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Cale Young Rice

ISSUE:  Winter 1929

Selected Plays and Poems. By Cale Young Rice. New York: The Century Company. $6.00. Stygian Freight. By Cale Young Rice. New York: The Century Company. $1.50.

If a wealth of association with poetic genres of the past and present may constitute distinction, the fame of Mr. Rice should rest secure upon the ample pedestal of these nine hundred pages. His kinships with the latest poets of the nineteenth century and with the best of the twentieth are legion; the ties of consanguinity provoke comparisons at every page. The texture of these volumes is a closewoven fabric of Japanese epigrams, Tennysonian heroics, lyrics in the manner of Swinburne, stark Frost narratives, Browningesque monks and nuns and painters, repetitious Whitman-like chants, Markham propaganda, Spoon River toughs and harlots, symphonic instruments dramatized in the fashion of Dryden, and poetic drama after Stephen Phillips. The “Selected Plays and Poems” are especially provocative of two time-weary questions. To what degree of poetic greatness can intrinsically poetic subjects and themes achieve, unclothed in any new, ingenious splendor of expression and unpropped by, any modern peculiarity of style and idiom? And, what shall be done with the unrepentant disciples of Victorian romanticism? For Mr. Rice is ineluctably one of the number of these; when at times he turns from them it is only to achieve a new romanticism nearer home. He bears the stigmata of Browning, Tennyson, and Phillips; and there is painful suspicion that these once reverenced symbols of poetical godhead may appear to the glassy modern eye mere shameful scars of an ignoble bondage.

His themes are consistently poetic, and that in a broad and proper sense of the word; he would satisfy the most acrid of modern complex-probers as well as the most saccharine of romantics. The reader is constantly aware that the poet has chosen “good” subjects, no matter what may be the outcome; there is about them all something of the dramatic implication, the sense of emotional overtone, the mystic imponderables of love and death, and the transcendental nostalgias, that constitute for most readers the substance of the poetic. By all the sacred dicta of the Muses, they are themes that ought to succeed. And their success is most frequent and satisfying when the poet allows the beauty of the subject to work its own way with him; they are less pleasing when, as in “The Beachcomber,” Mr. Rice presents us not with the salty scavenger himself, but with Mr. Rice thinking beachcomber thoughts.

Although his most ambitious contribution is found in the group of poetic dramas, it would seem that Mr. Rice is at his best in those narrow portraits, such as “The Mad Philosopher” and “A Woman Wronged,” in which he has fused a restrained lyricism with a cleansing objectivity. His purely lyrical pieces are usually less effective; in propaganda he is at his occasional worst. His predilection is for tragedy and death, although in “Porzia,” a drama of the decadent Renaissance, he has once narrowly escaped magnificence by permitting a situation of superlative tragic possibilities to dwindle into magnanimity, recompense, and a happy ending. Other plays of the group suffer from a slavish conformity to pattern. In both “Giorgione” and “A Night in Avignon,” for example, there appears the mighty poet or painter, withheld in vain by the interceding monk or uncle from the perpetration of a vile revenge upon the seemingly unfaithful lady of his love, and stricken at last to the carpet when she appears and looses upon him the lightning of her innocence.

The more modern aspect of the poet appears in “Stygian Freight,” which reveals an effective talent for ironic tragedy. “Dallow’s Bluff” is subtle and moving, when it might easily have become mere melodrama. The nun at sea upon a modern steamship has more of authentic pathos than the earlier monks who scraped licentious Homers from old parchment in a Renaissance setting. In these presumably more recent poems, Mr. Rice has sought for beauty in familiar places, and the search has often hit upon its goal.


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