Three American Poets of to-Day
WHERE are the spiritual descendants of Walt Whitman ? A younger poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson, tells us that
His piercing and eternal cadence rings
Too pure for us — too powerfully pure,
Too lovingly triumphant and too large :
But there are some that hear him, and they know
That he shall sing to-morrow for all men,
And that all time shall listen.
And yet that to-morrow seems to be farther off than ever. The generation has passed that proclaimed Whitman the forerunner of a new poetic age, the age of democracy, of individuality, and individuality’s charming freedom from restraints, the age of “ME imperturb.” To escape tradition; to clear the mind of cant, the cant of iambics; to cast off the tinkling golden fetters of rhyme; to cast off clothing and wallow naked and unashamed in the open sunshine, as did Whitman in the primeval woods he loved ; to escape modernity; to find a soul of beauty in things hideous; to put aside the hampering obligation to select which is laid upon artists for their sins; and to welcome with open arms everything that exists, simply because it exists, extracting from the baldest prose the divine essence of poetry, — this was the way broken open by the Master. What Whitman hath cleansed, that call thou not common.
If ever a man had a message to the youth of his country that man was Whitman. If America was ever to bring forth American poets, of that temper they were to be. First of all, they were to create a new form for the new spirit; new rhythms and no rhymes.
But to substitute harmony for melody, to find the cadence which should be the cadence of his own soul, and of none other, was a task of infinite difficulty, even for Whitman with his colossal spirit, — a spirit like his own continent, uncircumscribed, multitudinous, immense. Over and over again he falls from grace and slides with a sweet facility into the abhorred iambic. Some people have maintained that it is only through these lapses into the ancient consecrated ways that Whitman’s verse attains poetic dignity. His own cry was: “ No more rhymes, no more old rhythms.”
Think what such a gospel must have meant to the young aspirant who heard it for the first time! The blessed relief of it! Never again in your life to have to think of a rhyme to God. And yet to be a poet, a great poet. And never to have to bother about your subject, but to plunge your arms elbow deep into the bran-pie of the universe, and whatever you drew you drew a prize, for you could make a poem out of it. For the poetry was there, staring you quite rudely in the face till you recognized it, here, there, everywhere. There was no top or bottom to that subject; whichever end it chose to sit on, it was always right side up. Never in the history of literature was such a rich prospect offered to the tyro on such easy terms. No renunciation required of him, unless it were to abandon his absurd affectation of idealism. What in Heaven’s name had the ideal done for him that he should trouble his head about it ? Let him open his eyes and he would find the Real waiting for him, —a young person with no nonsense about her, absolutely devoid of flirtatious intention, and unspoiled by the demoralizing adoration of the other poets. A trifle plain, perhaps, but dowered with the wealth of a thousand multi-millionaires, a spouse fruitful in possibilities diviner than herself. And all this as yet unwedded opulence his for the asking. The connection insured to him a unique position in the universe.
How is it then that Walt Whitman has no following among the young poets of America to-day?—that with one accord they have flung up their gorgeous prospects and gone back to the old allegiance and the old fetters ? The young American poets of to-day are, as far as form goes, anything but revolutionary; they are the born aristocrats of literature, careful of form, and fastidious to a fault in their choice of language. So far from being “Sansculottes,” they are most particular about the arrangement of their draperies, many of them preferring the classic mode to any other. They refuse to be hail fellow well met with every subject, and are aware of the imperishable value of selection.
Three young poets stand out among them : William Vaughn Moody, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Ridgely Torrence. They are all three rich in imagination, but Mr. Moody is distinguished by his mastery of technique; Mr. Robinson by his psychological vision, his powerful human quality; Mr. Torrence by his immense, if as yet somewhat indefinite, promise. The three are so different in kind that it would have been hard to find any standard of comparison but for this happy idea of Walt Whitman. They are alike in their difference from him, in their care for the things he scorned, their scorn of his indiscriminate ransacking of creation. They find that, after all, existence needs a deal of editing. For existence is not life, any more than fact is truth. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” — that is all they ever knew or that they care to know. They are one, too, in their detachment,— an attitude remarkable in poets like Mr. Moody and Mr. Torrence, so plastic to the lyric impulse. They have avoided personal pathos, and in all their works you will not find the slightest suggestion of the imperturb and indestructible ME. How different from Walt Whitman! Walt Whitman made himself a vessel for the living joy of the universe, and you felt that the vessel was the really solid and important item; that the universe was less than the colossal spirit that contained it. These three are the pure and unapparent mediums of the soul of things. They may depend on this impersonality of theirs to lift them out of the ranks of those sublime egoists, the minor poets.
Of the three Mr. Moody has accomplished most; he has published one volume of Poems, and two lyrical dramas. It is an interesting question how far such a poet is a national product. The poet is born not made, but he is not always spiritually born in his own country. Mr. Moody has written one great national poem, the “Ode in Time of Hesitation;” it reveals him as the austere lover of his country, passionately critical of her behavior and her mood. For the rest he is an exile in New York, hungering for the beautiful and spiritual lands. He seems the hero of his own “Jetsam,” —
Long recreant, often foiled and led astray,
But resolute at last to seek her there
Where most she does abide.”
His poems are
Sad as a hermit thrush, as a lark
Uplifted, glad and strong.”
He has gone on his own “Golden Journey ” —
Down mote-hung dusk of olive dells,
To where the ancient basins throw
Fleet threads of blue and trembling zones
Of gold upon the temple stones.
There noon keeps just a twilight trace ;
’Twixt love and hate and death and birth,
No man may choose ; nor sobs nor mirth
May enter in that haunted place,
All day the fountain sphynx lets drip
Slow drops of silence from her lip.
His ballad “The Ride Back” is of the Old World in color and inform ; it has the gorgeous glamour of mediæval legend: —
The withered yellow stems of flags
Stood breast-high for his horse to break ;
Lewd as the palsied lips of hags,
The petals in the moon did shake.
The snow upon the heights looked down
And said, “ The sight is pitiful.
The nostrils of his steed are brown
With frozen blood ; and he will fall.”
The Knight comes out “in a better place: ”
Through the bright depths of quiet grass ;
The knight’s lips moved as if they sung,
And through the peace there came to pass
The flattery of lute and tongue.
There swelled a sob of minstrelsy,
Faint sackbuts and the dreamy reed,
And plaintive lips of maids thereby,
And songs blown out like thistle seed.
And as his loosened rein fell slack
He muttered, “ In their throats they lied
Who said that I should ne’er win back
To kiss her lips before I died.”
Mr. Moody has the cosmic imagination, the spiritual vision to which all solid-seeming things become transparent and transitory. The poem “Gloucester Moors” is typical of this attitude. He stays but a moment to mark the flight of sea-gull and scarlet tanager, and the fishing boats coming back to Gloucester town. He is held by the spectacle of the round world sailing through space.
We landsmen build upon;
From deep to deep she varies pace,
And while she comes is gone.
Beneath my feet I feel
Her smooth bulk heave and dip;
With velvet plunge and soft upreel
She swings and steadies to her keel
Like a gallant, gallant ship.
The sun is her masthead light,
She tows the moon like a pinnace frail
Where her phosphor wake churns bright.
Now hid, now looming clear,
On the face of the dangerous blue
The star fleets tack and wheel and veer,
But on, but on does the old earth steer
As if her port she knew.
No poet has ever united so sustained a vision of vague immensities with so vivid and poignant a sense of concrete things. Take the same poem, where he dashes off a broad landscape in nine lines, and in nine lines paints a minute and delicate foreground: —
Where the fishing fleets put in,
A mile ahead the land dips down
And the woods and farms begin.
Here, where the moors stretch free
In the high blue afternoon,
Are the marching sun and talking sea,
And the racing winds that wheel and flee
On the flying heels of June.
Blue is the quaker-maid,
The wild geranium holds its dew
Long in the boulder’s shade.
Wax-red hangs the cup
From the huckleberry boughs,
In barberry hells the gray moths sup,
Or where the choke-cherry lifts high up
Sweet bowls for their carouse.
His quality is opulence, a certain gorgeousness that is never barbaric, owing to his power of classic restraint. His sweetness is crystal, never luscious or impure. He has “ransacked the ages, spoiled the climes ” for imagery and vocabulary, — a vocabulary not always quite so pure. He should have shunned such strange words as “bataillous,” “vesperine,” “energic,” “margent,” “blooth,”and “windelstrae.” His faults are the faults of youth, as his strength is the strength of manhood. There is a passage in the long blankverse poem “ Jetsam ” which lifts it to a place beside “Alastor” and flic “Lines on Tintern Abbey.” (The poet sees the Moon as the symbol of Divine Beauty):
A veil between me and the fierce in-throng
Of her inexorable benedicite ?
See, I have loved her well and been with her!
Through tragic twilights when the stricken sea
Groveled with fear; or when she made her throne
In imminent cities built of gorgeous winds
And paved with lightnings ; or when the sobering stars
Would lead her home ’mid wealth of plundered May
Of all the sights that starred the dreamy year,
For me one sight stood peerless and apart:
Bright rivers tacit; low hills prone and dumb ;
Forests that hushed their tiniest voice to hear ;
Skies for the unutterable advent robed
In purple like the opening iris buds;
And by some lone expectant pool, one tree
Whose gray boughs shivered with excess of awe, —
As with preluding gush of amber light,
And herald trumpets softly lifted through,
Across the palpitant horizon marge
Crocus-filleted came the singing moon.
Out of her changing lights I wove my youth
A place to dwell in, sweet and spiritual,
And all the bitter years of my exile
My heart has called afar off unto her.
Lo, after many days love finds its own!
The futile adorations, the waste tears,
The hymns that fluttered low in the false dawn,
She has uptreasured as a lover’s gifts;
They are the mystic garment that she wears
Against the bridal, and the crocus flowers
She twined her brow with at the going forth ;
They are the burden of the song she made
In coming through the quiet fields of space,
And breathe between her passion-parted lips
Calling me out along the flowering road
Which summers through the dimness of the sea.
In one sense Mr. Moody’s genius is not dramatic, not impersonal; he sees all tilings, all persons, suffused with his own imagination, as in that powerful dramatic poem “The Troubling of the Waters.” In this the imagination is superb, the psychology audacious and on the whole overstrained. And yet we get the sharp vibrating human note in this poem and in one other, “The Daguerreotype,” in which imagination and emotion are fused. In all the others we listen waiting for I he cri du cœur, which is drowned by the music of an over-full orchestra.
But the highest place must be given to his lyrical dramas, The Fire-Bringer and The Masque of Judgment, two of a trilogy of which the last member has not yet appeared. The Fire-Bringer is the more classic in form and spirit, the Masque of Judgment is neo-classic, with a modern exuberance, a tumultuous splendor of things pagan and spiritual. In both dramas Mr. Moody riots in old religions and in magnificent new metaphysics of his own. He deals with ideas as the Titans dealt with Ossa and Pelion. He begins, in The Fire-Bringer, with the destruction by Zeus of the men of the brazen age, and the repeopling of the world by Deucalion and Pyrrha. It is a world where good and evil, as such, do not exist, where men and women are non-moral, a world that triumphs in the coming of the younger gods, the Trinity — Dionysus, Eros, Apollo (Mr. Moody follows the trend of the idea, rather than of strict tradition). He ends, in The Masque of Judgment, with the defeat of human passion and will by the implacable divinity of pure spirit. But the Last Judgment is the Second Passion of God. It is the tragedy of pure spirit that, in destroying evil, it has destroyed good with it. The defeat of “ unredeemed” humanity leads on the triumph of the Worm, the
Shamefullest born, in that unsacred hour
When, pining for the pools of ancient sloth,
His soul repenteth Him that he had made
Man, and had put that passion out to use !
It would be impossible within the limits of a single article to give an adequate idea of the great qualities of Mr. Moody’s verse. It is at its greatest in these lyrical dramas. He has found, like Mr. Swinburne, his masters in the Greek tragedians. The comparison is obvious, but no poet since Shelley has united such masterly metrical plasticity, such exuberance of sensuous imagery with so vast a sweep of metaphysical imagination. The FireBringer naturally suggests comparison with Prometheus Unbound; but, where Shelley’s imagination soars forever in the colorless and radiant air, Mr. Moody’s has a profound fellowship with flesh and blood. His style is stately, a pageantry of phrases, embroidery upon purple. Shelley himself had not a more unerring sense of the grand air imparted to blank verse by well-placed and sonorous geographical names (a secret that Shelley learnt from Milton, and Milton from Euripides). We get such lines as
Rhipean, and the Arimaspian caves,
I sought the far hyperborean day ” —
Of Hæmus long I lurked ” —
But it is in his Choruses that Mr. Moody has achieved his highest triumph. His apparent audacities of rhythm presuppose an intimate acquaintance with the spirit and the structure of Greek verse. Take the Chorus of Young Women from the last Act of The FireBringer: —
Or in the morning of the earth
The high gods walked with the daughters and found them fair,
Ere ever the hills were piled or the seas were spread,
His arm was over our necks, my sisters, his breath was under our hair !
Their spirits withered and died who then
Found not the thing that his whisper said,
But we are the living, the chosen of life, who found it and found it again.
Where, walking secret in the flame,
Unbearably the Titan came,
Eros, Eros, yet we knew thee,
Yet we saw and cried unto thee!
Where thy face amid exceeding day more excellently shone,
There our still hearts laughed upon thee, thou divine despaired-of one !
Though o’er and o’er our eyes and ears the heavy hair was wound,
Yet we saw thee, yet we heard thy pinions beat !
Though our fore-arms hid our faces and our brows were on the ground,
Yet, O Eros, we declare
That with flutes and timbrels meet,
Whirling garments, drunken feet,
With tears and throes our souls arose and danced before thee there !
It is clear that Mr. Moody’s most honored master is Euripides. He has the Euripidean color and mobility, the Euripidean sweetness, the Euripidean pathos. He has also some of the defects of his master’s qualities, — the Euripidean reiteration, effective enough till it becomes a trick, the Euripidean weakness born of too great facility, the Euripidean overemphasis : —
To drink of the wine of thy lightsome chalices.”
It is a pity that there should be any fault in the last Chorus which ends this magnificent drama, and a thousand pities that Mr. Moody should have permitted himself the lapse of such lines as these:—
With startled eyes and outstretched hands,
Looking where other suns rise over other lands,
And rends the lonely skies with her prophetic scream.”
Here the strength which should have marked the close of so great a drama is striven for by the mechanical device of an increase of two beats in each successive line, culminating in an Alexandrine. At the best an Alexandrine is a dangerous thing ; it has dragged many a noble ode to perdition.
But these are details. Mr. Moody is not only a poet but a philosopher; and his philosophy, so far from hanging a weight on his imagination, has given it wings. We can only vaguely guess what form the third drama in his trilogy will take. The puzzle is: given two numbers of a trilogy, to find the third. Possibly there is a hint in two poems, “Good Friday Night,” and “Second Coming,” — a hint that the Christ has
Have heard not and must hear; ”
and the dramas of birth and of destruction may be followed by the drama of regeneration.
In all this where does the American come in ? Mr. Moody suggests, inevitably, comparison with the poets of the Old World rather than with the kindred of his blood. And yet, perhaps, no country but his own could have produced him. America is the continent of unredeemed material immensities. And Mr. Moody is the poet of reaction and revolt; of reaction against the tendencies of his time, of revolt against the dominion of material immensities.
But he is not only the poet of reaction and revolt; he is the poet of reconciliation and reconstruction. He looks for the day when nature and spirit, divided now and in torment through their separation, shall be one. “How long,” he asks,—
Till at thy thrilling word
Life’s crimson pride shall have to bride
The spirit’s white accord,
Within that gate of good estate
Which thou must build us soon or late,
Hoar workman of the Lord.
For this most spiritual of poets the veil of separation is rent asunder. He knows that spirit does not maintain its purity by mere divorce from Nature; but that Nature herself participates in that divine act of transubstantiation by which the wine and bread of earth are made wine and bread of heaven. It is the same divine thing which is housed in the flesh and shrined in the spirit of man, and the process of the world is the process of its unfolding. This poet’s message to his country is that she should set about the rebuilding and cleansing of the earthly temple. He sees her sometimes as the nation where brute force is omnipotent; but he believes in brute force tamed and “ chained to labor.” It is “ the Brute” that “must bring the good time on: ” —
Mr. Robinson is a poet of another world and another spirit. His poems fall into three groups: lyrics, — including ballads and old ballade forms, — character sketches, and psychological dramas, poems dramatic in everything except form. It is, in fact, difficult to name these dramas that cannot be played, these songs that cannot possibly be sung. But the point of view is dramatic, the emotion lyric. In his songs (since songs they must be called) he has reduced simplicity to its last expression. Take this one, “The House on the Hill:” —
The house is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.
Around that sunken sill ?
They are all gone away,
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.
Or “Cortège:” —
Fifteen hundred miles away :
So it goes, the crazy tune,
So it, pounds and hums all day.
Earth will hide them far away :
Best they go to go so soon,
Best for them the grave to-day.
Half the world had passed away,
Four o’clock this afternoon,
Best for them they go to-day.
Love will hide them deep, they say ;
Love that made the grave so soon,
Fifteen hundred miles away.
Ah, but they go slow to-day:
Slow to suit my crazy tune,
Past the need of all we say.
Best for them they go to-day:
Four o’clock this afternoon,
Fifteen hundred miles away.
He has given us characters drawn to the life in the fourteen lines of a sonnet:—
Cursed and unkempt, shrewd, shrivelled, and morose.
A miser was he, with a miser’s nose,
And eyes like little dollars in the dark.
His thin, pinched mouth was nothing but a mark,
And when he spoke there came like sullen blows
Through scattered fangs a few snarled words and close,
As if a cur were chary of its bark.
Year after year he shambled through the town,—
A loveless exile moving with a staff;
And oftentimes there crept into his ears
A sound of alien pity, touched with tears, —
And then (and only then) did Aaron laugh.
He tells a story in four stanzas: —
We people on the pavement looked at him :
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always human when he talked ;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“ Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And admirably schooled in every grace :
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
In some of his shorter poems (“SainteNitouche,” and “As a World would have It”) he has pressed allusiveness and simplicity to the verge of vagueness. In his longer psychological dramas — for they are dramas in all save form — he is a little too analytically diffuse. In all he has rendered human thought and human emotion with a force and delicacy which proves him a master of this form. For imaginative insight, subtlety, and emotional volume, “The Night Before” may stand beside Browning’s “A Soul’s Tragedy” and Meredith’s “Modern Love;” and “The Book of Annandale” will stand alone, though in a lower place, in its burning analysis of the conflict between scruple and desire. Quotation would give no idea of the spirit of this poem. It is woven all of one piece, and its strength lies in its profound human quality rather than in the force of single passages. Mr. Robinson has few purple patches; he works solidly and sombrely, often in gray on gray.
He has the great gift of spiritual imagination, and an unerring skill in disentangling the slender threads of thought and motive and emotion. All these qualities are conspicuous in the long blank - verse poem “ Captain Craig,” which gives its title to Mr. Robinson’s first volume, published in 1903. At a first glance there is little charm about this severely undecorated poem, written in unmusical and often monotonous blank verse, shot with darts of intellectual brilliance, but unrelieved by any sensuous coloring. The charm grows in the reading. “Captain Craig” is a philosophy of life, taught through the humorous lips of a social derelict, a beggared Socrates, disreputable as the world counts reputation. It is a drama of the Unapparent, revealing the divine soul hidden in the starved body of that “sequestered parasite;” a soul that had the courage to be itself, abiding in its dream, facing the world as a superb failure: —
And he had shared with all of humankind
Inveterate leave to fashion of himself,
By some resplendent metamorphosis,
Whatever he was not.
He finds, at last, his audience: —
And on the bottom of it, like a king,
For longer time than I dare chronicle,
Sat with an ancient ease and eulogized
His opportunity. My friends got out,
Like brokers out of Aready; but I —
Maybe for fascination of the thing,
Or maybe for the larger humor of it —
Stayed listening, unwearied and unstung.
The Captain’s religion is a protest against the sin of “accidia.” He, ragged, old, and starved, challenges his friends to have courage and to rejoice in the sun: —
As of a sun-shut mind.”
He tells a story of a man he once knew; his fellow in failure, who dreamed that he was Æschylus, reborn
The plunging and unfathomable chorus
Wherein we catch, like a bacchanale through thunder,
The chanting of the new Eumenides,
Implacable, renascent, farcical,
Triumphant, and American. He did it,
But he did it in a dream. When he awoke
One phrase of it remained; one verse of it
Went singing through the remnant of his life
Like a bag-pipe through a mad-house. — He died young,
And the more I ponder the small history
That I have gleaned of him by scattered roads,
The more do I rejoice that he died young.
That measure would have chased him all his days,
Defeated him, deposed him, wasted him,
And shrewdly ruined him — though in that ruin
There would have lived, as always it has lived,
In ruin as in failure, the supreme
Fulfilment unexpressed, the rhythm of God
That beats unheard through songs of shattered men
Who dream hut cannot sound it. — He declined,
From all that I have ever learned of him,
With absolute good-humor. No complaint,
No groaning at the burden which is light,
No brain-waste of impatience — “Nevermind,”
He whispered, “ for I might have written Odes.”
This poem is now a challenge to the fight of faith in the unseen, now a sequence of austere moralizings, now a blaze of epigrams, and again it drops into the plainest prose. Here and there are concrete touches that paint the man: —
He took it, pressed it; and I felt again
The sick soft closing on it. He would not
Let go, but lay there, looking up to me
With eyes that had a sheen of water on them
And a faint wet spark within them. So he clung,
Tenaciously, with fingers icy warm,
And eyes too full to keep the sheen unbroken.
I looked at him. The fingers closed hard once,
And then fell down. — I should have left him then.
Captain Craig is portrayed in all the shining paraphernalia of the inner life. His sustained flight of philosophy is broken by scraps of literary reminiscence, scriptural and classic, fragments, as it were, of gold or marble, showing in what quarries his brilliant youth once dug. There is an immense pathos in the closing scene. The Captain, having made so good a fight, desired to be buried with military honors, and requested that trombones should be played at his funeral, as a tribute to the triumph and majesty of the inner life. The day comes,—
That only gummed the tumbled frozen ruts
We tramped upon. The road was hard and long,
But we had what we knew to comfort us,
And we had the large humor of the thing
To make it advantageous ; for men stopped
And eyed us on that road from time to time,
And on that road the children followed us;
And all along that road the Tilbury Band
Blared indiscreetly the Dead March in Saul.
The message of this poet is: Be true to the truth that lies nearest to you; true to God, if you have found him; true to man; true to yourself; true, if you know no better truth, to your primal instincts; but at any cost, be true. “Captain Craig” is one prolonged and glorious wantoning and wallowing in truth.
What Mr. Robinson’s work will be in the future it is as yet impossible to say. What he has done speaks for itself. His genius has no sense of action, brutal and direct; but he has it in him to write a great human drama, a drama of the soul from which all action proceeds and to which its results return.
and poured out all the seas that are
Is Wheel and Spinner and the Flax,
and Boat and Steersman and the Star.
because my fleshly ills increase ?
No ; for there still remains one chance
that I am not His Masterpiece.
and read it like an open scroll,
And weigh my heart, I have a judge
more just than any — my own soul.
Mr. Torrence has definitely essayed the poetic drama. His El Dorado has much in it besides the mere facile exuberance of youth; there is color and vision and the sweep of action. The characters are nobly planned, and there is one fine tragic figure, Perth, the prisoner released after thirty years in a dungeon. He desires to recapture his lost youth, as the adventurer Coronado desires to capture the Seven Cities of Gold. Over the whole drama there is the golden light and rosy mist of youth; it is the drama of youth and of youth’s disillusionment. There is a fine scene where Coronado and his host come within sight of the enchanted cities: —
Cor. I see it!
A Voice. What ?
Cor. (To Perth) Look — far down !
Perth. The mist seems coloured there.
Cor. It glows ! It is no mist! Can you not see
The gem which is the mother of all dawn ?
Perth. There is some gleam.
Cor. It waits one moment yet
Before it thunders upon our blinded sight !
(To Soldiers) Choose what you will, O you whose blood has bought it!
Out of all that which waits our famished eyes !
Bright, barren sands of gold, which shall be fertile !
Jewels that welter like great fallen suns!
The living heat that smoulders in deep rubies,
The endless April of cool emeralds
And chrysoprase within whose heart the sky
Kisses the sea! The sullen mystery
Of opals holding captive sunsets past!
And diamonds fashioned from the frozen souls
Of lilies once alive !
The structure of the verse is sonorous and correct; there is the promise of that gift of phrasing which Mr. Torrence has developed so admirably in “The Lesser Children: ” —
Were sown, there is a hint of budding grey,
A bud not wholly innocent of night
And yet a colour.”
With sleep and all old dreams and visions dead
Day takes all Heaven’s citadels.”
Brought you so hallowed and white.”
El Dorado has the charm of youth; it has also the amiable faults of youth, youth’s fluency, youth’s feverishness, youth’s audacity. The effect of the drama is, on the whole, spectacular rather than orchestral; it leaves an impression of clever grouping, of the vast movements of masses on a splendid background. But the psychology is mainly a thing of general terms. The characters conceal their souls under a wreath of imagery, under phrases that are like flung flowers, till we long for the simple half-articulate utterance of human passion. The ravings of Perth, conceived with absolute truth, are not conveyed in the language of genuine delirium. This falsification through fancy is the snare that Poetic Drama lays for iier votaries. Their temptation is to be too “poetic,” and it is Mr. Torrence’s special danger, for the worst enemy of his imagination is his fancy. It is always lying in wait for him in those weaker moments when imagination fails.
Mr. Torrence was greatly daring when he chose for his next essay the ode. The structure of the ode makes more exhausting demands upon the poet than any other form. It absolutely requires a long and sustained flight of imagination; it is the superior test of metrical plasticity. Mr. Torrence was daring, too, in choosing for his ode (“ The Lesser Children ”) so slight a subject as the slaughter of the birds. But he has grasped his subject with so superb a sweep of imagination that it becomes great in his hands. His verse beats with the palpitating life of the winged and lyric creatures of the woods and of the air: —
Multitudes, multitudes, under the moon they stirred !
The weaker brothers of our earthly breed;
Watchmen of whom our safety takes no heed ;
Swift helpers of the wind that sowed the seed
Before the first field was or any fruit;
Warriors against the bivouac of the weed ;
Earth’s earliest ploughmen for the tender root,
All came about my head and at my feet
A thousand, thousand sweet,
With starry eyes not even raised to plead ;
Bewildered, driven, hiding, fluttering, mute !
Pass and become as nothing in the night.
Clothed on with red they were who once were white;
Drooping, wrho once led armies to the sun,
Of whom the lowly grass now topped the flight:
In scarlet faint who once were brave in brown ;
Climbers and builders of the silent town,
Creepers and burrowers all in crimson dye,
Winged mysteries of song that from the sky
Once dashed long music down.
What, lower, was a bird, but now
Is moored and altered quite
Into an island of unshaded joy ?
To whom the mate below upon the bough
Shouts once and brings him from his high employ.
Yet speeding he forgot not of the cloud
Where he from glory sprang and burned aloud.
But took a little of the day,
A little of the coloured sky,
And of the joy that would not stay
He wove a song that cannot die.
If you would still have nests beneath the sun
Gather your broods about you and depart,
Before the stony forward-pressing faces
Into the lands bereft of any sound;
The solemn and compassionate desert places.
There are signs in this poem of the chastening and purging of the poet’s imagination by the critical spirit, a spirit that here and there hangs a weight upon the mounting lyric. There are moments when imagination and emotion are not fused at white heat, moments when Mr. Torrence deliberates and is lost, wavers and strives to recover himself by snatching at some straw of a conceit. But the flaws are slight and few. The influence of the critical spirit has worked wholly for good. Mr. Torrence has exchanged his youthful infatuation with the first fair phrase for the unresting pursuit of the ideally fit.
Once more, it is hard to say how far these young poets of America are American. The influence of the Old World is felt in the very fibre of their verse; their music is broken by echoes and airs from the music of the Old World’s masters. They are standing at the parting of the ways, listening to the voices of the old and new, uncertain of themselves for very youth. Sometimes the spirit of Swinburne breathes in Mr. Moody and the spirit of Browning in Mr. Robinson. Swinburne is a good master for a man who has strong intellectual stuff in him; his influence makes for music. This cannot be said of Browning.
But Mr. Robinson is outliving this influence, if influence it be. In his ballads, in the lyrics which are the most personal utterance we have yet had from him, his verse flows pure, with no alien strain. His style is putting out the sharp vital shoot, taking on its own sober personal color. Its one fault is a trick (the peril of all style-makers in their crystallizing stage) of repetition, as he fondly practices the new-made sequence, the new-found cadence. He is still waiting for the generative impulse which will break up these sequences and cadences into other combinations, other and more living forms.
Mr. Torrence, having left Omar Khayyám far behind him, is inspired by no spirit but his own, and he is forming, a little too deliberately, a style of his own. With all his reverence for old traditions, he is in his own way an iconoclast, a breaker of revered metrical forms. The old rhythms, made malleable by the touch of many masters, become yet more plastic in his hands. He is happy if he can find a new cæsura; he delights in the rippling of the old smooth measure, in feet that patter in delicate triplets to one beat. He loves to wed words according to their spiritual affinities, regardless of custom and of law. There is no doubt that he has before him a brilliant future. He works in the spirit which great art inexorably demands, the spirit of reverence and of sacrificial patience. But because his art is precious, let him beware of preciosity.