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Amy Lowell and Vachel Lindsay

ISSUE:  Winter 1936

Vachel Lindsay: A Biography. By Edgar Lee Masters. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.00. Amy Lowell By S. Foster Damon. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $5.00.

The publication of biographies of Vachel Lindsay and of Amy Lowell represents the beginning of a period of appraisal. It is fortunate that the first full study of Lindsay’s life is by a man who values Lindsay as a poet and who was himself important in the life of the period. However Edgar Lee Masters may come to be thought of as a poet, “The Spoon River Anthology” must be considered one of the most important American books of a generation. Masters knew Lindsay and he knew the environment out of which he came. It is natural that he should be interested in the formative years when the poet was an art student and a tramp carrying his gospel of beauty through the far South and the far West. The profuse commonplace books and other notes that were carefully preserved are copiously used in the biography, so that Lindsay is made to give largely his own story of his spiritual experiences, which are plentifully commented upon by the biographer. Herein lie the strength and the weakness of the book. It is a valuable book that must be important as long as either Lindsay or Masters is held important, but it is not a wholly satisfying biography. The early years of dedication to a mission that appears very vaguely understood to the poet himself fill the larger part of the book, Mr, Masters says that Lindsay is seeking to understand the Soul of America, but he does not make it clear how he found it: he is more in- » terested in finding relations between him and Walt Whitman. But Lindsay himself was more interested in Poe and would have been able to show how much Poe entered into his making as a poet. He carried a little volume of Poe’s poetry with him as he tramped through the South, and he held that it was in the respects where it was most important that Poe’s influence was least to be seen. In a measure Lindsay did find the soul of America: that and his lyricism are his distinction as a poet. He found it as it manifests itself in unsuccessful ideals—Altgeld, Bryan, Wilson—, in racial groups—the Negro, the Chinaman, the gypsy—, in revealing group-movements—the Salvation Army, the Campbellites, the circus—, in popular legends—Pocahontas, Johnny Appleseed, Lincoln—, in natural and mechanical things as symbols— buffaloes, automobiles, the kallyope. Of the period of Lindsay’s artistic maturity, especially from his recognition in 1918 to his English triumph in 1920, Mr. Masters gives an incomplete picture. The picture remains of “the pilgrim boy, lame but hunting the shrine,” but there was a moment too of “quaint deeds” and ‘fully flaunted pride.’ Other books will be written on Lindsay, but they must all owe something to Masters. “Vachel Lindsay: A Biography” is a book with life blood of its own; cut it and it will bleed. It is honest and not afraid to show the strange alloy that was mixed with Lindsay’s genius, but it claims for the genius an authentic voice. More, Mr. Masters challenges a verdict for Lindsay when he says, having listed his best and second best poems, that “they constitute the most considerable body of imaginative lyricism that any American has produced.” A bold claim: it’may prove not too bold. I remember hearing a very true poet and judge of poetry, James Stephens, say that “The Chinese Nightingale” was the most beautiful poem ever written in America.

As nearly as a first biography can be so, S. Foster Damon has written the definitive life of Amy Lowell. He has also written an illuminating history of the Imagists in America. The story of Miss Lowell’s youth and the pressure of her environment upon her personality is sufficiently told. Most of the large book, however, has to do with her activities and relationships as a leader in a poetic movement. Its fault, if it is one, lies in the detail with which minor events are narrated and the reader informed of visitors and dinner guests. Boswell must be Boswell to be Boswellian. It is a delightfully written book, though, and the interest rarely sags.

One may wonder as to what literary controversies are shelled in some of the statements Mr. Damon dares. Amy Lowell, stout-hearted and exclamatory, drew controversy from the heavens. And battles are pitched here in which such eminent figures as Ezra Pound, Witter Bynner, Conrad Aiken, and Edgar Lee Masters may have an interest. As the tale is told, Miss Lowell had the better and the woman’s last word of the first two. As she became, and appar* ently meant to keep herself, the center of the battle between the new poets and the conservatives, the scene about her is filled with interesting personalities. Documents of first-hand importance are generously included. Especially full of flavor and vibrant charm are D. II. Lawrence’s letters to Miss Lowell; and her generosity, one gathers, was no more ingrain than his independence as the cure to his bruised pride. It may be that ardent admiration on Mr. Damon’s part has all unconsciously tempered the winds from the wrong quarter. Certainly the myth of the stormy lady who shouted down her opponents owned many mouths. He tells the stories, too. More than once Miss Lowell grows tempestuous in these pages. The biographer gives the impression of complete frankness and yet keeps our sympathy for the woman that he admires so much that he seems to feel it needful neither to praise notably nor to hold back anything.

There is an admirable orderliness to the method that Mr. Damon follows. He has not had to depart from the biographical time arrangement to make this biography a literary his-, tory. Perhaps Miss Lowell saw to that in the ordering of her life: but whatever the reason, she dominates the book as the book represents her as dominating the people around her. How palely “battles long ago” become “forgotten far-off things”! Some of the poems that glowed with sunlight colors when Miss Lowell was fighting the war to make verse free, have faded to the mildness of pastel tints. But Amy Lowell does not lose her vividness as we see her in Mr. Damon’s biography. We have respect for her intellect and her character and we like her as a person. The personality is what emerges most convincingly. We realize that she is a large woman, that in her later years she was suffering from nn incurable injury, that she was a wealthy woman who surrounded herself with a setting of dignity, that she was always late and often hot-tempered, impetuous, and sometimes overbearing, that she pulled all the wires she decently could to get a favorable press for her books: but these truths do not give us the woman that Mr. Damon makes us know. The woman has her less engaging phases, as some men’s eyes might see her; but not because of fiery words or Falstaffian girth. She was a big enough person to afford the luxury of mild cigars and decent oaths. What threatens the whole-heartedness of our admiration, and may run over to affect our estimate of her verse, is the suspicion of a super-club woman—not the delightful member of a woman’s club who takes her club as she does her life with a sense of humor, but the super-clubwoman who makes things go, including the arts, of which poetry is one.

Yet that is not the chief nor the last impression we get On the contrary, there is nobleness in Amy Lowell, as this biography presents her. A forthrightness and honesty, a generosity and loyalty, an interest and an imagination col-ored and flavored by the live things of earth, a daring energy and a brave spirit are the qualities that make her for us, as her biographer evokes her image, a personage of hearty re-ality. She may well become the woman counterpart in our literary history of Dr. Johnson in that of England. Much of her poetry has beauty and appeal for our generation’s taste. Whether it has the elements of universal poetry suffi-ciently to keep it living is a subject for controversy already Amy Lowell herself and her influence upon American writer ing in her day are compellingly realized in Mr. Damon’s biography of her.

Unhappily both this biography and Masters’ “Vache Lindsay” stress a suffering death in the latter pages. That of Miss Lowell was not so painful since though she suffered long in the months that led up to it, she had no sense of de-feat and the death itself was not slow. Mr. Masters tell with harrowing detail the last sad agony of Lindsay’s death It is a question of taste whether the painted veil need be so ruthlessly lifted. Death is often an anticlimax, and art at least might allow to an artist the swift, clean death of brief words.


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