Verse Under Prosaic Conditions

EVERY one remembers the striking chapter of Notre Dame in which Claude Frollo muses on the effect of the new art of printing upon architecture. Lifting his eyes from the book to the cathedral, he exclaims, “ This will supplant that! ” The words contain more truth than most of Victor Hugo’s aphorisms. It seems to be a law of compensation that one form of mental activity is bought at the price of some other. Printing may have displaced architecture ; the question now arises, Has the steam-engine destroyed poetry ? All admit that poetry is for the present obscured ; many look forward to a revival, as has happened before after prosaic periods. But reflection raises a more serious doubt: Is the age of poetry, too, gone ? Has the roar of the factory drowned the music of verse ?

The question is not so extravagant as may appear at first blush. Poetry, to be a living art, must be a natural expression of life, not an exotic adornment. In order to become this, the daily routine of life must be capable of presentation in poetic form, enhanced to a certain extent by the imagination, but still substantially like the reality. Now, this can happen only when the ordinary events of the day and the various implements employed are all close to man, instinct with man’s activity and feeling, yet sufficiently removed from the coarseness of savage habit to be susceptible of beauty. Without gainsay, the age of Homer fulfilled these conditions more perfectly than any other, and this is one reason among several why the Homeric poems have a peculiar fullness of interest which has never been equaled. Critics have asked why the mere sailing of a ship is poetical in Homer in a way different from anything in modern writing ; why the mere putting on and off of clothing has its charm. This is partly due, no doubt, to the melodious sound of the Greek language, but still more to the nearness of these actions to man. The simple sailing-vessel of Homer, every part of which was shaped immediately by the builder’s craft, which was propelled by the winds and governed directly by the pilot’s hand, is. pace Mr. Kipling and MacAndrew’s Hymn, a fitter subject of poetry than an Atlantic steamer. So, too, a human interest clings to a robe woven in the prince’s halls by Andromache and her maidens, such as a garment of Worth’s can scarcely possess.

M. Bourget tells humorously his experience in the Waldorf hotel in New York, the impression its magnificence made on him, and then his sense of bewilderment at the thought of all the tubes, wires, and other mechanical devices hidden within its frescoed walls. It is a similar invasion of machinery into all parts of human activity that renders modern life complicated, interesting in many ways, but not poetical. Indeed, any unimpassioned Survey of recent verse must enforce this truth. After reading half a dozen or more volumes of the day, one is ready to ask in despair whether it were not wiser to acknowledge frankly the fact, and turn our energy to other more fruitful tasks. So true is this that the chief interest for the critical reader in such works is the psychological study of the different means employed by various writers to escape this prosaic necessity. If of somewhat cynical disposition, he might establish four pretty well-defined groups, — the grotesque, the amateur, the dilettante, and the decadent, — and find his pleasure in so classifying the volumes of verse that fell into his hands. Generally a glance would suffice to determine the genus.


Noticeable at present are the writers of what, for want of better title, may be called the grotesque, — writers who make no pretension to original perception of beauty, but are inspired by an inverted appreciation of the poems of others. By catching the style of these and exaggerating its mannerisms they produce a grotesque effect very amusing for the nonce. Calverley was the master in this art, and clever imitation of his work has been abundant down to the recent volume of Mr. Seaman. But why, might be asked in passing, is Swinburne so admirable a mark for this foolery ? And why do the English so excel in this kind of writing ? Is it because the practical nature of the English is a little ashamed of sentiment and pretty words ?

Other writers of the grotesque turn their powers of parody to low forms of life, whose crudeness and eccentricities they magnify with more or less good humor. Coarse dialect, or bad English simply, brutality, the reeking wit of the barrack-room or the gutter, are easily caught. When these are warmed with genuine human sympathy and redundant picturesqueness of style, as in the case of Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads, the result is pretty close to real poetry. We have the nearness to man’s life, however much the celestial graces may be wanting. But take away this consummate knowledge and skill, and the verse, as seen in Kipling’s imitators, may amuse for a moment, but can hardly lay claim to serious consideration. Such a book, clever enough of its kind, is Mr. Chambers’s With the Band.1 The humor of his army pieces has a pleasant rollicking freshness, and may represent very well life with the band ; at least, we all seem to have seen Private McFadden drilling, in the militia if not in the regular army, and we can sympathize heartily with the corporal.

“Sez Corporal Madden to Private McFadden :
‘ Yer figger wants padd’n’
Sure, man, ye’ve no shape!
Behind ye yer shoulders
Stick out like two bowlders ;
Yer shins is as thin
As a pair of pen-holders !
Wan — two!
Wan — two !
Yer belly belongs on yer back, ye Jew!
Wan — two !
Time! Mark!
I ’m dhry as a dog — I can’t shpake but I bark ! ’ ”

It is a pity Mr. Chambers has not filled his volume with this roistering fun, for the bits of tragic prose-poetry at the end can hardly entertain any one.

“ We passed into the forest, dim, vast, vague with the swaying mystery of mist and shadow; and I heard her whisper, ‘ Dream no more.'

“ I touched her lids, low, drooping: ‘ Dream ! dream ! for Faith is dead,’ I said.

“ Then a blue star flashed,” etc.

What amorphous thing is this, that has not even the tone of genuine decadence which it would simulate, but hovers in the limbo of the amateur ?


It is perhaps hardly correct to say of the gentle tribe of amateurs that their effusions are debarred the true fields of song by the complexity of modern existence. It might rather be said of them as George Sand wrote to Flaubert, “ Our works are worth what we ourselves are worth.” A hard saying, often repeated, yet constantly forgotten. In these gentlemen, appreciation of poetry is keen, ambition petulant, but the art is lacking. Either the metre limps, or the grammar is uncertain, or the ideas are commonplace, — unless indeed all three traits are found united. There should seem to be a large number of persons, mostly young, who read verse with avidity, and, mistaking appreciation for inspiration, believe they could create what they can understand. Alas, the Muse is the most exacting of mistresses ! They forget that the mere mastery of the technique demands strenuous devotion; they forget that high poetry cannot be written unless the life is passed in high thought, that great passions can rarely he portrayed unless such passions are indulged in. Hardly shall a man spend the day at other tasks, and then in the evening, when the brain is fagged, turn easily to creative work. Literature produced under such circumstances is generally honest enough in purpose, healthy in sentiment, but flat and unraised.

A noteworthy example of the better writing of this kind is given us in Fugitive Lines, by Henry Jerome Stockard.2 Some of the sonnets in his volume rise distinctly above the common level, and awaken regret that so many of the poems are disfigured by crudities. Were they all as admirable in expression as the sonnet entitled My Library, the captious ear would not so often take offense : —

“ At times these walls enchanted fade, it seems,
And, lost, I wander through the Long Ago, —
In Edens where the lotus still doth grow,
And many a reedy river seaward gleams.
Now Pindar’s soft-stringed shell blends with my dreams,
And now the elfin horns of Oberon blow,
Or flutes Theocritus by the wimpling flow
Of immemorial amaranth-margined streams.
Gray Dante leads me down the cloud-built stair,
And parts with shadowy hands the mists that veil
Scarred deeps distraught by crying winds forlorn;
By Milton stayed, chaotic steps I dare,
And, with his immaterial presence pale.
Stand on the heights flushed ill creation’s morn ! ”

Despite the doubtful characterization of Pindar, this is. we think, decidedly better than most of the modern verse published ; but, on the other hand, too much of the work is of a sort which, to borrow an epithet from the book itself, may be called fountain-pen poetry, —

“ My fountain pen, wherewith I write
This would-be poetry to-night.”

Mr. Stockard was cruel to himself when he printed these lines. They call to mind a story of Leconte de Lisle, who complained to some of the younger poets of the uncertain quality of their verse. “ But we 're groping ” (nous tâtonnons), they explained. “ Very well, but don’t grope in print,” replied the master. A philosopher might reflect with melancholy on the invasion of the fountain pen into the realms of Parnassus. The gray goose-quill has a certain poetical tang; but the fountain pen imports into the very workshop of the Muses the machinery which benumbs the lyric sense.


The effort to escape prosaic surroundings is more evident in a third group who flee to Nature for refuge. The result is a kind of dilettante-nature poetry, often exquisite in form and delicate in sentiment, but lacking in virile human sympathy. Here it behooves one to speak cautiously. Since Wordsworth’s advent the Nature cult has become so firmly established that the skeptic is like to suffer the penalties of a new Inquisition. But the question forces itself upon us, Is it, after all, a very high form of art which ignores human passion for the contemplation of the inanimate world ? If we may judge from the past, the predominance of descriptive writing signifies a sure decay of creative force.

It is instructive to note with what consummate skill the great classic authors used nature as a background for human action ; how it was identified with the mood of the agent, yet never overshadowed him ; how some aspect of the visible world was employed as a symbol of the action, yet never intruded into the narration. The sea in Homer has a haunting, half-mystical affinity with the moods of his heroes. We remember the priest of Apollo walking in silence by the shore of the many-sounding sea. We remember that Achilles was the child of an ocean goddess, and see him in his sullen wrath looking out over the tumultuous waters. Odysseus, too, when we first meet him, is sitting on the beach, after his wont, gazing homeward over the unharvested sea, wasting his heart with tears and lamentations. And throughout his wanderings, to the last prophecy that his rest is to come after establishing the worship of Poseidon in a far inland country, always the ocean is interwoven with his destiny. In both poems the “ murmurs and scents of the infinite sea ” are never far away; and yet how little of descriptive writing they contain! Action and emotion everywhere predominate. By Virgil and his contemporaries Nature was introduced more for her own sake, more after the modern fashion. Yet here again two things are to be noted : natural scenery is less employed in its lonelier aspects than as reflecting the works of man, and the admiration of nature is intimately associated with a peculiar phase of search for truth. Who does not cherish in memory the verses of the second Georgic, which draw their inspiration from Lucretius, ending with the famous

“ Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere caussas ” ?

Through Lucretius, Propertius, Virgil, and others can be traced the enthusiastic belief that by means of the scientific study of phenomena a philosophy was to be discovered which should free the soul from the sadness of life and the terrors of death. In modern thought, a necessary divorce has taken place between man and nature on the one hand, between contemplation and science on the other. We love, or pretend to love, best scenes unmarred by the hand of man ; we have learned sadly, or think we have learned, that no mystery of faith is to be wrung from the study of physical laws.

In Shelley and Wordsworth, the modern high priests of Nature, the more precise philosophy of antiquity is replaced by a dim, mystical pantheism which would cheat the inquiring spirit into acquiescence. But this phase too has passed away, and at present we are entertained by a choir of songsters who treat us to poems woven of tag-ends of description, mostly brought together in a haphazard fashion, and whose highest thought is a mildly brooding reverie which may soothe the ear, but hardly quickens the imagination.

To be sure, this kind of poetry has quite often a certain charm and even justification of its own. The volume by Harriet Prescott Spofford, named from the introductory poem, In Titian’s Garden,3 is a notable instance of this, Redundancy of epithets — a common trait of the dilettante - nature school — vexes the reader at times ; some of the poems — the Story of the Iceberg, for example — being little more than a jumble of brilliant adjectives. Here and there a lapse of taste distresses the ear, as in the gruesome line,

“ Oh, then the poet feels him part of all the lovesome stirring thing.”

Occasionally the verses fall into sheer bathos. Thus, it is a pretty conceit, however trite, to tell of the Making of the Pearl in an oyster; but is there not something a little humorous in such stanzas as these ?

“ A tiny rasping grain of sand
It was, whose never-ceasing prick
Dispelled the charm of summer seas
And pierced him to the very quick.
“ Ah, what a world of trouble now !
But straight he bent him to the strife,
And poured around that hostile thing
The precious ichor of his life.
“ And storms could stoop and stir the deeps
To blackness, but he heeded not,—
The universe had nothing now
For him but that one fatal spot.”

Yet such criticism is hardly just. The book as a whole is pretty reading. It leaves an impression on the mind like that of an evening stroll along a country lane, when twilight throws a mellow charm over the fields, and as we walk the succession of pleasant sights and sounds brings a gracious feeling of rest to the heart. A fairer specimen of the author’s ability is The Violin, an expansion of the happy motto, —

“ Viva fui in sylvis,
Duin vixi tacui,
Mortua dulce cano.”

The conceit is ingenious, and justifies the tendency to describe natural scenes linearly ; that is, by a chain of impressions loosely linked together.

“ All the leaves were rustling in the forest,
All the springs were bubbling in the moss;
What light laughter where the brooks were spilling,
What lament I heard the branches toss,
Ah, what pipings gave me thrill on thrill!
All the world was wild with broken music —
I alone was silent, I was still.
“ White the moonbeam wove its weird about me,
Starshine clad my houghs with streaming flame,
Mighty winds caressed me out of heaven,
Storm-clouds in a fleece upon me came,
Earth’s deep juices fed me all my fill —
Strains swept through me fit for sovran singing —
I, alas, was silent, I was still.”

Into the heart of the tree pass all the melodies of the forest; beneath its shade lovers whisper their tale, and there in the deep bracken at its root the wanderer spends his soul with weeping, but the tree is silent. Came the woodman with his stroke ; came the craftsman with his cunning, and framed the perfect instrument ; and then at last

“ Came the Master — drew his hand across me —
Oh, what shocked me, what great throb of bliss
Wakened me to pulse on pulse of rapture —
Soul my soul, I never dreamed of this!
Breath of horn and silver fret of flute,
Compass of all nature’s various voices,
I was singing — I who once was mute!
“ Winding waters, silken breezes blowing,
Fragrances of morning filled my tune,
Glimpses of the land where dreams are mantled,
East o’ the sun and rearward of the moon,
Songs from music’s ever-swelling tide,
Music heating up the walls of heaven —
I had never sung had I not died ! ”


Confronting the volume of New Poems by the English poet Francis Thompson,4 we have quite a different problem to solve. The spirit of the book is so wantonly contorted, yet lighted here and there by such flashes of starry beauty, that the mind of the reader is bewildered. Let us admit frankly at the outset that we really comprehend almost all Mr. Thompson has written. This is a large confession; for it means that time and thought have been expended upon him which might suffice for a pretty careful reading of the whole of Shakespeare. And then, having devoted so much labor to the task, one is in doubt whether to indulge in the satisfaction of having mastered a difficult subject, or to feel resentment that so much good time has been filched away. Yet we would not so humiliate our author as to boast that all his work is comprehensible. Whenn a clever poet converts the old axiom “ Ars celare artem ” into “ Ars celare sensum,” something must be conceded to his cunning. Mr. Thompson himself has said of one of the poems, —

“ This song is sung and sung not, and its words are sealed; ”

and the reader adds reverently, “Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof ? ”

What can be said of such willful obscurity ? Its best excuse is that it is not peculiar to the writer, but characteristic of one large branch of the decadent school to which he belongs. It is pathological. In an age normally poetical, the common daily happenings easily pass into song, and poetry is the expression of a complete life. The man of contorted, halfdazed intelligence will hardly be received as a poet, however he may pique curiosity as an oracle. But in a mechanical prosaic period, when the current of healthy activity turns strongly in another direction, the singer is too often not the strong man, the wise sane seer, but one whose nerves are tingling with abnormal excitement, and whose imagination is tormented by unseizable phantasmagoria. In place of poetry that is a true criticism of life, various schools of decadence start up, appealing each to its own coterie. Unintelligibility here is a seal of genuineness, and escapes censure.

This obscurity, moreover, is one of the signs of that general dissolution, or confusion, of the mind and senses which permeates decadent writing. First of all, the language loses its firm mould, archaic expressions jostle side by side with neologisms, common words take on uncommon meanings, compounds are formed contrary to all recognized linguistic laws. From the book before us a rich harvest of such solecisms might he gathered. A small sheaf may serve as specimens : fledge-foot, ensuit, gardenered, skiey-gendered, liberal-leaved, Weakening, spurted (for stained), transpicuous, blosmy, pined (used transitively), huest. sultry (as a verb), perceivingness, etc. Mr. Thompson’s vocabulary would appear to be modeled after Elizabethan usage, showing a predilection for the more dubious eccentricities of that period, and after the jargon of certain recent authors of France. But it is not language alone which suffers. A further confusion may be observed in the curious interchange of the attributes and epithets of the several senses, especially of sight and hearing. Any one familiar with the works of Mallarmé and his compeers will recognize this characteristic mark. The blind, it is said, substitute for colors the various sensations of sound, the word “ red,” in one case at least, producing an impression like the blare of trumpets. It is not uninteresting to compare this phenomenon with the following : —

“ So fearfully the sun doth sound
Clanging’ up behind Cathay.”
“ Though I the Orient never more shall feel
Break like a clash of cymbals.”

Still deeper than this confusion of language and sensation is the atony of mind that is the very creating spirit of decadence. Two tendencies may be observed : a proneness to neurotic sensuality on the one hand, and a hankering after mysticism on the other ; both springing from relaxation of the will, and a consequent loss of grip on realities. These tendencies may appear singly, or may be united as in the case of Verlaine. In Mr. Thompson sensuality is the last reproach to be offered ; he shows, indeed, everywhere entire purity of feeling. Mysticism, however, pervades the book from beginning to end. Now, mysticism is not rashly to be condemned when based on a foundation of virile reflection ; but in these New Poems, along with a vein of genuine ideality, there is, we fear, a good deal of vague reverie which arises rather from super-excited nerves than from strong self-restrained thought.

Yet it is pleasanter, in the case of Mr. Thompson, to dwell on the nobler side of his mysticism ; and nowhere does his song rise higher than when describing the sacred office of the bard himself. Pardoning the first line, how subtle is this passage from Contemplation ! —

“ For he, that conduit, running wine of song’,
Then to himself does most belong,
When he his mortal house unbars
To the importunate and thronging’ feet
That round our corporal walls unheeded beat ;
Till, all containing, he exalt
His stature to the stars, or stars
Narrow their heaven to his fleshly vault :
When, like a city under ocean.
To human things he grows a desolation,
And is made a habitation
For the fluctuous universe
To lave with unimpeded motion.”

In The Mistress of Vision his refined pantheism is worked out with cunning skill. Admirable is this expression of the terror of his vision : —

“ Where is the land of Luthany,
And where the region Elenore ?
I do faint therefor.
‘ When to the new eyes of thee
All things by immortal power,
Near or far,
To each other linkèd are,
That thou canst not stir a flower
Without, troubling of a star ;
When thy song is shield and mirror
To the fair snake-curlèd Pain,
Where thou dar’st affront her terror
That on her thou may’st attain
Perséan conquest; seek no more,
O seek no more !
Pass the gates of Luthany, tread the region Elenore ! ’ ”

After all, we cannot lay down the volume without feeling that we have heard strains of true singing, however much obscured. It is the cry of a noble spirit., that beholds the sky through prison-bars and beats in vain against his cage.

“ Ah !
If not in all too late and frozen a day
I come in rearward of the throats of song,
Unto the deaf sense of the agèd year
Singing with doom upon me: yet give heed !
One poet with sick pinion, that still feels
Breath through the Orient gateways closing fast,
Fast closing’ t’ward the unde lighted night! ”
  1. With the Band. By ROBERT W. CHAMBERS. New York : Stone & Kimball. 1896.
  2. Fugitive Lines. By HENRY JEROME STOCKARD. New York : G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1897.
  3. In Titian’s Garden, and Other Poems. By HARRIET PRESCOTT SPOFFORD. Boston: Copeland & Day. 1897.
  4. New Poems. By FRANCIS THOMPSON. Boston: Copeland Day. 1897.