willingly let die.
Her sensitiveness to colours and to sounds is clearly betrayed all through the romantic narrative of the Cremona Violin, where the instrument is a symbol of the human heart. Those who, in the old days before the Germans began their career of wholesale robbery and murder, used to hear Mozart's operas in the little rococo Residenz-Theater in Munich, will enjoy reminiscently these stanzas.
The Residenz-Theater sparkled and hummed With lights and people. Gebnitz was to sing, That rare soprano. All the fiddles strummed With tuning up; the wood-winds made a ring Of reedy bubbling noises, and the sting Of sharp, red brass pierced every eardrum; patting From muffled tympani made a dark slatting
Across the silver shimmering of flutes; A bassoon grunted, and an oboe wailed; The 'celli pizzicato-ed like great lutes, And mutterings of double basses trailed Away to silence, while loud harp-strings hailed Their thin, bright colours down in such a scatter They lost themselves amid the general clatter.
Frau Altgelt, in the gallery, alone, Felt lifted up into another world. Before her eyes a thousand candles shone In the great chandeliers. A maze of curled And powdered periwigs past her eyes swirled. She smelt the smoke of candles guttering, And caught the scent of jewelled fans fluttering.
Her most ambitious attempt in polyphonic prose is Guns as Keys: and the Great Gate Swings, whereof the title is like a trumpet fanfare. The thing itself is a combination of a moving picture and a calliope. Written with immense gusto, full of comedy and tragedy, it certainly is not lacking in vitality; but judged as poetry, I regard it as inferior to her verse romances and lyrics.
Rhythmical prose is as old as the Old Testament; the best modern rhythmical prose that I have seen is found in the earlier plays of Maurice Maeterlinck, written a quarter of a century ago. It is unnecessary to enquire whether those dramas are poetry or not; for although nearly all his work is in the printed form of prose, the author is almost invariably spoken of as "the poet Maeterlinck."
The versatility of Amy Lowell is so notable that it would be vain to predict the nature of her future production, or to attempt to set a limit to her range. In her latest and best book, Men Women, and Ghosts, besides the two admirable long narratives, we have poems of patriotism, outdoor lyrics, town eclogues, pictures of still life tragic pastorals in the manner of Susan Glaspell, and one delightful revenant, Nightmare, which takes us back to Dickens, for it is a verse comment on a picture by George Cruikshank. Her robust vitality is veined with humour; she watches a roof-shingler with active delight, discovering poetry in cheerful manual toil. One day life seems to her depressing; another day, beautiful; another, inspiring; another, downright funny.
In spite of her assured position in contemporary literature, one feels that her career has not reached its zenith.
Some twelve years ago, I was engaged in earnest conversation with James Whitcomb Riley concerning the outlook for American poetry. The chronic optimist for once was filled with woe. "There is not a single person among the younger writers," said he, "who shows any promise of greatness, except"—and then his face recovered its habitual cheerfulness—"Anna Hempstead Branch. She is a poet."
In justification of his gloom, it should be remembered that the present advance in American poetry began some time after he uttered these words; and although he was a true poet and wrote poems that will live for many years to come, he was, in everything that had to do with the art of poetry, the most conservative man I ever knew.
Anna Branch was born at Hempstead House, New London, Connecticut, and was graduated from Smith College in 1897. In 1898 she won a first prize for the best poem awarded by the Century Magazine in a competition open to college graduates. Since then she has published three volumes of verse, The Heart of the Road, 1901, The Shoes That Danced, 1905, Rose of the Wind, 1910. I fear that her ambition to be a dramatist may have prevented her from writing lyrical poetry (her real gift) during these last eight years. If it is true, 'tis pity; for a good poem is a better thing than a successful play and will live longer.
Like many poets who cannot write plays, she is surcharged with dramatic energy. But, to use a familiar phrase, it is action in character rather than character in action which marks her work most impressively, and the latter is the essential element for the footlights. Shakespeare, Rostand, and Barrie have both, and are naturally therefore great dramatists. Two of the most of Miss Branch's poems are Lazarus Ora Pro Nobis. These are fruitful subjects for poetry, the man who came back from the grave and the passionate woman buried alive. In the short piece Lazarus, cast into the form of dialogue Lazarus answers the question put to him by Tennyson in In Memoriam.
Where wert thou, brother, those four days?
Various members of the group, astounded at his resurrection, try in vain to have their curiosity satisfied. What do the dead do? Are they happy? Has my baby grown? What overpowering motive brought you back from peace to live once more in sorrow?
This last question Lazarus answers in a positive but unexpected way.
A great desire led me out alone From those assured abodes of perfect bliss.... And by the way I went came seeking earth, Seeing before my eyes one only thing— The Crowd What was it, Lazarus? Let us share that thing! What was it, brother, thou didst see? Lazarus A cross.
Another dynamic poem, glowing with passion, is Ora Pro Nobis. It is difficult to select passages from it, for it is sustained in power and beauty from the first line to the last; yet some idea of it: form and colour may be obtained by citation. A little girl was put into a convent with only two ways of passing the time; stitching and praying. She has never seen her face—she never will see for no mirror is permitted; but she sees one day the reflection of its beauty in the hungry eyes of a priest.
Long years I dwelt in that dark hall, There was no mirror on the wall, I never saw my face at all, (Hail Mary.) In a great peace they kept me there, A straight white robe they had me wear, And the white bands about my hair. I did not know that I was fair. (Hail Mary.)... The sweet chill fragrance of the snow, More fine than lilies all aglow Breathed around—he saw me so, In garments spun of fire and snow. (Holy Mother, pray for us.) His hands were on my face and hair, His high, stern eyes that would forswear All earthly beauty, saw me there. Oh, then I knew that I was fair! (Mary, intercede for us.)... Then I raised up to God my prayer, I swept its strong and circling air, Betwixt me and the great despair. (Sweet Mary, pray for us.) But when before the sacred shrine I knelt to kiss the cross benign, Mary, I thought his lips touched mine. (Ave Maria, Ora Pro Nobis.)
Although some of her poems have an intensity almost terrible, Anna Branch has written household lyrics as beautiful in their uncrowded simplicity as an eighteenth century room. The Songs for My Mother, celebrating her clothes, her her words, her stories breathe the unrivalled perfume of tender memories. And if Lazarus is a sword, two of her most original pieces are poppy-seeds, To Nature and
THE SILENCE OF THE POETS
I better like that shadowed side of things In which the Poets wrote not; when they went Unto the fullness of their great content Like moths into the grass with folded wings. The silence of the Poets with it brings The other side of moons, and it is spent In love, in sorrow, or in wonderment. After the silence, maybe a bird sings. I have heard call, as Summer calls the swallow, A leisure, bidding unto ways serene To be a child of winds and the blue hazes. "Dream"—quoth the Dreamer—and 'tis sweet to follow! So Keats watched stars rise from his meadows green, And Chaucer spent his hours among the daisies.
This productive leisure has borne much fruit in the poetry of Anna Branch; her work often has the quiet beauty rising from tranquil meditation. She is an orthodox poet. She uses the old material—God, Nature, Man—and writes songs with the familiar notation. She has attracted attention not by the strangeness of her ideas, or by the audacity of her method, but simply by the sincerity of her thought and the superior quality of her singing voice. There is no difficulty in distinguishing her among the members of the choir, and she does not have to make a discord to be noticed.
There are almost as many kinds of poets as there are varieties of human beings; it is a far cry from Anna Branch to Edgar Lee Masters. I do not know whether either reads the other; it may be a mutual admiration exists; it may be that each would be ashamed to have written the other's books; even if that were true, there is no reason why an American critic—with proper reservations—should not be proud of both. For if there is one thing certain about the advance of poetry in America, it is that the advance is a general one along the whole line of composition from free verse and polyphonic prose on the extreme left to sonnets and quatrains on the extreme right.
Edgar Lee Masters was born in Kansas, on the twenty-third of August, 1869. The family moved to Illinois the next year. His father was a lawyer, and the child had access to plenty of good books, which he read eagerly. In spite of his preoccupation with the seamy side of human nature, he is in reality a bookish poet, and most of his work—though not the best part of it—smells of the lamp. Fortunately for him he was brought up on the Bible, for even those who attack the Old Book are glad to be able to tip their weapons with biblical language. Ibsen used to say that his chief reading, even in mature years, was always the Bible; "it is so strong and mighty."
Everything connected with books and literary work fascinated the youth; like so many boys of his time—before wireless came in—he had his own printing-press. I wonder if it was a "self-inker"? In my day, the boy who owned a "self-inker" and "club-skates" was regarded with envy. The three generations in this family illustrate the play Milestones; the grandfather vainly tried to make his son a farmer, but the boy elected to be a lawyer and carried his point; he in turn was determined to twist his son into a lawyer, whereas Edgar wanted to be a writer. As this latter profession is usually without emolument, he was forced into the law, where the virile energy of his mind rewarded his zestless efforts with success. However, at the age of twenty-one, he persuaded his father to allow him to study at Knox College for a year, a highly important period in his development; for he resumed the interrupted study of Latin, and began Greek. Greek is the chief inspiration of his life, and of his art. He has read Homer every year since his college days.
Later he went to Chicago, and stayed there, busying himself not only at his profession, but taking part in political activities, as any one might guess from reading his poems. The primal impulse to write was not frustrated; he has written verse all his life; and in fact has published a considerable number of volumes during the last twenty years, no one of which attracted any attention until 1915, when Spoon River Anthology made everybody sit up.
Mr. Masters was nearly fifty when this book appeared; it is a long time to wait for a reputation, especially if one is constantly trying to obtain a hearing. It speaks powerfully for his courage, tenacity, and faith that he should never have quit—and his triumph will encourage some good and many bad writers to persevere. Emboldened by the immense success of Spoon River, he produced three more volumes in rapid succession; Songs and Satires in 1916, The Great Valley in the same year, and Toward the Gulf in 1918. It is fortunate for him that these works followed rather than preceded the Anthology; for although they are not destitute of merit, they seem to require a famous name to ensure a sale. It is the brand, and not the goods, that gives a circulation to these books.
The pieces in Spoon River Anthology originally appeared in William Marion Reedy's periodical, called Reedy's Mirror, the first one being printed in the issue for 29 May, 1914, and the others following week after week. A grateful acknowledgment is made in a brief preface to the volume, and the full debt is handsomely paid in a dedicatory preface of Toward the Gulf, which every one interested in Mr. Masters—and who is not?—should read with attention. The poet manfully lets us know that it was Mr. Reedy who, in 1909, made him read the Greek Anthology, without which Spoon River would never have been written. Criticism is forestalled in this preface, because Mr. Masters takes a prose translation of Meleager, "with, its sad revealment and touch of irony"—exactly the characteristics of Spoon River—and turns it into free verse:
The holy night and thou, O Lamp, We took as witness of our vows; And before thee we swore, He that [he] would love me always And I that I would never leave him. We swore, And thou wert witness of our double promise. But now he says that our vows were written on the running waters. And thou, O Lamp, Thou seest him in the arms of another.
What Mr. Masters did was to transfer the method and the tone of the Greek Anthology to a twentieth century village in the Middle West, or as he expresses it, to make "an epic rendition of modern life."
Even if it were desirable, how impossible it is to escape from the past! we are ruled by the dead as truly in the fields of art as in the domain of morality and religion. The most radical innovator can no more break loose from tradition than a tree can run away from its roots. John Masefield takes us back to Chaucer; Vachel Lindsay is a reincarnation of the ancient minstrels; Edgar Lee Masters owes both the idea and the form of his masterpiece to Greek literature. Art is as continuous as life.
This does not mean that he lacks originality. It was a daring stroke—body-snatching in 1914. To produce a work like Spoon River Anthology required years of accumulated experience; a mordant power of analysis; a gift of shrewd speech, a command of hard words that will cut like a diamond; a mental vigour analogous to, though naturally not so powerful, as that displayed by Browning in The Ring and the Book. It is still a debatable proposition whether or not this is high-class poetry; but it is mixed with brains. Imagine the range of knowledge and power necessary to create two hundred and forty-six distinct characters, with a revealing epitaph for each one! The miracle of personal identity has always seemed to me perhaps the greatest miracle among all those that make up the universe; but to take up a pen and clearly display the marks that separate one individual from the mass, and repeat the feat nearly two hundred and fifty times, this needs creative genius.
The task that confronted Mr. Masters was this: to exhibit a long list of individuals with sufficient basal similarity for each one to be unmistakably human, and then to show the particular traits that distinguish each man and woman from the others, giving each a right to a name instead of a number. For instinctively we are all alike; it is the Way in which we manage our instincts that shows divergence; just as men and women are alike in possessing fingers, whereas no two finger-prints are ever the same.
Mr. Masters has the double power of irony and sarcasm. The irony of life gives the tone to the whole book; particular phases of life like religious hypocrisy and political trimming are treated with vitriolic scorn. The following selection exhibits as well as any the author's poetic power of making pictures, together with the grinning irony of fate.
I winged my bird, Though he flew toward the setting sun; But just as the shot rang out, he soared Up and up through the splinters of golden light, Till he turned right over, feathers ruffled, With some of the down of him floating near, And fell like a plummet into the grass. I tramped about, parting the tangles, Till I saw a splash of blood on a stump, And the quail lying close to the rotten roots. I reached my hand, but saw no brier, But something pricked and stunned and numbed it. And then, in a second, I spied the rattler— The shutters wide in his yellow eyes, The head of him arched, sunk back in the rings of him, A circle of filth, the color of ashes, Or oak leaves bleached under layers of leaves, I stood like a stone as he shrank and uncoiled And started to crawl beneath the stump, When I fell limp in the grass.
This poem, with its unforgettable pictures and its terrible climax, can stand easily enough by itself; it needs no interpretation; and yet, if we like, the rattler may be taken as a symbol—a symbol of the generation of vipers of which the population of Spoon River is mainly composed.
In the Anthology, the driving motive is an almost perverted passion for truth. Conventional epitaphs are marked by two characteristics; artistically, when in verse, they are the worst specimens of poetry known to man; even good poets seldom write good epitaphs, and among all the sins against art perpetrated by the uninspired, the most flagrant are found here; to a bad poet, for some reason or other, the temptation to write them is irresistible. In many small communities, one has to get up very early in the morning to die before the village laureate has his poem prepared. This depth of artistic infamy is equalled only by the low percentage of truth; so if one wishes to discover literary illustrations where falsehood is united with crudity, epitaphs would be the field of literature toward which one would instinctively turn.
Like Jonathan Swift, Mr. Masters is consumed with hatred for insincerity in art and insincerity in life; in the laudable desire to force the truth upon his readers, he emphasizes the ugly, the brutal, the treacherous elements which exist, not only in Spoon River, but in every man born of woman. The result, viewed calmly, is that we have an impressive collection of vices—which, although inspired by a sincerity fundamentally noble—is as far from being a truthful picture of the village as a conventional panegyric. The ordinary photographer, who irons out the warts and the wrinkles, gives his subject a smooth lying mask instead of a face; but a photograph that should make the defects more prominent than the eyes, nose, and mouth would not be a portrait.
A large part of a lawyer's business is analysis; and the analytical power displayed by Mr. Masters is nothing less than remarkable. Each character in Spoon River is subjected to a remorseless autopsy, in which the various vicious elements existing in all men and women are laid bare. But the business of the artist, after preparatory and necessary analysing, is really synthesis. It is to make a complete artistic whole; to produce some form of art.
This is why the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, by Thomas Gray, is so superior as a poem to Spoon River Anthology. The rich were buried in the church; the poor in the yard; we are therefore given the short and simple annals of the poor. The curious thing is that these humble, rustic, unlettered folk were presented to the world sympathetically by a man who was almost an intellectual snob. One of the most exact scholars of his day, one of the most fastidious of mortals, one of the shyest men that ever lived, a born mental aristocrat, his literary genius enabled him to write an immortal masterpiece, not about the Cambridge hierarchy, but about illiterate tillers of the soil. The Elegy is the genius of synthesis; without submitting each man in the ground to a ruthless cross-examination, Gray managed to express in impeccable beauty of language the common thoughts and feelings that have ever animated the human soul. His poem will live as long as any book, because it is fundamentally true.
I therefore regard Spoon River Anthology not as a brilliant revelation of human nature, but as a masterpiece of cynicism. It took a genius to write the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels; but after all, Yahoos are not men and women, and horses are not superior to humanity. The reason why, in reading the Anthology, we experience the constant pricking of recognition is because we recognize the baser elements in these characters, not only in other persons, but in ourselves. The reason why the Yahoos fill us with such terror is because they are true incarnations of our worst instincts. There, but for the grace of God, go you and I.
The chief element in the creative work of Mr. Masters being the power of analysis, he is at his best in this collection of short poems. When he attempts a longer flight, his limitations appear. It is distinctly unfortunate that The Spooniad and The Epilogue were added at the end of this wonderful Rogues' Gallery. They are witless.