Some Recent Books of Poetry

IT has been long since originality, vigor, ambitious design, and sustained enthusiasm have been poured into a work of poetry as they have into John Brown’s Body, by Stephen Vinvent Benét. This remarkable book does not invite great subtlety of judgment; its characteristics lie plainly visible and open to inspection. It is not marked by the mysterious and unpredictable qualities of phrase and conception which are characteristic of the greatest poetry. It contains many passages intensely and truly poetic, but perhaps its nearest approach to great poetic style is in its eloquent Invocation.
Among its virtues must be counted its abundant vitality and its ambitions plan: it is the story— flung nervously and hotly into verse - of the great struggle against slavery, of the brutalities, fights, and strange, contrasting, implicated threads of the Civil War and its period. This story — really a segment of history is incorporated in the lives, through these fateful years, of a large number of characters: Southern gentleman, Pennsylvania farmer, mountaineer, slave, Connecticut Yankee, belle, chambermaid. President, and general. Thus the treatment is concrete and naturalistic; indeed the naturalism of the book — so perfect as to seem at times inspired — is another of its conspicuous merits. It is a merit with a limitation, perhaps, considering the book poetically, for the naturalism and the poetry are not often united. They are apt to alternate rather than to fuse.
Among the defects of the book, it seems to me, must be reckoned the confusion of the first part, resulting from frequent abrupt changes from one character and one metre to another. It is curiously noticeable throughout the book that the great scenes, in which the characters and events belong to universal history, are much inferior to the scenes which Mr. Benét’s imagination has largely or wholly created, and in which the characters are his own.
Judgment, of John Brown’s Body as a book will differ somewhat from judgment of it as poetry. As a book, it is a deeply impressive, animated, and understanding picture of one of the great conflicts of history seen through the lives of humble and important participants. Many of the most memorable scenes are such as a novelist might have created, and are remembered as they would be remembered from a novel. As poetry, the book is varied. Passages of great poetic excellence it contains, and, inevitably, much that is inferior. Some of the most successful pages, metrically, are quasi-Byronio jingles in form, such as the meditations of Cudjo, the old negro servant in Wingate Hall. But the plan of the book would have been impossible without the nervous concentration and immediate emotional reality which poetry makes possible. If Mr. Benét has not succeeded in the Homeric perfection of uniting poetry with action and natural detail, he has produced a remarkable and original book, for which no exact precedent is to be found either in the novel or in the narrative poem. It is a step toward combining the merits of each.
Content with simpler themes, a tried veteran of American poetry, Robert Frost, has been tilling his field quietly, and now comes with sound and sweet-smelling products to market. No volume of poetry ever bore a more charming title than West-Running It Brook. It cannot be said of it that it contributes to poetry as an art. in form and expression the verses are of the most unpretentious — sometimes, indeed, lacking the significance and care due even such neighborly poems as Mr. Frost’s. Nor can it be said that the poems utter a philosophy, except as they contain gleams of a wise humor and suggest a personality at peace with itself, rooted in simplicity and spiritual health. What can be said is that they give pleasure-often tenuous and slight, like gossamers, vanished before they can be caught, but pleasure nevertheless, for several poems in the book particular appreciation is due: but in the last of all. ‘The Bear, humorous perception has wrought a masterpiece.
Of chief interest in Carl Sandburg’s Good Morning, America is the composition which gives its title to the volume. Obviously owing to Whitman in form, 'Good Morning, America (which was read as a Phi beta Kappa poem at Harvard) is marked by even less regularity of rhythm than Whitman employed. It ranges from long and complex prose sentences to short, quasi-metrical paragraphs. In substance, it is an affirmative .salutation to America, to its facts,’industrial, historical, emotional, to its power and to its complexity., America, all in all, in the multitudinous phases of its existence, is breathed in and held in suspension so that the mind may ruminate on its vital and fundamental life as on a cud. No very coherent reflections or conclusions are produced, but as rumination is a healthy act the implication is strong that while defects and crudities may be present in America, its mere being and variety are justified by vital instinct. Hardly free from turgidily, ‘Good Morning, America is full of vitality and humor, and the pleasure of reading it is considerable.
The volume also contains a large number of briefer impressions, often remarkable for delicacy and beauty of perception. In form these impressions belong no more to the poetic category than 'Good Morning. America’ itself. Yet, tested by the quality of enjoyment which they give, their effects are frequently more poetic than their
The case with the latest volume by Edna St. Vincent Millay is in large part exactly opposite. In outward semblance the poems in The Buck in the Snow are accomplished and skillful: in substance they offer almost nothing with which criticism can come to grips. Fugitive impressions predominate in the book, and even as impressions they seem ineffectual. The poems inspired by the case of Sacco and Vanzetti scarcely differ in strength from the casual verses. Here one cannot doubt the sincerity of Miss Millay, but the results are no fair measure of the feeling in which the poems must have originated. ‘Justice Denied in Massachusetts is poetically conceived; it seems rich in undeveloped potentiality. Its restraint and indirection — it gives no hint of the bitter circumstances that gave it birth, and speaks only of the sick and sad shadow fallen on indifferent fields—are interesting to criticism. But the poem needs some transmuting coal laid to its lips, some explicit and bold seizure of its theme. Had it this added directness, its lines might have spoken with prophetic fervor.
The name of Thomas Hardy looms like a shadow from Valhalla. Winter Words in Various Moods and Metros, which he prepared far publication before his death, contains a few poems in which greatness is unmistakably felt to be present. These, despite phrases which seem like the uncouth arms of primitive machinery, suggest in their grave, large thought, conciseness of expression, and proportion of form, the Greek Anthology. Aside from these few native woodnotes, the most interesting feature of the volume is its Introductory Note, in which Mr. Hardy writes: ‘ My last volume of poems was pronounced wholly gloomy and pessimistic by reviewers. . , . My sense of the oddity of this verdict may be imagined when, in selecting them,
I had been, as I thought, rather too liberal in admitting flippant, not to say farcical, pieces into the collection.' And later: 'I also repeat what I have often stated on such occasions, that no harmonious philosophy is attempted in these pages — or in any bygone pages of mine, for that matter.’
These words deserve sympathy , and no doubt should be taken into account in the interpretation of Hardy as a man and of his work. But it can hardly be expected that they will materially change the definite impression which he has already made on the public and critical mind. Certainly the contents of Winter WORTHH will not change it. Although deliberately flippant pieces are present, grimness prevails. Tragedy is immanent, whether conscious and formulated pessimism is intended or not. Often the grimness becomes altogether grotesque, and one would like the justification of the preface for applying the word ‘farcical to pieces that bear every appearance of seriousness. How much the volume would have been altered had the author lived to revise it further is a tilting question; but perhaps it is best to dwell on the few poems which in brief compass utter permanent reflections, and utter them with the dignity and mystery characteristic of great poetry.
This Blind Rose, by Humbert Wolfe, is a collection of a considerable number of short, casual poems, Out of so many separate entities, it is natural that a limited number should emerge as possessing the individuality and significance which invite comment. In the rest, tendencies to the banal and to the sentimental both in phrase and in idea must be recognized, and the reader must frequently be aware of noticeable defects and a lack of definite character. I cannot feel that the poems devoted to love are true evidences of a grand passion. Those which I should whole-heartedly praise are of a different sort. They are reflective and spiritual, as when Mr. Wolfe, in sympathy with Plato, says that the rose is a parable ‘of how things fadeless, when they seem to fade, relinquish only their earthly defects.
Since Time to that divine conjecture must remould, each spring, the instrumental dust.
Modern poets are like modern actors. Thh hitler, when they pronounce blank verse, seem to do their best to disguise the fact that it is blank verse they are speaking, hi the same way modern poets often seem anxious to conceal the fact that it is poetry they are writing. The familiar outward trappings and splendors of the art they avoid; and although one discovers that the same emotions and rhetorical methods are present, they are introduced conversationally and as if by a tacit agreement with the reader to ignore them.
Of all the writers touched oil in this review, John Masefield seems to me most unashamedly a poet, and Ids Midsummer Night most unmistakably poetry. In this volume of Arthurian ballads, the historic devices of the poet come into their own-the formal simile, the obsolete or poetic word, the stanza constructed with a fine harmony of rhymes. Legend and magic flower again; love, fighting, and vengeance, action and passion, prevail.
I cannot feel that much is to be expected a priori of a new poetic treatment of the Arthurian legends. Many poets have already given their versions of this great cycle of romance, but none has equaled Malory. Le Mode Darthur is among the greatest writings in the English tongue, and to read it is to fulfill completely and sublimely the particular kind of experience which it offers, the enchanted contemplation of a wonderfully varied and magical world of characters whose adventures reach deep into the roots of folk story and fairy tale and whose implicated fates yet possess the dignity to bring about a tragic and portentous dissolution. Little can be hoped of a secondary treatment of so great a theme.
But with the first page of Midsummer Night hope and expectation are forgotten. It can only be said that the unpredictable beauty and magic of the legends quicken in Masefield’s ballads, and the birthright of poetry is recaptured in the music and simplicity of his word'. Little of the largeness and cumulative effect of Malory can be found in Midsummer Night. It is noticeable, too, that such familiar stories as the attempt of Modred and his followers to take Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, where comparison with Malory is suggested, have not the force of the less familiar stories or versions in which Masefield enjoys more of the primacy of the creator. Often the use of obsolete or rare words is too free such favorites as ‘meyny’ and 'raddled' come to be expected regularly. There is a predilection to be somewhat specifically bloody in the fights; and the imitation, not so much of Chaucer as of the kind of freshness and liquid simplicity for which Chaucer stands, is noticeable. But often this freshness is not sought after; it wells forth spontaneously, bathing rhyme and stanza with beauty and delight such as are not often found. When this occurs, the reader is made aware again of the quenchless power that resides in the true gift of poetry.
THEODORE MORRISON