Are All the Poets Dead?

THE other evening I took down a copy of the Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics from my library shelf. It had been some time since I had turned these pages, and to my great surprise I was profoundly shocked at the hundreds of dull, halting, and stumbling lines that were there. Among these winnowed verses from the selected poets of the past there were entire stanzas that walked on flat feet. I turned to my scrapbook, where I have gathered bits of color from the palettes of contemporary poets, and was blinded by the beauty of the present. This set me wondering — and may I now ask — whether more good poetry is not being written to-day than during any of the so-called Golden Ages of literature.

It would be fine, I thought, to test the theory. It might be that we were giving too much worship to dusty books, to books revered and unread. It might be that we were dazzled by names. So I devised this little game, where I list, anonymously, and in no order at all, bits and oddments chosen from the entire range of English verse, from Shakespeare down to Jerry Evans of the New York Evening Post; and I leave it to you who so love the classics, and perhaps hold them as a holy priesthood, to guess, as you can, which of these fragments that follow are by the masters, and which are by the casual contributors to the newspaper columns and to the magazines of to-day. I may add that I have not trusted to my own whim in the matter of the classics, but have drawn examples from recognized and well-accepted books of quotations.

The reader may be amused to test his critical appreciation of poetry by jotting down his guesses and then checking them against the list which is printed somewhere in the advertising pages of this issue.

1. Where the long centuries go curving up the beach
And foam away and cease . . .
2. Old sounds born of the gossamer of rain.
3. The wind’s wet wings and fingers drip with rain.
4. Soever does the fountain play,
Or, rising on its silver stem,
Give merrily its drops away
To star another diadem.
5. Only our mirrored eyes met silently.
6. Reduced to bones I shall not care
How hard the dandelions stare,
And stricken blind I shall not see
Green wish-bones on this maple tree,
Nor gladly feel beneath my foot
Strong anchors twisted out of root.
7. Sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind.
8. The heart has music of its own, but cries
No trumpet down the autumn’s lonely wind,
No bugle down the splendor of the skies.
9. The bracelets of the wind still hum
Against her bright delirium.
10. We who have watched webs of green water broken
Into the apt inconstancy of spume . . .
11. Scrabble riddles on their brain,
Make a plow of wind and rain,
Bury stars and pile up stone,
Bind their hearts and yoke their own.
12. The rain had fallen, the Poet arose,
He passed by the town and out of the street.
A light wind blew from the gates of the sun,
And waves of shadow went over the wheat.
And he sat him down in a lonely place,
And chanted a melody loud and sweet,
That made the wild-swan pause in her cloud,
And the lark drop down at his feet.
13. Starlight through the curves of space
Falls an age, and does not tire;
Falls and knows not where it falls,
A curve of undiminished fire.
No interstellar cold may stay
These atoms in their are of flight,
Their radiant geometry —
The mathematics of the night.
They see far off the burning suns,
The furious wash of tides that shake
The whirling nebulæ, that twist
A moon’s orbit till it break . . .
14. Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again.
15. Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep,
Where the winds are all asleep;
Where the spent lights quiver and gleam;
Where the salt weed sways in the stream.
16. You only silver creature,
Stood fashioned as the least
Being in all nature,
Neither bird nor beast.
Creatures without wings,
Bright fur, or beetle’s armor,
The mindless beasts go warmer,
And the creeping things.
The mindless stone lasts longer
And cries not to be fed,
But you shall find no bread
To assuage your hunger.
Yet climb the high-blown
Stair, the highest ledge
Of the mind: look down
Over the mind’s edge —
Thought you your strength was little?
Behold what strand in space,
More fine than spider’s-spittle,
Holds the suns in place. . . .
17. The tree will wither long before it fall;
The hull drives on, though mast and sail be torn;
The roof-tree sinks, but moulders on the hall
In massy hoariness; the ruined wall
Stands when its wind-worn battlements have gone.
18. Then the music touched the gates and died,
Rose again from where it seemed to fail;
Stormed in orbs of song, a growing gale,
Till, thronging in and in, to where they waited,
As ’t were a hundred-throated nightingale,
The strong tempestuous treble throbbed and palpitated.
19. Now would I build, with nothing but with words,
A sky so blue and gracious and so still
That news of it would bring back many birds,
And roots would know and move beneath the hill.
20. If in the moonlight from the silent bough,
Suddenly with precision speak your name
The nightingale, be not assured that now
His wing is limed and his wild virtue tame,
Beauty beyond all feathers that have flown
Is free; you shall not hood her to your wrist,
Nor sting her eyes, nor have her for your own
In any fashion. . . .
21. Yet many a man is making friends with death,
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone . . .