The Value of Aldrich's Verse


For some years my volume of Aldrich’s poems has shared with Herrick a corner of my case of most intimate books. There he has no worse neighbors than Landor, Theocritus, and Keats; and I have little doubt that on many another shelf than mine this book of exquisite verse has found just such a cherished place; but I have often wondered what judgment the professional critics would pass upon his work when the inevitable time came for them to attempt to assign his official rank among English-speaking poets.

In the first place, both in his life and in his art, he held so aloof from the market-place of letters, taking no part in the literary “movements” which made and unmade so many reputations during the course of his life, that any attempt to value his work by comparison with that of his contemporaries would be of small profit. He plainly meant that his verse should live solely by what he might catch of the fugitive aspects of living beauty, and embody in forms of the most perfect clarity and finish of which he was capable — to carve out in the purest form of art only what life gave to his hands as precious ore, and to reject all else. Moreover, in his work, considered for itself alone and judged according to its own standards, the care of the poet has rendered the services of critic and commentator to a great extent superfluous. No aim was apparently more consistently before him than that the purely fashioned shapes of verse which he wrought so sparingly should contain all that was necessary to their appreciation — and no more. To this end, Nature happily endowed him with a sensitive temperament and an instinct for refined artistry; and a fortunate fate granted him the luxury of writing as little and as well as he had inclination and power. Every now and then there comes an artist who may be sure of real immortality in the admiration of certain temperamentally sympathetic spirits, without ever stirring the indifference of the bigger public. It may be that time will prove Aldrich to be such a one. Accept his motive and choice of subject, and there can be no question of the consummate skill with which he has wrought his conceptions and impressions into wellnigh flawless form perfectly adapted to his purpose. Whether this means much or little to one is solely a matter of temperament.

It would not be altogether surprising if critics, with the best intent, and with all the praise which they must surely give to the delicacy of his workmanship, should present his art in what seems a wrong light to those who do feel that almost personal interest which, I say, is purely a matter of temperament. Accordingly, in some of the press-notices which have already appeared since the poet’s recent death, there seems to be just noticeable already an unconscious trifle of the complacency which most people assume towards work cast in small form and wrought with conscious purpose to the highest degree of artistic refinement. Perhaps there is really nothing to be done about it; and proselyting for the sake of any artistic creed may be as unproductive of successful converts as the same sort of effort for a religious dogma. In both cases, the question is fundamentally one of feeling; and argument can, at best, hope to gain only a mental acquiescence, which means no more in art than it does in religion. Aldrich himself felt this when he wrote,

If my best wine mislike thy taste,
And my best service win thy frown,
Then tarry not, I bid thee haste ;
There ’s many another Inn in town.

Nevertheless, in the life and work of this man, so unswervingly devoted to one purpose, there are demonstrated some broad principles of art which are too little appreciated by people in general, and therefore too often neglected by writers; so that it is well worth while to attempt to discover the ideal which he thought worthy of fifty years of service and which has produced the only uniformly artistic body of verse in the course of American literature.


Here is a quatrain which in itself might almost serve to epitomize the artist’s method: —

See where at intervals the firefly’s spark
Glimmers and melts into the fragrant dark;
Gilds a leaf’s edge one happy instant, then
Leaves darkness all a mystery again.

The four lines of this little poem seem to me perfect in their illusive beauty and fragrant with haunting suggestion. In their almost complete objectivity lies what is one of the chief charms of Aldrich’s method, but also the stumblingblock in the way of such readers as insist that the artist shall extract the last shred of meaning from his subject in obvious explanation. Aldrich had the rare faculty of sketching a subject with so sure a touch that he dared leave it to produce and even interpret its own mood, without any crude or too obvious analysis of the feeling that originally produced the poem. It is the method of a Whistler pastel or a Japanese print. On the other hand, such a poet as Wordsworth —be it said with all reverence — might have found a hundred lines insufficient to explain, to the very dregs, all that he himself felt at such a moment as the one caught and fixed in this quatrain, and might have been further impelled to overflow in a foot-note of prose. Aldrich, however, has left all this to an implied imagination in the reader. He has seized whatever was significant of the moment, excluded all the rest, and fixed the essential fact in a few perfect words which possess almost the vivid actuality of painting. The whole impression is so compressed as to produce the immediate and complete effect of that one momentary revelation of a summer night.

The external features of Aldrich’s art are plain enough. It is cosmopolitan and, as one would naturally expect of a man to whom high culture had opened a second world as real and vital as the first, it draws almost as much direct inspiration from art as from nature. Yet there is little of outright bookishness and nothing of the manner of the dilettante. The effect of other literature is present, indeed, but only in evanescent flavors. One might guess, for instance, that some poets of France have had much to do with the forming of his style. One feels this influence, however, only in a certain clearness and definiteness of outline, in the likeness of the language to natural prose, and in the clarity of the form. There are absolutely no obscure lines overladen with turgid imagery or gaudily colored adjectives, — the besetting sin of nearly all English-using verse writers of to-day, who seem bent upon imitating the faults which Keats outgrew. What an example of the power of plain words to convey a sense of the most perfect poetic beauty is the “ Invocation to Sleep,” in such lines as these: —

The bell sleeps in the belfry — from its tongue
A drowsy murmur floats into the air
Like thistle-down. There is no bough but seems
Weighted with slumber — slumber everywhere !
Coached on her leaf the lily sways and dips;
In the green dusk where joyous birds have sung
Sits silence with her finger on her lips;
Shy woodland folk and sprites that haunt the streams
Are pillowed now in grottoes cool and deep;
But I in chilly twilight stand and wait
At the portcullis of thy Castle gate,
Longing to see the charmèd door of dreams
Turn on its noiseless hinges, delicate Sleep.

But after all there is little to be gained by trying to find, through the internal evidence of the poems, the manifold influences which may have played some part in their creation. At best, one might only hazard a guess that Herrick, Tennyson, Keats, Landor, Heine, Gautier, De Musset, and Hafiz had been absorbed in the growth of the poet’s nature. One just feels this as a congenial bond of artistic freemasonry, something like the pleasure of meeting unexpectedly in a strange place a man who happens to know all one’s best friends. Yet really in only a single instance would a comparison with the work of any one of these poets bring out more clearly the individual qualities of Aldrich’s poetry. Of course the English Herrick is that one; yet even in this case Aldrich has forestalled the critic. The lines with which he honors his brother of an earlier generation are sufficiently self-revealing.

If thy soul, Herrick, dwelt with me,
This is what my songs would be:
Hints of our sea-breezes, blent
With odors from the orient;
Indian vessels deep with spice ;
Star-showers from the Norland ice ;
Wine-red jewels that seem to hold
Fire, but only burn with cold;
Antique goblets, strangely wrought,
Filled with wine of happy thought;
Bridal measures ; vain regrets ;
Laburnum buds and violets;
Hopeful as the break of day;
Clear as crystal; new as May;
Musical as brooks that run
O’er yellow shadows in the sun ;
Soft as the satin fringe that shades
The eye-lids of thy Devon maids;
Brief as thy lyrics, Herrick, are,
And polished as the bosom of a star.

In these lines you find Aldrich himself, and his verse also has the same gem-like quality. Words, as he uses them, seem to have the almost visible loveliness of precious stones or wrought gold. The very mold into which his fancy is cast is most often satisfyingly beautiful in itself, independent of the poetic spirit which animates it — in the same way in which the silent beauty of a vase, or the color and texture of rare fabrics, is satisfying. Herrick himself could not have added a further touch of grace to such poems as “ Corydon ” or “ A Bridal Measure.” Nor does the volume of the elder master enshrine more charming portraits of imaginary women than one finds in Aldrich’s pages. Sometimes it is only a sketch in a few lines to stir the fancy into dream-making — a city street at night and a girl standing “as in a golden frame” in the light of a shop-window. Or it may be an intaglio head carved by a long-dead artist in precious stone. Now it is a woman of our own day and race transformed momentarily by the magic atmosphere of the sea into

A siren lithe and debonair,
With wristlets woven of scarlet weeds,
And strings of lucent amber beads
Of sea-kelp shining in her hair.

Again it is a girl reading in a dim room, from an illuminated volume, of knights and queens passing with music and antique pageantry through the vellum pages — the pale, intent face, pallid lips, and bowed head — the transient flush of the cheek — the lowered eyes full of dreams — the wind rattling against the casement — and on the hearth a fire of apple-wood along whose damp bark a little flame runs and chirrups like “a wren’s ghost haunting the familiar bough.” But perhaps the most perfect of all in the real magic of the words is the oriental vision of the young slavegirl from the Bosphorus in “Nourmadee.”

Long narrow eyes, as black as black !
And melting, like the stars in June ;
Tresses of night drawn smoothly back
From eye-brows like the crescent moon.
She paused an instant with bowed head,
Then, at a motion of her wrist,
A veil of gossamer outspread
And wrapped her in a silver mist.
The lanterns spread a cheating glare ;
Such stains they threw from hough and vine
As if the slave boys here and there
Had spilled a jar of brilliant wine.
And then the fountain’s drowsy fall,
The burning aloes’ heavy scent,
The night, the place, the hour— they all
Were full of subtle blandishment.
O shape of blended fire and snow !
Each clime to her some spell had lent —
The North her cold, the South her glow,
Her languors all the Orient.
Her scarf was as the cloudy fleece
The moon draws round its loveliness,
That so its beauty may increase
The more by being seen the less.
And as she moved, and seemed to float —
So floats a swan ! — in sweet unrest,
A string of sequins at her throat
Went clink and clink against her breast.
And what did some birth-fairy do
But set a mole, a golden dot,
Close to her lip to pierce men through.

But beyond this rare quality of invoking the illusion of visible beauty, Aldrich’s verse possesses the still rarer gift of a delicate and subtle music, so spontaneous in fluid melody and so perfectly cadenced in the fine harmony of the rhyme, that he seems to have found again the lost secret of Elizabethan lyrics. In the smaller pieces, — such as “Imogen,” “Threnody,” “Insomnia,” “Nocturne,” and “Palabras Carinosas,” for instance — his sense of form and symmetry orbs itself most perfectly. There are narrative poems in the volume, also, as flawless as the lyrics, dramatic fragments, sonnets, and descriptive pieces that rank with the best, and in Judith and Holofernes, he has more perfectly mastered the music of blank verse, so it seems to me, than any poet of the later nineteenth century, except Tennyson; yet his preference was openly for

the lyric
Ever on the lip,
Rather than the epic
Memory lets slip;

and the singing melody which he knew so well to draw from a few lines of mated words fully justified his choice. Fragile, evanescent, almost fragrant with sweetness, the charm is incommunicable save by quotation. It would be hard to find in English a lyric more perfect by every test of art than this: —

O cease, sweet music, let us rest!
Too soon the hateful light is born;
Henceforth let day be counted night,
And midnight called the morn.
O cease, sweet music, let us rest!
A tearful languid spirit lies,
Like the dim seent in violets,
In beauty’s gentle eyes.
There is a sadness in sweet sound
That quickens tears. O music, lest
We weep with thy strange sorrows, cease !
Be still and let us rest.

Yet all this preoccupation with form, this eagerness for beauty in which the added charm of art is always present, in no way dulled his sense of the simple loveliness of nature. It was an article of faith with him that even the sincerest poetic impulse lost half its value when expressed in crude, unshapely verse; that gold, when carven into the chaste design of ornament, was more golden than when it lay clodded in the earth or only half-revealed in the baser quartz ; that the diamond, to be of worth, must be polished with its own rich dust, or — to quote his own words —

Who lacks the art to shape his thought, I hold,
Were little poorer if he lacked the thought.

But his mastery of the refined technic of verse never led him into mere display of virtuosity. The true use of technical mastery is admirably revealed in the exquisite simplicity, the transparent clarity, of the slightest line that came from his hand. In the same way — although he was frankly of the world of urbanity and culture, and although he was not given to such voluble protestations as the Pharisees of nature-worship use — he was never forgetful of his kinship with the earth, whose beauty he could limn in lines

From end to end in blossom like the bough
The May breathes on.

The life of the town never deafened his ear to “the flutings of the silver wind,” nor bound his fancy to its treadmill.

When the first crocus thrusts its point of gold
Up through the still snow-drifted garden
mould, And folded green things in dim woods unclose
Their crinkled spears, a sudden tremor goes
Into my veins and makes me kith and kin
To every wild-born thing that thrills and blows.
Sitting beside tbis crumbling sea-coal fire,
Here in the city’s ceaseless roar and din,
Far from the brambly paths I used to know,
Far from the rustling brooks that slip and shine
Where the Neponset alders take their glow,
I share the tremulous sense of bud and briar
And inarticulate ardors of the vine.


So much for the external impression of Aldrich’s poetry; but it is only when we look deeper below the transparent surface and seek to analyze the source of this apparent simplicity of result, that we begin to learn the real power of the man.

The very end and aim of such art is that the enjoyment of it should depend upon nothing extraneous to itself nor upon anything which it has to offer beyond its intrinsic beauty. However much the maker may be preoccupied with the attainment of symmetry, he means that we who are to receive his work shall not be dragged in as distracted witnesses of his labor. The ideal and purpose of form is that the final clarity and essential completeness of the result shall obliterate all traces of the process of creation.

The creed of such an artist as Aldrich is simple and brief: To reveal his own impressions and intuitions of the beauty and significance of life, with as much of the living quality of their revelation, and even of the instantaneous vividness of the moment of inspiration, as he can transmit through a relatively cumbersome medium of expression; hence, to fix the essential and eliminate superfluous detail; to complete the work within as small a compass as possible, so that it may be apprehended as a whole and the impression be instantaneous, vivid, and direct; to make the carefully planned symmetry of form felt only in the simplicity, clearness, and harmony of the effect. That he was enabled by temperament and good fortune to follow and even practically attain this ideal, independent of the support and influence of the public, gives his poetic work a unique value aside from any other qualities which it may possess or lack.

The fact that he employed usually the smaller forms of verse does not, of course, detract from the value of his achievement as an example of artistic excellence. Symmetry of form is revealed most clearly in concentration — in the short story more than in the novel; in the sonnet more than in the epic; in the fugue more than in the opera. And here, too, in order fully to appreciate æsthetic values, one must consider the form, for the time being, apart from the content of the work of art — a disassociation, by the way, especially hard for AngloSaxons. The maxims of Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life” — though perhaps themselves less useful than the equally well-known rhyme, —

Thirty days hath September, —

would doubtless outweigh, on the scales of the every-day moral philosopher, the illusive phantasy of Poe’s “Ulalume;” yet this poem, passing beyond the bourne of ordered thought, almost beyond the sphere of poetry, into music, awakens — with that strange magic which is the power of the artist alone — a vague consciousness of the mysterious life within us which lies deeper than reason.

The citing of such an extreme instance as “Ulalume” is not to be taken as an implication that art should not be employed as the vehicle of rational ideas, or may not illuminate with its living radiance the most profound depths of thought. All that is meant is that, in the criticism of art, the work of the artist and not his material is to be considered, and that art is simply the medium of expression, and is ruled by special laws which are not affected by the nature of the subject beyond the necessary adaptation of the means to the end. Thus, although a poem, even a small one, may, and often does, contain in symbolic form a truly vast suggestion of significant thought, it may also, with equal propriety and without losing any of its purely artistic excellence, serve to color and transform even the trivial, the impossible, the useless — if such expressions do indeed have any but a very relative meaning. We are learning from the Japanese that in merely arranging a spray of cherryblossoms in a jar one may produce a work of art, fragile as it is, that may be as truly precious for that fleeting sense of pure beauty as the work of him who paints Fusiyama. Form — this human creation wrought from the incoherence of nature — possesses in its essential being a strange vitality which we do not yet understand, and springs from a deeper source than we are fully conscious of.

The many who still seem to think that form is a mere artifice, a technical convention, should recall one simple instance of the potent magic with which it may irradiate life. Many a farmer, no doubt, in his fall ploughing has turned up the nest of a field-mouse; yet, in only the single case which must start up in the memory of every one, did this little incident become a pathetic tragedy which has stirred the deepest and tenderest feelings of humanity in the thousands who have read and never forgotten Burns’s poem. This transformation of a commonplace fact into that moving force of revelation which we call poetry, is wrought solely by the form through which the sensitive brain of the poet has transmitted his own vivid impression to others less alive to the significance of the life around them and of what they themselves think and feel.

Form is all-important, — let the subject be what it may, — whether the medium of expression be music, poetry, painting, or sculpture. It is the swift short-hand of art, by which impressions are transmitted with all the direct and instantaneous vividness of the moment of inspiration. It is the embodiment of the harmony which art seeks to wrest from the mystery of life. It is the lingua franca of the ages; for no formless work has long outlasted its generation. Then, since form is of such infinite importance, not as a mere ornament of art but as the very means of its effectiveness, the work of one who is prëeminently successful in its achievement has a special value in an age and land where the bigger public is too likely to encourage hasty overproduction and careless disregard of the sincerity which makes for permanence and worth. For these reasons, Aldrich’s poetry, so unique in American literature for uniform excellence and lifelong consistency of purpose and attainment, is a precious legacy to the poets of to-morrow.


But fortunately this theoretical view of Aldrich’s poetry is not at all necessary to its comprehension and enjoyment. The perfect simplicity and clearness of his verse demand of the reader little beyond a natural sensitiveness to pure beauty. He recognized that life really exists for us only in those comparatively rare moments which seem to be endowed with a special meaning; and knowing, whether by deliberation or instinct, the limits as well as the scope of his power, he chose for his art those moments which offer some subtle and delicate gift of beauty, or flash a momentary revelation upon the eternal mysteries around and within us.

No poet ever held his calling more sacred or kept his soul, as a sensitive instrument, in finer tune for inspiration. With patient art he wove his many-colored words into the fine texture of his cloth of gold, careful that nothing in the tissue or the design should be of a hue that might fade with the passing interests of the day, and thinking, perhaps, of those priceless fragments of Sappho and the minor poets of Hellas preserved in the quotations of commentators. Then, before the glow of life began to flicker, or his hand to lose its skill, he closed his work, so that no chance weakness might mar its plan.

The poet was right, and has probably assured himself a cherished memory when the conditions which have made the short and loud fame of work of the hour have passed into the dead and dusty records of history; for in his verse one surely feels that grace which possesses the charm of perennial youth, and finds those essential verities of loveliness that are as fresh in an ancient line of Meleager as in the new sweetness of a spring morning to-day.