CHAPTER IX. 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, andTendencies 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 reveillé 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 Magazinein 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—
What was it, Lazarus? Let us share that thing!
What was it, brother, thou didst see?
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,
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.
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,
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.
And thou wert witness of our double promise.
But now he says that our vows were written on the running
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.
Even the greatest cynic has his ideal side. It is the figure of Abraham Lincoln that arouses all the romanticism of our poet, as was the case with Walt Whitman, who, to be sure, was no cynic at all. The short poem Anne Rutledge is one of the few that strictly conform to the etymological meaning of the title of the book; for “Anthology" is a union of two Greek words, signifying a collection of flowers.
Like Browning, Mr. Masters forsook the drama for the dramatic monologue. His best work is in this form, where he takes one person and permits him to reveal himself either in a soliloquy or in a conversation. And it must be confessed that the monologues spoken by contemporaries or by those Americans who talk from the graveyard of Spoon River, are superior to the attempts at interpreting great historical figures. The Shakespeare poem Tomorrow Is My Birthday is not only one of the worst effusions of Mr. Masters' pen, it is almost sacrilege. Good friend, for Jesus' sake, forbear!
Outside of the monologues and the epitaphs, the work of Mr. Masters is mainly unimpressive. Yet I admire his ambition to write on various subjects and in various metres. Occasionally he produces a short story in verse, characterized by dramatic power and by austere beauty of style. The poem Boyhood Friends, recently published in the Yale Review, and quite properly included by Mr. Braithwaite in his interesting and valuable Anthology for 1917, shows such a command of blank verse that I look for still finer things in the future. With all his twisted cynicism and perversities of expression, Mr. Masters is a true poet. He has achieved one sinister masterpiece, which has cleansed his bosom of much perilous Stuff. Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.
Louis Untermeyer was born at New York, on the first of October, 1885. He produced a volume of original poems at the age of twenty-five. This was followed by three other books, and in addition, he has written many verse-translations, a long list of prose articles in literary criticism, whilst not neglecting his professional work as a designer of jewelry. There is no doubt that this form of art has been a fascinating occupation and an inspiration to poetry. He not only makes sermons in stones, but can manufacture jewels five words long. Should any one be dissatisfied with his designs for the jewel-factory, he can “point with pride” to his books, saying, Haec sunt mea ornamenta.
Somewhere or other I read a review of the latest volume of verse from Mr. Untermeyer, and the critic began as follows: “One is grateful to Mr. Untermeyer for doing what almost none of his contemporaries on this side of the water thinks of doing.” This sentence stimulated my curiosity, for I wondered what particularly distinguishing feature of his work I had failed to see. “For about the last thing that poets and theorizers about poetry in these days think of is beauty. In discussion and practice beauty is almost entirely left out of consideration. Frequently they do not concern themselves with it at all.”
Such criticism as that starts with a preconceived definition of beauty, misses every form of beauty outside of the definition, and gives to Mr. Untermeyer credit for originality in precisely that feature of his work where he most resembles contemporary and past poets. I believe that beauty is now as it always has been the main aim of the majority of American poets; but instead of legendary beauty, instead of traditional beauty, they wish us to see beauty in modern life. For example, it is interesting to observe how completely public opinion has changed concerning the New York sky-scrapers. I can remember when they were regarded as monstrosities of commercialism, an offence to the eye and a torment to the aesthetic sense. But I recall through my reading of history that mountains were also once regarded as hideous deformities—they were hook-shouldered giants, impressive in size—anything you like except beautiful. All the mountain had to do was to go on staying there, confident in its supreme excellence, knowing that some day it would be appreciated:
Morello's outline there is wrongly traced,
His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,
Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that?
Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?
We know better today; we know that the New York sky-scrapers are beautiful; just as we know that New York harbour in the night has something of the glory of fairyland.
No, it will not do to say that Mr. Untermeyer is original in his preoccupation with beauty; it Would be almost as true to say that the chief feature in his work is the English language.
What is notable in him is the combination of three things; an immense love of life, a romantic interpretation of material things, and a remarkable talent for parody and burlesque.
Sex and Death—the obsessions of so many young poets—are not particularly conspicuous in the poetry of this healthy, happy young man. He writes about swimming, climbing the palisades, willow-trees, children playing in the street. Familiar objects become mysterious and thought-provoking in the light of his fancy. His imagination provides him with no end of fun; he needs no melancholy solitary pilgrimage in the gloaming to give him a pair of rimes; a country farm or a city slum is quite enough. I like his affectionate salutation to the willow; I like his interpretation of a side street. His greatest tour de force is his poem, Still Life. Of all painted pictures, with the one exception of dead fish, the conventional overturned basket of fruit is to me the most barren of meaning, the least inspiring, in suggestion a blank. Yet somehow Mr. Untermeyer, looking at a bowl of fruit, sees something I certainly never saw and do not ever expect to see except on this printed page, something that a bowl of fruit has for me in the same proportion as the stump of a cigar—something dynamic.
I do not understand why so many Americans plaster the walls of their dining-rooms with pictures of overset fruit-baskets and of dead fish with their ugly mouths open; but in “still life” this paradoxical poet sees something full of demoniacal energy. O Death, where is thy sting?
Never have I beheld such fierce contempt,
Nor heard a voice so full of vehement life
As this that shouted from a bowl of fruit,
High-pitched, malignant, lusty and perverse—
Brutal with a triumphant restlessness.
But the fruit in the basket is dead. The energy, the fierce vehemence and the lusty shout are not in the bowl, but in the soul. Subjectivity can no further go.
It is rather curious, that when our poet can behold such passion in a willow-tree or in a mess of plucked fruit, he should be so blind to it in the heart of an old maid; though to be honest, the heroine of his poem is meant for an individual rather than a type. If there is one object on earth that a healthy young man cannot understand, it is an old maid. Who can forget that terrible outburst of the aunt in Une Vie? “Nobody ever cared to ask if my feet were wet!” Mr. Untermeyer will live and learn. He is not contemptuous; he is full of pity, but it is the pity of ignorance.
Great joys or sorrows never came
To set her placid soul astir;
Youth's leaping torch, Love's sudden flame
Were never even lit for her.
Don't you believe it, Mr. Untermeyer!
Even in his “serious” volumes of verse, there is much satire and saline humour; so that his delightful book of parodies, called —— and Other Poets is as spontaneous a product of his Muse as his utterances ex cathedra. The twenty-seven poems, called The Banquet of the Bards, with which the book begins, are excellent fooling and genuine criticism. He wrote these things for his own amusement, one reason why they amuse us. A roll-call of twenty-seven contemporary poets, where each one comes forward and “speaks his piece,” is decidedly worth having. John Masefield “tells the true story of Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son”; William Butler Yeats “gives a Keltic version of Three Wise Men in Gotham”; Robert Frost “relates the Death of the Tired Man,” and so on. I had rather possess this volume than any other by the author; it is almost worthy to rank with the immortal Fly Leaves. Furthermore, in his serious work Mr. Untermeyer has only begun to fight.
And while we are considering poems “in lighter vein,” let us not forget the three famous initials signed to a column in the Chicago Tribune, Don Marquis of the Evening Sun, who can be either grave or gay but cannot be ungraceful, and the universally beloved Captain Franklin P. Adams, whose Conning Tower increased the circulation of the New York Tribune and the blood of its readers. Brightest and best of the sons of the Colyumnists, his classic Muse made the Evening Mail an evening blessing, sending the suburbanites home to their wives “always in good humour”; then, like Jupiter and Venus, he charged from evening star to morning star, and gave many thousands a new zest for the day's work. Skilful indeed was his appropriation of the methods of Tom Sawyer; as Tom got his fence whitewashed by arousing an eager competition among the boys to do his work for him, each toiler firmly persuaded that he was the recipient rather than the bestower of a favour, so F. P. A. incited hundreds of well-paid literary artists to compete with one another for the privilege of writing his column without money and without price.
His two books of verse, By and Large and Weights and Measures, have fairly earned a place in contemporary American literature; and the influence of his column toward precision and dignity in the use of the English language has made him one of the best teachers of English composition in the country.