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.