CHAPTER V. BROOKE, FLECKER, DE LA MARE, AND OTHERS
Rupert Brooke—a personality—the spirit of youth—his horror
at old age—Henry James's tribute—his education—a
genius—his poems of death—his affected cynicism—his nature
poems—war sonnets—his supreme sacrifice—his charming
humour—his masterpiece, Grantchester.—James Elroy
Flecker—the editorial work of Mr. Squire—no posthumous
puffery—the case of Crashaw—life of Flecker—his fondness
for revision—his friendship with Rupert Brooke—his skill as
a translator—his austerity—art for art's sake—his
“brightness”—love of Greek mythology—steady mental
development—his definition of the aim of poetry.—Walter De
La Mare—the poet of shadow—Hawthorne's tales—his
persistence—his reflective mood—his descriptive style—his
Shakespeare characters—his sketches from life.—D. H.
Lawrence—his lack of discipline—his subjectivity—absence of
reserve—a master of colour—his glaring excesses.—John
Drinkwater—the west of England—his healthy spirit.—W. H.
Davies—the tramp poet.—Edward Thomas—his death—originality
of his work.—Robert Nichols—Willoughby Weaving.—The young
Rupert Brooke left the world in a chariot of fire. He was something more than either a man or a poet; he was and is a Personality. It was as a Personality that he dazzled his friends. He was overflowing with tremendous, contagious vitality. He was the incarnation of the spirit of youth, wearing the glamour and glory of youth like a shining garment. Despite our loss, it almost seems fitting that he did not live to that old age which he never understood, for which he had such little sympathy, and which he seems to have hated more than death. For he had the splendid insolence of youth. Youth commonly feels high-spirited in an unconscious, instinctive fashion, like a kitten or a puppy; but Rupert Brooke was as self-consciously young as a decrepit pensioner is self-consciously old. He rejoiced in the strength of his youth, and rolled it as a sweet morsel under his tongue. He was so glad to be young, and to know every morning on rising from sleep that he was still young! His passionate love of beauty made him see in old age only ugliness; he could not foresee the joys of the mellow years. All he saw consisted of grey hairs, wrinkles, double chins, paunches. To him all old people were Struldbrugs. We smile at the insolence of youth, because we know it will pass with the beauty and strength that support it. Ogniben says, “Youth, with its beauty and grace, would seem bestowed on us for some such reason as to make us partly endurable till we have time for really becoming so of ourselves, without their aid; when they leave us ... little by little, he sees fit to forego claim after claim on the world, puts up with a less and less share of its good as his proper portion; and when the octogenarian asks barely a sup of gruel and a fire of dry sticks, and thanks you as for his full allowance and right in the common good of life,—hoping nobody may murder him,—he who began by asking and expecting the whole of us to bow down in worship to him,—why, I say he is advanced.”
Henry James—whose affectionate tribute in the preface to Brooke's Letters is impressive testimony—saw in the brilliant youth, besides the accident of genius, a perfect illustration of the highest type of Englishman, bred in the best English way, in the best traditions of English scholarship, and adorned with the good sense, fine temper, and healthy humour of the ideal Anglo-Saxon. He indeed enjoyed every possible advantage; like Milton and Browning, had he been intended for a poet from the cradle, his bringing-up could not have been better adapted to the purpose. He was born at Rugby, on the third of August, 1887, where his father was one of the masters in the famous school. He won a poetry prize there in 1905. The next year he entered King's College, Cambridge; his influence as an undergraduate was notable. He took honours in classics, went abroad to study in Munich, and returned to Grantchester, which he was later to celebrate in his best poem. He had travelled somewhat extensively on the Continent, and in 1913 went on a journey through the United States and Canada to the South Seas. I am glad he saw the Hawaiian Islands, for no one should die before beholding that paradise. At the outbreak of war, he enlisted, went to Antwerp, and later embarked on the expedition to the Dardanelles. He was bitten by a fly, and died of bloodpoisoning on a French hospital ship, the day being Shakespeare's, the twenty-third of April, 1915. He was buried on a Greek island.
Rupert Brooke lived to be nearly twenty-eight years old, a short life to show ability in most of the ways of the world, but long enough to test the quality of a poet, not merely in promise, but in performance. There is no doubt that he had the indefinable but unmistakable touch of genius. Only a portion of his slender production is of high rank, but it is enough to preserve his name. His Letters, which have been underestimated, prove that he had mental as well as poetical powers. Had he lived to middle age, it seems certain that his poetry would have been tightly packed with thought. He had an alert and inquisitive mind.
Many have seemed to think that the frequent allusions to death in his poetry are vaguely prophetic. They are, of course—with the exception of the war-poems—nothing of the kind, being merely symptomatic of youth. They form the most conventional side of his work. His cynicism toward the love of the sexes was a youthful affectation, strengthened by his reading. He was deeply read in the seventeenth-century poets, who delighted in imagining themselves passing from one woman to another—swearing “by love's sweetest part, variety.” At all events, these poems, of which there are comparatively many, exhibit his least attractive side. The poem addressed to The One Before the Last, ends
Oh! bitter thoughts I had in plenty,
But here's the worst of it—
I shall forget, in Nineteen-twenty,
You ever hurt a bit!
He was perhaps, too young to understand two real truths—that real love can exist in the midst of wild passion, and that the best part of it can and often does survive the early flames. Such poems as Menelaus and Helen, Jealousy, and others, profess a profound knowledge of life that is really a profound ignorance.
His pictures of nature, while often beautiful, lack the penetrative quality seen so constantly in Wordsworth and Browning; these greater poets saw nature not only with their eyes, but with their minds. Their representations glow with enduring beauty, but they leave in the spectator something even greater than beauty, something that is food for reflection and imagination, the source of quick-coming fancies. Compare the picture of the pines in Brooke's poem Pine-Trees and the Sky: Evening, with Browning's treatment of an identical theme in Paracelsus, remembering that Browning's lines were written when he was twenty-two years old. Brooke writes,
Then from the sad west turning wearily,
I saw the pines against the white north sky,
Very beautiful, and still, and bending over
Their sharp black heads against a quiet sky.
The herded pines commune, and have deep thoughts,
A secret they assemble to discuss,
When the sun drops behind their trunks which glare
Like grates of hell.
Both in painting and in imagination the second passage is instantly seen to be superior.
The war sonnets of 1914 receive so much additional poignancy by the death of the author that it is difficult, and perhaps undesirable, to judge them as objective works of art. They are essentially noble and sincere, speaking from the depths of high-hearted self-sacrifice. He poured out his young life freely and generously, knowing what it meant to say good-bye to his fancy. There is always something eternally sublime—something that we rightly call divine—in the spendthrift giving of one's life-blood for a great cause. And Rupert Brooke was intensely aware of the value of what he unhesitatingly gave.
The two “fish” poems exhibit a playful, charming side to Brooke's imagination; but if I could have only one of his pieces, I should assuredly choose Grantchester. Nostalgia is the mother of much fine poetry; but seldom has the expression of it been mingled more exquisitely with humour and longing. By the rivers of Babylon he sat down and laughed when he remembered Zion. And his laughter at Babylon is so different from his laughter at Grantchester. A few felicitous adjectives sum up the significant difference between Germany and England. Writing in a Berlin café, he says:
Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose;
And there the unregulated sun
Slopes down to rest when day is done,
And wakes a vague unpunctual star,
A slippered Hesper; and there are
Meads toward Haslingfleld and Coton
Where das Betreten's not verboten....
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? ... oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?
When Hamlet died, he bequeathed his reputation to Horatio, the official custodian of his good name. He could not have made a better choice. Would that all poets who die young were equally fortunate in their posthumous editors! For there are some friends who conceive it to be their duty to print every scrap of written paper the bard left behind him, even if they have to act as scavengers to find the “remains”; and there are others who think affection and admiration for the dead are best shown by adopting the methods and the language of the press-agent. To my mind, the pious memoir of Tennyson is injured by the inclusion of a long list of “testimonials,” which assure us that Alfred Tennyson was a remarkable poet. Mr. J. C. Squire, under whose auspices the works of Flecker appear in one handsome volume, is an admirable editor. His introduction is a model of its kind, giving the necessary biographical information, explaining the chronology, the origin, the background of the poems, and showing how the poet revised his earlier work; the last paragraph ought to serve as an example to those who may be entrusted with a task of similar delicacy in the future. “My only object in writing this necessarily rather disjointed Introduction is to give some information that may interest the reader and be useful to the critic; and if a few personal opinions have slipped in they may conveniently be ignored. A vehement 'puff preliminary' is an insolence in a volume of this kind; it might pardonably be supposed to imply either doubts about the author or distrust of his readers.”
As a contrast to the above, it is interesting to recall the preface that an anonymous friend contributed to a volume of Crashaw's verse in the seventeenth century, which, in his own words, “I have impartially writ of this Learned young Gent.” Fearing that readers might not appreciate his poetry at its true value, the friend writes, “It were prophane but to mention here in the Preface those under-headed Poets, Retainers to seven shares and a halfe; Madrigall fellowes, whose onely business in verse, is to rime a poore six-penny soule a Suburb sinner into hell;—May such arrogant pretenders to Poetry vanish, with their prodigious issue of tumorous heats, and flashes of their adulterate braines, and for ever after, may this our Poet fill up the better roome of man. Oh! when the generall arraignment of Poets shall be, to give an accompt of their higher soules, with what a triumphant brow shall our divine Poet sit above, and looke downe upon poore Homer, Virgil, Horace, Claudian; &c. who had amongst them the ill lucke to talke out a great part of their gallant Genius, upon Bees, Dung, froggs, and Gnats, &c. and not as himself here, upon Scriptures, divine Graces, Martyrs and Angels.” Our prefatory friend set a pace that it is hopeless for modern champions to follow, and they might as well abandon the attempt.
James Elroy Flecker, the eldest child of the Rev. Dr. Flecker, who is Head Master of an English school, was born on the fifth of November, 1884, in London. He spent five years at Trinity College, Oxford, and later studied Oriental languages at Caius College, Cambridge. He went to Constantinople in 1910. In that same year signs of tuberculosis appeared, but after some months at an English sanatorium, he seemed to be absolutely well. In 1911 he was in Constantinople, Smyrna, and finally in Athens, where he was married to Miss Skiadaressi, a Greek. In March the dreaded illness returned, and the rest of his short life was spent in the vain endeavour to recover his health. He died in Switzerland, on the third of January, 1915, at the age of thirty. “I cannot help remembering,” says Mr. Squire, “that I first heard the news over the telephone, and that the voice which spoke was Rupert Brooke's.”
He had published four books of verse and four books of prose, leaving many poems, essays, short stories, and two plays, in manuscript. All his best poetry is now included in the Collected Poems (1916).
Flecker had the Tennysonian habit of continually revising; and in this volume we are permitted to see some of the interesting results of the process. I must say, however, that of the two versions of Tenebris Interlucentem, although the second is called a “drastic improvement,” I prefer the earlier. Any poet might be proud of either.
Flecker liked the work of Mr. Yeats, of Mr. Housman, of Mr. De La Mare; and Rupert Brooke was an intimate friend, for the two young men were together at Cambridge. He wrote a sonnet on Francis Thompson, though he was never affected by Thompson's literary manner. Indeed, he is singularly free from the influence of any of the modern poets. His ideas and his style are his own; he thought deeply on the art of writing, and was given to eager and passionate discussion of it with those who had his confidence. His originality is the more remarkable when we remember his fondness for translating verse from a variety of foreign languages, ancient and modern. He was an excellent translator. His skill in this art can only be inferred where we know nothing at first hand of the originals; but his version of Goethe's immortal lyric is proof of his powers. The only blemish—an unavoidable one—is “far" and “father” in the last two lines.
Knowest thou the land where bloom the lemon trees?
And darkly gleam the golden oranges?
A gentle wind blows down from that blue sky;
Calm stands the myrtle and the laurel high.
Knowest thou the land? So far and fair!
Thou, whom I love, and I will wander there.
Knowest thou the house with all its rooms aglow,
And shining hall and columned portico?
The marble statues stand and look at me.
Alas, poor child, what have they done to thee?
Knowest thou the land? So far and fair.
My Guardian, thou and I will wander there.
Knowest thou the mountain with its bridge of cloud?
The mule plods warily: the white mists crowd.
Coiled in their caves the brood of dragons sleep;
The torrent hurls the rock from steep to steep.
Knowest thou the land? So far and fair.
Father, away! Our road is over there!
Fletcher was more French than English in his dislike of romanticism, sentimentalism, intimate, and confessional poetry; and of course he was strenuously opposed to contemporary standards in so far as they put correct psychology above beauty. Much contemporary verse reads and sounds like undisciplined thinking out loud, where each poet feels it imperative to tell the reader in detail not only all his adventures, and passions, but even the most minute whimsies and caprices. When the result of this bosom-cleansing is real poetry, it justifies itself; but the method is the exact opposite of Flecker's. His master was Keats, and in his own words, he wrote “with the single intention of creating beauty.” Austerity and objectivity were his ideals.
Strangely enough, he was able to state in a new and more convincing way the doctrine of art for art's sake. “However few poets have written with a clear theory of art for art's sake, it is by that theory alone that their work has been, or can be, judged;—and rightly so if we remember that art embraces all life and all humanity, and sees in the temporary and fleeting doctrines of conservative or revolutionary only the human grandeur or passion that inspires them.”
Perhaps the best noun that describes Flecker's verse is brightness. He had a consumptive's longing for sunshine, and his sojourns on the Mediterranean shores illuminate his pages. The following poem is decidedly characteristic:
Had I that haze of streaming blue,
That sea below, the summer faced,
I'd work and weave a dress for you
And kneel to clasp it round your waist,
And broider with those burning bright
Threads of the Sun across the sea,
And bind it with the silver light
That wavers in the olive tree.
Had I the gold that like a river
Pours through our garden, eve by eve,
Our garden that goes on for ever
Out of the world, as we believe;
Had I that glory on the vine,
That splendour soft on tower and town,
I'd forge a crown of that sunshine,
And break before your feet the crown.
Through the great pinewood I have been
An hour before the lustre dies,
Nor have such forest-colours seen
As those that glimmer in your eyes.
Ah, misty woodland, down whose deep
And twilight paths I love to stroll
To meadows quieter than sleep
And pools more secret than the soul!
Could I but steal that awful throne
Ablaze with dreams and songs and stars
Where sits Night, a man of stone,
On the frozen mountain spars
I'd cast him down, for he is old,
And set my Lady there to rule,
Gowned with silver, crowned with gold,
And in her eyes the forest pool.
It seems to me improbable that Flecker will be forgotten; he was a real poet. But a remark made of Tennyson is still more applicable to Flecker. “He was an artist before he was a poet.” Even as a small boy, he had astonishing facility, but naturally wrote little worth preserval. The Collected Poems show an extraordinary command of his instrument. He had the orthodox virtues of the orthodox poet—rime and rhythm, cunning in words, skill in nature-painting, imagination. The richness of his colouring and the loveliness of his melodies make his verses a delight to the senses. His mind was plentifully stored with classical authors, and he saw nature alive with old gods and fairies. In one of his most charming poems, Oak and Olive, he declares,
When I go down the Gloucester lanes
My friends are deaf and blind:
Fast as they turn their foolish eyes
The Maenads leap behind,
And when I hear the fire-winged feet,
They only hear the wind.
Have I not chased the fluting Pan,
Through Cranham's sober trees?
Have I not sat on Painswick Hill
With a nymph upon my knees,
And she as rosy as the dawn,
And naked as the breeze?
His poetry is composed of sensations rather than thoughts. What it lacks is intellectual content. A richly packed memory is not the same thing as original thinking, even when the memories are glorified by the artist's own imagination. Yet the death of this young man was a cruel loss to English literature, for his mental development would eventually have kept pace with his gift of song. His cheerful Paganism would, I think, have given place to something deeper and more fruitful. Before he went to Constantinople, he had, as it is a fashion for some modern Occidentals to have, a great admiration for Mohammedanism. A friend reports a rather naïve remark of his, “this intercourse with Mohammedans had led him to find more good in Christianity than he had previously suspected.” I have sometimes wondered whether a prolonged residence among Mohammedans might not temper the enthusiasm of those who so loudly insist on the superiority of that faith to Christianity. Mr. Santayana speaks somewhere of “the unconquerable mind of the East.” Well, my guess is that this unconquerable mind will some day be conquered by the Man of Nazareth, just as I think He will eventually—some centuries ahead—conquer even us.
Flecker died so soon after the opening of the Great War that it is vain to surmise what the effect of that struggle would have been upon his soul. That it would have shaken him to the depths—and perhaps given him the spiritual experience necessary for his further advance—seems not improbable. One of his letters on the subject contains the significant remark, “What a race of deep-eyed and thoughtful men we shall have in Europe—now that all those millions have been baptized in fire!”
The last stanza of his poem A Sacred Dialogue reads as follows:
Then the black cannons of the Lord
Shall wake crusading ghosts
And the Milky Way shall swing like a sword
When Jerusalem vomits its horde
On the Christmas Day preferred of the Lord,
The Christmas Day of the Hosts!
He appended a footnote in December, 1914, when he was dying: “Originally written for Christmas, 1912, and referring to the first Balkan War, this poem contains in the last speech of Christ words that ring like a prophecy of events that may occur very soon.” As I am copying his Note, December, 1917, the English army is entering Jerusalem.
Flecker was essentially noble-minded; and without any trace of conceit, felt the responsibility of his talents. There is not an unworthy page in the Collected Poems. In a memorable passage, he stated the goal of poetry. “It is not the poet's business to save man's soul, but to make it worth saving.”
Walter De La Mare, a close personal friend of Rupert Brooke, came of Huguenot, English and Scotch ancestry, and was born at Charlton, Kent, on the twenty-fifth of April, 1873. He was educated at St. Paul's Cathedral Choir School. Although known today exclusively as a poet, he has written much miscellaneous prose—critical articles for periodicals, short stories, and a few plays. His first poetry-book,Songs of Childhood, appeared in 1902; in 1906, Poems; in 1910, The Return, which won the Edmond de Polignac prize; The Listeners, which gave him a wide reputation, appeared in 1912; Peacock Pie, in 1917, and Motley and Other Poems in 1918. When, in November, 1916, the Howland Memorial Prize at Yale University was formally awarded to the work of Rupert Brooke, it was officially received in New Haven by Walter De La Mare, who came from England for the purpose.
If Flecker's poems were written in a glare of light, Mr. De La Mare's shy Muse seems to live in shadow. It is not at all the shadow of grief, still less of bitterness, but rather the cool, grateful shade of retirement. I can find no words anywhere that so perfectly express to my mind the atmosphere of these poems as the language used by Hawthorne to explain the lack of excitement that readers would be sure to notice in his tales. “They have the pale tint of flowers that blossom in too retired a shade,—the coolness of a meditative habit, which diffuses itself through the feeling and observation of every sketch. Instead of passion there is sentiment; and, even in what purport to be pictures of actual life, we have allegory, not always so warmly dressed in its habiliments of flesh and blood as to be taken into the reader's mind without a shiver. Whether from lack of power, or an uncontrollable reserve, the author's touches have often an effect of tameness.... The book, if you would see anything in it, requires to be read in the clear, brown, twilight atmosphere in which it was written; if opened in the sunshine, it is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages.”
Hawthorne is naturally not popular today with readers whose sole acquaintance with the art of the short story is gleaned from magazines that adorn the stalls at railway-stations; and to those whose taste in poetry begins and ends with melodrama, who prefer the hoarse cry of animal passion to the still, sad music of humanity, it would not be advisable to recommend a poem like The Listeners, where the people are ghosts and the sounds only echoes. Yet there are times when it would seem that every one must weary of strident voices, of persons shouting to attract attention, of poets who capitalize both their moral and literary vices, of hawking advertisers of the latest verse-novelties; then a poem like The Listeners reminds us of Lindsay's bird, whose simple melody is not defeated by the blatant horns.
Decidedly a poet must have both courage and faith to hold himself so steadily aloof from the competition of the market-place; to work with such easy cheerfulness in his quiet corner; to remain so manifestly unaffected by the swift currents of contemporary verse. For fifteen years he has gone on producing his own favourite kind of poetry, dealing with children, with flowers, with autumn and winter, with ghosts of memory, with figures in literature, and has finally obtained a respectable audience without once raising his voice. He has written surprisingly little love poetry; the notes of passion, as we are accustomed to hear them, seldom sound from his lute; nor do we hear the agonizing cries of doubt, remorse, or despair. There is nothing turbulent and nothing truculent; he has made no contribution to the literature of revolt. Yet many of his poems make an irresistible appeal to our more reflective moods; and once or twice, his fancy, always winsome and wistful, rises to a height of pure imagination, as in The Listeners—which I find myself returning to muse over again and again.
His studies of humanity—both from observation and from books—are descriptive rather than dramatic. I do not know a contemporary poet whose published works contain so few quotation marks. The dramatic monologue, which Emerson back in the 'forties prophesied would be the highest class of poetry in the immediate future (which prophecy was fulfilled), does not interest Mr. De La Mare; maybe he feels that it has been done so well that he prefers to let it alone. His remarkable thirteen poems dealing with Shakespearean characters—where he attempts with considerable success to pluck out the heart of the mystery—are all descriptive. Perhaps the most original and beautiful of these is
Along an avenue of almond-trees
Came three girls chattering of their sweethearts three.
And lo! Mercutio, with Byronic ease,
Out of his philosophic eye cast all
A mere flow'r'd twig of thought, whereat ...
Three hearts fell still as when an air dies out
And Venus falters lonely o'er the sea.
But when within the further mist of bloom
His step and form were hid, the smooth child Ann
Said, “La, and what eyes he had!” and Lucy said,
“How sad a gentleman!” and Katharine,
“I wonder, now, what mischief he was at.”
And these three also April hid away,
Leaving the spring faint with Mercutio.
There are immense tracts of Shakespeare which Walter De La Mare never could even have remotely imitated; but I know of no poet today who could approach the wonderful Queen Mab speech more successfully than he.
The same method of interpretative description that he employs in dealing with Shakespearean characters he uses repeatedly in making portraits from life. One of the most vivid and delightful of these is
When Susan's work was done she'd sit,
With one fat guttering candle lit,
And window opened wide to win
The sweet night air to enter in;
There, with a thumb to keep her place
She'd read, with stern and wrinkled face,
Her mild eyes gliding very slow
Across the letters to and fro,
While wagged the guttering candle flame
In the wind that through the window came.
And sometimes in the silence she
Would mumble a sentence audibly,
Or shake her head as if to say,
“You silly souls, to act this way!”
And never a sound from night I'd hear,
Unless some far-off cock crowed clear;
Or her old shuffling thumb should turn
Another page; and rapt and stern,
Through her great glasses bent on me
She'd glance into reality;
And shake her round old silvery head,
With—“You!—I thought you was in bed!”—
Only to tilt her book again,
And rooted in Romance remain.
I am afraid that Rupert Brooke could not have written a poem like Old Susan; he would have made her ridiculous and contemptible; he would have accentuated physical defects so that she would have been a repugnant, even an offensive, figure. But Mr. De La Mare has the power—possessed in the supreme degree by J. M. Barrie—of taking just such a person as Old Susan, living in a world of romance, and making us smile with no trace of contempt and with no descent to pity. One who can do this loves his fellow-men.
Poems like Old Susan prepare us for one of the most happy exhibitions of Mr. De La Mare's talent—his verses written for and about children. Every household ought to have that delightful quarto, delightfully and abundantly illustrated, called Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes. With Illustrations by W. Heath Robinson. There is a picture for each poem, and the combination demands and will obtain an unconditional surrender.
If the poetry of James Flecker and Walter De La Mare live after them, it will not be because of sensational qualities, in matter or in manner. Fancy is bred either in the heart or in the head—and the best poetry should touch either one or the other or both. Mr. De La Mare owes his present eminence simply to merit—his endeavour has been to write just as well as he possibly could. His limit has been downward, not upward. He may occasionally strike over the heads of his audience, for his aim is never low.
The poetry of D. H. Lawrence (born 1885) erupts from the terrible twenties. In spite of his school experience, he has never sent his mind to school; he hates discipline. He has an undeniable literary gift, which has met—as it ought to—with glad recognition. He has strength, he has fervour, he has passion. But while his strength is sometimes the happy and graceful play of rippling muscles, it is often contortion. If Mr. De La Mare may seem too delicate, too restrained, Mr. Lawrence cares comparatively little for delicacy; and the word restraint is not in his bright lexicon. In other words, he is aggressively “modern.” He is one of the most skilful manipulators of free verse—he can drive four horses abreast, and somehow or other reach the goal.
He sees his own turbulent heart reflected stormily in every natural spectacle. He observes flowers in an anti-Wordsworthian way. He mentions with appreciation roses, lilies, snapdragons, but to him they are all passion-flowers. And yet—if he only knew it—his finest work is in a subdued mood. He is a master of colouring—and I like his quieter work as a painter better than his feverish, hectic cries of desire. Despite his dialect poems, he is more successful at description than at drama. I imagine Miss Harriet Monroe may think so too; it seems to me she has done well in selecting his verses, to give three out of the five from his colour-pieces, of which perhaps the best is
SERVICE OF ALL THE DEAD
Between the avenue of cypresses,
All in their scarlet capes and surplices
Of linen, go the chaunting choristers,
The priests in gold and black, the villagers.
And all along the path to the cemetery
The round dark heads of men crowd silently;
And black-scarfed faces of women-folk wistfully
Watch at the banner of death, and the mystery.
And at the foot of a grave a father stands
With sunken head and forgotten, folded hands;
And at the foot of a grave a mother kneels
With pale shut face, nor neither hears nor feels.
The coming of the chaunting choristers
Between the avenue of cypresses,
The silence of the many villagers,
The candle-flames beside the surplices.
(Remember the English pronunciation of “cemetery” is not the common American one.) He is surely better as a looker-on at life than when he tries to present the surging passions of an actor-in-chief. Then his art is full of sound and fury, and instead of being thrilled, we are, as Stevenson said of Whitman's poorer poems, somewhat indecorously amused. All poets, I suppose, are thrilled by their own work; they read it to themselves with shudders of rapture; but it is only when this frisson is felt by others than blood-relatives that they may feel some reasonable assurance of success. The London Times quite properly refuses to surrender to lines like these:
And if I never see her again?
I think, if they told me so,
I could convulse the heavens with my horror.
I think I could alter the frame of things in my agony.
I think I could break the System with my heart.
I think, in my convulsion, the skies would break.
He should change his gear from high to low; he will never climb Parnassus on this speed, not even with his muffler so manifestly open.
The Times also quotes without appreciation from the same volume the following passage, where the woman, looking back, stirs a biblical reminiscence.
I have seen it, felt it in my mouth, my throat, my chest, my
Burning of powerful salt, burning, eating through my defenceless
I have been thrust into white sharp crystals,
Writhing, twisting, superpenetrated,
Ah, Lot's wife, Lot's wife!
The pillar of salt, the whirling, horrible column of salt, like
That has enveloped me!
Most readers may not need a whole pillar, but they will surely take the above professions cum grano salis. It is all in King Cambyses' vein; and I would that we had Pistol to deliver it. I cite it here, not for the graceless task of showing Mr. Lawrence at his worst, but because such stuff symptomatic of many of the very “new” poets, who wander, as Turgenev expressed it, “aimless but declamatory, over the face of our long-suffering mother earth.”
John Drinkwater, born on the first of June, 1882, has had varied experiences both in business and in literature, and is at present connected with the management of the Birmingham Repertory theatre. Actively engaged in commercial life, he has found time to publish a number of volumes of poems, plays in verse, critical works in prose, and a long string of magazine articles. He has wisely collected in one volume—though I regret the omission of Malvern Lyrics—the best of his poems that had previously appeared in four separate works, containing the cream of his production from 1908 to 1914. His preface to this little book, published in 1917, is excellent in its manly modesty. “Apart from the Cromwell poem itself, the present selection contains all that I am anxious to preserve from those volumes, and there is nothing before 1908 which I should wish to be reprinted now or at any time.” One of the earlier books had been dedicated to John Masefield, to whom in the present preface the author pays an affectionate compliment—“John Masefield, who has given a poet's praise to work that I hope he likes half as well as I like his.”
The first poem, Symbols, prepares the reader for what is to follow, though it is somewhat lacking in the technique that is characteristic of most of Mr. Drinkwater's verse.
I saw history in a poet's song,
In a river-reach and a gallows-hill,
In a bridal bed, and a secret wrong,
In a crown of thorns: in a daffodil.
I imagined measureless time in a day,
And starry space in a wagon-road,
And the treasure of all good harvests lay
In the single seed that the sower sowed.
My garden-wind had driven and havened again
All ships that ever had gone to sea,
And I saw the glory of all dead men
In the shadow that went by the side of me.
The West of England looms large in contemporary poetry. A. E. Housman, John Masefield, W. W. Gibson, J. E. Flecker have done their best to celebrate its quiet beauty; and some of the finest work of Mr. Drinkwater is lovingly devoted to these rural scenes. We know how Professor Housman and John Masefield regard Bredon Hill—another tribute to this “calm acclivity, salubrious spot” is paid in Mr. Drinkwater's cheerful song, At Grafton. The spirit of his work in general is the spirit of health—take life as it is, and enjoy it. It is the open-air verse of broad, windswept English counties. Its surest claim to distinction lies in its excellent, finished—he is a sound craftsman. But he has not yet shown either sufficient originality or sufficient inspiration to rise from the better class of minor poets. His verse-drama, The Storm, which was produced in Birmingham in 1915, shows strong resemblances to the one-act plays of Mr. Gibson and is not otherwise impressive.
William Henry Davies, the Welsh poet, exhibits in his half-dozen miniature volumes an extraordinary variety of subjects. Everything is grist. He was born of Welsh parentage in Monmouthshire on the twentieth of April, 1870. He became an American tramp, and practised this interesting profession six years; he made eight or nine trips to England on cattle-ships, working his passage; he walked about England selling pins and needles. He remarks that “he sometimes varied this life by singing hymns in the street.” At the age of thirty-four he became a poet, and he insists—not without reason—that he has been one ever since. Readers may be at times reminded of the manner of John Davidson, but after all, Mr. Davies is as independent in his poetry as he used to be on the road.
Sometimes his verse is banal—as in the advice To a Working Man. But oftener his imagination plays on familiar scenes in town and country with a lambent flame, illuminating and glorifying common objects. He has the heart of the child, and tries to see life from a child's clear eyes.
THE TWO FLOCKS
Where are you going to now, white sheep,
Walking the green hill-side;
To join that whiter flock on top,
And share their pride?
Stay where you are, you silly sheep:
When you arrive up there,
You'll find that whiter flock on top
Clouds in the air!
Yet much of his poetry springs from his wide knowledge and experience of life. An original defence of the solitary existence is seen in Death's Game, although possibly the grapes are sour.
Death can but play one game with me—
If I do live alone;
He cannot strike me a foul blow
Through a belovèd one.
Today he takes my neighbour's wife,
And leaves a little child
To lie upon his breast and cry
Like the Night-wind, so wild.
And every hour its voice is heard—
Tell me where is she gone!
Death cannot play that game with me—
If I do live alone.
The feather-weight pocket-volumes of verse that this poet puts forth, each containing a crop of tiny poems—have an excellent virtue—they are interesting, good companions for a day in the country. There is always sufficient momentum in page 28 to carry you on to page 29—something that cannot be said of all books.
English literature suffered a loss in the death of Edward Thomas, who was killed in France on the ninth of April, 1917. He was born on the third of March, 1878, and had published a long list of literary critiques, biographies, interpretations of nature, and introspective essays. He took many solitary journeys afoot; his books The South Country, The Heart of England, and others, show both observation and reflection. Although English by birth and education, he had in his veins Welsh and Spanish blood.
In 1917 a tiny volume of his poems appeared. These are unlike any other verse of the past or present. They cannot be called great poetry, but they are original, imaginative, whimsical, and reveal a rich personality. Indeed we feel in reading these rimes that the author was greater than anything he wrote or could write. The difficulty in articulation comes apparently from a mind so full that it cannot run freely off the end of a pen.
Shyness was undoubtedly characteristic of the man, as it often is of minute observers of nature. I am not at all surprised to learn from one who knew him of his “temperamental melancholy.” He was austere and aloof; but exactly the type of mind that would give all he had to those who possessed his confidence. It must have been a privilege to know him intimately. I have said that his poems resemble the work of no other poet; this is true; but there is a certain kinship between him and Robert Frost, indicated not only in the verses, but in the fact that his book is dedicated to the American.
His death accentuates the range of the dragnet of war. This intellectual, quiet, introspective, slightly ironical temperament would seem almost ideally unfitted for the trenches. Yet, although no soldier by instinct, and having a family dependent upon his writings for support, he gave himself freely to the Great Cause. He never speaks in his verses of his own sacrifice, and indeed says little about the war; but the first poem in the volume expresses the universal call.
Rise up, rise up,
And, as the trumpet blowing
Chases the dreams of men,
As the dawn glowing
The stars that left unlit
The land and water,
Rise up and scatter
The dew that covers
The print of last night's lovers—
Scatter it, scatter it!
While you are listening
To the clear horn,
Forget, men, everything
On this earth newborn,
Except that it is lovelier
Than any mysteries.
Open your eyes to the air
That has washed the eyes of the stars
Through all the dewy night:
Up with the light,
To the old wars;
In reading Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, Alan Seeger, we recognize how much greater were the things they sacrificed than the creature comforts ordinarily emphasized in the departure from home to the trenches; these men gave up their imagination.
A thoroughly representative poem by Edward Thomas is Cock-Crow ; beauty of conception mingled with the inevitable touch of homeliness at the end.
Out of the wood of thoughts that grows by night
To be cut down by the sharp axe of light,—
Out of the night, two cocks together crow,
Cleaving the darkness with a silver blow:
And bright before my eyes twin trumpeters stand,
Heralds of splendour, one at either hand,
Each facing each as in a coat of arms;
The milkers lace their boots up at the farms.
This is his favourite combination, seen on every page of his work,—fancy and fact.
Another poet in khaki who writes powerful and original verse is Robert Nichols (born 1893), an Oxford man who has already produced two volumes—Invocation, and, in 1918, Ardours and Endurances. Accompanying the second is a portrait made in 1915, exhibiting the face of a dreamy-looking boy. No one who reads the pages of this book can doubt the author's gift. In his trench-poetry he somehow manages to combine the realism of Barbusse with an almost holy touch of imagination; and some of the most beautiful pieces are manly laments for friends killed in battle. He was himself severely wounded. His poems of strenuous action are mostly too long to quote; occasionally he writes in a more quiet mood of contemplation.
THE FULL HEART
Alone on the shore in the pause of the nighttime
I stand and I hear the long wind blow light;
I view the constellations quietly, quietly burning;
I hear the wave fall in the hush of the night.
Long after I am dead, ended this bitter journey,
Many another whose heart holds no light
Shall your solemn sweetness hush, awe, and comfort,
O my companions, Wind, Waters, Stars, and Night.
Other Oxford poets from the front are Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Willoughby Weaving, whose two volumes The Star Fields and The Bubble are as original in their way as the work of Mr. Nichols, though inferior in beauty of expression. Mr. Weaving was invalided home in 1915, and his first book has an introduction by Robert Bridges. In The Bubble (1917) there are many poems so deeply meditative that their full force does not reach one until after repeated readings. He has also a particular talent for the last line.
Thou lover of fire, how cold is it in the grave?
Would I could bring thee fuel and light thee a fire as of old!
Alas! how I think of thee there, shivering out in the cold,
Till my own bright fire lacketh the heat which it gave!
Oh, would I could see thee again, as in days gone by,
Sitting hands over the fire, or poking it to a bright blaze
And clearing the cloggy ash from the bars in thy careful ways!
Oh, art thou the more cold or here by the fire am I?
B. H. Blackwell, the Oxford publisher, seems to have made a good many “finds”; besides producing some of the work of Mr. Nichols and Mr. Weaving—both poets now have American publishers as well—the four volumes Oxford Verse, running from 1910 to 1917, contain many excellent things. And in addition to these, there are original adventures in the art of poetry, sometimes merely bizarre, but interesting as experiments, exhibited in the two volumes Wheels 1916, and Wheels 1917, and also in the books called Initiates: a Series of Poetry by Proved Hands.