A SHORT time ago I found on a London bookstall an odd number of The Poetry Review, with examples of and comments on "Modern American Poets,"—examples which whetted my curiosity. But the few quotations given appeared to me literary bric-à-brac, the fruit of light liaisons between American dilettantism and European models. Such poetry, aesthetic or sentimental,—reflections of vagrant influences, lyrical embroideries in the latest designs, with little imaginative insight into life or nature,—abounds in every generation. If sufficiently bizarre its pretensions are cried up in small Bohemian coteries; if sufficiently orthodox in tone and form, it may impress itself on that public which reads poetry as it looks idly at pictures, with sentimental appetite or from a vague respect for "culture." Next I turned to some American magazines at hand, and was brought to a pause by discovering some interesting verse by modern American poets, especially by women whose sincerity in the expression of the inner life of love compared well with the ambitious flights of some of the rivals. I learned indeed from a magazine article that the "New Poetry" was in process of being hatched out by the younger school; and, no doubt, further researches would have yielded a harvest, had not a literary friend chanced to place in my hands a slim green volume, North of Boston, by Robert Frost. I read it, and reread it. It seemed to me that this poet was destined to take a permanent place in American literature. I asked myself why this book was issued by an English and not by an American publisher. And to this question I have found no answer. I may add here, in parenthesis, that I know nothing of Mr. Robert Frost save the three or four particulars I gleaned from the English friend who sent me North of Boston.
In an illuminating paper on recent American fiction which I hope by and by, with the editor's permission, to discuss along with Mr. Owen Wister's smashing onslaught in the Atlantic Monthly, Mr. W. D. Howell's remarks, "By test of the native touch we should not find genuine some of the American writers whom Mr. Garnett accounts so." No doubt Mr. Howells's stricture is just, and certain American novelists—whom he does not however particularize—have been too affected in spirit by European models. Indeed Frank Norris's early work, Vandover and the Brute, is quite continental in tone; and it is arguable that his study of the French Naturalists may have shown beneficial results later, in the breadth of scheme and clarity of The Pit.
This point of "the native touch" raises difficult questions, for the ferment of foreign influence has often marked the point of departure and rise of powerful native writers, such as Pushkin in Russia and Fenimore Cooper in America. Again, if we consider the fiction of Poe and Herman Melville, would it not be difficult to assess their genuineness by any standard or measure of "native touch"? But I take it that Mr. Howells would ban as "not genuine" only those writers whose originality in vision, tone, and style has been patently marred or nullified by their surrender to exotic influences.
So complex may be the interlacing strains that blend in a writer's literary ancestry and determine his style, that the question first to ask seems to me whether a given author is a fresh creative force, an original voice in literature. Such an authentic original force to me speaks from North of Boston. Surely a genuine New England voice, whatever be its literary debt to old-world English ancestry. Originality, the point is there,—for we may note that originality of tone and vision is always the stumbling-block to the common taste when the latter is invited to readjust its accepted standards.
On opening North of Boston we see the first lines to be stamped with the magic of style, of a style that obeys its own laws of grace and beauty and inner harmony.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. . . .
Note the clarity of the images, the firm outline. How delicately the unobtrusive opening suggests the countryman's contemplative pleasure in his fields and woods. It seems so very quiet, the modern reader may complain, forgetting Wordsworth; and indeed, had Wordsworth written these lines, I think they must have stood in every English anthology. And when we turn the page, the second poem, "The Death of the Hired Man," proves that this American poet has arrived, not indeed to challenge the English poet's possession of his territory, but to show how untrodden, how limitless are the stretching adjacent lands. "The Death of the Hired Man" is a dramatic dialogue between husband and wife, a dialogue characterized by an exquisite precision of psychological insight. I note that two college professors have lately been taking Mr. Ruckstuhl to task for a new definition of poetry. Let us fly all such debates, following Goethe, who, condemning the "aesthete who labors to express the nature of poetry and of poets," exclaimed, "What do we want with so much definition? A lively feeling of situations and an aptitude to describe them makes the poet." This definition, though it does not cover the whole ground, is apropos to our purpose.
Mr. Frost possesses a keen feeling for situation. And his fine, sure touch in clarifying our obscure instincts and clashing impulses, and in crystallizing them in sharp, precise images,—for that we cannot be too grateful. Observe the tense, simple dramatic action, foreshadowing conflict, in the opening lines of "The Death of the Hired Man":
Mary sat musing on the lamp-flame at the table
Waiting for Warren. When she heard his step,
She ran on tip-toe down the darkened passage
To meet him in the doorway with the news
And put him on his guard. "Silas is back."
She pushed him outward with her through the door
And shut it after her. "Be kind," she said.
"It's we who must be good to him now," she urges. I wish I had space to quote the debate so simple in its homely force, so comprehending in its spiritual veracity; but I must restrict myself to these arresting lines and to the hushed, tragic close:
Part of a moon was falling down the west
Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw
And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand
Among the harp-like morning-glory strings
Taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves,
As if she played unheard the tenderness
That wrought on him beside her in the night.
"Warren," she said, "he has come home to die:
You needn't be afraid he'll leave you this time."
"Home," he mocked gently.
"Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he's nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail."
"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in."
"I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve."
. . . .
"You'll be surprised at him—how much he's broken,
His working days are done; I'm sure of it."
"I'd not be in a hurry to say that."
"I haven't been. Go, look, see for yourself.
But, Warren, please remember how it is:
He's come to help you ditch the meadow.
He has a plan. You mustn't laugh at him.
He may not speak of it, and then he may.
I'll sit and see if that small sailing cloud
Will hit or miss the moon."
"It hit the moon.
Then there were three there making a dim row,
The moon, the little silver cloud, and she.
Warren returned—too soon, it seemed to her,
Slipped to her side, caught up her hand and waited.
"Warren," she questioned.
"Dead," was all he answered.
Yes, this is poetry, but of what order? the people may question, to whom for some reason poetry connotes the fervor of lyrical passion, the glow of romantic color, or the play of picturesque fancy. But it is precisely its quiet passion and spiritual tenderness that betray this to be poetry of a rare order, "the poetry of a true real natural vision of life," which, as Goethe declared, "demands descriptive power of the highest degree, rendering a poet's pictures so lifelike that they become actualities to every reader." One may indeed anticipate that the "honorable minority" will appraise highly the spiritual beauty of the lines above quoted.