AMONG recent books of verse, Mrs. Fields’s Orpheus, a Masque,1 is notable for its delicacy of mood and quiet distinction of manner. In the forty or more pages of this singularly attractive volume, she has presented a new version of one of the most permanently lovely and significant of Greek myths. The Orpheus story has been told many times in modern poetry, and for all its simplicity it lends itself endlessly to new meanings. In Mrs. Fields’s Masque, the dramatic action turns upon the spiritual growth of Eurydice after her sojourn in Hades. Moved now only by the love that allies itself to highest good, she refuses to follow Orpheus back to “ the household ways he loved so well,” since she cannot bring herself to abandon the sorrowful and forsaken spirits whom she has learned to know in the shadow land. But Orpheus cannot respond to her entreaties to
With love and rejoicing1
The spirits repentant.”
Sadly she disengages herself from him, and he returns alone to Thrace, there to meet strange adventures and a strange doom. Mrs. Fields has given to this sacrificial, purgatorial element in the legend a deep meaning, and she has clothed the poem throughout with an unbroken beauty of expression. The monologues and dialogues are in firm, well-moulded verse; the lyrics are deftly varied in metrical effect; and the Masque leaves an impression of grace, purity of feeling, and a vital interpretation of a profoundly imaginative legend.
Another veteran writer whose latest book will bring her fresh laurels is Mrs. Dorr. Very characteristic of the spirit of her new volume2 is the sonnet: —
Let the old sing thy praises, for they know
How year by year the summers come and go,
Each with its own abounding sweetness rife !
They know, though frosts be cruel as the knife,
Yet with each June the perfect rose shall blow,
And daisies blossom, and the green grass grow,
Triumphant still, unvexed by storm or strife.
They know that night more splendid is than day;
That sunset skies flame in the gathering dark,
And the deep waters change to molten gold ;
They know that autumn richer is than May ;
They hear the night-birds singing like the lark —
Ah, life, sweet life, whom the Gods love die old! ”
A book of such rich and eloquent verse as this is an evidence not only of ripeness of experience, but of artistic maturity as well. Mrs. Dorr’s lyrics have always had the note of spontaneity. They have expressed with rare fidelity the beauty of her northern New England country. They have never failed in musical quality or in genuineness of feeling. But her Afterglow, in its tender portrayal of gracious memories, in the pathos and longing with which it addresses unearthly listeners, in its human sympathy and religious faith, shows her fine powers at their very best.
Mr. Lloyd Mifflin comes before the public for the fourth time with The Fields of Dawn and Later Sonnets.3 His command of the sonnet form has received wide recognition ; and if in this new collection there are few evidences of technical advance, it is because the author has long since mastered his instrument. About half of the one hundred sonnets deal with the scenes and mild adventures of the author’s youth. These are gracefully and musically rendered, but, like many sonnets of minor Wordsworthians, they recall, with a prodigal luxury of reminiscence, images and events that are of little intrinsic or suggestive significance. The Later Sonnets are better in this regard, and contain many memorable lines. Sometimes Mr. Mifflin’s work is merely mellifluous; the conscious employment of the tone values of proper names now and then smacks of preciosity ; but again the lines chime with a sonorous splendor that rivals Heredia. As a whole, the collection lacks variety and passion, although it reveals everywhere the hand of an admirable workman.
Poetry at once more masculine and more mystical is to be found in Mr. William Vaughn Moody’s Masque-Drama.4 Mr. Moody’s odes and lyrics, some of which are already familiar to readers of The Atlantic, are more likely to win attention than this powerful but not very easily understood Masque of Judgment, whose dramatis personœ are Raphael, Uriel, Michael, Azaziel, the Angels of the Pale, White and Red Horses, the Spirits of the Throne-Lamps, the Lion and Eagle of the Throne, the Angel of the Tree of Knowledge, the Spirits of the Saved and the Lost, Moon-Spirits and Voices ! The action takes place immediately before the Incarnation, during and after the Crucifixion, and upon the Day of Judgment. The internal conflict passes in the soul of Raphael, “ friend of man and nature’s old-time lover,” while the catastrophe is a horrible Twilight of the Gods, when the Creator dies in the death of the Antagonist, and “ the snake reigns, coiled on the holy hill.” Together with much that is turbid, bizarre, and violent, the drama contains many passages of extraordinary clarity and perfection. Its verse betrays the close student of Miltonic prosody ; the exquisite lyrical movements suggest Paracelsus ; while its romantic dramatic structure reminds the reader now of Shelley’s Prometheus, now of Byron’s Cain and Heaven and Earth. These are high comparisons, of course. But The Masque of Judgment is a thoroughly original piece of dramatic writing. Subtle philosophical conceptions underlie its grandiose imagery. In the fantastic shadows of the ruined world which it depicts there is everywhere a smouldering glow of strange beauty, and the poem, hasty and immature though it seems to be, is rich in promise.
Another excellent performance of one of the younger American verse-writers is the new volume by Miss Josephine Preston Peabody.5 She takes the title of her one-act Elizabethan play from a line in the XXIXth Sonnet of Shakespeare. Her heroine is Mistress Mary Fytton, the mysterious — or is it only the supposititious ? — “ dark lady ” of the Sonnets. The hero is “ a Player, Master W. S. of the Lord Chamberlain’s Company,” whose successful rival in Mistress Fytton’s fickle affections is “ William Herbert, Son of the Earl of Pembroke.” These personages, with various minor ones, are skillfully thrown together in a Bankside inn, and the dramatic climax is swiftly evolved when Mistress Fytton makes a last attempt to command anew the Player’s loyalty, for reasons of her own. The dialogue and construction are alike satisfying, and the characterization is nowhere more discriminating than in the portrayal of the Player, who says and does nothing that Shakespeare might not presumably have said and done, and much that he assuredly might. Equally attractive writing, though of another genre, may be found in the poems and songs which Miss Peabody prints in the same volume. She loves the close-packed line, the subtle phrase, the elusive word, the “ shade ” rather than the full chord of color. It is delicate and craftsmanlike work, done after all, perhaps, with too fine a point. Broader strokes would be more telling.
Mr. Stephen Phillips’s new play6 has already received comment in The Atlantic’s recently printed Letter from England. Upon a first reading of the book one is chiefly impressed with the technical excellence of Mr. Phillips’s stagecraft, in which he has evidently been guided throughout by his own experience as an actor. The play, rich as it is, shows an economy of mere ornament, a restraint, a swift and supple movement, that are rare in English poetical dramas. A second reading tempts one to linger over the lines upon which the author of Marpessa and Paolo and Francesca has given full play to his love of beauty and mastery of words; to enjoy the Tennysonian music of
or to savor all of Marlowe, not only in such obvious echoes as,
Or I will call not earthly vengeance down.
I have exhausted earth, I ’ll fetch the lightning
And call on thunder like an emperor ! ”
and the thrice-repeated
And high-walled Joppa, and Anthedon’s shore,
And Gaza unto these, and Straton’s towers,”
but in the more subtle analogies of lines like,
That face that seems as it had come to pass
Like a thing prophesied! ”
But with a third reading of Herod one becomes conscious not so much of dramaturgic skill and haunting single lines as of the fact that the English race is never for long without a poet, and that, in spite of every dissonance, garishness, and cruelty revealed in the new century’s dawn, we have still,
With bathing and obliterating beauty.”
- Orpheus. A Masque. By MRS. FIELDS. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1900.↩
- Afterglow. Later Poems. By JULIA C. R. DORR. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1900.↩
- The Fields of Dawn and Later Sonnets. By LLOYD MIFFLIN. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1900.↩
- The Masque of Judgment. A MasqueDrama in Five Acts, and a Prelude. By WILLIAM VAUGHN MOODY. Boston : Small, Maynard & Co. 1900.↩
- Fortune and Men’s Eyes. New Poems with a Play. By JOSEPHINE PRESTON PEABODY. Boston : Small, Maynard & Co. 1900.↩
- Herod. A Tragedy. By STEPHEN PHILLIPS. London and New York: John Lane. 1901.↩