CHAPTER X. SARA TEASDALE, ALAN SEEGER, AND OTHERS
Sara Teasdale—her poems of love—her youth—her finished
art—Fannie Stearns Davis—her thoughtful verse—Theodosia
Garrison—her war poem—war poetry of Mary Carolyn
Davies—Harriet Monroe—her services—her original work—Alice
Corbin—her philosophy—Sarah Cleghorn—poet of the country
village—Jessie B. Rittenhouse—critic and poet—Margaret
Widdemer—poet of the factories—Carl Sandburg—poet of
Chicago—his career—his defects—J. C. Underwood—poet of
city noises—T. S. Eliot—J. G. Neihardt—love poems—C. W.
Stork—Contemporary Verse—M. L. Fisher—The
Sonnet—S. Middleton—J. P. Bishop—W. A. Bradley—nature
poems—W. Griffith—City Pastorals—John Erskine—W. E.
Leonard—W. T. Whitsett—Helen Hay Whitney—Corinne Roosevelt
Robinson—M. Nicholson—his left hand—Witter Bynner—a
country poet—H. Hagedorn—Percy Mackaye—his theories—his
possibilities—J. G. Fletcher—monotony of free verse—Conrad
Aiken—his gift of melody—W. A. Percy—the best American poem
of 1917—Alan Seeger—an Elizabethan—an inspired poet.
Sara Teasdale (Mrs. Filsinger) was born at St. Louis (pronounced Lewis), on the eighth of August, 1884. Her first book appeared when she was twenty-three, and made an impression. In 1911 she publishedHelen of Troy, and Other Poems; in 1915 a volume of original lyrics called Rivers to the Sea; some of these were reprinted, together with new material, in Love Poems (1917), which also contained Songs out of Sorrow—verses that won the prize offered by the Poetry Society of America for the best unpublished work read at the meetings in 1916; and in 1918 she received the Columbia University Poetry Prize of five hundred dollars, for the best book produced by an American in 1917.
In spite of her youth and the slender amount of her production, Sara Teasdale has won her way to the front rank of living American poets. She is among the happy few who not only know what they wish to accomplish, but who succeed in the attempt. How many manuscripts she burns, I know not; but the comparatively small number of pages that reach the world are nearly fleckless. Her career is beginning, but her work shows a combination of strength and grace that many a master might envy. It would be an insult to call her poems “promising,” for most of them exhibit a consummate control of the art of lyrical expression. Give her more years, more experience, wider range, richer content, her architecture may become as massive as it is fine. She thoroughly understands the manipulation of the material of poetry. It would be difficult to suggest any improvement upon
The stately tragedy of dusk
Drew to its perfect close,
The virginal white evening star
Sank, and the red moon rose.
Although she gives us many beautiful pictures of nature, she is primarily a poet of love. White-hot passion without a trace of anything common or unclean; absolute surrender; whole-hearted devotion expressed in pure singing. Nothing is finer than this—to realize that the primal impulse is as strong as in the breast of a cave-woman, yet illumined by clear, high intelligence, and pouring out its feeling in a voice of gracious charm.
They never saw my lover's face,
They only know our love was brief,
Wearing awhile a windy grace
And passing like an autumn leaf.
They wonder why I do not weep,
They think it strange that I can sing,
They say, “Her love was scarcely deep
Since it has left so slight a sting.”
They never saw my love nor knew
That in my heart's most secret place
I pity them as angels do
Men who have never seen God's face.
Until I lose my soul and lie
Blind to the beauty of the earth,
Deaf tho' a lyric wind goes by,
Dumb in a storm of mirth;
Until my heart is quenched at length
And I have left the land of men,
Oh, let me love with all my strength
Careless if I am loved again.
If the two pieces just cited are not poetry, then I have no idea what poetry may be.
Another young woman poet is Fannie Stearns Davis (Mrs. Grifford). The quality of her mind as displayed in her two books indicates possibilities of high development. She was born at Cleveland, on the sixth of March, 1884, is a graduate of Smith College, was a teacher in Wisconsin, and has made many contributions to various magazines. Her first book of poems, Myself and I, appeared in 1913; two years later came the volume called Crack o' Dawn. She is not much given to metrical adventure, although one of her most original poems, As I Drank Tea Today, has an irregular rime-scheme. For the most part, she follows both in subject and style the poetic tradition. She has the gift of song—not indeed in the superlative degree—but nevertheless unmistakable; and she has a full mind. She is neither optimist nor pessimist; I should call her a sympathetic observer. The following poem sums up fairly well her accumulated wisdom:
I have looked into all men's hearts.
Like houses at night unshuttered they stand,
And I walk in the street, in the dark, and on either hand
There are hollow houses, men's hearts.
They think that the curtains are drawn,
Yet I see their shadows suddenly kneel
To pray, or laughing and reckless as drunkards reel
Into dead sleep till dawn.
And I see an immortal child
With its quaint high dreams and wondering eyes
Sleeping beneath the hard worn body that lies
Like a mummy-case defiled.
And I hear an immortal cry
Of splendour strain through the sodden words,
Like a flight of brave-winged heaven-desirous birds
From a swamp where poisons lie.
—I have looked into all men's hearts.
Oh, secret terrible houses of beauty and pain!
And I cannot be gay, but I cannot be bitter again,
Since I looked into all men's hearts.
There is one commandment that all poets under the first class, and perhaps some of those favoured ones, frequently break: the tenth. One cannot blame them, for they know what poetry is, and they love it. They not only know what it is, but their own limited experience has taught them what rapture it must be to write lines of flawless beauty. This unconquerable covetousness is admirably and artistically expressed in Fannie Davis's poem, After Copying Goodly Poetry. It is an honest confession; but its author is fortunate in being able to express vain desire so beautifully that many lesser poets will covet her covetousness.
Theodosia Garrison was born at Newark, New Jersey, on the twenty-sixth of November, 1874. She has published three volumes of verse, of which perhaps the best known is The Joy of Life (1909). At present she is engaged in war work, where her high faith, serene womanliness, and overflowing humour ought to make her, in the finest sense of the word, efficient. Her short poem on the war is a good answer to detractors of America.
We have been patient—and they named us weak;
We have been silent—and they judged us meek,
Now, in the much-abused, high name of God
Oh, not with faltering or uncertain tone—
With chosen words we make our meaning known,
That like a great wind from the West shall shake
The double throne.
Our colours flame upon the topmost mast,—
We lift the glove so arrogantly cast,
And in the much-abused, high name of God
We speak at last.
Another war alchemist is Mary Carolyn Davies, poet of Oregon and Brooklyn. She knows both coasts of America, she understands the American spirit of idealism and self-sacrifice, and her verses have a direct hitting power that will break open the hardest heart. In her book, The Drums in Our Street (1918), the glory and the tragedy of the world-struggle are expressed in terms of individual feeling. There is decided inequality in this volume, but the best pieces are so carefully distributed among the commonplace that one must read the whole work.
Harriet Monroe was born in Chicago and went to school in Georgetown, D. C. In connection with the World's Exposition in Chicago she received the honour of being formally invited to write a poem for the dedication. Accordingly at the ceremony commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, 21 October, 1892, her Columbian Ode was given with music.
Harriet Monroe's chief services to the art of poetry are seen not so much in her creative work as in her founding and editing of the magazine called Poetry, of which I made mention in my remarks on Vachel Lindsay. In addition to this monthly stimulation—which has proved of distinct value both in awakening general interest and in giving new poets an opportunity to be heard, Miss Monroe, with the assistance of Alice Corbin Henderson, published in 1917 an anthology of the new varieties of verse. Certain poets are somewhat arbitrarily excluded, although their names are mentioned in the Preface; the title of the book is The New Poetry; the authors are fairly represented, and with some sins of commission the selections from each are made with critical judgment. Every student of contemporary verse should own a copy of this work.
In 1914 Miss Monroe produced a volume of her original poems, called You and I. There are over two hundred pages, and those who look in them for something strange and startling will be disappointed. Knowing the author's sympathy with radicalism in art, and with all modern extremists, the form of these verses is surprisingly conservative. To be sure, the first one, The Hotel, is in a kind of polyphonic prose, but it is not at all a fair sample of the contents. Now whether the reading of many manuscripts has dulled Miss Monroe's creative power or not, who can say? The fact is that most of these poems are in no way remarkable either for feeling or expression and many of them fail to rise above the level of the commonplace. There is happily no straining for effect; but unhappily in most instances there is no effect.
Alice Corbin (Mrs. Henderson) is a native of Virginia and a resident of Chicago. She is co-editor with Miss Monroe of The New Poetry anthology, wherein her own poems are represented. These indicate skill in the manipulation of different metrical forms; and they reveal as well a shrewd, healthy acceptance of life as it is. This feeling communicates itself in a charming way to the reader; it is too vigorous for acquiescence, too wise for blind optimism, but nearer optimism than pessimism. It seems perhaps in certain aspects to resemble the philosophy of Ralph Hodgson, although his command of the art of poetry is beyond her range.
Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn was born at Norfolk, Virginia, on the fourth of February, 1876, but since childhood has lived in Vermont. She studied at Radcliffe College, and has written much verse and prose. In 1915 a number of her lyrics were printed between the short stories in a volume by her friend, Dorothy Canfield, called Hillsboro People. In 1917 she published a book of verses, Portraits and Protests, where the portraits are better than the protests. No one has more truly or more sympathetically expressed the spirit of George Herbert's poetry than Miss Cleghorn has given it with a handful of words, in the lyric In Bemerton Church. But she is above all a country mouse and a country muse; she knows her Vermont neighbours to the skin and bone, and brings out artistically the austere sweetness of their daily lives. I think I like best of all her work the poem
A SAINT'S HOURS
In the still cold before the sun,
Her matins Her brothers and her sisters small
She woke, and washed and dressed each one.
And through the morning hours all
Prime Singing above her broom she stood
And swept the house from hall to hall.
Then out she ran with tidings good,
Tierce Across the field and down the lane,
To share them with the neighbourhood.
Four miles she walked, and home again,
Sexts To sit through half the afternoon
And hear a feeble crone complain.
But when she saw the frosty moon
Nones And lakes of shadow on the hill,
Her maiden dreams grew bright as noon.
She threw her pitying apron frill
Vespers Over a little trembling mouse
When the sleek cat yawned on the sill
In the late hours and drowsy house.
Evensong At last, too tired, beside her bed
She fell asleep—her prayers half said.
Is not this one of the high functions of poetry, to interpret the life the poet knows best, and to interpret it always in terms of the eleventh and twelfth commandments? Observe she loves the sister-mother, and she loves the mouse as well as the cat. There is no reason why those who love birds should not love cats as well; is a cat the only animal who eats birds? It is a diverting spectacle, a man with his mouth full of squab, insisting that cats should be exterminated.
A woman who has done much for the advance of English poetry in America by her influence on public critical opinion, is Jessie B. Rittenhouse. She is a graduate of Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, New York, taught Latin and English in Illinois and in Michigan, and for five years was busily engaged in journalism. In 1904 she published a volume of criticism on contemporary verse, and for the last fourteen years has printed many essays of interpretation, dealing with the new poets. I dare say no one in America is more familiar with the English poetry of the twentieth century than she. She has been so occupied with this important and fruitful work that she has had little time to compose original verse; but any one who will read through her volume, The Door of Dreams, will find it impossible not to admire her lyrical gift. She has not yet shown enough sustained power to give her a place with Anna Hempstead Branch or with Sara Teasdale; but she has the capacity of putting much feeling into very few words.
Margaret Widdemer, the daughter of a clergyman, was born at Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and was graduated from Drexel Institute Library School in 1909. She has written verse and prose from early childhood, but was not widely known until the appearance of her poem Factories. In 1915 this was published in a book with other pieces, and a revised, enlarged edition was printed in 1917, called by the name of the now-famous song, and containing in addition nearly a hundred lyrics. Although her soul is aflame at the omnipresence of injustice in the world, her work covers a wide range of thought and feeling. Her heart is swollen with pity for the sufferings of women; but she is no sentimentalist. There is an intellectual independence, a clear-headed womanly self-reliance about her way of thinking and writing that is both refreshing and stimulating. In hope and in despair she speaks for the many thousands of women, who first found their voice in Ibsen's Doll's House; her poem, The Modern Woman to Her Lover has a cleanly honesty without any strained pose. And although Factories is doubtless her masterpiece in its eloquent Inasmuch as ye did it not, she can portray a more quiet and more lonely tragedy as well. Her poem called The Two Dyings might have been named The Heart Knoweth its own Bitterness.
I can remember once, ere I was dead,
The sorrow and the prayer and bitter cry
When they who loved me stood around the bed,
Watching till I should die:
They need not so have grieved their souls for me,
Grouped statue-like to count my failing breath—
Only one thought strove faintly, bitterly
With the kind drug of Death:
How once upon a time, unwept, unknown,
Unhelped by pitying sigh or murmured prayer,
My youth died in slow agony alone
With none to watch or care.
Never in any period of the world's history was the table of life so richly spread as in the years 1900-1914; women were just beginning to realize that places ought to be reserved for them as well as for men, when the war came, and there was no place for any one except a place to fight the Black Plague of Kaiserism; now when the war is over, suppose the women insist? What then? Before the French Revolution, only a few were invited to sit down and eat, while the majority were permitted to kneel and watch from a distance. A Frenchman once remarked, “The great appear to us great because we are kneeling—let us rise.” They rose, and out of the turmoil came an enormous enlargement of the dining-hall.
Carl Sandburg sings of Chicago with husky-haughty lips. I like Chicago and I like poetry; but I do not much care for the combination as illustrated in Mr. Sandburg's volume, Chicago Poems. I think it has been overrated. It is pretentious rather than important. It is the raw material of poetry, rather than the finished product. Mere passion and imagination are not enough to make a poet, even when accompanied by indignation. If feeling and appreciation could produce poetry, then we should all be poets. But it is also necessary to know how to write.
Carl Sandburg was born at Galesburg, Illinois, on the sixth of January, 1878. He has “worked his own way” through life with courage and ambition, performing any kind of respectable indoor and outdoor toil that would keep him alive. In the Spanish war, he immediately enlisted, and belonged to the first military company that went to Porto Rico. In 1898 he entered Lombard College; after his Freshman year, he tried to enter West Point, succeeding in every test—physical and mental—except that of arithmetic; there he has my hearty sympathy, for in arithmetic I was always slow but not sure. He returned to Lombard, and took the regular course for the next three years, paying his way by hard work. His literary ambition had already been awakened, and he attained distinction among his mates. Since graduation he has had constant and varied experience in journalism. For a group of poems, of which the first was Chicago, he was awarded the Levinson prize as the best poem by an American that had appeared in Poetry during the year October 1913-October 1914. In 1916 appeared a substantial volume from his pen, called Chicago Poems.
His work gives one the impression of being chaotic in form and content. Miss Lowell quotes him as saying, “I don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way.” According to G. K. Chesterton, this attitude was characteristic of modern life in general before the war. We don't know where we're going,—but let's put on more speed. Perhaps the other extreme, so characteristic of our southern African friends, is no better, yet it has a charm absent in the strenuosity of mere eagerness. A Southern negro, being asked whither he was going, replied “I aint goin' nowhar: Ise been done gone whar I was goin'!” It would appear that there is sufficient room between these extremes for individual and social progress.
In manner Mr. Sandburg is closer to Walt Whitman than almost any other of our contemporary poets. I do not call him an imitator, and certainly he is no plagiarist; but I like that part of his work which is farthest removed from the manner of the man of Camden. Walt Whitman was a genius; and whilst it is quite possible and at times desirable to imitate his freedom in composition, it is not possible to catch the secret of his power. It would be an ungracious task to quote Mr. Sandburg at his worst; we are all pretty bad at our worst, whether we are poets or not; I prefer to cite one of his poems which proves to me that he is not only an original writer, but that he possesses a perceptive power of beauty that transforms the commonplace into something of poignant charm, like the song of the nightingale:
Desolate and lone
All night long on the lake
Where fog trails and mist creeps,
The whistle of a boat
Calls and cries unendingly,
Like some lost child
In tears and trouble
Hunting the harbour's breast
And the harbour's eyes.
He has a notable gift for effective poetic figures of speech; in his Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard, an old pond in the moonlight is a “wide dreaming pansy.” This and other pieces show true power of poetic interpretation; which makes me believe that the author ought to and will greatly surpass the average excellence exhibited in Chicago Poems.
John Curtis Underwood is not only a dynamic, but an insurgent poet and critic. He has published four volumes of poems, The Iron Muse (1910), Americans (1912), Processionals (1915), and War Flames(1917). The roar of city streets and the deafening pounding of machinery resound through his pages; yet he somehow or other makes a singing voice heard amid the din. In fact he uses the din as an accompaniment; he is a kind of vocal Tubal Cain. He writes about strap-hangers, chorus girls, moving pictures, convicts, hospitals, bridge-builders and construction gangs—a symphony of noise, where everybody plays some instrument. He is no pessimist and he is not sour; there are a good many “damns” and “hells” in his verse, because, whatever he lacks, he does not lack emphasis. His philosophy seems to be similar to that of the last two stanzas of In Memoriam, though Mr. Underwood expresses it somewhat more concretely.
Leading the long procession through the midnight,
Man that was ether, fire, sea, germ and ape,
Out of the aeons blind of slime emerging,
Out of the aeons black where ill went groping,
Finding the fire, was fused to human shape.
Heading the dreary marches through dark ages;
Where the rest perished that the rest might be,
Out of the aeons raw and red of bloodshed,
Man that was caveman, found the stars. Forever
Man to the stars goes marching from the sea.
His poem Central, in which the telephone girl's work is interpreted, is as typical as any of Mr. Underwood's style; and no one, I think, can fail to see the merit in his method.
Though men may build their bridges high and plant their piers
below the sea,
And drive their trains across the sky; a higher task is left to
I bridge the void 'twixt soul and soul; I bring the longing
I draw you to your spirit's goal. I serve the ends of fraud
The older fates sat in the sun. The cords they spun were
short and slight.
I set my stitches one by one, where life electric fetters night,
Till it outstrips the planet's speed, and out of darkness leaps
And men in Maine shall hear and heed a voice from San
There is such a display of cynical cleverness in the verse of T. S. Eliot that I think he might be able to write almost anything except poetry. He has an aggressive champion in the distinguished novelist, May Sinclair, who says his best work is equal to the best of Robert Browning.
John G. Neihardt was born in Illinois on the eighth of January, 1881. From 1901 to 1907 he lived among the Nebraska Indians, studying their folklore and characteristics. He has published a number of books, of which the best is perhaps A Bundle of Myrrh, 1907. In 1915 he produced an epic of the American Fur Trade, preparing himself for the task as follows: “I descended the Missouri in an open boat, and also ascended the Yellowstone for a considerable distance. On the upper river the country was practically unchanged; and for one familiar with what had taken place there, it was no difficult feat of the imagination to revive the details of that time—the men, the trails, the boats, the trading posts where veritable satraps once ruled under the sway of the American Fur Company.”
I heartily envy him these experiences; to me every river is an adventure, even the quiet, serious old Connecticut.
Yet the poem that resulted from these visions is not remarkable. Nothing, I suppose, is more difficult than to write a good long poem. Poe disapproved of the undertaking in itself; and only men of undoubted genius have succeeded, whereas writers of hardly more than ordinary talent have occasionally turned off something combining brevity and excellence. I feel sure that Mr. Neihardt talks about this journey more impressively than he writes about it. His love lyrics, in A Bundle of Myrrh, are much better. The tendency to eroticism is redeemed by sincerity of feeling.
Charles Wharton Stork was born at Philadelphia, on the twelfth of February, 1881, and studied at Haverford, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a scholar, a member of the English Faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, and has made many translations of Scandinavian poems. Always interested in modern developments of poetry, both in America and Europe, he is at present the editor ofContemporary Verse, a monthly magazine exclusively made up of original poems. This periodical has been of considerable assistance to students of contemporary poetry, for it has given an opportunity to hitherto unknown writers, and often it contains some notable contribution from men of established reputation. Thus the number for April, 1918, may some day have bibliographical value, since it leads off with a remarkable poem by Vachel Lindsay, The Eyes of Queen Esther. I advise collectors to secure this, and to subscribe to the magazine. Mr. Stork has written much verse himself, of which Flying Fish: an Ode, may be taken as illustrative of his originality and imagination.
Another excellent magazine of contemporary poetry is The Sonnet, edited and published by Mahlon Leonard Fisher, at Williamsport, Pennsylvania, of which the first number bears the date February, 1917. This appears bimonthly; and while the attempt to publish any magazine whatever displays courage, Mr. Fisher is apparently on the side of the conservatives in art. “We have attempted no propagandism, and acknowledged no revolution,” is the sentence that forms the signature to his periodical. Furthermore, we are informed that “the sole aim of The Sonnet is to publish poetry so well thought of by its makers that they were willing to place it within strict confines. The magazine will have nothing to say in defence of its name. It will neither attack nor respond to attacks.” It has certainly printed some good sonnets, among which are many by the editor. In 1917 appeared a beautiful little volume, limited to two hundred copies, and published by the author— Sonnets: a First Series. Fifty specimens are included, all written by Mr. Fisher. More than a few have grace and truth.
A new aspirant appeared in 1917 with his first volume, Streets and Faces. This is Scudder Middleton, brother of George Middleton, the dramatist. He was born at New York, on the ninth of September, 1888, and studied at Columbia. His little book of poetry contains nothing profound, yet there is evidence of undoubted talent which gives me hope. The best poem of his that I have seen was published inContemporary Verse in 1917, and makes a fine recessional to Mr. Braithwaite's Anthology.
We need you now, strong guardians of our hearts,
Now, when a darkness lies on sea and land,
When we of weakening faith forget our parts
And bow before the falling of the sand.
Be with us now or we betray our trust
And say, “There is no wisdom but in death”—
Remembering lovely eyes now closed with dust—
“There is no beauty that outlasts the breath.”
For we are growing blind and cannot see,
Beyond the clouds that stand like prison bars,
The changeless regions of our empery,
Where once we moved in friendship with the stars.
O children of the light, now in our grief
Give us again the solace of belief.
A young Princeton student, John Peale Bishop, First Lieutenant of Infantry in the Officers Reserve Corps, who studied the art of verse under the instruction of Alfred Noyes, published in 1917 a little book of original poems, with the modest title, Green Fruit. These were mostly written during his last undergraduate year at college, and would not perhaps have been printed now had he not entered the service. The subjects range from the Princeton Inn to Italy. Mr. Bishop is a clear-voiced singer, and there are original songs here, which owe nothing to other poets. Such a poem as Mushrooms is convincing proof of ability; and there is an excellent spirit in him.
William Aspenwall Bradley was born at Hartford, Connecticut, on the eighth of February, 1878. He was a special student at Harvard, and took his bachelor's and master's degrees at Columbia. He is now in the Government War Service. He wrote an admirable Life of Bryant in the English Men of Letters series, and has made many scholarly contributions to the literature of criticism. He has issued two volumes of original verse, of which perhaps the better known is Old Christmas, 1917. This is composed of tales of the Cumberland region in Kentucky. These poem-stories are not only full of dramatic power, comic and tragic, but they contain striking portraits. I think, however, that I like best Mr. Bradley's nature-pictures. The pleasure of recognition will be felt by everyone who reads the first few lines of
Now shorter grow November days,
And leaden ponds begin to glaze
With their first ice, while every night
The hoarfrost leaves the meadows white
Like wimples spread upon the lawn
By maidens who are up at dawn,
And sparkling diamonds may be seen
Strewing the close-clipped golfing green.
But the slow sun dispels at noon
The season's work begun too soon,
Bidding faint filmy mists arise
And fold in softest draperies
The distant woodlands bleak and bare,
Until they seem to melt in air.
William Griffiths was born at Memphis, Missouri, on the fifteenth of February 1876, and received his education at the public schools. He has been a “newspaper man” and magazine editor, and has produced a number of books in verse and prose, of which the best example is City Pastorals, originally published in 1915, revised and reissued in 1918. The title of this book appears to be a paradox; but its significance is clear enough after one has read a few pages. It is an original and interesting way of bringing the breath of the country into the town. The scene is a New York Club on a side street; the year is 1914; the three speakers are Brown, Gray, Green; the four divisions are Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. The style is for the most part rimed stanzas in short metre, which go trippingly on the tongue. Grace and delicacy characterize the pictures of the country that the men bring back to the smoky city from their travels.
Occultly through a riven cloud
The ancient river shines again,
Still wandering like a silver road
Among the cities in the plain.
On far horizons softly lean
The hills against the coming night;
And mantled with a russet green,
The orchards gather into sight.
Through apples hanging high and low,
In ruddy colours, deeply spread
From core to rind, the sun melts slow,
With gold upcaught against the red.
And here and there, with sighs and calls,
Among the hills an echo rings
Remotely as the water falls
And down the meadow softly sings.
A wind goes by; the air is stirred
With secret whispers far and near;
Another token—just a word
Had made the rose's meaning clear.
I see the fields; I catch the scent
Of pine cones and the fresh split wood,
Where bearded moss and stains are blent
With autumn rains—and all is good.
An air, arising, turns and lifts
The fallen leaves where they had lain
Beneath the trees, then weakly shifts
And slowly settles back again.
While with far shouts, now homeward bound,
Across the fields the reapers go;
And, with the darkness closing round,
The lilies of the twilight blow.
Many of the other poems in this volume, that follow the City Pastorals, are interpretations of various individuals and of various nationalities. Mr. Griffith has a gift for the making of epigrams; and indeed he has studied concision in all his work. It may be that this is a result of his long years of training in journalism; he must have silently implored the writers of manuscripts he was forced to read to leave their damnable faces and begin. Certain it is, that although he can write smoothly flowing music, there is hardly a page in his whole book that does not contain some idea worth thinking about. His wine of Cyprus has both body and bouquet.
Three professional teachers of youth who write poetry as an avocation are John Erskine, professor at Columbia, whose poems bear the impress of an original and powerful personality, William Ellery Leonard, professor in the University of Wisconsin, the author of a number of volumes of poems, some of which show originality in conception and style, and William Thornton Whitsett, of Whitsett Institute, Whitsett, North Carolina, whose book Saber and Song (1917), exhibits such variations in merit that if one read only a few pages one might be completely deceived as to the author's actual ability. His besetting sin as an artist is moralizing. Fully half the contents of the volume are uninspired, commonplace, flat. But when he forgets to preach, he can write true poetry. He has the lyrical gift to a high degree, and has a rather remarkable command of the technique of the art. An Ode to Expression, The Soul of the Sea, and some of the Sonnets, fully justify their publication. The author is rather too fond of the old “poetic diction”; he might do well to study simplicity.
A poet who differs from the two last mentioned in her ability to maintain a certain level of excellence is Helen Hay Whitney. She perhaps inherited her almost infallible good taste and literary tact from her distinguished father, that wholly admirable person, John Hay. His greatness as an international statesman was matched by the extraordinary charm of his character, which expressed itself in everything he wrote, and in numberless acts of kindness. He was the ideal American gentleman. One feels in reading the poems of Mrs. Whitney that each one is written both creatively and critically. I mean that she has the primal impulse to write, but that in writing, and more especially in revising, every line is submitted to her own severe scrutiny. I am not sure that she has not destroyed some of her best work, though this is of course only conjecture. At all events, while she makes no mistakes, I sometimes feel that there is too much repression. She is one of our best American sonnet-writers. Such a poem as After Rain is a work of art.
Corinne Roosevelt Robinson (Mrs. Douglas Robinson, sister of Theodore Roosevelt) has published two volumes of poems, The Call of Brotherhood, 1912, and One Woman to Another, 1914. I hope that she will speedily collect in a third book the fugitive pieces printed in various magazines since 1914. Mrs. Robinson's poetry comes from a full mind and a full heart. There is the knowledge born of experience combined with spiritual revelation. She is an excellent illustration of the possibility of living to the uttermost in the crowded avenues of the world without any loss of religious or moral values. It must take a strong nature to absorb so much of the strenuous activities of metropolitan society while keeping the heart's sources as clear as a mountain spring. It is the exact opposite of asceticism, yet seems not to lose anything important gained by the ascetic vocation. She does not serve God and Mammon: she serves God, and makes Mammon serve her. This complete roundness and richness of development could not have been accomplished except through pain. She expresses grief's contribution in the following sonnet:
Beloved, from the hour that you were born
I loved you with the love whose birth is pain;
And now, that I have lost you, I must mourn
With mortal anguish, born of love again;
And so I know that Love and Pain are one,
Yet not one single joy would I forego.—
The very radiance of the tropic sun
Makes the dark night but darker here below.
Mine is no coward soul to count the cost;
The coin of love with lavish hand I spend,
And though the sunlight of my life is lost
And I must walk in shadow to the end,—
I gladly press the cross against my heart—
And welcome Pain, that is Love's counterpart!
Meredith Nicholson, the American novelist, like Mr. Galsworthy, Mr. Phillpotts and many other novelists in England, has published a volume of original verse, Poems, 1906. It is possibly a sign of the growing interest in poetry that so many who have won distinction in prose should in these latter days strive for the laurel crown. Mr. Nicholson's poems are a kind of riming journal of his heart. It is clear that he is not a born poet, for the flame of inspiration is not in these pages, nor do we find the perfect phrase or ravishing music; what we do have is well worth preservation in print—the manly, dignified, imaginative speculations of a clear and honest mind. Furthermore, although he writes verse with his left hand, there is displayed in many of these pieces a mastery of the exact meaning of words, attained possibly by his long years of training in the other harmony of prose.
Witter Bynner—the spelling of whose name I defy any one to remember, and envelopes addressed to him must be a collection of curiosities—was born at Brooklyn on the tenth of August, 1881. He was graduated from Harvard in 1902, and addressed his Alma Mater in an Ode To Harvard, published in book form in 1907. In 1917 he collected in one attractive volume, Grenstone Poems, the best of his production—exclusive of his plays and prose—up to that date. One who knew Mr. Bynner only by the terrific white slave drama Tiger, would be quite unprepared for the sylvan sweetness of the Grenstone poems. Their environment, mainly rural, does not localize the sentiment overmuch; for the poet's mind is a kingdom, even though he is bounded in a nutshell. The environment, however, may be partly responsible for the spirit of healthy cheerfulness that animates these verses; whatever they lack, they certainly do not lack purity and charm. Far from the madding crowd the singer finds contentment, which is the keynote of these songs; happiness built on firm indestructible foundations. Some of the divisional titles indicate the range of subjects: Neighbors and the Countryside, Children and Death, Wisdom and Unwisdom, Celia, Away from Grenstone, where homesickness is expressed while travelling in the Far East. And the tone is clearly sounded in
A GRACE BEFORE THE POEMS
“Is there such a place as Grenstone?”
Celia, hear them ask!
Tell me, shall we share it with them?—
Shall we let them breathe and bask
On the windy, sunny pasture,
Where the hill-top turns its face
Toward the valley of the mountain,
Our beloved place?
Shall we show them through our churchyard,
With its crumbling wall
Set between the dead and living?
Shall our willowed waterfall,
Huckleberries, pines and bluebirds
Be a secret we shall share?—
If they make but little of it,
Celia, shall we care?
It will be seen that the independence of Mr. Bynner is quite different from the independence of Mr. Underwood; but they both have the secret of self-sufficiency.
Another loyal Harvard poet is Herman Hagedorn, who was born at New York in 1882, and took his degree at college in 1907. For some time he was on the English Faculty at Harvard, and has a scholar's knowledge of English literature. He has published plays and books of verse, of which the best known are A Troop of the Guard (1909) and Poems and Ballads, which appeared the same year. He has a good command of lyrical expression, which ought to enable him in the years to come to produce work of richer content than his verses have thus far shown.
The best known of the Harvard poets of the twentieth century is Percy Mackaye, who is still better known as a playwright and maker of pageants. He was born at New York, on the sixteenth of March, 1875, and was graduated from Harvard in 1897. He has travelled much in Europe, and has given many lectures on dramatic art in America. His poetry may be collectively studied in one volume of appalling avoirdupois, published in 1916. It takes a strong wrist to hold it, but it is worth the effort.
The chief difficulty with Mr. Mackaye is his inability to escape from his opinions. He is far too self-conscious, much too much preoccupied with theory, both in drama and in poetry. He can write nothing without explaining his motive, without trying to show himself and others the aim of poetry and drama. However morally noble all this may be—and it surely is that—it hampers the author. I wish he could for once completely forget all artistic propaganda, completely forget himself, and give his Muse a chance. “She needs no introduction to this audience.”
There is no doubt that he has something of the divine gift. His Centenary Ode on Lincoln, published separately in 1909, was the best out of all the immense number of effusions I read that year. He rose to a great occasion.
One of his most original pieces is the dog-vivisection poem, called The Heart in the Jar. There is a tumultuous passion in it almost overpowering; and no one but a true poet could ever have thought of or have employed such symbolism. Mr. Mackaye's mind is so alert, so inquisitive, so volcanic, that he seems to me always just about to produce something that shall surpass his previous efforts. I have certainly not lost faith in his future.
John Gould Fletcher was born at Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1886. He studied at Andover and at Harvard, and has lived much in London. He has become identified with the Imagists. Personally I wish that Mr. Fletcher would use his remarkable power to create gorgeous imagery in the production of orthodox forms of verse. Free verse ought to be less monotonous than constantly repeated sonnets, quatrains, and stanza-forms; but the fact is just the other way. A volume made up entirely of free verse, unless written by a man of genius, has a capacity to bore the reader that at times seems almost criminal.
Conrad Aiken was born at Savannah, Georgia, on the fifth of August, 1889, is a graduate of Harvard and lives in Boston. He has published several volumes of poems, among which Earth Triumphant (1914) is representative of his ability and philosophy. It certainly represents his ability more fairly than The Jig of Forslin (1916), which is both pretentious and dull. I suspect few persons have read every page of it. I have.
Not yet thirty, Mr. Aiken is widely known; but the duration of his fame will depend upon his future work. He has thus far shown the power to write melodious music, to paint nature pictures in warm colours; he is ever on the quest of Beauty. His sensible preface to Earth Triumphant calls attention to certain similarities between his style in verse-narrative and that of John Masefield. But he is not a copier, and his work is his own. Some poets are on the earth; some are in the air; some, like Shelley, are in the aether. Conrad Aiken is firmly, gladly on the earth. He believes that our only paradise is here and now.
He surely has the gift of singing speech, but his poetry lacks intellectual content. In the volume Nocturne of Remembered Spring (1917), there is a dreamy charm, like the hesitating notes of Chopin.
Although his contribution to the advance of poetry is not important, he has the equipment of a poet. When he has more to say, he will have no difficulty in making us listen; for he understands the magic of words. Thus far his poems are something like librettos; they don't mean much without the music. Let him remember the bitter cry of old Henry Vaughan: every artist, racked by labour-pains, will understand what Vaughan meant by calling this piece Anguish:
O! 'tis an easy thing
To write and sing;
But to write true, unfeigned verse
Is very hard! O God, disperse
These weights, and give my spirit leave
To act as well as to conceive
Among our young American poets there are few who have inherited in richer or purer measure than William Alexander Percy. He was born at Greenville, Mississippi, on the fourth of May, 1885, and studied at the University of the South and at the Harvard Law School. He is now in military service. In 1915, his volume of poems, Sappho in Leukas, attracted immediately the attention of discriminating critics. The prologue shows that noble devotion to art, that high faith in it, entirely beyond the understanding of the Philistine, but which awakens an instant and accurate vibration in the heart of every lover of poetry.
O singing heart, think not of aught save song;
Beauty can do no wrong.
Let but th' inviolable music shake
Golden on golden flake,
Down to the human throng,
And one, one surely, will look up, and hear and wake.
Weigh not the rapture; measure not nor sift
God's dark, delirious gift;
But deaf to immortality or gain,
Give as the shining rain,
Thy music pure and swift,
And here or there, sometime, somewhere, 'twill reach the grain.
There is a wide range of subjects in this volume, Greek, mediaeval, and modern—inspiration from, books and inspiration from outdoors. But there is not a single poem that could be called crude or flat. Mr. Percy is a poet and an artist; he can be ornate and he can be severe; but in both phases there is a dignity not always characteristic of contemporary verse. I do not prophesy—but I feel certain of this man.
One day in 1917, I clipped a nameless poem from a daily newspaper, and carried it in my pocketbook for months. Later I discovered that it was written by Mr. Percy, and had first appeared in The Bellman. I know of no poem by any American published in the year 1917 that for combined beauty of thought and beauty of expression is superior to this little masterpiece.
I heard a bird at break of day
Sing from the autumn trees
A song so mystical and calm,
So full of certainties,
No man, I think, could listen long
Except upon his knees.
Yet this was but a simple bird,
Alone, among dead trees.
Alan Seeger—whose heroic death glorified his youth—was born at New York on the twenty-second of June, 1888. He studied at Harvard; then lived in Paris, and no one has ever loved Paris more than he. He enlisted in the Foreign Legion of France at the outbreak of the war in 1914, and fell on the fourth of July, 1916. His letters show his mind and heart clearly.
He knew his poetry was good, and that it would not die with his body. In the last letter he wrote, we find these words: “I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems. Add the ode I sent you and the three sonnets to my last volume and you will have opera omnia quae existant.”
He wrote his autobiography in one of his last sonnets, paying poetic tribute to Philip Sidney—lover of woman, lover of battle, lover of art.
Sidney, in whom the heydey of romance
Came to its precious and most perfect flower,
Whether you tourneyed with victorious lance
Or brought sweet roundelays to Stella's bower,
I give myself some credit for the way
I have kept clean of what enslaves and lowers,
Shunned the ideals of our present day
And studied those that were esteemed in yours;
For, turning from the mob that buys Success
By sacrificing all life's better part,
Down the free roads of human happiness
I frolicked, poor of purse but light of heart,
And lived in strict devotion all along
To my three idols—Love and Arms and Song.
His most famous poem, I Have a Rendezvous with Death, is almost intolerably painful in its tragic beauty, in its contrast between the darkness of the unchanging shadow and the apple-blossoms of the sunny air—above all, because we read it after both Youth and Death have kept their word, and met at the place appointed.
He was an inspired poet. Poetry came from him as naturally as rain from clouds. His magnificent Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen in France has a nobility of phrase that matches the elevation of thought. Work like this cannot be forgotten.
Alan Seeger was an Elizabethan. He had a consuming passion for beauty—his only religion. He loved women and he loved war, like the gallant, picturesque old soldiers of fortune. There was no pose in all this; his was a brave, uncalculating, forthright nature, that gave everything he had and was, without a shade of fear or a shade of regret. He is one of the most fiery spirits of our time, and like Rupert Brooke, he will be thought of as immortally young.