Still am I besy bokes assemblynge, For to have plenty it is a pleasant thynge For my conceyt and to have them any in honde; But what they mene do I not understonde.
The Shyp o? Folys—Alexander Barclay.
If i were trying to arrive at a clear standard of judgment of poetry, a philosophy of taste so to speak, I do not know which I should find more confusing, the books about poetry or the poems of the modern poets. Take half a dozen or more of the recent discussions of poetry, and there arises a Babel of confused voices when taste is matched with taste. Here the voices from a piled half dozen of books speak. Of Byron, Mr. Garrod says that it would not surprise him if posterity “held to ‘Don Juan’ and let the rest go”; Professor Grierson thinks that Byron’s feeling never quite wins through to the magic and music of perfect expression; and Mr. Ker wrote, “It is difficult to defend Byron,” Mr, Elliott wonders for his part, “Why is so great a poet so greatly in the shade ?” Grierson finds Wordsworth to have achieved “the form as well as the spirit of the great ode as we think of that in connection with Pindar and Milton”; and Elliott, discussing “Milton and the Present State of Poetry,” exclaims, “We must appeal from Wordsworth to Milton.” In discussing M. Bremond’s theory of “pure poetry” which the Frenchman begins with Edgar Allan Poe, Mr. Garrod feels “obliged here to say that I think that French criticism will begin again to be what it should be when it finds out that in the history of aesthetic theory Poe has no place.” Grierson, speaking of the poets with whom “colour, imagery, and music are the poet’s chief interest,” declares, “The poet who first . . . set himself to push this tendency a little further and subordinate statement to suggestion, colour and music, especially the last, was the American poet of the thirties and forties, Edgar Allan Poe . . . ‘the artful, subtle, irresistible song of Poe, the new music which none that has heard it can forget,’ to quote Henley.” Such disagreement among the critics might easily bring one to accept Mr. Kellett’s conclusion in “The Whirligig of Taste,” wherein he traces with disarming urbanity and charm the varying verdict of the generations toward English authors, especially poets, and decides, “There is no sure and tangible criterion of beauty; nothing to which we can cling and say: ‘This at least is good and that at any rate is bad.’” I prefer to believe that there is a variable point on the hither and yon sides of which we may be reasonably satisfied to find the good and the bad. “Taste is still conditioned by the palate; and a safe diet makes a clean palate.” That is Mr. Garrod’s aphorism and I think it a wise one. The sun is no less the blessed sun though a sand-blind critic or a whimsical Petruchio should bid us call it the moon. Mr. Robert Frost once said that two of the great experiences of his life were the first readings at an interval of years of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” and Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners.” A man recently said the same to me with regard to “John Brown’s Body” and “Tristram.” I should know which for me has approved himself of a “clean palate.”
Mr. Clement Wood in “The Craft of Poetry” has his word for the critics: “They are not poets, or even adequate versifiers, in the living tradition of poetry,; they are academic parasites, a breed of lingual maggots crawling over the poetry, largely the dead poetry, of the past, seeking dumbly to understand its sealed mysteries and reporting dogmatically their erroneous interpretations of the heart’s language, dead to them, yet often living to living poetic hearts.” His book is a useful handbook for the young student of the forms of poetry, marred to my reading by the author’s effort to make the book a “live” one.
“Practical Criticism,” by I. A. Richards, is an amusing effort through a study by laboratory method with thirteen poems “to provide a new technique for those who wish to discover for themselves what they think -and feel about poetry . . . and why they should like or dislike it.” It provides in a big book material and a method more absorbing than cross word puzzles but this elaborate method used for testing poetic taste leaves me cold.
I have not read for a long time a more delightful book of critical discussions than H. W. Garrod’s “The Profession of Poetry and Other Lectures.” His topics run from Milton and Massenger to A. E. Housman and Humbert Wolfe, from “Poets and Philosophers” to “How to Know a Good Book from a Bad,” and his “clean palate” is as well avouched as his sound learning and sane wisdom. He is an entertaining writer but leaves no consciousness of a nervous effort to be so. His philosophy of poetry is a simple one: “Poetry is a particular manner of expressing life”; and “A man does what he is; and what he does is the man.” As professor of poetry in the University of Oxford he has lectured on his contemporaries, but believes that the moderns can be judged only by the critic who knows the literature of the past. “We must be wise as Time is, which always works forwards, never backwards.” “Form and Style in Poetry” is a posthumous book by Mr. Garrod’s predecessor in the Oxford professorship of poetry, W. P. Ker. The first section treats of the ballad; “the Clark lectures” are devoted the first three to Chaucer and the Scottish Chaucerians and the other four to forms of English poetry, including a discussion of the changes of fashion in literature; the twenty-four London lectures, “Form and Style,” constitute a wide-ranging discussion of poetry,. It is stimulating and enlightening.
Professor G. R. Elliott in “The Cycle of Modern Poetry” has collected a group of essays on such different themes as Byron, Keats, Hardy, Longfellow, and Frost, but a definite critical philosophy and a pliant prose style give his book unity. It has distinction, for Mr. Elliott thinks his own thoughts and thinks them through. He is courageous enough to defend Byron, and in “Gentle Shades of Longfellow” he makes the best case for that poet that I know. Its philosophy is suggested in this sentence: “Every poet knows that when he succeeds in working well he ceases to be an individual; he loses his life to save it.” The subjects of Bonamy Dobree’s “The Lamp and Lute” are Ibsen, Hardy, Kipling, E. M. Forster, D. IT. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot. Dobree’s incisive mind cuts to the heart of things. In his “Restoration Comedy,” he cleared up as no critic had done before some of the misconceptions about Wycherley and his contemporaries. Mr. Eliot should thank him now for what appears a lucid journey, through “The Waste Land.”
Of three books in the “Hogarth Lectures” series, Professor H. J. C. Grierson’s “Lyrical Poetry of the Nineteenth Century” is the wisest, Humbert Wolfe’s “Notes on English Verse Satire” is the wittiest, and E. E. Kellett’s “The Whirligig of Taste” is the wariest. In a hundred and fifty pages, Grierson comes from Xanadu to the Waste Land; for he is not so cautious as Mr. Kellett who follows his Whirligig of Taste on in the land of “those who are safely dead” because he remembers too well their ferocity to “tempt the moderns.” I know no other book on modern poetry where so much of sound judgment and taste is evidenced in so small compass. Humbert Wolfe, himself poet and satirist, has written a delicious book. “Very pretty, Mr. Pope,” he says, “but you must not call it poetry.” His distinctions are clear as to what is good satire and what is poetry. Mr. Kellett has given me my theme and I am grateful; but the charm of his book was that I so rarely agreed with his ideas. He is surely right, though, when he agrees with Mr. Garrod and Mr. Elliott in rooting the present firmly, in the past. Though he blames the critic who deals in “triumphant certainties,” he affirms himself that “to attempt a revolution may, at times, be necessary; but the revolutionary doctrine must itself have its roots in the past, or it will assuredly fail.” That, however, is history not aesthetics, and Mr. Kellett’s consistency remains a firm staff for his whirligig.
The year is not a great one in the annals of poetry. The old voices sometimes say over what they have said better and the new ones often leave me feeling that the fine rolling ground swell of poetry fifteen years ago is spending itself in ripples and foam. Mr. Elliott writes, “A Shelley (or even a Keats) aged fifty and producing a kind of poetry comparable in value with the glamorous verse of his youth is unthinkable.” The poets of the earlier years of the century have reached fifty. Those whose work is intellectual rather than “glamorous” continue, perhaps with a ripened wisdom, the work of their earlier years. Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Cavender’s House” is a clairvoyant psycho-graph. Edgar Lee Master’s “The Fate of the Jury,” if it has none of the sharpness of insight and irony that made the “Spoon River Anthology” approach greatness, is about as successful as earlier long narratives by its author. The women among the lyricists suffer less from the years, but then most of them have fewer years to suffer from; and then again, they are never past fifty. But of some living poets a reviewer breathes—to himself, if he is gentle—the exclamation G. R. Elliott uses of Byron, “This author was not so beloved of the gods that he needed to die young.”
It is a period of collected editions and anthologies that gather like autumn baskets the fruit of the passing seasons. Masefield and Robinson have both been “collected” before but their new “Collected Poems” easily take the places of importance in the season’s poetry. John Masefield stands here to his full stature. The new volume includes all of his fine work in verse, even the new “Midsummer Night.” His “South and East,” a lovely fantastic narrative, has been issued separately, illustrated in color by Jacynth Parsons; but it has its place in the collected “Poems.” More and more, I believe, Masefield will traditionally come to be the representative English poet of his era. In his hands narrative verse, both realistic and romantic, has glowed with livelier color and awakened a deeper human interest by its Chaucerian vividness. And what has contemporary poetry that surpasses in pure lyric loveliness some of his poems of quiet contemplative beauty, or his sonnets?
The Edwin Arlington Robinson volume includes his full work even to “Tristram” and “Cavender House.” I should say that until Robert Frost’s work is included in one book there will be no collected volume except Poe or Whitman that can challenge this as the best single American volume by one poet. Here is an author who did not need to die young!
Two handsome volumes contain the “Collected Poems” of D. H. Lawrence. Here may be seen—I quote G. R. Elliott’s book again—”Mr. D. H. Lawrence circling around seriously, on the back of a super-sexed life-force.” Sons of Whitman, D. H. Lawrence and Robinson Jeffers are surely, but one wonders what portents these sex-tortured men are for the future. The picture I see is not of a dark-bearded man riding a goat; it is a sad-faced poet crucified and writhing on a cross. For Lawrence is a rare and a powerful artist. Shrink as one may from his themes, one feels always his power. There is something splendid about the man’s audacity. Dobree quotes T. S. Eliot as differentiating between the intensity of the emotions and “the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place,”—that is what counts. Lawrence has both and is at his best a great artist; but sometimes the pressure of the artistic process cannot fuse the too intense emotions and there is a running out, of the raw stuff, that is painful. Jeffers, by the way, in his “Dear Judas” carries on his own tradition. To some he will again represent a strange new brilliancy; to others part of his work will have the beauty of an exquisitely phrased poetic prose and some of it the ejaculatory violence of the contortions of a sex-maddened nightmare.
What impresses me as I look over the volumes of new verse is that so few voices lift themselves singing (or even shouting) in the memory when the book is closed. Several of Hervey Allen’s poems from “New Legends” are memorable. His character narratives and short poems that embody a mood or catch the spirit of a place are most successful. “Sarah Simon” is fresh and beautiful and significant. “Black Christ” from Contee Cullen’s volume of that title is not a poem easily forgotten, and some of the epigrams from William Griffith’s “Greek Gestures” bite into one’s consciousness like old proverbs. His art packs wisdom and irony, into their small compass, as when he makes “A Pupil of Plato” say:
I seem never to go anywhere, In my mind,
But that I meet Plato coming back.
Poems like “Return” and “Going up to London” from Nancy Byrd Turner’s “A Riband on My Reins” chime differently even in an untenacious memory. It is altogether a delightful little book and if it becomes widely known is likely to please more people than many a more “important” volume. These poems have sentiment and are sometimes sentimental; which is to say they are not in the modern vein. They are charming verses by an adequate technician who is very human. There are poems in Robert P. Tristram Coffin’s “Golden Falcon” that are memorable for color and the firm beauty, of modeling.
“A Litany of Washington Street” is a sort of dithyramb in prose on the American spirit, and especially Virginia, by Vachel Lindsay. In his new volume, “Every Soul is a Circus,” the poeni that most reminds me of the power of Lindsay’s earlier work is “The Virginians Are Coming Again,” of which the author says it is a poetic summary of the “Litany.” Mr. Lindsay remains one of the most vigorous and interesting personalities of American poetry, but I do not feel in the new poems the fire and color, the creative force by which his earlier work lives.
They are so different, these poets of the twentieth century, that I am sure the taste of no one reviewer is a match for them all. Here are the cool, beautiful verses of the “Collected Poems” of Gerald Gould proving to me again what competent craftsmen the better English verse-writers are— yet leaving no clear impress of a distinct flavor of his own. “Blue Juniata” of Malcolm Cowley, “Ballyhoo for a Mendicant” of Colton Talbott, and “The Noise That Time Makes” by Merrill Moore are individual but the first two impress me as “too clever by much”; and the crisp intellectual phrases of Merrill Moore pique me into an admiration for qualities that I do not find chiefly poetical. “Poems by Q” is easier to describe. It is a collection of the verse written throughout a fairly long life by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. There is no poor work in it: the verse has grace and beauty. It is rarely memorable. Arthur Guiterman’s “Song and Laughter” and Witter Bynner’s “Indian Earth” are in the manner familiar to their readers. Guiterman’s volume has some of his best work. He is skilful and clean-cut in his more serious work and certainly one of the deftest in his lighter moods. Bynner writes on Mexican themes in “Indian Earth,” but in “Jade Mountain” he has in collaboration with Kiang Kang-Hu made a translation of Chinese poems that is more satisfying to me than any other I have read. They give me a haunting sense of beauty and human emotion.
New volumes that I have not seen, by poets the quality, of whose work is well known, include Grace Hazard Conk-ling’s “Witch and Other Poems,” Joseph Auslander’s “Letters to Women,” Anna Hempstead Branch’s “Sonnets from a Lock Box,” Eunice Tietjens’ “Leaves in Windy Weather,” Conrad Aiken’s “Selected Poems,” and J. C. Squire’s “Poems in One Volume.” Percy McKaye’s “Weather-goose Woo!” and Lizette Woodworth Reese’s beautiful autobiographic essays, “A Victorian Village,” ought for their poetic qualities—though not verse collections—to be mentioned in this survey.
The anthologies suggest again the multi-colored variety of contemporary verse when for example in the “Animal Lover’s Knapsack,” Edwin Osgood Grover with cosmopolitan taste includes animal poems by Edgar A. Guest, Osbert Sitwell, and Robert Bridges. Houston Peterson’s wisely chosen gathering of the best sonnet sequences, “The Book of Sonnet Sequences,” runs from Sidney to Leonard. It gives emphasis to the contemporaries, including at least ten out of twenty-one sequences that belong to our own day.
Two books worthy of a place on the shelves of every lover of poetry are “Twentieth Century Poetry” edited by John Drinkwater, Henry Seidel Canby, and William Rose Benet, and “Chief Modern Poets of England and America,” by G. D. Sanders and J. H. Nelson. The first is the most wisely chosen anthology of English and American poetry of our day that I know. It leaves out some of the finest individual poems (perhaps because they are so familiar) and gives too few poems from some of the truest poets, but those chosen are not the hackneyed ones, so that it will constitute for most readers a new collection. The “Chief Modern Poets” is the sort of anthology that has long been ” needed. It includes a large enough group of poems to be representative of each of fifteen of the most distinguished English and eleven American poets. Were I making such an anthology I should make few changes in the list of poets included; my choice of the individual poems, naturally, would be quite different.It is an admirable book for courses studying contemporary, poetry and it is a good book to restore the faith of the general reader who from too much reading of strange forms has come to distrust all modern poets; for this is a conservative book.
For a full view of the scope of American contemporary 8 verse Braithwaite’s “Anthology for 1929” must be read. William Stanley, Braithwaite has been heroic in his task for American poetry,. He is broadly inclusive, it must be admitted; but he never selects work below a recognizable standard. His new volume contains a surprizingly large quantity of distinctive and genuine poetry.