$3.50 By Jeremy IngallsKNOPF
THIS vast poem is an attempt to write a modern epic about a modern hero. Tahl is an American composer who tries to fuse in his own thought the various philosophies and religions available to modern consciousness, who studies the wisdom of the Orient when he is young, who absorbs the thought of Egypt, Palestine, and Greece by living for a time in those countries, who knows the legends of pre-Columbian Central America, as well as those of the American Indians.
Tahl is also a man of action; he is an aviator, he fights for the Loyalists in Spain. The climax of the poem comes with the performance, after he has gone to China, of his choral symphony, in which he has put into music what he was striving for from the beginning: —
What he most believed
Was we were all of us the sons of men,
All men, the final nation bred of seed
Untraced and so more traceable to every tree
Has put out rod since Adam; so the heirs
Of every race, all myth and music,
Every art, all wisdom. And our weird
Was on us, having now the soul, the heart,
Accumulate science and the massy truth
Of generations, now to make us wiser myths,
More mighty music.
It is impossible not to respect Miss Ingalls for what she has tried to do. She portrays her hero from every conceivable angle; he soliloquizes, he acts, he is acted upon; his various friends, at great length, discuss him in detail. He is described in a web of relationships — to thought, to art, to emotion, to people — and though Miss Ingalls often strains too hard to make him so, he does appear as a heroic figure.
The poem is written in many styles and many verse forms, though blank verse predominates. The most successful parts are the straightforward narratives — for example, the birth and death of Tahl’s child. But at other times, and far too frequently, the strain produces images so violent or so raw as to be meaningless: —
Shall ghosts whine grappling in a final rain
Or spew out fathomless on fiery air?
Many of the incantatory or exclamatory passages, where the poem is meant to take on a symbolic and universal significance, are overblown and rhetorical. And when Miss Ingalls tries to describe Tahl’s choral symphony, she undertakes an impossible task. She resorts to capital letters, to a system of dots and dashes, to a series of interwoven program notes — but it won’t do. We need the music itself; and that, of course, Miss Ingalls cannot give us.
But though Tahl may be full of strain and misdirected effort, though it is more an aggregate than an organism, though its technique and motivation can easily be torn apart, it is not a book to be sneered at and dismissed. No coward soul could have undertaken it or put it through, and if its metaphysics and symbolism go up in smoke, the human relationships it describes remain firm. On this level the poem is a success.