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William Ellery Leonard

ISSUE:  Summer 1928

There he lounges, swinging one foot, on the porch railing of the University Club at Madison. . . . Leonard! (He would not like the exclamation point; but he always lives up to exclamation points.) It is my first day at Madison, where I have come to teach English and to complete my formal graduate work. Friendly Morris Roberts, who had the good taste to write his Harvard dissertation on Henry James and to smoke good pipe tobacco at Wisconsin, has been advising me. “Karl Young for the seminary in Shakespeare; Dodge for Spenser; Leonard or philology.” . . . “The poet Leonard—teaches philology?” . . . “Yes indeed, and he’ll teach you more about language than mere paradigms. He’s sitting over there now, by the way.”

Mr. Leonard has been walking out along the golden slopes that border Lake Mendota. He wears corduroy; brown Norfolk jacket, close-fitting breeches, tan stockings to his knees, and a jaunty brown hat. Hickory cane in one hand, cigarette in the other. He is talking in German with an elderly professor with beautiful white hair. I catch the name Goethe. They are engaged in some whimsical controversy. Mr. Leonard seems to win the argument. The other goes away smiling.

Roberts has gone to his room to get a pipe-cleaner. Shall I speak to Mr. Leonard? Or is he the kind who wishes to talk only to important persons on the front porch of the University Club? Luckily I do not have to decide. He comes over and speaks to me. Will I have a cigarette?

“So you have been doing newspaper work.” He does not look alarmed or outraged. On the other hand he seems to know all about the papers in New York, Washington, and Boston. He does not fly at my throat with Brisbane and the faults of some local headline writer; not any more than I presume to blame him personally for Edgar Guest and Elinor Glyn. (Brisbane, I submit in passing, would hold his own creditably in a face-to-face discussion with some of his contemptuous critics.) Greeley, Dana, White . . . he asks about Watterson. His father was a newspaper editor for a while. Good!

Mr. Leonard externally is every inch the poet. His eyes are the most luminous I have ever seen, except Henry Watterson’s. Whitening hair, tawny and long; large nose and mouth, both none-the-less acutely sensitive for their pronounced masculinity; an incisive glance, betokening mental alertness and physical vigor, never meant to be artificially impressive or embarrassing. An “artist’s” necktie, usually purple, loosely knotted in a bow; not an affectation, but a natural tie for Mr. Leonard. What priceless thing would I have given in my undergraduate days for a model like this; what small mannerisms I might have assiduously mimicked—I who needed so much more than my jejune verses to establish myself among my fellow students as a literary man!

I took a course in philology with Mr. Leonard. In it I made the lowest grade of my, graduate career. I never risked another course with my friend, though I promised to take Icelandic. He didn’t mind. His standards of scholarship were higher than my own.

Let it be assumed that William Ellery Leonard does not have to be here identified. One has inquired for “Two Lives” at the bookstore and perhaps been told that all copies had been sold, that a new edition was being awaited; possibly one has learned that no other American poem of its type has been so admired both in this country and in England. One knows of “The Lynching Bee,” “Aesop and Hyssop,” “Tutankamen and After,” the poetic translations of “Beowulf” and “Lucretius,” “The Vaunt of Man.” And one is now reading with deepening wonder that magnificent autobiography, “The Locomotive-God.” Let it be hopefully assumed also that many others who read books vicariously (through magazine reviews) and who discuss these books vacuously (through their hats) may be led, by the uncommon note of reverence in the reviews, to read “The Locomotive-God” in person.

Mr. Leonard began writing “The Locomotive-God” during the summer of 1926. Before the end of September of that year the book of 427 generous pages was complete. During that interval the scholar was also engaged in a very long treatise dealing with his identification of the metrical scheme of “The Cid.” This treatise, in Spanish, was being prepared for publication in Madrid. He was also acting upon an invitation to join the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and wondering what to do about an invitation to read the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard. Yet to me he did not seem any busier than usual.

All of “The Locomotive-God” he read to me, page by page, as he was writing it. He came to my room with each successive installment. Why he should thus have so singularly honored me, I do not know. But I can devise some tangible estimate of the teaching-value which was involved. Mr. Leonard gave me more of an education in one evening’s discussion of the artistic problems of his composition than he had given me, several years before, in several hours of classroom philology. . . . “Does that episode of the maimed cat seem too ghastly?” “It is unpleasant, but extremely suggestive and pertinent.” “I’ll leave it in.” . . . “What about those two paragraphs?” “They seem a little harsh, and below the tone you have established.” “That’s right. I’ll leave them out.” . . . “This word won’t do. That isn’t what I want to say—well, here I’ll cross it out and think it over.” A few days afterward: “Now I believe I’ve got it. How’s that?” And he always seemed to have just it. . . . Paragraphs became sentences, words paragraphs, sentences pages, projected paragraphs only words.

He said he could objectify the material by reading it aloud to me. Quietly reading along, frequently stopping for explanations, questions, or imaginative projections, he was at once keenly aware of any rise or fall in tonal quality. No director of a symphony orchestra could be more sensitive to inharmonious bassoon or rattling drum. Parts of the book he wrote rapidly, “without a thought”; other parts caused him a deal of trouble. I think that, in all the book, he wrote passages descriptive of his student days in Germany and those about his pet cat, Jimmie, with the most unmitigated pleasure; and I believe that the chapter on his life in Bolton gave him the most pain. He was exalted when writing of what he has loved most: his dear ones, his cottage with its gardens near Lake Wingra, and the beauty that is Madison, “the shining city.”

The Locomotive-God—chief evil character, foil to the main actor in the book of that name, symbol on the one hand, stark reality on the other—is the dreadless angel, the foul fiend of “Paradise Lost.” If “Two Lives,” to alter the figure somewhat, is Mr. Leonard’s “Paradise Lost,” then his “The Locomotive-God” is his “Samson Agonistes,” in some ways a more compelling piece of art. Given a Milton without blindness, who will say that the poetry of Milton would have been more great, or less so? Without that “phobia” which has “so strangely hampered him,” would the essential Leonard—I mean his living art—have flowered more bountifully, or less so?

As a tot of thirty months, in a starched white dress, waiting for his father at the railroad station in Plainfield, N. J., in 1878, William Ellery Leonard was stricken through heart and soul, with unearthly terror, by an onrushing locomotive. The locomotive was going to kill him. It was God! The vision itself, through the years, disintegrated. But the terror, disembodied, remained. And then in “manhood’s grief”—like the ghost in “Hamlet”—”lo, where it comes again!”

In day-by-day contacts a friend would never be led to think of Mr. Leonard as a tragic figure. Aside from his fundamental concern with art and scholarship, his fancy tends rather toward the humorous vein. No man is more given to whole-souled, robust, and diaphragmatic laughter. You hear him all over the place. A soundly constructed comic turn—of course not lacking in propriety, but nevertheless not lacking in human resonance—is his pride and joy. You interrupt a seminary in Chaucer with such a story, and he is likely to invite you to tea at his home. And such traits, after all—how much closer they bring him to Chaucer in the flesh, as well as to Chaucer in the annotated tome.

Searching for cat-nip for Jimmie the cat in the spring-green grass of Observatory Hill—with Lake Mendota waters so quietly blue out there beyond the apple orchard . . . talking late into winter nights, he saying more than I, in my room, where perhaps hard coal had turned a cherry-color in the fireplace—where without the windows our capitol dome was a light-showered aura beyond the snowy tree-tops . . . the finishing touches before the publication of “Two Lives”—how Caldwell and I, glorying in the work, read and re-read the manuscript copy, urged by the author to be as adversely critical as possible (see there my autographed manuscript-copy in the bookcase) . . . the proofs on “Tutankamen” . . . dinners at the Club, with tentative verses for the real dessert—sometimes ironic verses, “Master of Life”; doggerel verses, “The Little Willie Cycle”; penciled notes on visiting cards, sent by waiters to preoccupied young instructors: “pierced through by love’s delightful pangs” . . . at Mr. Leonard’s home—steaks (the way one hopes they will be), crisp salads, tinkling goblets (water!—as far as I ever knew); the sun-parlor (Hamlin Garland, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Joseph Hergesheimer, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and many shining lights in the academic firmament, and many, very many, quite unknown ! in any firmament, have been there); and now and then, the study—quietude, reflection, work . . . One cherishes such things. . . Thank you, Mr. Leonard!

It was the rarest thing that I was ever made conscious of any abnormality, any “phobiac” qualities, in Mr. Leonard’s conduct. I knew of course that he could not walk around Lake Monona, twelve miles through December snow, with me—though he would have delighted in just such things. I knew he could under no circumstances go more than about half a mile from his Murray Street home. But his adventures, physical and intellectual, within “the half-mile beat” were more exciting than those of an ordinary man who might yearly circle the globe.

His constant psychological experiments to effect a cure were known to me in some detail; his inevitable failures were known. Yet, somehow, I never pitied Mr. Leonard; incipient pity was always swept away by admiration. We have walked many nights down Murray Street to the railroad tracks to stand and watch the locomotives switching by: he wished to impress his subconscious mind with the fact that the engines were harmless to him; he wholly realized the material fact, but the Locomotive-God, the early actuality and later the symbol of implanted horror, remained steadfastly, nevertheless. I have walked on Langdon Street with him in mental anguish (I have no right to speak of that). At such times, however, he found escape in irrelevancies . . . I follow the example in the next few paragraphs. . . .

Not so many years ago but that some in Madison still have pungent memories of the event, the State Board of Control imported a certain efficiency expert from New York to make a survey of the University. The expert naturally found conditions much less than one hundred per cent efficient. Deans were pronounced “liars” (among them the dean of the graduate school), and hundreds of professors were found to be “ignoramuses” or worse. The “survey” became nationally (comically) famous. Conditions for the expert himself soon became practically intolerable.

Mr. Leonard, upon departure of the surveyor for subsequent duties in the State Capitol, composed an ode, which was duly printed in a Madison newspaper. The first two stanzas I present:

To Dr. Allen on the Job

Though corn be mildewed on the cob,
Though editors corrupt the mob,
Though educators lie and rob,
I am not blue—
For thou, O Allen-on-the-job,
Wilt see us through!

O Expert in Efficiency!
Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee
Thou canst distinguish to a T;
By, quart and gallon
Thou gagest cow or Ph.D.,
O Sapient Allen!

Miss Harriet Monroe, writing in Poetry a few years ago, was not altogether correct in saying that Mr. Leonard could never eclipse “Two Lives”; for, though “The Locomotive-God” may not be superior to “Two Lives” as poetic expression, it does eclipse the poem in the variety of interests it embraces. And H. L. Mencken’s indignant statement—that “W. E. Leonard is the most neglected poet in America”—is not so true today as it once may have been, though lesser poets may still be less neglected. . .

We are sitting a summer afternoon on a slope above Lake Mendota, near the unseasonable toboggan slide, smoking pipes. (Mr. Leonard, alas, has no taste in either pipes or tobacco.) He is showing me a letter from a former colleague, now becoming deservedly more and more noted in the East. The letter is particularly gentle, appreciative—almost tender. “And on the exterior he was so forthright, so gruff,” says Mr. Leonard—”some even thought him hard.” . . . “I always knew he was the real stuff—always said so,” I reply, sincerely, but rather lightly. Then, looking at my companion’s face, I am immediately in another mood—for his eyes are wet. . . . That moment, at least, he treasured this letter above all he has received from celebrated critics, in many languages, from many lands.


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