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Apollo in Doubt

ISSUE:  Summer 1925

An Anthology of Pure Poetry.
By George Moore. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.00.

New Poems. By John Drinkwater. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $1.25.

Bitter Brew. By Cale Young Rice. New York and London: The Century Company. $1.50.

Sonata and Other Poems. By John Erskine. New York: Duffield and Company. $1.25.

Earth Moods. By Hervey Allen. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.00.

The New Spoon River. By Edgar Lee Masters. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.50.

Collected Poems of H. D. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.50.

Dionysus in Doubt: A Book of Poems. By Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.75.

One night Mr. George Moore, Mr. John Freeman and Mr. Walter de la Mare sat around Mr. Moore’s table discussing asparagus, turbot, and grouse. Over the coffee, the conversation was of poetry and of Coleridge as Carlyle described him, “snuffling: Subjectivity! Objectivity! as he came across the lawn.” Then Mr. Moore gave his definition of pure poetry, “something that the poet creates outside of his own personality.” The two poets, without accepting the definition, agreed to enter into the quest of English poems that should be included in an anthology compiled with such a standard. The result of the delightful experiment was “An Anthology of Pure Poetry,” unique among poetry books, the only one as Mr. Moore said that was “lacking on the book-stalls.” Ours may well be known as an era of anthologies. The wrapper of Mr. Moore’s own book bears announcements of Mr. Le Gallienne’s two in English and American poetry, and of Padriac Colum’s of Irish verse. Recently, gifted hands have been busy with anthologies for the children: Mr. William Rose Benet’s most lately. Walter de la Mare himself compiled a book in “Come Hither” and Mrs. Louise Collier Willcox one in “The Torch” to be loved as treasures on which we may spend our money in the children’s name for our own enjoyment as much as theirs. It would be interesting to test Mr. Moore’s collection out, in competition with these, among the children; for children love objective beauty: but even the children might agree with Mr. de la Mare that many of the most beautiful poems of the language have been barred. The chosen canon was strictly enough enforced, though Wordsworth’s “Green Linnet” slips in by way of the Introduction over Mr. Moore’s objection to the subjective phrase “Voiceless Form”; and with it many a stanza more. The talk reported, to form the Introduction, lingers deliciously, full-flavored as an evening in the Mermaid; and the seventy-four poems that all English verse from Skelton to Swinburne has yielded are certainly poems of pure beauty whatever we may think of some left out. Four poets give forty-one of the poems chosen. Shakespeare leads with eighteen songs, and William Blake comes next in number of pieces though not in number of pages; Shelley with eight and Poe with six occupy more space than Blake’s nine. No other poets furnished more than two except Morris, Tennyson, and Coleridge with three each. To Morris is allowed fifteen pages, in this respect exceeding Shelley by two and Poe by three pages. Poe is the only American included. Mr. Moore has wrought a very feron-ier for the front of Apollo and now that the expensive autographed edition has been followed by one of moderate price and exquisite format his anthology should have a place between the book-ends of every lover of pure poetry.

That brilliant maker of phrases out of thought, Gilbert Chesterton, has said that a man discovers the world first, then mankind, and last himself. The race has passed through a similar progression. Poetry or fiction, it has been objective first, objectively subjective, then subjective. Mr. Moore must have had his definition of pure poetry evoked by a reaction from the subjective poetry of our times. The novelist is no busier psycho-analysing his characters from studies of himself than the poet is in reflecting in verse the colors of his own sea-changing moods. John Drinkwater’s latest poems offer a sharp contrast, to the point, between his own compositions and the translations from the German. It is the distinction of the better of the younger English poets that words and measures are like water flowing limp-idly into the perfect outline of their minds. Mr. Drink-water’s lines suggest, with their perfection, a sincerer ease than the free verse of any poet now writing. Of some of his verses, it might be said “they come like water and like water go,” but while the cadenced thought yet sounds upon the tongue, the mood of the poet takes possession of our minds as a mist fills a valley. Others like “The Witch-Ball” have unforgetable lines, such as:

Never was poison-root
In this Hesperides
Girdled by gentle trees;
Mould that our lilies made
Mothered no nightshade.

The pages open at the German translations. Mr. Drink-water is the perfect translator: he realizes his desire; these stanzas have no flavor of a translator’s dictionary, they are poems,—delicious as the flower with the efflorescence of its bloom fresh upon it. Schiller, Gleim, Bote, Burger, Goethe, Uhland, Storm, and Keller are all among Mr. Drinkwater’s chosen: and this is the wonder,—not only do their ideas seem native in expression but their poems have the naive loveliness of Cavalier lyrics. One debates if the difference between these and Mr. Drinkwater’s own beautiful lines is in fact due to their greater objectivity.

To turn from John Drinkwater’s poems to the consideration of almost any group of American poets, is to recognize the essential differences between English and American poetry to-day. The more adventurous experimental spirit is felt even in the restrained and poised measures of so experienced a poet as Cale Young Rice. Mr. Rice has written on such varied themes and in such a variety of forms, he has been so cordially praised in both America and England, he has so long a list of published works including a collected edition of his plays and poems, that the critical observer may well wonder why he has been included in so few of the anthologies where lesser men stand thick and why his name is not more widely known than it is. The answer might be offered that in a period of changing values, when Apollo himself might doubt what qualities constitute a poem, Mr. Rice has refused to “affect singularity” and follow “strange misbegotten gods of song.” Then one remembers that Robinson and Frost have been no sail-trimmers but popularity of a sort found them out at last. May it not be that the very versatility and fecundity of Mr. Rice’s work has prevented him from developing in his poetry a ‘flavor as individual as that of the apricot or the quince’ and at the same time has scattered his finest poems among a vast sequence of lesser verse? Poets have pronounced imprecations—even good natured Walter Scott—upon reviewers and anthologists but the selective judgment of the critics has saved many a precious heirloom from sinking with overweighted volumes. “Bitter Brew,” Mr. Rice’s new volume, is full of such poems of sure-touch and distinction of thought as have gained his former collections unstinted praise from English critics. It is well named for there is an acrid sharpness about most of the poems with their frank and sincere pictures of life. But it would have been well had there been a more careful weeding of commonplaces like “Compensation” and “At a Golden Wedding,” pretty enough verses but out of place in a book of poems containing “An Idealist” and “Son and Mother.” Poets are remembered not for the bulk of their work but for the poems in which they write better than themselves. There are poems in Cale Young Rice’s volumes in which he has surpassed himself and that surpass anything in his newest volume; none the less “Bitter Brew” contains strong and interesting work.

With somewhat the same feeling one reads John Erskine’s “Sonata and Other Poems.” Here is verse of power and significance. The range of mood and manner represented by the titles is wide, but neither do Mr. Erskine’s poems leave upon the memory the racy flavor of one personality. “Sonata” is written by a man who knows his Browning. “Ambush” belongs to a period after John Masefield has written. Yet neither poem is imitative. “Sonata” is in fact a strong and original poem, firm in its modeling and significant in its thought; and “Ambush” is a psychological study of fresh virility. Mr. Erskine’s volume is in the classic tradition and is marked by grace and beauty. It will add to a well-deserved reputation for honest craftsmanship, marked by delicacy of feeling and thought.

“Earth Moods,” Mr. Hervey Allen’s new collection, is notable, too, for the versatility of its contents. It is in a more adventurous spirit than any of the volumes already discussed. The first poem is, in the words of its author, “an epic of man in the northern hemisphere from the last ice age to the voyage of Columbus.” The last poem, “Old Meadows,” is a delicate tribute to “forgotten meadows” and closes with a dream of “Ilium’s fate.” Within this enclosure none the less is felt the impact of an emerging personality. Mr. Allen’s thought has matured since the publication of the last volume containing work of his, and one poem especially, entitled “Children of Earth,” may be placed among the finest narrative poems of recent American publication. Without in the least suggesting the manner or method of Robert Frost it has much of Frost’s power to interpret the countryside by showing how the spirit of the soil mingles with that of the men it has mothered. Mr. Allen in many of his poems catches bits of nature with indelible vividness, as in “Funeral at High Tide:”

A cupping sound from hollow banks,
Where muddy bubbles plop their scummy lips,
And the unholy fiddlers sit in cavern doors,
To brandished fists, whetting their claws for corpses
With Satanic glee, as if they knew
All living things are food, and all must die.

The line between poetry and prose is a vague and changing one. “Line in nature is not found” and perhaps the more nearly art approaches nature, the fewer are the finalities of definition that will hold good. The publication of Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” was certainly an event of consequence in the development of American literature; and it is equally as certain that sardonic humor, keen human discernment were there in plenty,—a sort of psycho-photography: but who can challenge the beauty of form and idea in the pieces, “Anne Rutledge” or “W. H. Herndon?” There is a new Spoon River since the War and Mr. Masters has written a second anthology that the souls that sleep in its graves shall not be denied their poetic resurrection. And the trump of this Gabriel has not lost either its brazen or its golden note: all that could be said of the first Spoon River anthology may be said of “The New Spoon River,”—except that there are here no Herndon and no Anne Rutledge. But the new resurrection is a glorious one. Mr. Masters, quite unexpectedly, has “done the trick again.” Here once more are poignantly made to speak the weak, the shifty, the mean, the poetic, the noble, the generous, the free-spirited, and the vulgar of a whole community the lives of which are inextricably intertangled. Mark Paas—”so many thrushes and robins gone like the poets I loved,” Henry Zoll, the miller who under the cake of scum and worms on his mill pond sees “the pickerel chase each other like silver shadows,” Warren Swinbourn praying to Fate, “Give me wisdom to swim with the stream:” they are all voices from life and yet they are all subjective reflections of Mr. Masters’ own ideas about life. Into Sarah Dewitt’s ghostly mouth he has put the burden of the book’s whole theme:

Friends, it is folly to prison God
In any house that is built with hands,
In man or woman, or passionate hopes,
Or the love of Truth, or the Rock of Ages.
For all will change, deceive or crumble,
As soon as you think you have prisoned God
For God is Proteus, and flies like magic
From earth to heaven, from hope to hope.
You can never catch Him, and this is the reason:
The game of the soul is never to find,
The game of the soul is to follow!

Emerson said something very like that in thought once, and the North American Review did not in the far away forties consider it poetry. Whether “The New Spoon River” is poetry or is not, it makes provocative reading.

There is this in common between the Spoon River verse and the exquisitely fashioned lines of H. D.’s poems: each poet has found a strikingly individual form for the expression of an equally individual imagination; each uses free verse in carefully modeled form. There the parallel must end for no poet has approached the American poetess, H. D., in the jeweled and cadenced beauty of her free-verse except her English husband, Richard Aldington (of course each reviewer can speak only with the authority of his own taste): while Masters with the acid bite of irony often creates in the spirit of what a friend of mine terms—with a wink for Lewis Carroll—the art of uglincation and derision. Now that the “Collected Poems of H. D.” are brought together in one volume it is easier to see just how lovely in its restraint Mrs. Aldington’s poetry is; and it is strangely paradoxical to find how Greek are the color and the bouquet of the wine in the quaintly modern vessels of her verseforms. Some of her poems are gnomic in the almost perverse obscurity of thought, riddles of the mind. But the objective sense impressions are clear-cut and colorful as “ornaments in jade”—or jasper. Where so much beauty is I have wandered like a child, plucking a petal here and everywhere, to find what was a violet shattered to a violet’s petal and so I have kept only the familiar “Oread” for its brevity and beauty:

Whirl up sea—
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.

But for the cramping space, “Lethe” or “Fragment Forty” or “Leda” or some other one of the achingly beautiful longer poems should be printed here. H. D. writes in too exotic a form and with too subtle a beauty ever to be a poet of the market-place or the boudoir: but how will some scholarly poet thrill two hundred years from now when in a quaint corner he comes upon her verses and catches a faint fragrance like the soul of Sappho reborn!

The most hopeful thing about American verse to-day is the variety and fresh sincerity of the poetry of so many who are writing. Though there is much that might be called painted verse, there is a silence of the older rhetorical echoes of “souls of poets dead and gone;” and there is much that is “simple, sensuous, and passionate.” On my desk there is lying a little privately printed volume, “Spider Stillness and Other Poems” by John Bryan. Some of the poems are slight, some are delicately colored bubbles of conceit in the good Elizabethian sense but all are freshly sincere—and lovely. When so many personalities are being expressed in the honest terms of their own imaginations surely the portents are good for the making of a few really great American poets. There are, I think, already three contemporary Americans who have done work as individual and as significant as that of any of our earlier poets, excepting only Poe and Whitman,—and possibly Emerson. One of these, Edwin Arlington Robinson has just published a new book of poems, “Dionysus in Doubt;” and any publication of Mr. Robinson’s is not only interesting but important. An appraisal of a new collection of Robinson’s poems is a vaguely dangerous undertaking. There is that about his apparently shadowy obscurity that may leave his meaning at a first reading as dark as two or three of Rembrandt’s canvases on first view, only to become clear and rich in sug-gestiveness as one’s eyes pierce the darkness, as the figures of Saul and David do in a certain one of those same Rem-brandts, until jewels flash in the king’s turban. If this volume does not contain his greatest work, it is yet a distinctive and distinguished book. “Mortmain” has a situation presented in fifteen pages of narrative verse that would have dressed out a novel. The sonnets prove again the perfection of this poet’s mastery of the form. Such contrasts occur as these closing lines respectively of “The Sheaves” and of “New England.”

A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still but not for long to stay—
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

And from the “New England” this crisp bit:

Passion is here a soilure of the wits
We’re told, and Love a cross for them to bear;
Joy shivers in the corner where she knits
And Conscience always has the rocking-chair,
Cheerful as when she tortured into fits
The first cat that was ever killed by Care.

The book takes its title and its special character from the first poem and to a degree the last, “Demos and Dionysus.”

Dialogues with gods are usually oddly old-fashioned: not so with “Dionysus in Doubt,” it is the last word of the wine god himself upon “an inflexible and hasty nation that sees already done rather too much that has not yet begun,” and is preparing “for the infliction of more liberty” “to moron-ize the million for the few.” There is delicious satire, too, in this god’s mouth whom the Greeks made also god of the drama and of fertility, intellectual and physical. He pays his respects to all “that for timidity or for expediency capitulate” and those who “pleasantly and ineffectually are silent there because they are asleep.” “Defeat, indifference and forsworn command are like a mask upon too many faces.” “Some stand erect and always amiable in error,” while most are “armed only with a large mistake.” But Dionysus’ offerings have ever been tec alluring to the lips, and quotation must end. The sum oi the matter is that

Bad laws are like blind pilots authorized
To see not and to care not where they steer.

Edwin A. Robinson is often too overcautious as if he feared to attempt too much. He seems shy in his genius and personality. His poems at times are coldly intellectual. Even his Dionysus has a restraint—wholly different from the artistic restraint of “H. D.”—that constantly suggests more than is said. But what this poet creates is distinctively his own: of him certainly Synge’s words, paraphrased above, may be said; his poetry is “as fully-flavored as a nut or an apple.” His poems are sufficient justification of subjectivity in art. They are concisely apt in diction, beautifully modeled in design, and his wit suggests the recent trend in the world of scientific invention; for spiritually and intellectually it can send an analytical X-ray through a man’s personality and then throw it upon a screen with the calcium spot-light of the inevitable phrase turned upon its secret springs of action. It is to be regretted, though it is inevitable, that the very traits that make Edwin A. Robinson the most intellectual of American poets have put a limit upon his popularity.


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