The Pot of Earth/East Wind

by Archibald MacLeish. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1925. 16mo. x+45 pp. $1.25.
East Wind, by Amy Lowell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1926. 16mo. viii+240 pp. $2.25.
AT a time when too many poets are merely expert technicians, Archibald MacLeish writes — or so it seems — under a spiritual compulsion. In The Pot of Earth he half orders that emotional chaos which is the substratum of human existence; he suggests more than he states; he sustains, by the force of his original impetus, a fine lyricism throughout forty-five packed pages. For Archibald MacLeish, although he insists on telling stories, is a lyricist. This story of a woman’s fertility paralleling the earth’s fertility becomes, in his hands, a series of inter-flowing lyrics. There is the child growing aware of sex and ‘the sea gathering underground’; there is the girl, come to love, and the ever-flowering stalk; there is the woman giving birth to a child and knowing herself at last for what she is — ’a sown field.’ It is all mystical, using the old symbols of the seed and the flower and the fruit and the second seed to tell what is too profound for telling:
‘I tell you the generations
Of man are a ripple of thin fire burning
Over a meadow, breeding out of itself
Itself, a momentary incandescence
Lasting a long time. . . .'
A red symbolism appears and reappears: ‘the blood-red flower,’ and the brook in the ravine that ’ran blood-red,’ and the ‘red surf breaking.’
But the individual woman cannot subordinate herself to this red principle of nature without protest. She both fears and desires the infertility of stone. She both fears and desires the fertility of the ploughed earth. She questions; she defers to the inevitable; then, dying, she cries out: ——
‘What am I?
Ah, What! A naked body born to bear
Nakedness suffering. . . . What do they mean,
The red haws out there underneath the snow? What do they signify?
Glory of women to grow big and die
Fruitfully, glory of women to be broken,
Pierced by the green sprout, severed, tossed aside
Fruitfully —
Yes, all right, Yes, Yes,
But what about me —
What am I?
What do you think
I am
What do you take me for!
Snow, the snow —
When shall I be delivered?
When will my time come? ’
This is disturbingly fine poetry. Technically, it is eclectic. It combines the formal tradition in poetry with the experimental informalism of T. S. Eliot, and adds a new and personal emphasis. It uses repetition cleverly and not overmuch. it shifts from a strict and genteel rimed form to free verse with an occasional injected rime, and from tree verse to rimed consonants, and back to conservative quatrains.
The passage which begins with
‘Go secretly and put me in the ground . . .’
and ends with
‘ What is this that grows in an old garden? ’
is nothing less than majestic. We wish Mr. MacLeish had resolutely stopped with that question. We resent the appended ‘interpretation,’just as we resented, on page 10, the unnecessary ‘pointing’ of
She seemed to be looking backwards thousands of years
Across gray waters. . . .
But these are minor criticisms of minor faults. As an expression of the spirit, The Pot of Earth is unassailable. From Archibald MacLeish, the story-teller, we pass to Amy Lowell, the story-teller. It is an anticlimax. East Wind, Miss Lowell’s latest posthumous volume, contains thirteen stories of ‘New England life and character.’ Announcement is made on the paper jacket that these are ‘dramatic tales’ whose very titles are ‘redolent of vitality and rich humanity.’ Oh, extravagant publisher! Are New England life and character fittingly represented by eleven stories about death and madness, one story about a servant girl who tries to drink wood alcohol, and another about a woman who steals a baby out of a baby carriage which happens to be standing in front of a drug store? Is New England dialect to be taken from vaudeville instead of from life, that more trust worthy source used by Robert Frost, who never resorts to ‘proud ’us punch’ and ‘cossettin” and ‘ I ’m proper glad ? Does ‘dramatic’ mean theatrical? Does ‘the macabre that Amy Lowell loved ’ consist of Florella’s picture crashing to the floor in ‘A Dracula of the Hills,’ and a coffin hanging by one strap in ‘The GateLegged Table’— so unconvincingly depicted that we experience a mild displeasure and no chill? Should Amy Lowell endlessly catalogue furniture and her characters endlessly catalogue their troubles? Does she know these people? Does she love them? The answer to all these queries seems to be a dispirited ‘No.’ But the intention running through East Wind is, we insist, excellent. To represent New England simply and colloquially and without ostentation — what is more praiseworthy? Sad that the accomplishment falls short of Miss Lowell’s best work in the rimed forms — remember ‘ Evelyn Ray’ — and her best work in free verse — remember ‘Lilacs’ and ‘Patterns.’ We must content ourselves, as far as East Wind goes, with a pleasing phrase here and there — and recall a more effective Amy Lowell. The leaves on a tree are compared to
a crowd with raised umbrellas
Pushing for places at a theatre door.
And this beautiful refrain recurs, with variations, in the suicide poem: —
A wind rose, and a wind fell,
And the day that was that day
Floated under a high Heaven.