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Imagination Does But Seem

ISSUE:  Winter 1932

Jasbo Brown and Selected Poems. By DuBosc Heyward. New York: Far-rar and Rinehart. $2.00. W. By E. E. Cummings. New York: Horace Liveright. $2.50. The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones. By Conrad Aiken. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.00. Preludes for Memnon. By Conrad Aiken. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50. Matthias at the Door. By Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.75. The Flowering Stone. By George Dillon. New York: The Viking Press. $1.75. Strict Joy and Other Poems. By James Stephens. New York: The Macmillan, Company. $1.25.

These seven volumes are (with one exception) major utterances upon major themes of philosophy and poetry, the exception being, to my disappointment, Mr. Heyward’s “Jasbo Brown.” After the rich sense of life in Mr. Heyward’s plays and novels, I find that in this volume (poems of Negro life, sketches of the Southern mountaineers, pictures of the Carolina coast, and miscellanea) Mr. Heyward has unwittingly allowed himself to write thinly and sentimentally. The title poem suffers by comparison with the work of Langston Hughes in employing the “blues” theme; and the rhythmical intent seems to me to suffer because it wavers uncertainly between the manner of Vachel Lindsay and the manner of John Masefield. The mood in which Mr. Heyward has written his mountaineer sketches is perilously close to that sentimental pity which is fatal to the best art, and, moreover, Mr. Heyward has let himself indulge in such vapid rhetoric as

When force is spent to free, not shackle, men, And youth has claimed its ancient heritage,

and such vague passages as

I stumbled upon happiness once In the eyes of a man and a woman In a forgotten cove Between impassable ranges.

The coast country poems seem to me distinctly better than the mountain ones because they have been more deeply felt and more vividly seen:

A league of broomstraw, rose, and mauve, and umber Gashed by a road into the setting sun. Three heavy-laden cars that groan and lumber Towards the woods, then vanish one by one.

The one poem in the book which approaches largeness of utterance is “Chant for an Old Town,” a protest against the crass modernization of old Southern cities; reading between the lines one can surmise Mr. Heyward’s laudable dislike at seeing the skyscraper rearing its conventional head in Charleston, and, by implication, his dislike at the scrapping of the old Southern values. But it is characteristic that the poet has solved this problem in the romantic manner—i. e., by intermingling a legend of Blackbeard with generalized descriptions of skyscrapers building, a manner which has great charm but which lacks intellectual edge. An admirer of Mr. Heyward, and one by no means averse to romanticism, I regret that his volume has not more substance.

In dramatic contrast, Mr. Cummings is all mental trickery. He persists in the elaborate typographical and syntactical disarrangements characteristic of earlier volumes, which, in the face of being called bad names by the ardent Cummings school, I find an intolerable annoyance. The ingenuity wasted on these childishnesses would give us, properly employed, more of the puckish satire which Cummings does well. For example, I quote literally from the thirty-eighth “poem” (Mr. Cummings disdains page numbers), praying the typesetter to be patient:




dis (appeared cleverly) world

iS Slapped:with;liGhtninG !


which (shal) lpounceupcrackw(ill) jumps of


loSSoJM iN -visiblya mongban (gedfrag-ment ssky?wha tm)eani ngl(essNessUn rolli)ngl yS troll s(who leO v erd) oma insCol Lide.

This is half the poem; the rest is similar, and despite the ingenious defence of this way of printing poetry offered by Laura Riding and Robert Graves in their “Survey of Modernist Poetry,” it is a piece of totally unnecessary gongorism. All that Mr. Cummings has said is: “Now the world (how cleverly disappeared!) is slapped with lightning, at which shall (will) pounce up crack! jumps of thunder-blossom invisibly, among banged fragments (of) sky. What meaningless unrollingly strolls! Whole over-domains collide!” The typography is, of course, intended to suggest the rolling thunder; but by the time one has untangled it, one’s impatience at so poor a reward leads one to throw by the volume in disgust. If I want to work a puzzle, I prefer buying it at a game store. The method is the more regrettable because Mr. Cummings is really a satirist and lyrical poet of depth and even dignity who has chosen to be known for his eccentricities rather than for his thought.

The two Aiken volumes are more substantial fare, albeit unequal in merit. In “The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones” Mr. Aiken has attempted to translate an everyman morality theme into his peculiar philosophy; as the dust-jacket remarks, his theme is “the progress of a human consciousness across the dark stage of the world.” Unfortunately, as with Mr. Cummings, one is more conscious of the technical experimentation than he is of the poetry, and in comparison with “Preludes for Memnon” the book is dry, and thin. But “Preludes for Memnon” is Mr. Aiken in the full-tide of that dark, Jacobean rhetoric which he knows best how to write, and if the volume lacks the narrative interest of the “John Deth” book of 1930, it is in some ways a richer collection. The method is that of a symphonic poem; the soul, confronted with the nothingness of life—

We are the rocks that rot above those waters. We are the rocks on whom the times have written. We, the recorded sadness of the world—

meditates on life in terms of a Schopenhauerian subject-object relationship to reach a Schopenhauerian conclusion:

Despair, delight, That we should be thus trapped in our own minds! O this ambiguous nature in the blood That wills and wills not, thinks and thinks not, hates What it most loves, destroys what it desires, Dissects, with skeleton’s algebra, the heart!

But whereas Schopenhauer taught a passive asceticism as the highest wisdom, Aiken teaches not merely aesthetic contemplation:

We will shut ourselves Into such darkness as we know is ours; We’ll warm our hands above our private terrors,

but in addition, active defiance and even revelry at this banquet of death: Let us be reckless of our words and worlds, And spend them freely as the tree his leaves; And give them where the giving is most blest. What should we save them for . . . ?

I hope Mr. Aiken will understand me if I say that the solemn funerary verse of his book is sometimes reminiscent of the great funerary poet of the eighteenth century; and that to read the “Night Thoughts” of Edward Young in connection with “Preludes for Memnon” offers many points for comparison and measurement. Mr. Aiken is of course a subtler poet; Young occasionally reached solemn heights like Aiken’s; and both poems are built around a central philosophic outlook which gives core and unity to the whole.

Mr. Robinson has published another characteristic blank-verse narrative, “Matthias at the Door.” The theme is nothing new in Robinson’s work, and the execution seems to me to be inferior. Matthias is a successful man of the world, satisfied with himself, his house, his friends, and his wife, Natalie. One friend, Garth, a failure, commits suicide on Matthias’s estate. Timberlake, a second friend, has been rescued from death by Matthias years before; in gratitude he yielded Natalie to Matthias. Now, drawn by sympathy for Garth, Timberlake and Natalie visit the spot of the suicide, and are caught up in a momentary whirl of passion overseen by Matthias, whose shell of complacency is cracked. Natalie, despairing of regaining her former relation with Matthias, kills herself; some years later Timberlake returns to Matthias’s house and dies, leaving Matthias alone. Matthias meditates suicide also (probably from contagion), but is warned by voices from beyond the door (we must get over this as best we can) not to kill himself. The sixth section of the poem is devoted to a diffuse setting-forth of this message from beyond the door.

The book is almost wholly without decoration and adornment, and though it has those occasional sentential in which Robinson excels, it seems to me to be cast in the wrong form.

It might make a novel; it scarcely makes a good poem, even for Mr. Robinson. The blank verse is perpetually trembling on the verge of prose, and not always very good prose. For example, here is a paragraph:

Natalie, while he asked, was in his arms—where she would stay or fall. He felt her there, clinging and shaking in a desperation so long imprisoned, that escape at last was only to another. Timberlake held her and wondered what her life had been to break like this, while a great helplessness humbled and stung him. She was his to take or fly with, if he would. He had known that; and there was more than that. He kissed her mouth, and face and eyes, and held her closer to him, remembering why he was alive, and at whose peril. Then she freed herself, as if in anger, and stood looking at him, her mask of resignation all washed off with tears.

Unforewarned, few readers would suspect that this is the great emotional scene in a blank verse poem written by one of the greatest masters of poetry now living. Yet all I have done is to write the blank verse as prose, retaining the punctuation and changing only the capitals. My mind goes back to the splendors of “Tristram.” Non est qualis eram.

It is a pleasure to turn from these dubieties to “The Flowering Stone,” by George Dillon, author of “Boy in the Wind.” The theme of the volume as a whole is that of the Conrad Aiken book; I am not always certain that Mr. Dillon has not stated and solved the same questions in a swifter and surer manner,—but this is not fair to Aiken. Mr. Dillon’s statement is best found in the longest poem in his book, beginning “I am a dreamer in a dream,” and posing the problem of beauty, love, and death:

The mischief was entire When earth forsook its parent fire To spin erroneous in space, An ember from an idle blaze Wherein some chemistry awoke This sick vibration of the rock. . . .


Alive in space against his will, A man may find along his way Some loveliness to live for still. . . .

Mr. Aiken is the profounder, subtler, and more magnificent; Mr. Dillon is more vibrant, direct, and lyrical. There is a sweetness of music, an economy of form in Dillon’s verse, which leads me to look forward with expectation to what he will publish next.

All these poets except Dillon are poets of defeat and gloom, whose motto is the Tertullian one of credo quia im-possibile. Mr. James Stephens, who seems wholly to have swung over to a Plotinian philosophy, has no doubts. “Strict Joy” is the only wholly affirmative volume in the group. I miss from it those irresistible drolleries, that leprechaun humor which flavored early volumes by, this poet, and my first reading of the book led to disappointment. Re-reading it, however, makes me change my mind. This is a book of Orphic utterance, of gnomic wisdom; the poems are cameos of the spirit, the limpid simplicity of which is deceiving.

Bush calling to bush As sister to brother,

Telling of spring:

The cuckoo, the thrush Reply to each other,

All in the spring:

And, deep in the sweet Green heart of the wood —Glory of spring:

The throstle will whistle And tend to his brood,

Singing the spring!

This lisps like a child, but like the naive awkwardnesses of Blake and Christina Rossetti it has cosmic implications: He dares to be alone! He dares Waste, and blank, and mystery: Not desolation, dreadful airs, Not silence, nor the clamouring sea Can edge his wise tranquillity, Nor fret his joy—

For only this, To be sufficient and alone, Is joy, and joy’s rewarding kiss, Is ecstasy, and all of bliss That bird, or man, or god hath known.

Aiken, Robinson, Cummings, Dillon, and Stephens agree to accept one or another aspect of modern idealist philosophy, but only Dillon and Stephens take the affirmative turn. The others incline to the Schopenhauerian doctrine of meaningless will. Stephens becomes a transcendentalist:

Imagination does but seem: Thought is wisdom, in a dream: And Emotion can, with strain, Tell a pleasure from a pain.

This may, or may not, mean that after its long sojourn in Egypt, poetry is once more to go adventuring after Pisgah. Philosophic reconstruction is perhaps to be accompanied by poetic reaffirmation.


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