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Virginia and England

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

Summer Goes On. By Lawrence Lee. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $1.75. Changing Horizons. By Geoffrey Johnson. London: The C. W. Daniel Company. 5 s.

In “Summer Goes On,” by Lawrence Lee, there are two poems, “For a Poet Growing Old” and “This Was Her Country,” which alone, without considering the others that precede or follow them, bestow upon their author the distinguished name of poet. These are of the very fabric of poetry itself; a lingering silver sound remains in the memory after the reading of them.

If you should go, and beauty still be hidden Beyond the woods and the last meadow wall, We shall keep up the lonely chase unbidden, Except by a far horn which we heard call. Who catches beauty as a hound must run, Nose in the wind and tumbling for the race, And we, whose hunt is scarcely well begun, Feel, with the thrill, the terror of the chase.

Yet, should our eager muzzles never find The fields where beauty in her speed goes by, Or we, grown old, come limping up the wind, There shall be younger hounds to hear the cry, And leap to overtake her like a hind; And down the world the hunt shall never die.

The second poem mentioned above, contains a touch of poignancy, a bare touch, like the pulling at the skirts of grief.

This was her country. She returns. Oh, gentle clay,

Receive a heart which never yearns To go away.

Make of this body now some green And graceful thing, To grow and flourish and be seen When it is spring.

Since death must change her anywhere, In this red loam

What wakes of her will be aware That she is home.

Here, in these two poems, is the simplicity of the authentic lyricist. He says in a few spontaneous words, what another, less simple, would say in an obvious many. The former method is effectual by reason of that same simplicity. After this pattern is the volume fashioned, in this mould is it cast. There is no monotony, however, but a constant directness and certitude of phrase, which, added to the lyrical quality, renders the sixty-odd pages most delightful indeed.

This is a book of few moods; the seasons, especially the spring and the summer, the fields, the hills, particular trees and flowers, furnish the ingredients of these, with the fragrance and color and inner meaning common to weather and landscape alike. A deep-seated affection for nature comes uppermost everywhere. Wesley once said that the world was his parish, and a poet may as truthfully proclaim that his parish is the world. Through the local he logically reaches the universal. To love one’s own the best is the mark of a normal mind. Rural Virginia enters into the very blood and fibre of these poems. A deep-seated and honest affection for nature has Lawrence Lee, and that includes, in especial, the seasonal goings in and out of his native neighborhood, a certain county in the Old Dominion. He writes of silver poplars, of “the lacy lilac,” of “a land of gullies and red dust, of sudden rainfall and thick mud,” of that land

“Whose hills have haunted me,”

of “a country given to the sun,” a country

”. . . where is a house or two, Scattered and drawn apart, to watch the road And a slow wagon rumbling off to town.” The note of disillusion, so common nowadays amongst the younger poets, that sense of the so-called futility of life and all matters pertaining thereto, and that whining attitude which is characteristic either of the very thoughtless or timid or the over-sophisticated, are all noticeable by their absence. It is as refreshing as a cool draught from a well to make the acquaintance of a poet who has a sound recognition of life, and of his art, one free from confusion of ideas in regard to either.

Less than an hour will see you through this simple and genuine book, full of lyrical verse, and as laden with delight and forthright enjoyment as an Albemarle orchard in April is laden with its flowering of pink and white.

In “Changing Horizons,” by Geoffrey Johnson, something of vanished England survives. The titles give this away. We have the lively “Stage Coach Weathers,” where “the long blowing of a horn” calls up apparitions of men in “great coats of bottle-green,” and “dark, delicious girls” stepping down through the frost toward the blaze in mine host’s parlor; also “The Bakery Yard,” with one-legged George, the dilapidated hostler, waiting in vain for the processions of horses which once thronged into the place with clink of harness and stamp of hoof. Homely country England is here, and country workers, as in “Celery Carters,” “The Waggoner,” “Hedgers,” “Women of the Field,” “Village Minstrels.” Scarcely a stanza but carries a touch of the English landscape, a quiet, assured, taken-for-granted affection as natural as the expression which presents it as a detailed whole to the reader.

And what an ancient and fascinating England it is! We hear the rumbling wains, piled with stalks of crisp and fragrant celery; we see the ragged stubble field, the lanes, dripping with silver thaws, and at the town’s end, the black fens yawning on the edge of a starless night. In some lines entitled “Summer Rain,” the author has this to say: The roadside runnels gurgle fast and bright, Tumbling upon themselves with laughter; lanes Are chattering schools of birds from penance freed, And with unshamed Gargantuan appetite For jollity, the revelling Summer sets Her million million grasshoppers To dance about the soaking briar and furze, And rattle together their small castanets.

A reading of the index will introduce other poems upon other subjects beside that of nature. An ear sensitive to many and diverse moods, an out-of-the-way quality of expression, a packed vocabulary, always, with a few exceptions, thoroughly artistic, fresh fancies, a feeling for men as well as for rural weathers, and some sane philosophizing enrich this collection of fifty pieces.

Geoffrey Johnson possesses the faculty of giving a line here, a line there, a certain eerie, other-worldly twist, a rather charming faculty, which envelopes not only the line but the entire poem in an April-like atmosphere. He goes out into a London street, and hears the sparrows twittering, and of a sudden receives a picture of them twittering far back “in the earliest Babylon.” He watches the brambles set on fire along the autumnal highways, and remembers Troy burning centuries ago. He walks down a deserted lane in Kent or Sussex and finds himself in an unhindered fairyland, with elves peering from the grass and Puck crying in the thorn hedges.

It is good to carry a full pack. Poetry in its essence is never a meager thing. It is fat with the stuffs of clouds and of planets, and of many waters, of the rose on the terrace and the mullein on the cart track, of the manifold experiences of towns and potentates, of life present, and gone, and to come. If a poet feels this, he will not be too thrifty with his material; if it escapes from his reach, as it does occasionally in the case of Geoffrey Johnson, he will not be too eager to gather it up. Time brings discrimination; the years are ready enough with their sorting processes.

And what, out of this full pack of his, shall we bear away with us for our leisure moments? Shall it be this from “Village Nightfall”?

With twilight rain on their fringes, the windows full of slumbers

Dream in the empty road, and the clear green dusk is cloven

By straight white columns of chimney-smoke, poised like numbers

Of spindles of wool that were left unwoven.

Or this from “In Flight”?

What shall we take for memories to wide spaces? The greening roofs, washed lanes, and windows lit; The gnarled black pear-trees budding to sullen graces At urchin fooleries of the long-tailed tit, Or children skipping in enlightened places, And pausing, at whispers from the infinite?


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