Stops of Various Quills
BOOKS NEW AND OLD.
THE present commentator wishes to offer for consideration several books of verse which seem to him to merit more than ordinary attention. It is always interesting to examine a first book of verse by a writer who has won a reputation in prose. Who knows but it may bring us into a new and more intimate relation with an old acquaintance ? Who knows — and human nature faces this possibility with almost equal complaisance — but the verse may bring into clear outline certain suspected limitations, and so settle the question once for all. In taking up the first collection of Josephine Daskam’s poems,1 one is struck anew with the remarkable flexibility of her talent. She touches with no little adroitness the stops of various quills; she satisfies the ear with metres and the taste with images. Once or twice she stirs the imagination. In short, she writes excellent verse, most of which seems the product of an inspiration from without. She has written, one surmises, from some motive other than the desire for self-expression; perhaps from a private wish to prove herself possessed of something more than the worldly cleverness upon which her popularity is founded. As a result, her verse, skillful and interesting as it is, lacks personal distinction; it is not her “ right-hand mode of expression ; ” it is not, perhaps, in the very strictest sense, poetry.
This is high ground, but one is excused for taking it by the quality of several other new books of verse which seem to possess both spontaneity and distinction. Young persons still dream dreams of startling the world by some outburst of metrical frenzy which shall write their names upon the skies. Few persons of any age are ready to devote themselves, for better or worse, to “ the homely slighted shepherd’s trade.” Few of us are worthy to be so slighted ; we do not deserve the tribute of contempt which the vulgar world is ready to pay to those who brazenly pursue the best. No American writer of verse is now moved by a more sincere poetic impulse than Miss Peabody. Among her lesser qualities is a cleverness which might easily have been employed to win popular success in some of the forms of literature now most sure of a wide, and casual, audience. It has not been cultivated to that end, and the writer’s reward is to have produced, in a period during which good versifying has become the rule, not a little true poetry.
As “ a book of songs and spells ” The Singing Leaves 2 differs in some evident respects from Miss Peabody’s former books of verse ; but its essential qualities are the same. This is to say that they are the reverse of commonplace. Her poetry has a delicate savor of its own, a mystical sweetness, a purity of ways untrodden and apart, yet not remote from the common field of this our strife. I am almost sorry to have used the word “ mystical,” lest some brethren of robust sense, who connect the word with a vague condition of inspired foolishness, should mistake my meaning. It means nothing of the sort to me. However simple the diction, one cannot always be sure, on first reading, of the distinct “meaning ” of some of Miss Peabody’s songs. Very likely there might be difficulty in paraphrasing them; perhaps one might find it hard to reduce them to logical form. Miss Daskam’s verses are characterized by the same alert common sense which is the mark of her prose work. Miss Peabody’s poems are the product of a sense uncommon and subtle, a divining sense; and whatever appearance of obscurity there may be in its expression is due to the diviner’s method of suggesting truth by adumbration rather than by definition. This seems a clumsy way of explaining what is, after all, a sufficiently simple thing. One does not need to have the difference between this Road-Song and a mathematical proposition set forth with diagrams : —
“ At home the waters in the grass
Went singing happy words ;
But here, they flicker through my hands
As silent as the birds.
All thronging, thronging,— wild,
And white, and red, before I came
To be a human child.”
Perhaps it is in her “ spells ” that the poet’s sense of intangible relations is most clearly expressed. We may quote only one, a Charm : to be Said in the Sun : —
And golden vine on vine
Of sunlight, showered wild and high,
Around my brows I twine.
The burning radiancy
Of brightness that no eye may dare,
To be the strength of me.
Come green, come hither blue
And violet — all alive within,
For I have need of you.
And through the pallor run,
With pulse on pulse of manifold
New largess of the Sun !
O glories from the height,
Come down, where I am garlanding
With light, a child of light! ”
The latest book of verses by Mr. Yeats 3 does not show an increase of control over his instrument. One has admired the childlike quality of his genius while deploring its occasional lapses into childishness. A poet must for proof of greatness show independence even of his own fancies. Mr. Yeats is often spiritualistic rather than spiritual, vaguely superstitious rather than mystical. How much of his work is the product of creative imagination, how much of indulged whimsy, remains to be determined. In form the present volume is deliberately queer. The printer has been encouraged to use red ink in certain passages which do not seem especially to cry for rubrication. A preface is let fall unexpectedly in the middle of the book. Here and there the sign for “ and ” is substituted for the word. Is there something symbolic in the usage ? Several of the poems seem to mean nothing, and one or two are not recognizably metrical, as, for instance, the lines called The Arrow: —
Made out of a wild thought is in my marrow.
There ’s no man may look upon her, no man,
As when newly grown to be a woman,
Blossom pale, she pulled down the pale blossom
At the moth hour and hid it in her bosom.
This beauty ’s kinder, yet for a reason
I could weep that the old is out of season.”
This is rather too much for the oldfashioned ear, which is used to expect that a poem shall be written in some kind of verse and shall make some kind of sense. It is an extreme instance of Mr. Yeats’s irresponsible manner. There are many passages of pure poetry in the book : —
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time ’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.”
With such lines for evidence, one must continue to hope that time will prove this brilliant writer priest of a true poetic faith, and not merely victim of a minor obsession.
Mr. Yeats is childlike in his lack of humor ; to the profane, indeed, humorlessness seems a main quality of these symbolistic people. We are really not ready to be persuaded that the sublime and the ridiculous are precisely the same thing. When Mr. Yeats writes gravely: —
From a bough overhead,
And blow a little noise
When the supper has been spread.
Gabriel will come from the water
With a fish tail, and talk
Of wonders that have happened
On wet roads where men walk,”
one must be allowed to think it funny ; though one may keep his face straight as he does before a child whose speech is equally ingenuous and cryptic.
There is no mysticism in Gawayne and the Green Knight,4 and there is a great deal of humor. It is, in fact, an agreeable reversion to a type of poetry now little cultivated. The present reviewer confesses that he sighed over the title, expecting to find some aerated treatment of the familiar Arthurian material. A glance at the first page relieved his mind at once. “ Bless me ! ” he murmured, rubbing his eyes, “ couplets ! ”—
Replete with monstrous fictions, yet half true; —
And, if you ’ll follow till the story ’s done,
I promise much instruction, and some fun.”
The promise is kept. The story shall not be told here. One might say that the style combines something of the mellowness of Holmes with the airy familiarity of Byron ; but it is not especially graceful, after all, to express admiration of one person in terms of two or three others. Mr. Lewis is not an imitator ; his little work bears all the marks of spontaneity. It belongs to a school of English poetry older and clearly more indigenous than that of Mr. Yeats ; a school of which the first and greatest master is Chaucer. For a brief sample of its quality we may quote the description of the heroine : —
Like misty moonbeams on the fields of night,
And in her voice sweet Nature’s sweetest tunes
Sang the glad song of twenty cloudless Junes.
Her raiment, — nay ; go, reader, if you please,
To some sage Treatise on Antiquities,
Whence writers of historical romances
Cull old embroideries for their new-spun fancies ;
I care not for the trivial, nor the fleeting.
Beneath her dress a woman’s heart was beat-
The rhythm of love’s eternal eloquence,
And I confess to you, in confidence,
Though flowers have grown a thousand years above her,
Unseen, unknown, with all my soul I love her.”
Mr. Zangwill’s verses 5 are modern, and, as a whole, impressive. They possess the poignant racial note which has given the key to his best prose work. Few among the inspired sons of Israel have concerned themselves so frankly and forcibly with the issues of Zion. There are, to be sure, many bits of verse in the present volume which, unless as they remind us of Heine, seem the work of a poet, and not especially of a Hebrew poet:—
And all fair things that be,
The poets have sung, of everything :
What is there left for me ?
Why, songs of thee.”
But the poems which strike deepest are those which express the poet’s sombre fidelity to the truth of that racial fate in which his own fate is involved. Mr. Zangwill has never shrunk from recording the sordidness as well as the grandeur of the Hebrew character. The conclusion of the whole matter seems to be expressed in the verses which he calls simply Israel: —
But we, Jehovah, his people, are dual and so undone.
Clothed in fine linen and purple, loved at the courts of Kings.
The only Christians in Europe, turning the other cheek.
Lords of the hells of Gomorrah, licensed keepers of swine.
Lying a fox in the covert, leaping an ape in the sun.
Where is the lion of Judah? Wearing an ass’s skin! ”
This is vigorous speech, bitter speech; for there is nobody more loyal to the ideals of his race than the speaker.
Not a few of the poems possess an almost classical grace and finish. Here is one of the best of them : —
In the candor of your eyes,
And you turn your creamy neck,
Which the stray curl-shadows fleck,
Far more wisely than you guess,
Spite your not-unconscious dress.
In the curving of your lips
Sages’ cunning finds eclipse,
For the gleam of laughing teeth
Is the force that works beneath,
And the warmth of your white hand
Needs a God to understand.
Yea, the stars are not so high
As your body’s mystery,
And the sea is not so deep
As the soul in you asleep.”
Miss Gillespy’s bent is reflective rather than impassioned, and finds an especially happy expression in the measured phrase and balanced structure of the classical forms of English verse.6 Possibly her tendency toward didacticism is a little too strongly marked, but that is a fault easily to be detected in other people ; and it is something like ingratitude to animadvert upon an impulse which can produce such a quatrain as this : —
Gravely she answered, ‘ I am called Success.’
' The house, the lineage, whence thy beauty came ? ’ —
‘Failure my sire; my mother, Weariness.’ ”
But classical versification is also, in the right hands, an instrument for the expression of impassioned feeling which none of the modern exuberant forms have excelled. So pure a technique as Mr. Watson’s, applied to the expression of so pure a passion, could hardly fail to make his verses, “written during estrangement,”7 unusually impressive. The very restraint which his chosen medium imposes upon him is to the ultimate advantage of his poetry. If Mr. Kipling was the laureate of imperialism during the Boer war, Mr. Watson was the laureate of England ; and this, in after years, when The AbsentMinded Beggar and other popular doggerel of the sort is forgotten, England will not be slow to feel. What is there in such verse as this, unless the prick of truth, to have aroused a popular clamor of resentment ? —
This little stubborn land to daunt and quell,
The winds of heaven were our auxiliaries,
And smote her, that she fell.
The mountains and the rivers are our foe,
And Nature with the heart of man allied
Is hard to overthrow.”
The popular clamor did, as we know, arise. If the poet had written blatant nonsense about the Briton’s Duty to Strike for his Altar and his Birthright, his verse would have been accepted as quite suitable for the occasion. His position needs no further defense than is given by his own noble lines, On Being Styled “ Pro-Boer : ” —
I that shall stand for England till I die.
England! The England that rejoiced to see
Hellas unbound, Italy one and free ;
The England that had tears for Poland’s doom,
And in her heart for all the world made room ;
The England from whose side I have not swerved;
The Immortal England whom I, too, have served,
Accounting her all living lands above,
In Justice, and in Mercy, and in Love.”
Surely this is worthy to be set among the “ noble numbers ” of old England.
Signs increase of a tendency on the part of our verse writers to approach the dramatic form. Miss Daskam’s volume ends with a dramatic sketch in blank verse which is, perhaps, the best thing in the book. Mr. Yeats’s collection includes a fresh play for his new Irish stage, — apparently (how can a plain person be sure ?) only another leaf out of Maeterlinck. There are, moreover, since last accounts, several new volumes of metrical plays upon the market, only two of which can be mentioned here.
The first8 is especially interesting because in presenting “ five modern plays in English verse,” the author, is actually trying to interpret the present moment in blank verse; and she comes very near success, nearer, perhaps, than any one else has come. The three briefer numbers can hardly he called plays, but they are extremely good poetic dialogues, and one of them, at least (At the Goal) is, with all its brevity, not only dramatic, but tragic. One is not sure that the two longer pieces should have been cast in verse at all. Perhaps it is simply their novelty which one resists; I am inclined to think there is a real incongruity between their substance and their form. It is hardly possible to doubt that the author has found her key-note in Sudermann, and Sudermann is essentially a prose interpreter of life. There is plenty of human intensity in his plays, but no precipitation of immortal passion. Like Ibsen, he studies conditions and types ; the record of his observations is a marvel, but it is not poetry. In Miss Monroe’s two plays we find similar materials. Each of them presents a pregnant psychological episode in the lives of a group of persons; and there is nothing in either situation which prose could not have taken care of. Such, after several careful readings and some serious thought, is my unwilling conclusion with regard to the absolute merit of these interesting studies.
Mr. Torrence’s play9 is both less novel and less questionable in quality. It is tragic both in substance and in form. Its theme has the inestimable advantage of possessing already a hold upon the imagination of the general; an advantage which great dramatic poets from Æschylus to Shakespeare have sedulously pursued, and which the best of their successors down to Mr. Stephen Phillips have continued to pursue. Mr. Torrence has, like Mr. Phillips, successfully avoided the Shakespearean manner. How difficult a feat this is can hardly be understood by those who disbelieve in the existence of a poetic diction. Observing the usage rather than the theory of Wordsworth, we perceive that every age has its noble and familiar forms of speech ; and the poet’s only folly is to fail of recognizing the loftier instrument which, in his own day, is ready to his hand. This is the variety of folly which produces pseudo-Elizabethan plays and plays in modern colloquial verse.
Mr. Torrence’s play is dignified and original. He does not altogether discard old forms, but he does not slavishly follow them. The Prologue and Epilogue are so admirable that one wishes to quote them entire. This much, at least, we may give from the Prologue : —
I, Shadow, have been sent to bring you peace,
To make you wise; within my tragic themes,
Lost Love, A Sullen Will, Dead Hope and Dread,
You shall find balm, pleasant with secret nard
To heal your discontent, for all men know
That he for whom noon’s brightest radiance glows
Is he who waked and shuddered at midnight
Shall be for us the soothing instrument.
Then for the tale’s sake I do kneel for help,
To sky-browed Æschylus, who, down the years,
Mourns deeply through a sterner, briefer shell,
Making men hear the eagle wheel and shriek
Round the sea rock on which all hope lay bound.”
There is no mistaking the firm, sustained toucli of these verses ; and their promise is not belied in the drama which follows. If the characterization were of as rare quality as the theme and the verse, the play would be great indeed. Just at that point in the poet’s effort there seems a little suggestion of strain. Beatrix d’ Estrada is admirable, but Perth and Coronado, the leading male characters, are not altogether free from that overt appeal to the sympathies which is a known property of melodrama. The dialogue is, for the most part, rapid and compact, and the action, while it does not attempt to preserve the unities, is dramatically true and complete. We ought to be grateful for so pure a product in dramatic poetry from the hand of an American.
In the end, one finds that the study of these contrasting experiments in poetic drama has served simply to reaffirm an ancient article of faith. No great dramatic poetry, no great epical poetry, has ever dealt with contemporary conditions. Only the austere processes of time can precipitate the multitude of immediate facts into the priceless residuum of universal truth. The great dramatists have turned to the past for their materials, not of choice, but of necessity. Here and there in the dark backward and abysm of time, some human figure, some human episode, is seen to have weathered the years, and to have taken on certain mysterious attributes of truth ; and upon this foundation the massive structure of heroic poetry is builded.
H. W. Boynton.
- Poems. By JOSEPHINE DASKAM. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1903.↩
- The Singing Leaves A Book of Song’s and Spells. By JOSEPHINE PRESTON PEABODY. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.↩
- In the Seven Woods. By W. B. YEATS. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1903.↩
- Gawayne and the Green Knight. By CHARLTON MINER LEWIS. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.↩
- Blind Children. By ISRAEL ZANGWILL. New York : Funk & Wagnalls Co. 1903.↩
- The Eastward Road. By JEANNETTE BLISS GILLESPY. New York: James Pott & Co. 1903.↩
- For England: Written During Estrangement. By WILLIAM WATSON. New York and London: John Lane. 1903.↩
- The Passing Show. By HARRIET MONROE. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.↩
- El Dorado. By RIDGELY TORRENCE. New York and London : John Lane. 1903.↩