True Poets

AT a time when the flattering proposals of a publisher, who — for a suitable sum in hand — “ has faith in poetry,” bring before an inattentive public too many meagre volumes of unripe and bewildered verse, it is cheering to find four books containing the artistic expression of sincere imaginative moods. The latest volumes of Mr. Carman and Mrs. Watson, whatever we may think of the worth of the thoughts informing them, have that measure of virtue at least; Mr. Taylor’s first book shares it, and has a very marked poetic idiosyncrasy beside ; while Mr. Woodberry’s collected Poems is almost unique among recent books of verse in giving evidence of all three of the aptitudes of the “ true poet ” in harmonious accord, — temperament, skilled mastery of the ancient resources of the poetic art, and a poet’s mind.1

Mr. Carman’s attempted compellation of the shade of Sappho in the rewriting of her hundred lost odes is an instructive experiment, colored by a very pleasing poetic quality. Handicapped as it is by Mr. Roberts’s emotional Introduction singularly lacking in “ the high, imperious verbal economy ” which it celebrates, and notwithstanding the copious sameness of the work itself, it contains scarcely a line which read by itself will not trouble and delight the imagination with a vague sense of

“ Old, unhappy, far-off things,”

and quicken it with the poignancy of

“ the first sob of the south wind
Sighing at the latch with spring.”

Yet a haunting sense of poetic imperfection will stay with the reader. This is particularly noticeable in the different lustre of the tags from Wordsworth and from Mr. Carman which we have just quoted. Mr. Carman’s half-quantitative, unrhymed versification, with its subtle suggestion of Sapphic metre, is a technical triumph, the atmosphere and mood suffer no lapse, and the phrase is always suave and limpid ; but its very suavity and limpidity are allied to the source of its defect. Sings Mr. Carman, —

And there as darkness gathers
In the rose-scented garden
The god who prospers music
Shall give me skill to play.
And thou shalt hear, all startled,
A flute blown in the twilight
With the soft pleading magic
The greenwood heard of old.

This sweetness of phrase and tune is everywhere in the book, but it goes along with a kind of facile profusion which is never drawn together in a single great line, compact, pregnant, and immortal like the one of Wordsworth’s we have applied as a touchstone, and like all of Sappho’s. Furthermore, there is a letting down of tone, a coolness of passion, that estops the verse from dateless perfection. For a time the magic of the flute (and with all its useful tone-color and connotation, the word occurs in nearly every poem) makes us oblivious of the real mood of what we are reading. Gradually we are aware: it is not Love, not Sapphic love, not even Theocritean love ; it is l’amour.

Mrs. Watson’s writing in verse has the poetic effectiveness that inheres in the simple and musical expression of moods of real tenderness and regret. Her pieces rarely convey the effect of bookishness so common in the plaintive music of fellow poets not for nothing called minor. Her chief literary inspiration is clearly from the German lyric Muse ; but the likeness is one of affinity rather than of imitation. This connection is most obvious in her naming of poems, where such titles as Abschied, “ Einst O Wunder,” or Zigeunerlied aptly suggest the burden of her song. Her gift of intimating a lyric mood in the German fashion, with the sparing use of “ poetic ” imagery and diction, as well as her tone of casual, unrevising spontaneity will appear from these fine memorial verses: —

The wind blows sweet through the valley,
A strong wind, pleasant and free ;
It blows with a rumour of travel
To the moorland up from the sea.
The miles and the desolate distance,
It shatters them all at will,
While we wait here for a message
From a voice forever still.
O wind from the great new countries,
What know you of pain or loss ?
We are weeping for him in England
Who died ’neath the Southern Cross.

Herrick in Ohio would have been an apt sub-title for the little book of an uncommonly attractive individuality which Mr. Taylor has happily called The Overture. Mr. Taylor has little of the limpidity of Mr. Carman, and less of the simplicity of Mrs. Watson. His work is exuberant with imagery and sound drawn from American woods and fields, conveyed in a prodigious number of lyric words drawn from the vast storehouse of the poets. But this opulence is more promising than penury ; it is so often controlled by an imaginative heat, and so invariably modulated in unusual and effective rhythms, that it augurs still better work to be done. There is no other poet now writing who adventures irregular swallow flights of dactyls and anapæsts so successfully as Mr. Taylor; witness these enraptured lines : —

Hark, how the bobolinks ripple and bubble!
Out of the orchard what rapture of robins!
And look, the brown thrush up and facing the storm
With a shaken, jubilant splendor and storm of song,
And more than the heart can bear !

We like Mr. Taylor better in his dealings with bird songs and the Ohio countryside than we always do in his celebrations of more social sentiments. He is rather too much disposed toward undue detail and unction in his enumeration of a girl’s charms, too prone to dally over some one of them, like the ankle, not particularly expressive of character. Some of the Elizabethans and Herrick contrived to produce fine poetry in spite of a similar predilection. But nowadays it is haply a dangerous thing to attempt to poetize the passion of love unidealized either by the mood of romantic devotion, or by that foreboding of motherhood which has ennobled most English poetry in this kind. Mr. Taylor has the advantage that his dalliance is out of doors, and the keen air and sunlight which fill his lines keep the sentiment just above l’amour. As is often the case with young poets, whose store of allusion and observation is an embarrassment, Mr. Taylor is seen at his best in set verse forms. This sonnet might to advantage have known more of file and hammer, but nevertheless it represents the quality of his best achievement, and conveys his characteristic mood and poetic creed : —

Not only through old legend’s royal guise,
Nor in the quest that sought the fleece, the grail,
The sudden god looks forth to turn men pale
With wonder looking out of beauty’s eyes.
At times a light of great enchantment lies
On my plain fields; in woods as through a veil
Gleams the unknown romance ; and the lost tale
Informs familiar rivers with surprise.
Once, when upon the utmost hills the sun
An hour unmoving hung, and, all song dead,
Grew lovelier, sterner, deepening into red,
Harrow of stars, shaping the arrow blade
I saw the wild geese go. Summer was done.
The wingèd longing left me half afraid.

Writing in the Atlantic fourteen years ago Mr. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, then editor of the magazine, said at the close of an extended review of Mr. Woodberry’s first volume of verse: “ The reviewer whose diversions in this sort are not many counts it a fortunate month, indeed a fortunate year when he can say, ‘ Here is a new poet,’ and commend a volume which makes so rich promise as the North Shore Watch.” But two climacterics of Mr. Woodberry’s life have passed since then ; “ a life,” as he says, in his preface, “ never so fortunate as to permit more than momentary and incidental cultivation of that art which is the chief grace of the intellectual life ; ” yet the promise has been made good. The collected edition will be welcomed by many readers to whom the North Shore Watch and Wild Eden are not so much books of admirable verse to be respectfully neglected, as a constant and intimate possession. Though it is too fine and sincere a product ever to be the idol of a cult, there are qualities in Mr. Woodberry’s poetry which make it, in a certain loose sense, esoteric. For all its human wistfulness it is not quite poetry for the man in the street, nor is it poetry for the lean and slippered pantaloon ; it is peculiarly the poetry of young men, of young men of generous mind, no strangers to the old paths of the Muses and soaring philosophies, yet quick with the sense of present beauty, and earnest with the thought of present obligation. It will, perhaps, not be amiss to take occasion of the appearance of this collected edition to consider the quality and significance of Mr. Woodberry’s work.

It is impossible to open the volume anywhere, at random, without at once observing as its prime characteristics a purity of line, a sweetness of melody, a fineness of sentiment, not to be found present in such perfect and unbroken harmony in the work of any other among contemporary poets. These lines from the little Platonic drama of Agathon are not a purple patch; they represent the color and texture of the woof of the poem: —

Love comes in youth, and in the wakeful heart
Delight begins, soft as Aurora’s breath
Fretting the silver waves, and dimly sweet
As stir of birds in branches of the dawn,
So soft, so sweet, thy touches round my heart.
O, fable, fable on !

Here, in little, are many of the qualities of Mr. Woodberry’s work ; its musical sweetness, its fineness, its concern with maidenhood, and maiden youth. But to see these traits in their intensity we shall have to turn to some of the lyrics, wherein a true lyrical mood is poetized, with firm lyrical structure, and with the canorous quality that invites to reading aloud. Take, for example, these stanzas : —

O, strange to me and wondrous,
The storm passed by,
With sound of voices thundrous
Swept from the sky ;
But stranger, love, thy fashion, —
O, tell me why
Art thou, dark storm of passion,
So slow to die ?
As roll the billowy ridges
When the great gale has blown o’er ;
As the long winter dirges
From frozen branches pour ;
As the whole sea’s harsh December
Pounds on the pine-hung shore ;
So will love’s deep remember,
So will deep love deplore.

In the deepening music of the vowels, in subtle and haunting repetends, in perfect fusion of syntax in cadence, as well as in the imaginative rightness of the underlying similitude, this is as perfect in its way as — why should we hesitate — the songs of Tennyson.

There are in these lines qualities, other than those of formal perfection, which will lead us inward. The view of nature in them is of a piece with that found in every poem. There is almost no piece without its setting of landscape, — Italy, the Cyclop’s shore, the sea, the prairie; — but most often it is the keen, sweet New England countryside and seashore. This is the real natural background of Mr. Woodberry’s mind, and it is so sharply realized that all of his work has a peculiarly racy and indigenous tang. In that noble elegy the North Shore Watch, for all its freightage o£ idealistic monism, the mood of the old lament for Bion is as perfectly reproduced amid the “ brine and bloom ” of the Beverly shore as it was by Milton on the banks of Cam, or by Arnold on Thamesside. But here, as everywhere else in the volume, there is one striking fact to he noted which will help us to apprehend the quality of the poetry still more intimately. The natural background is uncommonly real and vivid, but we do not enter upon it by the aid of many details of observation, as in the case of Mr. Taylor’s verse, or through very much concrete imagery. Mr. Woodberry’s affair is not so much with the types of Nature, as with her moods and symbolical processes, with the turn of tides and seasons, and with the temperament of the weather. It is Nature recollected in tranquillity — and Platonized.

Here we have foreshadowed the trait of Mr. Woodberry’s poetry that gives it its power with youth, and justifies our attribution to him of the poet’s mind. His work has the tonical coherence that springs from a single view of the world, clearly conceived, and firmly and consistently maintained. It is easy for the whimsicalist who has never found — or has lost — himself to smile at “ idealism ; ” it is easy for the Lockist to confute it; yet it is the indispensable stuff of poetry which is life. Mr. Woodberry is a Puritan by inheritance, a Platonist by temperament, and a cosmopolitan student of letters by training. Out of these strands he has woven and presented elsewhere in prose an idealistic programme which is pretty much that of Sidney and Shelley ripened for the times. Held by an immature mind of any age, such a faith is often far from convincing, but when it is put forth with mature enthusiasm, and informed with the results of sound historical and literary scholarship, it gains an evidential import that will not be gainsaid. This is the vital principle in Mr. Woodberry’s poetry, and it will appear more clearly from almost any stanza of the poetry itself than from many paragraphs of expository tediousness. These stanzas, torn from an ode remarkable for its sustained flight in a perilous course, will serve for illustration. We quote from Wild Eden (1899), which here, as in several other cases, presents a better text, to our mind, than that of the collected edition : —

I shall go singing over-seas :
“ The million years of the planet’s increase,
All pangs of death, all cries of birth,
Are clasped at one by the heart of earth.”
I shall go singing by tower and town:
“ The thousand cities of men that crown
Empire slow-rising from horde and clan
Are clasped at one by the heart of man.”
I shall go singing by flower and brier :
“ The multitudinous stars of fire,
And man made infinite under the sod
Are clasped at one by the heart of God.”

It is clear that poetry so intellectual as this, so constantly — even in occasional pieces — guided by the spiritual sense of life, is not calculated to win to the outer circles of popularity. There will, moreover, be those who will call it “ academic.” This is a true characterization, but if it be used in dispraise it involves a misconception. Mr. Woodberry is an academic poet in precisely the sense that Virgil and Catullus, Milton and Tennyson were academic poets; not in the sense that Addison and Leo XIII were so. He has the sieve for noble words. Everywhere in the volume are images, turns of thought, cadences, symbols, that send the lettered mind flashing away to Shelley, or Gray, or Tasso, or Theocritus ; yet no piece is merely bookish. The mood is always real and deeply felt, and if for the expression of it the author has drawn deeply from the old stores of the Muses, it is but the rightful privilege of the ultimus calamus, the last pen, which, so it make them its own by eminent domain, may use at will all the riches of its predecessors. It may well be that here and there is a turn of this sort that is “ bookish ” in the sense that it fails quite to carry to a reader not acquainted with the classics of our own and other tongues. In the main, however, Mr. Woodberry’s volume is a vindication of the scholarly mode of poetry. His envisagement of life is the richer for his scholarship, his expression more suave and eloquent. And if there be a loss in extensiveness of appeal, there is a compensating gain in the intensity of delight for qualified readers. F. G.

  1. Sappho. One Hundred Lyrics. By BLISS CARMAN. With an Introduction by CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS. Boston : L. C. Page & Co. 1904.
  2. After Sunset. By ROSAMUND MARRIOTTWATSON. New York and London: John Lane. 1904.
  3. The Overture. By JOSEPH RUSSELL TAYLOR. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.
  4. Poems. By GEORGE EDWARD WOODBERRY. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1903.