Mr. Aldrich's Complete Works
OUR TWO MOST HONORED POETS.
IT is pleasant to note the simultaneous publication of Mr. Stedman’s Poems now First Collected, and the writings of Mr. Aldrich in a complete edition of eight handsome volumes, forming a kind of apt commentary upon the author’s own finished and reserved workmanship. As the two most conspicuous and honorable verse men who stand between the New England school of thirty years ago and the vaguely gathering forces of the present, Mr. Stedraan and Mr. Aldrich are too justly appreciated to make criticism very pertinent, but the provocation is sufficient to tempt one to look again and make clear to one’s self a remembered impression.
In spite of the much greater bulk of Mr. Aldrich’s prose, it is as a poet that he remains in the mind. Rivermouth is in truth a very attractive old town, where he lived for a time in contented and humorous exile ; but his home is Helicon.
That goddess whose preference for garret trysts he celebrates in one of his charming early lyrics knows more of his secrets than Prudence Palfrey or the Queen of Sheba will ever coax from him. He belongs, too. to that order of singers who most often choose their material from a mood antipodal to prose. The tendency of his mind is not inward, to penetrate and interpret the world that is, but outward, to discover or build a world responsive to the more delicate cravings of the senses and the imagination. But it is the privilege of his temperament, as it was of Keats’s, to give to this evasion a kind of moral and tonic meaning not inherent in the mood, which makes it something different from the idle singing of an empty day. We remember some years ago coming across a sonnet of Mr. Aldrich’s called Outward Bound, which has remained as a metaphor of the evading spirit touched by force of wistfulness to adventurous, almost strenuous ends. The poet has left behind him the elm-shadowed square of some New England seaport town, and has wandered through seaward-leading alleys to where, at the lane’s ending, lie the
Slim-masted lovers of the blue Azores ; ”
and at sight of the ships the boyish Wanderlust seizes him, the boyish fancy spreads wings with the brave fleet for the fairy shores which are his by right of longing. This is the poetic mood of youth, its most dynamic mood, out of which springs all its touching ideality. Mr. Aldrich has felt the mood so deeply as to make it the principle of his artistic life. He has really gone out toward those delicate coasts, and dwelt there in that softer light. Concretely, he has found there Nourmadee, dancing in her gauze of Tiflis green before the grave guests of Yussuf; Friar Jerome, bending above the intricate growing glories of his book ; Judith, moving gorgeous and great-hearted in the dusk of the king’s tent : but perhaps these are after all the least of the matter, since the spirit of the quest is more than the treasure.
To go in quest of pure beauty has been harder in the last decades of our century than it was at the beginning. When Keats set forth, the forces which were to make the century intellectually the most tragic in the history of the race announced themselves chiefly as a leaven, a diffused buoyancy. It was an easy thing for even so alert and masculine a spirit as his to sink itself in a dream of visionary beauty, hearing the tremendous preparations round about, if at all, only as a fruitful springtime bustle of the fields. Since Keats’s day, the wildness, the incoherence, the intellectual turmoil of the age have steadily deepened. The wind has made short work of most of the fragile harps set up to tame it to melody ; and even where these have been stout enough to stand the stress, too often the unwilling blast has drawn forth strains but dubiously musical. In Mr. Aldrich’s pages one comes, to be sure, upon the note of trouble ; here and there a poignant perception of the human flight admonishes us that the weaving of this verse of the cloth of gold has not been accomplished without sacrifice of " modern ” impulses ; but in the main what makes the work refreshing is the instinctiveness with which the author turns to the specific enthusiasm of the artist, as set off from the enthusiasm of the thinker or the preacher. He has done what Herrick did in an age which was in many respects singularly like our own. In a troubled era, the work of such men offers a gracious febrifuge. One turns to it out of the hurlyburly of query and doctrine as one turns out of the glare of an Italian street into a cool chapel, rich with the abiding shadow of an old, old dream.
And along with this integrity of instinct there has gone, in Mr. Aldrich’s case, an integrity of workmanship wholly fine. We are at liberty to quarrel with the ideal of workmanship which he sets up, of course. For our own part, we feel in it a too great insistence upon the visual, especially the chromatic aspect of things, and a consequent disregard of other appeal, both sensuous and imaginative. One of his dramatis personœ, a painter, wants to crush a star in order to obtain a pigment wherewith to paint the eyes of his beloved. That is what Mr. Aldrich is repeatedly wanting to do, forgetful for a moment that the meaning in the dullest eye outsyllables how far the whole chorushood of stars ! Possessing a vocabulary rich as an Oriental jewel-box, he yields to the temptation to make of his Muse a wearer of gems, when she should be a spirit and a wandering voice. Perhaps as a consequence of this, the verse sometimes lacks the high nervous organization which the occasion demands. This is the case, to our ear, with much of the blank verse of Wyndham Towers and of Judith and Holofernes, — more noticeably the latter, because of the greater weight and passion of the theme. The old Northumbrian poet who has left us a fragment of Judith’s story found a metre apter to keep pace with the throbbing of that magnificent barbaric heart. But such shortcomings in the author’s poetic craftsmanship, if they exist, serve only to throw into relief the general distinction of his touch.
It is a commonplace of contemporary criticism that the work of most of our bards, even down to the tiniest, is highly finished ; strictures upon the value of their poetic accomplishment are usually tempered by an acknowledgment of their conscientious mastery of form. Such an acknowledgment implies a thin and mechanical conception of the technique of verse. There is, as a matter of fact, exceedingly little minor verse which is really of high finish ; and in the rare cases where this exquisite adaptation exists, it is almost sufficient of itself to lift the work out of reach of the opprobrious epithet. Nobody knows this better, or has worked more earnestly in the light of the knowledge, than Mr. Aldrich. We do not have to read the tender opening lines of his Soliloquy at the Funeral of a Minor Poet to know that he loves to lavish endless patience upon a verse, until it is rich “ from end to end in blossom like a bough the May breathes on.” Work done in this spirit of nature is always touched with a kind of unworldly aura, no matter how small or frivolous the form upon which the spirit wreaks itself. Everywhere, and especially in America, the spirit is rare enough. Those persons to whom the words “ American literature ” mean at once a small accomplished fact and a large rational hope will be grateful to Mr. Aldrich for holding up an ideal of workmanship so sound, in a generation where the temptations to flashy device are many, and the rewards of artistic piety must be looked for — where indeed they have always abided — in the kingdom of heaven, which is within.