by ROBERT HILLYER
THERE are only three things I am specifically positive about: versification, sailing a small boat, and the immortality of the soul.
Once I worried when weeks and even months went by and I wrote no verses. But I discovered after a while that such periods merely preceded a new energy. The skill had not rusted with disuse; it was clearer than ever and perhaps richer with some practice that I knew not of.
In the same way, years passed during which I hoisted no sail. Then the other day a friend, not suspecting that I had been so long land-bound, handed his boat over to me. For a moment I hesitated. Then, with the rhythmic pull of the halliards, the restiveness of the rising sail, and the urgency of the boat as we cast off, the old harmony re-established itself. Harmony — is that the right word? — or harmoniousness. If anyone tends sheet for me, I am lost. I like to feel everything working together, the adjustment of contrary forces which balance the forward rush.
In the same way, there are seasons when the immortality of the soul seems scarcely desirable, although never a time when there is a possibility of doubt. “I must suppose,” said Queen Elizabeth, “that God intended us for a better life than this one.” She meant, doubtless, a life when there would be fewer unnecessary impediments to one’s proper work. By her very nature, she could not have imagined a life with no work at all. Renan, the French skeptic, who could not have entertained much faith in immortality, nevertheless remarked that when people in general ceased to believe in it, then civilization would come to an end. We are witnessing a partial demonstration of this truth at the present moment. But Renan’s stand is merely pragmatic and therefore not relevant. One cannot prove spiritual truths by physical results. That is one reason why I distrust spiritism.
To make verses, to sail a boat, to be immortal — not a bad prospect, on the whole.
It is always pleasant when an old writer tells us just where and what he was when he embarked on a literary work. Horace abounds in such intimacies. The remote past becomes the immediate present. I have always liked the opening of Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid. The Scotch winter of five hundred years ago closes around us as we read how the Arctic wind came whistling and the poet built up his fire, bustled about, took a drink to comfort his soul, and took down Chaucer’s glorious tale of fair Cresseid and lusty Troilus. Just at this moment, the wind that is blowing through my hair comes flapping from the equator. I am sitting by a small lake. I am scrawling this page in pencil and remain reasonably cool as long as I do not walk about. Such ease may account for a certain freedom of historical reference. My house is up t he hill some three hundred yards away. Why should I climb to verify names that any child can find in the encyclopedia?
The two Greek painters — let us call them Apelles and Protogenes, then; they may have been, they ought to have been — had a contest. Apelles painted grapes so true to life that the birds flew down to peck at them. The judges started to award the prize to Apelles on the spot, but when they reached the doorway, they bumped against a wall. Protogenes had painted the doorway. So the judges changed their mind and gave the prize to Protogenes, for whereas Apelles had deceived only the birds, Protogenes had deceived the wisest (in the judges’ opinion) of mankind. This must be folklore, however, for we do know that Protogenes was annoyed when the mob, entranced by the realism of a detail in one of his pictures, neglected to view the picture as a whole. There is no moral for modern painters in all this, but merely a random thought on a summer afternoon when looking through an album of contemporary art.
Dean Briggs should be written as a single name. The Dean signed his letters L.B.R.B., but one did not think of him as Le Baron Russell Briggs. Nor did any nickname ever find acceptance. I believe a few tried “Briggsy,” but the attempt sounded forced and somehow heretical from the start. No, Dean Briggs he was, — except, perhaps, to a few of his contemporaries, — even in one’s intimate thoughts of him. He was a combination of a benignant Tibetan lama and an eager schoolboy. But he cannot be described. I failed in verse, and there is no reason to believe that I can succeed in prose.
For three years at Harvard, the Dean was my friend as well as my teacher. In 1919, after the war, he went to Paris as an exchange professor at the Sorbonne. There he gave his famous course in versification without, I understand, making many allowances for the limitations of his French students, to whom the intricacies of English metrics (so much more complicated than French prosody) must have proved somewhat bewildering.
In Paris the Dean and Mrs. Briggs enjoyed a kind of extraterritoriality, like an embassy. They were New England, serene and unquestionable. We stood on the Pont Alexandre III as the twilight deepened over the city. “This is beautiful,” said the Dean, “but I miss my house in Plymouth.” We went to the Crillon, headquarters for the attachés to the Peace Conference. I modestly hoped to find a table. But I need not have worried. A whisper went through the crowded foyer. “Is that Dean Briggs over there?” “Isn’t that strange? I’d swear that was Dean Briggs.” And suddenly people were coming toward us from all directions, high diplomats and lowly couriers and secretaries. “Mercy, Le Baron,” said Mrs. Briggs. And the Dean, who remembered everybody’s name and everybody’s interests, forgot Paris and the Peace Conference and even the Sorbonne, and was quite at home again.
I have never been bothered by apparitions one way or another, — by their presence or their absence, — but I do find that skeptics go to extreme lengths of credulity in order to disprove their existence. My mother and brother simultaneously saw a tall woman in black cross the drawing room, sit down at the piano, and disappear. After the first shock was over, they began to reason the creature out of existence. They paced elaborate itineraries across the rug to show just how their shadows must have fallen to create the illusion of a ghost. Since there was nothing in common between these demonstrations and the passage of the ghost as they had at first described it, I must conclude that from the point of view of objective evidence, everything favored the ghost. Besides, in their first unedited account they had not been in the room at all, but had been standing in opposite doorways.
Even if one admits the existence of a ghost, however, one should not necessarily follow its advice. My aunt Marion for the greater part of her life avoided travel on Mondays because her deceased grandfather had seated himself at her bedside one night and hollowly intoned: “ Tis but till Monday.” We were visiting in Onteora Park in the Catskills in the summer of 1906. The date for our return was set for a Monday. Aunt Marion would surely have postponed it had it not been for Mrs. Custer, the General’s widow. She declared the whole business absurd. “ Why, if one were to be forewarned of fatal days, I, of all people, ought to know it,” said she; and remembering the massacre at Little Big Horn, no one could gainsay her. So we traveled on a Monday, and Aunt Marion, who survived for twenty-six years, finally died on a Thursday.
Aunt Marion pooh-poohed ghosts; yet she had more than her share of occult experiences. It was she who heard Shakespeare’s voice one night. Someone had been citing the so-called mixed metaphor: “To take arms against a sea of troubles.” After Aunt Marion was in bed, she heard a deep, melancholy voice that kept repeating: “Siege was the word. Siege was the word that Shakespeare used.” Well, “To take arms against a siege of troubles.” Perhaps.
There is no family without its tradition of lost affluence and the vision of its return. My grandfather had a habit, pleasant for his friends, of making loans at the slightest hint. His most illustrious debtor was General Grant. The only one, however, who ever tried to make any repayment has remained, through the injustice of chance, nameless. He left us a large tract of land in Islip, Long Island. For years “the Islip property” haunted my imagination, but no one else seemed at all interested. “I am sure it’s nothing but salt marshes and scrub oak,” they would say. So the taxes were not paid, and unvisited it sank away into the past, one with Avalon and Atlantis.
Then there was my great-uncle Joseph Williams, who left Boston in 1849 to follow the Gold Rush overland to California. He should never have gone. He was only nineteen. His sorrowful face looks out at me from the miniature as I write these lines; it is obvious he should never have gone. The route by sea was bad enough, but the overland route was suicide. He had been disappointed in love, however; it was his will to vanish, and he succeeded. Some time in the eighties, at a point where he might easily have perished, a skeleton was found, and in its hand the miniature of a young girl. My grandfather paid the finder of the miniature to have it brought on. But my grandmother, Joseph Williams’s sister, could never make up her mind about the girl’s identity. It had all been too long ago. By 1900, Joseph would have been seventy, but we children still expected his return. He would arrive laden down with sacks of gold. But now in 1943 I am beginning to lose hope.
In Scandinavia the drinking of toasts is a ritual often accompanied by speechmaking. At the fiftieth wedding anniversary of the Norwegian dramatist Björnson the w hole family were gathered around the table to hear what loving eloquence he would bestow on his wife. To everyone’s consternation, the old rascal arose and declared that fifty years was quite long enough to live with anyone, and although he had no complaints, he had decided to get a divorce and start life over again. Horrified, one of his sons took him aside and told him that he must not dream of such a thing. The old man readily conceded the point and trotted back to his seat. Meanwhile, Fru Björnson, who was stone deaf, had sat nodding and smiling throughout.
Yeats, Bridges, Hopkins — with what misconceptions do our younger critics regard these three poets. One would believe that to admire one of them we must despise the others — a pernicious method of praising by contrast popularized by Mr. T. S. Eliot. The roots of the three are so pleasantly intertwined. Bridges to Hopkins: —
Gathered thy book, I heard, this wintry day,
Thy spirit thank me, in his young delight
Stepping again upon the yellow sands.
Go forth, amidst our chaffinch flock display
Thy plumage of far wonder and heavenward flight!
Yeats on Bridges: —
Some day the few among us, who care for poetry more than any temporal thing . . . will seek out the lost art of speaking, and seek ourselves the lost art, that is perhaps nearest of all arts to eternity, the subtle art of listening. When that day comes we will talk much of Mr Bridges; for did he not write scrupulous, passionate poetry to be sung and to be spoken, when there were few to sing and as yet none to speak ? . . . I find in the poetry of Mr. Bridges in the plays, but still more in the lyrics, the pale colours, the delicate silence, the low murmurs of cloudy country days, when the plough is in the earth, and the clouds darkening toward sunset; and had I the great gift of praising, I would praise it as I would praise these things.
Later on, Yeats was to become frightened out of this eloquence by the modern pack, the progeny of Pound and Eliot, but in his later poetry the kinship with Bridges is unmistakable, long after the quavers of the Aesthetes and the Celtic Twilight have melted away.
The criticism of poetry today is an exercise sufficient unto itself. It is pretty much a closed circle, an Eleusinian mystery, to the general run of intelligent people. The broad learning which distinguished Victorian criticism in England and America released critics from that disproportion of judgment which is the result of flurries in taste and contemporary fashion. Modern criticism is confused because it lacks learning. It is also largely at the mercy of post-Freud and post-Marx thinking, a form of pedantry more dogmatic than an exact science.
In the search for precision, “ the meaning of meaning” would fix the significance of each word and context, whereas we know that, within reasonable limits, the margin of interpretation provides the overtones of poetry. Criticism today marches down the dark aisles of every kind of symbolism and emerges with many theories but not one agreement. At the same time those who would assume a scholarship, when they have it not, seize on some poet from the past and for a while he is the idol of dutiful followers of the vogue. French symbolism, Blake, Donne, Hopkins, Yeats, Rilke, Lorca — one after the other they come and go like Tchaikovsky’s themes in a jazz orchestra. The general effect is reminiscent of the rhetoricians and the grammarians of the Alexandrine decline. There are a decadent preoccupation with minuscule theories and a lack of sweeping comprehension. One might say that it is foolish to split the last hair on a bald head — at least in so many directions.
There has been no great critic of poetry since George Saintsbury died.
The emphasis on literary influences in modern criticism is phenomenal. Personally, if I ever saw a possibility of my influencing anyone else’s work, I should be horrified. But many take the opposite view. For example, John Gould Fletcher tells us in his autobiography how his “London Excursion” was “as influential in the development of Miss Lowell’s poetry as the ‘White Symphony’ was, about a year later, in Conrad Aiken’s case.” Again, it was not until Aiken’s third book, the Jig of Forslin, “written directly under my influence, and read by me in manuscript, that he began to develop in the direction of his own particular bent. . .”If true, this is the assumption of a large responsibility on Mr. Fletcher’s part.
It seems to me that the friendly clash between poets, as with Bridges and Hopkins, is much more stimulating, and the reader is doubly gratified by two independent beings. An interchange of influence, furthermore, invariably results in the formation of a “school” — that “gregariousness of minor poets” of which Samuel Crothers wrote so wittily in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly twenty years ago. If we say, for example, “the school of Donne,” we imply Donne plus some inferiors. But what modern poet is going to be relegated to such a place? If we had a school of Shakespeare, all English poetry since 1600 would be involved. It seemed to me a sign of failing powers on Yeats’s part when he said that he could not discuss Hardy or Blount or Bridges because these poets had not founded schools. Is that the passport to criticism? If so, then Sir Sidney Lee, who invented the pedantry of sources and schools so essential to the Doctorate of Philosophy, did not live in vain. But it is my belief that he did — and his successors after him.
In our back yard still stood the relic of pre-plumbing days, a backhouse, which, through some family euphemism, was always referred to as the outhouse. A small grove of arborvitae surrounded it, and to this day I always associate these funereal growths with backhouses. Our edifice had long since fallen into disuse, for the house was amply provided with plumbing — a bathroom on the second floor with a tin tub that went plunk when one stepped into it, and a cellar arrangement for servants. From headquarters came my grandmother’s orders that the outhouse must go. “High time!” said my mother. “Out, out brief outhouse, life’s but a walking shadow,” said Aunt Ella. Aunt Marion raised her eyebrows sardonically. “A sensible departure denoting human progress,” said she.
But we children were not to be comforted. Something dear and familiar was going out of our lives. It was a fine summer morning when the movers arrived. The entire juvenile population of Walnut Street was in attendance. As the crowbars heaved the turf, a sigh uprose; as with the creak of sprung timbers the outhouse went crazily tilting toward the waiting cart, a wail resounded. The cart started and the gable of the doomed outhouse wagged drowsily like Queen Victoria’s bonnet on her Jubilee ride. The children fell in, their voices swelling to a solemn chant: “The poor old outhouse, the poor old outhouse, the poor old outhouse goes marching to the grave.”
More children with accompanying dogs joined the cortege. The chagrined driver flicked his whip backward to disperse the pilgrimage. Heads popped from windows. And the chant went on. At home in the darkened parlor, Grandmother and Aunt Ella sat quietly “dying of mortification” (a curious phrase if you analyze it). Mother said “Fiddle-deedee!” and went about her business. Aunt Marion remained immersed in Maeterlinck’s new book, Wisdom and Destiny. Meanwhile, with such funerary rites as were never before accorded so humble an instrument of creature comfort, the poor old outhouse went marching to the grave.
Were an Index made of my life, there would be hundreds of entries under the word impulsiveness. For better and for worse, my life has veered at the urgencies of impulse — to tempers I look back on with alarm, and sudden generosities which afterwards astound me. If I do not make a decision on impulse, I spend weeks of agonized balancing and often decide nothing at all, but let Destiny take the whole matter out of my hands. Blind Destiny has often saved me from pits into which I should have plunged open-eyed. Such a character has an advantage in the instantaneous crisis: a bad swimmer, I have saved a life or two through not weighing the odds; an incompetent driver, I have, when necessary, dashed in and out of traffic at a speed which, had I paused to consider, would have destroyed me. Impulse can on the instant direct the eye unerringly. But delayed by an emotion or a thought, it will hand over a fortune to an enemy and insult a dear friend. Personally, I am not worried about enemies or a fortune, but I believe the friends I have retained to be distinguished by unusual patience.
We had a fine view of the total eclipse of 1932 from Kenneth Murdock’s place in New Hampshire. The air grew chill, the darkness swept like a tidal wave over us, t he stars came out, birds fluttered nervously in the bushes, and the corona flared around a black sun. Then suddenly it was over. My five-year-old boy smiled happily at me. “Do it again, Daddy.” “Daddy’s tired, I answered.
An editor should be not merely an agent to accept or reject manuscripts; he should, in fact, edit. I have seldom objected to editorial suggestions, although I do not always follow them. Verse, of course, should be immune to such changes, although even there I once consented to the excision of a line — a final line, furthermore, the deletion of which left a rhyme sound hanging in air. Marianne Moore made the suggestion when she was editor of the Dial. The poem was called “Remote,” and the vacancy left the poem suspended, incomplete, and thus greatly increased the effect of far distances. Usually I pride myself that the eraser end of my pencil is almost as busy as the lead, and that the silent editor who receives the bulk of my work is the wastebasket. In this case, however, I had nodded, and Miss Moore was right.
When Arthur Machen wanted to order another gin-and-water at the Crown, in Penally, South Wales, he summoned the barmaid by beating a strange tattoo on his glass, thus: one-two-three . . . one-two-three . . . ONE . . . Two . . . THREE. Its origin? In the nineties there was in London an occult society of which W. B. Yeats was one of the leading spirits. A novice would meditate in a closet until, entranced, he saw the sun at midnight rising in the west. Then solemnly he signalized this vision by striking the ninefold rhythm on a gong. “And a very good use of such a signal,” saidMachen beaming, “is to summon a little gin and water.” Incidentally, this simple concoction is sometimes known as a Queen Anne because of that lady’s known partiality for it. When her statue was erected in front of St. Paul’s in the eighteenth century, a large spirits-shop directly opposite did not escape the notice of the popular bards.
With her face to the gin-shop and her back
to the Church.
I have slightly Bowdlerized the second line.
In the past the best works of art and literature and music have been the result of a commission. It is fashionable, since the Romantic period, to pretend that art is its own reward. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, and many, many other names to conjure with, knew better. Virgil hated to write the Aeneid, but it was a command performance and he did very well. A poet no more “prostitutes” himself by writing for money than a surgeon does in sending a bill. Poetry — all art — is an acquired skill representing an investment of years. Given the enthusiasm to perfect a technique, “inspiration” will take care of itself.
There are no poets with good technique and no inspiration. If a work is uninspired, then the technique is bad even though the rhymes may be impeccable and the meters according to rule. Offer me some hundreds of dollars for a long poem in heroic couplets and you will have my best within a stipulated time. I am a craftsman in the art of poetry. There are many with an aptitude for poetry who are not craftsmen. One might just as well call oneself a surgeon because one was naturally endowed with nimble fingers. So many write verses under the impression that poetry flows instinctively from the Infinite right through their fountain pens. They think they can write like Whitman — and they usually can.
Form in itself is the inspiration. Even the Romantic poets were aware of that. In Shelley’s notebook, the famous “O World, O Life, O Time” appears first as a skeleton design of rhyme scheme and line length. The words came later. Bach is a good example of an artist who mounted to Heaven on a mathematical formula. Dante without his terza rima would have been lost in Hell. When Catullus wished to threaten his enemy, he did not say, “Beware of what I am going to tell about you”; he said, “Look out for my hendecasyllables!” a much more terrible curse from such a poet. If Alexander Pope warned me that he was going to ruin my reputation in the coffeehouses, I should shrug the matter off; if he said that he was aiming a couplet at me, I should run for cover. It would not matter what the couplet accused me of; the barb would be sufficient no matter what poison it was tipped with. Lord Hervey found that out. So did Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
This paragraph I am writing at John Dos Passos’s house at Provincetown. I look out the back windows of the sitting room over a small terraced garden and sunlight and the blue waters of Massachusetts Bay. From upstairs I hear the intermittent clicking of the typewriter. We are of the generation who still write in longhand and copy on the typewriter. By the pauses I can tell when he reaches the end of a manuscript page; if this were a detective story, I could make a fair estimate of the number of words on each. And what an admirable schedule for work — nine till two. Ah, but I am exempt. I allow my eyes to drowse on the feathery tamarisk that stands so near against the star-distances of the Bay.