MR. WOODBERRY’S volume contains three comparatively long poems, a sestet of sonnets, and a group of lyrics. There is little that is immature in the collection, and nothing that is not admirable for its workmanship, always excepting a certain tendency to involved phrasing. Mr. Woodberry has been singularly fortunate or singularly wise in withholding his work in this kind until he had something definite to offer and had perfected his technique. The poem from which the book gets its suggestive title is the only one which bears the marks of youth. None but a youthful poet would have had the temerity to take for granted the public’s interest in five hundred elegiac verses on the death of a classmate. That the reader quickly lends himself to the charm of these pensive and sympathetic stanzas justifies the venture, though it in no way detracts from the daring. It was part of the poet’s good luck to select the Spenserian stanza for his threnody. The lingering, wailing music of which the Alexandrine is capable makes this form of verse an ideal kind of lyre for the purpose. The mournful cadence in question is well illustrated by the opening stanza : —
Who at life’s flush with me wast wont to roam
The pine-fringed borders of this surging sea,
From far and lonely lands Love brings me home
To this wide water’s foam ;
Here thou art fallen in thy joyful days,
Life quenched within thy breast, light in thy eyes;
And darkly from thy ruined beauty rise
These flowerless myrtle-sprays;
The hills we trod enfold thee evermore,
The gray and sleepless sea breaks round the orphaned shore.”
It will be seen that The North Shore Watch is related to that class of poems of which the Adonais of Shelley and the Thyrsis of Matthew Arnold are the highest modern types. Mr. Woodberry has studied these masters not to his hurt. Here and there in his method is also traceable the influence of the elder English poets. He has learned from them the art of saying things in his own way. It is, however, in a poem wholly Greek in spirit that Mr. Woodberry is at his best, as he should be, since the little drama entitled Agathon is clearly his latest work. We call it a drama by courtesy, for it has no more plot or dramatic action than would please those novelists who are unable to invent such matters. The motive of Agathon is of the simplest, and is sufficiently stated in the initial speech of the shadowy Eros: —
I am the Intercessor, Eros called,
Fathered in heaven, but earth did mother me;
Whence is my nature mixed of opposites,
Unquenchable desire, want absolute,
And is near neighbor unto human fate.
The edict of Necessity besides
Bids own that kinship ; for I come not home
Except my errand done, which ever is
To break the mystery of love to men,
Freeing themselves and me : not without me
Find they the Immortals; without them my wings
Blade not, nor from the gleaming shoulder break,
But by the warmth of love those plumes unsheathe.
And oft my feet print blood what time I leave
Inhospitable, hard, and kindless doors.
But where some noble soul makes his abode,
And bids me enter in and lodge with him,
Beautiful am I as the gods in heaven;
His thatch, though lowly, unto them is known,
The rushes of his floor are loved of men, And who live there behold me as I am.
One such I seek for now, the flower of Greece,
Eros finds the young Greek poet at the entrance to Diotima’s cave, and makes himself known. The main stress and beauty of the poem lie in the dialogue and the lyrical interludes which follow, though there are very striking passages in the previous conversation between Agathon and Diotima, the prophetess. Eros delivers the message of the gods, and Agathon accepts his destiny. It is seldom that the spirituality of love has been so celebrated as in this full and well-balanced blank verse, which nowhere sinks below the height of the theme. It is the apotheosis of human love. The argument and the poetry are here so closely knitted as to make illustration impracticable, and we must turn to another part of the text for an example of Mr. Woodberry’s manner : —
Ægina and the olive-coasted gulf
Empurpling to the far Corinthian gleam;
llissns reed-beloved ; Hymettus flowering;
On white Pentelicus the cloud-hung pines !
At every step more fair with lovelier change
The scene passed by, in those white columns framed,
Porches of heaven ; upon the other side
Was I o’ershadowed by the eternal frieze,
That only seemed to move, but ever stayed,
Horsemen and maidens in the marble march,
Athene’s people, bearing evermore
Praise to Athene ; beautiful they stood
Before her coming, mixed with forms divine —
Men worthy to be gods, gods to be men ;
And waking from my trance, I saw them shine,
Nor knew the change from the eternal world.”
Blank verse with just this stately movement and rich severity is not too abundant outside of Landor’s Hellenics. The entire poem has a distinction which it is easier to feel than to define.
In the ode My Country, which forms the third section of the hook, the author strikes a note that repeats itself later in the sonnets. My Country may succinctly be described as the incarnation of the Fourth of July superintending a flight of eagles. The airy optimism of this ode will not have been forgotten by Atlantic readers, certainly not that fine passage in it descriptive of the duties of the ideal citizen, nor the ringing exordium, —
Or thinks to bound
Within a little plot of Grecian ground
The sole of mortal things that can avail ? ”
Very admirable, too, and not to be passed by, is this apostrophe : —
My Country, dear, my own!
May the young heart that moved
For the weak words atone ;
The mighty lyre not mine, nor the full breath of song!
To happier sons shall these belong.
Yet doth the first and lonely voice
Of the dark dawn the heart rejoice,
While still the loud choir sleeps upon the bough.”
This brings us to the sonnets, in which the same joyous patriotism finds wing. To our thinking, the best of these are the second of the two entitled At Gibraltar, the one On the Hundredth Anniversary of the French Revolution, and Our First Century. We should add to the list the sonnet addressed To Leo XIII., only that the sestet closes with a couplet, and the sonnet is thus turned into an epigram. In each of the six sonnets, in addition to other necessary excellence, are lines and half-lines which set an easy task to the memory. For example : —
“ Who founded us, and spread from sea to sea
A thousand leagues tlxe zone of liberty.”
“ Dost thou think to tame
God’s young plantation in the virgin West ? ”
“ And millions came, used but to starve and bleed,
And built the great republic of the poor.”
“ Siberia, more rich in heroes’ graves
Than the most famous field of glorious war.” “ Now westward, look, my country bids goodnight—
Peace to the world from ports without a gun ! ”
You will not pick such things out of every poet’s first book !
Of the lyrics clustered under the title Italian Voluntaries we are not so confident. Victor’s Bird, which is not a lyric, but an exquisite poem in unrhymed pentameters, gains from its surroundings. The Anecdotes of Siena seem to us to fail in that lark-like unpremeditation which belongs to the lyric — the liquid flow that is here discoverable in only two instances: in The False Dawn and Be God’s the Hope. The False Dawn is one of those fantastic conceptions into whose exact meaning it is not well too curiously to inquire, lest there be no crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. Our liking for the mystical rune is out of all proportion to our comprehension of it. The last piece in the group is not so amenable to the charge of obscurity, and it sings itself into quotation : —
He sphered its borders with the walls of flame;
'Tis His, whose hands have made it, glory or shame.
Be God’s the Hope!
The Serpent pastures on the precious tree;
The Serpent, Lord of Paradise is he.
Be God’s the Hope!
Heaven needed not my stroke, and I am sped.
Yea, God, thou livest, though thy poor friend be dead.
Be God’s the Hope ! ”
We have endeavored to indicate the quality of Mr. Woodberry’s verse rather than to insist on our personal impression of it. The reader is thus better enabled to form his own. Meanwhile, the reviewer, whose diversions in this sort are not many, counts it a fortunate month, indeed a fortunate year, when he can say, " Here is a new poet,” and commend a volume which makes so rich promise as The North Shore Watch.
- The North Shore Watch and Other Poems. By GEORGE EDWARD WOODBERRY. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1890.↩