THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
IT was in a little bookshop on a tenement street in the West End of Boston that I found it, a little shop kept by a scholarly Jew, shelves full of high-explosive intellectual contraband — Portraits and Protests, by Sarah N. Cleghorn. And the first verses the book opened to were ‘The Oldenburys.’
Fifteen years ago Miles Bradford and I, just out of college and poorer than the proverbial barnyard fowl of Job, were dwelling in an East Boston garret. The nearest restaurant was three miles away. Each evening we climbed a high hill with a superb view of the city and harbor, and, perched on its scarp, — near a nunnery surmounted by a statue of the Virgin Mary with its halo attached to a lightning rod which ran down her back, — ate half a loaf of stale bread and three bananas apiece. That was dinner. And here it was that Miles produced a copy of the Atlantic containing, in its Contributors’ Club, two lyrics, ‘The Oldenburys,’ and ‘The Sigourney Circle,’ saying, ‘Here is something good.’
And good they were: —
By the fabled Tory-hunter’s well,
Where the strange and bookish Oldenburys
On their wasted patrimony dwell.
Below the seven waterbars:
A dim, cool chamber looking on the woods,
And ceiled with mimic moon and stars.
Who before had ever caught so hauntingly and so simply the mood of summer afternoons in old New England
houses? We promptly learned both lyrics. And the next year, when I was so rash as to take Miles to my little home town, I incurred years of chaffing to the tune of: —
Where they chime with the voices of the past.
We fell to watching for Sarah Cleghorn’s name on the magazine indexes. Always some pensive or touching sketch ‘Of Country Places and the Simple Heart.’ Then she disappeared. The earth swallowed her. What had become of the sweet songstress of Vermont villages? At last, where on earth should she turn up, where but in the pages of The Masses — before the war, under the editorship of Mr. Max Eastman. And bless us, what a transformation! What had become of sunbonnets and old-fashioned garden flowers? What Saint Joan’s voice was this, ringing with wrath and pity in that burning lyric, ‘Comrade Jesus,’ beginning: —
At mass-meetings in Palestine,
We know whose side was spoken for
When Comrade Jesus had the floor,
and on through a poem that is all one thrill of love and pain.
Soon after came her novel, The Spinster, and the story was clear: one more chapter of that agony which comes over the finer spirits of the middle class at the sight and sense of the injustice of their kith and kin to the class just beneath. But why had one heard nothing of this little volume of verse? A glance at the title-page date explained — 1917. How could these shy strophes of the hermit thrush be heard above the cannonades of that evil year? And yet, here in these pages is the now famous four-line lyric: —
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.
That innocent little quatrain gave child labor a black eye that no amount of cosmetics has ever been able to efface. In another lyric she reproaches herself with cowardice. And yet I seem to remember calling on her with Miles Bradford in the summer of 1917 — utter strangers both, but in sheer need of talking with someone who spoke another language besides that of hatred and death — and finding her wearing publicly a small red badge on which was inscribed this legend: ‘Love your enemies.’ That was a time when a San Francisco woman found herself in trouble with the police for putting in her window a placard plagiarizing Moses to the extent of ‘Thou shalt not kill.’
On that same journey, while the Jouncing Jess, as Miles’s motor truck was affectionately known, jingled past a weather-rusted farmhouse under the lee of Windward Mountain not half a mile from Miss Cleghorn’s dwelling, Miles, noting a farmer in shirt sleeves reading a book on the front verandah, murmured: —
On their wasted patrimony dwell.
Just to rig him, I told Miss Cleghorn of the remark. ‘Oh,’ said she, ‘that was the Oldenburys. They are my cousins.’
So the little book came out in 1917 and was lost in the symphony of discords and the Christmas oratorios of hate. Is it too late to review? Very well; then let me tell a few friends what a choice keepsake of homely truth and beauty is laid away in the sweet lavender of these unpretentious verses. No highfaluting, no pose, no rhetoric; but something lacking which so much contemporary verse limps — skill of versification, haunting phrase, and, above all, genuine and passionate thought and a heart burning with love of her fellow creatures. For all this, I wonder if it is not worth while to direct the wayfarer to
Turn again into the wooded Hollow. . . .