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Ways of Looking Back

ISSUE:  Autumn 1939

Huntsman, What Quarry? By Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.00. Solitude. By V. Sackville-Wcst. New York: Douhleday, Doran and Company. $1.75. Corn. By Paul Engle. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.00.

If there is anywhere a reader of American poetry still unfamiliar with the work of Edna St. Vincent Mil-lay, he might well begin his reading with this latest book of hers, “Huntsman, What Quarry?”, for here is represented nearly every sort of poetry she has written. In all her work he would find no more exquisite evocation of the past than “The Ballad of Chaldon Down” with which the book opens. He would pass from this to the classically stated “Inert Perfection,” to the “Song for Young Lovers in a City,” to the cabbage-heartiness of “Thanksgiving Dinner,” to the coolly chiseled observation of “The Snow Storm,” to the delightful informality of “English Sparrows.” All quiet poems, these first six. When he turned to the seventh poem in the book, “Mortal Flesh, Is Not Your Place in the Ground?”, our hypothetical reader, being a novice, might rub his eyes.

Having finished the book, lingering longest maybe over the poems dedicated to Elinor Wylie (and worthy of their dedication) and the masterly sonnets that conclude the volume, if he returned for a rereading, curious to find out just why he had been so stirred and held, he might notice several things. He might notice that all the poems, even the lyrics, are in varying degrees dramatic; and that many of the poems are like little scenes from a play, the curtain falling and rising as he turned the page, the poet appearing in one part after another, effective in each. (Not always equally effective, perhaps, for in the sonnets “From a Town in a State of Siege” we seem to hear the poet herself speaking rather than the woman represented.) Even the diction, he would notice, is dramatic: old “poetic” words are set off daringly and subtly against modern conversational idiom. Not that the words clash, but rather what the words symbolize. He might come to see that since Miss Millay is both a romantic and a modern, her brilliant range of style originates in this unresolved and shifting conflict.

Anyone would agree that this range of style—both the blend of styles within a poem and the contrast of styles among the poems—makes for color and sparkle and good reading. Whether it strengthens or weakens the effectiveness of the book as a whole depends on one’s point of view. For me it does both. I appreciate the way one poem is foil to another: the way a sophisticated poem makes the naivete of a ballad all the more poignant; the way a flippant poem thumbs its nose at a dignified one.

Yet a reader who wants to be sure of the final thing a poet is saying, to feel the unmistakable impact of mind on mind, such a reader—and I am one—is left somewhat baffled.

Like Miss Millay, Miss Sackville-West, the English poet, loves the antique phrase, but she is less selective in its use. Miss Millay might be said to borrow “poetic” words from the past as a woman might borrow becoming jewels for some special occasion. With Miss Sackville-West, one gathers, the jewels are heirlooms, worn every evening for dinner, worn as a matter of course.

“Solitude” is a long poem, a spiritual autobiography. Beginning with praise of night as the time of purest self-realization, the poem passes from one type of experience to another that night has brought the poet: erudite reading, lonely walks, love, poetry itself, and religious musing. Since these experiences as described lie almost wholly within the realm of mind, and since they neither are unusual in themselves nor lead to any remarkable conclusion, the reader’s attention is almost entirely on the poetry as poetry. It is poetry vigorous for the most part, and at times moving: Dearer becomes the pigeon winging past My mullioned window with the rapid cast Of shadow on a still unwritten page, —Companionship without espionage— Than youth as lovely as a Grecian age.

But there are other lines such as this:

Thus love, bright charlatan, besieged my heart.

One of the most imaginative touches is on the final page. The poem began with these lines:

Now to my little death the pestering clock

Beckons,—but who would sleep when he might wake?

The poem ends with an ironic echo beginning:

Still to my little death the pestering clock

Beckons,—but who would wake when he might sleep?

“Corn,” by Paul Engle, is a reassuring book, broad and central like the poet’s Iowa. I am more impressed with its strength than with its faults, though faults there are. If a man is to be judged by his best work, I should like to judge Paul Engle by the blank verse sections of the title poem-sensitive, restrained, beautifully rounded in mood and imagery.

Compared to this poem the other poems in blank verse seem to me to fall short. The prologue to the book is both over-robust and too reminiscent of MacLeish. “For an Apple-Grower” is good writing, but it does not sustain the illusion of an old man talking, as it purports to do. The imagery of “Rain” is labored and unconvincing. “Canterbury” strikes me as a little naive. And throughout the book the poet’s voice tends to be too loud, though there is much to substantiate his self-promise that

Too long I went With a great urge and shouting into life. Now I will let it, like a change of season, Come to me here.

If I were asked to pick out the three finest lyrics in the volume, I think I should choose “Windy Night,” “Farmer,” and the first of the poems “For Mary.” “Windy Night” is especially memorable, a poem that may have come to the poet himself as a surprise, interrupting another poem that he had sat down to write.

What moved against the window one long night, Whether a face or leaf, I could not tell. But if a face, it ran away from light, And if a leaf, it fell.

I did not ask, watching it turn and swing, Why it came to me in so cold a season. For whether human or a natural thing It had its own good reason.

I did not speak, fearing that it would go, That, in the dark, my voice would seem a shout. For looking lonely in, how could it know That I looked lonely out?

That a poet should look back calls for no comment. Always the present is too close to see, the future too misty, only the past lying clear and substantial like an October afternoon. But how does he look back? In England Miss Sackville-West looks back over her personal past, and less consciously over the long past of English poetry. From England Paul Engle looks back to midwestern America, knowing that he must return home, bodily and spiritually, and does return. From America Miss Millay looks back (often toward England) to a time when the grand manner was the accepted, the everyday manner, knowing too well that there is no returning.


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