Two Books of Verse

“TRUTH of substance in union with distinction of style.” Arnold’s summary of the characteristics of the best poetry is a formula on the whole so satisfying that one returns to it again and again. The simple words, not one more than is needed, are, like those of Chaucer’s earlier Oxford scholar, “ of high sentence ; ” and they seem a fit praise to bestow upon a recent addition to the best poetry of our own day and country, Miss Thomas’s little book, significantly named The Inverted Torch.1 The stanzas whence the title is drawn embody an idea which forms the climax of the connected poem, and are naturally placed on the final page. With gracious transformation, the ancient sign of death becomes to the poet’s vision, purged by pain, a luminous symbol of immortality. The wind-blown taper being reversed,

“ Up climbed the lovely flower of light again!
“ Thou Kindler of the spark of life divine !
Be henceforth the Inverted Torch a sign
That, though the flame beloved thou dost depress,
Thou wilt, not speed it into nothingness;
But out of nether gloom wilt reinspire.
And homeward lift the keen empyreal fire ! ”

Seldom has the motive of a lyrical sequence been stated with so complete a felicity, in a single image so elemental and impressive. We are reminded of the diverse beauty of the overture to Sonnets from the Portuguese; nor is it strange, in spite of the contrast in subject, that we should associate Miss Thomas’s threnody with that pæan of love triumphant, since each sets forth with perfect sincerity an individual experience which is yet universal.

The analogy with In Memoriam, which suggests itself in the opening lines, —

“ I dreamed that in thy hollowed palm
Thou heldst some measure of gray sand,” —

is presently seen to be somewhat remote. The grief herein expressed is in its nature other than that which built itself a lordly monument in the Laureate’s verse. It is an intimate and household sorrow that here speaks to us, with an accent now and again most piercing. Moreover, while there runs through the entire poem that development idea which is a note of modern poetry, and without which no elegiac pomp could satisfy a reader of to-day, it marks the excellent truthfulness of the poet that this progression extends only to a certain point. Only so far as she herself has learned it will she record the lore to be learned of loss. The conclusion is a strenuous prayer, contrasted with the solemn affirmation of Tennyson’s first and last stanzas. His thought widens gradually and surely to the sea; the singer of The Inverted Torch remains “ closed in human life’s defile,” waiting solution. Once, it is true, she sees above the straight rock-wall a joyful fire of dawn : —

“ Thou against all this shadow-world!
Thou between whom and me were hurled
Figments that mourning Fancy rears —
Thou against all that thus appears —
Thou, and the Life to be, ’gainst all
I dream and fear, and Life miscall! ”

Here, indeed, is something of that clear faith which is a golden cordial in the work of Browning. Where this is absent, however, the effect is not void of cheer; virtue goes forth from the courageous soul even in its hour of struggle, even at its moment of deepest dismay. Contact with a nature capable of entering into the noble and rare relation portrayed in this poem is in itself a heartening inspiration, — a nature

“ peer of the kingliest stone,
Lucid by day, and braving the dark with its
luminous freight.”

The Inverted Torch might almost be called a sonnet-sequence with interludes ; for its sonnets not only outnumber the other lyrics, but, as a rule, outweigh them in value. The sonnet is certainly, as a prince of sonnet-makers has called it, the true coin: —

“ Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue,
It serve ; or, mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s hand it pay the toll to Death.”

This couplet-conclusion, unusual with Rossetti, leads us to the mention of a peculiarity to be noted in the sonnets of Miss Thomas. She invariably follows the Italian model, with but one deviation, which is infrequent, — a terminal alexandrine; but it may be observed that many of these sonnets, if read aloud, leave lingering in the ear the effect of the Shakespearean form. This illusion is due not alone to a diction shaped by companionship with the Elizabethans, but to a singular fluency of movement, very seldom attained within the strict Italian bonds, though common in the sonnets of Shakespeare. How to combine the advantages of both forms is a master secret. Nowhere is the distinction which stamps the best verse in this volume more striking than in the freely moulded first lines of certain of the sonnets; take, for instance, the direct

“ I know not why henceforward I should fear,
Once having felt the master stroke of fate,”

or the sonorous

“ Two powers the passive giant deep control.”

Such lines are “captain jewels in the carcanet,” but every bead is finely cut and instinct with sober light.

Miss Thomas appreciates fully and uses fitly that heritage of rich and picturesque words handed down to us from the days of the Renaissance, when words took on life from the vivid time, and were made more precious, being passed from lip to lip of that great company who became poets because the air was fame. We do not speak of a servile and studied imitation, but of the free usage of any true inheritor who knows his own. It may be seen in the following quotations how much is gained by the choice of words enriched through tradition : —

“ The other, as with bell of sphery toll,
Whether the wind be loosed or chainëd be,
To tidal orisons draws holily
The mighty water.”
“ Here, here, and there, I pageant things discern,
Once idly named My Griefs.”
“ Death grows with all my days past all control,
And nearer brings oblivion — or dream —
Or boon awakening of the lifted soul.”

This is the handling of language that gives us lines good to dwell with, haunting the chambers of Memory with serene and melodious presence.

Popularity is so often a limitation that it is a pleasure to find a singer who has caught the ear of the public still advancing in his art. A poet who has already found many to dance to his piping, and who yet goes down to the reeds by the river to cut himself a new and better flute, is in earnest, and merits a smile from Apollo. The first thing that strikes the reader of Lyrics for a Lute2 is the marked growth of the writer since the publication of his widely read Madrigals and Catches. His Muse moved featly enough in the French forms, and nimbly danced to the jingling metre of Praed; but now she has learned a truer grace, and trips in time with the “ silvery feet ” of Herrick’s maidens. Mr. Sherman’s sound and saving love for the sunny lyrist of the Hesperides is quite evident. Herrick is for him “ my happy poet; ” might we but give to our modern verses

“ That subtile touch to make them live,
Like Herrick’s, after we are gone ” !

His poetic creed appears in a finished little quatrain : —

In Nature’s open book
An epic is the sea;
A lyric is the brook :
Lyrics for me ! ”

He is an apprehensive pupil of the gallant singers of the early Stuart time; and one can fancy the pleasure of Lamb, who so enjoyed Wither’s fine turn, —

“ Thoughts too deep to be exprest,
And too strong to be snpprest,” —

could that genial critic read the last lines of the farewell To His Book : —

“ Her praise is inspiration’s breath ;
Her scorn were aspiration’s death !
Go, then, and if she welcome you
I care not what the world may do! ”

The old-time felicity is again found in the love lines On a Clock, — obstinate “ slave of Time,” not heeding the entreaty of the lover, — and the old-time quaintness in The Fly-Leaf to the Read er. Somewhat more individual, perhaps, is The Harbor of Dreams, which has a delicate charm of cadence : —

“ This is the margin of sleep ;
Here let the anchor be cast;
Here in forgetfulness deep,
Now that the journey is past,
Lower the sails from the mast.
Here is the bay of content,
Heaven and earth interblent;
Here is the haven that lies
Close to the gates of surprise.”

A swift, victorious movement and abundance of color characterize A Greeting for Spring, and in Winter Starlight the spell of a magic hour is perfectly crystallized. A growing sympathy with the world’s life and beauty is apparent throughout the book; and one of its divisions is sacred to Nature, the other three being devoted to Fancy, Love, and Books. We note not only a sounder choice, but a greater variety of measures, than in the earlier volume ; uniform lucidity of expression and a fastidious correctness of rhymes. A high reverence for the function of the poet is displayed, frankly and without self-consciousness : —

“ Sing on, nor heed what lips are murmuring
To scorn your art: one perfect song shall live
For love and you long after they are mute.”

This theme, the perpetuity of song, frequently recurs. Types of the mysterious birth of poetry surround the singer ; all nature is vocal concerning the great secret whereon his hope and endeavor are set. This promises much ; the Muse, whatever her caprice, will never stoop to a half-hearted lover, one skeptical of his call and claim. The other characteristic which remains most impressed upon the reader is a healthful joyousness, native as the note of a bird. In Lyrics for a Lute there is no morbid verse, and two of the lines might stand as a poetical frontispiece : —

No melancholy strain he knew ;
His skies were always bright and blue.”
  1. The Inverted Torch. By EDITH M. THOMAS. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1890.
  2. Lyrics for a Lute. By FRANK DEMPSTER SHERMAN. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1890.