Some Recent American Verse
M. SULLY-PRUDHOMME, writing not long ago of the verse appearing in France, declared his belief that never before have new writers displayed such mastery over the art of versemaking. They know their métier through and through, he says, but never has the number of the skillful so far exceeded that of the inspired. If the same observations were to be made upon the new verse appearing in English, on this and the other side of the Atlantic, few readers of the magazines would be disposed to disagree. We say “readers of the magazines,” because “magazine poetry” has become something like a byword, and in looking over any new batch of American books of verse one comes upon little that has not first seen the light in magazines.
The particularly noticeable fact in such a group of volumes, put forth as they usually are in the best manner of modern book-makers, is that they present so limited a supply of poems which can in any sense be called inevitable; so few things which after all might not almost as well have been left undone.
The hard, homely old saying, that pretty good poetry is like a pretty good egg, comes back to the reader with strange force, and he wishes from the bottom of his heart that some rigid standard of the inevitable might be established. But how? It is not possible to imagine an agreement between writers and readers as to the precise limits of this class of verse. What seems a matter of absolute necessity to the person longing to express himself strikes the reader as not at all indispensable. After all, it is the reader who must exercise his rights and powers of election, and must decide for himself what he is going to do without. Occasionally the problem of elimination is made extremely easy for him, as in the new volume opening with eight pages of verse on the Sensations of a Bat Awaking by the Amazon. More often he is led on by apparent promise only to find that “man never is, but always to be, blest” with the satisfaction he craves.
If the magazines are to be blamed as the first mediums between the makers of such verse and the public, it must be remembered, on the other hand, that nearly all that is best to-day, in poetry as in fiction, appears first in the periodicals. Moreover, the unflattering remarks just made regarding the new books apply with far more directness to the entire collection of books from which a few are here chosen for special mention than individually to any of those few. Yet, selecting from these best books the best pieces of verse, one must be discouraged, like M. Sully-Prudhomme, at the relation found to exist between skillful and inspired work. Mastery of rhythm, good taste, ingenuity of fancy, subtlety and cultivation of thought, our present writers are displaying in no unplentiful degree, and the resulting sum of their poetic labors is eminently pleasant. One other quality they exhibit in strikingmeasure, and that is cosmopolitanism. Whether assuming a virtue or having it, the larger number of our writers today certainly deal, when they will, with foreign scenes as familiarly as if Italy, England, or France had been their lifelong home. Whether this is because we are a nation of travelers, or springs from an American quickness in catching the essence of new impressions, the fact is noteworthy and interesting. Add this cosmopolitanism to the other agreeable qualities in the best new books of verse, and though the average patriot might be glad to see a little more that is intrinsically American in our poets, though the critic may steadfastly withhold the meed of greatness, yet both must rejoice that clever men and women amongst us are capable of giving distinct if not dangerously excessive pleasure with their songs.
One of the most thoroughly agreeable of the later books of verse is Mr. H. C. Bunner’s Rowen. Second Crop Songs,1 as he aptly terms the collection. Praise is especially due the book for its freedom from that ambitious quality which takes so many modern singers beyond their depth and chokes their clearness of expression. Simplicity marks the most Serious of Mr. Bunner’s verses; and if their beauty does not rise upon the heights, their sincerity and genuineness leave one with a hearty liking for the best of them. Pretty as Mr. Bunner’s previous Airs from Arcady were, these new verses reach a higher level in that many of them speak from the deeper experiences which have come to the writer with added years. It is not, however, for the confessedly serious performances of Mr. Bunner’s Muse that one cares so much as for the work demanding a lighter touch, — work which abounds in that variety of humor defined as “ wit plus sympathy.” The verses One, Two. Three, for example, recounting the imaginary game of hideand-seek between the blind old lady and the lame little boy, are full of the spirit which charms alike the contemporaries of the aged heroine and the youthful hero, to say nothing of many people neither so old nor so young. In a vein no less charming are several other songs in which youth and age figure side by side. Mr. Bunner’s fancy is in general a stay-at-home, for it is with themes of New York that he is most at ease; not the New York of mere money-getting and “ enterprise,” but of traditions and the better fullness of life. Like Austin Dobson’s, his is an urban Muse; and if man made the town, it is surely this lady who is responsible for some of the pleasantest things about it.
In strong contrast with Mr. Bunner stands Mr. Maurice Thompson, whose Muse, far from being of the town, may almost be said to have all outdoors for her province. His verse, possibly because of this fact, is far less equal than Mr. Bunner’s. His volume of poems2 contains a considerably larger portion of the things that might have been omitted without serious loss. The first few poems in the book, for instance, purport to be
Golden note by golden word;
Th’ original melody
Imitated phrase by phrase,
As heard in dewy dawn-lit ways
Of Freedom’s solitudes
Down by the sea in the springtime woods.”
To outmock the mocking-bird, to sing a deeper human meaning into his song, is no light undertaking; and if Mr. Thompson’s success has not been uniformly conspicuous, there need be little wonder. One or two short passages are so good that the wonder, for the moment, may be transferred to their existence. It is as the man, not the mockingbird, in the woods that Mr. Thompson is at his best, —the man skilled in men’s sports, especially the ancient, genuine use of bow and shaft. With a zest equal to Miss Jewett’s tenderness in writing of the escape of her White Heron, he tells how the arrow brought down the prize for him. Virility is Mr. Thompson’s clearest note, and wherever the man is found, close to nature or among the vanquished on the field of battle, he speaks unmistakably forth. There is so true a ring, so hearty a spirit, in the best of Mr. Thompson’s verse that one is ready to condone the inequalities of the rest of it.
Though one of Mr. Thompson’s longest poems, In Exile, in praise of archery, has the rather unpatriotic refrain,
And tell me England calls me home,”
he is as distinctively American as any of the new singers, with the exception of Mr. Eugene Field. The newspapers have made Mr. Field’s work very familiar, yet one cannot pass his Second Book of verse3 without some mention of its Americanism, so purely of the type that will please those English cousins of ours who are unwilling to believe that any American can speak without the direct aid of his nose. Indeed, there could be no possibility of mistaking Mr. Field’s work for anything but that of an American, and one to whom the West is almost as much of the world as he cares to recognize, except in European journeys undertaken for the strictly utilitarian purpose of dispelling dyspepsia and recovering from overwork. Nevertheless, it must be said that there is in Mr. Field’s work a robust nonchalance, a broad vein of humor, a perfectly outspoken vulgarity, —if so harsh a word must be used, —which command a certain sort of liking from nearly all classes of readers, and wins a large number of lovers of free and easy verse completely to his side. If, however, he is to be a new Bret Harte, it can only be as his contemporary Chicago composer is the Sullivan of the West. To this composer, indeed, Mr. Field might without unfitness play the rôle of a Gilbert.
Mr. Field’s Americanism is touched — more amply, perhaps, than we have suggested - by familiarity with the Old World, but not at all in the degree exhibited by Miss Louise Imogen Guiney in her new book, A Roadside Harp.4 Slight as this point of kinship is between the two writers, it is the only one which can be said to exist. To any writer so imbued with classicism as Miss Guiney, not only the Old World, but the models and themes of ancient literature, must perforce be a staple of inspiration. The charm of her work is that all her intimacy with the past of letters has not impaired her own individuality. She sings a song of Greece or Rome or of Elizabethan England in a manner abundantly suggestive of its time, yet alive with the personality of its modern author. Who but a classicist would devote a goodly bit of verse to envy of Lovelace for having written,
Loved I not honour more ” ?
Or, to go back to the truly ancient, who but such an one could have done The Cherry Bough, a lament over Ovid’s exile by one of his friends, under a cherrytree they both had loved ? Thus like a very translation from the Latin it ends :
I break it, leaf and fruit, my garden’s glory,
And hold it high among them, and say after:
‘ O my poor Ovid,
For the clear time when we were boys together,
These tears at home are shed; and with you
Your bough is dying.’ ”
And from old Rome to modern London, of which this new book has twelve striking sonnets, Miss Guiney turns with no loss of firmness and spirit. One thing from the classics, however, she has still to learn, — lucidity. She always has an idea, — which cannot be said of all our singers, —even if she fails sometimes to make it clear to others. A gain in this respect is noticeable in this last collection of her work, and in her next we shall look for a still greater advance. It is not to be expected, nor hoped, that her work will be any less that of a lover of books. If in this very direction she continues to grow, as she is growing also in sympathy with many things more essentially human than paper and printer’s ink, it is not too much to predict that her ripened talents will win her a place among the few women who have made enduring contributions to American verse.
A complete edition of the Poems of Mrs. Julia C. R. Dorr 5 comes to claim its place among these contributions. The addition of some new verses does not greatly help nor mar the reputation her work has already won with its readers. The best things in the book are among the sonnets, a few of which are very direct and forcible. Miss Edith M. Thomas, too, is so well known to the public that little need be said of her last book, Fair Shadow Land.6 Like much other verse of our day, Miss Thomas’s suffers unduly at times from compression; but sensitive human nature, feminine, finds constant, true expression throughout her book, and some of the poems spring from a fund of fancy more than commonly attractive.
The cosmopolitan vein of our verse crops out again in the two new volumes, Francis Drake, a Tragedy of the Sea,7 and The Mother and Other Poems,8 by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, possibly, with the exception of Miss Guiney, the least markedly American of our present singers. The subject of the first volume, a poem in dramatic form, is taken from the career of the great Elizabethan admiral. In selecting the theme of Thomas Doughty’s trial and execution, and the farewell supper, after a last communion on St. Julian’s Island, with the friends who had condemned him to death, Dr. Mitchell chose one of the most dramatic scenes in history. Though Shakespearean and Bible phrases lend their aid to the archaic diction perhaps more often than its effectiveness demands, the poem is so essentially dramatic that one does not insist upon all points of detail, and welcomes a production which, meant for the closet rather than for the stage, may take no mean rank among the plays that are more properly works. The volume beginning with The Mother — a poem, by the way, strangely akin in thought, though not at all in treatment, to William Watson’s Destiny of Man — is as a whole less striking. Its showings of the effect of recent holidays upon the writer’s mind are, however, all agreeable, and some of the poems of Rome and Venice have no slight beauty of their own.
Italy is the theme, too, of one of the most attractive things in Mr. Robert Underwood Johnson’s volume, The Winter Hour and Other Poems.9 For the sake of hastening the time when a composer shall give music to the following lyric, and for its own sake, we reprint it. Outside Florence, the poet looks
Upon a city with a soul,’’
LOVE IN ITALY.
Below, the towered city lay ;
The valley in the moonlight’s thrall
Was silent in a swoon of May.
As hand to hand spoke one soft word
Beneath the friendly ilex-tree,
They knew not, of the flame that stirred,
What, part was Love, what Italy.
Where Beatrice and Juliet are,—
The sweeter perfume in the night,,
The lovelier starlight in the star ;
And more that glowing hour did prove,
Beneath the sheltering ilex-tree, —
That Italy transfigures Love,
As Love transfigures Italy.
Music, travel, books, home and the woman’s spirit which animates it, are some of the themes of Mr, Johnson’s very graceful Winter Hour. For the rest of the book, excepting a few lyrics of the seasons, it must be said that the occasional has too prominent a place, though good taste and ease constantly give the work a value, even if it is not of the highest in the poetic scale.
It would be slighting our accessions of verse during the year past to leave unnoticed Mr. Richard Hovey’s Seaward, an Elegy on the Death of Thomas William Parsons.10 It may be somewhat unfortunate that whenever a poet dies it is thought necessary to serve his memory with a poem framed upon the lofty plan of Adonais and Thyrsis. The result is rarely adequate to the conception. Mr. Hovey has essayed an American threnody, and in some aspects has shown himself equal to the task. The poem contains noble stanzas, full of appreciation of Dr. Parsons’s true place among our poets, and fired with the enthusiastic loyalty of a younger friend and admirer. When Mr. Hovey is enticed away into praise of some of his contemporaries, and into other passages which bear no very vital relation to the subject of the elegy, he shows the lack of selfrestraint which, in smaller measure, mars some of his separate lines and stanzas. Still better things than the best of Seaward may be expected of him when he has himself more thoroughly in hand.
A word, too, must be said of The Dead Nymph and Other Poems,11 a posthumous volume by Charles Henry Lüders, a young Pennsylvanian singer. It is only a pledge of what might have been, and the friends and critics of Mr. Lüders thought that to be no mean thing. The little book is full of grace and pleasant fancy, and, showing rather scanty accomplishment, has its more than common share of promise.
Nearly every poet tells us that sweeter than anything he has yet given the world are his “ unsung songs.” These must be the poems which one day are to swell the pleasant stream of modern American verse into a stately river. Meanwhile, let us take what joy we may of the stream, and try now and again to remind ourselves, by such glances at the banks as we have just been giving, that perhaps the river is yet to be.
- Rowen, Second Crop Songs. By H. C. BUNNER. New York. Charles Scribner’s Sous. 1893.↩
- Poems. By MAURICE THOMPSON. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1892.↩
- Second Book of Verse. By EUGENE FIELD. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1893.↩
- A Roadside Harp. A Book of Verses. By LOUISE IMOGEN GUINEY. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1893. (Advance sheets.)↩
- Poems. By JULIA C. R. DORR. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1892.↩
- Pair Shadow Land. By EDITH M. THOMAS. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1893.↩
- Francis Drake. A Tragedy of the Sea. By S. WEIR MITCHELL, M. D., LL. D. Harv. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1893.↩
- The Mother and Other Poems. By S. WEIR MITCHELL, M. D., LL. D. Harv. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1893.↩
- The Winter Hour and Other Poems. By ROBERT UNDERWOOD JOHNSON. New York : The Century Company. 1892.↩
- Seaward. An Elegy on the Death of Thomas William Parsons. By RICHARD HOVEY. Boston : D. Lothrop Co. 1893.↩
- The Dead Nymph and Other Poems. By CHARLES HENRY LÜDERS. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1892.↩