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Expenctancy of Doom

ISSUE:  Summer 1931

Ash Wednesday. By T. S. Eliot. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $1.50. Jonathan Gentry. By Mark Van Dorcn, New York: Albert and Charles Boni. $2.50. Opus 7. By Sylvia Townsend Warner. New York: The Viking Press, $2.00. Green River: A Poem for Rafinesque. By James Whaler, New York; Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00. Epistle to Prometheus. By Babette Deutsch. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison, Smith. $2.00. Vale and Other Poem. By AE. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.50. Adam-astor. Poems by Roy Campbell. New York: Lincoln MacVeagh: The Dial Press. $2.00. Fatal Interview. By Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.00.

A dozen years ago tongues were still wagging over the “new poetry.” The frenzy of the debate over vers libre was followed by a new quarrel over “The Waste Land,” Poetry societies flourished. Poetry magazines sprang up—and died. Anthologists reaped bountifully where they had not sown. Then, as mere pyrotechnics died away in the process of consolidating gains, the traditional modes reappeared, though in altered cast, borrowing from Elizabethan and Seventeenth Century examples to retrieve poetic style from the excesses of the revolutionary years. It is now the traditionalists who have the larger following, and the more violent revolutionaries have lost ground. The last tendency has been away from lyric to narrative verse, or at least toward extended poems, philosophical or loosely epical: Jeffers’ dithyrambic recital of horrors; the sprawling, half-lyrical, half-epical “John Brown’s Body” of Benet; the Yeats of “The Tower”; Robinson’s “Tristram.”

And now, a very decided lull! Poets may be as much excited over poetry as they ever were, but the public is not interested. Poetry is not now a literary battleground. It is futile to defend or denounce any of the distinguished poets here under discussion on grounds that ten years ago might have been bitterly fought. Poets may say anything they please in any way they choose without creating a scandal. But in winning the victory, they have lost their audience. Of these eight poets only one, Edna St. Vincent Millay, is likely to enjoy a considerable circulation. For the rest, with the possible exception of Mark Van Doren, the critic can allow himself only a rather detached affection. For all the effect his observations, or their poetry, will have on the public mind, he might as well be discussing the sonnets of Samuel Daniel or the meters of Pindar. With some sadness, therefore, I begin.

These eight poets are diverse in their themes and techniques, but they have two common characteristics. Each one has mastered a highly developed personal idiom — the “unique” style now demanded of modern poets (which Yeats, as he tells us in his reminiscences, once sought to avoid). And all, as poets, are world-weary. What they write of, in every ultimate sense, is their expectancy of doom. By this mark they are Romantic despite any possible effort to be otherwise. For Classicism, to poets who must live in a Romantic frame of mind, always turns out to be another Romantic artifice.

Of this order exactly is T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” a poem of about two hundred and fifty lines which is published as a thin single volume. Mr. Eliot has assured us that his taste in literature is Classical. It makes no difference, however, what Mr. Eliot may prefer. For him as poet* Classicism is only a technique that he can appropriate for uttering thoughts so rebellious and subversive that they would wreck the modern features of our civilization if they were generally entertained. They, are thus subversive because they, are religious thoughts, or, if you will, religious feelings united with religious thoughts. “Ash Wednesday” is a renunciatory prayer spoken as if at the beginning of Lent. But what does the poet renounce? None of the usual sins of the flesh, if I understand the poem correctly, but the great modern sin of trusting intellectual knowledge too implicitly. It is “the infirm glory of the positive hour” that Eliot renounces—the “devil of the stairs,” the fault of pride in putting man’s will above God’s inscrutable power. This is all, of course, very difficult to apprehend, because the poem is done in the ritualistic, disjected manner of prayer and has no very apparent logical structure.

In the sense that Mr. Eliot writes severely and assertively, his manner perhaps is “Classical.” And though there is an underlying symbolism, the ideas are more important than the mere associations of the words, or their sounds, or their pictures. But Mr. Eliot is too much the modern not to know that a simple prayer to God can carry little weight in modern verse. Religious language, and much poetic language with it, has been attainted with the treason of practitioners who have vulgarized its meaning by putting it into a cheap currency. The poet, then, revises his “Classical” style in the direction of understatement, until only the sinew is left. This is a technique of evasion and ellipsis—a “Romantic” technique after all, which shuts Mr. Eliot away from most readers because they do not recognize it for what it is, and which makes him accessible only to those who have schooled themselves to enjoy his close-lipped, almost monkish denial of the world.

Mr. Eliot’s poem is a prayer, ending in a vow; and Mark Van Doren’s long narrative, “Jonathan Gentry,” appears to be neither. I think the motive that guides it is nevertheless the same. The self-examination that confronts Eliot with the sins of the too-rational, mechanistic world lies deep in the springs of action of Van Doren’s narrative. “Why am I what I am?” the poet asks. His answer requires a tale of three generations of American life. There was a pioneer Gently who came across the mountains in high hope. There were Gentrys of the Civil War period who fought gallantly if a little confusedly for what they deemed precious. And there is a third generation of Gentrys who lose all the others won. The last section of the narrative, significantly entitled “Foreclosure,” brings the Gentrys to the prospect of a tragic and sterile end. For the farm which was their kingdom is broken and ruined by the machine age, and life becomes a sorrow or a debauch.

Here again, in the gray but wistful style, there is understatement. There is no commentary except in the indirect form of songs that break the narrative and conceal a homely rural philosophy in a cryptic utterance which flavors of folksong and popular sentimental ditties. The narrative style itself is in a wavering pattern, with blank verse dissolving into rhyme and back into blank verse again, now in colloquial language, now in the curious quiet rhetoric that consists in an avoidance of rhetoric—the studied simplicity of Mr. Van Doren’s earlier and now maturely developed idiom. It is an odd kind of narrative—a series of hints makes the story. It is a splendid piece of sustained verse, however, full of slow insistent power, showing beyond question the richness for American verse of a native theme and offering by implication a stern, regretful commentary on American life in our time.

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “Opus 7” is a character story in which the delightfully whimsical manner of her novels is versified to great advantage. Her couplets are Eighteenth Century, but with a homelier diction and a more libertine meter than Pope would have allowed. Eighteenth Century, too, is the wit:

Blest fertile Dullness! mothering surmise, rumor, report, as stagnant water, flies, whose happy votaries, stung by every hatch divinely itch, and more divinely scratch!

Miss Warner’s Rebecca, a cheerful feminine sot, lives in a humble narrow cottage like Chaucer’s widow, but exhibits none of the domestic virtues. It is only when her gift for raising flowers declares itself that she becomes halfway respectable in the staid community of Love Green. Money from the sale of flowers buys gin, which Rebecca consumes in lonely bouts, much in the spirit of Robinson’s Mr. Flood. Ait last, under weird and funereal circumstances, Rebecca achieves the nonchalant euthanasia that a female Silenus with some of the qualities of Ceres might desire. There is no moral. But I note that Miss Warner does not escape the modern temper. From her merry tale emerge sly and angry comments, none too flattering to modern civilization.

Mr. Whaler’s subject, in “Green River,” is nature; and his long narrative moves in a torrent of cloudy rhetoric, treating both amorous and scientific adventure with equal intensity. It is a poetic reconstruction of the life of Rafinesque, a great Sicilian naturalist who spent his latter days in America. Mr. Whaler uses Rafinesque’s early love affair with a beautiful but faithless Greek girl to symbolize an emotional conflict between science and woman. This is a rather shadowy motivation for a lengthy dramatic tale that takes the reader finally into the cave region of Kentucky, which Rafinesque explored. The passages dealing with the “Green River” cave and the lost civilization buried there are full of wild magnificence. I am sure that the Humanists would deplore Mr. Whaler’s fine lack of restraint, but the “inner check” might as quickly kill as cure a poet of his talents.

Perhaps Mr. Whaler’s devotion to nature gets somehow confused with his devotion to science, so that, between the two, one hardly knows whether to put him with Wordsworth or with Huxley.

No such confusion exists in Babette Deutsch’s careful philosophical poem, “Epistle to Prometheus.” In a series of historical queries (unhappily garnished at times with feminine asides) she contemplates the effects of the gift of Prometheus at various stages of civilization. Always she displays a genius for concentration that is remarkable. It seems hardly credible that so profound a subject should be reduced to so brief a statement and delivered in this bright trivial verse that always hovers between the “free” and the regular. In the earlier sections Miss Deutsch poses rather than answers her questions as to the ultimate good of Prometheus’ gift. In the latter sections, which deal with modern times, the answer comes straight. Prometheus — say these verses, in many passages I should like to quote—has doomed man as much as saved him. In modern Russia, in modern America, in modern civilization everywhere, the Promethean power of intellect, defiant of the gods, walks unchained; but the more light it sheds, the less deliverance it gives. She writes—

Come closer, Titan,

You can never kindle

fires enough for your creature

now he gropes

with stronger vision

but in a larger night.

The three remaining volumes are collections of lyrics, all of singular beauty and distinction.

Of George Russell (AE) no critic could say more than the New Testament verse: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Mr. Russell has the purity of heart that I think T. S. Eliot would wish if his education permitted him to be the thorough-going mystic that AE is. The troubled modern poet can rarely be a myth-maker, or, like AE, choose his forms from antique models and be at home in them. The new volume, “Vale,” is like all of AE’s verse. It simply adds new extensions to the kingdom where AE walks, brown-bearded, with huge heroic shoulders, chanting as poets chanted before verses were ever printed, and speaking as if from a cloud that the gods have thrown around their beloved bard. Purity, of heart makes sincerity of verse. What modern poet should not applaud, even if he cannot emulate, the strange, tender beauty of AE’s poetry.

“Adamastor,” by the South African poet, Roy Campbell, brings together a number of miscellaneous poems, arranged in three sections: “Early Poems,” “Adamastor,” “Satirical Fragments.” The poems of the second section have a South African background, but the satirical element is not lacking in the other groups. Mr. Campbell is by no means a poet of mere local color. He has immense indignations, and his indignations include the petty sentimentalists of local color along with tourists, empire builders, and weak-spirited aesthetes like Georgian poets, all of whom he castigates with Byronic savagery. With equal bitterness he describes the plight of the British Colonial—or it may be the modern— poets:

Each with a blister on his tongue, Each with a crater in his tooth, Our nerves are fire: we have been stung By the tarantulas of truth.

Mr. Campbell’s great gift, which was strongly evident in his first volume, “The Flaming Terrapin,” is for powerful images, for packed lines that thunder with the declamatory artillery of magnificent phrases. He is far removed from the reticence of Van Doren or the broken utterance of Eliot. Even in his quieter moments, he glows like pent-up lava. Nothing could surpass the South African pieces for vividness of color: for example, “The Zulu Girl,” “The Zebras,” “Horses on the Camargue.” In the longer, meditative poems the method generally breaks down, for the ideas become too vague and the rhetoric too heavily charged. Yet Mr. Campbell is one of the few moderns who write brilliantly in the grand style, and it does not injure his style in the least that the common despair of modern poets underlies its volcanic intensity.

I come last to Miss Millay, whose fifty-odd sonnets have the title, “Fatal Interview”—happily chosen from a line of Donne’s. There is a little, but not too much, of Donne’s metaphysical style in these sonnets. Miss Millay is too forthright and unphilosophic a poet to commit herself very far to the labyrinthean coils of a highly conceited style. The theme, however, is one that Donne would have liked. The sonnets are in praise of love, especially of sensuous love, but it is love complicated by the apprehension of death and dissolution, by unfaithfulness of the beloved, or by doubt of the verity, and permanence of love’s reign. Unified around these mingled and often conflicting phases of love’s experience, they form a natural, closely wrought sequence of feeling. Whether from a study of Donne and his Elizabethan predecessors, or from the natural maturity of thought that attends (to use Miss Millay’s phrase) “the yelping of the mustering years,” the sonnets have more gravity and a richer, more sustained music than had her former work. There is little of the old jauntiness, and none of the canting O-World-I-cannot-hold-thee-close-enough rhetoric which too readily entranced belated Victorians. Whatever has wrought the change, Miss Millay’s art is better and surer for it. Although it would be easy to make too much of the Donne influence that superficially suggests itself, it would be no mistake to characterize Miss Millay’s idiom as a somewhat modernized kind of Elizabethanism. The slightly archaic flavor never interferes with the fine precision and felicity of the language which makes words come to the reader as an entirely fresh experience. Poetiy, can do no more than this. “Fatal Interview” is the finest and most powerful of Miss Millay’s books.

Yet I should hesitate to argue that Miss Millay’s poems are actually prized for these qualities above others. Her vast popularity, I suspect, rests somewhat on the obvious fact that she not only makes woman’s love the burden of her verse; but she also quite frankly celebrates female sensuous-ness in love for the apparently increasing audience of sensuous and emancipated women. Possibly men—like Mr. Cabell in the presence of his amorous heroines—cannot quite get over being shocked at the perfect shamelessness of lines like:

Be not discountenanced if the knowing know We rose from rapture but an hour ago.

If sensuousness were not thus boldly accented in her poetry, Miss Millay might turn out to be just another very deserving—but neglected—poet. In “Fatal Interview,” of course, this bold sensuousness almost disappears among other themes; but it is still unmistakably there.

And so I have told my tale of eight volumes—an inadequate tale, a too narrow reckoning. Very likely no eight volumes of fiction, chosen from “leading” authors, could display at this moment so much real artistic distinction, with so little shoddiness and compromise. Maybe poetry after all has more vitality than we generally give it credit for. The study of eight poets, at any rate, shows that the lyric is by no means waning and that narrative verse is certainly going ahead. Possibly some of the modern novelists, in their nervous experiments with the texture and structure of the novel are attempting, in prose, effects that are rightly poetical and that can be more advantageously handled in narrative verse. To say the least, the two forms are not as far apart as they have been in the history of modern literature.


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