Kings and the Moon
OUT of a quiet scorn for contemporary worldly life James Stephens has made the bitterly beautiful poems in this book. The mood of these poems is not the fighting rage which once compelled Yeats to cry, ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave’ (those who have lost hope for the world do not rage at it), but one of retirement and withdrawal. It is the mood in which a man decides to enter a monastery, or that in which one who has been betrayed resolves henceforth to be secret and to himself, never again to give his heart to anything or anyone that can betray it.
These poems answer the question: What has happened to James Stephens? They reveal why he no longer takes delight in character and the behavior which bodies it forth; why he writes no more prose epics, no more makes the old Irish poets ‘sing again far better than themselves.’ no more himself chants the songs of joy in the life of the senses he used to chant. They mark the metamorphosis of a happy into an unhappy poet.
Most of the poems in this book speak the tragic view of life of many men to-day. A few sing a pantheism which includes so much as to mean little to many minds.
This pantheism is, of course, nothing new in Stephens. (Was he not the man of Æ’s young men?) Almost from the first the poet sang: ’All: all alone: and all without a part Is beautiful! For beauty is all where!’ But where such mystic affirmation used to be the joy-released culmination of overflowing beauty, it is now the refuge of a man so sharply withdrawn from life he does not wish for anything, ‘and shall not wish again.’ I think in these poems we follow what is mystic in Stephens with less sympathy than we used to, not alone because of the difficulty of the going, but also because the poet, and we too, miss the momentum of joy which once impelled him to pantheistic utterance.
Monosyllabic, almost adjectiveless, spare of image, these poems minister superbly to our modern taste in verse for beauty bare; they excide much that a later generation, lusting again after epitheted opulence, may well put back into verse. Ellipsis of pronoun and much use of the phrasesaving adverb further cut the verse to the bone. Rarely does the close movement of the short lines open out into the repetition which used to take its joy of rhythm. Only occasionally does the old tonal splendor vary the monotone of lines so deliberately harsh with compression as, ‘Who hath gat him away hath got nowhere.'
Much beauty is here, but it is a sparer, stricter beauty even than that in the last book, Strict Joy. Particularly lovely are such big little poems as ' Envying Tobias’ and ’Paternoster.’ Retired into the monastery of the mind, Stephens has made poems which have the deep quiet beauty of a prayer. Others — ‘In the Red’ and one of the variations from ‘Theme, with Variations,’ for instance—possess the final simplicity and magic of a nursery rhyme.