New Poems/Dionysus in Doubt

by John Drinkwater. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1925. 12mo. viii+64 pp. $1.25. by Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1925. 12mo. xii+105 pp. $1.75.
IT would be easy to enumerate the limitations of John Drinkwater. The sea-swell and ineffable gusto of Masefield are gagged here by something blood-kin to placidity. The fastidious chiseling hand of Aldington is replaced by a thumb and forefinger not indiscernibly thickened. The Drinkwater brain, for all its philosophical lobes and quizzical convolutions, is no match for the probing mind of, say, E. A. Robinson.
But the John Drinkwater who launched an arresting series of modern historical plays, the John Drinkwater who presented his beloved England with a serene set of incontestably fine poems, is more than a clever mass of negations. New Poems stand sturdily upon their poetic legs. Without clamor, without fireworks, without flag-waving, they follow the even tenor of their way. And therein lies the strength of John Drinkwater. In this heyday of raucous selfrevelation, we owe a generous bay-leaf to any poet whose verses reject unrestraint, whose pen eschews perturbation.
Yet the poet, in spite of downright British unexcitability, conceals, under his cupped and tranquil hand, quivering qualities as surprising as they are un-British. Both the twenty-one original poems which vindicate the maturer Drinkwater and the facile translations which retrieve eighteen German lyrics from linguistic annihilation possess this almost Celtic fringe. We smile at the incorrigible artist in
‘Felicity, come stay awhile,
And talk with me, you pretty maid.’
She glanced at me, a girl of guile,
And she went running down the glade.
I stirred the embers on the stone,
I sprinkled rushes on the floor,
I took my pen to write alone —
And she was tapping on the door.
— and like John Drinkwater the better!
We have said that, intellectually, John Drinkwater is no match for Edwin Arlington Robinson. When George Meredith, a decade or more ago, challenged the literary world with his cry for ‘Brain! More brain!’ Robinson was the tardy and triumphant answer of the Muses. A scorn for the mentally inexpensive — a scorn which burns hotter and whiter in his latest book, Dionysus in Doubt — is the salient quality of his meticulous art. Linked with a superb craftsmanship and a nipping irony, it produces a first-water poet who, while reminiscent of Browning at his subtlest, remains inimitably himself. The new dramatic dialogues — ‘ Dionysusin Doubt,’ ‘Genevieve and Alexandra,’ ‘Mortmain,’ and ‘Demos and Dionysus’ — savor, in power of understatement and in concentrated beauty, of the older poet’s dramatic monologues. With a canny and Browning-like artistry, Robinson never states; he always implies.
Preëminent iii this new volume is, of course, ‘Dionysus in Doubt.’ Here we have a sociological tract, an alkaline essay, an arraignment of contemporary America rendered inoffensive by its very profundity. We dare hazard that here, as in most of his poems, Robinson started, not with an emotion or a fancy or even an imaginative concept, but with a definite idea. Then, because the man is unescapably a poet, his original idea took on the shapes of beauty, waxed whimsical and cogent, and emerged a dignified dramatic dialogue between Robinson and his nom de plume, the god Dionysus — a dialogue wherein America is branded as ‘an adolescent giant’ trying with a ‘fervid if inadequate insistence’ to hang himself, and ‘miscalled Democracy’ is berated as ‘an unransomed kidnapped juvenile.’ Convicted of endless crime, we are grateful for the god’s almost grudging
‘Yes, there is hope where you believe it is;
Also intelligence is hidden there —
Much as a tree’s unguessed immensities
Are hidden in a seed.’
The eighteen included sonnets are, also, chalices for an implicit fire and a dry New England humor. ‘Haunted House’ is a masterpiece of silences, ‘Karma’ is a masterpiece of irony, ‘The Sheaves’ is a masterpiece of muted loveliness. Who can forget the thousand golden sheaves lying
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.