Poems/Right Royal

by Wilfred Owen, with an Introduction by Siegfried Sassoon. New York: B. W. Huebsch, Inc. (Printed in Great Britain.) 8vo, xii+33 pp. $1.50.
by John Masefield. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1920. 12mo, x+ 146 pp. $1.75.
THESE two books of modern English poetry, real poetry, provoke some observations on metrical forms. Wilfred Owen—a poet of this single volume, killed in battle just a week before the Armistice, when he was only twenty-five—was little concerned with rhyme; that is, he used it or not, or dealt in assonances instead, according to his wishes at the moment. But he cared greatly about rhythm — not a concealed intricate cadence, which only the initiate can disentangle, but an ordered swing of sound, with an impressiveness akin to that of marching men or of waves breaking on a shore of the sea. John Masefield, with a galloping tale of the steeple-chase to tell, adopts the familiar measure of ‘From Ghent to Aix,’ and clings to it through 145 pages which leave the reader not only unwearied, but quite capable of a mile or two more on the race-course. In neither book is there a trace of polyphonic prose or pollywoggish verse. There is no flirting with metrical innovations; and the noteworthy fact is that all the effects of originality, force, variety, and beauty are attained just as surely as if every paulo-post-futuristic experiment in poetic structure had been tried. A parallel fact is that each of the two poets very definitely had something to say. That is a great point in favor of any poet, and it is not yet established that the exemplars of the new order would continue to leave many of their readers cold if they too had a little more to say.
The Poems of Wilfred Owen wall take a high place in the English poetry of the war. Their prevailing note is that of the pity, futility, and horror of war itself. They can never be set aside as the vaporings of a theorist or a pacifist, for Lieutenant Owen, undeterred by ill health from joining a fighting unit, saw the hardest of service at the front for the better part of three years, won the Military Cross for gallantry in action, and fell when ’peace’ was in sight. He saw and wrote without illusions. The very title of some of his poems indicate what he saw — ‘Mental Cases,’ ‘The Dead-Beat,’ ‘Futility.’ A ‘Parable of the Old Men and the Young’ must be quoted entire;
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron;
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there.
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son. . . .
From England at war, John Masefield’s Right Royal transports one at a bound to England at peace. This picture of race-day on a steeplechase course, with its high-spirited narrative of a horse and its rider, reveals Masefield, the storyteller in verse, even nearer his best than in Reynard, the Fox; for, though it contains no such gallery of human portraits as that tale of a fox-hunt, it is essentially a more human story. There is the same sympathy with dumb animals, but their fortunes are of far more consequence to the men concerned with them. It is hard to think of another poem which not only needs to be read with a map, but is far more profitably read through constant reference to such a piece of mechanical apparatus as the plan of the race-course which appears as an ‘end-paper’ in the book. It is indeed a poet’s triumph that this device does not reduce the poetry to prose. The story itself is what holds the reader— the rush and spirit of it all, the imagery drawn from the sea, from ‘leaves blown on the Hudson,’from ‘snow in Wisconsin,’ from all the panorama of a poet’s vision. ’There is nobody else to whom the poetical story of a steeple-chase may be recommended as a theme for his muse. But Mr. Masefield has enriched the literature of his tongue by undertaking it.
M. A. DEW. HOWE.
In response to requests from many librarians, the reviews printed each month in this department of the magazine will be reprinted separately in pamphlet form. Copies may be had by any librarian, without charge, on application to the Atlantic Monthly, 8 Arlington St., Boston.