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Poetry and Time

ISSUE:  Winter 1931

Songs Out of Egypt. By Clinton Scollard. Portland: The Mosher Press. $150. Pilgrim Paths. By Mary Coles Carrington. Cedar Rapids: The Torch Press. Release. By Anne Blackwell Payne. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $1.50. Bloodroot and Other Poems. By Elizabeth S. Royce. New York: published by the author. Bronze Woman. By George Brandon Saul. Boston: Bruce Humphries. $2.00. Strange Splendor. By Ernest Hartsock. Atlanta: The Bozart Press. $2.00. Songs of the Lost Frontier. By Henry Herbert Knibbs. Boston,: Houghton Mifflin Company. $1.75. A Hawk from Cuckoo Tavern. By Lawrence Lee. Gaylordsville: The Slide Mountain Press. $5.00. Deep South. By Carl Carmer. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $2.00. Chelsea Rooming House, By Horace Gregory. New York: Covici-Friede. $2.00. Song of the New Hercules. By Leigh Hanes. Boston: The Four Seas Company. $2.00. John Deth and Other Poems. By Conrad Aiken. New York: Charles Scribncr’s Soi^s. $2.00. The Glory of the Nightingales. By Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00. These Our Matins. By Michael Roberts. London: Elkin, Matthews and Marrot, Limited. 3s. 6d, The Gates of the Compass. By Robert Hillyer. New York: The Viking Press. $2.00.

These fifteen volumes of verse fall into three groups: six volumes of minor poetry, mostly negligible; five volumes of poetry mostly narrative, which only occasionally reach into philosophic depths; and four volumes in which the interest, though narrative is often employed, lies mainly in the philosophic interpretation of living which the poet sets forth.

On the first group it is interesting to speculate. Mr. Scol-lard’s Egyptian songs, pleasantly printed by the Mosher press, are of the older order—the order of Carman and Hovey and Aldrich, the rhetoric of which has by familiarity lost the edge of its intensity. The three volumes by women are filled with that vague cosmic emotion which seldom crystallizes into enduring verse. So, too, is Mr. Saul’s book. Mr. Hartsock’s volume presents a more puzzling problem; gifted with fluency—fatally gifted with fluency, that poet has never solved the question of taste, and with all his lively intellect, he perpetually hovers over the surfaces of his poetic problems.

Yet these six have all their private views of the universe. They talk much about love and death; they are conscious of “nature” as something filled with beautiful transient objects; they feel vaguely that it is important to be a poet. They are, so to speak, on the right track, but down that track they make no progress. Their central error seems to be that they confuse the poetic problem with an emotional desire to be poets, the result being that nothing in their fluid verses ever crystallizes around a profound or significant thought. They do not, in other words, think enough, they do not know enough, they refuse by study and reading and meditation to learn enough of the contemporary world, a universe which contains, besides love, death, “nature,” and poetry, the cosmic interpretations of modern scientists and philosophers; or, if they are aware of these things, they are aware of them only in superficial and tangential ways, so that their tiny ironies and timid lyrics are without depth and significance. They are content (as somebody unkindly said of Longfellow) with the vague, high aspirations of seventeen.

In the second group of books narrative or dramatic situation gives a fixed pattern to the verse, so that, even when the “art” in question is shallow, there is at least a focus around which emotion can crystallize. Mr. Knibbs’ “Songs of the Lost Frontier” are neither great nor profound poetry, but they are frequently rather jolly, verses. Mr. Lee’s beautifully printed narrative of Jefferson’s escape from Tarle-ton’s horsemen is not important, but it is very good fun. Mr. Carmer’s portraits and dramas in “Deep South” are as bare and prosaic as Crabbe’s versified tales, but they have at any rate the determined intensity of a dramatist. So, too, Mr. Gregory’s “Chelsea Rooming House,” though the manner is the manner of a good deal of “advanced” metropolitan verse, has the intensity, at times even the poignancy, of one who is not merely aware of the modern universe, but who is intensely aware of the implications of crowded life in a modern city. And lest it be thought that drama or narrative is the sole solution of the poetic problem, let me hasten to say that in the slight and small lyrics of Mr. Leigh Hanes’ “Song of the New Hercules,” a book mainly of nature lyrics, there is a precision and control lacking in the first group of volumes. Mr. Hanes has learned the first lesson of poetry, which is that economy is strength.

The remaining volumes are of more nearly major importance. Taken together as representative volumes of leading living poets, they force from me the reluctant admission that the stream of English poetry seems at length to have reached one of those shallow places where it resembles a standing pool. Neither Mr. Aiken, Mr. Hillyer, nor Mr. Robinson seems to me in his present volume to have advanced an inch beyond where he stood in his last work; and Michael Roberts is too close to the manner of T. S. Eliot and the neo-concettisti for me to find much of fresh significance in his tortured volume.

The leading poem in Mr. Aiken’s volume, “John Deth,” is another rich and intricate picture of that anti-world which Mr. Aiken has made peculiarly his own. The dance of death and time is a favorite theme with him; and the familiar accoutrements of the witch’s graveyard, the eerily named women, the wild, hard insanity of a night on the Brocken are found in the volume. It is magnificent, it is Elizabethan; no one else now writing quite so mingles the voices of satyr and saint, priapus and mystic; but it tells us little that Mr. Aiken has not communicated before. The other pieces in the volume are all the utterances of a major artist; any one of them is worth in weight and beauty all of the minor poetry, described above, but they represent a consolidation of Mr. Aiken’s position rather than the conquest of new fields.

Very similar is the situation of Mr. Robinson. “The Glory of the Nightingales” has the technical dexterity, the subtleties of insight, the revelation of past drama by soliloquy which we have come to associate with this great poet. Once more we view the broken and defeated of the earth, once more we learn that apparent success and apparent failure are not fundamental gain or loss; once more a genial sinner, Nightingale, recounts his life. Not very probably, Malory, who has come to shoot him, after hearing him talk, stays his hand; and his failure to act allows Nightingale to talk, to dower Malory with fortune, and to die. Nightingale is perhaps more richly conceived than any of the characters in “Cavender’s House,” being in some ways reminiscent of Captain Craig, but he is merely another inhabitant in Mr. Robinson’s interesting world. As of old, a large part of the strength of the poem is found in the sententiae of a Shakespearian wisdom which stud the poem as aside or observation, as:

It’s a grave matter for the commonwealth, Sometimes, when a good egoist goes down, Whether he goes invisibly, as I did, Or with the flags and tatters of defeat Thrown after him.

It is these sudden large views of life and men which the minor poets never achieve. Of the difficult mysticism of “These Our Matins” by Michael Roberts it is equally difficult to speak. A small volume of 61 pages, the book suffers, not from a lack, but from an overplus, of intellection; and my general feeling is that Mr. Roberts’ utterance is thick and muddy because he has not yet mastered his idiom. What is one to make of a poem which opens

When the erratic quantum’s flame Falls, in contingent white And feat toccatas yet to be Within the nerve’s complexity,

and proceeds for eight more lines with only two marks of punctuation before the period? Nevertheless Mr. Roberts is struggling, so to speak, to make clear his universe of private vision, and he is too honest and conscientious an artist not to be worth watching.

Mr. Robert Hillyer’s idiom, however, is perfectly mastered, so that in some sense “The Gates of the Compass” is an advance in maturity over even so good a volume as “The Seventh Hill,” although the “poetry” of the last-named book seems to me superior to that in the present. But the opening poem is a kind of creed or declaration of faith sufficiently explicit for j>oetical metaphysics, and if it is an uneven performance, it has largeness and depth. The remaining poems, lesser in intention, have all the quiet and austere control which we have come to associate with this distinguished writer. The Phi Beta Kappa Ode with which the volume concludes is necessarily hortatory and “moral,” albeit its poetical form (rhyming hexameters) is interesting, and the doctrine is one with which every, thoughtful person must agree. Mr. Hillyer represents the obverse of the view which Mr. Aiken holds; conscious of the difficulties of modern life, he is no defeatist.

Perhaps the most interesting fact in common with respect to these fifteen volumes is that the modern poets have felt deeply the sense of time—a quality which they share with the Renaissance poets, but not with the romantics or the Victorians. Time is with them the sad mortality which o’er-sways our power. Occasionally, (as Mr. Roberts does in one poem) the writer amuses himself by trying to make time stand still; but more characteristically, as with Mr, Robinson and Mr. Aiken, it is a sense of the fatality of the flow of time which is the deepest note in their writings. Here it is that one sees the most intimate union between the poetry and philosophy of) the present day; but it is also possible that until one or the other or both of these modes of knowledge present some new interpretation of time than that which makes it an absolute condition to all knowledge, poetry will not advance far beyond the point where the present writers have taken it. Our view of time is not necessarily, the final one; and when one compares Byron and Shelley and Keats with the present writers, it is interesting to see how fundamental the time-flow is to the latter group, how incidental it is to the former.


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