by William Ellery Leonard. New York: B. W. Huebsch, Inc. 1925. l2mo. viii + 109 pp. $2.00.
Two Lives does what all poetry should do — it smites the heart. Notwithstanding the flaws in its technique and the spottiness of its excellence as pure poetry, this sonnet sequence does, as a candid human document, elicit the two great emotional reactions cited by Aristotle — pity and terror. Here, if ever, the helplessness of man before uncontrollable circumstance is forcefully demonstrated, and the mutability of time, and the high-heartedness of man. The high-heartedness. . . . Plans crumble, love is nailed through the hands and through the feet, and lightning strikes where it has no rational right to strike — in the direction of a woman,
With full throat And large black lashes over large blue eyes. . . .
And yet the katharsis of Aristotle is not lacking. As in all great drama and great narrative, here, in the very presence of death, we catch glimpses of deathless things.
The story is, briefly, the story of a lovely lady who is seen by a man, loved by a man, married by a man, and — when madness comes to her as it came to her mother — lamented by a man long and distractedly and without alleviation. The plot has intrinsic heartbreak. But William Ellery Leonard, in the telling, makes the black more black and the white more white, by piling up small detail, by overwhelming us with minute immensities, and wistful immensities, and irremediable immensities.
Before their marriage she brings him a plate of cream —
. . . for cream, you know, won’t keep.
Later she tells him how, five years previous, she was in a madhouse,
With strange physicians, and behind locked door Mumbling in bed, or tracing on the floor, ‘ The Lord is my shepherd, I . . . ‘
And the reticence of this; —
‘Good night, my child’— (That none had told me seems, you fancy, odd?) And so I kissed and left her. Did I cry? — I’ve never cried. Or did I moan ‘My God’?— Nor that. Or walk out under starry sky? — I went upstairs, undressed, put out the light; And shook with pity and terror all the night.
Delicately he chronicles their honeymoon. Tenderly he tells of their one year together. Then the cog in her brain definitely slips. He tears out of the house for medicine, but not before he cautions her, as though she were a child, to learn a stanza in Shelley’s ‘West Wind.’ On his return: —
‘I’ve only learned a part,’ She answered tremblingly. ‘Let’s have it,dear’— '’"Destroyer and preserver, hear, O hear!’”
Before drinking from the green bottle; —
She clung so close, as in a wilderness. . . .
Later: —
‘Dead? . . . I think I ‘ll walk around a bit,’ I said. . . .
And yet, we add perversely, perhaps, and stubbornly, Two Lives is not first-rate poetry. It moves us as a story rather than as a poem. If it were told delicately in prose, it would as certainly move us. We read it in order to touch, even secondhand, a human relation of so exquisite a texture; to feel, in spite of prevalent ruin, ‘ What a piece of work is man!’ - to shudder, like children, at a sense of great and unavertible doom.
It is William Ellery Leonard himself who lifts us at the end: —
We dare not think too long on those who died, While still so many yet must come to birth.