CHAPTER VII. AMERICAN VETERANS AND FORERUNNERS
American Poetry in the eighteen-nineties—William Vaughn
Moody—his early death a serious loss to literature—George
Santayana—a master of the sonnet—Robert Underwood
Johnson—his moral idealism—Richard Burton—his healthy
optimism—his growth—Edwin Markham and his famous poem—Ella
Wheeler Wilcox—her additions to our language—Edmund Vance
Cooke—Edith M. Thomas—Henry van Dyke—George E.
Woodberry—his spiritual and ethereal quality—William Dudley
Foulke—translator of Petrarch—the late H. K. Vielé—his
whimsicality—Cale Young Rice—his prolific production—his
versatility—Josephine P. Peabody—Sursum Corda—her
child poems—Edwin Arlington Robinson—a forerunner of the
modern advance—his manliness and common sense—intellectual
To compel public recognition by a fresh volume of poems is becoming increasingly difficult. The country fields and the city streets are full of singing birds; and after a few more springs have awakened the earth, it may become as impossible to distinguish the note of a new imagist as the note of an individual robin. When the publishers advertise the initial appearance of a poet, we simply say Another! The versifiers and their friends who study them through a magnifying glass may ultimately force us to classify the songsters into wild poets, gamy poets, barnyard poets, poets that hunt and are hunted.
But in the last decade of the last century, poets other than migratory, poets who were winter residents, were sufficiently uncommon. Indeed the courage required to call oneself a poet was considerable.
Of the old leaders, Whitman, Whittier, and Holmes lived into the eighteen-nineties; and when, in 1894, the last leaf left the tree, we could not help wondering what the next Maytime would bring forth. Had William Vaughn Moody lived longer, it is probable that America would have had another major poet. He wrote verse to please himself, and plays in order that he might write more verse; but at the dawning of a great career, the veto of death ended both. As it is, much of his work will abide.
Indiana has the honour of his birth. He was born at Spencer, on the eighth of July, 1869. He was graduated at Harvard, and after teaching there, he became a member of the English Department of the University of Chicago. He died at Colorado Springs, on the seventeenth of October, 1910.
The quality of high seriousness, so dear to Matthew Arnold, was characteristic of everything that Mr. Moody gave to the public. At his best, there is a noble dignity, a pure serenity in his work, which make for immortality. This dignity is never assumed; it is not worn like an academic robe; it is an integral part of the poetry. An Ode in Time of Hesitation has already become a classic, both for its depth of moral feeling and for its sculptured style. Like so many other poets, Mr. Moody was an artist with pencil and brush as well as with the pen; his study of form shows in his language.
George Santayana was born at Madrid, on the sixteenth of December, 1863. His father was a Spaniard, and his mother an American. He was graduated from Harvard in 1886, and later became Professor of Philosophy, which position he resigned in 1912, because academic life had grown less and less congenial, although his resignation was a matter of sincere regret on the part of both his colleagues and his pupils. Latterly he has lived in France.
He is a professional philosopher but primarily a man of letters. His philosophy is interesting chiefly because the books that contain it are exquisitely written. He is an artist in prose and verse, and it seems unfortunate that his professorial activity—as in the case of A. E. Housman—choked his Muse. For art has this eternal advantage over learning. Nobody knows whether or not philosophical truth is really true; but Beauty is really beautiful.
In 1894 Mr. Santayana produced—in a tiny volume limited to four hundred and fifty copies on small paper—Sonnets and Other Poems; and in 1899 a less important book, Lucifer: a Theological Tragedy. No living American has written finer sonnets than our philosopher. In sincerity of feeling, in living language, and in melody they reach distinction.
A wall, a wall around my garden rear,
And hedge me in from the disconsolate hills;
Give me but one of all the mountain rills,
Enough of ocean in its voice I hear.
Come no profane insatiate mortal near
With the contagion of his passionate ills;
The smoke of battle all the valley fills,
Let the eternal sunlight greet me here.
This spot is sacred to the deeper soul
And to the piety that mocks no more.
In nature's inmost heart is no uproar,
None in this shrine; in peace the heavens roll,
In peace the slow tides pulse from shore to shore,
And ancient quiet broods from pole to pole.
O world, thou choosest not the better part!
It is not wisdom to be only wise,
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But it is wisdom to believe the heart.
Columbus found a world, and had no chart,
Save one that faith deciphered in the skies;
To trust the soul's invincible surmise
Was all his science and his only art.
Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
That lights the pathway but one step ahead
Across a void of mystery and dread.
Bid, then, the tender light of faith to shine
By which alone the mortal heart is led
Unto the thinking of the thought divine.
ON A VOLUME OF SCHOLASTIC
What chilly cloister or what lattice dim
Cast painted light upon this careful page?
What thought compulsive held the patient sage
Till sound of matin bell or evening hymn?
Did visions of the Heavenly Lover swim
Before his eyes in youth, or did stern rage
Against rash heresy keep green his age?
Had he seen God, to write so much of Him?
Gone is that irrecoverable mind
With all its phantoms, senseless to mankind
As a dream's trouble or the speech of birds.
The breath that stirred his lips he soon resigned
To windy chaos, and we only find
The garnered husks of his disused words.
Robert Underwood Johnson was born at Washington, on the twelfth of January, 1853, and took his bachelor's degree at Earlham College, in Indiana, at the age of eighteen. When twenty years old, he became a member of the editorial staff of the Century Magazine, and remained there exactly forty years. His first volume of poems, The Winter Hour, was published in 1891, since which time he has produced many others. Now he is his own publisher, and two attractive books “published by the author” appeared in 1917—Poems of War and Peace and Italian Rhapsody.
Mr. Johnson is a conservative, by which he would mean that as editor, publicist, and poet, he has tried to maintain the highest standards in art, politics, morality, and religion. Certainly his services to his country have been important; and many good causes that he advocated are now realities. There is no love lost between him and the “new” school in poetry, and possibly each fails to appreciate what is good in the other.
Moral idealism is the foundation of much of Mr. Johnson's verse; he has written many occasional poems, poems supporting good men and good works, and poems attacking the omnipresent and well-organized forces of evil. I am quite aware that in the eyes of many critics such praise as that damns him beyond hope of redemption; but the interesting fact is, that although he has toiled for righteousness all his life, he is a poet.
His poem, The Voice of Webster, although written years ago, is not only in harmony with contemporary historical judgment (1918) but has a Doric dignity worthy of the subject. There are not a few memorable lines:
Forgetful of the father in the son,
Men praised in Lincoln what they blamed in him.
Always the friend of small and oppressed nations, whose fate arouses in him an unquenchable indignation, he published in 1908 paraphrases from the leading poet of Servia. In view of what has happened during the last four years, the first sentence of the preface to these verses, written by Nikola Tesla, has a reinforced emphasis—“Hardly is there a nation which has met with a sadder fate than the Servian.” How curious today seems the individual or national pessimism that was so common before 1914! Why did we not realize how (comparatively) happy we were then? Hell then seems like paradise now. It is as though an athletic pessimist should lose both legs. Shall we learn anything from Edgar's wisdom?
O gods! Who is't can say “I am at the worst”?
I am worse than e'er I was.
Another poet, who has had a long and honourable career, is Richard Burton. He was born at Hartford, Connecticut, on the fourteenth of March, 1859, and was educated at Trinity and at Johns Hopkins, where he took the doctor's degree in Anglo-Saxon. For the last twenty years he has been Professor of English Literature at the University of Minnesota, and is one of the best teachers and lecturers in the country. He paradoxically found his voice in a volume of original poems called Dumb in June, which appeared in 1895. Since then he has published many books of verse and prose—plays, stories, essays, and lyrics.
He has shown steady development as a poet—Poems of Earth's Meaning (he has the habit of bad titles), which came out in 1917, is his high-water mark. I am glad that he reprinted in this volume the elegy on the death of Arthur Upson, written in 1910; there is not a false note in it.
The personality of Richard Burton shines clearly through his work; cheerful manliness and cheerful godliness. He knows more about human nature than many pretentious diagnosticians; and his gladness in living communicates itself to the reader. Occasionally, as in Spring Fantasies, there is a subtlety easy to miss on a first of careless reading. On the edge of sixty, this poet is doing his best singing and best thinking.
Sometimes an author who has been writing all his life will, under the flashlight of inspiration, reveal deep places by a few words formed into some phrase that burns its way into literature. This is the case with Edwin Markham (born 1852) who has produced many books, but seems destined to be remembered for The Man With the Hoe (1899). His other works are by no means negligible, but that one poem made the whole world kin. To a certain extent, the same may be said of Ella Wheeler Wilcox (born 1855). In spite of an excess of sentimentality, which is her besetting sin, she has written much excellent verse. Two sayings, however, will be remembered long after many of her contemporaries are forgotten:
Laugh and the world laughs with you,
Weep, and you weep alone.
Furthermore, in these days of world-tragedy, we all owe her a debt of gratitude for being the author of the phrase written many years ago:
No question is ever settled
Until it is settled right.
The legitimate successor to James Whitcomb Riley is Edmund Vance Cooke (born 1866). He has the same philosophy of cheerful kindliness, founded on a shrewd knowledge of human nature. Verse is his mother tongue; and occasionally he rises above fluency and ingenuity into the pure air of imagination.
Among America's living veterans should be named with respect Edith M. Thomas, who has been bravely singing for over thirty years. She was born in Ohio on the twelfth of August, 1854 and her first book of poems appeared in 1885. She is an excellent illustration of just how far talent can go unaccompanied by the divine breath of inspiration. She has perhaps almost too much facility; she has dignity, good taste, an excellent command of a wide variety of metrical effects; she has read ancient and modern authors, she is a keen observer, she is as alert and inquisitive now, as in the days of her youth; and loves to use her abilities in cultivating the fruits of the spirit. I suspect that with the modesty that so frequently accompanies good taste, she understands her own limitations better than any critic could do.
Her long faithfulness to the Muse ought to be remembered, now that poetry has come into its kingdom.
Among our veteran poets should be numbered also Henry Van Dyke (born 1852). His versatility is so remarkable that it has somewhat obscured his particular merit. His lyric Reliance is spiritually as well as artistically true:
Not to the swift, the race:
Not to the strong, the fight:
Not to the righteous, perfect grace:
Not to the wise, the light.
But often faltering feet
Come surest to the goal;
And they who walk in darkness meet
The sunrise of the soul.
A thousand times by night
The Syrian hosts have died;
A thousand times the vanquished right
Hath risen, glorified.
The truth by wise men sought
Was spoken by a child;
The alabaster box was brought
In trembling hands defiled.
Not from the torch, the gleam,
But from the stars above:
Not from my heart, life's crystal stream,
But from the depths of love.
George E. Woodberry (born 1855), graduate of Harvard, a scholar, literary biographer, and critic of high standing, has been eminent among contemporary American poets since the year 1890, when appeared his book of verse, The North Shore Watch. In 1917 an interesting and valuable Study of his poetry appeared, written by Louis V. Ledoux, and accompanied by a carefully minute bibliography. I do not mean to say anything unpleasant about Mr. Woodberry or the public, when I say that his poetry is too fine for popularity. It is not the raw material of poetry, like that of Carl Sandburg, yet it is not exactly the finished product that passes by the common name. It is rather the essence of poetry, the spirit of poetry, a clear flame—almost impalpable. “You may not be worthy to smoke the Arcadia mixture,” well—we may not be worthy to read all that Mr. Woodberry Writes. And I am convinced that it is not his fault. His poems of nature and his poems of love speak out of the spirit. He not only never “writes down" to the public, it seems almost as if he intended his verse to be read by some race superior to the present stage of human development.
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
William Dudley Foulke may fairly be classed with the Indiana group. He was born at New York in 1848, but has lived in Indiana since 1876. He has been conspicuous in much political and social service, but the soul of the man is found in his books of verse, most of which have been first printed in England. He is a lifelong student of Petrarch, and has made many excellent translations. His best independent work may be found in a group of poems properly called Ad Patriam. I think such a sonnet as The City's Crown is fairly representative:
What makes a city great? Huge piles of stone
Heaped heavenward? Vast multitudes who dwell
Within wide circling walls? Palace and throne
And riches past the count of man to tell,
And wide domain? Nay, these the empty husk!
True glory dwells where glorious deeds are done,
Where great men rise whose names athwart the dusk
Of misty centuries gleam like the sun!
In Athens, Sparta, Florence, 'twas the soul
That was the city's bright, immortal part,
The splendour of the spirit was their goal,
Their jewel, the unconquerable heart!
So may the city that I love be great
Till every stone shall he articulate.
The early death of Herman Knickerbocker Vielé robbed America not only of one of her most brilliant novelists, but of a poet of fine flavour. In 1903 he published a tall, thin book, Random Verse, that has something of the charm and beauty of The Inn of the Silver Moon. In everything that he wrote, Mr. Vielé revealed a winsome whimsicality, and a lightness of touch impossible except to true artists. It should also be remembered to his credit that he loved France with an ardour not so frequently expressed then as now. Indeed, he loved her so much that the last four years of agony might have come near to breaking his heart. He was one of the finest spirits of the twentieth century.
Cale Young Rice was born in Kentucky, on the seventh of December, 1872. He is a graduate of Cumberland University and of Harvard, and his wife is the famous creator of Mrs. Wiggs. He has been a prolific poet, having produced many dramas and lyrics, which were collected in two stout volumes in 1915. In 1917 appeared two new works, Trails Sunward and Wraiths and Realities, with interesting prefaces, in which the anthologies of the “new” poetry, their makers, editors, and defenders, are heartily cudgelled. Mr. Rice is a conservative in art, and writes in the orthodox manner; although he is not afraid to make metrical experiments.
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.