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Out of the Slough of Despond

ISSUE:  Autumn 1936

Collected Poems, 1909-1935. By T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.S0. Public Speech. By Archibald MacLeish. New York: Farrar and Rinchart. $1. A Further Range. By Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt an,d Company. $2.50. Landscape with Figures. By Lionel Wiggam. New York: The Viking Press. $1.75.

Alarge function of poetry has always been to submit to mankind consolations for the disappointments and hardships of this life, such consolations as eternal salvation, ideal love, memory of childhood, and delight in nature. Various ones have suffered neglect in one age or another, according to the temper of that age; but only during the post-war years of our century have poets been so saturated with disillusionment that all these consolations seemed unmeaning. The vogue of faith in nothing but unfaith, however, is over. Affirmation is again becoming the basis of poetry. Some writers find the traditional consolations worth returning to. Mr. T. S. Eliot, Mr. Robert Frost, and twenty-year-old Mr. Lionel Wiggam are content to underscore more or less orthodox consolations; but Mr. Archibald Mac-Leish impatiently presses into fresh fields, on the left, for his material.

Mr. Eliot’s “Collected Poems” demands double consideration, for its record of a great poet’s accomplishment over a quarter century, and for its few recent poems which are new to American readers. Certainly, of the Eliot poems we all know, from “Prufrock” through “The Hollow Men,” at least a dozen are unassailably fixed in the permanent rolls of our literature. They perfectly exemplify the conception of poetry as a criticism of life (which Mr. Eliot belittled in his lecture on Arnold)—and they do it without the self-consciousness which has germinated with his realization that he is, after all and above all, a moral poet. Except for the brilliant choruses of “The Rock” and “Murder in the Cathedral,” his recent verse is hard to warm to. His landscapes are reminiscent of what Stevens and Williams were doing better ten years ago. His comic jingles about Jellicle dogs and cats, like undertakers, coming to dust are rather sad-all but one in which Mr. Eliot caricatures himself to appear like an invention of Lewis Carroll. The blurry contrivance called “Burnt Norton” rehashes the gyrating incantations on “words” and “time” that have been served us frequently before, and fails to be effective as a whole or in subdivision. In “Coriolan,” which so far consists of two political satires in a modified Ezra Pound manner, the section, “Triumphal March,” is an impressive tour de force, deriving from Shakespeare, Charles Maurras, and a line from “A Cooking Egg”:

Where are the eagles and the trumpets?

The four Ariel poems have a fine dignity and stand at the peak of Mr. Eliot’s non-dramatic work since 1930, though one misses in them the inevitableness of phrase and rhythm which is identified with Mr. Eliot of the early ‘twenties, before salvation and Dante’s limpidity captured him.

Mr. Eliot’s grip on young poets has weakened so perceptibly that a cartoonist not long ago pictured them flying ungratefully away from his heaven. No credo Elioto sentiment among the young impressionables has greeted his predominantly religious outlook on life. The leadership has passed to Archibald MacLeish, whom the New York Times reviewer of “Public Speech” called unabashedly “the most influential poet writing in America today.” Luckily for his disciples, his speech, whether public or private (as in the sequence of love poems at the end), carries conviction and resonance and naturalness. Mr. MacLeish’s poetry is no longer interrogative, but declarative. His inquiring days are past; he must now communicate the covetable values he believes possible of attainment: liberty, love, brotherhood. His counsel to the oppressed is full-bodied:

Tell yourself there is sun and the sun will rise: Tell yourself the earth has food to feed you. . . . Tell yourselves the earth is yours to take!

The message-laden poems in “Public Speech” will commonly and, I suppose, fittingly receive more attention than the love poems, although the latter are among the best in the language. They are somewhat Donnesque; even their titles are reminiscent of Donne’s: “The Absence,” “The Treachery,” “The Quarrel,” “The Reconciliation,” and so forth. Only the best of Emily Dickinson and Elinor Wylie, in American poetry, can rival them in sensitivity and technical finish.

What is surprising in Robert Frost’s sixth book of poems is that it reveals as much vitality and experiment as his earlier five volumes combined. His travel to “a further range” is not the tired pilgrimage of an aging man, but sprightly and venturesome. Not that his conclusions are unfamiliar. His aphorisms of social philosophy are still sagely reworded from the prose of Thoreau and Ruskin. “It is knowing what to do with things that counts,” or

I had no right to play With what was another man’s work for gain.

Mr. Frost’s most ambitious poem is “Build Soil,” a pastoral colloquy in which “Melibceus the potato man” undertakes to set Tityrus straight on policies of government. We are assured that we have as much socialism in our government now as we should, for pure socialism is only hypothesis anyway; that we should be national before being international; that the ideal dictator is one who commands “only what you meant to do anyway”; and that the only revolution coming is a “one-man revolution.” Regardless of how much of this theorizing the reader can accept, “Build Soil” fails as poetry because the artifice with which it begins breaks down whenever Melibceus Frost warms up to his realistic arguments. Better to omit the artifice altogether, or abide by it resolutely, as Miss Millay has done in her allegorical pastoral, “Aria de Capo.” Mr. Frost is much more at ease when he relates his contentment with the New England countryside. His gift of crisp, concrete, unforgettable observations of nature has never been more demonstrable than in “Leaves Compared with Flowers,” “The White-Tailed Hornet,” or “A Blue Ribbon at Amesbury.”

A line by Mr. Frost in a mellower, more reflective mood,

He knew a path that wanted walking,

could easily have been used as an epigraph for Mr. Wig-gam’s “Landscape with Figures.” Indeed, Mr. Wiggam’s entire body of verse is like one strain that has survived in Mr. Frost from his first volume, “A Boy’s Will,” in 1914. Mr. Frost’s self-dependence and solitariness are in Mr. Wig-gam, but not his plainness and colloquialism. In the former there was always roughness, awkwardness, none of the striving for smooth metrics that makes Mr. Wiggam’s verse appear affected, monotonous, formularized. After the first pages, nothing is unlooked-for; we expect and get multiplex variations of a few themes: boyhood memories; the pleasures of solitude, as the poet, “haunter of forsaken beaches,” “ever seeks a lone anonymous place”; anaemic Whitmanesque pos-sessiveness, as he says, “These are my woods, and this my personal scene”; and a sense of nature’s permanence:

I think: it has never changed, and it never will. The signatures of seaweed are always the same.

Mr. Wiggam’s vocabulary is soporifically abstract; his nature description is heavy with words like “articulate,” “ambiguous,” “syllabled,” “anonymous.” And yet he is better with landscape than with figures; his poems about incidents and people are sticky with sentiment. Even with his ability to strike out sound, arresting images and to create a quiet, pleasant music, Mr. Wiggam has failed to shake off immaturity. This sophomoric typicalness is something I am confident Mr. Wiggam will outgrow; but it keeps his first book from being ranked as high as several other first books of poetry of the last twelvemonth.


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