CHAPTER XI. A GROUP OF YALE POETS
Henry A. Beers—the fine quality of his literary style in
prose and verse—force and grace—finished art—his humour—C.
M. Lewis—his war poem—E. B. Reed—Lyra Yalensis—F.
E. Pierce—his farm lyrics—Brian Hooker—his strong
sonnets—his Turns—R. C. Rogers—The
Rosary—Rupert Hughes—novelist, playwright, musician,
poet—Robert Hunger—his singing—R. B. Glaenzer—his
fancies—Benjamin R. C. Low—his growth—William R. Benét—his
vitality and optimism—Arthur Colton—his Chaucer poem—Allan
Updegraff—The Time and the Place—Lee Wilson Dodd—his
development—a list of other Yale Poets—Stephen V. Benét.
During the twentieth century there has been flowing a fountain of verse from the faculty, young alumni, and undergraduates of Yale University; and I reserve this space at the end of my hook for a consideration of the Yale group of poets, some of whom are already widely known and some of whom seem destined to be. I am not thinking of magazine verse or of fugitive pieces, but only of independent volumes of original poems. Yale has always been close to the national life of America; and the recent outburst of poetry from her sons is simply additional evidence of the renaissance all over the United States. Anyhow, the fact is worth recording.
Professor Henry A. Beers was born at Buffalo on the second of July, 1847. He was admitted to the New York Bar in 1870, but in 1871 became an Instructor in English Literature at Yale, teaching continuously for forty-five years, when he retired. He has written—at too rare intervals—all his life. His book of short stories, containing A Suburban Pastoral and Split Zephyr, the last-named being, according to Meredith Nicholson, the best story of college life ever printed, would possibly have attracted more general attention were it not for its prevailing tone of quiet, unobtrusive pessimism, an unwelcome note in America. I am as sure of the high quality of A Suburban Pastoral as I am sure of anything; and have never found a critic who, after reading the tale, disagreed with me. In 1885 Professor Beers published a little volume of poems, The Thankless Muse; and in 1917 he collected in a thin book The Two Twilights, the best of his youthful and mature poetic production. The variety of expression is so great that no two poems are in the same mood. In Love, Death, and Life we have one of the most passionate love-poems in American literature; in The Pasture Bars the valediction has the soft, pure tone of a silver bell.
Professor Beers has both vigour and grace. His fastidious taste permits him to write little, and to print only a small part of what he writes. But the force of his poetic language is so extraordinary that it has sometimes led to a complete and unfortunate misinterpretation of his work. In The Dying Pantheist to the Priest, he wrote a poem as purely dramatic, as non-personal, as the monologues of Browning; he quite successfully represented the attitude of an (imaginary) defiant, unrepentant pagan to an (imaginary) priest who wished to save him in his last moments. The speeches put into the mouth of the pantheist no more represent Mr. Beers's own sentiments than Browning's poem Confessions represented Browning's attitude toward death and religion; yet it is perhaps a tribute to the fervour of the lyric that many readers have taken it as a violent attack on Christian theology.
Just as I am certain of the finished art of A Suburban Pastoral, I am equally certain of the beauty and nobility of the poetry in The Two Twilights. This volume gives its author an earned place in the front rank of living American poets.
To me one of the most original and charming of the songs is the valediction to New York—and the homage to New Haven.
Highlands of Navesink,
By the blue ocean's brink,
Let your grey bases drink
Deep of the sea.
Tide that comes flooding up,
Fill me a stirrup cup,
Pledge me a parting sup,
Now I go free.
Wall of the Palisades,
I know where greener glades,
Deeper glens, darker shades,
Hemlock and pine,
Far toward the morning lie
Under a bluer sky,
Lifted by cliffs as high,
Haunts that are mine.
Marshes of Hackensack,
See, I am going back
Where the Quinnipiac
Winds to the bay,
Down its long meadow track,
Piled in the myriad stack,
Where in wide bivouac
Camps the salt hay.
Spire of old Trinity,
Never again to be
Seamark and goal to me
As I walk down;
Chimes on the upper air,
Calling in vain to prayer,
Squandering your music where
Roars the black town:
Bless me once ere I ride
Off to God's countryside,
Where in the treetops hide
Belfry and bell;
Tongues of the steeple towers,
Telling the slow-paced hours—
Hail, thou still town of ours—
Those who are familiar with Professor Beers's humour, as expressed in The Ways of Yale, will wish that he had preserved also in this later book some of his whimsicalities, as in the poem A Fish Story, which begins:
A whale of great porosity,
And small specific gravity,
Dived down with much velocity
Beneath the sea's concavity.
But soon the weight of water
Squeezed in his fat immensity,
Which varied—as it ought to—
Inversely as his density.
Professor Charlton M. Lewis was born at Brooklyn on the fourth of March, 1866. He took his B.A. at Yale in 1886, and an LL.B at Columbia in 1889. For some years he was a practising lawyer in New York; in 1895 he became a member of the Yale Faculty. In 1903 he published Gawayne and the Green Knight, a long poem, in which humour and imagination are delightfully mingled. His lyric Pro Patria(1937) is a good illustration of his poetic powers; it is indeed one of America's finest literary contributions to the war.
Remember, as the flaming car
Of ruin nearer rolls,
That of our country's substance are
Our bodies and our souls.
Her dust we are, and to her dust
Our ashes shall descend:
Who craves a lineage more august
Or a diviner end?
By blessing of her fruitful dews,
Her suns and winds and rains,
We have her granite in our thews,
Her iron in our veins.
And, sleeping in her sacred earth,
The ever-living dead
On the dark miracle of birth
Their holy influence shed....
So, in the faith our fathers kept,
We live, and long to die;
To sleep forever, as they have slept,
Under a sunlit sky;
Close-folded to our mother's heart
To find our souls' release—
A secret coeternal part
Of her eternal peace;—
Where Hood, Saint Helen's and Rainier,
In vestal raiment, keep
Inviolate through the varying year
Their immemorial sleep;
Or where the meadow-lark, in coy
But calm profusion, pours
The liquid fragments of his joy
On old colonial shores.
Professor Edward B. Reed, B.A. 1894, published in 1913 a tiny volume of academic verse, called Lyra Yalensis. This contains happily humorous comment on college life and college customs, and as the entire edition was almost immediately sold, the book has already become something of a rarity. In 1917, he collected the best of his more ambitious work in Sea Moods, of which one of the most impressive is
He shook his head as he turned away—
“Is it life or death?” “We shall know by day.”
Out from the wards where the sick folk lie,
Out neath the black and bitter sky.
Past one o'clock and the wind is chill,
The snow-clad streets are ghostly still;
No friendly noise, no cheering light,
So calm the city sleeps to-night,
I think its soul has taken flight.
Back to the empty home—a thrill,
A shudder at its darkened sill,
For the clock chimes as on that morn,
That happy day when she was born.
And now, inexorably slow,
To life or death the hours go.
Time's wings are clipped; he scarce doth creep.
Tonight no drug could bring you sleep;
Watch at the window for the day;
'Tis all that's left—to watch and pray.
But I think the prayer of an anguished heart
Must pierce that bleak sky like a dart,
And tear that pall of clouds apart.
The poplars, edging the frozen lawn,
Shudder and whisper: “Wait till dawn.”
Two spirits stand beside her bed
Softly stroking her curly head.
Death whispers, “Come”—Life whispers, “Stay.”
Child, little child, go not away.
Life pleads, “Remember”—and Death, “Forget.”
Little child, little child, go not yet.
By all your mother's love and pain,
Child of our heart, child of our brain,
Stay with us; go not till you see
The Fairyland that life can be.
. . . . . . . .
The poplars, edging the frozen lawn,
Are dancing and singing. “Thank God—the Dawn!”
Professor Frederick E. Pierce, B.A. 1904, has produced three volumes of poems, of which The World that God Destroyed exhibits an epic sweep of the imagination. He imagines a world far off in space, where every form of life has perished save rank vegetation. One day in their wanderings over the universe, Lucifer and Michael meet on this dead ball. A truce is declared and each expresses some of the wisdom bought by experience.
The upas dripped its poison on the ground
Harmless; the silvery veil of fog went up
From mouldering fen and cold, malarial pool,
But brought no taint and threatened ill to none.
Far off adown the mountain's craggy side
From time to time the avalanche thundered, sounding
Like sport of giant children, and the rocks
Whereon it smote re-echoed innocently.
Then in a pause of silence Lucifer
Struck music from the harp again and sang.
“I am the shadow that the sunbeams bring,
I am the thorn from which the roses spring;
Without the thorn would be no blossoming,
Nor were there shadow if there were no gleam.
I am a leaf before a wind that blows,
I am the foam that down the current goes;
I work a work on earth that no man knows,
And God Works too,—I am not what I seem.
“There comes a purer morn whose stainless glow
Shall cast no shadow on the ground below,
And fairer flowers without the thorn shall blow,
And earth at last fulfil her parent's dream.
Oh race of men who sin and know not why,
I am as you and you are even as I;
We all shall die at length and gladly die;
Yet even our deaths shall be not what they seem.”
Then Michael raised the golden lyre, and struck A note more solemn soft, and made reply.
“There dwelt a doubt within my mind of yore;
I sought to end that doubt and laboured sore;
But now I search its mystery no more,
But leave it safe within the Eternal's hand.
The tiger hunts the lamb and yearns to kill,
Himself by famine hunted, fiercer still;
And much there is that seems unmingled ill;
But God is wise, and God can understand.
“All things on earth in endless balance sway;
Day follows night and night succeeds the day;
And so the powers of good and evil may
Work out the purpose that his wisdom planned.
Eternal day would parch the dewy mould,
Eternal night would freeze the lands with cold;
But wise was God who planned the world of old;
I rest in Him for He can understand.
“Yet good and evil still their wills oppose;
And serving both, we still must serve as foes
On yon far globe that teems with human woes;
And sin thou art, though God work through thy hand.
But here the race of man is now no more;
The task is done, the long day's work is o'er;
One hour I'll dream thee what thou wert of yore,
Though changed thou art, too changed to understand.”
All day sat Michael there with Lucifer
Talking of things unknown to men, old tales
And memories dating back beyond all time.
And all night long beneath the lonely stars,
That watched no more the sins of man, they lay,
The angel's lofty face at rest against
The dark cheek scarred with thunder.
And each departed on his separate way;
But each looked back and lingered as he passed.
Some of his best work, however, appears in short pieces that might best be described as lyrics of the farm, or, to use a title discarded by Tennyson, Idylls of the Hearth. Mr. Pierce knows the lonely farm-houses of New England, both by inheritance and habitation, and is a true interpreter of the spirit of rural life.
One of the best-known of the group of Yale poets is Brian Hooker, who was graduated from Yale in 1902, and for some years was a member of the Faculty. His Poems (1915) are an important addition to contemporary literature. He is a master of the sonnet-form, as any one may see for himself in reading
The dead return to us continually;
Not at the void of night, as fables feign,
In some lone spot where murdered bones have lain
Wailing for vengeance to the passer-by;
But in the merry clamour and full cry
Of the brave noon, our dead whom we have slain
And in forgotten graves hidden in vain,
Rise up and stand beside us terribly.
Sick with the beauty of their dear decay
We conjure them with laughters onerous
And drunkenness of labour; yet not thus
May we absolve ourselves of yesterday—
We cannot put those clinging arms away,
Nor those glad faces yearning over us.
Mr. Hooker also includes in this volume a number of Turns, which he describes as “a new fixed form: Seven lines, in any rhythm, isometric and of not more than four feet; Rhyming AbacbcA, the first line and the last a Refrain; the Idea (as the name suggests) to Turn upon the recurrence of the Refrain at the end with a different sense from that which it bears at the beginning.” For example:
Ah, God, my strength again!—
Not power, nor joy, but these:
The waking without pain,
The ardour for the task,
And in the evening, peace.
Is it so much to ask?
Ah, God, my strength again!
American literature suffered a loss in the death of Robert Cameron Rogers, of the class of 1883. His book of poems, called The Rosary, appeared in 1906, containing the song by which naturally he is best known. Set to music by the late Ethelbert Nevin, it had a prodigious vogue, and inspired a sentimental British novel, whose sales ran over a million copies. The success of this ditty ought not to prejudice readers against the author of it; for he was more than a sentimentalist, as his other pieces prove.
Rupert Hughes is an all around literary athlete. He was born in Missouri, on the thirty-first of January, 1872, studied at Western Reserve and later at Yale, where he took the degree of M.A. in 1899. He is of course best known as a novelist and playwright; his novel The Thirteenth Commandment (1916) and his play Excuse Me (1911) are among his most successful productions. His works in prose fiction are conscientiously realistic and the finest of them are accurate chronicles of metropolitan life; while his short stories, In a Little Town (1917) are, like those of William Allen White, truthful both in their representation of village manners in the West, and in their recognition of spiritual values. In view of the “up-to-dateness" of Mr. Hughes's novels, it is rather curious that his one long poem Gyges' Ring (1901), which was written during his student days at Yale, should be founded on Greek legend. Yet Mr. Hughes has been a student of Greek all his life, and has made many translations from the original. I do not care much for Gyges' Ring; it is hammered out rather than created. But some of the author's short poems, to which he has often composed his own musical accompaniment, I find full of charm. Best of all, I think, is the imaginative and delightful.
WITH A FIRST READER
Dear little child, this little book
Is less a primer than a key
To sunder gates where wonder waits
Your “Open Sesame!”
These tiny syllables look large;
They'll fret your wide, bewildered eyes;
But “Is the cat upon the mat?”
Is passport to the skies.
For, yet awhile, and you shall turn
From Mother Goose to Avon's swan;
From Mary's lamb to grim Khayyam,
And Mancha's mad-wise Don.
You'll writhe at Jean Valjean's disgrace;
And D'Artagnan and Ivanhoe
Shall steal your sleep; and you shall weep
At Sidney Carton's woe.
You'll find old Chaucer young once more,
Beaumont and Fletcher fierce with fire;
At your demand, John Milton's hand
Shall wake his ivory lyre.
And learning other tongues, you'll learn
All times are one; all men, one race;
Hear Homer speak, as Greek to Greek;
See Dante, face to face.
Arma virumque shall resound;
And Horace wreathe his rhymes afresh;
You'll rediscover Laura's lover;
Meet Gretchen in the flesh.
Oh, could I find for the first time
The Churchyard Elegy again!
Retaste the sweets of new-found Keats;
Read Byron now as then!
Make haste to wander these old roads,
O envied little parvenue;
For all things trite shall leap alight
And bloom again for you!
Robert Munger, B.A., 1897, published in 1912 a volume called The Land of Lost Music. He is a lyric poet. Melody seems as natural to him as speech.
There is a land uncharted of meadows and shimmering mountains,
Stiller than moonlight silence brooding and wan,
The land of long-wandering music and dead unmelodious fountains
Of singing that rose in the dreams of them that are gone.
That rose in the dreams of the dead and that rise in the
dreams of the living,
Fleeting, bodiless songs that passed in the night,
Winging away on the moment of wonder their cadence was giving
Into the deeps of the valleys of stifled delight.
Richard Butler Glaenzer, B.A. 1898, whose verses have frequently been seen in various periodicals, collected them in Beggar and King, 1917. His poems cover a wide range of thought and feeling, but I like him best when he is most whimsical, as in
Jupiter, lost to Vega's realm,
Lights his lamp from the sun-ship's helm:
Big as a thousand earths, and yet
Dimmed by the glow of a cigarette!
Mr. Glaenzer has published a number of verse criticisms of contemporary writers, which he calls Snapshots. These display considerable penetration; perhaps the following is fairly illustrative.
To read your tales
Is like opening a cedar-box
Of ante-bellum days,
A box holding the crinoline and fan
And the tortoise-shell diary
With flowers pressed between the leaves
Belonging to some languid grande dame
Of Creole New Orleans.
Benjamin R. C. Low, B.A. 1902, a practising lawyer, has published four or five volumes of poems, including The Sailor who has Sailed (1911), A Wand and Strings (1913) and The House that Was(1915). He is seen at his best in These United States, dedicated to Alan Seeger, which appeared in the Boston Transcript, 7 February, 1917. This is an original, vigorous work, full of the unexpected, and yet seen to be true as soon as expressed. His verses show a constantly increasing grasp of material, and I look for finer things from his pen.
Although Mr. Low seems to be instinctively a romantic poet, he is fond of letting his imaginative sympathy play on common scenes in city streets; as in The Sandwich Man.
The lights of town are pallid yet
With winter afternoon;
The sullied streets are dank and wet,
The halted motors fume and fret,
The world turns homeward soon.
There is no kindle in the sky,
No cheering sunset flame;
I have no help from passers-by,—
They part, and give good-night; but I....
Walk with another's name.
I have no kith, nor kin, nor home
Wherein to turn to sleep;
No star-lamp sifts me through the gloam,
I am the driven, wastrel foam
On a subsiding deep.
I do not toil for love, or fame,
Or hope of high reward;
My path too low for praise or blame,
I struggle on, each day the same,
My panoply—a board.
Who gave me life I do not know,
Nor what that life should be,
Or why I live at all; I go,
A dead leaf shivering with snow,
Under a worn-out tree.
The lights of town are blurred with mist,
And pale with afternoon,—
Of gold they are, and amethyst:
Dull pain is creeping at my wrist....
The world turns homeward soon.
A poet of national reputation is William Rose Benét, who was graduated in 1907. Mr. Benét came to Yale from Augusta, Georgia, and since his graduation has been connected with the editorial staff of theCentury Magazine. At present he is away in service in France, where his adventurous spirit is at home. He may have taken some of his reputation with him, for he is sure to be a favourite over there; but the fame he left behind him is steadily growing. The very splendour of romance glows in his spacious poetry; he loves to let his imagination run riot, as might be guessed merely by reading the names on his books. To every one who has ever been touched by the love of a quest, his title-pages will appeal: The Great White Wall, a tale of “magic adventure, of war and death”; Merchants from Cathay (1913), The Falconer of God (1914), The Burglar of the Zodiac (1917). His verses surge with vitality, as in The Boast of the Tides. He is at his best in long, swinging, passionate rhythms. Unfortunately in the same measures he is also at his worst. His most potent temptation is the love of noise, which makes some of his less artistic verse sound like organized cheering.
But when he gets the right tune for the right words, he is irresistible. There is no space here to quote such a rattling ballad—like a frenzy of snare-drums—as Merchants from Cathay, but it is not mere sound and fury, it is not swollen rhetoric, it is an inspired poem. No one can read or hear it without being violently aroused. Mr. Benét is a happy-hearted poet, singing with gusto of the joy of life.
ON EDWARD WEBBE, ENGLISH GUNNER
He met the Danske pirates off Tuttee;
Saw the Chrim burn “Musko”; speaks with bated breath
Of his sale to the great Turk, when peril of death
Chained him to oar their galleys on the sea
Until, as gunner, in Persia they set him free
To fight their foes. Of Prester John he saith
Astounding things. But Queen Elizabeth
He worships, and his dear Lord on Calvary.
Quaint is the phrase, ingenuous the wit
Of this great childish seaman in Palestine,
Mocked home through Italy after his release
With threats of the Armada; and all of it
Warms me like firelight jewelling old wine
In some ghost inn hung with the golden fleece!
Arthur Colton, B.A. 1890, is as quiet and reflective as Mr. Benét is strenuous. Has any one ever better expressed the heart of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde than in these few words?
A smile, of flowers, and fresh May, across
The dreamy, drifting face of old Romance;
The same reiterate tale of love and loss
And joy that trembles in the hands of chance;
And midst his rippling lines old Geoffrey stands,
Saying, “Pray for me when the tale is done,
Who see no more the flowers, nor the sun.”
Mr. Colton collected many of his poems in 1907, under the title Harps Hung Up in Babylon. He had moved from New Haven to New York.
Allan Updegraff, who left college before taking his degree, a member of the class of 1907, recently turned from verse to prose, and wrote an admirable novel, Second Youth. He is, however, a true poet, and any one might be proud to be the author of
THE TIME AND THE PLACE
Will you not come? The pines are gold with evening
And breathe their old-time fragrance by the sea;
You loved so well their spicy exhalation,—
So smiled to smell it and old ocean's piquancy;
And those weird tales of winds and waves' relation—
Could you forget? Will you not come to me?
See, 'tis the time: the last long gleams are going,
The pine-spires darken, mists rise waveringly;
The gloaming brings the old familiar longing
To be re-crooned by twilight voices of the sea.
And just such tinted wavelets shoreward thronging—
Could you forget things once so dear—and me?
Whatever of the waves is ceaseless longing,
And of the twilight immortality:
The urge of some wild, inchoate aspiration
Akin to afterglow and stars and winds and sea:
This hour makes full and pours out in libation,—
Could you forget? Will you not come to me?
What golden galleons sailed into the sunset
Not to come home unto eternity:
What souls went outward hopeful of returning,
This time and tide might well call back across the sea.
Did we not dream so while old Wests were burning?
Could you forget such once-dear things—and me?
From the dimmed sky and long grey waste of waters,
Lo, one lone sail on all the lonely sea
A moment blooms to whiteness like a lily,
As sudden fades, is gone, yet half-seems still to be;
And you,—though that last time so strange and stilly,—
Though you are dead, will you not come to me?
Lee Wilson Dodd, at present in service in France, was graduated in 1899, and for some years was engaged in the practice of the law. This occupation he abandoned for literature in 1907. He is the author of several successful plays, and has published two volumes of verse, The Modern Alchemist (1906) and The Middle Miles (1915). His growth in the intervening years will be apparent to any one who compares the two books; there is in his best work a combination of fancy and humour. He loves to write about New England gardens and discovers beauty by the very simple process of opening his eyes at home. The following poem is characteristically sincere:
TO A NEO-PAGAN
Your praise of Nero leaves me cold:
Poems of porphyry and of gold,
Palatial poems, chill my heart.
I gaze—I wonder—I depart.
Not to Byzantium would I roam
In quest of beauty, nor Babylon;
Nor do I seek Sahara's sun
To blind me to the hills of home.
Here am I native; here the skies
Burn not, the sea I know is grey;
Wanly the winter sunset dies.
Wanly comes day.
Yet on these hills and near this sea
Beauty has lifted eyes to me,
Unlustful eyes, clear eyes and kind;
While a clear voice chanted—
“They who find
“Me not beside their doorsteps, know
“Me never, know me never, though
“Seeking, seeking me, high and low,
“Forth on the far four winds they go!”
Therefore your basalt, jade, and gems,
Your Saracenic silver, your
Nilotic gods, your diadems
To bind the brows of Queens, impure,
Perfidious, passionate, perfumed—these
Your petted, pagan stage-properties,
Seem but as toys of trifling worth.
For I have marked the naked earth
Beside my doorstep yield to the print
Of a long light foot, and flash with the glint
Crocus-gold no mill may mint
Save the Mill of God—
The Mill of God!
The Mill of God with His angels in't!
Other Yale poets are W. B. Arvine, 1903, whose book Hang Up Philosophy (1911), particularly excels in the interpretation of natural scenery; Frederick M. Clapp, 1901, whose volume On the Overland(since republished in America) was in process of printing in Bruges in 1914, when the Germans entered the old town, and smashed among other things, the St. Catherine Press. Just fifteen copies of Mr. Clapp's book had been struck off, of which I own one; Donald Jacobus, 1908, whose Poems (1914) are richly meditative; James H. Wallis, 1906, who has joined the ranks of poets with The Testament of William Windune and Other Poems (1917); Leonard Bacon, 1909, who modestly called his book, published in the year of his graduation, The Scrannel Pipe; Kenneth Band, 1914, who produced two volumes of original verse while an undergraduate; Archibald Mac Leish, 1915, whose Tower of Ivory, a collection of lyrics, appeared in 1917; Elliot Griffis, a student in the School of Music, who published in 1918 under an assumed name a volume called Rain in May; and I may close this roll-call by remarking that those who have seen his work have a staunch faith in the future of Stephen Vincent Benét. He is a younger brother of William, and is at present a Yale undergraduate. Mr. Benét was born at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on the twenty-second of July, 1898. His home is at Augusta, Georgia. Before entering college, and when he was seventeen, he published his first volume of poems, Five Men and Pompey (1915). This was followed in 1917 by another book, The Drug Shop. His best single production is the Cook prize poem, The Hemp.