Poetry and Verse

BOOKS NEW AND OLD.

IT is odd that people who feel virtuous in spending ten dollars for a seat at the opera, or a hundred dollars for a modern painting (let us put it mildly), do not dream of spending a dollar for the new book of verse, — for any new book of verse. The point is not that such a book fails to interest them; it simply does not concern them in any way. Modern attempts at poetry do not constitute one of the worthy objects toward the encouragement of which one is expected to contribute in dollars — or cents. Yet public indifference to such attempts is, apparently, not inconsistent with a general understanding that they are pretty creditable. The technical quality of modern verse is admitted, even by modern verse-writers, to be extremely high. Certainly there is an increasing number of persons who are able to approximate good form in the employment of metre and rhyme. We study that sort of thing; we know the difference between an iambus and an anapest, and we get credit for it. Possibly we get too much credit for it. To remark that So-and-so is not much of a poet, but “writes as good verse as any in the language, ” is a little like saying that a builder of manikins makes as good bodies as the Creator, though they happen not to possess the breath of life. Of course the trouble with this figure is that any one can tell a manikin from a body at a glance, and no one can tell a piece of skillful verse from a poem at a glance. Perhaps that is why even the public that does use poetry in some form is bored with this facile and measured product of the modern verse-writer. It may very likely be poetry, but why bother with probabilities when there is so much poetry in the world of which we can be perfectly sure ? Everybody knows that the generation is lucky which produces one or two notable poets: why be looking for nightingales on every bush ? These are reasonable queries from persons who care only for nightingales, and are impatient of the imitator of the nightingale. Fortunately there are a good many birds which possess a delicate trill or an honest chirp of their own; and one may conceivably find just as many degrees of merit in poetry as in music or painting, and take just as much satisfaction in enjoying them all.

The chances are that a great deal of this current verse must fail to be poetry in any sense, because it is the outcome of no sort of creative power. It may be quite artificial, or it may more or less dimly suggest the presence of a creative power which needs to express itself through some other medium than verse. There never was such a thing as a “mute inglorious Milton; ” a great poet’s power of expression in verse is a part of the man himself, perhaps the most significant part, certainly inseparable from his power of poetic conception. No such prodigy as an inarticulate genius has yet been proved to have existed; though only the highest genius, perhaps, is perfectly articulate, as only the virtuosos are really masters of technique. Except in work of the highest genius, there are all degrees of ill balance between conception and execution ; but if verse is not in some sense articulate as well as inspired, it is not poetry, and no sleight-of-hand in the employment of metre and rhyme can make it so.

I.

In the work of two modern American verse-writers, Madison Cawein and Bliss Carman, who have perhaps come as near as anybody else to gaining an audience, it is hard to say, as yet, what part is played by creative power and what by sleight-of-hand. Such critics as Mr. Archer and Mr. Howells have discovered in the later work of Mr. Cawein a marked advance in human quality, if not in restraint. The character of the latest of his numerous volumes 1 is not likely to strengthen this impression. Mr. Cawein still appears to be a sensitive observer of nature (mainly, that is to say, of flowers and sunsets) and a skillful manipulator of metre and rhyme. There is a criticism which declares Tennyson’s knowledge of nature to be greater than Milton’s because he registers the fact that “the tender ash delays to clothe herself, While all the woods are green, ” and Milton can only talk of “russet lawns and fallows gray. ” Doubtless this should have prepared us to be interested in the habits of the pawpaw and the black cohosh; but it is only human for the reader to find pages and pages of such description a little wearisome. These details are at worst botanical, at best decorative; in neither case quite a poetic staple. We have come to feel the stupidity of demanding that a singer should be always saying things; but he must sing something: and this Mr. Cawein, like Mr. Carman, frequently fails to do. Mr. Carman not infrequently obscures the obscurity of his theme by apparent simplicity ; by the choice of elementary metrical forms, and a preference for the monosyllable. Besides, he is a symbolist, and may at any time be saying, if not something, something else. Mr. Cawein is not protected by a cult; and he is fond of complicated metrical and rhyming schemes, which, perhaps, make one unfairly suspicious of his spontaneity. He has, moreover, the weakness for the odd collocation of adjective and noun which appears to be among the special curses of modern pictorial poetry: collocations such as “bleak gowns,” “rosy gestures, ” and “flickering floors.” But of several pieces of verse in the present volume, one feels no doubt; they are not mere versified description, they are poetry. Especially in the two poems called Summer Noontide, and Heat, Mr. Cawein has succeeded in embodying a mood of nature. From the latter poem two or three stanzas must be quoted : —

II.

“ Knee-deep among the tepid pools the cows
Chew a slow cud or switch a slower tail,
Half-sunk in sleep beneath the beechen boughs,
Where thin the wood-gnats ail.
Prom bloom to bloom the languid butterflies drowse;
The sleepy bees make hardly any sound ;
The only things the sunrays can arouse,
It seems, are two black beetles rolling ’round
Upon the dusty ground.

V.

“ Furious, incessant in the weeds and briers
The sawing weed-bugs sing; and, heat-begot,
The grasshoppers, so many strident wires,
Staccato fiercely hot:
A lash of whirling sound that never tires,
The locust flails the noon, where harnessed Thirst,
Beside the road-spring many a shod hoof mires,
Into the trough thrusts his hot head, immersed,
’Round which cool bubbles burst.

VI.

“ The sad sweet voice of some wood-spirit who
Laments while watching a loved oak tree die,
From the deep forest comes the wood-dove’s coo,
A long, lost, lonely cry.
Oh, for a breeze, a mighty wind to woo
The woods to stormy laughter : sow like grain
The world with freshness of invisible dew,
And pile above far, fevered hill and plain
Vast bastions of rain.”

Evidently Mr. Cawein’s talent is his own. His greatest limitation as an artist is suggested by the fact that he has now published ten or twelve volumes of verse. He has not been able to hoard and refine; but if he has worked impulsively, the impulse has come from within. Even his ingenuity is not the result of a straining away from imitativeness.

II.

This straining away from imitativeness is unfortunately what many of our younger verse-writers are now concerned with, as they have always been. They are so much set upon producing the poetry of the future that they fail to produce the poetry of the present, which is after all what we need; and which must probably have many qualities in common with the poetry of the past. Their attempts are less hopeful from the fact that these enthusiasts have a habit of getting together. A new note in art is not likely to be invented by a coterie. We have a tender memory for the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood, but not even their achievement has changed the fact that while self-admiration has produced much of the first order in art, mutual admiration has produced nothing. What may be ordinarily expected of such a class is simply a more or less labored reversion. The mode just now popular in America appears to be of the rhapsodic, dithyrambic variety, not seldom degenerating into a sort of Græco-Swinburnian poetry of gesticulation. In The Morning Road,2 for example, the work of two supposably young men with a theory, there is a good deal of verse which one might call vigorous if it were not rather violent and incoherent. Here is a passage from A Song of the Sun: —

“ Loose me the scourge of the morning in glittering lashes,
Swing free the hissing whips that silence the song of the dawn,
Scatter the mists that beset thee with withering flashes,
Rise thou a king, o’er fabled eternities gone.
“ Sullen and gray are the fog-hosts, impenetrant, bounding
Thy castle unseen, — unsuspected its glory of impotent gold —
Tufted and plumed they gather, vindictive surrounding,
Rise and destroy, O Sluggard ! smite as thou smotest of old ! ”

Such verse as this certainly exhibits a flexible disposition of metre and rhyme, and (however induced) a certain ardor of feeling. On the whole, however, one feels that this Morning Road has something of the air of a stage highway, bounded by pasteboard statues and foliage, and animated by figures which always keep their faces toward the footlights. Surely the public cannot be expected to take much stock in a poetry of pose, however ingenuous that pose may be.

This book is, it should be said, the best of a considerable number of slender volumes of rhapsodizing which have recently passed by the editorial table on their way to dusty death. The worst of them is the utterance of a person in the far West, the profound, not to say desperate, nature of whose material is indicated by its title.3 A former volume of his was hailed in San Francisco as “a super-Byronic creation.” This perhaps accounts for the tasteful scowl which is the only adornment of the basrelievo bust awarded as the frontispiece of the present book. It is only fair in the poet to prepare us, for we are to find that he sticks at nothing. He is perfectly frank in telling us that he has loved many times in an uncompromising Byron-cum-Moore fashion : —

“I felt thy placid pulses glow
As from thy melting mouth I gleaned
The rosy raptures that eclipse,” etc.

He takes, moreover, a rhymedly sombre view of life, confessing a despairing interest in creation and the Progress of the Species: —

“ Are we nearer than the nascent life that slumbered in the slime,
When the protoplasmic moner scanned the steeps that it must climb ?
“ Or the microcosmic atom, ere its fetters left it free ?
Or the blind bathybius sleeping at the bottom of the sea ? ”

There is, of course, no special significance in the fact that these more or less metrical remarks happen to come from a certain point of the compass. Upon the eastern seaboard also, and much farther east than that, the tradition is still fondly cherished that there is some connection between a “virile” genius and that condition of inspired toughness fancifully called “Bohemianism.” Some day, let us hope, this “blind bathybius ” of a theory will be put to sleep forever.

III.

It is not, of course, so great a step from the pride of the flesh to the pride of the spirit. provided flesh and spirit be both pure and whole. Our neo-paganism, even at its best, is not more sincere or more interesting than the neomediævalism of poets like Lady Lindsay and Laurence Housman. Two recent volumes from these hands chance to be singularly alike in theme as well as in spirit.4 Neither poet can be considered a mere versifying antiquarian. The achievement of such men of genius as Lamb and Landor has long since established the fact that there are survivals in art which cannot be judged as imitations or even as reversions. It is evident that in both of the writers of whom we are speaking the religious mysticism of the Middle Ages is an inheritance, not an affectation. The manner of that less conscious age has been happily caught, also. The fine simplicity of some of Lady Lindsay’s carols is paralleled by the fine simplicity of Mr. Housman’s play. To many readers it will undoubtedly seem that mediævalism has had enough to say for itself; a few will recognize the studied but not factitious charm of such lyrics as this, none the less pleasing for its suggestion of Blake: —

“ Robin on the thorn,
Christ to-day was born.
Thou who, as men tell,
Gavest souls in hell
Drops of water cool
From a limpid pool —
“ Burning thy soft breast
Thus to scarlet vest,
Evermore to prove
Thy good gift of love —
Bird of mercy, stay ;
Sing thy joyous lay ! ”

or of such passages in the Nativity Play as this reply by the “Second King ” to Gabriel: —

“ Too slow my footsteps move
For the goal I seek to prove.
My body is a waste
Through which my soul doth haste,
Famished until it taste
Its nameless new desire !
A flame my spirit owns,
Ashes are all my bones,
Love lights in me such fire !
I thirst! my throat is dried !
I ask ; — am still denied !
Cry to be satisfied,
Yet only as Love will.
Now, if He come not first,
Not death, but ease were worst; —
Let me die, thirsting still!

Not often nowadays, apparently, does a writer of verse venture to put forth his work under a plain title. There is probably some reason for the fact, commercial or psychological, or both; but it is unknown to the present commentator. Very often, indeed, these fanciful labels seem to him to work distinctly to the prejudice of the wares which are offered. Thoughts Adrift and Tangled in Stars5 are two recent instances of the sort; the former title does happen to suggest pretty well the quality of the work, but the latter belongs to a volume of unusually clear, concrete verse. One is relieved not to be forced to dwell upon the nature of stellar entanglement, and pleased to find several real little poems of a graceful though earthly quality, which may be suggested by these lines from A March Night: —

“ Behind the gust and the ragged cloud
And the sound of loosening floods
I see young May with her fair head bowed,
Walking in a world of buds. ”

If a fanciful title was to be used, nothing could have been better than A World of Buds, or, to take a phrase from the pretty dedicatory lines, Little Leafy Songs.

Mr. Martin has chosen next to the most modest of possible titles for his recent collection.6 One does not know quite how to apply it, to be sure. Mr. Martin is at his best in verse as well as in prose, when he gives himself freely to the colloquial mood. Consequently it is possible that some of the bits in this volume which he would class as mere verse may contain more poetry, because more Mr. Martin, than some of the soberer numbers. There are one or two experiments in break-neck metre and double rhyming of which he very likely felt uncertain, and of which the result is certainly not poetry. On the other hand some of the occasional verses possess a sanity and geniality and deftness of touch which seem to rank them very nearly with Dr. Holmes’s. Of such light verse as Labuntur Anni, too, it must be said that it is light only in touch, not in value.

IV.

For humorous poetry of the best sort there is plenty of room on shelves burdened with the utterances of the solemn Muse. It is a pity that in his recent anthology7 Mr. Knowles has not restricted himself to the best, or even the next best sort. His collection includes work in all veins which can conceivably be called humorous, and in some which cannot; from the delicate badinage of Dobson, through all degrees of facetiousness and uproariousness to sheer nonsense. One’s impression of the heterogeneity of this material is very likely intensified by its absolute lack of arrangement. As nobody, unless for the humor of it, could think of reading such a book consecutively, there appears to be no reason why the poems should not have been printed in some sort of intelligible order.

I have not meant to speak of “sheer nonsense ” by way of depreciating that excellent commodity. The poetry of nonsense has also found a collector, and a very good book 8 is the result. The masterpieces of Lear, Lewis Carroll, and W. S. Gilbert are of course included, and to these are added a surprising number of good verses by a surprising number of writers. The only exception that can be taken to the method of the editor is that it has allowed some material to slip in which is too silly to be nonsense, and some which was not intended for nonsense at all. A large collection of unintentional or apparent nonsense verse could be culled without difficulty from sober books. In a recent book of verse, for example, one comes upon this stanza: —

“ A mug of kvass to my love I quaff,
Nu da, dusha Marya, th’ sky is black !
The big red-beaked epatkas laugh,
And the arres cackle round Unimak ! ”

This is, it seems, a serious love-song, with no more dialect in it than the poet feels is good for us. It may be cheerfully admitted that the two other stanzas are less cryptic, but the passage as it stands suggests irresistibly the outgrabing of the mome raths in Jabberwocky. Perhaps one penalty of enjoying deliberate nonsense is to be besieged by unseemly reminders of it ever after. For example, these lines, just come upon, —

“ The tide is yearning1 for the moon,
The streamlet for the sea,
The frozen dawn for sun of noon . . .
And I for thee ! ”

might have touched with their simplicity, if not their originality, a reader in whose ears a certain blithe measure of Owen Seaman’s did not happen to be echoing: —

“ The bulbul hummeth like a book
Upon the pooh-pooh tree,
And now and then he takes a look
At you and me,
At me and you.
Kuchi!
Kuchoo! ”

In the artful versification of broadly humorous narrative there have been as few masters as in the writing of good nonsense verse. The Ingoldsby Legends, The Bab Ballads, two or three poems by Dr. Holmes, and other single poems “scattering” — not many of them — constitute our classics in this kind. One feels inclined to congratulate Mr. Carryl upon having really added to them.9 His narratives have the quality of whimsical humor and the property of extreme adroitness in the management of complicated stanza forms which belonged to Barham — and to Browning, at certain moments. Here is part of the description of the mother of him of the beanstalk: —

“ She had a yearning chronic
To try each novel tonic,
Elixir, panacea, lotion, opiate, and balm ;
And from a homœopathist
Would change to an hydropathist,
And back again, with stupefying calm ! ”

And here is a stanza from Mr. Carryl’s version of Fortunatus: —

“ He could wake up at eight in Siam,
Take his tub, if he wanted, in Guam.
Eat breakfast in Kansas,
And lunch in Matanzas,
Go out for a walk in Brazil,
Take tea in Madeira
Dine on the Riviera,
And smoke his cigar in Seville,
Go out to the theatre in Vladivostok,
And retire in New York at eleven o’clock! ”

Whether poetry or not, this is a sort of “ gracious fooling ” beyond the range of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, whose itinerary of humor ended somewhere about “the equinoctial of Queubus,” the native place, very likely, of the Jabberwock and the Snark.

v.

Probably no valid distinction between verse and poetry can be made on the score of humor in the pure sense. Poets are often most humorous when they are most serious, and it is particularly hard to be sure where the merit lies when, as often happens in Browning, a serious vein of poetic discourse is accompanied by an obligato of ironical reservations and subtle compunctions. Even when the strains appear to be most clearly distinguished from one another, they may be so implicated as to be really inseparable. This is Mr. Robinson’s method in the poem which gives the title to his recent book of verse. 10 There is always the danger of fancying resemblances, even when one has escaped the danger of fancying imitations; but a rough notion of Mr. Robinson’s method may be suggested by imagining a person with the mental ingenuity of Browning and the bare diction of Wordsworth.

“ I doubt if ten men in all Tilbury Town
Had ever shaken hands with Captain Craig.”

So begins his narrative, and such is the quality of very much of his blank verse ; plainly jog-trot, often not distinguishable from the baldest prose : —

“We waited there
Till each of us, I fancy, must have made
The paper on the wall begin to squirm,
And then got up to leave.”

This baldness is varied mainly by way of extraordinary metrical exploits, and whimsical figures of speech, as in lines like these: —

“ As unproductive and as unconvinced
Of the living bread and the soul’s eternal drought
As a frog on a Passover-cake in a streamless desert.”

But everywhere the difficulty lies deeper than metre; the masters of blank verse have been those who employed it most flexibly; but always under that restraining instinct for rhythm without which poetry can hardly be written, — certainly not poetry in the form of blank verse. This instinct Mr. Robinson entirely lacks. Consequently, while his book seems to me vastly more original and interesting than most of the books of verse with which we have been dealing, I think it contains little or no poetry. One of the shortest pieces of verse is perhaps the best, The Return of Morgan and Fingal. The restraint of the simple ballad measure appears to have had a wholesome effect upon an instinct for expression which elsewhere, though it finds a forcible and often imaginative utterance, is not poetic. There is much power, even genius, in the book, and it is extremely well worth reading on that account; but it is reasonably clear that verse is not the medium of expression through which this power, or genius, can hope to become fully articulate. H. W. Boynton.

  1. A Voice on the Wind. By MADISON CAWEIN. Louisville : John P. Morton & Co. 1902.
  2. The Morning Road. By THOMAS WOOD STEVENS and ALDEN CHARLES NOBLE. Chicago : The Blue Sky Press. 1902.
  3. Beyond the Requiems. By Louis ALEXANDER ROBERTSON. San Francisco : A. M. Robertson. 1902.
  4. A Christmas Posy. By LADY LINDSAY. London : Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co, 1902.
  5. Bethlehem : A Nativity Play. By LAURENCE HOUSMAN. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.
  6. Tangled in Stars. By ETHELWYN WETHERALD. Boston : Richard G. Badger. 1902.
  7. Poems and Verses. By EDWARD SANDFORD MARTIN. New York and London : Harper & Bros. 1902.
  8. A Treasury of Humorous Poetry. By FREDERIC LAWRENCE KNOWLES. Boston: Dana, Estes & Co. 1902.
  9. A Nonsense Anthology. By CAROLYN WELLS. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1902.
  10. Grimm Tales made Gay. By GUY WETMORE CARKYL. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1902.
  11. Captain Craig. By EDWIN ARLINGTON ROBINSON. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1902.