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A History of American Poetry 

A History of 



1900 - 1940 


New York 

COPYRIGHT, 1942, 1944, 1946, BY 

All rights rcscwed, including 
the right to reproduce this book 
or portions thereof in any form. 




ACKNOWLEDGMENT is made to the editors of The Sewanee 
Review, Accent and The American Bookman in whose maga- 
zines certain early drafts of some chapters in our history have 
appeared. We also thank the many poets who have made a history 
of twentieth-century American poetry possible and whose poems 
enliven and illuminate so many of our pages. We wish to thank 
those who through correspondence, conversation, the lending of 
rare books, editorial advice, or a reading of the manuscript have 
sustained and encouraged us, and for these services we owe par- 
ticular debts of gratitude to the following: Ermine Stone, Li- 
brarian of Sarah Lawrence College; Adele Brebner and Helen 
McMaster of the English faculty at Sarah Lawrence College; 
Norman Holmes Pearson of Yale University; A. J. Putnam, 
Morton Dauwen Zabel, Charles Madison and James T. Farrell; 
H. D. Aldington, Allen Tate, Christopher Lazare, Dunstan 
Thompson, T. C. Wilson and Lewis Nichols; Elizabeth Shepley 
Sergeant; Frank V. Morley, Sylvia Dudley and Jacqueline Em- 
bree. And all whom we have mentioned are not, of course, re- 
sponsible for any errors or opinions in the text. 

Prologue 3 











. / *.7 







x Contents 









PART III: THE 1920's 

PREFACE TO THE ig2O's 255 











Contents xi 







PART IV: THE 1930's 











A Descriptive Bibliography 497 

Index 505 

A History of American Poetry 


In justice to the readers of this book, we have decided that a 
prologue is required. First of all, it is our obligation to say a 
word or two concerning the general nature of the book, to pre- 
sent a vantage point as briefly as we can from which the present 
survey of recent American poetry arrives in view. A history of 
anything, whether it is of politics or poetry, of religion or eco- 
nomics, or of the familiar and sometimes highly deceptive record- 
ing of military events, has its own scopes and limitations. The 
limitations are clearly those of time and of environment, and 
because of them certain phenomena of whatever subject we 
choose to talk about must be included. In the present instance, 
the subject is twentieth-century American poetry, and poetry, 
as all of us know well, has always maintained its own discrimi- 
nations against history. At the risk of making what may seem 
to be an obvious understatement, let us say that historic truth 
and poetic truth do not always coincide. Poetry claims its own 
right to being an immortal, and like other creations of the 
human imagination, not excluding history and social science, 
it also claims a jealous disregard of trivial, literal, and often 
faulty statements of external fact. It is at this point that the 
historian of poetry becomes a critic; he must reject every- 
thing that stands in the way of his presenting a clear picture 
of chronological progression. He cannot indulge himself in a 
prolonged discussion of esthetic or social theory for its own 
sake. (And parenthetically it should be said that during the past 
fifteen years discussions of poetry have been clouded rather than 
illuminated by the sustained effort to unveil the secrets of the 
closet and the bedchamber and the writing table. Certain of 
these discussions were both worthy and serious in their inten- 
tions, but the public, justly enough, began to regard them as 
curiously incestuous forms of literary criticism: and as the num- 


4 A History of American Poetry 

ber of footnotes enlarged upon the page, the value of reading a 
particular poem or the work of a particular poet seemed to 
diminish.) The historical critic has responsibilities of a different 
order: he cannot exclude biographical information, and his 
notable precedent for quoting facts of this nature may be found 
in Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets; and he must pay his 
respects to the legends, the fabulae of poetic history, for however 
dubious the surface qualities of these phenomena may appear to 
the naked eye they are among the generative forces of poetry 
itself, and are commonly referred to under the large and all too 
often meaningless names of "culture," "folklore," and "tradition." 
Since we have brought up the subject of the poetic phenom- 
enon, a further word of explanation should be devoted to its 
North American peculiarities. The American genius has long 
delighted in its own gifts of exaggeration, and within the con- 
fusions of youthful self-criticism and local shrewdness, a love of 
bigness for its own sake, and the rapid spending of countless lives 
and dollars, there is a tendency to regard art as one might look 
at a waterfall caused by the bursting of a dam, or a prairie fire, 
or an earthquake, or a mountain. To say the least, such a phe- 
nomenon is scarcely human, and yet its production is assumed 
to be the work of the average man. Once seen, the contradiction 
is plain enough, and Matthew Arnold in his lecture on Milton 
was among the first to remark upon its existence: 

A lady in the State of Ohio sent to me only the other day a volume 
on American authors; the praise given throughout was of such high 
pitch that in thanking her I could not forbear saying that for only one 
or two of the authors named was such a strain of praise admissible, and 
that we lost all real standard of excellence by praising so uniformly and 
immoderately. She answered me with charming good temper, that very 
likely I was quite right, but it was pleasant to her to think that excel- 
lence was common and abundant. But excellence is not common and 
abundant; on the contrary, as the Greek poet long ago said, excellence 
dwells among rocks hardly accessible, and a man must almost wear his 
heart out before he can reach her. Whoever talks of excellence as 
common and abundant, is on the way to lose all right standard of 
excellence. And when the right standard of excellence is lost, it is not 
likely that much which is excellent will be produced. 1 

i Essays in Criticism, Second Series, used by permission of The Macmillan 

Prologue 5 

Let us say further that it is our intention to present a history 
of American poetry since 1900 that is humane in its interest 
rather than humanitarian, and that the chronological order 
which we have preserved with few exceptions throughout the 
book allows us to speak with more attention to the work of 
individual writers than to the various literary "movements" 
which have introduced them or modified their talents. Since the 
end of the nineteenth century there has been a tendency to over- 
rate the importance of literary movements in poetry; Arthur 
Symons' valuable little book, The Symbolist Movement in Lit- 
erature, which was dedicated so pertinently to W. B. Yeats in the 
spring of 1899, marks the date, and from that time onward, and 
in this country since the "poetic renaissance" of about 1912, 
there has been an abundance, there has been (to remark politely) 
a confusion of talk about what "modern 1 "poetry is, where it is 
gqing, and what it hopes to do. Now, one is always grateful to 
overhear conversations that seem to transcend the amenities and 
impertinent familiarities of personal gossip in respect to poets 
and poetry, yet to speak of literary movements in terms that 
ignore individual values as well as that degree of excellence 
which "dwells among rocks hardly accessible" is often "shop 
talk" that is considerably less charming and good tempered than 
Matthew Arnold's lady from Ohio and is quite as pernicious as 
that lady's desire to find excellence as common as the grass on 
her front lawn. Our saying this does not mean that we have 
ignored the existence of literary movements in America far from 
it but we have placed them (since this book is a history) in the 
strictly historical setting where they belong. 

Within the span of time that our book covers there is scarcely 
a poem mentioned that has not been called (at one time or 
another) "modern poetry." Let us grant that the term has been 
somewhat overused and cheerfully admit that American poetry, 
painting, and architecture is of the "modern" world and that all 
of us are living for good or ill and some of us indifferently 
within the twentieth century itself. In poetry (since poetry is an 
art) whatever truly refreshes and delights the eye and ear is 
likely to have an innocent air of modernity for many centuries 
to come. We hope we need not remind many readers that this 

6 A History of American Poetry 

phenomenon has often happened in the past; and even as re- 
cently as 1922, when The Waste Land made its spectacular ap- 
pearance in The Dial, among its more shocking innovations 
were those passages that had been inspired by T. S. Eliot's read- 
ings in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Barring the facts that Ovid wrote 
in Latin and died in the year 17 A.D., an excellent case could be 
presented for the "modernity" of some few of his love elegies. 

Throughout our book we have assumed that American poetry 
has inherited the responsibilities of the familiarly called "great 
tradition" of poetic literature in English. But to say this also 
requires a paragraph of explanation, for an unspoken claim of 
this character can be readily misunderstood. It can be made to 
seem that American poetry in acknowledging its heritage still 
tends to ignore its native climate and its speech in favor of an 
elder language, an island geography, and west European psychol- 
ogy and culture. All this is, of course, historically false: we 
happen to agree with Bernard Shaw and H. L. Mencken when 
they insist that the British and the Americans "speak a different 
language," and we believe that a particular "difference" in tem- 
perament and spirit made its arrival as early as the year of 1776, 
which was a "difference" that led to a famous misunderstanding, 
and was, undoubtedly, a strong "difference" of opinion. But the 
heritage of which we speak is of a character that it is not always 
easy to define; it lies within the province of what some people 
would call "an unconscious will or knowledge," and that belongs, 
so we believe, to that rich substratum of poetic consciousness, 
the myths or fabulae of a national literature. The heritage may 
seem to be in violent contradiction to other "unconscious wills" 
that stir so restlessly in its near company; and its existence can 
be simply and calmly recognized by admitting that American 
poetry as a vehicle of human expression and as a major form of 
art has never been unaware of the great example set before it. 

Since we have touched upon the difference in language, an 
extremely subtle difference, yet a clear one, that distinguishes 
the English of New York from that of London, it is appropriate 
to observe how profoundly that difference has affected poetic 
diction. During the past four decades, it would seem that Ameri- 
can poetry has gained in the virility and brilliance of its speech, 

Prologue 7 

and by contrasting it with British poetry written in the same 
period, it would also seem that the creative forces of the lan- 
guage itself are to be found on this side of the Atlantic. The 
historian is in a position to record this phenomenon in proper 
detail and so we shall, from the vantage point that we have 
chosen. But in this particular place, the Prologue of the book, 
the reader deserves a broader view, so as to prepare him for the 
progression of events which are to follow. 

We are, of course, too close to the period in which the gains 
and losses of poetic speech occurred to give final answers to all 
the questions that may be raised. Briefly the series of circum- 
stances arc these: the last great master of English verse, Thomas 
Hardy, died in 1928; Robert Bridges died in 1930, and Rudyard 
Kipling in 1936. Meanwhile, two American poets, Ezra Pound 
and T. S. Eliot, exerted a subterranean and slowly increasing 
influence upon a younger generation of British poets. Between 
the death of Hardy and the declaration of a second world war 
the celebrity of William Butler Yeats grew into eminence on 
both sides of the Atlantic, but Yeats's speech was of Anglo-Irish 
Dublin, and during his last years, the maturity of his poetic gifts 
had met no rival from an indigenous British source. These cir- 
cumstances and events are offered for what they are worth; in 
another fifty years and in poetry the unpredictable is always to 
be anticipated another generation may bring to maturity a Brit- 
ish poet whose stature and influence will revive what now seems 
to be a dying inflection of a once vigorous and resourceful lan- 
guage. "Poetry is made with words" and the imaginative life of 
the individual poet is always closely related to the strength and 
resources of the language that he has at his command; if inven- 
tiveness in the very use of language seems to decline, if a general 
public attitude toward a memorable poetic tradition tends to 
become academic and remote, the individual poet faces a pros- 
pect of mediocre accomplishment that is more deadly to the spirit 
than the lack of money or public recognition. "History seems to 
have struck a bad patch," wrote W. H. Auden, but such dis- 

8 A History of American Poetry 

asters are of lesser consequence than the absence of mature and 
gifted masters of poetic speech combined with the loss of an 
indigenous vitality which exists in the spoken word and its 

In expressing the foregoing convictions and it would seem 
that there is sufficient and visible evidence to support them we 
hope that we do not convey the impression of being blindly 
partisan in favor of our subject. What we do believe is that 
American poetry of the past four decades has grown beyond the 
needs of the somewhat maternal concern which had been voiced 
by Matthew Arnold's charming correspondent from Ohio. Since 
Arnold's lecture was delivered in 1888, it is not unreasonable to 
suppose that his lady was a third cousin (unhappily her name is 
unknown) of Henry James's equally charming and unfortunate 
Daisy Miller. If Daisy Miller's death in Rome did not impede 
the journeyings of American heiresses eastward across the Atlan- 
tic, their less adventurous cousins probably felt the necessity of 
protecting all everything that could be gathered under the im- 
posing name of "culture" at home. That necessity is, of course, 
no longer urgent; and if American poetry has survived the mis- 
adventures of excessive praise, it will certainly find salutary relief 
in whatever critical discriminations we have to offer. 

Our history has its own prologue in Edmund Clarence Sted- 
man's An American Anthology and the dinner given to celebrate 
the occasion of its publication at Carnegie Hall in the City of 
New York on December 6, 1900. The invited guests were an im- 
pressive company and, among those who wrote telegrams and 
letters because they could not come, were John Hay, William 
Dean Howells, Edward Eggleston, Henry Van Dyke, S. Weir 
Mitchell, and James Whitcomb Riley, who honored his host with 
rhymed regrets that were read to spirited applause. To speed 
the welcome of a new era in American poetry William Winter, 
the dramatic critic (who is remembered chiefly for his instruc- 
tions to Mrs. Patrick Campbell's Second Mrs. Tanqueray to "go 
away and siri no more"), had prepared a speech to be read at the 

Prologue 9 

dinner table. "The deadliest foe of the creative impulse is criti- 
cism," he remarked. "Genius is something that comes without 
effort and impels its possessor to heroic labor." If William Winter 
seems to have indulged himself in an overstatement that in its 
very exuberance denied his own usefulness in writing criticism 
of the stage, there is little doubt that his intentions were sincere. 
Proof of their heat was all too evident in the lines of his verses 
to Stedman which brought his recitation to a close: 

So rest thy regal throne, thou hast ascended, 
The standards blaze, the golden trumpets ring, 
And in one voice, our loyal hearts are blended: 
God bless the poet and God save the King! 

It has not been recorded what Stedman thought at being 
called a "King"; but he probably knew that Winter meant no 
harm by it, and that his friend at this high moment of excite- 
ment was visibly overwrought. The plain facts of the matter 
were that Stedman was a prosperous Connecticut Yankee, had 
been briefly educated at Yale, had been a newspaper editor, had 
been an assistant in the office of the Attorney General of the 
United States, had entered Wall Street in 1863, and like his 
contemporaries, Richard Watson Gilder and R. H. Stoddard, 
had earned the distinction of being among "the squires of 
poetry." The leisure that he had acquired from his wealth had 
been devoted to a wide reading of both British and American 
verse, and with equal verve he composed Civil War ballads. 
These were written with a quick-marching beat of rhythms that 
recalled the political satires of James Russell Lowell's The Big- 
low Papers, and the most frequently quoted of them all was 
Stedman's "How Old Brown Took Harper's Ferry" which might 
well have been inspired by Hosea Biglow's notorious lines: 

God sends country lawyers, an' other wise fellers, 
To start the world's team wen it gits in a slough; 

Per John P. 

Robinson he 
Sez the world'll go right, ef he hollers out Gee! 2 

- The Biglow Papers by James Russell Lowell, First Series, III, Cam. ed., 
used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. 

io A History of American Poetry 

The refrain of Stedman's ballad is equally swift and emphatic: 

And each drop from Old Brown's life-veins, like the red gore 

of the dragon, 

May spring up a vengeful Fury, hissing through your slave- 
worn lands! 

And Old Brown, 
Osawatomie Brown, 

May trouble you more than ever, when you've nailed his coffin 
down! 3 

This was, of course, thoroughly acceptable journalistic verse, 
but Stedman's An American Anthology, like Lowell's The Vision 
of Sir Launfal, aimed at higher things. Compared with Rufus W. 
Griswold's The Poets and Poetry of America, which had been its 
weightiest predecessor, Stedman's compilation was a model of 
scholarship and critical discrimination. It was not without some 
show of courage that Stedman approached his editorial labors; 
his book of British verse, A Victorian Anthology, had been well 
received in 1895, and when a friend heard that he was about to 
publish a compendium of American verse which was to be its 
equal in size and format, the editor was warned: "We have 
nothing to compare with what is being done in England." The 
task was, no doubt, a formidable one, for aside from the general 
optimism that was felt and shared by many Americans who were 
eager to greet "the dawn of a new century/' editorial confidence 
in the quality of American verse was extremely rare. During the 
twenty years before 1900, Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, 
and even the lesser known Whitman had completed the course 
of their careers on earth; and a skeptical group of American 
critics who were by no means certain that "when half-gods go, 
the gods arrive," had scarcely recovered from the deaths of 
Browning and Tennyson. Stedman himself spoke of the hour in 
which his An American Anthology appeared as "a twilight in- 
terval"; and the excitements of both popular and semiesoteric 
"literary discovery" were reserved for those who had read Kip- 
ling's Barrack Room Ballads, Stevenson's A Child's Garden of 
Verses, W. E. Henley's Hospital Sketches, and A. E. Housman's 

3 "Hdw Old Brown Took Harper's Ferry" from Poems, used by permission 
of Houghton Mifflin Company. 

Prologue 1 1 

A Shropshire Lad, none of which could claim an American 

Although a present rereading of An American Anthology 
would scarcely reawaken the enthusiasms and diligent responses 
of its editor's labors, it can still be read with historical interest 
and renewed understanding of the necessities which prompted 
its arrival. Across the span of the nineteenth century, one sees the 
beginnings of a national poetry: in a few of Philip Freneau's 
lyrics, despite their clear indebtedness to studious rereadings of 
Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Church- Yard," a change of 
poetic climate may be discerned, a forecast (since we read them 
in retrospect) of what we now define as an "American brilliance" 
and sharpness of visual imagery. An American Anthology was a 
work that gave historical perspective to its choices, and however 
generously Stedman represented the tastes and prejudices of his 
day which were schooled in an uncritical appreciation of Vic- 
torian verse, including the false vigor, mediocre diction, and 
belated Byronism of Bayard Taylor, his anthology brought to 
light submerged contrasts and vitalities in American poetry. At 
a time when Emily Dickinson's name was hardly known, he 
represented her work with fullness and enthusiasm, nor did he 
ignore the unique quality of Jones Very's devotional verse, nor 
the poetry of Herman Melville when only the very few remem- 
bered the existence of Melville's Battle-Pieces and Clarel. If the 
majority of Stedman's selections from the work of younger poets 
did little more than reflect the minor graces of a period in which 
Richard Hovey and Bliss Carman seemed to invite their readers 
to the joys of Vagabondia, he also took pains to extend the fame 
of George Santayana beyond the elms of Harvard Yard and to 
introduce the early poems of E. A. Robinson. To Stedman's 
home in the village of Bronxville, Westchester County, New 
York, young Robinson came to hear the elder man's reminis- 
cences of Whitman. For Stedman had a genuine admiration for 
Whitman, and he once admitted (as though the fact were a 
dangerously open secret) that Emerson, Poe, and Whitman were 
the three American poets from whom Europe had much to learn. 
The handsomely bearded, delicately profiled, urbane Edmund C. 
Stedman was an excellent host to young men and women who 

12 A History of American Poetry 

"showed promise." If he possessed the art of putting shy E. A. 
Robinson at ease, he also had the gift of extending nicely 
tempered encouragement to poets who had not quite arrived, 
and his conduct probably (since she was often among his younger 
guests) offered an example to Harriet Monroe. Certainly the 
heritage of courteous and yet inspiring hospitality (that made a 
visit to Poetry's office in Chicago an event in the lives of many 
younger poets) remained unbroken. 

Meanwhile a large measure of Stedman's enthusiasm had been 
reserved for the young authors of three books of Songs from 
Vagabondia Richard Hovey, the Dartmouth poet; the Canadian, 
Bliss Carman, and the forgotten Tom Buford Meteyard, who 
designed the covers and end papers of the little volumes with a 
touch of Pre-Raphaelite craftsmanship. Before the publication of 
the first book in 1894, the three friends had spent a holiday 
together, including a winter in New York, a journey to Nova 
Scotia, the Acadie of Longfellow's Evangeline , and an autumn 
tour of Washington, D. C. Hovey's education at Dartmouth Col- 
lege where he enjoyed the honors of being "class poet" as well 
as the author of "Men of Dartmouth" a song still sung at Han- 
overand subsequent trips across the Atlantic to Paris and 
Avignon (a passion for travel which rivaled the earlier European 
wanderings of Bayard Taylor whose peregrinations resulted in 
a fustian and now unreadable translation of Goethe's Faust), fur- 
nished the background for the kind of lyricism that the Ameri- 
can public welcomed as the poetry of Vagabondia. However far 
he traveled he never lost the spirit of: 

The campus is reborn in us today; 
The old grip stirs our hearts with new-old joy; 
Again bursts bonds for madcap holiday 
The eternal boy. 4 

Hovey attempted to combine and succeeded in confusing the 
Transcendentalism of Emerson and Whitman with his admira- 
tion for whatever ecstatic utterances he could find in the poetry 

4 "Spring Read at the 63d Annual Convention of the op Upsilon Fraternity 
at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 7, 1896" from 
Along the Trail by Richard Hovey and Bliss Carman. Reprinted by permis- 
sion of Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc. 

Prologue 13 

of the French Symbolists and the Parnassians. He delighted in 
his attempts to translate Maurice Maeterlinck, and Bliss Carman 
shared with him the exuberance of "the wine that maketh glad 
the heart, of the bully-boy, gay, jolly," an innocence which over- 
rode whatever contradictions may have been felt in an equal 
love for Paul Verlaine, the "Prince of Vagabonds," and Walt 
Whitman, the "King of Free-Versists." While Bliss Carman wrote 

The world is Vagabondia 
To him who is a vagabond 5 

Hovey composed lines to "Isabel" 6 which read 

In her body's perfect sweet 
Suppleness and languor meet, 
Arms that move like lapsing billows, 
Breasts that Love would make his pillows, 

as t well as "A Stein Song" that had the merits of diverting his 
enthusiasm into more appropriate channels than are to be dis- 
covered in the phrasing of his stanzas to "Isabel"; certainly he 
recaptured the joys of an American undergraduate drinking 

beer in . , . , . , 

it s always fair weather 

When good fellows get together, 
With a stein on the table and a good song ringing clear. 7 

At the time of his death in 1900, and perhaps anticipating 
E. A. Robinson's interest in the Arthurian legends (for which 
Tennyson's Idylls of the King had provided a Victorian prece- 
dent), Hovey was engaged in writing a long poem on Launcelot 
and Guenevere, "in Five Dramas." 

It may well be difficult for the reader of the mid-twentieth 
century to appreciate fully the underlying seriousness with which 
Hovey and Carman wrote their Songs from Vagabondia; in 1900 
their intentions were readily understood and widely applauded. 
Muriel Miller in her Bliss Carman: A Portrait (1935, Toronto) 

f> "The Vagabonds" from Ballads and Lyrics by Richard Hovey and Bliss 
Carman. Reprinted by permission of Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc. 

6 From Songs from Vagabondia by Richard Hovey and Bliss Carman. Re- 
printed by permission of Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc. 

7 "A Stein Song" from Songs from Vagabondia by Richard Hovey and Bliss 
Carman. Reprinted by permission of Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc. 

14 A History of American Poetry 

has the best explanation of the purpose which briefly animated- 
one almost says "galvanized" Hovey and Carman into the ac- 
tivity of writing verses: 

However, the two poets did not mean their Vagabondian scheme to 
be a mere idle pastime of a summer's day; it represented far more to 
them: It was their joint protest against the warped convention-bound 
lives of the material, money-making American citizen of their day. 

As a "message of protest" against the materialism of the day, 
the verses now seem harmless enough, and if it were not for the 
loud and certainly aggressive note that Carman and Hovey 
sounded in their praise of a globe-circling Bohemia, one might 
feel more regret at the decline of their "promise" into the gray 
expanses of mediocre and inept poetic phrasing. Bliss Carman 
outlived Hovey by more than a quarter of a century; in his 
latter years he edited The Oxford Book of American Verse, a 
task for which he was obviously unfit, and to the end of his days 
he continued a habit he had acquired of writing rhymed de- 
scriptions of the Connecticut countryside with all the inoffensive 
and polished banality of another Richard Watson Gilder. Padraic 
Colum who knew him in these years writes of his courtesy, his 
distinction of manner, and then concludes, "though the tweeds 
that he wore had given him long service, they were always care- 
fully pressed and spotless." And in Carman's last book, Wild 
Garden (1929) , the landscape is always seen from the distance 
of a pleasant country house; from the earliest hours of its incep- 
tion his Vagabondia had been an overtly conscious and "literary" 
invention. The youthful voices that announced its discovery were 
highly pitched, and in their lack of art were often strained. The 
historical value of its existence lies neither in its criticism of 
social evils, nor in its effort to import the latest styles in Parisian 
verse to the American continent. Both Hovey and Carman lacked 
the depths of feeling, understanding, and serious application to 
their art which were necessary to endow their readings in Mal- 
larme, Verlaine, and Verhaeren with the strength of a memorable 
influence upon American poetry. But what they did convey (and 
this was probably something that concerned them least) was the 
recurrent theme of youth for its own sake and glory, and that 

Prologue 1 5 

theme with the image of Bohemia at its side was sustained for 
twenty years after Hovey's death. It soon found expression in the 
verse of George Sterling on the Pacific Coast, and it re-emerged, 
less innocently perhaps, in Witter Bynner's Young H award 
(1917) and his "Grenstone" verses (1917), and the notes of 
Vagabondia were heard in the "kinds of love" that John Reed, 
Max Eastman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Floyd Dell pursued 
through the streets of New York's Greenwich Village. By this 
time it had presumably left college and was slightly soiled by 
early sorrows and disillusionments, but touches of its gaiety re- 
mainedand no one can rightly say that Stedman had been far 
wrong in his conviction that Songs from Vagabondia looked for- 
ward to a future. 

Perhaps something should be said of the immediate effect that 
W. E. Henley's "Invictus" had on Hovey's verse. The Romantic 
didacticism of Henley's 

It matters not how strait the gate, 

How charged with punishments the scroll, 

I am the master of my fate: 

I am the captain of my soul . . . 8 

has a persistent heritage in American newspaper verse; its voice 
literally thunders through the lines of Edwin Markham's "The 
Man with the Hoe" (1899), but it has never found a more exact 
imitation of a particular model than in Hovey's patriotic stanzas 
to an "Unmanifest Destiny": 9 

I do not know beneath what sky 
Nor on what seas shall be thy fate; 

I only know it shall be high, 
I only know it shall be great. 

This literal devotion to contemporary British models was 
widely practiced among lesser American poets of Stedman's day, 
but there has been some confusion in referring to them as though 
they were slaves of "traditional form," or "members of a genteel 

s " Invictus" from Poems, 1926, used by permission of Charles Scribner's 

From Along the .Trail by Richard Hovey and Bliss Carman. Reprinted 
by permission of Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc. 

iG A History of American Poetry 

tradition." Briefly, they followed too closely the fashions of the 
day, placing a standard for their own skill no higher than the 
demands of being published in a magazine. Of these Thomas 
Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907) was the most gifted, and since he was 
a popular and able editor of The Atlantic Monthly, he practiced 
the art of writing verses that were acceptable to the Atlantic's 
temperament and needs. The index to his charm may be found 
in his prose narrative, a semiautobiographical account of a New 
England childhood, The Story of a Bad Boy, which places the 
quality of his imagination at a measurable distance from the 
genius that inspired Whittier's Snow-bound; his observations in 
verse were slight, exact, and as he grew older, markedly feminine. 
The concluding stanzas of his "Heredity" 10 may be read for their 
lack of pretension and for their quiet utterance of a true sensi- 

^* In Grantham church they lie asleep; 

Just where, the verger may not know. 
Strange that two hundred years should keep 
The old ancestral fires aglow! 

In me these two have met again; 
To each my nature owes a part: 
To one, the cool and reasoning brain; 
To one, the quick, unreasoning heart. 

As Van Wyck Brooks implies in his New England: Indian 
Summer, Aldrich seems to fill a space that would have been 
otherwise left vacant between the death of James Russell Lowell 
and the arrival, in a descending order, of George Edward Wood- 


In Aldrich whatever may be called a New England tradition 
in American poetry had come to a halting place; it had not died, 
but in 1900 it is perhaps significant that Stedman's dinner to 
announce the publication of An American Anthology was held 
in New York and not in Boston. The perfect example of the 
well-established poet was Madison Cawein (1865-1914) of Ken- 

10 From Poems, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. 

Prologue 1 7 

tucky whose verse had been praised by Edmund Gosse, the 
British critic, and by William Dean Howells. Cawein's verse had 
the same relationship to poetry as the once-popular canvases 
sketched so fluently by Maxfield Parrish have to painting, which 
means that it was by no means as artful as it seemed. A quo- 
tation of one stanza from "The Rain-Crow" is quite enough to 
show him at his best, and if it does small credit to his memory, 
it helps to define the kind of verse that was accepted and 
enjoyed by reputable editors and critics: 

The butterfly, safe under leaf and flower, 

Has found a roof, knowing how true thou art; 

The bumble-bee, within the last half-hour, 
Has ceased to hug the honey to its heart; 

While in the barnyard, under shed and cart, 

Brood-hens have housed. But I, who scorned thy power, 
Barometer of birds, like August there, 
Beneath a beech, dripping from foot to hair, 
Like some drenched truant, cower. 11 

Another figure of the period was John Bannister Tabb 
(familiarly known as "Father Tabb") (1845-1909), and the merit 
that his verse acquired rests in its brevity. His air was modest 
and his self-knowledge led him to disclaim the enthusiasm of a 
friend who had likened the quality of his verse to that of Robert 
Herrick's. Tabb wrote in reply: "Of this poet, the Golden Treas- 
ury has all I know . . . Nothing, 1 am glad to observe, is de- 
tected of my worship of Keats, whom I know best of the gods." 

Actually his verse has the quality of remarks that might well 
have been made by a less gifted, less intense, but not less charm- 
ing Emily Dickinson. And there is little likelihood that the 
Baltimore priest who was born in Virginia had ever heard of his 
New England contemporary. His verses written for children are 
less memorable than those composed by Robert Louis Stevenson; 
and the "minute particulars" of his wisdom were too facile, too 
neatly trained in glib generalities, to express the depth of re- 
ligious emotion that they imply: 

11 From "The Rain-Crow," Poems of Madison Cawein, used by permission 
of Bobbs-Merrill Company. 

i8 A History of American Poetry 

The least to man, the most to God 

A fragrant mystery 
Where love, with beauty glorified, 

Forgets utility. 12 

Often enough his verse ran dangerously near to the lyrics that 
Carrie Jacobs Bond wrote and set to music of the same quality, 
but Tabb's restraint (and perhaps his readings in Keats) pre- 
served his dignity: 

Out of the dusk a shadow, 

Then a spark; 
Out of the cloud a silence, 

Then a lark . . , ls 

Tabb's verse was praised extravagantly in the British press and 
in particular by Alice Meynell, whose critical influence was felt 
in the pages of W. E. Henley's National Observer, and the Pall 
Mall Gazette. After Tabb's death in 1909, Mrs. Meynell in a 
flush of praise dramatized the affliction of blindness which over- 
took him in his latter years: 

Such is one, and not the least, assuredly not to be the last, of the 
poets of America. That great nation has looked ardently for her poets. 
She has found them in places unransacked. She must have been much 
amazed to find one of them here, in the less literary South, in the 
person of a Catholic priest, in the seclusion of an ecclesiastical college, 
and finally, in one of the deprived and afflicted of this troublous life, 
a man blind for his few last years but alight within, who has now gone 
down quietly to an illustrious grave. 14 

With considerably fewer overtones of rhetoric and with the 
same modest courage that many of his little verses had expressed 
Tabb wrote more fittingly his own epitaph in "Going Blind": lr> 

12 "Blossom" from The Poetry of Father Tabb. Reprinted by permission of 
Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc. 

is "Evolution" from The Poetry of Father Tabb. Reprinted by permission 
of Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc. 

14 From Alice Meynell: A Memoir by Viola Meynell, used by permission 
of Charles Scribner's Sons. 

15 From The Poetry of Father Tabb. Reprinted by permission of Dodd, 
Mead & Company, Inc. 

Prologue 1 9 

Back to the primal gloom 

Where life began, 
As to my mother's womb 

Must I a man 

Not to be born again, 

But to remain; 
And in the School of Darkness learn 

What mean 
"The things unseen." 

Years later, Edgar Lee Masters (then an unknown young poet 
who wrote verses that were as ineffectual as any) was to personify 
the versifier of Stedman's day in his Spoon River Anthology. 
"Petit, the poet," 16 he called him, and the type is too obvious to 
be mistaken: 

Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick, 
Tick, tick, tick, like mites in a quarrel- 
Faint iambics that the full bree/e wakens 

Tick, tick, tick, what little iambics, 

While Homer and Whitman roared in the pines? 

It was that consciousness that Stedman felt when he spoke of 
Whitman to E. A. Robinson. Whitman's loose and not altogether 
convincingly expressed desire to "hear America singing" was com- 
municated to such hearty souls as Stedman, who beneath his 
urbane and carefully sustained disguise of a Wall Street broker, 
cherished an apparently inexhaustible feeling of warmth for 

In the year following the publication of Stedman's anthology, 
no signs of a portentous revival of American poetry made their 
appearance; and E. A. Robinson, who was to become the signifi- 
cant exception to the mediocrity which surrounded him, was still 
unacknowledged. He, unlike William Vaughn Moody, George 
Cabot Lodge, and Trumbull Stickney, was to fulfill his early 
promise with work of an impressive maturity which was to make 

ifl From Spoon River Anthology, Macmillan, used by permission of the 

20 A History of American Poetry 

the legend of his neglect no less notorious than the sudden blaze 
of celebrity that was a warning (as he might well have read it) 
of his future fame. Before 1902, he had published two small books 
of poems, and through a series of fortuitous accidents, they had 
been brought to the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, who with 
energetic promptness offered Robinson his patronage. This was 
the kind of celebrity which was of a piece with everything in 
American life that Robinson distrusted. He had learned to be 
skeptical of the fame that had attended the careers of many 
poets in Stedman's Anthology in which there were only two, or 
perhaps three, of his contemporaries, Moody, Torrence, and 
Stickney (and the latter had been excluded from its pages) who 
like him perceived "the valley of the shadow" through which 
they moved. To be acknowledged as a poet by the same critical 
estimate that had welcomed Hovey, Carman, and Cawein was 
dubious praise, and to be subjected to the well-intentioned en- 
thusiasm of the President of the United States was an irony as 
profound and as dramatic as the reversal from good fortune to 
bad which fell upon the characters in his own poems. He who 
seemed the least likely to fulfill Whitman's prophecies of poets 
to come after him, and he who in temperament and accomplish- 
ment was least like Whitman, began to assume the responsibili- 
ties of the position thrust upon him. A friend described his recep- 
tion of the eulogy written of his work by Roosevelt in a weekly 
periodical; Robinson stood up and began to pace the floor, say- 
ing half-humorously to himself over and over again, "I shall 
never live it down, 1 shall never live it down." 

With this brief summary of events which immediately sur- 
rounded the publication of An American Anthology, our history 
begins. From here onward we write of our far and near con- 
temporaries, and as the historical perspective grows shorter, we 
shall be faced with those hazards that Edward Gibbon saw when, 
as in a nightmare, he viewed the prospect of writing a history of 
his own times and his own country: 

Prologue 2 1 

I should shrink with terror [Gibbon wrote] from the modern history 
of England, where every character is a problem, and every reader a 
friend or an enemy; where a writer is supposed to hoist a flag of party, 
and is devoted to damnation by the adverse faction. ... I must em- 
brace a safer and more extensive theme. 17 

We have no wish to quarrel with Gibbon's wisdom, but we 
can take comfort in the fact that no theme is sate, and that no 
history, however close at hand or far removed, is entirely free 
from error, or impervious to the "adverse factions" that Gibbon 
had in mind. Even though the historical critic cany Achilles' 
shield before him, it will be discovered by those who follow him 
that he also possesses an Achilles' heel. As yet there is no sign 
that Gibbon's flags of party have been taken down, but we, 
speaking frankly for ourselves, are not concerned with them: 
political rewards have little relevance to our subject, and for the 
poet, the historian, and the critic, such rewards are often un- 
realistic in prospect, and as many a writer from Ben Jonson's day 
to this will testify, they are frequently shabby once they come 
to hand. 

Like the face of Janus, poetry, ancient or modern, has its 
ambiguities, and we have spoken before of that reserved and 
sometimes properly snobbish air with which its "timeless" face 
looks down at history. But at that moment and in that place one 
of the wisest of contemporary poets has a word to say; Robert 
Frost (who has substituted a Vermont hillside for a Sabine farm) 
once wrote in a glow of optimism, ". . . permanence in poetry 
is perceived instantly. It hasn't to await the test of time." That 
is one view that modifies by several degrees the fixities of an 
historical perspective; and there are occasions at which even the 
historical critic must regard his subject with a "timeless", and let 
us hope, an equally steady eye. 

It is possible that some readers of our book will discover the 
omission of a poet's name or the title of a poem that they had 
long held in high regard. Here we must (though for the moment 
it may seem discourteous to do so) take our position with that 
guest of princes and their historian, Voltaire: 

17 From Edward Gibbon's Autobiography, Everyman's Library, used by 
permission of E. 1*. Dutton & Company, Inc., publisher in the United States. 

22 A History of American Poetry 

My great difficulty [he wrote] has not been to find memoirs, but to 
sift out the good ones. There is another inconvenience inseparable 
from writing contemporary history. Every captain of infantry who has 
served in the armies of Charles XII and lost his knapsack on the march 
thinks I ought to mention it. If the subalterns complain of my silence, 
the generals and ministers complain of my outspokenness. Whoso writes 
the history of his own time must expect to be blamed for everything he 
has said and everything he has not said; but these little drawbacks 
should not discourage a man who loves truth and liberty, expects noth- 
ing, fears nothing, asks nothing, and who limits his ambition to the 
cultivation of letters. 18 

For the rest we have only to say that we have tried to cultivate 
that uncommon merit, common sense, of which Samuel John- 
son's Lives of the Poets furnishes so brilliantly and humanely an 
example. In respect to literary history the twentieth century is 
less fortunate than the eighteenth, and in the hope of making 
some contribution toward righting an unequal balance we offer 
the following pages to our readers. 

is From Life of Voltaire by S. G. Tallentyre, used by permission of G. P. 
Putnam's Sons. 



The best introduction to William Vaughn Moody and his 
circle is found in the pages of Henry Adams' little-known biog- 
raphy, The Life of George Cabot Lodge (1911). The inner circle 
consisted of three friends, Moody, Lodge, and Trumbull Stick- 
ncy, who had met at Harvard arid were undergraduates there in 
the early and mid-years of the 1890*5; at that moment all three 
were "poetic personalities" rather than poets: they discussed 
literature and literary movements fervently, they exchanged the 
latest ideas imported from the British Isles and continental 
Europe, and Moody, a Middle Westerner, who had been born 
in Indiana in 1869, seemed to possess more energy, more aware- 
ness of a poetic "mission" in life, and more initiative than his 
two friends who came from well-established New England fam- 
ilies. What Henry Adams had to say of the cultural climate that 
produced a George Cabot Lodge has been repeated many times 
since the publication of his biography in 1911, but no one has 
written of that climate with a more quickening perception of 
its lights and shadows: 

Poetry was a suppressed instinct: and except where, as in Longfellow, 
it kept the old character of ornament, it became a reaction against 
society, as in Emerson and the Concord school, or, further away and 
more roughly, in Walt Whitman. Less and less it appeared, as in earlier 
ages, the natural, favorite expression of society itself. In the last half 
of the nineteenth century, the poet became everywhere a rebel against 
his surroundings. What had been begun by Wordsworth, Byron, and 
Shelley, was carried on by Algernon Swinburne in London or Paul 
Verlaine in Paris or Walt Whitman in Washington, by a common in- 
stinct of revolt. Even the atmosphere of Beacon Street [in Boston] was 
at times faintly redolent of Schopenhauer. 

. . . but young Lodge's nature was itself as elementary and simple 
as the salt water. . . . Robust in figure, healthy in appetite, careless of 
consequences, he could feel complex and introspective only as his ideal, 
the Norse faun, might feel astonished and angry at finding nature per- 


26 A History of American Poetry 

verse and unintelligible in a tropical jungle. Since nature could not be 
immoral or futile, the immorality and futility must be in the mind that 
conceived it. Man became an outrage; society an artificial device for 
the distortion of truth; civilization a wrong. Many millions of simple 
natures have thought, and still think, the same thing, and the more 
complex have never quite made up their minds whether to agree with 
them or not; but the thought that was simple and sufficient for the 
Norseman exploring the tropics, or for an exuberant young savage 
sailing his boat off the rude shores of Gloucester and Cape Ann, could 
not long survive in the atmosphere of State Street. Commonly, the poet 
dies young. 1 

Literally the three friends did die young, Moody at the age 
of forty-one in 1910, Lodge at thirty-six in 1909, and Stickney, 
the youngest and most highly gifted of the three, at the age of 
thirty in 1904. The mortality rate was so high and the extinction 
so complete that one almost thinks of them in the same terms in 
which W. B. Yeats referred to his own "tragic generation," 
which was their contemporary and which was marked by the 
early deaths of Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, and John Synge. 

The present reader of William Vaughn Moody's verse is almost 
certain to be faced with embarrassment. At the time he wrote it, 
Moody seemed to possess all the right answers that were de- 
manded of poetry, he seemed to embrace large themes with 
remarkable ease, and while he taught English literature at the 
University of Chicago, 2 which followed his promising career at 
Harvard, he sought to revive poetic drama in an heroic and 
Miltonic strain; it would seem that he feared no subject and 
could write of relationships between Man and God, between 
Man and Woman, of social injustice, of Right and Wrong, of 
Good and Evil with equal facility and resonance. His ambitions 
were so great that they seemed to blunt his sensibilities, and 
apparently such mock-heroic lines as 

I am the Woman, ark of the law and its breaker, 

1 From The Life of George Cabot Lodge by Henry Adams, Houghton 
Mifflin, by permission of Elizabeth Lodge. 

2 Moody had also taught at Radcliffe and Harvard befqre going to Chicago. 

The "Twilight Interval'' 27 

were to him an appropriate expression of moral grandeur, and 
with the same lack of feeling for the true strength of language 
he wrote of America, "the eagle nation Milton saw Mewing its 
mighty youth." Nor were his verses on intimate themes less un- 
fortunate. "The Daguerreotype" written in memory of his mother 
seems to echo persistently the lack of sensibility and taste that 
subjected Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House to Gerard 
Manley Hopkins' severest criticism. In "The Daguerreotype" 3 
Moody wrote: 

Nine moons I fed 

Deep of divine unrest, 

While over and over in the dark she said, 

"Blessed but not as happier children blessed" 

That this should be 

Even she . . . 

God, how with time and change 

Thou makes t thy footsteps strange! 

Ah, now I know 

They play upon me, and it is not so. 

Why, 't is a girl I never saw before, 

A little thing to flatter and make weep, 

To tease until her heart is sore, 

Then kiss and clear the score; 

A gypsy run-the-ficlds, 

A little liberal daughter of the earth, 

Good for what hour of truancy and mirth 

The careless season yields. 

The faulty diction betrayed a curious lack of respect for his 
subject and equal lack of feeling in the line, 

A little thing to flatter and make weep. 

Our concern with Moody 's verse is almost solely a matter of 
historical interest: in 1931 a volume of his Selected Poems was 
edited by Robert Morss Lovett, an admiring friend and a col- 
league at the University of Chicago; and Moody 's memory was 
also kept green through the good offices of his wife, whose hos- 
pitality to young poets (including Hart Crane) at her Chicago 
home created a center of literary activity in the Middle West 

3 From Poems of William Vaughn Moody, used by permission of Houghton 
Mifflin Company. 

28 A History oj American Poetry 

until the closing years of the 1 920*5. Several of Moody's occasional 
pieces, "Gloucester Moors," a record of economic disaster in New 
England, caused by the industrial revolution's maladjustments in 
New England's fishing towns, the famous "Ode in Time of Hesi- 
tation," and "On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines," the last 
two written in the first wave of disillusionment following the 
patriotic enthusiasm of the Spanish-American War, still occupy 
a place in larger anthologies of American verse. Their spirit and 
diction are less noisy, less suspiciously robust, and a shade more 
thoughtful than Edwin Markham's "The Man with the Hoe." A 
few lines from "On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines" 4 illus- 
trate the resemblance to Markham's histrionic mannerisms as 
well as the note of irony which distinguished Moody from his 
more clearly extraverted contemporary: 

A flag for a soldier's bier 

Who dies that his land may live; 

O, banners, banners here, 

That he doubt not nor misgive! 

That he heed not from the tomb 

The evil days draw near 

When die nation, robed in gloom, 

With its faithless past shall strive. 
Let him never dream that his bullet's scream went wide of its island 


Home to the heart of his darling land where she stumbled and sinned 
in the dark. 

The excellence of Henry Adams' mordant and penetrating 
Life of George Cabot Lodge almost convinces one that its sub- 
ject was at least a "promising young poet." But however hard 
we may try to discover actual poems in the memorial edition of 
his poems and dramas issued in 1911, the effort fails. Young 
Lodge was more deeply concerned with the ideas that entered 
the writing of a poem than with the poem's accomplishment. He 
had been disturbed and genuinely moved by the rich flow of 
talk which surrounded him at Harvard, and his travels on the 

*From The Poems and Plays of William Vaughn Moody, Vol. I, used by 
permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. 

The "Twilight Interval" 29 

European continent stirred inner wells of literary appreciation 
that could easily be mistaken by his friends for the existence of 
poetic talent. If a reading of his work yields no greater rewards 
than the rhetoric of such lines as these: 

The Thought of Buddha in our mortal brain, 
The human heart of Jesus in our breast, 
And in our will the strength of Heraklcs! 5 

his career as an archetypical Bostonian of his day endows him 
with an interest that we usually reserve for one of Henry James's 
heroes. And truly enough, since George Cabot was the son of 
Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, his career follows the course of 
James's charming young Englishman, Nicholas Dormer, son of 
Lady Agnes in The Tragic Muse, who inherited the prospects 
of a seat in Parliament and relinquished them in favor of the 
more difficult and less assured rewards of pursuing the dim lights 
of art in a portrait painter's unswcpt, ill-cared-for, London 

The very latest modes in Continental literature held great 
and luminous attractions for the eager mind of young George 
Cabot Lodge; in 1895 his self-imposed and accelerated course 
in reading embraced the names of Balzac, Flaubert, de Vigny, 
Leconte de Lisle, Alfred de Musset, Victor Hugo, Renan, Sully- 
Prudhomme, and Schopenhauer. In 1897, a f tcr encountering the 
delights and disillusionments of German arts and philosophic 
letters in Berlin, he returned to America, and in the following 
year he permitted the publication of a first book, The Song of 
the Wavej of which Henry Adams dryly remarked, "Lodge felt 
himself unpleasantly placed between . . . two needs, that of 
justifying his existence, on the one hand, and that of challenging 
premature recognition, on the other." 

In Europe, "Bay" Lodge had sought out intellectual stimula- 
tion and salvation, but his mind and talents were both too rest- 
less and unformed to grasp meanings clearly or to put them into 

r > "The Soul's Inheritance" from The Poems and Dramas of George Cabot 
Lodge, Houghton Miillin, used l>\ permission of Elizabeth Lodge. 

30 A History of American Poetry 

And I shall answer thee as one who calls 
Through the dumb places of the haunted past, 
Drinking its fulness ere the moment dies 

he wrote, and the true expression of what he had seen and read 
and felt was left tor Adams to record in his Education of Henry 
Adams: 7 

Bay Lodge and Joe Stickney had given birth to the wholly new and 
original party of Conservative Christian Anarchists, to restore true 
poetry under the inspiration of the "Gotterdammerung." . . . The 
conservative Christian anarchist could have no associate, no object, no 
faith except the nature of nature itself; and his "larger synthesis" had 
only the fault of being so supremely true that even the highest obliga- 
tion of duty could scarcely oblige Bay Lodge to deny it in order to 
prove it. Only the self-evident truth that no philosophy of order 
except the Church had ever satisfied the philosopher reconciled the 
conservative Christian anarchist to prove his own. . . . Naturally these 
ideas were so far in advance of the age that hardly more people could 
understand them than understood Wagner or Hegel. 

Obviously young Lodge's speculations in philosophy were too 
ambitious for his undeveloped skills in writing verse, and indeed 
the heavily weighted periods of his "conservative anarchy," as 
Adams phrased it, were scarcely conducive to writing poetry. 
Throughout his commentaries on Lodge's esthetic aspirations, 
there is rather more than a hint that Henry Adams himself was 
a "spoiled poet"; his admiration for Swinburne had the air of 
being a vicarious adventure into a forbidden world, a world that 
was ill suited to his temperamental austerities and his melan- 
choly wit and if Swinburne's poetry was "poetry" in the sense 
of creating a standard for excellence in its day, Adams was all 
too willing to admit himself no poet. As he looked at "poetry" 
and observed its flaws as it fell from the lips of his American 
contemporaries, he peered more closely in his Mont-Saint-Michel 
and Chartres (1905), and then withdrew from "poetry" entirely, 
and turned at last, with more finality than ever, to the writing 
of his prose. 

But his withdrawal did not blunt the keener edges of his sensi- 

6 "XXXIII" from The Poems and Dramas of George Cabot Lodge, Hough- 
ton Mifflin, Vol. I, used by permission of Elizabeth Lodge. 

7 Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. 

The "Twilight Interval" 31 

bility; in 1911 he saw the phenomenal aspects of poetry in 
America; "In America," he wrote, "the male is not only a bad 
listener, but also, for poetry, a distinctly hostile audience." It 
will be observed that this remark was made one year before the 
arrival of a so-called "poetic renaissance" in the United States, 
in Poetry (Chicago), yet its essential truth remained unchanged, 
nor is it modified greatly by those who listen to poetry read 
today. When Harriet Monroe founded her magazine, Poetry, she 
quoted boldly, and with insistence on its back cover, Whit- 
man's "To have great poets there must be great audiences too." 
Adams was objectively correct, and his discontent, his gloom were 

Meanwhile Adams' "exuberant young savage," George Cabot 
Lodge, continued his career of transatlantic speculations in phi- 
losophy and writing verses. An elegiac note, which was perhaps 
derived from his friend Stickney, entered his lines, and to Gia- 
como Leopardi he inscribed: 

Despair is musical, the wings of pain 

Are stirred in rhythms of large winds that bear 
A mute divinity of human prayer 

And human sorrow that is prayer in vain. 8 

Of course he had been rereading Tennyson and was under the 
spell of In Memoriam; and characteristically enough, he could 
not invent a way of breaking it. On the occasion of Stickney's 
death in 1904, the spell returned: 

We bore the chill, persistent dread 

Here in the long, tree-shaded way; 

And here the things we could not say 
Were more, I know, than man has said. 9 

"The things we could not say" were all too evident because 
Lodge lacked the wit and the power to discover his own lan- 
guage; it was not that Tennyson's influence was "bad" for him, 
any more than Milton's influence was "bad" for Moody or for 
Markham; the difficulty was that all three poets were trapped in 

H "To Giacomo Leopardi" from The Poems and Dramas of George Cabot 
Lodge, Houghton Mifflin, Vol. I, used by permission of Elizabeth Lodge. 

" "XXIII" from The Poems and Dramas of George Cabot Lodge, Houghton 
Mifflin, Vol. II, used by permission of Elizabeth Lodge. 

32 A History of American Poetry 

a fatal circle of literary reminiscence in the same way that lesser 
poets of the mid-twentieth century imitate with literal serious- 
ness the language of W. H. Auden; and it is obvious that masters 
are not to be blamed for the lack of inventiveness shown by 
their ardent, if not too brilliant pupils. 

Lodge had married happily, and as his sudden and unforeseen 
death approached in 1909, he turned from the effort to write 
long poetic dramas (which has remained a persistent tendency in 
American poetry since his day) to the writing of dramatic narra- 
tives in verse. None was successful, and it seemed as though his 
energy had been expended in the hope of becoming a "conserva- 
tive Christian anarchist" as well as a poet. One concludes that 
his devotion to the writing of poetry was less pure, less concen- 
trated than Nicholas Dormer's devotion to portrait painting in 
The. Tragic Muse. But Dormer, despite the active opposition of 
his family and his friends, had finally secured a hard-won peace 
with his surroundings; Lodge lacked that valuable experience; 
his verse was imitative, restless, "sad, bewildered," and he seemed 
to look forward with the gaze of an adolescent into a ha/y, 
"larger, lovelier unknown heaven beyond the known!" 

At the time of his death in 1904, the rewards of Joseph Trum- 
bull Stickney's life (1874-1904) seemed smaller than those earned 
by Moody and too easily secured by George Cabot Lodge. Time 
has restored a balance in his favor; the existence of his poetry 
has not been forgotten, and what has been written of his person- 
ality seems to hint that his wit and learning ignited the imagi- 
nation of his fellows. As recently as 1940 Edmund Wilson, as he 
paid his respects to Van Wyck Brooks's New England: Indian 
Summer in the pages of The New Republic, rediscovered Stick- 
ney in one of the finest of his shorter essays: 

Trumbull Stickney [Edmund Wilson wrote] was one of those New 
Englanders of the last half of the last century who oscillated between 

!o October 14, 1940, used by permission of The New Republic. 

The "Twilight Interval 9 ' 33 

Europe and Boston. He was born in Geneva in Switzerland, was grad- 
uated with classical honors at Harvard, and went back, as soon as he 
left college, to Europe, where he spent seven years studying in Paris 
and afterwards traveled in Greece. He returned to teach Greek at Har- 
vard in the fall of 1903 and died suddenly a year later in Boston of 
tumor of the brain. His brilliance as a scholar had been a prodigy. 
He had taken at the University of Paris the only Doctoral es Letlres 
that had ever been given an Anglo-Saxon. There is an interesting foot- 
note in Brooks, in which he quotes a description by Shane Leslie of 
Stickney's doctor's examination at the Sorbonne: "With what learning 
and subtlety he defended himself against their sleight of tongue! How 
they pricked and tore and tossed his thesis! With his beautiful gray 
eyes and sad bewildered face, he met them on his own ground and in 
their own tongue. How carelessly the Greek flowed from his lips, and 
with what unperturbed French he met all their objections for hour 
after hour. When the strife was over, they were all polite congratula- 
tions/' His thesis on "Les Sentences dans la Poesie Grecque" was 
greatly praised in France. I have heard one of his friends at Harvard, 
whose experience of American writers and scholars was as wide as that 
of anyone of his time, declare that Trumbull Stickney was the most 
cultivated man he had ever known. 

As one turns the pages of Stickney's posthumous Poems, which 
was a memorial volume, edited by George Cabot Lodge, John 
Ellertoii Lodge, and William Vaughn Moody, published in 
Boston, 1905, one seems to stand in the unshaded presence of 
poetic genius. But one is still turning pages, and as one stops to 
read, shadows begin to fall. Individual lines and phrases hold 
the eye and sound within the ear: 

It rains across the country I remember . . . ll 
then an entire stan/a from some verses to Lucretius: 

To him this verse, to him this crown of leaves, 

My supreme piety shall I commend: 

This is my last, 

Wreathed of what Youth endows and Age bereaves, 

Bound by the fingers of a lover and friend, 

Green with the vital past . . . 12 

11 "Mnemosyne" from Poems of Trumbull Stickney, ed. by Lodge and 
Moody, Hough ion Mifflin. Used by permission of Henry A. Stickney. 

12 "Lucretius" from Poems of Trumbull Stickney, ed. by Lodge and Moody, 
Houghton Mifflin. Used by permission of 

34 si History of American Poetry 

then a fragment entitled by the Roman numeral, 7F: 18 

Be patient, very patient; for the skies 
Within my human soul now sunset-flushed 
Break desperate magic on the world I knew, 
And in the crimson evening flying down 
Bell-sounds and birds of ancient ecstasy 
Most wonderfully carol one time more 

which promises so much and even as a fragment is not quite 
good enough. One turns to a poem called "Age in Youth," 14 
and from it a single stanza, the last, comes into view: 

In vain the flower-lifting morn 

With golden fingers to uprear; 

The weak Spring here shall pause awhile: 

This is a scar upon the year. 

And after this the last two lines of a sonnet: 

Apollo springing naked to the light, 
And all his island shivered into flowers. 15 

There is a great distance between the quality of these lines 
and anything that may be found in Moody's verse and Lodge's. 
The haze of literary reminiscence, of grandiose sentiment, of wit- 
less, uninventive rhetoric begins to lift, and the first impression 
conveyed to the reader and especially to a reader who has been 
wearied by the coy and adolescent charms of Songs from Vaga- 
bondiah one of brilliance and the promise of poetic maturity. 
Read individually the lines are better than those written in mo- 
ments of unfelicity by the early E. A. Robinson who permitted 
these lines to close his sonnet on "The Garden": 16 

Whose every leaf, miraculously signed, 
Outrollcd itself from Thought's eternal seed. 
Love-rooted in God's garden of the mind. 

is From Poems of Trumbull Stickney, ed. by Lodge and Moody, Hough- 
ton Mifflin. Used by permission of Henry A. Stickney. 

i* Ibid. 

is "Live Blindly and Upon the Hour, The Lord" from Poems of Trumbull 
Stickney, Hough ton Mifflin. Used by permission of Henry A. Stickney. 

i 6 From Children of the Night, used by permission of Charles Scribner's 

The "Twilight Interval" 35 

If one looks for literary influence in its best sense, it would 
seem that Stickney read Keats and John Webster with more 
understanding and intelligence than his contemporaries. There 
is a touch of Webster's violence in Stickney's brief: 

Sir, say no more, 

Within me 'tis as if 

The green and climbing eyesight of a cat 

Crawled near my mind's poor birds. 17 

And it is as if from Keats he had learned a youthful respect 
lor exact phrasing by placing familiar nouns and adjectives in 
fresh associations: 

Sorapis and the rocks of Me/zodi 
Crumble by foamy miles into the azure 
Mediterranean sea . . . 18 

Nor was this kind of brilliance reserved for the choice of visual 
imagery alone; Stickney possessed an "ear"; and however light 
or fragmentary the impulse for writing it may have been, a 
stanza from his "Song" 19 is ample proof of his delight in hear- 
ing verbal music: 

Good-bye, for the pretty leaves are down 
(The linnet sang in my heart to-day); 
The last gold bit of upland's mown, 
And most of the summer has blown away 
Thro' the garden gate 
(A cuckoo said in my brain: "Too late"). 

In his "In Ampezzo" 20 there are flashes of his enjoyment in 
writing descriptive passages for themselves alone, and through 
the twenty stanzas of the poem, the Mediterranean sea and its 

17 "Fragment V" from Poems of Trumbull Slickney, ed. by Lodge and 
Moody, Houghton Mifilin. Used by permission of Henry A. Stickney. These 
lines become more interesting when it is known that they were written 
shortly before his death of a brain tumor. 

* 8 "In Ampezzo" from Poems of Trumbull Stickney, ed. by Lodge and 
Moody, Houghton Mifflin. Used by permission of Henry A. Stickney. 

is From Poems of Trumbull Stickney, ed. by Lodge and Moody, Houghton 
Mifflin. Used by permission of Henry A. Stickney. 

w Ibid. 

3 6 A History of American Poetry 

shore lines wheel and glitter, reflecting light across the yellowed 
pages of his book: 

Only once more and not again the larches 
Shake to the wind their echo, "Not again," 
We see, below the sky that over-arches 
Heavy and blue, the plain 

Between Tofana lying and Cristallo 
In meadowy earths above the ringing stream: 
Whence interchangeably desire may follow, 
Hesitant as in a dream, 

At sunset, south, by lilac promontories 
Under green skies to Italy, or forth 
By calms of morning beyond Lnvinores 
Tyrolward and to north . . . 

Images remembered from Greek and Latin pastorals begin to 
rise and one is convinced that the honor bestowed on Stickney 
at the University of Paris was not merely academic in its tribute; 
it had been, one concludes, an early recognition of his gifts 
which are scattered so negligently through the pages of his book. 

But if individual lines and stanzas revive a personality pre- 
cociously gifted in its sensibility to an elegiac note in poetry 
(which is a classical heritage that British and American literature 
has carried from the past into our own clay) what of the entire 
poems in Stickney 's posthumously published volume? It is there 
that the shadow falls and it is there that the enthusiastic reader 
meets with disappointment. His poems, viewed as completed 
poems within themselves, show flaws of heady rhetoric and histri- 
onic gestures that without the "beautiful gray eyes and sad, be- 
wildered face" of their author distract the reader and leave him 
with the feeling that the sight, of Stickney's inspiration vanished 
almost as soon as his pen struck paper. Or if the strained, 
theatrical gesture does not intervene: 

To this hot clay 

Must sing my shells, where yet the primal day, 
Its roar and rhythm and splendour will not sleep . . . 21 

21 "On Some Shells Found Inland' from Poems of Trumbnll Stickney, ed. 
by Lodge and Moody, Houghton Mifflin. Used by permission of Henry A. 

The "Twilight Interval" 37 

the diction suddenly falls out of tone and becomes flaccid and 
inappropriately colloquial: 

The babble of our children fills my ears, 
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember 
To flames that show all starry thro' my tears. 

It's dark about the country I remember.- 2 

One is certain that Stickney, like Lodge, diffused his energies; 
and in Stickney 's book there is no poem that sustains its own 
atmosphere as completely as Lionel Johnson's stanzas to the 
statue of King Charles at Charing Cross or, more significantly, 
Robinson's memorable "Luke Havergal." His gifts were so lavish 
and bis personal attractions so evident that there was apparently 
no need to sacrifice their immediate rewards to the demands of 
"a single talent, well employed"; it was the latter course that 
Riobinson pursued, and with Stickney's death that difficult, nar- 
row, and empty road opened its way to welcome him. 


Before Robinson's road bad made itself clear to the sight of 
his contemporaries, there were many attractive bypaths on w r hich 
Moody and his friends traveled lightly and easily. One was the 
direction sketched out on the chart by Bliss Carman and Richard 
Hovey with the broad hint that Vagabondia offered both the 
joy of wandering and the privilege of rejecting (as long as poets 
remained young) those evils inherent in modern civili/ation. 
This was the cult of the tramp, the clown, the fool, or of the 
shrewd, yet feeble-minded provincial, who could claim an an- 
cestor in Wordsworth's Peter Bell, the idiot boy. And his path 
was admittedly a well-traveled and many-peopled highway. The 
other road was writing verse to be spoken on the stage, that bad 
been crowded with failures since the seventeenth century, but 
the road still held its fascinations because it was so populous, 
because of its rare chance of presenting poetry to large audiences, 

"It's Autumn in the Country I Remember" from Poems of Trumbull 
Stickney, ed. by Lodge and Moody, Hough ton MifHin. Used by permission of 
Henry A. Stickney. 

3 8 A History of American Poetry 

and because of the hope of "making poetry pay." But before we 
speak of the latter road, the first demands attention, for its 
tradition (if it may be called such) runs backward to the songs 
of Tom o' Bedlam, and beyond him to those who were the 
wandering, singing Latinists of the Middle Ages. If the conduct 
of several heroes and masters (for Villon's name cannot be ex- 
cluded) in this company was, at times, unfortunate or resolutely 
wayward, the antiquity of the line was unassailable. 

With this we arrive at the work of a man who was six years 
younger than Moody and had been born in Xenia, Ohio. 
Ridgely Torrence's first book, published under the title, The 
House of a Hundred Lights, appeared in 1900; a second volume, 
Hesperides, was published in 1925, and his last book, Poems, in 
1941. Through the years, his verses were written carefully and 
sparely. The verses of social relevance in his scrupulously edited, 
Poems (which contained many titles that had previously been 
gathered into Hesperides), owed a debt to the spirit and language 
of Songs from Vagabondia as well as the touch of humanitarian 
protest that had been voiced by Tom Hood in mid-nineteenth- 
century England and was later revived in America by Moody. In 
"Eye- Witness," one of the best known of Torrence's longer pieces, 
whose theme recalls, without the narrative excitement, John 
Masefield's The Everlasting Mercy (1911), echoes of Vagabondia 
are heard through the lips of a tramp who sings: 

I will sing, I will go, and never ask me why. 
I was born a rover and a passer-by. 

I seem to myself like water and sky, 
A river and a rover and a passer-by. 28 

For some half-dozen years, the years 1897 through the turn of 
the old century into the twentieth, Torrence was a librarian at 
the Astor Library in New York, and for several years he was 
poetry editor of The New Republic. He had been educated at 
Miami and Princeton universities, and a reading of his verse 
seems to indicate that his interests revolved around two centers 

23 "Eye- Witness" from Poems, used by permission of The Macmillan Com- 

The "Twilight Interval" 39 

the Negro problem in the United States, eloquently stated in a 
lynching sermon, "The Bird and the Tree," and the standards 
achieved by acceptable verse published in current British and 
American periodicals. In the latter, his position was not unlike 
that of Thomas Bailey Aldrich. He had also listened attentively 
to the strains of A. E. Housman nor could he summon the 
strength to endow them with a speech that was his own: in his 
"Prothalamion (To a bride in wartime)" written as late as the 
Second World War the first and last stanzas reveal the power of 
Housman's influence: 

Now the doom on land and sea 

Lengthens toward the wedding day, 
Let the bridal bravely be 

Though the world should burn away. 

Speed the mating, crown the vow 

While the brand of havoc gleams. 
Now's the time to mate and now 

Breed the men with better dreams. 24 

Torrerice's gifts were far too frail to support the weight of 
dominating influences and social themes, and if one looks for 
something that defines his own sensibility, the answer is an 
insubstantial one: 

When grass rises again (I thought) the sorrow 
Will lie hidden forever under beauty; 
So I longed for the time of apple blossoms, 
All my dreams were upon the blowing lilacs. 

But some whirlwind that held the winter's secret 
Rose and lifting the frozen days as curtains 
Showed me Time as an upper sky of crystal 
Flushed with images yet to be reflected.- 5 

And from these lines the same vague, wandering images unfold: 

With beacons, with dawns that unveil it, the hidden and strange, 
As it lifts from the steadfast tides of the ocean of change, 

24 "Prothalamion" from Poems, used by permission of The Macmillan 

25 "Whiter Crystal" from Poems, used by permisison of The Macmillan 

40 A History of American Poetry 

With rays on footholds gaining to summits more proud 
And won more surely than under a sky without cloud. 26 

The atmosphere, the aspirations of the fin de siecle, "the dying 
fall," are the clearest impressions that one gains from reading the 
later verses in Ridgcly Torrence's book. In 1941 the hour that 
welcomed Moody was definitely passed, yet it is interesting to 
observe how persistently its mannerisms and its overtones 
lingered on in the verse of Ridgcly Torrcncc; it may be an 
impertinence to say that the sensibility that Torrence possesses 
belongs to any school, but if schools are to be named, the most 
appropriate title for the frailties and refinements that he and his 
verses represent would be "The School of Gossamer and Old 


The other road, on which hope is always expressed for the 
revival of poetic drama in America, had one traveler whose 
round eyes, curved lips, and pretty, bare shoulders still gleam 
from faded photographs. The lady was one of Moody's friends 
and her name was Josephine Preston Peabody. She was born in 
New York in 1874, and was brought up in Boston, educated at 
Radcliffe, and in 1906 married Lionel Marks, who was then an 
instructor at Wcflesley and one might say that she seemed to 
bloom and to flourish in an academic atmosphere. As a young 
girl Josephine Peabody drew attention through her good looks, 
her enthusiasm for "culture," and her avid reading and among 
her friends were many survivors of the elder Boston literary 
tradition, of whom Van Wyck Brooks has remarked, "they re- 
acted against the world they lived in by falling back on mediaeval 
themes." Josephine Peabody herself defined poetry as "the richest 
expression of noblest ideals," which was commendable enough, 
but decidedly vague. One is certain, however, that she numbered 
among her "ideals" the success of Tennyson's play in verse, 
Becket, which had had a long run in London, aided by the 
mimetic talents of Ellen Terry; and one is also certain that they 
embraced the "ideals" of Browning's lighter narratives in verse 

-'"Light" from Poems, used In permission of The Macmillan Company. 

The ''Twilight Interval" 41 

and those of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her charming, 
graceful, and unmistakably rhapsodic journals reflect the stream 
of her literary activity; and it is highly doubtful if she ever 
thought of its adventures as an "escape" from the life of her 
own day. She was carried lightly on a fashionable road toward 
Stralford-on-Avon in England where her play, The Piper, re- 
ceived an award and was produced before admiring audiences. 
The play was a thoroughly emasculated version of Browning's 
"The Pied Piper of Hamelin," and the piper was a poet who 
led the children away from the sordid aspects of a naughty 
world. The royalties from the play mounted to a small fortune, 
and The Piper is still revived with undergraduates as its per- 
formers in women's colleges. In America the literary attraction 
of the Middle Ages has always rested on unsure foundations, and 
of American poets Poe alone seems to have penetrated the darker 
recesses of the Gothic imagination. It remained for Henry Adams 
in his Afont-Sainl-Michcl and Chartres to approach anything like 
a clear understanding of what the Middle Ages meant through 
western and Anglo-American eyes. For the rest, and particularly 
among lesser poets, the reach toward medieval themes went no 
further than transitory imitations of Stephen Phillips and the 
more spectacular figures in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. 

Not unlike Lodge and Stickney, Josephine Peabody continued 
to exert her true gifts of personal charm upon those who met 
her; her fanciful verses which appeared so frequently in maga- 
zines, lines to the "Cedars" that called to her from Lebanon, to 
the little house that said, "Stay," and the little road that said, 
"Go," and the domestic pieces which included a "Cradle Song" 
to her son, were among the least important contributions of her 
literary talent. Her actual value was that of a popular woman 
writer who possessed both grace and some learning, and she 
stood in a position far removed from the women poets of a 
later generation who voiced loud commands to the east and to 
the west, and who affected the false vigor of would-be masculine 
and public speech. Though she wrote a letter of protest to 
Bernard Shaw for daring to publish Man and Superman (a play 
which offended her sensibilities), she secured a publisher for 
E. A. Robinson's Captain Craig, and in biographies and histories 

42 A History of American Poetry 

of her day her name is still remembered as the author of Mar- 
lowe, which was among the more valiant attempts to revive 
Elizabethan blank verse for production on the modern stage. 

The height of excitement in writing for the stage was reached 
when in 1906 William Vaughn Moody's play in prose, The Great 
Divide, had won applause and commercial success on Broadway. 
Seen through the colder eyes of a later generation, the merits of 
The Great Divide are slight and their brilliance has considerably 
paled. The story of the play was of a New England girl who had 
eloped to the West with an Arizona outlaw, and the conflict or 
"problem" of the play was the contrast between the "Puritan- 
ism" of the girl and the "Paganism" of the man who had seduced 
her. The reception of the play was fortunate and its theme was 
well-suited to Moody's imagination. 

E. A. Robinson had once written to Josephine Peabody that 
much as he admired Moody, he felt that Moody had much to 
unlearn. It was this process of unlearning that made possible the 
"new poetry" of the following decade in America, and the suc- 
cess of The Great Divide did no harm whatsoever to the develop- 
ment of Robinson's poetry. As Hermann Hagedorn, Robinson's 
biographer, remarked, he went home from the first night of the 
play, "walking on air." And it is said that the play inspired what 
we now recognize as one of the best and most characteristic of 
his early poems: 


When in from Delos came the gold 
That held the dream of Pericles, 
When first Athenian ears were told 
The tumult of Euripides, 
When men met Aristophanes, 
Who fledged them with immortal quills- 
Here, where the time knew none of these, 
There were some islands and some hills. 

When Rome went ravening to see 
The sons of mothers end their days, 

27 From The Town Down by the River, used by permission of Charles 
Scribner's Sons. 

The "Twilight Interval'' 43 

When Flaccus bade Leuconoe 

To banish her Chaldean ways, 

When first the pearled, alembic phrase 

Of Maro into music ran 

Here there was neither blame nor praise 

For Rome, or for the Mantuan. 

When Avon, like a faery floor, 
Lay freighted, for the eyes of One, 
With galleons laden long before 
By moonlit wharves in Avalon 
Here, where the white lights have begun 
To seethe a way for something fair, 
No prophet knew, from what was done, 
That there was triumph in the air. 

The poem does not, of course, refer to anything that Moody 
placed before his audiences, but it expressed, rather, the hopes 
of a generation who had "begun to seethe a way for something 

A year later, Robinson, urged by Moody and Josephine Pea- 
body (whose Marlowe had been produced at Radcliffe with 
George Pierce Baker in the title role) attempted to experiment 
with the writing of two plays; they were failures and he seemed 
to know that they were. Moody, as Hagedorn has described him, 
"stocky, bearded, with his blue eyes and his ruddy face, a plod- 
ding figure outwardly, but a volcano inside . . . had become a 
factor on Broadway." But Robinson's weakness of will in the 
writing of plays set him back on the singular road that was his 
to follow and, disassociated as it was from the far more facile 
rewards of William Vaughn Moody and his circle, it opened the 
way a few steps further toward true self-knowledge and maturity. 


Nothing is more difficult or sadder for the literary historian 
than to examine the works of Joaquin Miller (1841-1913), of 
Edwin Markham (1852-1940), of George Sterling (1869-1926). For 
they were serious poets, and two of them had a large share of the 
public's affection, if not the critical esteem of the literary jour- 
nals. Yet their work in its attempts and attitudes holds so much 
that is revealing of the American attitude toward poetry and the 
writing of poetry in the early years of the twentieth century that 
a study of their verse may be more valuable than the ultimate 
value of their work may seem to justify. In their personalities, in 
their grandiose attempts at large themes and whole philosophic 
concepts, these men were at one, and when we study their indi- 
vidual failures, it is easy to agree with Stuart P. Sherman that 
they reward our study most sympathetically, "when one regards 
and studies them as a register of the power excited upon the 
individual by the American environment, even at the thinnest 
and crudest." 

Nor is revaluation of what they were a task which can be 
accomplished by the use of facile speculation and dismissal. 
George Sterling's and Edwin Markham's deaths are of compara- 
tively recent date, and their personalities are still alive within 
the memory of friends who loved them and who would naturally 
resent a rigidly critical attitude. When Charles Hanson Townc 
writing in Poetry, A Magazine of Verse of April, 1940, says of 
Markham, "He stood for nobility of character, for everything 
that is great in the American spirit," one agrees that Edwin 
Markham actually stood for all this to many Americans of 
Towne's generation, and one becomes eager to analyze the 
reasons for such a positive statement and its implications. 


The "Twilight Interval" 45 


Of the three poets, Joaquin Miller is the most available for 
judgment, since his death occurred in 1913 and his collected 
works have had sufficient exposure to the critical partiality of 
time. They have not prospered under the severe gaze of this 
greatest critic of us all, and Miller's name has been mentioned 
(if spoken at all in recent years) with half-contemptuous brevity 
or put aside with humorous disdain. But to generations of 
public-school children in the United States, his name has other 
and more lively connotations; he has been and is still known as 
the author of a well-liked recitation piece which was often re- 
cited, and with gestures, in school auditoriums before admiring 
parents, friends, fellow students, and members of the board of 
education. The recitation was, of course, Miller's poem on 
CoiYimbus: 1 

Bchind him lay the gray Azores, 
Behind the Gates of Hercules; 
Before him not the ghost of shores; 
Before him only shoreless seas. 
The good mate said: "Now must \ve pray, 
For lo! the very stars are gone, 
Brave Adm'r'l, speak; what shall I say?" 
"Why, say: 'Sail on! sail on! and on!' " 

Those who recall this poem from classroom memories and it 
was especially popular with Americanization committees in their 
instruction of the "foreign born" often confuse it with a similar 
poem equally popular with those who taught the arts of becom- 
ing an American and which was recited as frequently as Joaquin 
Miller's "Columbus." It was an equally vocal and demonstrative 
poem by a better poet on the death of Lincoln which was called 
"O Captain! My Captain!" In their bombastic imagery and 
hollow rhetoric, and in their "false vigor," these two poets 
seemed to travel common ground. The great difference between 
them was that Whitman soon recovered from his brief "O Cap- 
tain! My Captain!" period and went onward in his more char- 

i From Poetical Works of Joaquin Miller, The Whitaker, Ray and Wiggin 
Co. By permission of Juanita Miller. 

46 A History of American Poetry 

actcristic vein, while Miller never traveled far beyond the verbal 
gestures and mannerisms of his "Columbus." The two poems 
were in the admired convention of their time, and if recited 
from a platform, they were certain to receive immediate acclaim 
from thoroughly respectable audiences: they sounded vigorous, 
they uttered noble and uplifting sentiments, they seemed to stir 
the blood or wring the heart, they were based on references to 
heroic American figures, and it was easy to suppose that anyone 
could understand them. Here were no subtleties and no refine- 
ments, and their booming stanzas seemed to echo from the very 
classroom walls on which hung a portrait series of forbidding 
elderly gentlemen, each face half covered by an impressive beard, 
and all answering to the title of "Our Poets." It is not wholly 
unjust to say that "O Captain! My Captain!" and "Columbus" 
had contributed their share in spreading an active dislike and 
a false conception of poetry to many young Americans who out- 
grew and fled from the elocution classes of the public schools. 
For it is well to remember that whenever Whitman's portrait 
appeared in the "Our Poets" series, it was the Whitman of "O 
Captain! My Captain!" who was commemorated, and not the 
poet who wrote "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" 
and "Passage to India." And Joaquin Miller, by rarely devi- 
ating from the qualities that made his poem on Columbus 
famous, was among those who fixed an attitude toward poetry 
in the opening years of the twentieth century in America. 

Though Miller had a healthy respect for what was being said 
about poetry in England and in New York and Boston, the 
extraliterary sources of his verse were made respectable by those 
who hailed the Frederic Remington conventions of the Western 
frontier as opposed to the so-called "genteel" aspirations of 
poetry written in the East. Joaquin Miller was not unlike Bret 
Harte (1836-1902) in his ability to create a nostalgia for the life 
of a frontier that was already dwindling into a romantic past. In 
this respect his work also resembles the color and activity of 
Mark Twain's Western sketches and the backward glancing 
pages of Hamlin Garland's autobiographies. 

Another analogy to Whitman's reputation appears in the fact 
that Miller, like Whitman, received an early recognition of his 

The "Twilight Interval" 47 

work in England and from exactly the same people. These were 
the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their 
friends, who had continued to exert more influence on literary 
and esthetic judgment in England than almost any other group. 
In the opening years of the present century Pre-Raphaelite taste 
was something that corresponds to our definition of "esoteric": 
they "discovered" Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, and Verlaine as key 
figures in French poetry, and with notable discrimination, re- 
vived for a brief period Walter Savage Landor's waning reputa- 
tion; they popularized the poetry of William Blake; they first 
praised, and then when shocking revelations seemed to appear, 
quickly dropped and ultimately lost the manuscripts of Thomas 
Lovell Beddocs. With American poets they seemed to allow their 
love of the esoteric to take full rein: they showed equal enthusi- 
asm for Joaquin Miller and for Walt Whitman, and one is not 
sure- that they did not like the two poets for the same reason 
a novelty of subject matter. In reviewing Miller's Songs of the 
Sierras in 1871, The Westminster Review said, and this opinion 
seemed to express an attitude that was held for many years, that 
"Joaquin Miller ... is another Whitman without coarseness." 
Other magazines compared him to Byron and to Victor Hugo, 
and this was the praise that Miller appreciated most of all, for 
it was as the American Byron that he wished to shine, and in- 
deed, one aspect of his poetry was an actual, though curious 
manifestation of the Byronic temper, a little more noisy than 
the original, and, of course, diluted, and to English friends the 
remote Sierras held the same attractions as the memory of Byron's 
Tales, Chiefly Oriental. Nor would such praise have seemed ex- 
traordinary to Americans in the generation preceding Miller's 
English fame, and though Miller was not the author of "Marco 
Bozzaris," since Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867) had published 
it sixteen years before Miller's birth, one feels that he would 
have liked to have written it, and, in fact, wrote many poems 
that resembled it in every characteristic feature. 

It was Miller's fate to live far into the American period of the 
fin de siecle, to be influenced by Browning and Tennyson as well 
as the Pre-Raphaelites, and he had undoubtedly read the early 
Kipling and found him attractive. But as time went on, he 

48 /] History of American Poetry 

became known in the United States as a California!!, and some- 
thing of the giganticism that creeps into the boasting, the very 
idiom of so many who live under Galiiornian skies, entered 
Miller's poetry. His flowers seem always to be greater than life 
size, his women amazons, his valleys always "gorgeous and glori- 
ous," his snow-topped mountains always covering half the globe, 
and his hard-fighting heroes always seem more cleanly amorous, 
hardier, and hard-riding than nature itself dared to demand. 
There is the charm of the Hollywood Wild West in some of his 
poems, a pace of narrative action that disarms serious criticism 
and yet awakens general disbelief in what he had to say. Such 
poems as "Kit Carson's Ride" (which was properly filled with 
rent clouds, thunderbolts, and lightning flashes), "Isles of the 
Ama/ons," "The Gold that Grew by Shasta Town," and "Co- 
manche," '-' with all its blood and fury, are still guaranteed to 
thrill and charm those who remember Buffalo Bill's Wild West 
Show and even today listen with children at their side to the 
Lone Ranger series on the radio. 

A blazing home, a blood-soaked hearth; 
Fair women's hair with blood upon! 
The Jshmaelite of all the earth 
Has like a cyclone, come and gone 

"To horse! to horse!" the rangers shout, 
And red revenge is on his track. . . . :l 

2 From Poetical Works of Joaqnin Miller, The Whitakcr, Ray and Wiggin 
Co. By permission of Juanita Miller. 

3 "In 1912 my father told me that his so-called 'Comanche' was really a 
Modoc Massacre and written about the battle of Castle Crags, also Castle 
Rocks, that the Indians were not Comanches but Shasta Modocs. It was at 
that time he received the arrows through his face and neck, shooting out two 
teeth. The lines should have been: 

A blazing home, a blood-soaked hearth, 

White \vomen's hair with blood upon; 

The Indian of Modoc birth has, like a cyclone, come and gone. 

His feet are as the flying earth, 
His hands are arrows drawn, . . . 

"He said he had titled it 'Skirmish' but because of writing with a split quill 
the Reader read differently and he let it go. He seldom corrected anything/' 
(Juanita Miller in a letter to the authors.) 

The "Twilight Interval" 49 

Meanwhile Joaquin Miller himself became a colorful and 
typical American figure of this extended period that leaned over 
and into the first ten years of the new century, and his appear- 
ances, however spectacular, contained their own measure of 
Byronic contradiction, for as Stuart P. Sherman wrote, "he was 
never quite sure of what costume to assume to adorn our national 
gallery." But whether in high-heeled and spurred boots, with 
sombrero, revolver on hip, and complete cowboy costume so as 
to daz/le English duchesses in their drawing rooms, or during 
his declining years in his home overlooking San Francisco Bay, 
in a house built to resemble a Greek temple, containing statues 
of Fremont, Robert Browning, and Moses, Miller himself, the 
full-bearded American bard and student of East Indian philoso- 
phy, was a national phenomenon, and, one might say, hearten- 
ingly California!!. 

His work gained in prophetic fervor, and like George Sterling 
and Edwin Markham, his fellow Californians, he also took an 
interest in socialism. He protested in favor of the Boers in South 
Africa during the Boer War, of the Jews in Russia during the 
Kishinev massacres and the later pogroms as, with a like impulse 
during our Civil War, he had been driven from a small town 
in Ohio because he edited a newspaper that strongly favored 
the cause of the Confederacy. "I am always getting on the wrong 
side with the weak," he had said later, which perhaps indicates 
more of an effort to display a kindly disposition than any strict 
adherence to a principle. 

To Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who had asked him what he 
thought poetry should be, he had answered, "To me, a poem 
must be a picture," and this reply must have delighted Rossetti, 
of whom it has been so often said that he painted his poems and 
wrote his canvases. Miller always retained his frontiersman's love 
for the culture and refinements of life that had been denied him 
in his youth, for as a boy he had traveled in covered wagons 
from Mississippi to Oregon, and then had run away from his 
new home to a Californian mining camp. His four years of travel 
on the European continent during the 1870*5 had whetted rather 
than cultivated his eager tastes. "All life, all action that is grand 
and good is poetry waiting for expression," he wrote; and with 

50 A History of American Poetry 

this easy and too optimistic attitude toward life and poetry, it is 
not surprising that the same poet who wrote Wild West adven- 
ture stories in verse, even in his best work wrote poems 
that tended to become feeble, secondhand impressions of Pre- 
Raphaelite illustrations. 

. . . lovers, would you love with zest, 
Win love and hold her fast and well, 
Believe, believe the best, the best 
Though she had singed her skirts in hell! 4 

But most of all, in his later years, he was again strongly com- 
pelled to portray the Californian landscape, its immensity, its 
large and all-pervading sunlight, and here he failed, as many 
Californians have done, leaving behind him only the sound of 
echoes whirling through an empty cave. 

Perhaps his finest poem was his commemoration of Walker's 
ill-fated expedition into Nicaragua, his tribute to the memory of 
Walker's bravery. 

He lies low in the level'd sand, 
Unshelter'd from the tropic sun, 
And now, of all he knew, not one 
Will speak him fair in that far land.* 

I said some things with folded hands, 
Soft-whisper'd in the dim sea-sound, 
And eyes held humbly on the ground, 
And frail knees sunken in the sands. 
He had done more than this for me, 
And yet I could not well do more; 
I turned me down the olive shore, 
And set a sad face to the sea. 6 

Behind a rhetorical gesture that has now become quaint and 
was never as brilliant as it once seemed, one may detect the 
genuine notes of pathos, with a suggestion of a dignity that had 
never been fully expressed. 

4 "Walker in Nicaragua" from Poetical Works of Joaquin Miller, The 
Whitaker, Ray and Wiggin Co. By permission o Juanita Miller. 

* Ibid. 

6"LXXIII" from Poetical Works of Joaquin Miller, The Whitaker, Ray 
and Wiggin Co. By permission of Juanita Miller. 

The "Twilight Interval" 51 


When Edwin Markham died at the age of eighty-eight, filled 
with his many years and uncounted honors, a few critics 
wondered if he remembered Ambrose Bierce's warning that "The 
Man with the Hoe" would eventually kill him. This was perhaps 
unfair to Markham's fame in the small town on Staten Island 
where he had made his home for forty years and where he died. 
Since the publication of "The Man with the Hoe" in the San 
Francisco Examiner of January 15, 1899, he had written five 
books of poems, was an editor of one of the most voluminous 
anthologies of "world poetry" ever published on the North 
American continent, had written several books of prose and 
many articles on social problems. These tended to solidify his 
reputation among members of The Poetry Society of America as 
well as with the president of Richmond Borough who in 1930 
declared his birthday a holiday on Staten Island, at which hun- 
dreds of schoolchildren took part in a parade to Markham's 
home in Westerleigh and a pageant was held in his honor. 

But to the majority of the American reading public, he was 
inevitably known as "the author of 'The Man with the Hoe' " 
and even his poem on Lincoln, which contained similar faults 
and virtues, never superseded the popularity of the earlier poem. 
To the younger generations of poets growing up during the first 
forty years of the present century, Markham was a picturesque, 
Whitman-bearded figure of the past, and if any of them read his 
books of verse, The Man with the Hoe and Other Poems (1899), 
Lincoln, and Other Poems (1901), The Shoes of Happiness 
(1914), The Gales of Paradise (1920), and New Poems: Eighty 
Songs at So (1932), no influence of that reading can be dis- 
cerned. Even when the poetry of social protest had gained mo- 
mentum during the late i92o's and the mid-thirties, Markham 
never became more than an elderly figure in what is sometimes 
thought to be a simple and innocently flamboyant era, which 
included Christian Socialism, the fading memory of Joaquin 
Miller, pioneer activity and its enthusiasms, and Edward Bel- 

52 A History of American Poetry 

lamy's Looking Backward. Almost all of Markham's first forty- 
eight years were spent in California; and his work seemed to 
exist solely in an atmosphere that had made possible a faith 
in the natural goodness of man and the evolutionary triumph of 
democracy. If his work contained some few of the Byronic and 
naive attitudes of Joaquin Miller, it was also distinguished by 
a greater restraint and modesty than anything that Miller wrote, 
and as Louis Untermeyer has remarked, it contained the rhet- 
oric without the resonance of the elder poet's more exuberant 

Like Miller's, Markham's early childhood bore the marks of 
pioneer restlessness, hardiness, excitement, and privation; his 
family had moved westward from Michigan to Oregon, and at 
the age of five, Markham's boyhood career took a fresh start in 
California. The Markham legend includes a wide range of early 
activities; he was said to have been a sheep herder, farmer, black- 
smith, and cowboy but the most important influence upon his 
future life seems to have been the encouragement he received 
from a country schoolteacher, who recognized in Markham, then 
a boy of seventeen, the abilities that were to make him famous. 
It is significant that Markham himself became a teacher, and 
before he earned his fame as "the author of 'The Man with the 
Hoe/ " he was engaged as superintendent and principal of 
schools in California. 

Though his childhood privations have been said to have pro- 
vided a background for his interest in social problems, his 
general optimism readily cleared him of all tendencies toward 
bitterness. Violent methods for changing social conditions 
shocked him, and thinking of such possibilities, he wrote: 

I am neither an economist, nor a politician. In my writings I have 
only attempted to depict life as it appears to me. If they disclose there 
is something wrong, that is as much as can be expected from them. I 
am no back-seat driver. I leave the guidance of our political State to 
the men who have learned to direct it. 

There can be no doubt of the essential goodwill contained in 
these remarks, nor of their honesty; and they explain why his 
personal qualities endeared his memory to many friends. The 

The "Twilight Interval" 53 

same atmosphere of goodwill and hopefulness enters his famous 
quatrain, with its triumphant title, "Outwitted": 7 

He drew a circle that shut me out- 
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. 
But Love and I had the wit to win: 
We drew a circle that took him in! 

The voice of the nineteenth-century Californian schoolteacher, 
who had read textbook anthologies of verse, may be found in his 
test for greatness in poetry: "Sublimity is the test. Very few poets 
have it Homer, Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo 
that's about all." But unfortunately, even the greatest names, 
particularly if they remain no more than and solely "great 
names" to the reader, are not always the best influences. It is 
sometimes to be feared that Markham read the best poets for 
the worst reasons. He took from them all the sublimity and 
rhetoric and ornamentation he could find, and to these elements 
he added a fondness for Mil tonic blank verse, and in his latter 
years, an unguarded admiration for Edgar Allan Poe. When he 
forgot his own grim resolution that 

Life is a mission stern as fate, 
And Song a dread apostolate. 8 

he turned to such attempted graces as 

Ah, once of old in some forgotten tongue 
Forgotten land, 1 was a shepherd boy, 
And you a Nereid, a winged joy. 9 

Here, as in his "Song of the Followers of Pan," he seemed 
to express, more than all else, a confused and boyish delight in 
finding scraps of knowledge floating through his mind. 

His incorrigible optimism led the way through many varieties 
of verse and public affirmations. He seemed always willing to 
lend his name to anything that had the appearance of being a 

7 From Eighty Songs at So, Doubleday, Doran. Reprinted by permission of 
Virgil Markham. 

s "The Poet" from The Man with the Hoc, Doubleday, Doran. Reprinted 
by permission of Virgil Markham. 

9 "Shepherd Boy and Nereid" from The Man with the Hoe, Doubleday, 
Doran. Reprinted by permission of Virgil Markham. 

54 A History of American Poetry 

worthy cause. He celebrated the Russian Revolution in his best 
Miltonic manner (in a poem which was translated into Russian 
and greatly admired), and he appeared before a convention of 
pharmacists with the avowed purpose of creating sympathy for 
the drug addict. His poem, "Slaves of the Drug," was enthusiasti- 
cally applauded and was reputed to have done much good. He 
also wrote an ode of welcome to Ramsay MacDonald and the 
British Labour Party when MacDonald visited the United States 
in 1929. 

But throughout his campaigns for outmoded political figures 
and dimly reali/ed social ideals, he kept his soul, as he once said, 
"as simple as a flower." 

His remark concerning the welfare of his soul was by no means 
inappropriate; of the many featured contributors to the Hearst 
newspapers, Markharn, like Art Young, the cartoonist, was among 
the few who retained a personal integrity. And it is in this setting 
and environment that the Populist sentiment of his poem, "The 
Man with the Hoe," still retains its brightest colors. Its language 
has the same character that earned for the young Arthur Bris- 
bane the reputation for being the best editorial writer on 
Hearst's large staff. Although the sources of its inspiration have 
been credited by Markham himself to Jean Francois Millet's 
painting of the same title, its diction and imagery as well as its 
expert touches of journalistic craftsmanship bear a stronger rela- 
tionship to whatever virtues might be found on the Hearst edi- 
torial page during the period when Hearst had found it profit- 
able to champion the cause of the poor against the rich. 

It was reputed that before Markham died his famous poem 
had earned for him the round sum of two hundred and fifty 
thousand dollars. Few Californians of the old mining days had 
struck so rich a mine, and Markham had an honest and almost 
humble faith in his good fortune. He once said to those who 
asked him for the secret of his success: "A chance stroke: I caught 
the eye and ear of the world." 

The ''Twilight Interval" 55 


Like Edwin Markham whose birthplace was Oregon City, or 
like Joaquin Miller, or Robinson Jeffers and Yvor Winters, in 
fact, like many others who seemed rooted in California, George 
Sterling (1869-1926) was not born there. Sterling's actual birth- 
place was Sag Harbor, New York, and he received his education 
in local schools and at St. Charles' College, Ellicott City, Mary- 
land. At the age of twenty-five, he migrated westward to the 
Pacific Coast, and under the literary patronage of Ambrose 
Bierce, which was supported and sustained by the friendships of 
Joaquin Miller and Jack London, Sterling stepped into the 
charmed circle of San Francisco's Latin Quarter and the Bo- 
hemian Club. 

This entry into the literary life of the Pacific Coast in the 
early 1890*5 may be said to have been young Sterling's substitute 
tor a trip to Paris. He had arrived at a moment when the smoky 
atmosphere of San Francisco's Bohemian resorts was stirred and 
lighted by Gelett Burgess' little magazine, The Lark. His adjust- 
ment to the Californian environment seems to have been spon- 
taneous and all embracing; and to it he brought his own sensi- 
tivity, which, by the way, had a finer grain of literary intelligence 
than can be found in the work of either Joaquin Miller or Edwin 
Markham. If Joaquin Miller's later work can be said to bear 
traces of Pre-Raphaelite influences, it could be said with equal 
justice that Sterling's verse seems to have been inspired by a 
thorough, and perhaps overserious, devotion to the poetry that 
found its way into the pages of The Savoy and The Yellow Book. 
The influences of Oscar Wilde and Ernest Dowson can be quickly 
noted in almost everything that Sterling wrote and, with them, 
the characteristic literary vices of their time and school. In fact, 
all the flaws of the lesser romantic poets may be found in 
Sterling's poetry, each marked by a vague striving for exalted 
subject matter and the frequent use of an unconvincing archaic 
diction. "He never thinks, he deems, he is fain for this and that, 
he deals in emperies and auguries, in casual throes and lethal 
voids/' wrote Harriet Monroe. And he himself went halfway 

56 A History of American Poetry 

toward explaining his literary weaknesses in his attempts to find 
a definition for poetry. "Poetry," he said, "must abjure every 
literal and familiar element, accumulate as many images of 
strange loveliness, and cherish all the past embodiments of vis- 
ionary beauty, such as the beings of classical mythology.". This 
theory as he practiced it did him irrevocable harm and though 
it may be properly elucidated in the works of a highly sensitized 
composer, such as Debussy, or a poet like Walter de la Mare with 
comparatively small damage to music and to verse, the very con- 
fusion of the wording in this confused belief seems to prove the 
ultimate vagueness of Sterling's intentions. 

At its best, Sterling's poetry displays the sensitivity to line and 
image that his friends admired; flashes of the true poet he might 
have become can be discerned through the rapid courses of many 
poems. Excerpts from his "Ode on the Centenary of Robert 
Browning" 10 may be taken to illustrate his worst mannerisms 
and his occasional felicity: 

Clear truth with her cold agate of the well 

. . . with thee trace 

Her footprints passing upwards to the snows, 

But sought a phantom rose, 

And islands where the ghastly siren sings, 

Nor would I dwell 

Where star-forsaking wings 

On mortal thresholds hide their mystery 

The light of heaven cast on common things! 

If the "ghastly siren" seems strained and, to say the least, 
unfortunately phrased, the rest of the poem is well sustained and 
shows him in his better moments. His first volume, The Testi- 
mony of the Suns, published in 1903, won the immediate ap- 
plause of Ambrose Bierce and made his reputation. Though it 
appeared as the first of his many books, it still remains his most 
ambitious work: its astronomical vastitudes seem limitless, large 
visions of the universe and whole constellations seem to be em- 
ployed in the effort to repeat the names that Sterling loved, 
names which were to be recited over and over again from this 

10 From The Lyric Year. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, 
Mitchell Kennerley. 

The "Twilight Interval" 57 

first volume to his last, "Betelgeuse," "Antares," Procyon," and 

George Sterling had many friends, among whom were Bierce, 
Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London. But the feeling of 
partisanship that he aroused seems to have been related to the 
great physical charm and beauty he possessed in his youth, which 
can be noted even in Jack London's half ironical, half affection- 
ate remark: "He looks like a Greek coin run over by a Roman 
chariot." But this was a portrait of the later Sterling. 

His personal life was in the best neoromantic tradition, and if 
one were looking (as some critics have of late been doing) for the 
penalties and clangers attendant upon those who fail to exercise 
complete decorum and the action of the "inner check," Sterling's 
life could point a moral and adorn a talc as vividly as any legend 
of Hart Crane. Though his suicide in 1926 brought him to the 
unfortunate end which is frequently predicted of romantic poets, 
the brighter moments of his career were filled with the applause 
of many loyal readers. A brief glimpse of the kind of worship he 
inspired among those who knew him is reflected in the pages of 
Harriet Monroe's autobiography, A Poet's Life: J1 

In San Francisco 1 met George Sterling for the first time, a poet whose 
somewhat battered physical beauty was a reminder of the Apollo-like 
perfection of his youth. . . . But charming, always witty and charming, 
and always unconquerably modest about his work. I knew that the 
Pacific states were loyal to their own, but 1 was hardly prepared to hear 
Sterling's publisher that amiable enthusiast, A. M. Robertson pro- 
nounce him "die greatest poet since Dante," or to find him quoted (the 
only living poet) along with Confucius and Firdousi, Shakespeare and 
Goethe, on the high triumphal arches of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. 
. . . Sterling himself laughed at this futile exaltation of his fame . . . 
he knew that he had never done his best. 

In reply to an unfavorable review Harriet Monroe had written 
of his work, Sterling wrote: 

It gave me much satisfaction to bring that keen review of yours to 
dear old Robertson, as further evidence of my perennial claim to him 
that he was only making me ridiculous by quoting Joaquin Miller's 
"Dante" remark and other comments just as absurd by Ambrose Bierce 

11 By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

58 A History of American Poetry 

and others. Joaquin had a way of making his rivals (?) ridiculous by 
overheaping praise on them I've wondered more than once whether 
there wasn't a pinch of malice in the habit. 12 

Sterling took Miss Monroe's objections to his excesses and 
facilities with gentlemanly grace, and an unexpected meekness; 
he reminded her that he had been reading Ezra Pound's "A 
Few Don'ts by an Imagistc" published in Poetry, March, 1913, 
and while he confessed that Pound was not one of his "enthusi- 
asms," he agreed that most members of his generation were a 
"mass of dolts." In this instance, his sensitivities seemed to take 
the form of self-criticism. If he had failed to convey in his wild 
and sometimes effective imagery the physical phenomena of Cali- 
fornian landscape, which had made so powerful an appeal to his 
nervous fancies, he was quick to realize their successful creation 
in the work of a younger and more gifted poet. He was among 
the first to acknowledge the potential abilities of Robinson 
Jeffers and he seemed to realize that though he had also been 
greatly attracted by the massive grandeur of Point Lobos and the 
scenery surrounding Carmel, Jeffers had actually caught the very 
quality and soul of that country, making it as real as Thomas 
Hardy's re-creation of his Wessex countryside. 

Underlying Sterling's reaches toward floating planets and wild 
constellations, there was a persistent note of pathos as well as a 
fitfully expressed sense of evil. Unlike Markham and unlike 
Miller, he seemed to feel the presence of a darkness, a Spenglerian 
melodrama that Jeffers was to enter and explore. And as his 
years rounded to a close, one is reminded by the circumstances 
of his death that he had been for many years a close friend of 
"Bitter" Bierce. The characteristic touch of pathos, unmarred by 
the least suggestion of self-pity, may be found in these few lines 
written in his middle years. Sterling writes of himself as 

Scanning the shadows with a sense of haste 
Where fade the tracks of all who went before, 
A dim and solitary traveller 
On ways that end in evening and the waste. 13 

12 From A Poet's Life by Harriet Monroe. By permission of The Macmillan 

is Sonnet from Omnia Exeunt Mysterium. 


Although contemporary historians of American poetry tend to 
grow uneasy or shy at the mention of James Whitcomb Riley 
(1849-1916), it would be an error of self-conscious embarrassment 
to underrate the phenomenon of his popularity and its signifi- 
cance. Of recent years, his reputation has been linked with the 
notoriety achieved by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1855-1919), whom 
he admired, and it is all too easy to see why the mechanical 
optimism which flows so freely through the verse of both poets 
has brought to light an acceptable if not profound association. 
It is also true that both were born in the Middle West during 
a period when literary reputations owed their existence to the 
encouragement received from editors and readers of small-town 
newspapers and when the yearning for culture spread like a low 
prairie wind over the land; yet Riley's verse sustained and has 
continued to sustain its hold upon the popular imagination with 
greater tenacity than the work of any newspaper poet in his 

Another association that Riley's popularity brings to mind is 
the name of Eugene Field (1850-95) whose verse held similar 
appeal to like audiences and whose legend flourished in the daily 
columns of a local newspaper. Again the resemblance is one of 
surface qualities that fail to account for the kind of fame that 
made Riley a national spokesman for the State of Indiana. Clues 
to the secret lie in his early graduation from newspaper offices to 
lecture platforms; and successful tours with Bill Nye at small- 
town one-night stands as well as a facility in the craftsmanship of 
writing dialect verse enabled him to fill a position that had been 
left vacant since the day James Russell Lowell published the last 
installment of The Biglow Papers. After many years of applause 
from audiences in one-night lecture halls, Riley lived long enough 
to receive an honorary degree from Yale among the cheers of its 


6o A History of American Poetry 

student body, and during these later triumphs he also gained 
recognition from editors of New York and Boston magazines 
the magazines of national circulation, toward which his youthful 
eyes had once wistfully turned Harper's, Scribner's, The Atlantic 
Monthly, The Century. His birthday became a state of Indiana 
holiday: no poet since Longfellow had been so loved by school- 
children, and as Riley neared his death in 1916 Woodrow Wilson, 
then President of the United States, sent anxious messages of 
inquiry concerning his last illness. To this day, he remains a poet 
whose lines are frequently quoted by schoolchildren and the sale 
of his books in popular reprint editions shows few signs of falling 

Though it would be unwise to overestimate the quality of 
Riley's verse on the mere evidence of its popularity, it is also 
clear that his gifts aroused a public response that is seldom if 
ever earned by grace of empty rhyming and familiar music. 
Those who read through the bulky volume of his letters, edited 
by William Lyon Phelps in 1930, will be impressed by a native 
shrewdness, by a mature as well as boyish energy and sly humor, 
by a touch of gentleness that, however worldly, remains un- 
spoiled, and by a kind of literary cultivation that was self-taught 
and yet well disciplined. He had taken as his motto "The heart 
is all," and he kept his ear tuned to the music that stirred the 
heart of his native state and, later, the whole nation. Perhaps 
because he, like "O. Henry," was a true provincial, and because 
the large cities of the nation were filled with men and women 
from small towns and villages, he found a national audience. To 
them his verse contained accurate and beloved pictures of In- 
diana pastures and farmyards, of side roads that led to hidden 
streams and ponds, and these were re-created in the speech of 
provincial characters, who were recogni/ed not only on Middle 
Western small-town streets, but in all small towns they were the 
people who stayed at home, who loved the familiar sight of 
things at home, who were tenacious of old ways and were moved 
by simple sentiment. When someone questioned Riley concern- 
ing the accuracy of his Hoosier dialect, he admitted that its 
sources were in the memory of his own childhood, a childhood 
which had been spent during the same years that welcomed the 

The ''Twilight Interval" 61 

publication of the second series of The Biglow Papers. Perhaps 
it was not surprising that Riley's own rules for writing dialect 
verse were of but the slightest variation from the Yankee idiom 
of Birdofredum Sawin and Ezekiel Biglow; Lowell had fixed the 
literary pattern for the speech and attitudes of small-town char- 
acters in America, and the sentiment of "The Courtin' " 1 with 

its lines, . , , , 

All kin o snnly roun the lips 

An' teary roun' the lashes . . . 

set the standard in which provincial America saw itself reflected 
as in a mirror. 

Riley was obsessed by childhood, as some greater poets have 
been, and it is easy to see why someone once said of him that all 
his verses read as if they had been written by the very old and 
the very young against the rniddlc-aged. In his obituary address 
on Riley before The Academy of Arts and Letters, Hamlin Gar- 
land said: "He expressed something of the wistful sadness of the 
middle-aged man who is looking back on the sunlit streams of 
his boyhood." 

In the same address, Garland also recalled a trip that he had 
made to Greenfield, Indiana, to visit Riley. To him, after the 
beauty of his own Wisconsin lake country, Indiana landscape 
seemed dull, flat, and unlovely, an unpromising place for the 
birth of poets and poetry. Nor did Riley himself look particu- 
larly poetic. Garland described Riley as "short, square-shouldered, 
very blond, and with the lace of an actor." He spoke of Riley's 
clear, precise diction, which only momentarily dropped into a 
familiar Hoosier drawl. "Wise, rather than learned," Garland 
remarked, and then went on to say that Riley's way of expressing 
his ideas and prejudices contained the sententiousness of a farmer 
and the charm of those who are not brought up in cities, which 
was "a native fragrance," Garland said, "as of basswood and 
buckwheat bloom" rising from his poetry. 

"The face of an actor . . ."though it is doubtful if Garland 
intended his brief memoir of Riley to be taken as a clew toward 
defining the nature of his verse and its popularity, the remark 
sheds light upon those qualities that made his appearance on 

i The Biglow Papers, second scries, Houghton Mifllin Company. 

62 A History of American Poetry 

lecture platforms and what he said remembered. It goes far 
toward explaining the eager welcome he received at schools, 
church socials, and women's clubs. What was more, Riley tested 
the value of his verses by the response from his audiences and 
learned through their physical reactions how to gauge the taste 
of a larger, national public. Riley himself told how on one of 
his first lecture tours, he read his lines to "A Happy Little 
Cripple," a composition artfully contrived to bring an imme- 
diate response from those who heard it. He saw two people in 
the audience suddenly get up and walk out. In making inquiries 
he discovered that the verses had affected his two listeners too 
deeply, and that they had a crippled child waiting for them at 
home. This incident distressed Riley profoundly, who took great 
care to recite lines that would not depress his audiences, nor 
strike too deeply into the darkness of their fears and doubts. He 
had a great dread of the darker places in the soul, and of the 
sinister or complicated recesses of the mind. Coupled with his 
dread of darkness was his deep and genuine dislike of Whitman; 
and William Lyon Phelps remarked that on this subject in pri- 
vate conversation he often gave way to unprintable language. "A 
cult-reputation," Riley once wrote of Whitman, "he began by 
writing bad verses for magazines. These attracted no attention, 
so he decided to write something startling and eccentric." He 
also insisted, and not without justice, that Whitman lacked a 
sense of humor. Though Riley admired Poe, he also thought him 
much too "morbid." Ambrose Bierce was another writer who 
offended every instinct by which he lived, who was miles away 
from Riley's world of circus parades, of village bands, of small 
white clapboard houses set off by wide lawns and shaded by 
heavy trees, his world of a remembered childhood in which the 
emotions of pathos could be felt, if not fully understood, and 
which by its childlike character held no room for tragedy. 

It might be said that to those who read and heard him, Riley 
never failed to hearten and console. It was not for nothing that 
his Indianapolis neighbors seeing him leave the yellow and white 
frame house on Lockerbie Street, faultlessly attired, gold-headed 
cane in hand, stopping to call children by name and sometimes 
giving them copper one-cent pieces, called him "Sunny Jim." 

The "Twilight Interval" 63 

And it was not for nothing that he had dedicated one of his 
books to "all Americans who were ever boys, to all at least who 
had the good luck to be country boys, and to go barefoot." 

Nor had he always lived in a house on Lockerbie Street with 
its terraced stone steps and its flower urns and its shade trees 
darkening the lawn, a house that looked as though its existence 
had been forgotten as the little town grew into the city of 
Indianapolis. Before coming here, he had lived in Greenfield, 
Indiana, a very small town, some twenty miles outside the city 
limits. His father, contrary to popular legend, had not been a 
farmer, but a prosperous lawyer, and Riley had been offered the 
opportunities of a conventional education and a chance to train 
for the law. At eighteen, he ran away from home and joined a 
one-night-stand theatrical troupe, who embellished their scant 
earnings by selling patent medicines to their audiences during 
intermissions. During the summers when such jobs grew scarce, 
he would spend his time loafing or reading, "knee-deep in June" 
through the torpid, mellow, Midwestern summer weather that he 
was never tired of celebrating. Many years later, when he was old 
and famous and had been the recipient of many letters asking 
him to reveal the reasons for his success, he replied to inquiries 
made by a young poetess, and in his answer there is perhaps a 
broad hint of how he conducted his summer courses in a self- 
instructed, private education: 

"Study study study Read! Read! Read! Study to discover the real 
secret of success in writing, and read only successful books to discover 
and hunt out the deep down secret of the successful poet's song. Avoid 
reading the older poets . . . read only the successful modern poets." 2 

Of the "modern" poets, he placed Longfellow first, and next 
to him Tennyson, whose craftsmanship he heartily admired. 

As his own admirers were never tired of repeating, Riley had 
kept intact the heart, the emotions of a boy; and it was his un- 
questioning faith in the essential goodness of boyish work and 
play that continued to win the hearts of his many readers. If he 
sang of the old swimming hole, the old trundle bed, the old 

2 From The Letters of James Whit comb Riley, ed. by Wm. Lyon Phelps, 
Copyright 1931. Used by special permission of the Publishers, The Bobbs- 
Merrill Company. 

64 A History of American Poetry 

haymow, the old glee club, and going out again to visit old Aunt 
Mary and recited each stanza as though it had been written for 
the millions of children who also recited verse on Thursday 
afternoons in public schools every note he struck found an 
answering response in the breasts of those who stopped to listen 
to the song. What he had found and brought to light in a re- 
membered childhood may not have been what childhood was, 
but to those who heard him, it was what childhood should have 
been in a world that was slowly drifting toward the instabilities 
which preceded and came after the First World War. The drift 
was noted in certain undercurrents of unrest that were to lead 
toward disillusionments and to an embittered analysis of the 
same milieu in the Winesburg, Ohio of Sherwood Anderson and 
the Spoon River Anthology of Edgar Lee Masters. 

Meanwhile and throughout the first decade of a self-con- 
sciously American twentieth century, Riley continued to supply 
his publishers with scores of poems written in two languages, the 
first in what came to be known as a "Hoosicr dialect," and the 
second in the readily acceptable idiom of conventional magazine 
verse. There were times when Riley himself preferred the latter 
idiom and was fond of recalling an anecdote in which a Brown- 
ing Club member asked him whether or not he enjoyed reading 
dialect verse. "Some of it," Riley replied. "Eugene Field's is all 
right. But the other day I read some verse by a fellow named 
Chaucer, and I think he went altogether too far." This touch of 
wit, carefully phrased so as to offend no one, was characteristic 
of the particular craftsmanship he employed, as well as the not 
unworldly elegance in dress and manner that was so brilliantly 
reflected in the Sargent canvas which became his official portrait. 

More than all else, he was the versifier of the long, bright 
summer holiday: 

With all your harvest stores of olden joys, 
Vast overhanging meadow-lands of grain . . . 8 

The yearning cry of some bewildered bird 
Above an empty nest, and truant boys 

3 "An Old Friend" from Home Folks, Copyright 1902, 1930. Used by special 
permission of the Publishers, The Bobbs-Merrill Company. 

The "Twilight Interval" 65 

Along the river's shady margin heard, 
A harmony of noise. 4 

And down the woods to the swimmin' hole 

Where the big white hollow old sycamore grows . . . 5 

And through the image of a summer's day, again and again, 
Riley's insistent longing lor the past appears; and this emotion 
has never been more fortunately expressed than in his "Where- 

Children at the pasture-bars, 
Through the dusk, like glimmering stars, 
Waved their hands that we should bide 
With them over eventide: 
Down the dark their voices failed 
Falteringly, as they hailed, 
And died into yesterday- 
Night ahead and Where- Away? 

It is for the clear statement of this emotion, accompanied by 
his thumbnail sketches of small-town characters, that Riley's 
verse has been remembered and among the fabulae of American 
literature it may endure. For twenty years he was the poet of 
American family life in the same sense that Booth Tarkington 
became the novelist of the humorously perceived and yet ideal- 
ized American home. And from the oblique position of his 
bachelorhood, for Riley never married, it is perhaps significant 
that his frequent spokesman was the man of all work and odd 
jobs, "the Raggedy Man," who was the traditional figure of the 
American "Uncle," as well as the romantic "Tramp" of Ridgcly 
Torrence's "Eyewitness." 

Riley, in a letter of advice to the young Booth Tarkington, 
told him that his stories should be "Godlike, Manlike, Child- 
like," and this instruction was, of course, a rule that he had tried 
to follow in the writing of his own verse. 

4 "August" from Green Fields and Running Brooks, Copyright 1892, 192<. 
Used by special permission of the Publishers, The Bobbs-Merrill Company. 

5 "A Backward Look" from Pipes O'Pan at Zekesbury. Used by special per- 
mission of the Publishers, The Bobbs-Merrill Company. 

o From Green fields and Running Brooks, Copyright 1892, 1920. Used by 
special permission of the Publishers, The Bobbs-Merrill Company. 

66 A History of American Poetry 

On Riley's brief visit to London, the great object of his ad- 
miration was Sir Henry Irving and there is no doubt that Sir 
Henry returned the compliment. After this exchange of warm 
approval, Rilcy was all too glad to return to Lockerbie Street 
and to resume at intervals his recital tours on which he had once 
met Matthew Arnold. He had been happy to note that Arnold 
was by no means snobbish and yet he felt uneasy in his presence. 
Riley wrote of him: "I think he has no sense of humor whatever. 
A joke that tackled him would hide its head in shame and skulk 
away and weep." It is sometimes well to remember that Riley 
once made the same criticism of Whitman. 

His fame had continued to grow until one day Samuel L. 
Clemens sent him a letter addressed from Vienna inscribed: 

James Whitcomb Rilcy, 
Practicing Poet, 

and a dern capable one, too, 

Indiana. 7 

The letter reached him without the slightest difficulty, and 
when he died in 1916, his native state founded a children's hos- 
pital in his name. 

Before Riley's death, two books of poems, Spoon River An- 
thology (1915) and General William Booth Enters into Heaven 
(1913) appeared and one tends to associate Lindsay's name as 
well as Masters' with the memory of Riley's Middle Western 
countryside. Lindsay would have loved to have gained the local 
recognition that Riley received. But Lindsay's verse touched 
deeper springs of emotion than the people of his native Illinois 
would have cared to see revealed, and Masters' Spoon River 
Anthology opened the tombs of a thousand Lockerbie Streets in 
as many Middle Western towns. 

7 From Letters of James Whitcomb Riley, cd. by Wm. Lyon Phelps. Copy- 
right 1931. Used by special permission of the Publishers, The Bobbs-Mtrrill 


In the years when Riley's Rhymes of Childhood were increas- 
ing their popularity and Sterling had made his first discoveries 
of the Bohemian life in California, George Santayana, a young 
instructor of philosophy at Harvard, who had been born in 1863, 
returned to Europe for a year of graduate work at King's Col- 
lege, Cambridge, England. This was his sabbatical year, 1896- 
1897, an d in 1897 President Eliot of Harvard wrote a confidential 
repprt concerning the inadvisability of promoting him to an 
assistant professorship: 

The withdrawn, contemplative man who takes no part in the every- 
day work of the institution, or of the world, seems to me a person of 
very uncertain value. He does not dig ditches, or lay bricks, or write 
school-books, his product is not of the ordinary, useful, though humble 
kind. What will it be? It may be something of the highest utility; but, 
on the other hand, it may be something futile, or even harmful be- 
cause unnatural and untimely. 1 

In respect to Santayana's particular virtues, President Eliot 
later modified his worst fears, yet his retreat carried with it this 
gloomy reservation: he could not see his young instructor as a 
professor at the age of fifty. His later prophecy came so near to 
literal truth that it justified its somber warning. At the age of 
forty-nine, Santayana, upon receiving an inheritance which en- 
abled him to be free of colleges and teaching, left Harvard and 
he also left behind him the legend that he had walked out of 
his classroom one fine afternoon and never showed up again in 

To the reader who appreciates the best of Santayana's poetry 
as it appears in Poems, selected and revised by its author in 1922, 

i From Life of George Santayana by George Howgate, used by permission 
of Charles Scribner's Sons. 


68 A History of American Poetry 

his poetic contribution to American literature seems extraordi- 
narily slender. But between 1894 and 1901, his writing of verse 
was extraordinarily prolific. These years included the publica- 
tion of a first book, Sonnets and Poems, Lucifer, a theological 
drama in blank verse, and A Hermit of Carmel, and these vol- 
umes, if reprinted in their original format, would make a col- 
lection of some four hundred pages of published verse that 
would more than equal the life work of most twentieth-century 

To his admirers, it may also seem ironic that Santayana's 
poetic reputation since 1901 has been obscured by his other 
activities, by his distinction as the author of valuable studies in 
philosophy and esthetics, and by his notoriety in this country as 
the author of a best-selling novel, The Last Puritan. In his prose, 
as in his poetry, the same qualities appear, an absence of con- 
crete imagery, a pure, limpid diction, great intellectual charm, 
graceful cadences and the implied desire to contemplate man 
and his destinies wisely but at a distance. In his carefully 
guarded and thoroughly witty preface to the 1922 edition of his 
selected Poems, he wrote, "My own moral philosophy . . . may 
not seem very robust or joyous. Its fortitude and happiness are 
those of but one type of soul." And in that same preface he 
said, sustaining always the note of individual irony which so 
clearly distinguishes his early sonnets from those of his con- 

In one sense I think that my verses, mental and thin as their texture 
may be, represent a true inspiration, a true docility. A Muse not 
exactly an English Muse actually visited me in my isolation; the same, 
or a ghost of the same, that visited Boethius or Alfred de Musset or 
Leopardi. It was literally impossible for me then not to re-echo her 
eloquence. When that compulsion ceased, I ceased to write verses. 2 

His "Muse," rightly enough, was of un-English origin. Born 
in Madrid, Santayana had spent the first nine years of his life 
in Spain. Both of his parents were Spanish, but his mother had 
had three children by a previous marriage to an American, and 
had pledged herself to bring them (as well as her younger son) 

- From preface to Poems, 1923, used by permission of Charles Scribner's 

The "Tivilight Interval" 69 

to Boston where they had relatives and property. Santayana's 
father remained in Spain, a man of wide cultural interests, who 
had at one time studied under a painter of the Goya school, and 
who had translated Seneca into Spanish. 

Though Santayana was educated at the Brimmer School, the 
Boston Latin School, and then at Harvard, he never overcame 
a sense of not being native to the English language, which may 
well have entered and set up limitations for his poetry, but in 
speaking of his family, he was quick to add, "We were not im- 
migrants, we never changed our country, class, or religion." 

Though it would be difficult to seek out the mere evidence of 
a Roman Catholic heritage in his poetry, it seems clear that his 
imagination recoiled from or was ill at ease whenever it faced 
tine disorderly aspects of the Anglo-American liberal tradition. 
His very facility in the use of English (quite as though the lan- 
guage were without an Anglo-Saxon backbone) resembled the 
ease and "foreign" inflection of poetry written by the Rossettis. 
His position was that of a stranger in a world he had not made, 
which may be said to have created a habit of detachment from 
those around him, even in his family circle, where as a child he 
had often been lonely and had pleaded, to his elders, "Enter- 
tain me." 

One can almost discern an answer to President Eliot's attitude 
and general philosophy of education in a. paragraph of San- 
tayana's Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, which was pub- 
lished four years after his return to Harvard to resume his in- 
struction of courses in Scholasticism and European philosophies: 

The liberal school that attempts to fortify religion by minimizing 
its expression, both theoretic and devotional, seems, ... to be merely 
impoverishing religious symbols and vulgarizing religious aims; it sub- 
tracts from faith that imagination by which faith becomes an inter- 
pretation and idealization of human life, and retains only a stark and 
superfluous principle of superstition. 

This is of the same conviction that led him to say of poetry, 
". . . the innate freedom of poets to hazard new forms does not 
abolish the freedom of all men to adopt the old ones." And 
again he wrote, thinking of poetry as one might think of a 
religious faith that transcends humanity, and not without some 

70 A History of American Poetry 

display of philosophic wit, "Poetry was made for man, not man 
for poetry." 

All these remarks indicate and may be offered as an explana- 
tion of the far distance between him and President Eliot, and 
indeed, he seemed to stand at an oblique angle to a Boston Back 
Bay Protestant environment, and in this respect, his position 
was not unlike Andre Gide's Protestantism in Roman Catholic 
France. It is not surprising that his distinction brought to its 
support men such as Josiah Royce, William James, and Hugo 
Miinsterberg, who, however strongly they may have differed from 
him in their philosophic views, recognized his essential qualities 
and their importance. In the years when he lectured and taught 
at Harvard he also attracted such undergraduates as Felix Frank- 
furter, Walter Lippmann, Conrad Aiken, and T. S. Eliot. 

Meanwhile, the ironies of Santayana's position as a poet, how- 
ever individual their origins may have been, were not as singular 
as it might be supposed. At the close of the nineteenth century 
Henry James, George Cabot Lodge, Joseph Trumbull Stickney, 
and Henry Adams would have understood, each with a differ- 
ence, Santayana's remark in The Life of Reason: "All prophets 
are homeless, and all inspired artists, all philosophers think out 
some communism or other, and monks put it into practice." 
Each could say with Santayana: 

My heart rebels against my generation, 
That talks of freedom and is slave to riches, 
And, toiling 'neath each day's ignoble burden, 
Boasts of the morrow. 3 

Nor can we say, remembering the later figures of Matthew 
Josephson's Portrait of the Artist as American (1930), that San- 
tayana was "less American" than other sensitive and intelligent 
American writers of that day, particularly when we recall the 
passionate spirit contained in the stanzas of his Sapphic "Odes": 

Gathering the echoes of forgotten wisdom, 
And mastered by a proud, adventurous purpose, 
Columbus sought the golden shores of India 
Opposite Europe. 

a "Sapphic Odes" from Poems, 1927, used by permission of Charles Scrib- 
ner's Sons. 

The "Twilight Interval" 71 

He gave the world another world, and ruin 
Brought upon blameless, river-loving nations, 
Cursed Spain with barren gold, and made the Andes 
Fiefs of Saint Peter; 

While in the cheerless North the thrifty Saxon 
Planted his corn, and, narrowing his bosom, 
Made covenant with God, and by keen virtue 
Trebled his riches. 

What venture hast thou left us, bold Columbus? 
What honour left thy brothers, brave Magellan? 
Daily the children of the rich for pastime 
Circle the planet. 

And what good comes to us of all your clangers? 
A smaller earth and smaller hope of heaven. 
Ye have but cheapened gold, and, measuring ocean, 
Counted the islands. 

No Ponce de Leon shall drink in fountains, 
On any flowering Easter, youth eternal; 
No Cortes look upon another ocean; 
No Alexander . . . 4 

George W. Howgate in his George Santayana, an extended 
study of Santayana's life artel work, offers a number of specula- 
tions concerning the nature of his temperament. He suggests 
that Santayana's family, since they were from Madrid, were 
Spaniards of the austere Castilian tablelands which are described 
in one of Santayana's poems: 

Realm proudly desolate and nobly poor, 
Scorched by the sky's inexorable zeal . . ^ 

It was of this Castilian tableland that Salvador de Madariaga 
spoke: "... a country with grandeur and majesty which make 
it the worthy companion of the great scenes of nature, seas and 
skies and of the great moods of the spirit, the poetry of con- 

However much or little this distant background may have 
influenced the character of Santayana's poetry, it is clear that its 

* "Odes, III" from Poems, 1923, used hy permission of Charles Scribner's 

r * "Avila" from Poems, 1923, used by permission of Charles Scribner f s Sons. 

72 A History of American Poetry 

existence in his memory contributed to his sense of exile, both 
from Spain itself and from the America of Boston's State Street 
and President Eliot's Harvard. Even his view of the "sacred 
Mediterranean" was shadowed with the thought of his own exile: 

The more should I, O fatal sea, before thee 
Of alien words make echoes to thy music; 
For I was born where first the rills of Tagus 
Turn to the westward. 

If, as Archibald MacLeish observes, "for all their decorum, the 
work strikes fire," the best of Santayana's poems disclose the con- 
flict of emotion that lies within a sense of loss and homelessness: 

Exile not only from the wind-swept moor 
Where Guadarrama lifts his purple crest, 

But from the spirit's realm, celestial, sure 
Goal of all hope. 7 

And in "Avila," one of his few poems in which a Spanish land- 
scape is consciously recalled, one rediscovers the persistent under- 
tone of his poetic themes: 

Nor world nor desert hath a home for thee. 

It is little wonder that President Eliot felt uneasy particu- 
larly if, as Howgate says, the younger Santayana was best known 
at Cambridge as a teacher who attracted only certain types of 
students, was distinctly a poet, a Spanish "exotic," and a social 
favorite with the cultivated ladies of Boston. 

Though his restrained emotions and his philosophic idealism, 
wedded as it was to the scholastic humanism of the early Renais- 
sance, may have confused and bewildered those around him, his 
poetic wit seems to have resolved its problems in this excellent 
sonnet which is quoted from his earliest collection: 

Dreamt I to-day the dream of yesternight, 
Sleep ever feigning one evolving theme, 
Of my two lives which should I call the dream? 

6 "Odes, V" from Poems, 1923, used by permission of Charles Scribner's 

7 "Sapphic Odes" from Poems, 1923, used by permission of Chnrlcs Scrib- 
ner's Sons. 

The "Twilight Interval" 73 

Which action vanity? which vision sight? 

Some greater waking must pronounce aright, 

If aught abideth of the things that seem. 

And with both currents swell the flooded stream 

Into an ocean infinite of light. 

Even such a dream I dream, and know full well 

My waking passeth like a midnight spell, 

But know not if my dreaming brcaketh through 

Into the deeps of heaven and of hell. 

I know but this of all I would I knew: 

Truth is a dream, unless my dream is true.* 

The same felicity, touched briefly with the "sensuous and 
ideal" for which he seemed always to be seeking, enters these 

And heaven shines as if the Gods were there. 
Had Dian passed there could no deeper peace 
Embalm the purple stretches of the air. 9 


Howgatc hints that a true "dark lady" is the subject of San- 
tuyana's love sonnets, but the actuality of the event should not 
concern us as much as the true felicity of phrasing that gives 
the 1894 sonnet sequence an air of personal reality: 

O too late love, O flight on wounded wing, 
Infinite hope my lips should not suspire, 
Why, when the world is thine, my grief require, 
Or mock my dear-bought patience with thy sting? 
Though I be mute, the birds will in the boughs 
Sing as in every April they have sung, 
And, though I die, the incense of heart-vows 
Will float to heaven, as when I was young. 
But, O ye beauties I must never see, 
How great a lover have you lost in me! 10 

In rereading the 1923 edition of Santayana's Poems there can 
be little doubt that his work deserves greater prominence in 
current anthologies or studies of American verse. Of the many 

Sonnet "V" from Poems, 1923, used by permission of Charles Scribner's 

Sonnet "XVI" from Poems, 1923, used by permission of Charles Scrib- 
ner's Sons. 

i<> Sonnet "XXI" from Poems, 1923, used by permission of Charles Scrib- 
ner's Sons. 

74 A History of American Poetry 

lesser poets grouped together under the general heading of a 
so-called "genteel tradition" his work alone possesses the distinc- 
tion that earns respect from future generations. Even Bruce 
Weirick in his survey of American poetry from Whitman to 
Sandburg reluctantly confesses, "A society able to produce so 
fine a flower of culture . . . has in some sense grown up." The 
very least that one can say regarding Santayana's selected Poems 
is that no American poet of the twentieth century has so skill- 
fully edited and revised his own contribution to modern litera- 
ture, and the last lines of his preface are an irresistible invitation 
to readers who have yet to recognize the enduring eloquence of 
his un-English "Muse." His book is "addressed only to those 
whose ear it might strike sympathetically and who, crossing the 
same dark wood on their own errands, may pause for a moment 
to listen gladly." 

Since 1914 Santayana has lived in London and in Rome, a 
welcome exile that the late Sir Edmund Gosse described with 
awe and half-bewildered reverence in The Times Literary Sup- 
plement. Something of the same bewilderment fell upon the 
critics of Santayana's autobiography in prose, Persons and Places, 
at the time of its distribution by the Book of the Month Club 
in 1944, while its author continued to live under the protection 
of the Roman Catholic Church in Fascist Rome. Beneath the 
general tones of reverence that each assumed came the com- 
plaints that Santayana was "devious," "uncandid," "cold," and 
"possibly in sympathy with Fascism." The simple and complex- 
truth of the matter is that Santayana has identified himself with 
Spain; and the only sense of unity that the stricken, tortured, 
passionate, and austere country has ever found springs from the 
intensity of its religious life. This is a truth that has always been 
flagrantly misunderstood on this side of the Atlantic by the 
critics of Santayana's poetry and prose who have resented his 
restraint, his perception of a private world (which by the way 
has kept his poetry alive), and his right to accept the terms of 
individual existence. For him those terms have always been the 
position of an exile, a condition that had been fully realized by 
both Henry Adams and Henry James with the singular differ- 

The "Twilight Interval" 75 

cnce that Santayana's emotional responses lie within the contra- 
dictions of the Spanish psyche. Perhaps a quotation from Miguel 
de Unamuno will throw further light on what has been viewed 
as the unsolved mystery of Santayana's position: 

If we take away from the mind of each man that which is his own, 
that way of looking at things that is peculiar to him, everything that 
he takes care to hide for fear people should think him mad, we are 
left with that which he has in common with everyone else, and this 
common element gives us that wretched thing that is called common 
sense and which is nothing more than the abstract of the practical in- 
telligence. But if we fuse into one the differing judgments of people, 
with all that they jealously preserve, and bring their caprices, their 
oddities, their singularities into agreement, we shall have human sense, 
which, in those who are rich in it, is not common but private sense. 

The best that occurs to men is that which occurs to them when they 
are alone, that which they dare not confess, not only not to their neigh- 
bor but very often not even to themselves, that which they fly from, 
that which they imprison within themselves while it is in a state of 
pure thought and before it can flower into words. . . . The solitary 
. . . surprises others by saying that which they think beneath their 
breath. . . . All this will help you to deduce for yourself in what way 
and to what extent solitude is the great school of sociability, and how 
right it is that we should sometimes withdraw ourselves from men in 
order that we may the better serve them. 11 

All this is said, of course, in a manner that is less sensitively 
balanced than anything that Santayana has written in verse, yet 
in it one finds a reason why Santayana's Poems have sold through 
several editions, and why his work "surprises others" in that 
slightly foreign use of English which has become the mark of his 
individual style. In Santayana's poetry those rough distinctions 
which are usually applied in defining a national literature tend 
to break clown, arid with them those equally coarse definitions 
which separate major and minor verse also tend to disappear. 
The foregoing remarks on his identity with Spain were given 
to explain his temperamental affinities which have been so often 
and so generally misunderstood, but such an explanation does 
not exclude Santayana's name from whatever we mean when we 

11 From Essays and Soliloquies, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 
Copyright 1924 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

7(3 A History of American Poetry 

speak of American poetry. On the contrary, his early statement, 
"My heart rebels against my generation," now seems to have 
anticipated, though slightly in reverse, the feeling expressed by 
young Americans of a later generation, who were "lost" in Paris 
in the years immediately following the First World War, and it 
now seems certain that Santayana expressed that feeling with 
deeper penetration and with more enduring art than some few 
of the "exiles" who came after him. 

But Santayana's sensibilities were not without flaws of their 
kind, and the curse of dullness descended on his long novel, The 
Last Puritan; in A Letter to Robert Frost, Robert Hillyer, 
speaking of Santayana and The Last Puritan, wrote: 

Who after years of rightful fame defrauded, 
Wrote one bad book at last, and all applauded. 

And in criticism of Santayana's work when it is less firm than 
his best, one is tempted to quote his own lines "On an unfin- 
ished statue by Michael Angelo in the Bargello, called an Apollo, 
or a David": 13 

. . . the torpid and unwilling mass 
Misknew the sweetness of the mind's control, 
And the quick shifting of the winds, alas! 
Denied a body to that flickering soul. 

Unlike Trumbull Stickney, Santayana possessed the art of sus- 
taining his gifts throughout the length of a poem, so that the 
poem itself fulfills its own intentions, its own laws, its own 
identity. That is why certain of Santayana's poems have the 
quality of "timelessness" which is so difficult to describe, and 
whenever it appears it implies that the author has reached his 
maturity. The elegiac note which Lodge and Stickney sounded 
at the turn of the century has its fulfillment in Santayana's "A 
Minuet on Reaching the Age of Fifty": 14 

i-By permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1936, 1937 by Robert 

is From Poems, used by permission of Charles Scribncr's Sons. 

The "Twilight Interval" 77 


Old Age, on tiptoe, lays her jewelled hand 
Lightly in mine. Come, tread a stately measure, 
Most gracious partner, nobly poised and bland. 

Ours be no boisterous pleasure, 
But smiling conversation, with quick glance 
And memories dancing lightlier than we dance, 

Friends who a thousand joys 
Divide and double, save one joy supreme 

Which many a pang alloys. 

Let wanton girls and boys 
Cry over lovers' woes and broken toys. 
Our waking life is sweeter than their dream, 


Dame Nature, with unwitting hand, 

Has sparsely strewn the black abyss with lights 

Minute, remote, and numberless. We stand 

Measuring far depths and heights, 

Arched over by a laughing heaven, 
Intangible and never to be scaled. 
If we confess our sins, they are forgiven. 

We triumph, if we know we failed. 


Tears that in youth you shed, 
Congealed to pearls, now deck your silvery hair; 

Sighs breathed for loves long dead 
Frosted the glittering atoms of the air 

Into the veils you wear 
Round your soft bosom and most queenly head; 

The shimmer of your gown 
Catches all tints of autumn, and the dew 
Of gardens where the damask roses blew; 
The myriad tapers from these arches hung 

Play on your diamonded crown; 
And stars, whose light angelical caressed 

Your virgin days, 
Give back in your calm eyes their holier rays. 

The deep past living in your breast 

Heaves these half-merry sighs; 

And the soft accents of your tongue 

Breathe unrecorded charities. 

7 8 A History of American Poetry 


Hasten not; the feast will wait. 
This is a master-night without a morrow. 
No chill and haggard dawn, with after-sorrow, 

Will snuff the spluttering candle out, 
Or blanch the revelers homeward straggling late. 

Before the rout 

Wearies or wanes, will come a calmer trance. 
Lulled by the poppied fragrance of this bower, 

We'll cheat the lapsing hour, 
And close our eyes, still smiling, on the dance. 

Serenity, grace, and lightness are in these lines; in twentieth- 
century verse these qualities arc rare and, as if in spite of the 
slightly archaic overtone that is always present in Santayana's 
diction, the poem has an air of distinction that transcends the 




There is a kind of poetry before which criticism seems almost 
helpless and painstaking analysis becomes irrelevant and un- 
gracious. Such is the poetry of Lizette Reese (1856-1935) with its 
lightly poised simplicity and its delicately tuned music. If her 
songs seem to resemble, more than all else, the smaller seven- 
teenth-century masters of lyric verse, to be accompanied always 
by the spinet and the lute, her accents also sound a muted yet 
clear note of authority, a musical rather than verbal precision 
that is her own. 

Lizette Reese was born in Waverly, Baltimore County, Mary- 
land, of English and German stock, the daughter of a Confed- 
erate veteran of the Civil War. In her reminiscences, A Victorian 
Village, published in 1929, she speaks of the soft, rolling land- 
scape which had traced its color and line upon her visual imagi- 
nation, a Maryland landscape, with its innocent resemblances 
to Devonshire, Kent, and Buckinghamshire of southern England. 
It was a country peopled by those whose ancestors had tome in 
early Colonial days from these very shires, a heritage whose 
sympathies had been Cavalier rather than Puritan. She was a 
poet whose work has a true if slender kinship with Herrick's 
poetry in its quick sensory impressions, its immediacy, its light 
touch, its sense of atmosphere and of transient moods, however 
gay, or grave, or swift, set down with sudden clarity. One thinks 
of her verses as one recalls Herrick's lines "To Dianeme": x 

When as that Ruble, which you weare, 
Sunk from the tip of your soft eare, 

i From Herrick's Poetical Works, Oxford University Press. 


tfo A History of American Poetry 

Will last to be a precious Stone, 
When all your world of Beau tie's gone. 

Hers was a world, indeed, that was not dependent upon the 
changing poetic fashions of her long lifetime; it was of things 
within her reach, of Maryland orchards, flowers, houses, weather, 
trees, gardens, all seemingly renewed as though looked at for 
the first time, and always with the slight shock of that first 
glance as if it were an actual discovery of new beauty in an old 

Carved out against a tender sky, 
The convent gables lift, 
Half-way below the old boughs lie, 
Heaped in a great white drift. 

They tremble in the passionate air, 
They part, and clean and sweet, 
The cherry flakes fall here, fall there, 
A handful stirs the street. 

The workmen look up as they go, 
And one remembering plain 
How white the Irish orchards blow, 
Turns back and looks again.- 

And again one reads: 

Dark, thinned, beside the wall of stone, 
The box dripped in the air; 
Its odor through my house was blown 
Into the chamber there. 

Remote and yet distinct the scent, 
The sole thing of the kind, 
As though one spoke a word half-meant 
That left a sting behind. 3 

Lizette Reese's first book, A Branch of May, was published in 
1887, and even then she had already struck the note her verse 

2 "A Street Scene" from The Selected Poems of Lizette Woodworth Reese, 
copyright, 1926, by Lizette Woodworth Reese, and reprinted by permission 
ofFarrar &: Rinehart, Inc. 

s "In Time of Grief" from The Selected Poems of Lizette Woodicorth 
Reese, copyright, 1926, by Lizette Woodworth Reese, and reprinted by per- 
mission of Fanar & Rinehart, Inc. 

The "Twilight Interval" 81 

sustained from its first volume to its last. "A Girl's Mood" * 
expresses this quality in her verse with the same unaffected ease 
that distinguishes so many of her poems; the girl who speaks 
seems to be discovered at the very moment when she is artless 
and unposed: 

I love a prayer-book; 

I love a thorn-tree 

That blows in the grass 

As white as can be. 

I love an old house 
Set down in the sun, 
And the windy old roads 
That thereabout run. 

I love blue, thin frocks; 
Green stones one and all; 
A sky full of stars, 
A rose at the fall. 

A lover I love; 

O, had I but one, 

I would give him all these, 

Myself, and the sun I 

One might say, reading her Selected Poems, published in 1926, 
that her entire work seems miraculously unchanging and intact, 
as though the book that covers a span of nearly forty years had 
been the work of a young girl of undoubted talent. 

John Farrar had shrewdly caught an essential part of her 
poetic character when he wrote the introduction to her novel, 
Worleys, in 1936: 

She never seemed to me to be a southerner in the accepted sense of 
the word, though she was deeply rooted in the country and towns of 
Maryland. She was rather typical of the fine type of schoolmistress and 
librarian of virginal heart and active mind, cultured, broad-minded, 
and yet almost fierce in a defense of tradition. 

If we are consistently made aware of the young girl of great 
talent in her work, we also find glimpses of the little school- 

* From Wild Cherry, copyright, by Lizette Woodworth Reese, and reprinted 
by permission of Farrar Rinehart, Inc. 

8s A History of American Poetry 

mistress whose favorite reading list always included the names 
of Herrick, George Herbert, Thomas a Kempis, Trollope, 
Charles Lamb, Bunyan, Dickens of Pickwick Papers (though on 
the whole, she preferred Thackeray), Jane Austen, and Charlotte 
and Emily Bronte. Of Wulhering Heights she wrote: "a book 
so great that it is startling; she [Emily Bronte] more than her 
sisters felt the pricking of the modern spirit." At a later moment 
she grew to love the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson and the 
novels but not the poems of Thomas Hardy. Thackeray, though 
she admired him, shocked her by his cynicism. "It made me feel," 
she wrote, "as though I were in a room filled with smoke from 
a long-disused chimney, mentally I smarted and choked." An 
"equally cruel experience" was her shock at reading Hawthorne's 
Scarlet Letter, and yet she felt close to Hawthorne, for the sharp, 
tart quality of his prose was also present in her poetry, and the 
very keenness of its clarity, however deceptively English its ex- 
terior may seem, identifies it as peculiarly American. 

As time went on, her later preferences in reading poetry in- 
cluded such diverse poets as Henry Vaughan, the seventeenth- 
century Welsh mystic, and Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti. 
John Farrar and Louis Untermeyer made a point of remarking 
her indifference to the experiments of the 1920*5 in poetry, an 
indifference which was mildly stressed by her enjoyment of the 
delicate faintly mystical poetry of Marguerite Wilkinson (1883- 
1928), a poet whose slight but rare qualities (which may be dis- 
cerned in a few of her devotional poems) do not deserve the 
complete oblivion into which they have fallen. 

The very titles of Lizctte Reese's thin volumes, A Branch of 
May, A Handful of Lavender, A Quiet Road, Spicewood, Wild 
Cherry, Pastures, bear witness to the limitations of her subject 
matter and its attractions. Her sensitivity was of a kind that 
was always quickened by the imagery of flowers. She wrote of 
"streaked cowslips half of honey and of fire," of "poppies tingling 
scarlet" or of "the glare of bitter marigold." There were times, 
however, when her flowers tended to become a shade too neatly 
patterned and one is reminded of the completely inanimate 
charms of early nineteenth-century wallpaper in a country house 
as well as of the fragrance of a Baltimore suburban garden. 

The ''Twilight Interval'' 83 

Her moods of sadness were never quite so fortunate in their 
expression, yet her poem "Tears" brought fame to her well-estab- 
lished reputation and the alumnae of the high school where she 
taught had the poem engraved upon a bronze tablet to be 
placed on a wall of the building. 

It is always well to remember that Stedman was among Lizette 
Reese's first admirers, and that he once wrote: 

The novelist has outstripped the poet in absorbing the new ideality 
conditioned by the advance of science [a statement, by the way, that 
has been repeated many times since 1900 with countless variations]. But 
[continued Stedman whose optimism never long deserted him] there 
continues an exercise of the art by many whose trick of song persists 
under all conditions. We have a twilight interval with minor voices and 
their tentative modes and notes. 5 

It is extremely doubtful if any interval, however twilight, 
could have kept Lizette Reese from writing the poetry she chose 
to write for, as it has been said before, she was one of those rare 
writers whose seemingly effortless grace and freshness sustained 
the illusion of her being a "born poet" and her undidactic 
lyricism gathered its rewards throughout three decades, when in 
the full tide of poetic upheaval and experimentation, all sides 
paused to do her honor. 


"Damn the age," Charles Lamb is reputed to have said as 
someone warned him that his work was out of tone with his own 
time; "if the age cannot take me, I shall write for antiquity." 
And today it seems as if Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920) 
wrote for antiquity thirty-six years of her life, or rather, for the 
England of Lord Clarendon's Rebellion in which she had found 
her deepest inspiration. She was one who had turned to the 
poetry of Herbert and of Vaughan long before the generation 
that matured in 1920 had heard of the "metaphysicals." Born in 
Boston, Massachusetts, in 1861, her first book, Songs at the Start, 
was published in 1884. Within the fastnesses of the seventeenth 

s From An American Anthology cd. by E. C. Stedman, used by permission 
of Houghton Mifflin Company. 

84 A History of American Poetry 

century Louise Guiney had discovered a congenial and secure 
vantage ground; she had an "original" temperament, and a feel- 
ing for excellence in poetry in the work of others that was by 
no means neglible. Near the end of her life (she died in 1920) 
she was one of the first to praise Gerard Manley Hopkins, and 
she was one of the few Americans, Ezra Pound among them, to 
respect the fine gifts of the often neglected British poet, Lionel 
Johnson. But her soul was with the minor Caroline poets, "my 
men," she called them Cart wright, Quarles, Habington, Stanley, 
Fanshawe, Rochester, and lesser figures, "those golden lyricists 
who have not come . . . into their inheritance." Something of 
their grace, wit, delicate precision, and elegant wildness and for 
her, there is no other word but "wildness" for it entered her 
verse; and with the "wildness" she took their virtues to her heart: 

Take temperance to thy breast, 

While yet is the hour of choosing, 

An arbitress exquisite 

Of all that shall thee betide. 

For better than fortune's best 

Is mastery in the using, 

And sweeter than any thing sweet 

The art to lay it aside. 6 

In prose as well as in verse her models were of the various 
styles of her favorite century: Sir Thomas Browne, Jeremy 
Taylor, and Lord Clarendon; and it is said that she once absent- 
mindedly dated a letter to a friend, "March isth, 1667." Among 
her more "modern" masters were Lamb, Hazlitt, and, since she, 
too, was a devout Roman Catholic, Cardinal Newman; and when 
she turned to the century that followed the seventeenth, it was 
to the prose of Burke and to the poetry of Christopher Smart, 
whose phrase, "the quick, peculiar quince," had caught her eye 
and became the touchstone of her appreciation in reading poetry. 
The search for things that were "peculiar," romantic, and quaint 
both spurred and lightened her literary enthusiasms and her 
learning. She wrote of her passion for an age, a century other 

c "A Talisman" from Happy Ending, used by permission of Houghtou 
Mifflin Company. 

The "Twilight Interval" 85 

than her own, with all the eloquence of her Irish ancestry, and 
never did she betray that ancestry more clearly than when she 
wrote of an England whose supernatural beauty could have 
existed only in her imagination: 

. . . the soul halh sight 

Of passionate yesterdays, all gold and large, 

Arisen to enrich our narrow night. 7 

Nor did she forget in writing of a time other than her own 
the figure of Robert Emmet and his love for Sarah Curran; and 
some of the most moving and eloquent passages of her prose are 
to be found in her study of James Clarence Mangan, the tem- 
peramentally unhappy and unfortunate Irish poet. The sublime 
failure and the gallant and royal martyr held her interest 
equally; and her extraordinary enthusiasm, which offered the 
cpntradictions of well-controlled hysteria, was also reserved for 
such figures as the Earl of Surrey, poet and soldier, who died on 
the block during the reign of King Henry VIII and the learned 
and saintly Edmund Campion, the Jesuit priest who suffered 
martyrdom for his faith in England under the rule of Queen 

In 1901 Louise Guiney left Boston for the British Isles where 
she spent the rest of her life, and there, as she walked London's 
streets, she saw the shade of William Hazlitt who also aroused 
her romantic sensibilities. 

Between the wet trees and the sorry steeple, 
Keep, Time, in dark Soho, what once was Hazlitt, 
Seeker of Truth, and finder oft of Beauty. 8 

After a visit to the neighborhood of a seventeenth-century 
battlefield Louise Guiney wrote: 

I didn't see the battlefield as it happened. . . . Nothing more per- 
sonal ever got hold of me than that war. ... I can bear any grief of 
my own better than I can King Charles's. 

7 "On Leaving Winchester" from Happy Ending, used by permission of 
Houghton Mifflin Company. 

s "Beside Ha/litt's Grave" from Happy Ending, used by permission of 
Houghton Mifflin Company. 

86 A History of American Poetry 

It was to celebrate this veritable King Charles's head that she 
wrote in her copy of Lord Clarendon's History of the Rebellion 
one of her most characteristic poems: 

How life hath cheapen'd, and how blank 

The Worlde is! like a fen 

Where long ago unstained sank 

The starr ie gentlemen: 

Since Marston Moor and Ncwbury drank 

King Charles his gentlemen. 

If Fate in any aire accords 

What Fate deny'd, Oh, then 

I ask to be among your Swordcs, 

My joyous gentlemen; 

Towards Honours heaven to goe, and towards 

King Charles his gentlemen! y 

When this poem first appeared in a magazine, young H. G. 
Wells (who even in his youth had been properly insulated from 
poetic flights and fancies) clipped it for quotation in one of his 
lesser-known "scientific" novels; the poem in its new setting 
reappeared as evidence of the queer modes of thinking and writ- 
ing that Wells's Utopians of the Millennium looked back upon 
with horror. But kindly H. C. Wells could have spared himself 
that trouble: the poem was as uncommon to the day that he 
discovered it as it was to the seventeenth century; its spirit and 
its spelling were Louise Guiney's contributions to her own en- 
thusiasms, and it is probable that the poem would have puzzled 
her favorite, Lord Falkland, and certainly John Wilmot, Earl of 
Rochester, as much as it charmed and bewildered her contempo- 
raries. For many years, it had been her ambition to compile the 
wealth of her singular "discoveries" among the poets of the six- 
teenth and seventeenth century, and when the anthology at last 
appeared under the title of Recusant Poets (1919) it was more a 
tribute to her Celtic imagination, her lively and perceptive wit, 
and her deceptively artless charm than an example of anything 
that remotely resembled scholarship. Not since Chatterton's day 

9 "Writ in my Lord Clarendon, His History of the Rehellion" from Happy 
Ending, used by permission of Houghton Mifllin Company. 

The "Twilight Interval" 87 

had anyone attempted a resurrection of the past with so marked 
a gift of poetic discernment and fervor. If one of Louise Guiney's 
friends, Sir Edmund Gosse, brushed the book aside and could not 
read it (he was no great scholar himself), another friend, Alice 
Meynell, who had more seriousness than he, was delighted by it. 
Louise Guiney's versions of seventeenth-century spelling often 
produced mildly exciting and not unpleasant effects; if they were 
artless, which is to be doubted, they were remarkably consistent 
in their waywardness, and if they were not, they created an at- 
mosphere, which she undoubtedly desired, of writing poems from 
a world that had escaped the limitations of time and space: 

The Ox lie opencth wide the Doorc, 

And from the Snowe he calls her innc, 

And he hath seen her Smile therefor, 

Our Ladyc without Sinne. 

Now soone from Sleep 

A Starre shall leap, 

And soone arrive both King and Hinder 

Amen, Amen: 
But O, the Place co'cl I but finde! 

The Ox is host in Judah stall 

And Host of more than onelie one, 

For close she ga there th withal 

Our Lorde her littcl Sonne. 

Glad Hinde and King 

Their Gyltc may bring, 

But wo'cl to-night my Tearcs were there, 

Amen, Amen: 
Between her Bosom and His hayre! 10 

Louise Guiney wrote a number of "cavalier rhymes/' but the 
true image of what she saw was neither Prince Rupert nor his 
men, but the image of her father, the Irish-born General Patrick 
Guiney of whom Van Wyck Brooks wrote: 

[He was] an Irish lawyer who had commanded a regiment in the 
American Civil War. Brevetted a brigadier-general ... he had been 
hopelessly wounded; and one day in Boston, twelve years later, he sud- 

10 "Five Cards for Christmastide" from Happy Ending, used hy permission 
of Houghton Mifilin Company. 

88 A History of American Poetry 

denly stopped in the street, removed his hat, knelt, crossed himself and 
died. Miss Guincy's spirit rode forward in her father's stirrups. 11 

His portrait shows an attractive and intelligent face, one that 
seems well suited to the son and grandson of men who had been 
out in "the '98," and "the '45." "My preux chevalier of a father," 
Louise Guiney called him, and perhaps it was and that like- 
liness seems very clear in loyal deference to his memory that her 
verses were filled with gallant soldiers who rode forth to battle 
during which, of course, they always fell: 

A dipping of plumes, a tear, a shake of the bridle, 
A passing salute to this world and her pitiful beauty: 
We hurry with never a word in the track of our fathers. 

We spur to a land of no name, out-racing the storm-wind; 

We leap to the infinite dark like sparks from the anvil. 

Thou leadest, O God! All's well with Thy troopers that follow. 12 

It was in England that Louise Guincy, possessed by the very 
daemon of antiquarian research, did her most characteristic work, 
and became "a Bodleian mole/' Many years of her life were 
spent in searching for and at last discovering the grave of her 
beloved Vaughan. As a friend once wrote of her, "a half-effaced 
inscription was more dear to her than whole broadsides of mod- 
ern paeans to success/' In 1903 and of America Miss Guiney her- 
self had written: 

I can't go home. It gives me the most genuine and involuntary fit of 
trembling. . . . The pace at which everything goes there, the noise, the 
publicity, the icicles, the mosquitoes, the extreme climatic conditions, I 
am not equal to them any more. 13 

Her remarks were not unlike those in another letter, written 
by Mrs. Church, in New York, to Madame Galopin, at Geneva, 
dated October 17, 1880, in Henry James's "The Point of View": 14 

II From New England: Indian Summer, K. P. Button & Company, Inc. 

12 "The Wild Ride" from Happy Ending, used by permission of Houghton 
Mifflin Company. 

13 From Letters of Louise Imogen Guiney, ed. by Grace Guiney, by per- 
mission of Harper & Brothers. 

i* From The Siege of London, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin 

The "Twilight Interval" 89 

We have found a refuge in a boarding-house which has been highly 
recommended to me, and where the arrangements partake of that bar- 
barous magnificence which in this country is the only alternative from 
primitive rudeness. . . . There is no wine given at dinner, and I have 
vainly requested the person who conducts the establishment to garnish 
her table more liberally. She says I may have all the wine I want if I 
will order it at the merchant's, and settle the matter with him. But I 
have never, as you know, consented to regard our modest allowance of 
eau rougie as an extra. ... In this country the people have rights, but 
the person has none. 

It was her "person" that Louise Guiney wished to retain, and 
with it the right to live in her own world, "that green and grow- 
ing England" where "the gracious parks, the clean-cut hedges, 
the old abbeys" were "the evidences everywhere of nature con- 
trolled and enjoyed to the full." And unlike Mrs. Church, Louise 
Guiney had of course no daughter to marry off, and she had none 
oi Mrs. Church's concern for the material advantages of those 
who on a small income found sufficient means to live away from 
home; living in England was her means of preserving an indi- 
viduality, of fulfilling the particular nature of her gifts. Her 
antiquarian researches and her devotions to her faith kept her 
mind employed and her talents fresh and young; in her chosen 
environment, she held the motto of her saint, St. Francis de Sales, 
before her eyes: "In the royal galley of Divine Love there are no 
galley slaves; all the rowers are volunteers." 

In loneliness, in quaint 
Perpetual constraint 15 

she wrote her essays and her verses, and within them she pre- 
served the quality of seeming to live in pastures above the earth 
which is the secret of their charm: 

Hither felicity 

Doth climb to me, 

And bank me in with turf and marjoram 

Such as bees lip, or the new-weaned lamb . . , 16 

is "Planting the Poplar" from Happy Ending, used by permission of 
Houghton Mifilin Company. 

IB "Sanctuary" from Happy Ending, used by permission of Houghton Mif- 
flin Company. 

(jo A History of American Poetry 

Through the eyes of her early friends in Boston, she was re- 
membered as "a slight, blue-eyed girl, delicate as a wild rose, 
elusive as thistledown/' which was perhaps another way of say- 
ing that she was both reserved and shy. A few of her verses will 
always speak to the initiate who share an interest in her favorite 
themes; however willful and extravagant her fancies became, she 
rarely wrote a shoddy line of verse and she was the author of 
one extraordinary poem, "A Friend's Song for Simoisius": 17 

The breath of dew and twilight's grace 

Be on the lonely battle-place, 

And to so young, so kind a face, 

The long protecting grasses cling! 

(Alas, alas, 

That one inexorable thing!) 

In rocky hollows cool and deep, 
The honey-bees unrifled sleep; 
The early moon from Ida steep 
Comes to the empty wrestling-ring; 

Upon the widowed wind recede 
No echoes of the shepherd's reed; 
And children without laughter lead 
The war-horse to the watering; 

With footstep separate and slow 
The father and the mother go, 
Not now upon an urn they know 
To mingle tears for comforting. 

Thou stranger Ajax Telamon! 
What to the lovely hast thou done, 
That nevermore a maid may run 
With him across the flowery Spring? 

The world to me has nothing dear 
Beyond the namesake river here: 
Oh, Simois is wild and clear! 
And to his brink my heart I bring; 

My heart, if only this might be, 
Would stay his waters from the sea, 
To cover Troy, to cover me, 

17 From Happy Ending, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. 

The "Twilight Interval" 91 

To haste the hour of perishing. 

(Alas, alas, 

That one inexorable thing!) 

The expression of classical imagery in Louise Guiney's fresh, 
clean diction reminds one of what an early critic of her work 
had written that it was often felt in reading it as if one had 
suddenly encountered a Greek temple, standing alone, in an 
American woodland. In her "Song for Simoisius" Miss Guiney 
as early as 1893 seems to have anticipated the spirit of a finer 
poet, who followed her exactly a decade later to London and who 
wrote memorable poems out of her private vision of another age, 


If there is a pantheon where the memory and the verse of all 
true poets endure, then Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914) would in- 
deed be possessed of a distinguished reputation. Unlike Lizette 
Reese's, her verse had an intellectual quality, a studied, if not 
strained, simplicity; yet in its way, it was equally delicate and 
quite as fine as the more freely spontaneous lyricism of the elder 
poet. Most of her creative years were troubled by ill health, and 
this circumstance, along with her desire for perfection, seems to 
have hindered as fine a minor talent as has ever appeared in 
American poetry. The slim volume of her Verse, which was first 
published in 1915, the year after her death (and was reissued in a 
final edition in 1922), and A Study in English Metrics, also post- 
humously published in 1918, in which she made an application 
of theories in phonetics to metrical problems in writing verse, 
are all we have of her literary remains. But that little, especially 
in the verse itself, gives evidence of a personality that united 
sensibility with passion, and fine perceptions with intellectual 

She was best known for her "Cinquains," which she had 
written as an experiment in verse form, an attempt to find the 
shortest and simplest form for writing English verse, and which 
were, as her biographer, Mary Elizabeth Osborn, described them, 
"a working up to and falling away from a climax; with the 
syllables always two, four, six, eight, two." As her biographer also 

92 A History of American Poetry 

relates, Milton's use of vowels in "Lycidas" had given her her 
first interest in prosody. Not unlike Sidney Lanier (1842-81), but 
with considerably less technical knowledge and sophistication 
than he possessed, Adelaide Crapsey "felt that certain combina- 
tions of sound were particularly effective." Her "Cinquains" bore 
the characteristic marks of her studies in prosody and if their 
contribution to the technics of modern poetry is negligible and 
quite unlikely to be revived, it is all the more certain that they 
reflected one aspect of her personality and may be said to have 
lived and died with her. A study, therefore, of her longer poems 
in other forms gives us a far better impression of her promise 
and achievements and is far more rewarding than a prolonged 
review of her frequently quoted "Cinquains." 

Adelaide Crapsey was the third of the nine children of the 
Reverend Algernon Crapsey, "a personality of fire and enthusi- 
asm," who had had a stormy career within the Episcopal Church 
by leading a revolt against certain of its rituals and who was 
at last formally deposed from its ministry. Adelaide Crapsey had 
shared her father's love for the church itself, but she had also 
received from him an attitude of dissent toward dogma and 
ritual which became an essential part of her character. "Being 
brought up in the Crapsey family," wrote Miss Osborn, "meant 
being brought up in the midst of intellectual experiment." Ade- 
laide Crapsey's mother did not take part in theological disputes, 
but devoted her energies to church charities and the care of her 
many children. "To her a family was a collection of personali- 
ties, to each of whom courtesy was a duty and reserve was a 
right." This attitude of aloofness was carried so far that, as Miss 
Osborn wrote, "Not until after the daughter who was named for 
her was dead did Mrs. Crapsey know that she had been a poet." 

Though Adelaide Crapsey was born in Brooklyn Heights, 
Brooklyn, her early childhood was spent in Rochester, New York, 
where her father had accepted a call as rector of St. Andrew's 
Church. She was sent off to Kemper Hall at Kenosha, Wisconsin, 
and there was described as being "very tall, delicate, and so vivid 
and active that no one thought of her as fragile." Up to her 
graduation from Kemper Hall, she wore her brown hair in two 
braids, and with characteristic independence, she dressed in a 

The "Twilight Interval" 93 

quaint fashion that best suited her in "Kate Greenaway dresses 
which set off admirably her delicate features, her vivid eyes and 
. . . her quick, reticent smile." At Kemper Hall she had begun 
to write, but almost all of her literary efforts were in prose, and 
she had received an award for her school work in French. 

In 1897 sne went to Vassar College where her roommate was 
Jean Webster, a niece of Mark Twain, who afterwards enjoyed 
brief fame as the author of a popular novel called Daddy Long- 
Legs. Jean Webster had a lively admiration for poetry and her 
companionship seems to have been a source of inspiration for 
Adelaide Crapsey. Miss Florence V. Keys, who was among Ade- 
laide Crapsey's instructors at Vassar, observed in a long letter: 

Her work . . . was of a sound kind; it was "literary" in its quality, 
by which I mean that while it showed a mind trained in its perceptions 
it did not have the warmth, concreteness, and individuality that awak- 
ened the interest one gives to "originality." Her treatment of things 
was rather diffuse, and mediated by a mass of critical reading, than 
concentrated and immediate; literature supporting literature for com- 
parison, not life. ... At the same time, Adelaide was very popular 
with quite unliterary girls. . . . Her nature was very wholesome, open, 
and genial, in an easy, quiet, humorous way that made her thoroughly 
liked by all kinds. . . . What I have been driving at in the foregoing 
is this: that she herself was much larger and more vitally interesting 
than her work as such. . . . Adelaide was deliberate in the use to which 
she put her thinking and her literary enjoyment. 18 

In 1902, she went back to Kemper Hall as an instructor. She 
liked to teach, and the opening lines of Milton's "Lycidas" she 
considered the purest poetry in the language. She delighted in 
reminding people of: 

Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more, 

Ye Myrtles brown, with ivy never-sear, 

I come to pluck your Berries harsh and crude, 

And with forc'd fingers rude, 

Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year. 

At Kemper Hall she began her first inquiries into A Study in 
English Metrics, on which she worked until her death and yet 
left unfinished. 

is From Adelaide Crapsey, by Mary Elizabeth Osborn. Copyright 1933; 
used by permission of Bruce Humphries, Inc. 

94 A History of American Poetry 

After returning from a long stay in Europe in 1911, she ac- 
cepted a post as instructor at Smith College where a number of 
her students were to remember her with deep affection. Even her 
appearance filled them with "love and foreboding. . . . She wore 
gray now all the time, shades of gray in dresses, coats and hats." 
They noted her delight in accuracy for the sake of accuracy, and 
the beauty that she always found in the forms and technics of 
literature. It was at this time that she began to write her "Cin- 
quains," which had followed the writing of one of her loveliest 
poems, which had begun as a metrical exercise, an "experiment 
... to show the sequence of rising and falling tone": 

1 make my shroud but no one knows, 
So shimmering fine it is and fair, 
With stitches set in even rows. 
I make my shroud but no one knows. 

In door-way where the lilac blows, 
Humming a little wandering air, 
I make my shroud and no one knows, 
So shimmering fine it is and fair. 1S) 

The "experiment," of course, was the most delicate of varia- 
tions in the form of the French triolet, a form, by the way, which 
during the i8go's had become the vehicle in English of sup- 
posedly light and usually banal verse. Her craftsmanship was so 
fine that it never seems obtrusive, and whatever personality 
shines through it, even the "personal" touches, never (as in the 
case of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry which in some early, 
shorter pieces resembles hers) dominate the poem. Her "Cin- 
quains" are possessed of the same tenuous charm: 


If it 

Were lighter touch 

Than petal of flower resting 

On grass, oh still too heavy it were, 

Too heavy! 

is "Song" from Verse, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 
1934 by Adelaide T. Crapsey. Copyright 1915, 1922 by Algernon S. Crapsey. 

20 From Verse, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1934 by 
Adelaide T. Crapsey. Copyright 1915, 1922 by Algernon S. Crapsey. 

The "Twilight interval" 95 


Not Spring's 

Thou art, but her's, 

Most cool, most virginal, 

Winter's, with thy faint breath, thy snows 


In 1912, her health, never too robust and of great concern 
during her stay in Europe, began to fail rapidly. She was forced 
to give up her teaching and to relax her studies in English 
prosody. Already her poems had begun to reflect images of an 
increasing awareness of death, not the heroic image of death, 
which is so often the common coinage of romantic poetry, but 
a sense of death that took on a painful and almost physical 
manifestation of reality in her poetry. In her poem to John Keats 

she wrote: P , 

. . . lor thou art come 

Upon the remote, cold place 
Of ultimate dissolution and 
With dumb, wide look 
Thou impotent, dost feel 
Impotence creeping on 
Thy potent soul . . . 

And in her lyric "Angeliquc," the image of death became an all- 
abiding presence, as brilliantly and as sharply realized as the 
sophisticated simplicity, the "insouciance" of her frequently 
quoted, "Vendor's Song": 

Have you seen Angelique, 
What way she went? 
A white robe she wore, 
A flickering light near spent 
Her pale hand bore. 

Have you seen Angelique? 
Will she know the place 
Dead feet must find, 

21 From I'erse, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1934 by- 
Adelaide T. Crapsey. Copyright 1915, 1922 by Algernon S. Crapsey. 

2- "Poem to John Keats" from Verse, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, 
Inc. Copyright 1934 by Adelaide T. Crapsey. Copyright 1915, 1922 by 
Algernon S. Crapsey. 

()6 A History of American Poetry 

The grave-cloth on her face 
To make her blind? 

Have you seen Angel ique . . . 
At night I hear her moan, 
And I shiver in my bed; 
She wanders all alone, 
She cannot find the dead. 23 

She had a room with a balcony in a sanatorium at Saranac, 
New York, "a room with a view" of what she called "Trudeau's 
Garden," an old graveyard that had been abandoned many years 
before by a village population. It was the sight of the graveyard 
that moved her to restlessness, even to the quick edge of anger, 
and finally to the writing of one of the longest poems in her 
collection, "To the Dead in the Graveyard Underneath My 
Window." This poem, though by no means one of her best, 
holds its position in her small volume by its value as a personal 
document. The emotion she attempted to convey is clear enough, 
but as she wrote it down an unassimilated, all too Miltonic 
passion seemed to possess her lines, and that full expression of 
all she had to say seems thwarted of its final purpose and desires. 
Yet, with all its faults, the poem never fails to attract the reader; 
the strength as well as the pathos of her intellectual courage 
seem to flash between its lines, and fragments of her speech to 
an unanswering audience of the dead might well be quoted as 
further evidence of the promise she extended toward the poetry 
of a generation which followed hers: 

Oh, have you no rebellion in your bones? 
The very worms must scorn you where you lie, 
A pallid, mouldering, acquiescent folk, 
Meek habitants of unresented graves. 

And in ironic quietude who is 
The despot of our days and lord of dust 
Needs but, scarce heeding, wait to drop 
Grim casual comment on rebellion's end; 

-3 "Angelique" from Verse, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copy* 
right 1934 by Adelaide T. Crapsey. Copyright 1915, 1922 by Algernon S. 

The "Twilight Interval" 97 

"Yes, yes . . . Wilful and petulant but now 
As dead and quiet as the others are." 24 

A short time before her death, a special-delivery letter came 
to her, saying that the Century magazine had accepted a few of 
her poems for early publication. Here, at last, came her first 
opportunity to gain public recognition as a poet. A spurt of 
ambition possessed her, and, as she attempted to make a col- 
lection of her poems, her strength again failed her. "It's too 
much," she said. "Just as I have my work, I can't do it." 

Though for a while the touching prefaces that Claude Bragdon 
and Jean Webster had written to her single volume of Verse 
(1915) gave it the kind of recognition earned by any "human 
document," the actual value of her work is slowly gaining recog- 
nition on its own merits. Hers was a poetry of personal identity, 
which a few years later a number of women poets learned to 
enlarge, to publicize, to exploit, and therefore gained more 
notice than Adelaide Crapsey ever attained. But lacking her 
finesse and intensity, their more ambitious efforts have become 
outmoded far more rapidly than her few fine poems, and through 
their brief, unpretentious utterance, the rarefied spirit of her 
poetic impulse has survived: 

But all the dead of all the world shall know 
The pacing of my sable-sandal'd feet, 
And know my tear-drenched veil along the grass, 
And think them less forsaken in their graves, 
Saying: There's one remembers, one still mourns; 
For the forgotten dead are dead indeed. 25 

The "gentle and intense" woman who made this modest and 
graceful plea to our memory has not been forgotten. 

2 * "To the Dead in the Graveyard Underneath My Window" from Verse, 
by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1934 by Adelaide T. Crap- 
sey. Copyright 1915, 1922 by Algernon S. Crapsey. 

25 "The Mourner" from Verse, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 
Copyright 1934 by Adelaide T. Crapsey. Copyright 1915, 1922 by Algernon 
S. Crapsey. 

98 A History of American Poetry 


Within three and four years alter the birth of Sara Tcasdale 
(1884-1933) two other poets were born in that most southern of 
Middle Western cities, St. Louis, Missouri, two poets whose work 
was so dissimilar to hers that their names can be mentioned only 
by way of contrast to everything she wrote. These two were 
Marianne Moore in 1887 and Thomas Stearns Eliot in 1888, and 
though between their work and Sara Teasdalc's there seems more 
than a generation of advance in technic, subject matter, scope, 
and reputation, it is sometimes well to recollect that their elates 
of birth were within a single, and now memorable, half-decade. 
Though Sara Teasdalc seemed always to have been a little old 
for her age, she also retained some of the instinctive, childlike 
wisdom and immaturity of those grown old too soon. One thinks 
of her as one of the "singers" who might well have lightened 
Clarence Stedman's "twilight interval" with a note of fresh, au- 
thentic "song." Like Lizette Reese, Sara Teasdale created the 
illusion of being born a poet or, as Virginia Woolf once wrote 
of Christina Rossetti, an "instinctive." 

And indeed the likeness of her verse to Christina Rossetti's has 
more than a casual association; the direct influence of Christina 
Rossetti's verse may be traced throughout the poems of Sara 
Teasdale, and it is of no small significance that she was at work 
on a study of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's remarkable sister when 
she died in 1933. She had the same fine ear (though not with the 
complete subtlety of transmitting a gentle and faintly exotic 
music, so characteristic of Christina Rossetti's verse) and the 
same gift of expressing intense emotion in a quiet voice. But 
where Christina Rossetti's theme had been the transfiguration 
and sublimation of love into religious devotion, Sara Teasdale's 
verse substituted the experiences and emotions of feminine love 
for religion itself. The very charm of Christina Rossetti's poetry- 
is the image it conveys of a temperament that suppressed the 
raptures of a St. Theresa within the well-bred restraints and 
conventions of a nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic church. 
Within this subtle conflict lies the secret of Christina Rossetti's 

The "Twilight Interval" 99 

power, for in many ways she betrayed her un-English origins, 
and in none so poignantly as when she half disclosed her Latin 
temperament in the authentic voice of mystical devotion and 
piety. But if Sara Teasdale's earliest ideal of love and its devo- 
tion was in the image of Sappho, it was scarcely a Greek poetess 
at close view and certainly not the Sappho of the French natu- 
ralists, nor the naughty poems of the iBgo's. 

The Sappho whom Sara Teasdale idealized, and with whom 
she had early identified her own poetic personality, was one of 
those figures who might have stepped from the chisel of William 
Wetmore Story, the American sculptor of the mid-nineteenth 
rentury, who after a long stay in Italy and after long contempla- 
tion of classic nudes, invested each of his mythological figures 
with an unmistakable air of New England chastity. 

Sara Teasdale was the youngest child of middle-aged parents 
who seemed to have treated her with doting affection. "Anything 
that I wanted that my parents could get, came to me," she said, 
and this surfeit of uncritical devotion from her elders may par- 
tially explain her lifelong preoccupation with herself, her own 
health, her conscious "inner" life, her perpetual invalidism. Her 
family were well off and took pleasure in encouraging the tastes, 
desires, education, hopes, and fancies of a frail and talented girl. 
Before her first book, Sonnets to Dnse and Other Poems, ap- 
peared in 1907, she had traveled widely, and she followed the 
course of a journey eastward as far as the European continent. 
Of her first book, Morton Dauwen Zabel wrote, "Sara Teasdale's 
early work made no pretense of being anything but the literary 
devotions of a talented girl whose spiritual refinement and good 
taste were enough to excuse the loose diction and conventional 
epithets with which she clothed her tributes to Duse, Guenevere, 
Beatrice, Sappho." 

Although Sara Teasdale's lyricism from its earliest appearance 
in a book always created the impression of spontaneous and 
liquid movement, as though each poem had been improvised for 
the occasion of reciting it in a gentle, intimate, almost whisper- 
ing voice, its artistry was of slow and erratic development. Her 
first four volumes, including Love Songs, published in 1917, 
showed increasing promise, but relatively small achievement. One 

ioo A History of American Poetry 

suspects that she was the kind of poet whose critical processes 
(in respect to her own work) flowed on unchecked and unheeded 
far below the surfaces of her conscious artistry. The proof that 
they existed may be shown in the distinction of her later poetry 
as well as in her lack of confidence in completing her study of 
Christina Rossetti. In Sara Teasdale's case one should not hesi- 
tate to point out the obvious fact that her relationship to her 
work and its progress was intuitive; and one should not be 
afraid to say that she wrote and published the same poem many 
times, changing its title and shifting its musical phrasing into 
a number of pleasing varieties, until at last a final poem ap- 
peared which contained the best qualities of a dozen or a score 
of poems preceding it. Although such a method or process may 
have seemed prodigal, she remained so clearly within the range 
of her limitations and her low-pitched variations upon a few 
well-chosen themes were so persuasive, that one seldom questions 
her sensitivity or her wisdom in following out the spiral course 
that she pursued. Even at her third and second best, one notes 
the progress that she made between a first collection of Love 
Songs in 1911 and her most frequently quoted poem, "The 
Look," which was included in her 1915 volume, Rivers to the 
Sea. Among a group of earlier Love Songs, we find this urgent 
demand for immediate and unreserved affection: 

Brown-thrush singing all day long 

In the leaves above me, 
Take my love this April song, 

"Love me, love me, love me!" 

When he harkcns what you say, 

Bid him, lest he miss me, 
Leave his work or leave his play, 

And kiss me, kiss me, kiss me! 26 

Today these earlier verses stand in contrast to the best and 
excellently tempered work of her later volumes, and however 
absurd her early confessions may seem to us today, they were 
forerunners of a flood of female self-revelations in which Edna 

20 "Love Me" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan 

The "Twilight Interval'' 101 

St. Vincent Millay, during the 1920*5, rode the crest of the 
wave, revelations in which no details of a love affair were spared 
the public, and whole schools of women poets announced 
proudly that they were with child. From these later movements, 
Sara Teasdale kept herself aloof. And she often indulged herself 
in the heresy of saying that she wrote to please herself, with the 
result that she has pleased more readers than many poets who 
had larger impulses in writing poetry as well as the hopes of 
being heard by ever-increasing audiences. "To raise esteem, we 
must benefit others; to procure love, we must please them," 
wrote Samuel Johnson in one of his Rambler papers. Though 
Sara Teasdale's object was not to benefit the human race, yet by 
pleasing herself, she usually managed to please others. 

Within her Rivers to the Sea, as well as in the five volumes of 
verse that followed it, one can trace the gradual deepening of 
l\er music. Slowly a tone of gravity and dignity possessed it, 
and as her music assumed deeper qualities, images of descending 
dark, and autumnal sadness, and of grave and piercing self- 
knowledge enter a portrait that previously contained the single 
image of a willful young woman who had been inspired by the 
need to love and to be loved. 

One by one, like leaves from a tree, 
All my faiths have forsaken me. 

I have lost the leaves that knew 
Touch of rain and weight of dew. 27 

A life, such as hers, devoted to an unceasing analysis of highly 
sensitized personal emotion, is always guaranteed to cause even- 
tual restlessness in an intelligent woman, and Sara Teasdale's 
letters, however briefly quoted in Louis Untermeyer's From An- 
other World, disclosed certain active perceptions, intuitions, and 
flashes of common sense that indicated the critical processes at 
work below the smoothly rippling surfaces of her poetry. One of 
the attractive features of her verse was its peculiarly classical 
quality, a quality that permeates her best work and is a cor- 
rective to the sentimental exuberances of "The Look" and the 

27 "Leaves" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan Com- 

A History of American Poetry 

bathetic simplicities of "Love Me" and "The Song for Colin." If 
her classicism never lost its relationship to the New England 
chastities of William Wctmore Story, her later poems were dis- 
tinguished by their purity of diction, movement, and image 
and in this interpretation of the classical spirit and its restraint 
we find the secret of Sara Teasdale's most subtle if not most 
popular charm. The first glimpse of her most enduring quality 
came to light in 1915. 


The fountain shivers lightly in the rain, 

The laurels drip, the fading roses fall, 
The marble satyr plays a mournful strain 

That leaves the rainy fragrance musical. 

Oh dripping laurel, Phoebus sacred tree, 

Would that swift Daphne's lot might come to me, 

Then would I still my soul and for an hour 
Change to a laurel in the glancing shower. 

The solid facts of her biography bear a tenuous, almost un- 
real relationship to her poetry. In 1914 she married Ernst 
Filsinger, a heavy-shouldered, prosperous businessman, whose 
weighty and protective interest in literature included a vague and 
\et tender admiration for the fantasies of Walter de la Marc. 


Sara Teasdale herself was a tall, plain-featured woman, angular 
and pale; at first glance she seemed the very image of the 
middle-aged, overworked, conscientious, maidenly schoolmistress 
who still exists in the imagination of the American public. This 
illusion was soon dispelled by the extraordinary animation of 
her voice and the clear, brilliant light that seemed reflected from 
her pince-nez. After twelve years of marriage, she decided to 
live alone in a New York apartment where she limited the large 
circle of her acquaintances to a few friends. It was two years 
before this decision that her best volume of verse, Dark of the 
Moon, appeared. From then onward to 1933 there was scarcely 
a poem which she published that did not possess its own un- 
pretentious charm; she had become the mistress of a style whose 

- s "Vignettes Overseas, IX: Villa Scrbelloni, Bellaggio" from Collected 
Poems. Bv permission of The Macmillan Company. 

The "Twilight Interval" 103 

simplicity was not without a touch of austere elegance. Intima- 
tions of this latter refinement of an elegiac style, with its melan- 
choly undertones and graceful turn of phrase, had made a tenta- 
tive arrival as early as 1920 in her Flame and Shadow, and its 
beginnings may be traced through 

Let it be forgotten, us a flower is forgotten, 

Forgotten as a fire that once was singing gold . . . 

If anyone asks, say it was forgotten 

Long and long ago, 
As a flower, as a fire, as a hushed footfall 

In a long forgotten snow. 29 

The personality she had created in her poems felt that the 
times as well as her individual character were less youthful and 
less assured of an affirmative answer to her question 

After the stillness, will spring come again? 
She had already written: 

I must have passed the crest a while ago 

And now I am going down- 
Strange to have crossed the crest and not to know, 

But the brambles were always catching the hem of my gown. 

It was nearly level along the beaten track 

And the brambles caught in my gown- 
But it's no use now to think of turning back, 

The rest of the way will be only going down. 00 

Autumn had become her season and in "Arcturus in 
Autumn," 31 she wrote what might well be read as her vale- 

When, in the gold October dusk, I saw you near to setting, 

Arcturus, bringer of spring, 
Lord of the summer nights, leaving us now in autumn, 

Having no pity on our withering; 

20 "Let It Be Forgotten" from Collected Poems. By permission of The 
Macmillan Company. 

3 "The Long Hill" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Mac- 
millan Company. 

-i From Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

104 A History of American Poetry 

Oh then I knew at last that my own autumn was upon me, 

I felt it in my blood, 
Restless as dwindling streams that still remember 

The music of their flood. 

There in the thickening dark a wind-bent tree above me 

Loosed its last leaves in flight 
I saw you sink and vanish, pitiless Arcturus, 

You will not stay to share our lengthening night. 

The four "autumn" poems written in France in 1923 are more 
than sufficient evidence of the final artistry her verse achieved. 
" Autumn (Pare Monceau)" brings to mind the formal graces of 
Andre Chenier, and indeed the poem seems to celebrate the 
memory of late eighteenth-century classicism that contained 
within its courtly, if not wholly urban, pastorals the early seeds 
of Continental romanticism. The poem has a purity of form and 
a technical brilliance that is equaled only by her "Fontaine- 
bleau," for here one rediscovers a quality in Sara Teasdale's art 
that is all too seldom stressed in the customary revaluations of 
her poetry: 

Interminable palaces front on the green parterres, 

And ghosts of ladies lovely and immoral 
Glide down the gilded stairs, 

The high cold corridors are clicking with the heel taps 
That long ago were theirs. 

But in the sunshine, in the vague autumn sunshine, 

The geometric gardens are desolately gay; 
The crimson and scarlet and rose-red dahlias 

Are painted like the ladies who used to pass this way 
With a ringletted monarch, a Henry or a Louis 

On a lost October day. 

The aisles of the garden lead into the forest, 

The aisles lead into autumn, a damp wind grieves, 

Ghostly kings are hunting, the boar breaks cover, 

But the sounds of horse and horn are hushed in falling leaves, 

Four centuries of autumn, four centuries of leaves. 32 

32 "Fontainebleau" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan 

The "Twilight Interval" 105 

In 1933 Sara Teasdale's death was caused by an overdose of 
sleeping tablets, and during that year, her last book of lyrics, 
Strange Victory, was posthumously published. These include the 
title poem and "In a Darkening Garden" in which the clear 
imagery and deepening melancholy music seem now to have 
foretold her end: 

All that was mortal shall be burned away, 

All that was mind shall have been put to sleep. 

Only the spirit shall awake to say 

What the deep says to the deep . . , 33 

Her large volume of Collected Poems which was published in 
1937, was a book that contained over three hundred poems. If 
the book had been reduced to a selection of fifty titles and 
edited with the intelligence that had gone into George San- 
tayana's 1922 edition of his Poems, Sara Teasdale's reputation 
would stand much higher in critical esteem than it does today. 

During the years of the "poetic renaissance" which followed 
the publication of her first book, and the succeeding 1920*8, 
Sara Teasdale's verse retained its associations with an earlier 
period in American poetry. Throughout its progress one discerns 
a last look backward into Stedman's "twilight interval." But if 
it anticipated a later school of which Edna St. Vincent Millay 
became the acknowledged mistress, its sensibilities also reached 
beyond the 1920*5 toward a revival of the elegiac tradition in 
Anglo-American verse. Not unlike the best of George Santayana's 
poetry, the best of Sara Teasdale's verses transcend the more 
facile definitions of belonging to a particular school, or to those 
distinctions which determine the sex of the author, or of being 
related to a particular nationality. It may be said that her verse 
had always been written in a distinctly minor key but this 
definition does not modify its occasional excellence, nor the 
mature if muted notes of its later lyrical utterance. 

The public response to Sara Teasdale's verse has always been 
phenomenal; her celebrity was quickly established by Love Songs 
in 1917, which was followed by public neglect during the ten 

33 "All That Was Mortal" from Collected Poems. By permission of The 
Macmillan Company. 

io6 A History of American Poetry 

years preceding her death in 1933. Five years later, and after 
the publication of her posthumous Collected Poems, public in- 
terest in her verse was rearoused; her book went through several 
editions in rapid order, and one concludes that her anonymous 
readers showed more discernment than the majority of her critics 
whose attention had been too closely held by the transitory 
excitements and diversions of "schools" and "movements" in 
American poetry. 


... I said. "Go on. The Lord giveth, 
The Lord taketh away. I trust myself 
Always to you and to your courtesy. 
Only remember that I cling somewhat 
Affectionately to the old tradition." 

"AVON'S HARVEST" * (1921) 

Time shall have more to say than men shall hear 
Between now and the corning of that harvest 
Which is to come. Before it comes, I go 
By the short road that mystery makes long 
For man's endurance of accomplishment. 
I shall have more to say when 1 am dead. 

"JOHN BROWN" 2 (1920) 

Unlikely as it may have seemed in 1900, Edmund Clarence 
iiedman's "twilight interval" was to produce its major poet, 
-[is presence was acknowledged by Stedman himself, but it was 
lot until two decades had been spent in admiration of less en- 
luring talents that the reasons for his reticence and the true 
allies of his poetry began to be understood. From 1904 onward 
o the day of his death in 1935 E. A. Robinson's poetry has been 
ubject to (one almost says "victimized by") extraordinary and 
erratic bursts of praise; and the praise has always been followed 
>y longer periods of critical silence and indifference. It would 
>e mere sentimentality to enlarge upon a general neglect of his 
vork, and untrue to say that both the man and his poetry were 
onsistently unappreciated; from the very beginning of his life 
is a poet he seemed to write for the few and those few were 
is widely separate as Josephine Preston Peabody in Boston; 
itedman, who had retired to his home in suburban Bronxvillc; 

1 From Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan Company. 
a Ibid. 


io8 A History of American Poetry 

Joseph Lewis French, a battered, indigent journalist, who wrote 
"special feature stories" for the Sunday World in New York; and 
Theodore Roosevelt, the chief executive of the United States, in 
the White House. Near the close of Robinson's career in 1927, 
after his Tristram, a long narrative in verse, had been distributed 
by a book club, The Literary Guild, the earlier cycle of spec- 
tacular fame, an almost dangerous notoriety, reasserted itself. 
Tristram became phenomenally popular and it was by no means 
the most fortunate of his longer poems. Five years after his 
death, Robinson's name was seldom spoken, and another period 
of silence has obscured the merits of his poetry. 

Since his poetry is in true need of reappraisal, this is no 
occasion to dwell too long upon the external facts of his biog- 
raphy, and for those who are interested in them alone, Hermann 
Hagedorn's "official" life, Edwin Arlington Robinson, published 
in 1938, can be read with a moderate degree of satisfaction. Like 
many "official" lives, the book is not the definitive biography; 
Hagedorn lacked the orderly diligence of a James Boswell, but 
one feels that no essential details of Robinson's life have been 
willfully distorted, and it also seems, since a number of Robin- 
son's friends and acquaintances are still alive, that Hagedorn 
accomplished his difficult assignment with a fair if unbrilliant 
exercise of tact and propriety. Ridgely Torrence's Selected 
Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson is even less satisfactory; 
the slender volume of 178 pages seems to have been edited 
with a fear of what "people would say" and an unclear percep- 
tion of their relationship to Robinson's poetry. 

In the present instance only those biographical details which 
may illuminate E. A. Robinson's contribution to American poetry 
will receive our attention, and beyond them, Hermann Hage- 
dorn's book should perform its service in gratifying the modified 
interest of the general reader. 

Edwin Arlington Robinson was born in the little town of 
Head Tide in Maine in 1869, but in the following year his 
family moved to Gardiner, "Tilbury Town," the named and true 

The "Twilight Interval" 109 

environment of so many of his poems, which was his boyhood 
home and where his father became a director of a local bank. 

Amy Lowell, who knew her New England with the thorough- 
ness of native authority, once wrote of Gardiner: 

I know of no place in America so English in atmosphere as Gardiner. 
Standing on the broad blue Kennebec, the little town nestles proudly 
beside that strange anomaly in an American city the manor-house. For 
Gardiner, so far as custom is concerned, possessed a squire for over two 
hundred years. And this gentleman's house is as truly "the great house" 
as that in any hamlet in England. A fine Tudor mansion of grey stone 
with rounded bow windows, it stands on a little hill above the river 
and even the railroad tracks which modern commercialism has incon- 
siderately laid along the nearer bank cannot take away from its air of 
dominating dignity. 3 

It is also well to remember that if Robinson's family* did not 
occupy a Tudor mansion, it was of the eldest New England 
heritage, that it numbered among its ancestors Anne Bradstreet, 
that it had been both distinguished and prosperous, that two 
generations after the Civil War, in a period when the voices of 
urban Chicago and New York and of the pioneer Middle and 
Far West sounded their echoes even in The Atlantic Monthly, it 
had produced a Robinson who recalled the accents of his "old 
tradition" with appropriate irony: 

Good glasses are to read the spirit through. 

And whoso reads may get him some shrewd skill; 

And some unprofitable scorn resign, 

To praise the very thing that he deplores; 

So, friends (dear friends), remember, if you will, 

The shame I win for singing is all mine, 

The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours. 4 

He had been brought up in one of those New England towns 
in which the very houses were "the appropriate frames for 
gracious mahogany, crested family silver, ivory and lacquer 
brought from China by seafaring ancestors/' These houses were 

3 From Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, used by permission of 
Houghton Miflliti Company. 

* "Dear Friends'* from Children of the Night. By permission of Charles 
Scribner's Sons. 

iio A History of American Poetry 

stocked with books as well as the memories of lathers and grand- 
fathers who had corresponded with half the learned societies of 
Europe, and "Tilbury Town" itself chose to honor arid to com- 
memorate its many distinguished residents who had made their 
contributions to letters and the arts, and had gone out into the 
larger worlds of London, or Paris, or Boston, or Philadelphia, 
or New York. 

In these surroundings during his precollege days, Robinson 
formed his taste in reading, and cultivated shyly but consistently 
a love for music; he carried the published scores of Faust, Lucia 
di Lammermoor, and Martha about with him and into the 
houses of his friends. His reading included Bryant's Library of 
Poetry and Song, Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb, Jane Austen, Haz- 
litt, and Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies and in his environment 


this seems a natural course for his early reading to take. Even 
his love of Dickens which he retained to the end of his life does 
not seem extraordinary, and his delight in Tennyson can almost 
be taken for granted. The unusual turn in his discriminations 
came with his pleasure at being invited to sit with his elders in 
a "literary club" to hear Ronsard or Villon or Verlaine read in 
the original and then promptly translated; this resembled an 
entry into the Lyceum circles that Ralph Waldo Emerson knew 
in his youth, and in the same vein Robinson's interest in poetry 
was stimulated by his own facility in translating Horace and 
Vergil, or turning the weighted periods of Cicero's orations into 
lines of blank verse in English. The same notes of discrimina- 
tion are heard in his early sonnets on Thomas Hood and George 
Crabbe; the reading falls frankly enough within a traditional 
pattern, but important variations were introduced; the tendency 
was toward a classical firmness of speech and moral suasion, 
balanced by a sudden appreciation of Verlaine, or of Wagner 
and Beethoven in music, or a lesser romantic poet of the early 
nineteenth century. If we are to trust his "Captain Craig" these 
choices were overlaid by a thorough rereading of the Bible and 

Wordsworth, Pope, 
Lucretius, Robert Burns, and William Shakespeare 5 

r > "Captain Craig" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillun 

The ''Twilight Interval" 111 

and in music 

Play Handel, not Chopin; assuredly not 
Chopin. 6 

And in a letter written as late as 1917 he wrote: 

When I was younger, I was very much under the influence of Words- 
worth and Kipling, but never at all, so far as 1 am aware, under that of 
Browning, as many seem to believe. As a matter of fact, I have never 
been able to understand the alleged relationship unless it can be at- 
tributed to my use of rather more colloquial language than "poetic 
diction" has usually sanctioned. . . . 

I thought nothing when I was writing my first book of working for 
a Aveek over a single line; and while I don't do it any more, I am sure 
that my technique is better for those early grilling exercises. 7 

But between the writing of a completed version of "Captain 
Craig" and Robinson's youth in Gardiner, ten years had elapsed: 
he had spent two years at Harvard where he showed himself far 
less precocious in the years 1891 to 1893 than Moody, Lodge, 
and Stickney, and because of the sudden collapse of his family's 
fortune, he had withdrawn from Cambridge to Gardiner; in his 
retreat he had found time to read through all of Nathaniel 
Hawthorne's prose and reread The Scarlet Letter twice; in 1890 
and in 1897 ne nac ^ privately published his first two books of 
poems, The Torrent and the Night Before and The Children of 
the Night, and after a brief period of oscillation between New 
York, Boston, Cambridge, and Gardiner, he had at last settled 
himself, precariously enough, in 1899 m l h e neighborhood of 
Gramercy Park, New York. 

Robinson's short stay at Harvard had values which could not 
be determined at the time; his temperament, his habitual shy- 
ness (which afterwards contributed so hugely to the legend of his 
personality, and which had a resemblance to the carefully worded 
reticence of Henry James) had placed him at a measurable dis- 
tance from his fellow undergraduates and completely obscured 
him from the view of his instructors. His acquaintance with 
William Vaughn Moody was of the slightest order and it did 

t; "Captain Craig" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan 

" Letter to L. N. Chase from Selected Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson. 
R\ permission of The Macmillan Company and the author's estate. 

112 A History of American Poetry 

not strike fire until a later meeting in New York. When Robin- 
son was invited to meet the undergraduate editors of the Advo- 
cate, "L sat there," so he wrote afterwards, "unable to say a 
word." From his undergraduate days to the end of his life, he 
shied away from people who talked too glibly, too confidently 
of "literature" or of literary gossip and its ambitions; over a 
glass of whisky or of rum he chose less respectable companions 
and listened with an attention that is seldom reserved for such 
occasions to what they had to say. Of the courses in which he 
enrolled under President Eliot's elective system, perhaps only 
one, which was Charles Eliot Norton's "Fine Arts 3," carried 
its impressions into Children of the Night, and one almost 
hears Norton's fine appreciation of classical literatures in the 
concluding stanza of Robinson's "The Chorus of Old Men" in 
"Aegeus": 8 

Better his end had been as the end of a cloudless day, 

Bright, by the word of Zeus, with a golden star, 

Wrought of a golden fame, and flung to the central sky, 

To gleam on a stormless tomb for evermore: 

Whether or not there fell 

To the touch of an alien hand 

The sheen of his purple robe and the shine of his diadem, 

Better his end had been 

To die as an old man dies, 

But the fates are ever the fates, and a crown is ever a crown. 

Whatever advantages Robinson gained at Harvard were of a 
sort that yielded readily to his own character and his emotions: 
his going to Cambridge kept him within a circle from which he 
could later view New York through the eyes of one who had 
rightfully inherited the "old tradition" that had clung to "the 
little Athens" of the nineteenth century; for him the true source 
of the "old tradition" was Gardiner itself, but Harvard extended, 
however briefly, a line of continuity. The other advantage, that 
of leaving Harvard too soon and with the distressing circum- 
stance of a lack of money, increased his sense of failure (which 
had been present throughout his efforts to find editors who were 

8 From Children of The Night, used by permission of Charles Scribner's 

The ''Twilight Interval" 113 

willing to accept his poems), and brought him to the threshold 
of a maturity that does not rest upon easily won academic 
honors; nor was it trapped and retarded by the memory of 
"happy days" once spent at college. If, during his stay at Har- 
vard, he had few of those external signs of possessing talent 
which bring with them early rewards and transitory fame, his 
"invisible advance" toward poetic maturity was by no means 
slow; the lyrics of his first two volumes were enough to show it, 
and no poem written by his contemporaries at Harvard, includ- 
ing Moody and Trumbull Stickney, could equal in 1897 tne 
purity of diction and the sensibility of "Luke Havergal." The 
poem has been reprinted in many anthologies since the day of its 
publication nearly a half century ago; it remains as fresh today 
as it ever was, and it will probably survive all schools and 
fashions in American poetry of the twentieth century. 
( We may skip if we wish that vast accumulation of fact and 
legend surrounding Robinson's "job," as he would have called 
it, as time-checker in the New York subway from the autumn of 
1903 to the late summer of 1904; to the reader of Robinson's 
poetry, the story has the merits of taking on symbolic value: he 
had literally shared the darkness of an underworld that greeted 
his "Bewick Finzer" of whom he wrote a decade later, and with 
Finzer he knew 

The cleanliness of indigence, 

The brilliance of despair, 
The fond imponderable dreams 

Of affluence, all were there. 

He comes unfailing for the loan 

We give and then forget; 
He comes, and probably for years 

Will he be coming yet, 
Familiar as an old mistake, 

And futile as regret. 

The occasional extremes of Robinson's poverty which he faced 
with the same reticence with which he viewed a turn of good 
fortune or notoriety (for his friend Joseph Lewis French had 

9 From Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

ii4 d History of American Poetry 

sold a feature story of "The Poet in the Subway" to the Sunday 
World) had their likeness in the current of melodrama and the 
quickening contrasts of images of lights and shadows that run 
their courses through his poetry. Even in the least rewarding of 
his later narratives in verse, the flagging interest of the reader is 
suddenly reawakened by a flash of melodrama: 

There was a dark eruption all at once 
Of smoke and sudden flame from a tali funnel 
That leaned before it fell; and all on board 
Were singing so that Fargo on the wharf 
Could hear their sound of joy till a dull roar 
Became a silence, and there was no ship, 
And no more sound. 10 

And it should be remembered that immediately following 
Robinson's experiences in the subway came public recognition 
of his gifts by Theodore Roosevelt. He was by no means uncon- 
scious of the symbolic nature of the contrast. He had written 
earlier to Miss Peabody, "I was a tragedy in the beginning, and 
it is hardly probable that I shall ever be anything else," and in 
reference to his work in the subway, he continued, "Just what 
manner of cave I may select for a time is of no importance." In 
his actual meeting with the President, the superficial layers ol 
Robinson's shyness dropped away; he was as much at ease in 
talking to Roosevelt as he was to the men who worked under 
him in the subway; it was the heir of one elderly heritage in 
American society meeting another on equal ground, and the 
Roosevelt family, including those of the present generation, lived 
outside the circle that embraces middle-class society. Like the 
landed gentry of Whig persuasion in England of the eighteenth 
century, the Roosevelts met their equals or those who are dis- 
enfranchised by poverty with like courtesy and understanding; 
instinctively, they lived up to the custom of the true aristocrat, 
who meets the peasant or "failure" without constraint because 
one is as much above the law as the other is below it and Rob- 
inson shared the same understanding and privilege. 

The President's recognition brought Robinson an appointment 

10 "Amaranth" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmi11;m 

The "Twilight Interval" 115 

to a desk in the Custom House in Wall Street which he held 
from 1905 to 1909, but Roosevelt's praise of his poetry in the 
Outlook had the not unexpected result of awakening the resent- 
ment and distrust of professional critics, and their ill temper 
was expressed by one who wrote: 

We do not dispute the President's dictum, but we suspect that he has 
not kept au courant with the flood of American minor verse. Had he 
done so, he would think twice before applying the word, "genius," to 
Mr. Robinson. 

The only critic of the day who was properly equipped to 
appraise Robinson's work, Paul Elmer More, did not do so; the 
dramatic cycle of Robinson's notoriety had frightened him away 
but the small grdup of Robinson's friends, and he was never 
without an admiring friend or two, someone who would buy him 
a drink, or pay a small debt secretly and in a manner not to 
offend his spirit of independence, at last in 1911 secured for him 
the privilege of staying rent-free during the summer months at 
the MacDowell Colony which was a few miles outside the small 
town of Peterborough, New Hampshire. This was a return to the 
simplicities of his own environment; and the wise, sympathetic, 
and thrifty hospitality of Edward MacDowell's widow, a concert 
pianist of rare sensibility and discernment, helped to create a 
suitable atmosphere for the writing of his poems. From this time 
onward the details of his biography become those of any man 
who is absorbed in his work and who has gained sufficient self- 
knowledge to extend his powers. All through his life he inspired 
the protective instincts of others, and it was this secret charm 
that had kept him afloat in the most difficult years of his life. 
The MacDowell Colony became his true home, but he continued 
to return to New York for the winter months, and on fine mid- 
afternoons, his tall, graceful, conservatively dressed figure could 
be seen in Chelsea or on 8th Street, walking briskly, weaving 
slightly, stripping off the heads of imaginary daisies along the 
curb with the end of his stick. 11 

11 For the literal-minded who may look upon the last few lines as a poetic 
fancy it may be explained that he was seen by one of the authors of this 
book exactly as it has been described. 

ii6 A History of American Poetry 

In "Captain Craig/' which was the first and in some respects 
the most important of his major poems, Robinson had found a 
vehicle for the expression of his major themes and observed with 
admirable propriety the scene around him. Here we approach 
the so-called problems of his "philosophy," and as we speak of 
them, we should take care to view them in the terms of dramatic 
poetry which are implicit and not as one runs through the nam- 
ing of philosophic terms for their own sake. It should never be 
forgotten that all of Robinson's verse, whether in lyrical or 
dramatic narrative forms, was invested with the spirit of high 
and serious comedy and such a spirit, however humane or how- 
ever deeply concerned it may become with the sight of human 
failure and defeat, is not likely to be distracted by what Henry 
Adams called "conservative Christian anarchy" which had so 
sorely afflicted George Cabot Lodge and Trumbull Stickney. 
Such a spirit is likely to become critical of the "sad" attitudes 
that young Lodge and Stickney assumed so readily in verse: 

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn, 

Grew lean while he assailed the seasons; 

He wept that he was ever born, 
And he had reasons. 

Miniver scorned the gold he sought, 

But sore annoyed was he without it; 
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought, 

And thought about it. 12 

It is significant that Robinson's Captain Craig was an elderly 
man (and for that matter all of Robinson's heroes were elderly 
men, or well past the harried stages of early middle age, whether 
they were variously named Merlin, or Archibald, or Isaac, or 
John Brown, or Mr. Flood, or even Ben Jonson) and if Captain 
Craig had anything to say concerning the philosophic sadness of 
the young, it was not complimentary: 

12 "Miniver Cheevy" from Town Down by the River. By permission of 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 

The "Twilight Interval" 117 

And after time, 

When we have earned our spiritual ears, 
And art's commiseration of the truth 
No longer glorifies the singing beast, 
Or venerates the clinquant charlatan, 
Then shall at last come ringing through the sun, 
Through time, through flesh, a music that is true. 
For wisdom is that music, and all joy 
That wisdom: you may counterfeit, you think, 
The burden of it in a thousand ways; 
But as the bitterness that loads your tears 
Makes Dead Sea swimming easy, so the gloom. 
The penance, and the woeful pride you keep, 
Make bitterness the buoyance of your world. 13 

Captain Craig, the ancient "failure" of "Tilbury Town," was 
likened by his author to Socrates; and he was a Socrates whose 
unknown God, like Jehovah of the Hebrews, was not witnessed 
in an image, and if he had a latter-day propensity for wit and 
ironic mirth, his resemblance to the God of the Puritan Fathers 
is clearly evident in his rejection of adjectives to modify his 

And we have made innumerable books 
To please the Unknown God. Time throws away 
Dead thousands of them, but the God that knows 
No death denies not one: the books all count, 
The songs all count; and yet God's music has 
No modes, his language has no adjectives. 14 

Before we venture further into the moralities of Captain Craig 
and his invocations to the spirit of high comedy, a word should 
be said of his alertness in literary criticism and the excellence of 
the parodies that Robinson set before him in the persons of 
Count Pretzel von Wurzburger and Mr. Killigrew. If as Ima 
Honaker Herron remarked in her study of The. Small Town in 
American Literature Robinson's "Tilbury Town" anticipated 
Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River," Von Wurzburger and Killi- 

13 "Captain Craig" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan 

14 Ibid. 

n8 A History of American Poetry 

grew in "Captain Craig" also anticipated (and with greater art 
and skill) die arrival of Edgar Lee Masters' "Petit the Poet." 
Von Wurzburger's sonnet on Carmichael and the Frogs of Aris- 
tophanes is a beautifully tempered burlesque of the would-be 
sophisticated sonnet written in New York's Greenwich Village 
from 1900 to 1925; Von Wurzburger's sonnet belongs to that 
curious underworld of poetic activity in which the poet says more 
than he knows, and his ironies, however cleverly contrived, fall 
into bathos. Mr. Killigrew's lyric, "A Ballad of London," clearly 
reflects the work of those Americans who had read both unwisely 
and too well the ballads written by Tennyson, William Morris, 
Rossetti, and Swinburne and it even suggests the imminent ar- 
rival of another British poet whose first book was published in 
1902, coinciding with the publication of "Captain Craig" Alfred 
Noyes. Captain Craig was not very gentle with Mr. Killigrew: 

I cannot say for certain, but I think 

The brown bright nightingale was half assuaged 

Before your Mr. Killigrew was born. 

If I have erred in my chronology, 

No matter, tor the feathered man sings now: 

" 'Yes, I go to London Town* 

(Merrily waved the feather), 
'And if you go to London Town, 

Yes, we'll go together.' 
So in the autumn bright and brown, 
Just as the year began to frown, 
All the way to London Town 

Rode the two together. 

" 'I go to marry a fair maid' 

(Lightly swung the feather) 
Tardie, a true and loyal maid' 

(Oh, the swinging feather!) 
Tor us the wedding gold is weighed, 
For us the feast will soon be laid; 
We'll make a gallant show,' he said, 

'She and I together.' " 

1 r > "Captain Craig" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan 

The "Twilight Interval" 119 

And Captain Craig concluded his commentary with: 

You are one 

To judge; and you will tell me what you think. 
Barring the Town, the Fair Maid, and the Feather, 
The dialogue and those parentheses, 
You cherish it, undoubtedly. 'Pardie!' 
You call it, with a few conservative 
Allowances, an excellent small thing 
For patient inexperience to do: 
Derivative, you say, still rather pretty. 
But what is wrong with Mr. Killigrew? 
Is he in love, or has he read Rossetti? 1G 

Captain Craig was concerned with larger matters than the 
quality of Mr. Killigrew's verse, but he embraced it generously 
within the scope of his meditations. The comedy that Captain 
Craig learned to regard as the fact of his existence came to him 
tHrougli the slow progress of self-knowledge which transcended 
his failure and the lives of those around him: 

Take on yourself 

But your sincerity, and you take on 
Good promise for all climbing: fly for truth, 
And hell shall have no storm to crush your flight . . , 17 

His progress, which was not unlike the progress of other char- 
acters in Robinson's poems, ran a course that lies parallel to 
Lambert Strether's progress in Henry James's masterpiece, The 
Ambassadors; his problems were not, of course, of precisely the 
same nature, but like Strethcr, Craig was a New Englander who 
saw more of the world (even if he saw much of it vicariously) 
than his neighbors. Craig could agree with Strether's lately- 
arrivcd-at discovery on that memorable afternoon in Paris in 
the sculptor Gloriani's garden and Strether also had a habit of 
speaking aloud his mind to his young friends: 

"Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter 
what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't 

is "Captain Craig" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan 
IT ibid. 

i2O A History of American Poetry 

had that what have you had? I'm too old too old at any rate for what 
1 see. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. Still, we 
have the illusion of freedom; therefore don't, like me today, be without 
the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid 
or too intelligent to have it, and now I'm a case of reaction against 
the mistake. Do what you like so long as you don't make it. For it was 
a mistake. Live, live!" 18 

Craig substituted the word "climb" for Strether's "live," but 
both were vitally concerned with the "truth" of their respective 
positions and they viewed it with the customary restraint of 
nineteenth-century New Englanders whose conduct had been 
regulated and then set in motion by an unseen and unknown 
God. Strether's young Mrs. Popcock, who, when he had failed 
to rescue her brother from the toils of Paris and Mme. de 
Vionnet, followed him to Europe, was not unlike a lady whom 
Craig knew; at the very least, she was of the same world: 

There goes a woman cursed with happiness: 
Beauty and wealth, health, horses, everything 
That she could ask, or we could ask, is hers, 
Except an inward eye for the dim fact 
Of what this dark world is. The cleverness 
God gave her or the devil cautions her 
That she must keep the china cup of life 
Filled somehow, and she fills it runs it over- 
Claps her white hands while some one does the sopping 
With fingers made, she thinks, for just that purpose, 
Giggles and eats and reads and goes to church, 
Makes pretty little penitential prayers, 
And has an eigh teen-carat crucifix 
Wrapped up in chamois-skin. She gives enough, 
You say; but what is giving like hers worth? 19 

Strether heard the reply to this kind of lady from the lips of 
Mme. de Vionnet for she had seen evil in "this dark world" and 
had survived the sight of it: 

"What I hate is myself when I think that one has to take so much, 
to be happy, out of the lives of others, and that one isn't happy even 

18 The Ambassadors, Book V, Chapter II, preface. By permission of Harper 
& Brothers. 

19 "Captain Craig" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan 

The "Twilight Interval" 121 

then. One does it to cheat one's self and to stop one's mouth but that's 
only at the best for a little. The wretched self is always there, always 
making one somehow a fresh anxiety. What it comes to is that it's not, 
that it's never, a happiness, any happiness at all, to take. The only safe 
thing is to give. It's what plays you least false." ~ 

And to this speech Craig had a corollary: 

There's yet another flower that grows well 
And has the most unconscionable roots 
Of any weed on earth. Perennial 
It grows, and has the name of Selfishness; 
No doubt you call it Love. 21 

In presenting these parallels between James and Robinson, 
there is no implication that they had read one another, or had 
in any way allowed an exchange of influences to pass between 
them: the point of quoting them in the present order is to show 
that they inhabited the same moral climate, and that both men 
separately held in respect the progress of self-realization and self- 

Even Robinson's frequent progress toward discovering a 
"light" in "darkness" has its highly sensitized presence in the 
last scene of James's "The Altar of the Dead" 22 and the image 
is transformed to the "gap in the array," the missing candle 
among the others at the shrine: 

He let himself go, resting on her; he dropped upon the bench, and 
she fell on her knees beside him, his own arm around her shoulder. So 
he remained an instant, staring up at his shrine. "They say there's a 
gap in the array they say it's not full, complete. Just one more," he 
went on, softly "isn't that what you wanted? Yes, one more, one more." 

Many of Robinson's early critics spoke of his "gloom" and of 
his "pessimism" but at these points it is always better to agree 

20 From The Ambassadors, Book XII, Chapter I. By permission of Harper 
& Brothers. 

21 "Captain Craig" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan 

22 From Terminations, used by permission of Harper & Brothers. 

122 A History of American Poetry 

with Morton Dauwen Zabel's estimate of Robinson's position 
and Zabel, by the way, was among the first to make a serious, if 
all too brief, contribution toward a reappraisal of Robinson's 

Robinson joined passion with judgment, sympathy with prudence, 
and a tough American loyalty with contempt for the abuses that were 
defiling the American heritage and giving it over to a brutal material- 
ism that not only worsted the fine hopes of his pragmatic grandfathers, 
but drove him personally and by sheer revulsion away from the side- 
shows and vulgarizations of the affluent age around him. 23 

But what no critic has properly emphasized are the notes of 
wit and elegance and charm, all of which were well in keeping 
with the seriously mannered comic spirit that he invoked, and 
which permeated the best of his longer poems as well as con- 
trolled the almost faultless pace and phrasing of his shorter 
lyrics. If Robinson was awkward, flat, and ill at ease in writing 
prose, a fact which his published letters overwhelmingly testify, 
there is no lack of a beautifully articulated grace and wit in his 

The man Flammonde, from God knows where, 
With firm address and foreign air, 
With news of nations in his talk 
And something royal in his walk, 

Erect, with his alert repose 
About him, and about his clothes, 
He pictured all tradition hears 
Of what we owe to fifty years. 
His cleansing heritage of taste 
Paraded neither want nor waste; 
And what he needed for his fee 
To live, he borrowed graciously. 24 

And in a deeper vein in which the emotion expressed is 
elegiac, the same reticence, the same classical graces are discerned: 

23 From an article on E. A. Robinson by Morton Dauwen Zabel, August 28, 
1937. Used by permission of The Nation. 

-* "Flammonde" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan 

The "Twilight Interval" 123 


No more with overflowing light 
Shall fill the eyes that now are faded, 
Nor shall another's fringe with night 
Their woman-hidden world as they did. 
No more shall quiver down the days 
The flowing wonder of her ways, 
Whereof no language may requite 
The shifting and the many-shaded. 

The grace, divine, definitive, 
Clings only as a faint forestalling; 
The laugh that love could not forgive 
Is hushed, and answers to no calling; 
The forehead and the little ears 
Have gone where Saturn keeps the years; 
The breast where roses could not live 
Has done with rising and with falling. 

The beauty, shattered by the laws 
That have creation in their keeping, 
No longer trembles at applause, 
Or over children that are sleeping; 
And we who delve in beauty's lore 
Know all that we have known before 
Of what inexorable cause 
Makes Time so vicious in his reaping. 

Not since the eighteenth century had any poet in English em- 
ployed the arts of poetic wit with greater poise than Robinson. 
If his language was clipped and dry a characteristic to which his 
early editors objected and if, as Morton Dauwen Zabel has so 
pertinently remarked, the progress of his phrasing was "syllo- 
gistic," the formal graces of his brief elegy should not be over- 
looked; they return in a persistent strain throughout his many 
minor poems, and they lift, even at the conclusion of his least 
fortunate dramatic narratives, whatever seems overweighted or 
inappropriate. Though it is doubtful if many readers of the 
future will have the patience to re-endure the trials of the men 
and women who talk too much and meditate too often in the 

2f> From Town Down by the River. By permission of Charles Scribner's Sons. 

124 A History of American Poetry 

pages of Robinson's Tristram^ 26 the classical beauty of its last 
lines are scarcely to be forgotten: 

And white birds everywhere, flying, and flying; 

Alone, with her white face and her gray eyes, 

She watched them there till even her thoughts were white, 

And there was nothing alive but white birds flying, 

Flying, and always flying, and still flying, 

And the white sunlight flashing on the sea. 

The various lights which illuminated Robinson's poetic ma- 
turity in "Captain Craig" and which shone with increasing, if 
not consistently unflickering, brilliance until the publication of 
The Man Who Died Twice in 1924, were those of a latter-day 
New England humanism. The softer lights and sweeter cadences 
of Emerson's transcendental spirit had gone out and were stilled. 
Those gifts of prophecy on which Emerson relied when he wrote 

Or say, the foresight that awaits 

Is the same Genius that creates . . , 27 

were brought to book (almost literally one might say) in Robin- 
son's "Merlin," 28 for Merlin had been cursed by the gifts of 
prophecy and his world had fallen into ruins: 

All this that was to be is what I saw 
Before there was an Arthur to be king, 
And so to be a mirror wherein men 
May see themselves 

but I was neither Fate nor God. 
I saw too much; and this would be the end, 
Were there to be an end. 

The ancient theme of divine envy was lightly stressed; and 
Merlin and the Fool, Dagonet, entered a night that resembled 
as closely as the spirit of comedy can ever resemble tragedy at 

26 From Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

27 "Fate" from Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Houghton Mifflin Com- 

28 From Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

The "Twilight Interval" 125 

all the darkness that shrouded King Lear and his madness. But 
for us, it is significant that Robinson's Merlin did not lose his 
wits; and that the Fool, however dark and cold the night 

. . . heard what might have been a father's laugh, 
Faintly behind him. 

The scene was characteristic of Robinson's humane temper, 
but in lesser figures than Merlin (who was above the lesser sins) 
the curse of one who hates an enemy can be resolved only by 
death itself and Avon paid that price in Avon's Harvest. Aside 
from his hatred Avon remained, though middle-aged in years, 
a boy at a preparatory school, and Robinson, with the case 
and skill of an accomplished moralist of a tradition that is not 
unaware of Nathaniel Hawthorne, consigned Avon to a devil 
of his own making. 

Robinson's accomplishments in the moral arts that rejected 
pantheism as well as the unthoughtful hero worship of Shake- 
speare which had stirred so many Americans at the start of the 
twentieth century into writing lame blank verse, were never 
better expressed than in his remarkable tour de force, "Ben 
Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford." Both Jonson and 
Shakespeare retain their stature, but Robinson happily re-created 
the atmospheres of Every Man in His Humour and of Twelfth 
Nig/it rather than that of Macbeth or Hamlet, and within the 
speeches between Jonson and Shakespeare, it is well to overhear 
at what great distance Robinson's Shakespeare traveled from the 
definitions of "Nature" that had been employed by youthful 
poets of both the nineteenth and early twentieth century: 

"Your fly will serve as well as anybody, 
And what's his hour? He flies, and flies, and flies, 
And in his fly's mind has a brave appearance; 
And then your spider gets him in her net, 
And eats him out, and hangs him up to dry. 
That's Nature, the kind mother of us all. 
And then your slattern housemaid swings her broom, 
And where's your spider? And that's Nature, also. 
It's Nature, and it's Nothing. It's all Nothing. 
It's all a world where bugs and emperors 
Go singularly back to the same dust, 

A History of American Poetry 

Each in his time; and the old, ordered stars 
That sang together, Ben, will sing the same 
Old stave to-morrow." 29 

Something very close to the sound of Shakespeare's own voice 
is heard in the deftness with which it plays on the word "fly," 
and it reminds one of the same dexterity that juggled an am- 
biguous "will" through the lines of a famous sonnet, but Rob- 
inson's Shakespeare is one whose world has been too much with 
him and as for his retirement to the country, Robinson's Jonson 
remarked, "God help him!" and then alter speaking the highest 
praise he could deliver, "O Lord, lhat House in Stratford!" 

In the poems of Robinson's middle years (and t these include 
several of his historical portraits as well as several of his major 
pieces) his language, his very art of presenting a set of phrases 
in the form of a syllogism, acted as a necessary astringent to the 
poetic diction of his time. In the concluding stanza of "The 
Master," 30 which promises to become one of the few enduring 
tributes written to the memory of Lincoln and far too much 
indifferent verse has been written in memory of his name the 
very phrasing of the lines are proof of a style that transcended 
the lesser virtues of possessing "originality": 

For we were not as other men: 
'Twas ours to soar and his to see; 
But we are coming down again, 
And we shall come down pleasantly; 
Nor shall we longer disagree 
On what it is to be sublime, 
But flourish in our perigee 
And have one Titan at a time. 

The virtues that Robinson possessed were not those that found 
their happiest medium in his Arthurian cycle. And as Robin- 
son's dramatic narratives began to take on the character of 
"novels in verse," his limitations in the art of telling stories for 
their own sake began to be strongly felt. We may speculate, if 

-9 "Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford" from Collected Poems. 
By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

so From The Town Down by the River, used by permission of Charles 
Snibner's Sons. 

The "Tivilight Interval" 127 

only for a moment, as to the reasons why his Arthurian adven- 
ture became so attractive to him: First of all, it was a rich and 
elaborately designed shield behind which his habitual reticence 
could enjoy the sense of being protected and well at ease; and, 
perhaps, at a vantage point well removed from immediate con- 
siderations of time and place, he could create, as if he were on 
a holiday, the illusion of "letting himself go." And finally, 
although this was probably a matter of far less importance to 
him, the Arthurian cycle gave him an opportunity to test his 
wit and the astringent merits of his style against the highly 
gifted, loose and brilliant metrical variations through which 
Tennyson in the disguise of Galahad had sought the Holy Grail. 

But the difficulties ihat Robinson encountered were not en- 
tirely of his own making. To an American, and particularly a 
New Englander, the active, many-sided aspects of the Arthurian 
myth soon present problems of their own. The Arthurian myth 
belongs to the northwestern isles of Europe and the European 
continent. Its active life, its conventions of courtly love, its sight 
of good and of evil, and its religious being are distinctly alien 
to the "old tradition" that Robinson knew. To a New Eng- 
lander even its superficial details, such as dress and the most 
casual of its social mannerisms, tend to get in the way of seeing 
the picture clearly. America has always lacked its Middle Ages, 
and even with the resources of patient and seriously directed 
scholarship, it has great difficulty in reconstructing them. Among 
American poets, Poc alone possessed a view into the mysteries 
of the Gothic imagination but in the view through the eyes 
of a New Englander who held to the heritage of his thor- 
oughly Protestant beliefs with the loyalty of Robinson, the uni- 
versal, the Catholic church of the Middle Ages inevitably stands 
between him and the object of his vision. 

It is futile to argue that Robinson's Arthurian romances must 
not be taken literally. Of course they must not and Robinson's 
Merlin properly belongs in the company of Captain Craig and 
the elderly Archibald. But the very naming of a place called 
Camelot, and of persons called Gawaine, Isolt, or Gouvernail 
created a heavy, slightly spurious, "literary" atmosphere that ill 
suited the austerities of Robinson's wit and temperament. Both 

128 A History of American Poetry 

the weight and rootlessness of Robinson's Arthurian devices are 
felt and discerned in the following lines from Tristram: B1 

Tristram, the loud accredited strong warrior, 
Tristram, the learned Nimrod among hunters, 
Tristram, the loved of women, the harp-player, 
Tristram, the doom of his prophetic mother, 
Dropped like a log; and silent on the floor, 
With wild flowers lying around him on the floor- 
Wild roses for Isolt lay like a log. 

In this passage the failure is as great as Dr. Johnson's unfortu- 
nate attempt to retell the story of the virtuous Greek courtesan, 
Irene, who had been impetuously beheaded by Sultan Mahomet 
II; and the parallel grows even more deadly as one remembers 
that Dr. Johnson also retold his story in extremely blank and 
weighted verse. 

But unlike Dr. Johnson's Irene, which failed so notoriously 
at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, Robinson's Tristram 
through the efficient distribution of The Literary Guild in 1927 
reached a larger public and received more exuberant praise than 
any single volume of his work has known. It was rumored at the 
time that Robinson quietly inquired of a friend: "What is wrong 
with Tristram?" and with a characteristic intonation of mingled 
doubt and irony in his voice, "There's something wrong with 
Tristram; it can't be as good as I once thought it was." The sales 
of Tristram carried Robinson forward to his long-awaited eco- 
nomic independence; but, as he may well have suspected, the 
book also cut him off, even more resolutely than before, from a 
serious consideration of his merits at the hands of intelligent and 
responsible critics. 


Though the cycle of Arthurian romances did little to increase 
Robinson's poetic stature, and though his novels in verse, to 
which he devoted so much of his time during the last ten years 
of his life, steered him closer to the shallows of "psychological" 
speculation in George Meredith's prose and further away from 

si From Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

The "Twilight Interval" 129 

the climate he shared with Henry James it cannot be said that 
the writing of his longer narratives was entirely harmful. It was 
the kind of writing that kept him busy, that kept his hand in, 
as it were, toward the production and occasional felicities of 
many shorter poems. Of these we have the famous turn of wit 
that brought to a close Robinson's sonnet on New England, 

And Conscience always has the rocking chair, 
Cheerful as when she tortured into fits 
The first cat that was ever killed by Care. 32 

Memorable among them is another sonnet, "The Haunted 
House." And Robinson was one of four twentieth-century 
American poets Robert Frost, Elinor Wylie, and E. E. Cum- 
mings are the others who gave more to that particular lyric 
form, the distinction of their own speech, than they took from it: 


Here was a place where none would ever come 
For shelter, save as we did from the rain. 
We saw no ghost, yet once outside again 
Each wondered why the other should be dumb; 
For we had fronted nothing worse than gloom 
And ruin, and to our vision it was plain 
Where thrift, outshivcring fear, had let remain 
Some chairs that were like skeletons of home. 

There were no trackless footsteps on the floor 

Above us, and there were no sounds elsewhere. 

But there was more than sound; and there was more 

Than just an ax that once was in the air 

Between us and the chimney, long before 

Our time. So townsmen said who found her there. 

Robinson's beautifully trained gift of reawakening emotion 
through the art of scrupulously unadorned understatement 
paralleled the art that his great British contemporary, Thomas 
Hardy, practiced; and Robinson's true contribution to poetry 

32 "New England" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan 

^3 From Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

130 A History of American Poetry 

written on this side of the Atlantic was comparable in quality 
to Hardy's. Hardy's lyric, "The Garden Seat," 34 briefly illustrates 
the resemblance: 

Its former green is blue and thin, 
And its once firm legs sink in and in; 
Soon it will break down unaware, 
Soon it will break down unaware. 

At night when reddest flowers are black 
Those who once sat thereon come back; 
Quite a row of them sitting there, 
Quite a row of them sitting there. 

With them the seat does not break down, 
Nor winter freeze them, nor floods drown, 
For they are as light as upper air, 
They are as light as upper air! 

Nor can it be said that the writing of Lancelot in 1920 seri- 
ously retarded the final enrichment and transformation of Cap- 
tain Craig into The Man who Died Twice in 1924. This was 
the last of Robinson's poems in which the theme of human 
failure is endowed with the depths of feeling and sharp turns 
of wit that had been the true rewards of its author's maturity 
and something of its strength and serenity may be suggested by 
reading a slightly earlier and far shorter poem, "Archibald's 
Example": 85 

Old Archibald, in his eternal chair, 
Where trespassers, whatever their degree, 
Were soon frowned out again, was looking off 
Across the clover when he said to me: 

"My green hill yonder, where the sun goes down 

Without a scratch, was once inhabited 

By trees that injured him an evil trash 

That made a cage, and held him while he bled. 

"Gone fifty years, I see them as they were 
Before they fell. They were a crooked lot 

:*4 From Collected Poems by Thomas Hardy. By permission of The Mac- 
mi I Ian Company. 

:< 5 From Collected Poems by E. A. Robinson. By permission of The Mac- 
millnn Company. 

The "Twilight Interval" 131 

To spoil my sunset, and I saw no time 
In fifty years for crooked things to rot. 

"Trees, yes; but not a service or a joy 
To God or man, for they were thieves of light. 
So down they came. Nature and I looked on, 
And we were glad when they were out of sight. 

"Trees are like men, sometimes; and that being so, 
So much for that." He twinkled in his chair, 
And looked across the clover to the place 
That he remembered when the trees were there. 

With King Jasper, the last of his long poems, Robinson's work 
was finished: the "twilight interval" of his youth was far behind 
him, but in 1934, another twilight of ill-health and foreboding 
Ijad begun, and something of its character colored his letter to 
an old friend, Mrs. Laura Richards: 

Today I have been thinking of Hitler, and of what one neurotic 
fanatic may yet do to us and drag us into. It's all right to say it can't 
happen, but unfortunately it can. The more I try to make a picture of 
this world for the next hundred years, the more I don't like it, and the 
gladder I am that I shall be out of it. 86 

Of Amaranth, one of Robinson's novels in verse, The New 
Republic wrote, "a most pathetic revelation of the bitter, yet 
heroic self-doubt in the mind of a poet who once struck genuine 
fire, knows that he did, and fears he never will again." In his 
growing illness such notices troubled him. To Ridgely Torrence 
he admitted that he felt he was publishing too much. And in- 
deed the single-volume edition of his Collected Poems, issued in 
1 937, was a book of over fourteen hundred closely printed pages. 
But habit and the recurrent fears of failure, failure of the kind 
that had haunted his Bewick Finzer, increased the volume of 
his writing and he could not stop. He felt that he needed the 
money that was now coming steadily to him from the sale of his 
books, and the public that he had won through the sales of 

36 From Selected Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson. By permission of 
The Macmillan Company and the author's estate. 

132 A History of American Poetry 

Tristram bought each new volume with an air of automatic 

His illness was discovered to be cancer, and he was taken to 
the New York Hospital, where from a window in his room he 
could look out over the East River and see a corner of Welfare 
Island, a section of the prison itself, and its surroundings. To 
a friend who had admired the view, Robinson replied that he 
did not dare to turn his head in that direction: "I found that 
when I did ... I couldn't stand it. Think of the old men down 
there, think of what is going on, the suffering, the crowded, dingy 
quarters, the loneliness. And here I am getting the utmost that 
can be given!" His last view of the world was of the same per- 
spective that he saw over a quarter of a century through the eyes 
of Captain Craig: 

. . . yes, I have cursed 
The sunlight and the breezes and the leaves 
To think of men on stretchers or on beds, 
Or on foul floors, things without shapes or names, 
Made human with paralysis or rags; 
Or some poor devil on a battle-field, 
Left undiscovered and without the strength 
To drag a maggot from his clotted mouth; 
Or women working where a man would fall 
Flat-breasted miracles of cheerfulness 
Made neuter by the work that no man counts 
Until it waits undone; children thrown out 
To feed their veins and souls on offal . . . Yes, 
I have had half a mind to blow my brains out 
Sometimes; and I have gone from door to door, 
Ragged myself, trying to do something- 
Crazy, I hope. But what has this to do 
With Spring? T 

On April 5, 1935, Robinson died, and editorials in the morn- 
ing papers of the next day were filled with praise of the most 
distinguished poet in the America of his generation, "a man 
who" (as Samuel Johnson, a humanist of an earlier day, wrote 
of another) "had neither been enervated by applause, nor in- 
timidated by censure or indifference." 

ST "Captain Craig" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan 


In 1930 when the poems of Stephen Crane (1871-1900) were 
reprinted and were collected for the first time between the covers 
of a single volume, it seemed that a final revaluation of his 
poetry would at last be made. Was he indeed, as had been whis- 
pered a decade before, a poetic innovator, a forerunner of the 
Imagists, and was he, like Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley 
Hopkins whose posthumously published volumes made them 
seem like contemporaries to younger poets of the period, a first- 
rate poet? Do Crane's verses with their concise, vivid imagery, 
arid their epigrammatic sharpness make the poetry he wrote seem 
more alive than when they appeared under the titles, The Black 
Riders (1895) and War Is Kind (1899)? In fact the moment was 
overripe: in 1930 it seemed ten years too late for the publication 
of his Collected Poems, since by that time a new temper and 
tone, quite unlike Imagism, were beginning to enter American 
poetry; and if Crane had been vaguely accepted as an ancestor 
by younger poets in 1920 and by some as early as 1916 his 
poems in themselves had less to offer than the technical and 
verbal experiments of Hopkins or the tight, oblique spiritual- 
ity of Emily Dickinson. It had become clear that Crane's poetry 
depended too much on color and temperament, the loose and 
not always successful attempt at experimentation and more 
than all else on a brilliant, precocious gesture of revolt. The 
Collected Poems were reviewed with mild interest and were im- 
mediately classified as among the more notable predecessors of 
vers libre or (since the term had often been used loosely) the 
poetry of Imagism for it was known that Miss Amy Lowell 
greatly admired The Black Riders and War Is Kind. 

Whatever relationship Crane's verse had to Imagism and to 
the "poetic renaissance," including the Chicago school of Carl 
Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters, for Crane was also rediscov- 


134 si History of American Poetry 

ered by Harriet Monroe, its importance as mature poetry is 
still debatable. One can indeed imagine Stephen Crane as a 
young poet (some fifteen years after his early death) contributing 
to Miss Monroe's Poetry, or to a volume of Alfred Kreymborg's 
Others, but his best talents went into his novels and short stories 
and it is in these and in the colorful legend surrounding his 
name, which had been so brilliantly interpreted by Thomas Beer 
in 1923, that the character of his life and work achieves an im- 
mortality. Since Crane's poetry is still referred to vaguely, and 
is dutifully reprinted in brief selections in anthologies of Ameri- 
can verse, its historical importance seems pertinent and necessary. 
For Crane's prose and (in an infinitely more limited sense) his 
poetry, which was said to have been inspired by a reading of 
Whitman and by hearing William Dean Howells read aloud the 
poetry of Emily Dickinson, are among the few exceptions that 
gave color and life to the "twilight interval" which brought to 
a close the declining years of the nineteenth century. When one 
considers that Stephen Crane at the time of his death was a rest- 
less, isolated figure in this country, but had as his British con- 
temporaries George Douglas Brown (author of one remarkable 
book, The House with the Green Shutters), Joseph Conrad, and 
an expatriated Henry James, one sees how much more fortunate 
he was as a novelist than as a poet. Admitting that the best sus- 
tained proof of Crane's latent poetic imagination is still to be 
found in the pages of his novel, The Red Badge of Courage, the 
greater body of his verse seems less dated, less affected, less 
"arty," and certainly less self-conscious than a number of his 
short stories. Even after suffering constant repetition in antholo- 
gies, the following lines from The Black Riders retain their fresh- 
ness and their wit, their quickening penetration into psycho- 
logical reality: 

In the desert 

I saw a creature, naked, bestial, 

Who, squatting upon the ground, 

Held his heart in his hands, 

And ate of it. 

I said, "Is it good, friend?" 

"It is bitter bitter," he answered; 

The "Twilight Interval" 135 

"But I like it 

Because it is bitter, 

And because it is my heart." l 

Nor can thirty years of frequent quotation utterly destroy the 
elements of surprise and climactic effectiveness that are always 
rediscovered in reading the title poem of War Is Kind. But the 
emotions inspired by a rereading of the poem verge dangerously 
on the thin, almost invisible line between boyish irony and 
downright bathos and many of the poems in that character- 
istically slender volume remind us vividly of the better poems 
written in youthful exuberance by Edna St. Vincent Millay and 
E. E. Cummings, and occasionally one also recalls the attitudes 
of the young Ernest Hemingway in his early poems and In Our 
Time. Stephen Crane, the handsome, melodramatic young man, 
with his profound curiosity concerning the nature of human 
^uilt and fear, became a figure of spectacular prominence in the 
creation of a twentieth-century American legend; and one re- 
members, through the testimony of Ford Madox Ford (whose 
recollections of a long and lively career must not be accepted 
for their literal truth but for their flashes of an essential, one 
might almost ay poetic, validity), how Crane took special de- 
light in startling his English friends by gaily flashing a brace of 
murderous six-shooters in a drawing room and the effectiveness 
of that gesture is intensified and heightened if we take the 
trouble to remember how deeply Crane hated war and feared 
firearms. All this, of course, became the best-loved and best- 
known features of a legend surrounding the typical young and 
gifted American writer, a legend that some critics and a great 
majority of the reading public always find attractive, especially 
when it is accompanied by newspaper publicity. 

In rereading Crane's poetry one readily admits that much of 
his verse seems to anticipate the characteristic economy of phras- 
ing, lightness, and verve of a style that the Imagists claimed was 
a particular virtue of their art and obviously Crane made no 

i "The Heart" from Collected Poems of Stephen Crane, by permission of 
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1922 by William H. Crane. Copyright 1895, 
1899, 1926, 1929, 1930 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

136 A History of American Poetry 

pretensions toward stating a poetic theory as he quickly jotted 
down his verses. As in his prose, he simply looked for a new 
means of expressing a sharp and clear reflection of his keen 
vision and there are times when his verse seems to resemble the 
poetry of an extremely youthful Ezra Pound. We can readily 
compare Ezra Pound's use of the sublimated epigram with these 
lines taken from The Black Riders: ' 2 

There was set before me a mighty hill, 

And long days I climbed 

Through regions of snow. 

When I had before me the summit-view, 

It seemed that my labour 

Had been to see gardens 

Lying at impossible distances. 

And one also finds a sharp thrust of youthful irony and wit in: 

Friend, your white beard sweeps the ground. 

Why do you stand, expectant? 

Do you hope to see it 

In one of your withered days? 

With your old eyes 

Do you hope to see 

The triumphal march of justice? 

Do not wait, friend! 

Take your white beard 

And your old eyes 

To more tender lands. 3 

It was as though Stephen Crane were unconsciously building 
a bridge between the epigrams contained in Ambrose Bierce's 
The Devil's Dictionary and the early issues of the Imagist an- 

To those who measure date lines religiously, Stephen Crane 
can be said to be a poet of the twentieth century only by the 
slightest turn of chance (since he died almost symbolically in the 
first year of the century); yet it is in terms of the poetry written 
in the first two decades after his death that his work is best 

2 "XXVI" from Collected Poems of Stephen Crane, by permission of Alfred 
A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1922 by William H. Crane. Copyright 1895, 1899, 
1926, 1929, 1930 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

s Ibid., "LXIV." 

The "Twilight Interval" 137 

interpreted and understood. As a poet, and quite unlike the 
more important forerunners of the "poetic renaissance," includ- 
ing E. A. Robinson, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman, 
Stephen Crane is best viewed in the light whose shadows cast 
historical perspectives, while the larger figures belong not only 
to their particular decade, but to ours and to all time. 



It is almost impossible to speak of Harriet Monroe (1860-1936) 
without special reference to the hopes and aspirations of the 
period in which her magazine, Poetry, was born. In America, 
the years 1912 to 1918 were spoken of as the years of a "poetic 
renaissance," and as recently as ten years ago, instructors in 
schools and colleges and contributors to literary sections of the 
liberal weeklies glanced backward to that moment as though it 
wore a golden age, not unlike the great days of Queen Elizabeth's 
England or of the Medici in fifteenth-century Florence. And as 
we look backward, the years of the "poetic renaissance" seem to 
have been of a day when magazines opened their doors widely 
and indiscriminately to all kinds of poetry, provided they were 
"advanced" and odd enough, as a time when publishers, over- 
come by some mysterious and unheralded compulsion, insisted 
upon bringing out everything or anything that remotely re- 
sembled a book of poems. The "poetic renaissance" in America 
also included the time when Louis Untermeyer began to edit his 
popular anthologies of American verse and when Carl Sandburg 
and Vachel Lindsay of Chicago and Springfield, Illinois, shat- 
tered the complacencies of a reading public who had grown 
accustomed to seeing the verse of Effie Smith, Charles Hanson 
Towne, and Amelia Josephine Burr appear in Harper's, The 
Century, or Scribner's Magazine. 

To a marked degree, Harriet Monroe's little magazine, 
Poetry, founded in 1912, and edited from an unfamiliar address, 
543 Cass Street, Chicago, Illinois, was actually the "poetic renais- 
sance." The circular announcing its arrival created an air of 
excitement among readers of poetry that compared favorably 
with the publicity that attended William Butler Yeats's an- 


142 A History of American Poetry 

nouncement of an "Irish Renaissance" in the iSgo's. To the 
poets, Harriet Monroe wrote: 

First, a chance to be heard in their own place, without the limitations 
imposed by the popular magazine . . . this magazine will appeal to 
... a public primarily interested in poetry as an art, as the highest, 
most complete human expression of truth and beauty. Second . . . All 
kinds of verse will be considered narrative, dramatic, lyric quality 
alone being the test of acceptance. Certain numbers [of Poetry] may be 
devoted entirely to a single poem, or a group of poems by one person; 
except for a few editorial pages of comment and review. Third, besides 
the prize or prizes above mentioned, we shall pay contributors. 1 

Here was an offer not to be resisted, and the flame ignited by 
Harriet Monroe spread to other periodicals, and fanned by 
quickening winds of sporadic enthusiasm, it ran into far and 
sometimes contrary directions. In recalling the spirit, the ener- 
gies released by Harriet Monroe's announcements of her maga- 
/ine, one should not forget the gaiety and brightness of Alfred 
Krcymborg's little magazine, Others, published in New York, 
introducing a number of new poets to its readers, and edited at 
the risk of Kreymborg's own fragile and charming talent. Nor 
should one fail to recall the talk, the gossip, the stimulus to 
writing both prose and verse aroused by Margaret Anderson's 
Little Review, its birthplace in Harriet Monroe's Chicago, its 
editorial offices shifting from the Middle West to New York 
(wherever, in fact, Miss Anderson happened to be) and from New 
York to Paris. 

But of all the ventures occasioned by the so-called "poetic 
renaissance," Poetry commanded a central position within them, 
devoting special issues of the magazine to divergent and con- 
trasting groups of poets, and for three-quarters of an active and 
controversial decade, the influence of Harriet Monroe's cham- 
pionship of poetry "as the highest, most complete human ex- 
pression of truth and beauty" was felt and echoed in editorial 
offices throughout the country. Her very presence in the editorial 
chair at 543 Cass Street created the impression that new talents 
in the writing of poetry could be discovered every day, and her 

i "Poetry," Ch. 25, from A Poet's Life. By permission of The Macmillan 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 143 

career up to the inception of her magazine in 1912 seemed to 
have provided an education best suited to the task in which she 
found so much delight and perhaps an immortality in the history 
of American literature. 

Harriet Monroe was born December 23, 1860, into a spirited, 
well-to-do Chicago family that had migrated from New York to 
the Middle West. At an early age she was sent to the Old Visita- 
tion Convent School at Georgetown, Maryland, within an hour's 
drive of the nation's capital, and while at that school she prom- 
ised herself and God that some day she would be "great and 
famous." Like other young women of a generation that Henry 
James reflected in The American, Miss Monroe left convent 
school to make her debut into Chicago society, to visit friends 
and theaters in New York, to travel widely in and over Europe, 
assimilating sights and sounds of ancient places with the clear, 
quick, innocent gaze of another Daisy Miller. In London she met 
Whistler who completely charmed her and Henry James himself 
who "rather bored" her. Although Harriet Monroe enjoyed 
Europe with the same high flush of excitement with which most 
globe-trotting Americans of her day rediscovered everything they 
saw, she was not to be caught in the toils of a James heroine; 
through her early travels and throughout her life, she sustained 
the Monroe family loyalty to Chicago, and eager as she was to 
learn, to see, to grasp all that the large world had to offer, her 
desire was to bring memories of its wealth and culture home to 
America, to Chicago, in whose superiority she always believed. 

In her candid, awkwardly written, hasty, and at last unfinished 
autobiography, A Poet's Life, published in 1938, one sees, as 
though looking through the wrong end of a telescope or at a 
roll of unprojected motion-picture film against lamp light, small 
and bright flashes of a young Harriet Monroe at Edmund Clar- 
ence Stedman's home in Bronxville, New York, or being intro- 
duced to Robert Louis Stevenson in a disorderly, dimly lit hotel 
room in Greenwich Village. The latter experience came as a 
shock to her romantic sensibilities: Stevenson, her hero, had 
looked deathly ill, deathly thin, and the room, no doubt, was 
clouded with cigarette smoke and unaired; his voice was a shrill 
whisper in a darkened room, and Harriet Monroe in a new and 

144 d. History of American Poetry 

gay spring hat, longed for escape from the sickroom away from 
all thought of illness or of approaching death. The evenings at 
Stedman's house in Bronxville were of a kind that supplied fuel 
for her later activities; here an earnest, graceful, energetic, at- 
tractive young woman could take part in drawing-room discus- 
sions without fear of the dark misfortunes of all too human 
experience, and from Stedman himself Harriet Monroe perhaps 
caught fire, from his prophetic fervor and belief in the future 
of American poetry. At his house she met Henry Harland, who 
ten years later earned notoriety as the daring young editor of 
The Yellow Book. On this particular evening, Harland had 
praised Browning by placing him above Shelley, a declaration 
which horrified Harriet Monroe and caused Stedman, rushing to 
her defense, to say in ringing tones, "Shelley soared higher into 
the Empyrean." 

Meanwhile, Harriet Monroe's informal education in Chicago 
progressed under the influence of her brilliant brother-in-law, 
John Wellborn Root, the architect, who taught her to value and 
appreciate the beginnings of an American art that was to reach 
maturity in the work of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. 
It is highly probable that his influence created a background for 
a general appreciation of the arts, and it led to Harriet Monroe's 
later enthusiasms for the dance and the Russian ballet, for her de- 
light at discovering Isadora Duncan and Pavlova, and Nijinsky's 
L'Apres-midi d'un faune which she described as "timeless and 
modern as the rhythm of living waves." In painting, her earliest 
enthusiasm was wakened by Albert Pinkham Ryder, whom she 
sought out on visits to New York, finding his "sunlit south bed- 
room in a shabby boarding house," a bed in one corner, a chair 
or two and his "litter of masterpieces" leaning face-back against 
the walls. The publicity she received for the writing of "The 
Columbian Ode" on the occasion of the Columbian Exposition 
at Chicago in 1892, the connection of her family with Chicago's 
growth and power, her wide travels throughout Europe and the 
Orient, and her avowed interest in the arts paved the way for 
her position on the Chicago Tribune as art reviewer. "It was 
space work Sunday reviews and a few week-day notices, with no 
regular salary" but the opportunity gave Harriet Monroe a 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 145 

chance to prove her quickness, and she was among the first in 
recognizing the value of Picasso, Picabia, Maillol, Matisse, and 
Redon. The assignments in journalism made her particularly 
sensitive to gossip of "changes in the air," to new movements in 
art, to new names, to new ideas; and as she heard of large awards, 
grants, and commissions given to architects, sculptors, painters, 
and a few musicians, she thought of how comparatively little 
recognition the poet received for writing poetry. She recalled her 
own experience in the writing of "The Columbian Ode" as an 
unhappy one, for its notoriety involved a lawsuit with the New 
York World over the rights of republishing the poem, an ex- 
perience which left her on the verge of a nervous breakdown, 
and with a growing sense of disillusionment concerning the 
honor and respect a poet might receive for doing honest work. 

It was with the memory of this experience, and with the 
conviction that she was engaging her talents and forces in a 
memorable crusade, that Harriet Monroe applied for financial 
support among her friends in Chicago and in New York to 
maintain a magazine for the sake of poetry alone. 

Although Ezra Pound was Poetry's first "Foreign Corre- 
spondent," writing his own motto to celebrate his approval of 
Harriet Monroe and her ideas "To Hell with Harper's and the 
Magazine Touch" Miss Monroe seemed to reserve her warmest 
admiration for the verse of Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, and 
Edgar Lee Masters. At a banquet given by Poetry in 1914 she 
had heard William Butler Yeats echo the modest preface to 
J. M. Synge's Poems and Translations. Yeats, speaking of the 
late Victorians, particularly the "over-appareled" art of Tenny- 
son, had said: 

We were weary of all this. We wanted to get rid not only of rhetoric 
but of poetic diction. We tried to strip away everything that was arti- 
ficial, to get a style like speech, as simple as the simplest prose, like a 
cry of the heart. 2 

It was this aspect of the "new" poetry that made its direct 
appeal to Harriet Monroe, yet with her "Foreign Correspon- 

2 Introduction, p. xiii, from The New Poetry by Harriet Monroe and Alice 
C. Henderson. By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

146 A History of American Poetry 

dent's" advice, and no doubt with his repeated threats and 
warnings, she published T. S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred 
Prufrock" in 1915, and it was Harriet Monroe who first pub- 
lished the poetry of Wallace Stevens and was among the first 
to offer editorial hospitality to Conrad Aiken and Marianne 
Moore. But here it should be said that editors like Alfred 
Kreymborg accepted their work with better heart and fuller 
enthusiasm. The verse of Vachel Lindsay and of Carl Sandburg 
remained closer to Harriet Monroe's interpretation of what 
"new" poetry was. It seemed also to reflect her own experiment 
in writing "The Hotel," a long, unrhymed poem, setting down 
her observations at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, and per- 
haps more important than all other causes in their favor, both 
Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay seemed to reaffirm Harriet 
Monroe's intense loyalty to Chicago and the Middle West, and 
the very intonations of their verse seemed to reach into the 
deeper recesses of her imagination. 

Harriet Monroe had few pretensions as a critic, and through- 
out her life she held an attitude of sharp distrust toward painters 
who talked too much about their art and poets who had too 
many theories concerning poetry. She would say, "The new 
poetry strives for a concrete and immediate realization of life; 
it would discard the theory, the abstraction, the remoteness, 
found in all classics not of the first order." Or she would repeat, 
"The artist, big or little, is in his degree a seer, and it may be 
that he sees deeper than the critic who is 'obsessed' by the move- 
ments of his time." Harriet Monroe had put her trust in the 
resources of her own imagination and intuition, and since she 
also possessed the gift of common sense that rarest of all human 
senses she made few mistakes in feeling or in judgment. It was 
in this spirit that she became a brilliant editor, willing always 
to accept verse that contained the "individual, unstereotyped 
rhythm, the surprises, and irregularities, found in all great art 
because they are inherent in human feeling." 

To Harriet Monroe there was no lack of consistency in pub- 
lishing the work of poets whose taste and intentions seemed at 
a far distance from her own; she had had the courage to publish 
the poetry of many writers long before it had become fashion- 

The ''Poetic Renaissance" 147 

able to do so, and with this knowledge and assurance, she con- 
tinued to edit Poetry up to the date of her death in 1936. Mean- 
while the early impulses and enthusiasms that had attended the 
founding of her magazine had begun to change their temper 
soon after the close of the First World War. It would not be too 
far-fetched to say that the "poetic renaissance" came to a final 
conclusion with the publication of T. S. Eliot's poem, "The 
Waste Land," in the November, 1922, issue of The Dial. From 
that moment onward, Harriet Monroe's position seemed to rep- 
resent all the fervor, the warmth, the native quickness, and in- 
nocence that defined the hopeful attitudes of Middle Western 
America before the war, and readers of "The Waste Land" be- 
came aware of something from another world than that of the 
"new" poetry of which Miss Monroe was so ardent a champion. 
The unrest and the spiritual malady that had become prevalent 
in the large cities of Europe and of the United States seemed to 
speak out in voices so disturbing that it was no longer possible 
to ignore them, and another day beyond the period of the "poetic 
renaissance" had well begun. 

The secret of Poetry's survival beyond the life of all other 
"little" magazines that introduced young writers to a responsive 
reading public was its strict adherence to Harriet Monroe's rule 
of paying generously for contributions. Through the subsidy of 
Poetry's guarantors, including a hundred or more of Harriet 
Monroe's friends in Chicago, this policy avoided the usual erratic 
and disproportionate rewards for writing verse that attend the 
dubious policy of encouraging poetry wholly by prize awards. 
Harriet Monroe had a more than generous enthusiasm for the 
actual publishing of poetry, and she did not feel that a poet was 
debased and his art coarsened by receiving a proportional rate 
of payment for each poem accepted for publication in her maga- 
zineand in this way she offered the most subtle and practical 
encouragement of all. 

One of the clearest portraits of Harriet Monroe's small, slight 
figure, her delicate features, and the bright, upward glance of her 
eyes behind polished pince-nez is suggested, if not re-created, in 
physical detail by Marianne Moore: 

148 A History of American Poetry 

... if one may speak of Miss Monroe as if to praise, I think of her 
valor, her goodness to us all, her imperviousness to plebeian behavior, 
her affection, the subordinatingly humourous trace of indulgence one 
would not call it scorn in her attitude to suggestions bearing on lit- 
erary self-protectiveness, her independence of being squired or attended 
upon. I recall her matter of fact "Oh, I don't think anything of rain/' 
and on another occasion the day before her departure for Mexico 
some years back at her hotel, in a room of frigid temperature, when 
she had consented to rest while talking to me, "I don't believe I need 
a cover. Oh, if you like; I'm not used to having anyone cover me." I 
recall when she spoke, and read from her work, at the Brooklyn Insti- 
tute, her somewhat skeptical proffer of literary experience and opinion, 
her deep uninsisted-upon eloquence as she read The Pine at Timber- 
line; and despite her own belief in her mind one dislikes the term 
"muse" her air of alone-ness, her self-reliant and winning incredulity 
that it should be liked so very much as it was by us who heard her. 
Her fearless battle for art and in art was present for me there in a 
conspicuous though disclaimed laurel. 3 

It is only by an extremely selective reading of her Chosen 
Poems (1935) that one may discern the intelligence, the dignity, 
the grace which combined to make her personality a memorable 
one; again one sees her as if in glimpses behind the screen of her 
active life: 

I love my life, but not too well 

To cast it like a cloak on thine, 
Against the storms that sound and swell 

Between thy lonely heart and mine. 
I love my life, but not too well. 4 

The resiliency of her spirit was echoed best in these few lines: 

Alaska slants her shining snows, 
And India burns under the sun, 
All these my mortal eyes would sec, 
All men alive are calling me; 
Yet these were all too lightly won, 
For I would go where none has gone 
To read the riddle no man knows. 5 

3 "In Memory of Harriet Monroe/' Poetry, December, 1936, Vol. XL1X, 
No. Ill, used by permission of Poetry. 

* "Love Song I" from Chosen Poems. By permission of The Macmillan 

s "Plaint" from Chosen Poems. By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 149 

Like a true Middle Westerner, she loved her native soil, but 
had no aversion to dying as far away from it as possible, the 
more exotic and "different" the place, the better. She died at 
Arequipa, Peru, September 26, 1936, while attending a congress 
of writers, and a few months after her death, Ezra Pound, who 
had said, "No one more acrimoniously differed with her in point 
of view than I did," was to write: 

The death of Harriet Monroe will be felt as a personal loss by every- 
one who has ever contributed to her magazine. No one in our time or 
in any time has ever served the cause of an art with greater devotion, 
patience, and unflagging kindness. . . . 

The new generation of the 1930*8 can not measure, offhand, the local 
situation of 1910. An exclusive editorial policy would not have done 
the work of an inclusive policy (however much the inclusiveness may 
have rankled one and all factions). 

During the twenty-four years of her editorship perhaps three periodi- 
cals, made a brilliant record, perhaps five periodicals, but they were all 
under the sod in the autumn of 1936, and no other publication has 
existed in America where any writer of poetry could more honorably 
place his writings. This was true in 1911. It is true as I write this. 6 

6 "In Memory of Harriet Monroe" in Poetry, December, 1936, Vol. XLIX, 
No. IIT, used by permission of Poetry. 

In writing of Harriet Monroe and Poetry some tribute must be paid to her 
assistant editors, many of them young poets who gave their time and labors 
to the magazine without payment. Among them was the critic Morton 
Dauwen Zabel who helped the magazine to survive in the dark period after 
Miss Monroe's death and who for ten years previously contributed critical 
articles of unequaled brilliance to the magazine. Other editors were the 
poets, Eunice Tietjens, Jessica Nelson North, Marion Strobel, George Dillon, 
Helen Hoyt, and Alice Corbin Henderson, 


Perhaps no American poet of the twentieth century has re- 
ceived more academic honors than Robert Frost or has survived 
them with a more evenly balanced anti-intellectual temper and 
well-burnished wit. In his latter years, he has been given eight- 
een honorary degrees from as many colleges and universities, and 
among other awards, including the first Russell Loines Memorial 
Poetry Prize of 1931 at the hands of the National Institute of 
Arts and Letters, he has received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry 
four times, in 1924, 1931, 1937, and in 1943. Today he is prob- 
ably the best-known and most readily welcome of American 
poets; and he can honestly say that his numerous honors and 
awards, as well as his appointments and fellowships at various 
colleges, have come to him by virtue of his poetry alone. 

If he may be justly considered the Horace of our day, he is one 
who has lived, with admirable independence, well outside the 
shadow of a Maecenas. His native shrewdness and his suburban 
wit seem always to derive their qualities from an austerely tended 
Sabine Farm situated "north of Boston," either in New Hamp- 
shire or in Vermont. The merits of his verse are Roman rather 
than Greek, and their overtones of jealously independent rumi- 
nation are more American, in the sense that they guard the in- 
violability of state rights, than either. His verse is by no means 
unconscious of a Roman- Anglo-American heritage; it moves freely 
within it, and even as recently as 1941 in a poem read before 
the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University, one discovers 
the following remarks: 

O paladins, die lesson for to-day 
Is how to be unhappy yet polite. 
And at the summons Roland, Olivier, 
And every sheepish paladin and peer, 


The "Poetic Renaissance" 151 

Being already more than proved in fight, 

Sits down in school to try if he can write 

Like Horace in the true Horatian vein, 

Yet like a Christian disciplined to bend 

His mind to thinking always of the end. 

Memento mori and obey the Lord. 

Art and religion love the somber chord. 

Earth's a hard place in which to save the soul . . .* 

And the almost Roman austerities and notes of satire are heard 
in a later passage of the poem: 

There is a limit to our time extension. 

We are all doomed to broken-off careers, 

And so's the nation, so's the total race. 

The earth itself is liable to the fate 

Of meaninglessly being broken off. 

(And hence so many literary tears 

At which my inclination is to scoff.) 

I may have wept that any should have died 

Or missed their chance, or not have been their best, 

Or been their riches, fame, or love denied; 

On me as much as any is the jest. 

T take my incompleteness with the rest. 

God bless himself can no one else be blessed. 1 

The external facts of Robert Frost's biography are well known, 
and one can find them recited at length in Gorham B. Munson's 
small book, Robert Frost: A Study in Sensibility and Good Sense. 
It is enough for us to know that he was born in San Francisco, 
March 26, 1875, of New England and Scots parentage; that 
shortly after his father's death in 1885, h* s mother and he lived 
with his paternal grandfather in Lawrence, Massachusetts; that 
his formal education was by no means regular, broken as it was 
by the urgencies of making a living, and after high school, re- 
duced to a few months at Dartmouth; that after an early mar- 
riage in 1895, two years the years 1897 and 1898 were spent at 
Harvard, where he specialized in the studies of Latin and Greek; 

i "The Lesson for Today" from A Witness Tree. By permission of Henry 
Holt and Company, Inc. 

152 A History of American Poetry 

that until 1905 he ran through briefly the careers of working in 
a factory, writing for a local newspaper, and tending a small 
New Hampshire farm that had been given to him by his grand- 
father; that in 1905 he began his long career of teaching, which 
was interrupted by a three years' holiday in England (1912-1915) 
and then resumed at Amherst in 1916. Unlike his early con- 
temporary, E. A. Robinson and unlike many poets before and 
since his arrival as a figure in the "poetic renaissance" Frost 
assumed the responsibility of bringing up a family on an ex- 
tremely slender income, and for us it signifies his far distance 
from the Bohemian and easily acquired "attitudes" in poetry 
that had been so eagerly welcomed by many of his later con- 

To the outside world, Frost's maturity in writing verse was of 
extraordinarily late arrival: his almost secretly printed first book, 
Twilight, of which two copies were printed in 1894, and single 
poems contributed to The Independent, The Forum, and The 
Youth's Companion did not attract the attention of other maga- 
zine editors, nor could they, even by the wildest chance, have 
reached a public that had welcomed Hovey and Bliss Carman. 
Frost's true world was of the New England countryside; and he 
himself has said that he had never read a book through until he 
was fourteen. He has also remarked, and perhaps not too seri- 
ously, that his favorite reading as a boy was Tom Brown's School 
Days and this book, he continued, he did not finish because he 
could not bear to think it had an end. From then onward he 
read Shelley and Keats, and a now almost forgotten mid-nine- 
teenth-century American poet, Edward Rowland Sill, who had 
been born in Connecticut in 1841, had been educated at Phillips 
Exeter Academy and at Yale, had been appointed to a professor- 
ship in English at the University of California, and in 1882 
moved back to the East where he died in 1887. The cycle of his 
movements bore a rough analogy to the peregrinations of Frost's 
childhood, but more important than the geographic distance 
circumscribed by his career, and his return to the East, were the 
simplicities of his poetic diction. It is highly probable that an 
attentive reading of his verse provided Frost with an example 
of poetic style and that the impression was as marked as W. B. 
Yeats's early admiration for the verse of Lionel Johnson. In 

The "Poetic Renaissance" ir,<* 

v/ v/ 

Sill's lines, "Truth at Last/' 2 one finds a far less gifted expres- 
sion of those simplicities in language and emotion than is fre- 
quently found in the verses of Robert Frost: 

Does a man ever give up hope, I wonder, 
Face the grim fact, seeing it clear as day? 
When Bennen saw the snow slip, heard its thunder 
Low, louder, roaring round him, felt the speed 
Grow swifter as the avalanche hurled downward, 
Did he for just one heart-throbdid he indeed 
Know with all certainty, as they swept onward, 
There was the end, where the crag dropped away? 

"Tis something, if at last, 
Though only for a flash, a man may see 
Clear-eyed the future as he sees the past, 
From doubt, or fear, or hope's illusion free. 

During Frost's boyhood, and indeed throughout the formative 
periods of his life, such simplicities as Sill's verse offered were not 
likely to leave a deep impression upon the minds of inattentive 
readers. And it is well to remind ourselves that this was a time 
when American millionaires and their wives had discovered 
touchstones of European culture by collecting snuffboxes and 
fans reputed to have been worn and carried by the Marquise 
de Pompadour or Louis XV, that this was the moment when 
"costume" and historical romances were read and cherished. 
When Knighthood Was in Flower, If I Were King, Richard 
Carvel, Monsieur Beaucaire, Richard Yea-and-Nay, and The 
Forest Lovers were the titles of novels that defined the public 
taste, and they expressed a desire which also included the pur- 
chase of life-size portraits painted by Gainsborough, Reynolds, 
Romney, and Sir Thomas Lawrence and these were probably 
chosen because they seemed so well fitted to give a baronial air 
to the newly acquired ancestral halls that were still being built 
in Buffalo, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, San Francisco, 
and Grand Rapids. These reflections of popular taste have 
little relevance to the permanent images of culture in American 
life, but they do indicate, and often with deadly accuracy, the 

2 From The Poetical Works of Edward R. Sill. By ceniiission of Houghton 
Mifflin Company. 

154 d History of American Poetry 

transient, speechless, and otherwise vague longings that lie close 
to the heart of those who have too much money to spend, and 
which in turn exert their influences upon the editorial policies 
of popular magazines. 8 They illustrate by contrast why it was 
that the modest appearance in 1915 of Robert Frost's A Boy's 
Will and this was two years later than its publication in Eng- 
landwas by no means spectacular. This was followed in the 
same year by a second book, North of Boston, and a third, 
Mountain Interval, in 1916. The time was then ripe and he had 
done well to wait. And to those who read him, the experience 
was like a physical and sudden return to "native soil." 

To those who were conscious of or even dimly remembered 
Philip Freneau's lines to "The Wild Honeysuckle" that had been 
first published in 1786, one of Frost's early poems, "My Butter- 
fly," which was reputed to have been written by him at fifteen, 
and was his first printed poem, had a familiar and yet refreshing 
note; two stanzas quoted from each poem will show the creation 
of a like atmosphere, and the first two are from "The Wild 
Honeysuckle": * 

Fair flower, that dost so comely grow, 
Hid in this silent, dull retreat, 
Untouched thy honied blossoms blow, 
Unseen thy little branches greet: 

No roving foot shall crush thee here, 

No busy hand provoke a tear. 

From morning suns and evening dews 
At first thy little being came: 
If nothing once, you nothing lose, 
For when you die you are the same; 

The space between is but an hour, 

The frail duration of a flower. 

3 Today the "costume" novel in America has undergone a process of re- 
juvenation. The taste of Hollywood, great quantities of easily earned, post- 
Second World War money, and a desire for a quickly acquired "sense of the 
past" all contribute toward the commercial success of the so-called "escape" 
or "costume" novel. The difference between those of 1900 and those that are 
read today is that present versions of When Knighthood Was in Flower are 
reputed to have a more highly charged sexual content. 

4 From The Poems of Philip Freneau, ed. by Fred Lewis Pattee. By per- 
mission of Princeton University Press. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 155 

Thine emulous fond flowers are dead, too, 

And the daft sun-assaulter, he 

That frighted thee so oft, is fled or dead: 

Save only me 

(Nor is it sad to thee!) 

Save only me 

There is none left to mourn thee in the fields. 

The gray grass is scarce dappled with the snow; 

Its two banks have not shut upon the river; 

But it is long ago 

It seems forever 

Since first I saw thee glance, 

With all thy dazzling other ones, 

In airy dalliance, 

Precipitate in love, 

Tossed, tangled, whirled and whirled above, 

Like a limp rose-wreath in a fairy dance. 5 


However young Frost was when he composed "My Butterfly" 
(and his pastoral verses have grown far more polished and firm 
since that day) we have a glimpse of what were to be and still 
are his clear virtues and defects. "My Butterfly" "never," as 
Cleanth Brooks wrote of Frost's later poetry, "lapses into senti- 
mentality, never allows itself to be grandiose, but it does not 
have intensity." In its youthful, pastoral vein and here the 
actual age of the poet has little relevance two brief quotations, 
the first from A Boy's Will and the second from his seventh 
volume, A Witness Tree, published in 1942 and entitled some- 
what coyly "Come In," are sufficient to show that his verse is 
always pleasant to the ear, not difficult to the mind, and rarely 

I'm going out to fetch the little calf 
That's standing by the mother. It's so young, 
It totters when she licks it with her tongue. 
I shan't be gone long. You come too. 6 

r > "My Butterfly" from Collected Poems by Robert Frost. By permission of 
Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 

o "The Pasture" from Collected Poems. By permission of Henry Holt and 
Company, Inc. 

156 A History of American Poetry 

Far in the pillared dark 
Thrush music went 
Almost like a call to come in 
To the dark and lament. 

But no, I was out for stars: 
I would not come in. 
I meant not even if asked, 
And I hadn't been. 7 

No great depths of emotion are touched here, but their econ- 
omy of statement never fails to bring an adequate response. Its 
art lies concealed within the poem's apparent simplicity; and if it 
can be said that Robert Frost at his best has no pretensions what- 
soever, it should be observed that as he seems to disclaim them, 
his art has the single pretension of that denial. 

It would be difficult to weigh the value of Robert Frost's well- 
earned holiday in England, but it can be said that it brought 
him the sympathetic friendship of those who were afterwards 
known as "Georgian poets" Wilfred Gibson, Lascelles Aber- 
crombie, and Edward Thomas and his work was also called to 
the attention of Harriet Monroe's "Foreign Correspondent" to 
Poetry, Ezra Pound. In lines written by Wilfred Gibson and pub- 
lished in The Atlantic Monthly in 1926, the fortunate moment 
of Frost's stay in England was recalled: 

Do you remember the still summer evening 

When in the cosy cream-washed living-room 

Of the Old Nailshop we all talked and laughed 

Our neighbors from the Gallows, Catherine 

And Lascelles Abercrombie; Rupert Brooke; 

Elinor and Robert Frost, living awhile 

At Little Iddens, who'd brought over with them 

Helen and Edward Thomas? In the lamplight 

We talked and laughed, but for the most part listened 

While Robert Frost kept on and on and on 

In his slow New England fashion for our delight. 8 

The memory of Edward Thomas, who was killed at Vimy 
Ridge in the First World War, was recalled by Robert Frost in 

7 "Come In" from A Witness Tree. By permission of Henry Holt and Com- 
pany, Inc. 

8 "The Golden Room" by permission of The Atlantic Monthly. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 157 

his lines "To E. T." 9 which appeared in his New Hampshire 
volume in 1923: 

The war seemed over more for you than me, 

But now for me than you the other way. 

However, though, for even me who knew 

The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine, 

If I was not to speak of it to you 

And see you pleased once more with words of mine? 

With the publication of Frost's two books, A Boy's Will and 
North of Boston, in England before their appearance in the 
United States, a kinship was formed between what Edward Marsh 
had called "a belief that English poetry is now once again put- 
ting on a new strength and beauty" and Harriet Monroe's "poetic 
renaissance." Edward Marsh had expressed his confidence in the 
"new" poetry in the first issue of Georgian Poetry, 1911-1912, 
which was published at Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop, sit- 
uated in Bloomsbury conveniently near the British Museum. 
The little shop attracted young Americans, including T. S. 
Eliot, as well as British poets who dropped in to visit Harold 
Monro. Among the "Georgians," as they were called, Frost and 
Thomas, Gibson and Abercrombie, very nearly founded in 
Hertfordshire a neo-"Lake School" of poets, who bore a strong 
resemblance in their love of "natural beauty" and simplicity of 
diction to the earlier school of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and 
Southey. The great weakness of the "Georgians" was an un- 
critical acceptance of Wordsworth's language in an age when 
even its simplicities had become "literary" and its dullness fatal 
and from them Frost, with his characteristic independence, 
emerged as the most enduring "Georgian" of them all. He did 
not relinquish a single phrase of his own speech that he had 
discovered in the dramatic narratives of his North of Boston, 
and of which his justly famous "The Death of the Hired Man" 
is an excellent illustration of what Clean th Brooks has called 
"dramatic decorum." 

In February of 1914 Harriet .Monroe was among the first to 
publish the "new" poetry of Robert Frost in an appropriate 

From Collected Poems. By permission of Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 

158 A History of American Poetry 

setting, which was, of course, her magazine. And in a note on 
Robert Frost that Harriet Monroe included in the 1932 edition 
of her anthology, The New Poetry, 10 she wrote: 

He felt, no doubt, that if he could satisfy himself that his verse pre- 
sented the musical essence of his neighbors' talk, all the rest subject, 
emotional motive, dexterity of technique would be added unto him. 
. . . He transmutes them [his poems] almost always into a freely mov- 
ing iambic measure, usually blank verse in the longer poems, and in 
the shorter ones rhyming couplets and stanzas. His metrical patterns 
are according to precedent he tries no free-verse experiments; but 
there is a subtle originality, a very personal style, in his weaving of 
cadences over the basic metre. . . . The poet knows what he is talking 
about, and loves the country and the life ... of mending stone walls, 
planting seed, etc. His touch upon these subjects is sure and individual, 
the loving touch of a specialist we know he knows. And in the char- 
acter pieces we feel just as sure of him. . . . When it comes to personal 
confession to autobiography, so to speak Mr. Frost refuses to take 
himself seriously. . . . This mood greets us most characteristically in 
New Hampshire. . . . New Hampshire and her poet both have char- 
acter, as well as a penetrating, humorous and sympathetic quality of 

It must be admitted that Harriet Monroe, seated at her desk 
in Poetry's office in Chicago, viewed Frost with cooler eyes than 
many of the contributors to the Recognition of Robert Frost, a 
volume issued by his publishers in 1937. But her perception was 
no less keen, and she was quick to understand that his virtues 
were of a consistently traditional order. The very title of his first 
book published in England, A Boy's Will, happily recollected 
the refrain of Longfellow's poem, "My Lost Youth," X1 which had 
been suggested to the elder poet in "two lines of the old Lapland 

A boy's will is the wind's will, 

And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts. 

But Frost's latter-day arrival had purged the lines of their 
original melancholy, and his view was taken from a "sun-burned 

10 1932 ed., by Harriet Monroe and Alice C. Henderson. By permission of 
The Macmillan Company. 

11 From Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 
Hough ton Mifflin Company. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 159 

hillside" in one of the best of his early sonnets, "The Vantage 
Point": 12 

If tired of trees I seek again mankind, 
Well I know where to hie me in the dawn, 
To a slope where the cattle keep the lawn. 

There amid lolling juniper reclined, 

Myself unseen, I see in white denned 

Far off the homes of men, and farther still, 
The graves of men on an opposing hill, 

Living or dead, whichever are to mind. 

And if by noon I have too much of these, 

I have but to turn on my arm, and lo, 

The sun-burned hillside sets my face aglow, 
My breathing shakes the bluet like a breeze, 

I smell the earth, I smell the bruised plant, 

I look into the crater of the ant. 

In. this poem there is subtle analogy placed between the last 
three lines of the octave and the final line of the sestet; it is 
lightly stressed and its true sophistication contains a promise 
that is fulfilled in two later sonnets, "A Soldier" and "The Master 
Speed"; but its art also tends to make the "homespun" simplici- 
ties of Frost's later and semipolitical satires seem artificial. One 
admires the wit, and smiles with Frost in the closing lines of his 
"New Hampshire": 13 

I choose to be a plain New Hampshire farmer 
With an income in cash of say a thousand 
(From say a publisher in New York City). 
It's restful to arrive at a decision, 
And restful just to think about New Hampshire. 
At present I am living in Vermont. 

But the art of "Home Burial" and "The Death of the Hired 
Man" and the excellent conceits which delight the reader of "A 
Soldier" and still another sonnet, "Acquainted with the Night," 
tend to become mere artifice in the longer poem, "New Hamp- 
shire"; in "New Hampshire" the "homespun" quality is that of 
well-pressed and smartly tailored tweeds, and it creates the same 
dubiously "informal" atmosphere. 

12 From Collected Poems. By permission of Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 
is Ibid. 

160 A History of American Poetry 

Like the Anglo-Irish poet, W. B. Yeats (and in saying this, one 
must not forget that there is a strain of Scots-Celtic imagination 
in Frost's verse which alternately bewilders and dazzles his ad- 
verse critics as well as his would-be imitators) like Yeats, Robert 
Frost has learned the actor's art of wearing several "masks" with 
which to face the world. One is that of the whimsical child, who 
has grown to manhood and who invites people to "come in," to 
leave their weary brains behind them and call the colt in or 
swing on birches. In general, it should be said that American 
poets, from James Whitcomb Riley to Wallace Stevens and the 
T. S. Eliot who wrote Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, are 
not successful in the arts of whimsey and all stop short of the 
divinely inspired nonsense of Edward Lear and of Lewis Carroll. 
In this respect, Frost has been more successful than most for a 
true touch of the irresponsible "boy's will" has entered his role. 
Another mask is that of the hardy, witty, New England cracker- 
barrel "philosopher," who was typified by Calvin Coolidge when 
he said, "I do not choose to run," a remark which endeared the 
memory of that unhappy chief executive to the intelligence and 
heart of the entire nation. Still another mask is that of the highly 
sensitized poet, who has read his Keats and has written sparely, 
who respects his art and seldom allows himself the luxury of 
being dull: 

Being the creature of literature I am, 

I shall not lack for pain to keep me awake. 14 

And finally he has assumed the mask of Horace, the Horace of 
"the golden mean" between extremes, who wrote his carmina, 
his odes, and particularly the first ode of his third book against 
the high reaches of "modern" extravagance and taste. If A 
Further Range, published in 1936, showed a slight decline in 
Frost's abilities, the balance was properly restored by the pub- 
lication of A Witness Tree (1942). In "The Lesson for Today," 

i* "New Hampshire" from Collected Poems. By permission of Henry Holt 
and Company, Inc. 

The "Poetic Renaissance'' 161 

he puts forward his claim to being a "liberal" and a Horatian 
and at a far distance from and more profound level than the 
political liberalism that within a single generation had found 
itself so sorely distressed by the presence of two world wars. In 
"A Serious Step Lightly Taken" 15 Frost reminded his fellow 
countrymen that their history had embraced: 

A hundred thousand days 
Of front-page paper events, 
A half a dozen major wars, 
And forty-five presidents. 

In A Witness Tree, Frost's "vantage point" was less explicitly 
regional than national, and in one sense, the slender volume of 
ninety-one pages was a summary of the half-dozen earlier books 
he had written. He had not relinquished his Celtic imagination 
to which he paid such excellent homage in "Love and a Ques- 
tion/'' an early poem in Scots ballad form in A Boy's Will; and 
the echo of it can be heard in the later poem, "Never Again 
Would Birds' Song Be the Same," and if the actual ballad form 
had been put aside, the eloquence remained. The distinction of 
his phrasing had carried itself a good half-century beyond the 
young poet who had read Edward Rowland Sill: 

I could give all to Time except except 

What I myself have held. But why declare 

The things forbidden that while the Customs slept 

I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There, 

And what I would not part with I have kept. 10 

And one feels that he had employed his mother-wit to out- 
trick time itself with the same intention with which the Roman 
poet wished to outlive the inscriptions written in brass. Of the 
national spirit that had endured three wars within his lifetime 
Frost wrote: 

The land was ours before we were the land's. 
She was our land more than a hundred years 
Before we were her people. She was ours 
In Massachusetts, in Virginia, 

is From A Witness Tree. By permission of Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 
is "I Could Give All to Time" from A Witness Tree. By permission of 
Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 

162 A History of American Poetry 

But we were England's, still colonials, 
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by, 
Possessed by what we now no more possessed. 
Something we were withholding made us weak 
Until we found it was ourselves 
We were withholding from our land of living, 
And forthwith found salvation in surrender. 
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright 
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war) 
To the land vaguely realizing westward, 
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, 
Such as she was, such as she would become. 17 

As the lines are read, one no longer questions his classic- 
American heritage and the voice is the liquida vox of Horace. 

i? "The Gift Outright" from A Witness Tree. By permission of Henry 
Holt and Company, Inc. 


The political activities of the Second World War in Europe 
have obscured the poetry of Ezra Pound, and perhaps no figure 
of the "poetic renaissance" which began so hopefully in 1912 
stands in more drastic need of sober revaluation than the author 
of Personae and A Draft of XXX Cantos. Since 1924 he has lived 
on the Italian Riviera, and since 1935 he has been more widely 
known as the violent and ineffectual champion of Mussolini's 
regime in Italy than for any legitimate claims he may once have 
had upon readers of poetry in the United States. His last volume 
of Cantos, published in England in 1940, further obscured his 
literary reputation; in this latter volume, many of the twenty 
Cantos were exercises in historical rhetoric and in several of 
them the overtones of Pound's political convictions were heard 
as one might hear the noise of static on the radio. The poet who 
devotes himself too strenuously to politics is often in danger of 
becoming an unseasonable bore; and if he becomes dependent 
on the fortunes of a political master, his intelligence is less well 
informed than the kind of knowledge that his prince or chief 
executive has gained. Even die hardy and coarse-grained talent 
of a Charles Churchill in eighteenth-century London could not 
withstand the reverses of political favor; his topical references 
soon fell "out of date," his wit became the diversion merely for 
specialists in eighteenth-century satire, and fifty-two years after 
his death, Lord Byron in a self-confessed and rare Wordsworthian 
mood, looked at his grave and wrote: 

. . . for I did dwell 

With a deep thought, and with a soften'd eye, 
On that Old Sexton's natural homily, 
In which there was Obscurity and Fame, 
The Glory and the Nothing of a Name. 1 

i "Churchill's Grave" from Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron, Cam- 
bridge ed., used by permission of Hough ton Mifflin Company. 


164 A History of American Poetry 

The same obscurity attends Pound's later Cantos; and unlike 
Churchill's rough talent, Pound's gifts, however fragmentary 
they may seem today, were both firm and delicate, and through 
dissipation in literary showmanship and political activity, the 
loss is proportionally greater. In the hope of clarifying an other- 
wise prejudiced and clouded picture we shall present a summary 
of Pound's contribution to the "poetic renaissance" in three 
panels: first his legend and its relationship to the "little" maga- 
zines of the period, then his criticism, and finally his poetry. 

Ezra Pound was born in 1885 in Hailey, Idaho, of New Eng- 
land and Wisconsin heritage. His mother was distantly related 
to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and before he was two years 
old, he was taken to Pennsylvania and brought up in the East. 
In 1901, he enrolled as a special student at the University of 
Pennsylvania, "so that he could study what he thought impor- 
tant" (a characteristic gesture, even then), and in 1903 he entered 
Hamilton College at Clinton, New York, from which he received 
a bachelor's degree in 1905. During the same year he returned 
to the University of Pennsylvania as a fellow in Romance lan- 
guages and literature and from that institution he received his 
master's degree in 1906. After a year of travel in France, Italy, 
and Spain in search of material for a thesis on Lope de Vega, 
he returned to America in 1907 to accept an instructorship at 
Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana, from which he was 
soon released, as Fred B. Millett remarks in his Contemporary 
American Authors, "on the grounds that he was too European 
and too unconventional." And during the following year, in 
1908, Ezra Pound, after a brief stay at Gibraltar and in Italy, 
began his twelve-year residence in London. 

In London, guided by the friendship of W. B. Yeats and Ford 
Madox Ford, he was received as an American "original," the 
gifted, shining heir of the late James McNeill Whistler, who had 
died in 1903, and indeed the camera study of Pound, made by 
E. O. Hoppe, of London, closely resembled the portraits painted 
by Whistler. The tall, thin figure of Pound, seated in profile 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 165 

against a dark, weighted curtain could be mistaken for the bril- 
liant American artist who had preceded him to London. Iris 
Barry in a lively report of "The Ezra Pound Period" which was 
published in The Bookman, New York, in October, 1931, de- 
scribed the position that Pound filled in London during the 
years of the First World War: 

At that time his name stood in England along with that of the 
sculptor Epstein, for all that was dangerously different, horridly new. 
. . . Also, Pound talks like no one else. His is almost a wholly original 
accent, the base of American mingled with a dozen assorted "English 
society" and Cockney accents inserted in mockery, French, Spanish and 
Greek exclamations, strange cries and catcalls, the whole very oddly 
inflected, with dramatic pauses and diminuendos. ... As literary ad- 
viser to The Egoist and London editor of Poetry (afterwards of The 
Little Review} he was forever combing obscure periodicals and tracking 
down new and unprinted manuscript. It was natural to him to en- 
courage and groom young writers as though he penniless enough him- 
selfhad been one of those patrons of the arts of whom Chesterfield 
spoke when he reminded his contemporaries that it was the "privilege 
of the privileged to assist the possessor of wit." . . . Besides the writers 
who flocked to him through the post there were nascent artists, sculp- 
tors, musicians to encourage, to find patrons for, to find inexpensive 
rooms for, to find friends for ... to render happy by placing them in 
i\ restaurant where the shadow of the great Yeats or Arthur Symons, 
perhaps might fall fruitfully upon them. ... So there were hundreds 
of letters to write, influential people to be stirred . . . hundreds more 
letters to write so that people inhabiting the outlying regions of culture 
should realize they would be foolish not to buy copies of Prufrock and 
A Portrait of the Artist, at a time when neither Eliot nor Joyce had an 
an extensive following. Something had to be done about Gaudier- 
Brzeska. The war had suddenly gone too far. ... His work must be 
preserved. . . . Joyce in Trieste was in danger of going blind had any- 
thing been done about that? . . . Who knew Asquith, or had any in- 
fluence with anyone in the Cabinet or could persuade Lady Cunard to 
speak to somebody? . . . Pound . . . began signing his letters with a 
seal in the Chinese manner that Edmond Dulac made for him; turned 
from cooking dinner (one of the things he does to perfection) wrapped 
in a flowing and worn fawn dressing-gown to the harpsichord Dolmetsch 
made for him; was always striding about the streets with his head 
thrown back, seeing everything, meeting everybody, as full of the latest 
gossip as he was of , excitement about the pictorial quality of the 
Chinese ... or a line of Rimbaud's or Leopardi's, and never for- 

i66 A History of American Poetry 

getting how much he disliked dons, the Elizabethan influence, the 
technique of Byron, or how suspicious he was about "the Greeks." 

To this portrait by Miss Barry, John Gould Fletcher's auto- 
biography, Life Is My Song, contributed a no less revealing de- 
tail: "The more I studied him the more I was convinced that he 
was a queer combination of an international Bohemian and of 
an American college professor out of a job." 

Startling and "horridly new" as Ezra Pound's appearance in 
London may have seemed, James McNeill Whistler was not his 
single predecessor. His way had been unknowingly prepared by 
an earlier American, Henry Harland, who had edited The Yellow 
Book in London in 1894, whose list of contributors included 
Henry James, Ernest Dowson, Aubrey Beardsley, and Lionel 
Johnson. Through the publication of four small books of poems 
(Exultations of Ezra Pound, 1909; Personae of Ezra Pound, 1909; 
Provenca, 1910; Canzoni of Ezra Pound, 1911), through his letters 
of advice to Miss Monroe of Poetry and later to Margaret An- 
derson who edited The Little Review, through his association 
with Wyndham Lewis who edited "the magenta-covered" Blast, 
through his friendship with Ford Madox Ford and Violet Hunt 
who were heirs of a Pre-Raphaelite tradition, Pound gave con- 
tinuity to a standard of taste that Henry Harland had all too 
briefly sustained in his magazine. It could be said that Pound's 
activities ("London is itself a larger university, and the best 
specialists are perhaps only approachable in chance conversa- 
tion," he once remarked) brought Henry Harland's short-lived 
venture "up to date." And it could also be remarked that W. E. 
Henley's National Observer, with its small circulation and its 
severely trained "young men," created a slightly earlier prece- 
dent for Pound's ability to marshal young writers and artists 
around him in something that resembled military formation. 
Ford Madox Ford's The English Review and, later, his Trans- 
Atlantic Review were contemporary periodicals of the same 
order. But Pound and Wyndham Lewis in founding Blast in 
1914 set an example that was followed for many years beyond 
the period of the "poetic renaissance" itself. Pound's influence 
can be traced through the files of at least fifty "little" magazines 
published on both sides of the Atlantic from 1916 to 1939. All 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 167 

owed their debts, however indirectly the coinage may have fallen 
into their hands, to Ezra Pound's years of writing letters and 
forming literary "movements" in London. It is impossible to 
determine how deeply Pound was responsible for the large cur- 
rency given to the names of Gerard de Nerval, Rimbaud, Jules 
Laforgue, Tristan Corbiere, St^phane Mallarme, Huysmans, 
Gide, and Cocteau in essays published in "little" magazines which 
extended their list of half a hundred titles from Blast to James 
Laughlin's New' Directions Annual for 1944; many of the names 
had already appeared in Arthur Symons' The Symbolist Move- 
ment in Literature before the twentieth century began but if 
Pound seemed to be "an American college professor out of a 
job," he also became a minister of the arts without portfolio, 
eager to instruct the "passionate pilgrim" from either the United 
States or within the United Kingdom itself in the skills and de- 
lights of approaching Romance literatures with a knowing air. 

Of the so-called literary "movements" that Pound fostered 
none received wider publicity than Imagism, which came to light 
in 1912 and achieved the dignity nineteen years later of having 
an entire book (Imagism <^r the Imagists by Glenn Hughes, 1931) 
devoted to its rise and fall. The climate that produced Les 
Imagistes deserves a few words of explanation. In London itself 
something very like a "rebirth" in poetic speech, style, and man- 
ner had begun to be strongly felt among young men who had 
come down from the universities. The "Georgian" poets who 
met in Harold Monro's (he who had written "Nymph, nymph, 
what are your beads?") Poetry Bookshop, and who had been as- 
sembled in anthologies edited by Edward Marsh, seemed to lead 
poetry far away from the chintz-and-horsehair intimacies of Sir 
Edmund Gosse's drawing room into the English countryside. The 
venture was a far more sedate and domestic journey than the call 
to the delights of Vagabondia that Bliss Carman and Richard 
Hovey sounded in America during the preceding decade; the 
"Georgians" were more decorous in pursuing their escape from 
both Swinburne and Victorian "respectability," and, it must be 
admitted, more mature. Among this group, of which Wilfred 
Gibson and Rupert Brooke were prominent figures, Pound 
quickly discovered and welcomed a fellow American, Robert 

i68 A History of American Poetry 

Frost, but no sooner than he recognized the "New England 
Eclogues" as being "infinitely better than fake," Pound re- 
turned to an earlier circle, The Poet's Club, which had held its 
meetings in a Soho restaurant under the spell of a young philoso- 
pher from Cambridge whose name was T. E. Hulme. Pound had 
been introduced to the members of the club by F. S. Flint, and 
when Pound arrived at the restaurant shouting his sestina: "Alta- 
forte" "Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace" Flint re- 
ported that the entire cafe trembled. The members of the club 
were high-spirited talkers, and they sustained the atmosphere of 
after-midnight conversations held by undergraduates at college. 
Of the young men who frequented the club perhaps a paragraph 
from Wyndham Lewis's novel, Tarr (igi8), 2 offers the best de- 

A Cambridge cut disfigured his originally manly and melodramatic 
form. His father was a wealthy merchant at the Cape. He was very 
athletic, and his dark and cavernous features had been constructed by 
Nature as a lurking place for villainies and passions. But he slouched 
and ambled along, neglecting his muscles: and his dastardly face at- 
tempted to portray delicacies of commonsense, and gossamerlike back- 
slidings into the Inane that would have puzzled a bile-specialist. He 
would occasionally exploit his blackguardly appearance and blacksmith's 
muscles for a short time, however. And his strong, piercing laugh threw 
A.B.C. waitresses into confusion. 

This, of course, must not be mistaken for a freehand portrait 
of T. E. Hulme or of any other individual member of the club 
itself; but the atmosphere which surrounded that type of young 
man is convincingly presented even the youthful and decidedly 
"experimental" quality of Lewis' prose adds an unconscious 
touch of veracity to the portrait. We can then understand how 
casually a discussion of the Japanese tanka and haikai took place 
in a Soho restaurant, and how the young philosopher, T. E. 
Hulme, as if to prove a point in a discussion which had lasted 
several hours and was probably forgotten, produced five pieces of 
unrhymed verse. What had begun as a half-serious private joke 
had an unexpected result in the closing pages of Ezra Pound's 

- By permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1918 by Wyndham 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 169 

book of verse, Ripostes (1912), in which he had inserted five 
poems as "the complete poetical works of T. E. Hulme," and 
these were prefaced by a short note of warning written in Pound's 
hand, "As for the future, Les Imagistes . . . have that in their 
keeping." To be sure, the phrase "Les Imagistes" was not un- 
attractive, and Pound bestowed its magic (and whatever mystery 
it contained to the uninitiated) upon all the poetry written by 
his friends. He gave it to Hulme, to Richard Aldington, to F. S. 
Flint, to John Cournos, to Ford Madox Ford and most impor- 
tantly, and with an air of conferring a special honor upon her 
and her gifts, to Hilda Doolittle, "H. D." 

Within a few years, several Imagist anthologies were planned 
and some were published. The "movement" attracted the willing 
co-operation of Amy Lowell from Brookline, Massachusetts, who 
was given strictly limited permission to spread its gospel in the 
United States. But it was characteristic of Pound to grow im- 
patient of a prolonged stay within any "movement," however 
amusing its diversions may have been. He soon quarreled with 
his American representative, Miss Lowell, and as she retreated 
across the Atlantic to Sevenells in Brookline, Pound deserted his 
followers by joining forces with Wyndham Lewis in a newer 
"movement" that had the more exotic name of "Vorticism" to its 
credit. Even this brief summary of Pound's activities shows how 
far removed he was from the comparatively slow evolutions of 
the British "movement" which emanated from the shelves of 
Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop; Pound displayed the instincts 
and mannerisms of an American pioneer in his behavior, and 
was ill content to rest at any spot short of an horizon that held 
the promise of a pre-Renaissance Europe in its view. 

In 1920, as Pound prepared to leave London for Paris and the 
Italian Riviera, the hour of luck and good fortune which had 
attended the early years of his stay in England seemed to fade 
behind him: Hulme and Gaudier-Brzeska had been killed in 
battle on the fields of France; even the most enthusiastic of those 
who had reviewed his early books of poems, Edward Thomas, 
the same Thomas who had been a friend of Robert Frost, had 
been killed at Vimy Ridge; and the now prolonged excitement 
at discovering the "new" poetry had acquired a dangerously remi- 

170 A History of American Poetry 

niscent air. As for the British public, a public that Pound per- 
haps had once hoped to educate, their attitude was accurately 
reflected in Richard Aldington's autobiography, Life for Life's 
Sake 3 (1941) and if it remembered Pound at all, it was in these 
unflattering terms: 

Tom Eliot's career in England has been exactly the reverse of Ezra's. 
Ezra started out in a time of peace and prosperity with everything in 
his favor, and muffed his chances of becoming literary dictator of 
London to which he undoubtedly aspired by his own conceit, folly, 
and bad manners. Eliot started in the enormous confusion of war and 
post-war England, handicapped in every way. Yet by merit, tact, pru- 
dence, and pertinacity he succeeded in doing what no other American 
has ever done imposing his personality, taste, and even many of his 
opinions on literary England. 

In Paris and at Rapallo in Italy the dissipation of Pound's 
energies continued. From a reading of Major Douglas' treatise 
on Social Credit, Pound turned to writing ill-considered pam- 
phlets and books in praise of Mussolini's Fascist Italy. In 1939 he 
returned to America for a short visit during which he received 
an honorary degree from Hamilton College; and the opening of 
the Second World War found him in Italy again. In thinking of 
Pound's "exile" one is reminded of Henry Adams' remarks on 
George Cabot Lodge and Trumbull Stickney who had preceded 
Pound to Europe, and whose precocious gifts had been cut short 
by death and undue speculations upon what Adams had named 
"conservative Christian anarchy." During the Second World War 
a charge of treason against the United States obscured the latter 
phases of Pound's career. 

A considerably less unhappy prospect is in view as one turns 
to the more serious, if lightly phrased, aspects of Pound's literary 
criticism, for no young writer of Pound's generation held greater 
promise than he who wrote The Spirit of Romance (London, 
1910) which bore on its title page a modest statement of the 
book's intention: "an attempt to define somewhat the charm of 

3 By permission of The Viking Press, Inc. Copyright 1940, 1941 by Richard 

The "Poetic Renaissance' 171 

the pre-renaissance literature of Latin Europe by Ezra Pound, 

Its table of contents listed essays on Arnaut Daniel, on Caval- 
canti, on Montcorbier (alias Villon), on selected passages of 
Dante's Divine Comedy and the dramatic verse of Lope de Vega. 
There is nothing in Pound's later prose that equals the felicity 
of the book's Preface: 

This book is not a philological work. Only by courtesy can it be said 
to be a study in comparative literature. ... I am interested in poetry. 
. . . Art or an art is not unlike a river. It is perturbed at times by 
the quality of the river bed, but it is in a way independent of that 
bed. The colour of the water depends upon the substance of the bed 
and banks immediate and preceding. Stationary objects are reflected, 
but the quality of motion is of the river. The scientist is concerned 
with all of these things, the artist with that which flows. ... It is 
dawn at Jerusalem while midnight hovers above the Pillars of Her- 
cules., All ages are contemporaneous. It is B.C., let us say, in Morocco. 
The Middle Ages are in Russia. The future stirs already in the minds 
of the few. This is especially true of literature, where the real time is 
independent of the apparent, and where many dead men are our 
grand-children's contemporaries. . . . Art is a joyous thing. Its happi- 
ness antedates even Whistler; apropos of which I would in all serious- 
ness plead for a greater levity, a more befitting levity, in our study 
of the arts. . . . Good art never bores one. By that I mean that it 
is the business of the artist to prevent ennui; in the literary art, to 
relieve, refresh, revive the mind of the reader. . . . Good art begins 
with an escape from dulness. . . . The aim of the present work is to 
instruct. Its ambition is to instruct painlessly. ... As to my fitness or 
unfitness to attempt this treatise: Putnam tells us that, in the early 
regulations of the faculty of the University of Paris, this oath is pre- 
scribed for professors: "I swear to read and to finish reading within 
the time set by the statutes, the books and parts of books assigned for 
my lectures." This law I have, contrary to the custom of literary his- 
torians, complied with. My multitudinous mistakes and inaccuracies are 
at least my own. 4 

What is said here has been repeated by Pound many times in 
Make It New (1935), in A B C of Reading (1934), Polite Essays 
(1937), and Culture (1938) but the Preface to The Spirit of 
Romance was in itself a true ''escape from dulness"; it employed 
the uses of grace and of wit, and the mention of Whistler sug- 

4 From The Spirit of Romance, J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., London, 1910. 

172 A History of American Poetry 

gests that Pound was by no means unfamiliar with the painter's 
The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. The plea for a "greater 
levity" in art was decidedly refreshing because each generation 
in literature so frequently mistakes dullness for seriousness, and 
didactic or pious zeal for learning. Pound's Preface to his book 
expressed this truism with the same glancing turn of wit that so 
happily advanced the younger Bernard Shaw in his dramatic 
criticism. To us who read The Spirit of Romance today and 
since we possess some knowledge of his Cantos which began to 
appear fifteen years later, it is of interest to observe that the 
historical scheme of Pound's long poem was clearly anticipated 
in "It is dawn at Jerusalem while midnight hovers above the 
Pillars of Hercules. All ages arc contemporaneous." (We should 
also remark that the scheme was too large, too ambitious, and in 
its detail, too pedantic, to enclose a poem, however long it may 
become, within its frame. Obviously, the choices of "contempo- 
raneous ages" are dependent upon the will or inclination of the 
poet; within that loosely conceived scheme a poem has the license 
to begin or end at any given point in "contemporaneous" time 
or space; and whatever claims to formal structure it may have 
are always deceptive.) Pound's early (and late) devotion to pre- 
Renaissance literature has still another aspect of great interest: 
with The Spirit of Romance he arrived in London in 1910 as a 
belated member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but his road 
had been taken by way of the North American continent and a 
frequently acknowledged reading of Robert Browning. These 
facts give rise to several speculations which may be taken for 
what they are worth, and if they are not exaggerated in their 
importance, they have true relevance to his critical prose and 
his professed identities with Robert Browning and Arnaut 
Daniel, the Provencal poet. The years of Pound's childhood in 
the United States witnessed the rise of "Browning Clubs" 
throughout the country and at their weekly or fortnightly meet- 
ings, the mysteries of Sordello and The Ring and the Book held 
all the "fascination of what's difficult." Pound could not have 
avoided some knowledge of these meetings, at which thousands 
of women aspired to the reaches of "higher learning." We cannot 
say how deeply Pound felt himself to be an "arrival" in London 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 173 

from the "provinces" of North America, but we do know from 
his essay on Henry James (published in 1918) of his appreciation 
of James's "real cut at barbarism and bigotry" and he continued 
his discourse with the use of a Far Western hyperbole, "by these 
monstrous and rhetorical brands, scorched on to their hides and 
rump sides." In London, Pound cultivated his Americanisms 
almost as violently as Joaquin Miller had in an earlier genera- 
tion, and the romantic figure of the Far Western cowboy was the 
very image of their literary behavior, which to European eyes, 
always endows the "American poet" with exotic charm. The cow- 
boy himself through his songs and ballads has a distant, slender, 
and yet clear relationship to the "makers" of courtly love and the 
troubadours. His songs are adaptations of an ancient music, over- 
laid with the melancholy wail of the Celtic bagpipe; and his 
attitude toward the lady (or the various ladies) of his choice has 
a Jieritage that extends its line from the masters and students of 
court music whom Pound brought back to life in The Spirit of 
Romance. The least we can say is that Pound's literary person- 
ality, however fractured it may seem upon its surface, has its own 
elements of extraordinary consistency. 

The Spirit of Romance has evidence of the same precocity 
that earned Trumbull Stickney a Doctorat es Lettres at the Uni- 
versity of Paris in 1903, but it is extremely doubtful if Pound's 
intelligence would have emerged victorious over Stickney's 
examiners at the Sorbonne; his temperament was far too vola- 
tile, too restless, too egocentric in its investigations and discov- 
eries to withstand the strain of a prolonged and unfriendly 
examination. Pound's precocity had critical overtones, and in 
the pronouncement of its truisms there was a proper balance (so 
seldom achieved in his later writings) between a concern for 
scholarship and critical common sense: 

I have used the term "classic" in connection with Latinity: in the 
course of this book I shall perhaps be tempted to use the word "roman- 
tic"; both terms are snares, and one must not be confused by them. The 
history of literary criticism is the history of a vain struggle to find a 
terminology which will define something. The triumph of literary criti- 
cism is that certain of its terms chiefly those defined by Aristotle still 
retain some shreds of meaning. . . . Certain qualities and certain fur- 

174 ^ History of American Poetry 

nishings are germane to all fine poetry; there is no need to call them 
either classic or romantic. . . . The difference is neither of matter nor 
of paraphernalia. Seeking a distinction in the style, we are nearer to 
sanity, yet even here we might do well to borrow an uncorrupted ter- 
minology from architecture. Such terms as Doric, Romanesque and 
Gothic would convey a definite meaning, and would, when applied to 
style, be difficult of misinterpretation. . . . Poetry is a sort of inspired 
mathematics, which gives us equations, not for abstract figures, tri- 
angles, spheres, and the like, but equations for . . . human emotions 
. . . the spells or equations of "classic" art invoke the beauty of the 
normal, and spells of "romantic" art are said to invoke the beauty of 
the unusual. 6 

However strange Pound's criticism may have seemed to some 
few of his elders, there was nothing here to shock their sensibili- 
ties, except the phrase, "Poetry is a sort of inspired mathe- 
matics." And that phrase leads us to the critical affinity that 
Pound had discovered in his friendship with T. E. Hulme. 
Hulme's youthful intelligence had found itself in revolt against 
the utterly shabby extremes of utilitarianism into which British 
philosophy had fallen after the publication of John Stuart Mill's 
essay On Liberty in 1859. Hulme's mind was of a military cut; 
his acknowledged master was Sorel; arid his semiphilosophic, 
semiliterary Speculations (which were collected and edited by 
Herbert Read in 1924) reflected a temperament not unlike that 
of an immature Stendhal. His relationships to Pound, and later 
to T. S. Eliot, remind one of the influence exerted by Coleridge 
upon Wordsworth, an influence which imposed as much harm 
upon the object of its attention as it did good. Wordsworth had 
little aptitude for assimilating Coleridge's philosophic brilliance; 
for a brief moment the results of Coleridge's eloquence were 
tonic, but beyond that moment, Wordsworth's philosophic pre- 
tensions became overweighted and pontifical. The effect of 
Hulme upon Pound had like results, and as Pound grew older, 
his critical observations tended to take on the character of 
Hulme's notes: 

Smoothness, [wrote Hulme] 
Hate it. 
This is the obsession that starts all my theories. 

5 From The Spirit of Romance, J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., London, 1910. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 175 

Get other examples, other facets of the one idea. 
Build them up by catalogue method 
(I) in science; 
(II) in sex; 
(III) in poetry. 

It is essential to prove that beauty may be in small, dry things. . . . 
We introduce into human things the Perfection that properly belongs 
only to the divine, and thus confuse both human and divine things by 
not clearly separating them . . . the Middle Ages, which lacked en- 
tirely the conception of personality, had a real belief in immortality; 
while thought since the Renaissance, which has been dominated by a 
belief in personality, has not had the same conviction. . . . Men differ 
very little in every period. It is only our categories that change. . . . 
Exactly the same type existed in the Middle Ages as now. This con- 
stancy of man thus provides perhaps the greatest hope of the possi- 
bility of a radical transformation of society. . . . Each field of artistic 
activity is exhausted by the first great artist who gathers a full harvest 
from it. This period of exhaustion seems to me to have been reached 
in romanticism. We shall not get any new efflorescence of verse until 
we get a new technique, a new convention, to turn ourselves loose in. 6 

These quotations from Hulme bear the marks of a tough, pene- 
trating, inquiring mind, but the thinking is neither subtle nor is 
it one that had found a well-considered point of rest within its 
world; it commands rather than reflects it makes no effort to 
persuade the reader, and its effects are gained by seizing the 
initiative, as though life itself were conducted by the same rules 
that govern an undergraduate debating team. Its exuberance and 
its youthfulness are betrayed by "a new convention, to turn our- 
selves loose in." 

One hears an echo of T. E. Hulme's manner in Pound's thor- 
oughly enlivening essay on Henry James; the thinking behind it 
is less genuinely "tough" than Hulme's, and the prose is consid- 
erably richer in rapidly presented and vivid figures of speech, but 
the didactic, nonpersuasive, note-taking manner is there; nouns 
often appear without their articles, and it was as though a mili- 
tary command had created a scene of action and urgency: 

Butler and James on the same side really chucking out the fake; 
Butler focused on Church of England; opposed to him the fakers boom- 

From Speculations, used by permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company. 

176 A History of American Poetry 

ing the Bible "as literature" in a sort of last stand, a last ditch; seeing 
it pretty well had to go as history, cosmogony, etc. 7 

Pound's exaggerated, almost "Wild West" Americanisms are 
also present in this short passage, but more than all else it indi- 
cates how attentively he listened to the young student of Sorel 
from Cambridge, and of the distance he had traveled from the 
persuasive, informative wit of The Spirit of Romance toward a 
"new technique." One cannot, of course, blame Hulme for "over- 
stimulating" Pound, for it is obvious enough that Pound's mind 
had a true affinity with Hulme's intelligence; though Hulme had 
much to say, he did not live to write his Biographia Literaria, 
and the misfortune was, that after leaving London in 1920, 
Pound's critical prose did not mature beyond the example pre- 
sented him by Hulme. 

In "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste" (Poetry, Chicago, March, 
1913) Pound provided the young writer, as Norman Holmes 
Pearson has observed, with "a fresh manual of arms"; but after 
1920, and not unlike many lecturers in American colleges and 
universities, Pound directed too much of his criticism to an 
audience of unlearned youth. Though his dogmatism delighted 
the youthful editors of "little" magazines, the British public 
continued to follow the advice of The Times Literary Supple- 
ment, quite as if Ezra Pound or any other American poet (with 
the exceptions of Longfellow and Ella Wheeler Wilcox) hatl 
not existed. 

With the same relief with which one turns from the extra- 
verted activities of Pound's career in London to a rereading of 
his criticism, one is refreshed by setting aside his criticism in 
favor of his poetry. No American poet (with, of course, the well- 
known exceptions of William Cullen Bryant who wrote "Thana- 
topsis" at the age of seventeen and Poe who wrote his first 
lines "To Helen" at twenty-two) has been more precociously 
gifted than Ezra Pound. One can almost say that if Poe dissi- 

7 "Henry James" from Instigations by Ezra Pound. Liveright Publishing 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 177 

pated his gifts by the use of strong spirits and drugs, Pound's 
dissipations in literary showmanship, politics, and criticism were 
more continuously sustained than Poe's brief hours of self-indul- 
gence, and that these dissipations, with their transitory show of 
merit, were nearly as destructive to Pound's poetic maturity as 
an immoderate use of veronal, opium, or gin. In regard to 
Pound's poetry, it is salutary to respect R. P. Blackmur's obser- 
vation that "Mr. Pound is everywhere a master of his medium 
so long as the matter in hand is not his own." In a literal sense, 
Blackmur happened to be more often right than wrong, for 
many of Pound's best poems have behind them an example set 
by the masters of English, Provencal, Italian, Chinese, or Latin 
verse and this list could be enlarged to include the masters of 
Greek as well as of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The trouble is that 
Blackmur's observation did not penetrate into the phenomenal 
nature of Pound's gifts, for his gifts in their sensitivity, their 
precocity, and their wit were distinctly fragile and were of a 
character that stood in contrast to the apparently bluff and 
"tough-minded" attitudes of Pound's literary career. A clue to 
the nature of Pound's true contribution to twentieth-century 
poetry may be found in his translation of The Sonnets and Sat- 
iate of Guido Cavalcanti (Boston, 1912) and a brief comparison 
of it with Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Early Italian Poets 
(1861). The first comparison (or likeness) appears on the dedi- 
cation page itself; Rossetti wrote, "Whatever is mine in this book 
is inscribed to my wife"; and what Pound wrote some fifty years 
later was, "As much of this book as is mine I send to my friends 
Violet and Ford Madox Hueffer." The original setting of the 
book was of a distinctly Pre-Raphaelite atmosphere, but on the 
second page beyond the dedication, one finds a half-title page 
with two lines of verse instead of the half-title; and the lines 
were written in Pound's characteristic manner: 

I have owed service to the deathless dead 
Grudge not the gold I bear in livery. 

Whatever their origin may have been, the speech was not Ros- 
setti's; and to clarify the nature of his relationship to the elder 
poet, Pound said gracefully and swiftly, "In the matter of these 

178 A History of American Poetry 

translations and of my knowledge of Tuscan poetry, Rossetti is 
my father and my mother." 

In the translation of the sonnets, and weighing their separate 
merits and flaws, Rossetti and Pound scored evenly; neither poet 
gave any single sonnet the grace to stand alone and to be com- 
pared with the best of English sonnets. But among Cavalcanti's 
ballate, Pound's true voice was and still is heard, and "Ballata 
IX" must be regarded as one of the best of his early poems. The 
quality of its grace and the freshness of its language place it 
with those lyrics which are continually rediscovered among the 
pastorals that Sir Philip Sidney scattered so richly between the 
prose passages of his Arcadia. 

In wood-way found I once a shepherdess, 
More fair than stars was she to me seeming. 

Her hair was wavy somewhat, like dull gold. 
Eyes? Love-worn, and her face like some pale rose. 
With a small twig she kept her lambs in hold, 
And bare her feet were bar the dew-drop's gloze; 
She sang as one whom mad love holdeth close, 
And joy was on her face for an ornament. 

I greeted her in love without delaying: 
"Hast thou companion in thy solitude?" 
And she replied to me most sweetly, saying, 
"Nay, I am quite alone in all this wood, 
But when the birds 'gin singing in their coverts 
May heart is fain that time to find a lover/' 

As she was speaking thus of her condition 
I heard the bird-song 'neath the forest shade 
And thought me how't was but the time's provision 
To gather joy of this small shepherd maid. 
Favour I asked her, but for kisses only, 
And then I felt her pleasant arms upon me. 

She held to me with a dear willfulness 
Saying her heart had gone into my bosom, 
She drew me on to a cool, leafy place 
Where I gat sight of every coloured blossom, 
And there I drank in so much summer sweetness 
Meseemed Love's god connived at its completeness. 8 

8"Ballata IX," from The Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti, Small, 
Maynard and Company, Boston, copyright 1912 by Ezra Pound. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 179 

And there is the same fine quality in Pound's adaptation from 
Voltaire's lines "To Madame Lullin." 

You'll wonder that an old man of eighty 
Can go on writing you verses . . . 

Grass showing under the snow, 
Birds singing late in the year! 

And Tibullus could say of his death, in his Latin: 
"Delia, I would look on you, dying." 

And Delia herself fading out, 
Forgetting even her beauty. 9 

These are examples of Pound's particular manner of adapting 
verse into English; and the frequently quoted "Envoi (1919)" to 
his Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Personae, 1926) was a frankly ac- 
knowledged adaptation of Edmund Waller's "Go, Lovely Rose/' 
THe same light touch made its appearance in an early sonnet, "A 
Virginal": 10 

No, no! Go from me. I have left her lately. 

I will not spoil my sheath with lesser brightness, 

For my surrounding air hath a new lightness; 

Slight are her arms, yet they have bound me straitly 

And left me cloaked as with a gauze of aether; 

As with sweet leaves; as with subtle clearness. 

Oh, I have picked up magic in her nearness 

To sheathe me half in half the things that sheathe her. 

No, no! Go from me. I have still the flavor, 

Soft as spring wind that's come from birchen bowers. 

Green come the shoots, aye April in the branches, 

As winter's wound with her slight hand she staunches, 

Hath of the trees a likeness of the saviour: 

As white their bark, so white this lady's hours. 

But these graces were ill suited to the expression of anger, over- 
weighted wit, terror, and historical commentary which were 
diffused so liberally through many of his seventy-one published 
Cantos; even in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, which F. R. Leavis so 
respectfully admired, many of the pieces, despite their historical 

a "Impressions of Francois-Marie Arouet (de Voltaire)" from Lustra, by 
permission of Liveright Publishing Corp. 

10 From Personae, by permission of Liveright Publishing Corp. 

180 A History of American Poetry 

value a value which T. S. Eliot noted as "a mine for juvenile 
poets to quarry" now seem to have become period pieces, and 
somewhat "arty"; certainly many are less rewarding than they 
seemed to be twenty years ago. The prose rhythms of Cathay 
(Pound's adaptations from the Chinese), of his Homage to Sextus 
Propertius (1917) prepared his readers for the occasional felicities 
of his stanza form which separates one Canto from another, but 
the true felicities of the stanza, anticipated, so it seems in "The 
River-Merchant's Wife" of Rihaku in Cathay, and which reach 
a delicately balanced perfection in Cantos I and XLV were 
seldom achieved. One can agree with F. R. Leavis and T. S. 
Eliot that Pound's "new rhythms" both reflected and then in- 
vented something to be recognized as a twentieth-century sensi- 
bility in verse; and the rhetoric of the first Canto was beautifully 

"I slept in Circe's ingle. 

"Going down the long ladder unguarded, 

"I fell against the buttress, 

"Shattered the nape-nerve, the soul sought Avernus. 

"But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied, 

"Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed: 

"A man of no fortune, and with a name to come. 

"And set my oar up, that I swing mid-fellows." n 

The speech came, of course, from the lips of Elpenor in the 
Eleventh Book of Homer's Odyssey, and it might well serve at 
some future date for Pound's own epitaph. But the loose and 
large scheme of the Cantos offered Pound too many opportuni- 
ties to drift, to talk, to become willfully pedantic, or, like Landor 
in his Imaginary Conversations, to become a bore. It would seem 
that Pound in the years after 1920 had exhausted the wealth 
and abused the fine temper of his poetic gifts. If his best work 
seems obscure, some means should be found to republish in 
facsimile his first book of essays, The Spirit of Romance; even 
in the Cantos, fragments of a perennially youthful sensibility 
emerge; the gift seems harassed and battered, but its lyrical 
excellence is pure. One should not hesitate to say that he alone 
of twentieth-century poets is of proper stature to fill his defi- 

11 "Canto I" from A Draft of XXX Cantos, New Directions. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 181 

nition of the Inventor which he has stated so well in his study 
of How to Read: 12 

The inventors, discoverers of a particular process or of more than one 
mode and process. Sometimes these people are known, or discoverable: 
for example, we know, with reasonable certitude, that Arnaut Daniel 
introduced certain methods of rhyming, and we know that certain fine- 
nesses of perception appeared first in such a troubadour or in G. Caval- 

It is in this image that his reputation is likely to remain secure; 
and it is extremely unlikely that the future will ignore (at least, 
as long as poetry is read) the lyrical brilliance of his "Envoi": 1S 

Tell her that goes 

With song upon her lips 

But sings not out the song, nor knows 

The maker of it, some other mouth, 

May be as fair as hers, 

Might, in new ages, gain her worshippers, 

When our two dusts with Waller's shall be laid, 

Siftings on sittings in oblivion, 

Till change hath broken down 

All things save Beauty alone. 

In these lines the unhappy moments of his Cantos are for- 
gotten and within them the "charm" that he denned in The 
Spirit of Romance is reawakened and restored. 

12 Part II, Desmond Harmsworth, London, 1931. 

is From Personae, by permission of Liveright Publishing Corp. 


Those who were young in the early 1920% and especially the 
aspiring young who were also interested in the reading and 
writing of poetry, remember the attractively bound, beautifully 
printed volumes of Amy Lowell's verse that were to be found on 
the library tables of those who had claims to be both advanced 
and cultured. Even the titles gave one an air of elegance and 
distinction such delightful titles they were! A Dome of Many- 
coloured Glass (1912), Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds (1914), 
Men, Women and Ghosts (1917), Can Grande 's Castle (1918), 
Pictures of the Floating World (1919) and one has not named 
them all. For in her short career as a writer and when she died 
at the age of fifty-one, Amy Lowell (1874-1925) had written or 
rather published about seven hundred poems, had written a 
number of books on literary subjects, had completed a mammoth 
biography of John Keats, and though fatally ill, still dauntless 
the mind, the will, the energy becoming keener as the too corpu- 
lent body began to fail Amy Lowell was still planning more 
poems, more books. She was planning to write her autobiography, 
a life of Emily Dickinson was to be written, and a campaign was 
to be started to overcpme the difficulties in the way of writing 
such a biography. It was true that she loved Emily Dickinson a 
little better than she understood her, but one is sure that the 
work would have been worth seeing, for like everything that 
Amy Lowell thought, did, or wrote it would have been filled 
with her own personality and energy. She was also planning to 
do more translations from the Chinese with Florence Ayscough, 
she had been planning to visit Mary Austin in the Southwest and 
to make a study of Indian poetry and because her life of Keats 
had been rather severely treated by British reviewers, she had 
also planned a lecture tour of England, perhaps decided to give 
the critics there a piece of her mind. For Amy Lowell was one of 


The "Poetic Renaissance" 183 

the few Americans who had learned to put the fear of God into 
the English. She had discovered that effective attitude of high- 
handed arrogance, an indifference to the British brand of snob- 
bery, by insisting on snobberies of her own which was an art 
that John Jay Chapman had recommended to all visiting Ameri- 
cans. Nor was this the least of Amy Lowell's advantages in Eng- 
land: that she had been born to that great wealth which is even 
more respected and admired among effete aristocrats than in 
more democratic circles at home. 

"Keats is killing me" she had written in a letter to John 
Middleton Murry, and her large body, exhausted by two surgical 
operations and an illness that brought with it the prospect of a 
third, gave way. On the morning of May 12, 1925, while looking 
through the many letters that always arrived with her morning 
mail, she suddenly felt unwell, glanced upward at her mirror, 
and knew her death. She saw the right side of her face drop and 
recognized a paralytic stroke. Thirty minutes later she was dead 
and the Amy Lowell legend was to begin or rather to take on 
new forms. 

Was she a great poet? Was Amy Lowell a poet at all? Ten 
years later, a young poet, Winfield Townley Scott, was to sum 
up what certainly became the majority opinion among his col- 

Her life, her career was a magnificent masterpiece. She herself must 
have thought it a failure, for she could not be what she most desired 
to be a great poet. Her poems are the work of a woman who would 
have shone as extraordinary in any career, they are, even at their most 
expert, remarkable in the very light of their weakness, for Amy Lowell 
was not a poet at all. 1 

She was reputed to have said that the Lord had made her a 
businessman, but that she, herself, had made herself a poet; and 
Harriet Monroe, who had many traits in common with her, 
always insisted that Amy Lowell had everything but genius. 
Richard Aldington in his recent autobiography speaks of Amy 
Lowell with almost reluctant admiration: "It is the fashion now 

i From "Amy Lowell After Ten Years" by Winfield T. Scott, in The New 
England Quarterly, VIII, Sept., 1935, by permission of The New England 

184 A History of American Poetry 

to write Amy Lowell off as a society woman who would never 
have been heard of as a writer if she hadn't been a Lowell. 
That is unfair. In Amy there was something of an artist and a 
real esthetic appreciation." And Aldington reminds us of her 
enthusiasm for and support of such real artists as D. H. Lawrence 
and H. D. and this at the beginning of their careers. 

"Amy Lowell," wrote her biographer, S. Foster Damon, "was 
born with every obstacle except poverty." A child of that Lowell 
family who were "astonishingly indifferent to the opinions of 
others, who were much given to public benefactions and contro- 
versies, and who intended to be manufacturers and merchants, 
judges, poets, scholars and critics, and horticulturists," Amy 
Lowell seemed to be a summing up of all their strongest and 
most flamboyant qualities. Her father was described as "unmis- 
takably a Lowell": he believed in Darwin to the end of his days 
and would never allow a volume of Shelley's poems to cross the 
threshold of his house. He took his pleasures seriously, but he 
preferred work to play. 

Amy Lowell, his youngest child, was born at Sevenels, the 
great house on the Lowell estate in Brookline, Massachusetts. 
Sevenells was to suffuse her life and color her poetry, and with 
the image of it in the background, she could march out into an 
insecure world, charge, attack, muster her forces, issue her com- 
mands or manifestos, and then retire into her garden again, that 
garden of which she had once said: "I knew every tree, every 
rock, every flower as only children know these things." She was 
the spoiled and clever child of somewhat elderly parents, the 
sister of two distinguished and much older brothers, a cousin of 
the famous James Russell Lowell, and, as a child, learned to 
assert the remarkable personality and avid mind that seemed 
always to be hers alone. That personality is evident even in the 
letters she wrote in childhood, and sometimes there is more force 
in them than anything that resembles childish charm. 

She was a New Englander in every thought, in every gesture, 
and like Harriet Monroe, she wandered through her European 
travels always bringing her particular section of America with 
her wherever she went. As a child, she had heard from her 
parents and older relatives much talk of the Civil War, and her 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 185 

childish imagination was so deeply stirred by it that years later 
in the Richmond Museum the feeling of childhood terror was 
reawakened at what she saw. She felt that the old Confederate 
uniforms would walk from their glass cases, and that she could 
feel the touch of a gauntleted hand upon her shoulder. To her 
the Civil War was never the memory of something that had faded 
into history: it was always near, and "it always seemed a war 
between demons and angels." 

The child who could best be described by her friend, Kath- 
erine Dana, as "obstreperous" was a great reader. She liked 
stories about boys and girls who did things, and though there 
were times when she liked to escape into a world of fantasy, she 
very decidedly rejected everything that had been touched or 
elaborated by gush or whimsy. She read and reread Sir Walter 
Scott's Waverley Novels; she preferred Fenimore Cooper's sea 
stories to his Leatherstocking Tales; and another favorite was 
Captain Marryat's Peter Simple. She had developed the literary 
tastes of a small boy, and Jules Verne's scientific romances, 
Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, Bullen's Cruise of the 
Cachelot left their mark on her childhood and colored her 

In a questionnaire to which she answered in her teens, she 
described her favorite heroes as Alfred the Great and Benjamin 
Franklin. Her "most disliked female" was Joan of Arc, whom 
she dismissed as being "too masculine." "What is your idea of 
happiness?" she had been asked, and her answer was, "To be 
loved." Already she was a rough, vital, strong girl, too bulky 
for her age and growing stout, full of tomboy mannerisms and 
quivering, delicate girlish sensibilities the two elements that 
were to enter her poetry. 

Vague, ambitious dreams possessed her and she had already 
written in her diary of her loneliness and her desire to be a poet. 
Perhaps a great deal of this yearning came from what she felt 
to be her physical unattractiveness as well as her consciousness 
of intellectual superiority. "I feel as if I must have a talent for 
something and I can't help thinking it is photography." Some 
of the schoolgirl entries are almost tragic in their pathos: "But I 
am ugly, fat, conspicuous & dull," she wrote, "to say nothing of 

i86 A History of American Poetry 

a very bad temper. Oh Lord, let it be all right & let Paul love 
me & don't let me be a fool." She never allowed herself to be- 
come a fool, and her wit, her energy (as she became better 
known) gave her more friends than many a more glamorous 

As a young woman, the mistress of Sevenells, and the owner 
of an historic name, she took part in civic activities, addressing 
schoolboards with a display of common sense and originality and 
nursing a secret passion for the stage. In 1902, after witnessing 
a performance of Eleanor Duse she felt herself (like Sara Teas- 
dale after a similar experience) inspired to break into verse. It 
was true as she said afterwards, in her curious, personal idiom 
that always betrayed more force than skill or grace, that the 
writing of this poem was the beginning of a new life, for it 
"loosed a bolt in my brain and I found out where my true 
function lay." 

From then on she began writing poetry and was already be- 
ginning to revolt against her early enthusiasms for Alfred Lord 
Tennyson and Matthew Arnold. Her old friend, Mabel Cabot, 
had married Ellery Sedgwick, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, 
and it was to him that she sent four sonnets which were accepted 
immediately. These early sonnets appeared in August, 1910, and 
though it was years before the kind of verse that had made her 
known was written, it confirmed in her a resolution to write 
poetry. In this she found a lifework, an absorbing interest, an 
outlet for her missionary zeal, and her destiny seemed to unroll 
clearly before her. 

When her first book appeared, she was thirty-eight years old 
and had been writing for ten years. Her friend, the then popular 
Boston poet, Josephine Preston Peabody Marks, advised Amy 
Lowell to send her manuscript to Houghton Mifflin, the Boston 
publishers, but saying with what afterward Amy Lowell thought 
was the sinister air assumed by our best friends toward our most 
cherished ambitions, that she herself did not care for poetry 
which had no human interest, and "why should they?" 

If this advice was in the nature of a friendly warning, Amy 
Lowell disregarded it and sent her manuscript on to Ferris 
Greenslet, of Houghton Mifflin. It was, as Foster Damon says 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 187 

tersely, "the obvious press to select." When A Dome of Many- 
coloured Glass appeared in 1912, it was exactly the sort of book 
to be expected of a New England Lowell. Examining it now, 
more than three decades after its publication, one can agree with 
almost everything that had been said of it by the critics of its 
own time. The poems it contained were delicate, feminine, yet 
flat and honest; they were innocent of verbal distinction, and yet 
had less clumsiness and more polish than the later work written 
in the flush tide of her notoriety. S. Foster Damon has summed 
up the entire book in a single sentence: "As with the Italian 
primitives, the attitudes are the stock ones, but the landscape 
behind is fresh the flowers are real flowers and the weather real 

Meanwhile, the first book opened the excitements and the 
fervors of the literary world to her. She was no longer Miss Amy 
Lowell of Sevenells, but Amy Lowell, the poet, who had pub- 
lished a book, and if her quick, intelligent mind (for her critical 
abilities always ran far beyond the reaches of her creative 
powers) knew that her first book was not all it should have 
been, she resolved to learn, to experiment, to spread her range 
of feeling over wider areas, to make a real test of whatever 
talents and abilities she felt that she possessed. 

Like Harriet Monroe, she had visited the International Exhibit 
of Modern Art, which introduced America to everything that 
was then called "modern art": Brancusi's sculptures, Matisse's 
painting, and Duchamp's much publicized "Nude Descending a 
Staircase." An interest in the French Symbolist poets (not the 
best, for her tastes always ran to the most obvious in what was 
esoteric) and modern music gave her stimulus toward new ideas 
and theories. In the Preface to Men, Women and Ghosts, she 
wrote: "I think it was the piano music of Debussy with its strange 
likeness to short vers-libre poems which first showed me the close 
kinship of music and poetry and there flashed into my mind the 
idea of using the movement of poetry in somewhat the same way 
that the musician uses the movement of music." The impression- 
istic freedom, the flowing, fluctuating rhythms of vers libre 
seemed to open new possibilities for the art of poetry and Amy 
Lowell studied them carefully. Harriet Monroe's magazine, 

A History of American Poetry 

Poetry, also added excitement and impetus to her ambitions, as 
it did to so many a rising poet of the period. She turned its pages 
eagerly and had her own poetry accepted by Harriet Monroe. 
Thanks to Ezra Pound a number of poets living in London were 
receiving publicity under the name of "Imagistes," and in Poetry, 
the poems signed by H. D., Imagist, immediately attracted Amy 
Lowell's attention. She felt that she had much in common with 
this lively group, and sailing for London in 1913, she carried a 
letter of introduction from Harriet Monroe to Ezra Pound. It 
was a case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, 
of Mahomet and the mountain coming together; great things 
were bound to happen and, of course, they did. The "poetic 
renaissance" now swung out into a full stream of achievement 
and publicity. 

After Amy Lowell's battle for vers libre was over (and it was 
over in 1922), after the corpses had been counted and the sur- 
vivors decorated (they were very few in number), one felt that 
something had been achieved. The public had actually caught 
something of the general excitement felt by the poets; the dead 
weight of dull and academic verse (in its worst sense) had been 
lifted and cleared away, and an atmosphere was created in which 
every good poet of the period felt himself at liberty to work. 
Even today it is certain that every distinguished poet in both 
England and America, from T. S. Eliot to Archibald MacLeish, 
from William Carlos Williams to W. H. Auden, owes an his- 
torical debt to the memory of the Imagists. 

Amy Lowell's part in that great war, her gifts for commanding 
the resources of newspaper publicity, her massive appearance (for 
she weighed over two hundred pounds), her black cigars are all 
too well known. Her friendships with H. D., Ezra Pound, and 
D. H. Lawrence kept her alert and aware of what was going on. 
Like Harriet Monroe, Amy Lowell had an instinct, a flair at 
times amounting to genius rather than a clear understanding of 
what the best talents of her time were doing. She admired, but 
was always a little afraid of Ezra Pound, she disliked T. S. Eliot, 
and grew uneasy whenever she read the prose and verse of D. H. 
Lawrence. In one of his beautiful, luminous letters filled with 
that desperate delicacy that Lawrence learned to use to the very 

TJie "Poetic Renaissance" 189 

rich who could be of help, he wrote to her: "How much nicer, 
finer, bigger you are intrinsically than your poetry is." And with 
that complete misunderstanding of great American intellectual 
and social distinctions shown by many Europeans, Lawrence 
wrote to his literary agent of his hopes to relieve his "ominous 
financial prospects." He said that he was writing a book of 
essays on American literature: "You may marvel at such a sub- 
ject but it interests me. I was thinking of speaking to Amy 
Lowell about it. Her brother is the principal of Harvard and 
she can touch the pulse of The Yale Revieiv and things like 
that." Of one of Lawrence's poems, Amy Lowell had written to 
Richard Aldington: that for "pure, far-fetched indecency, [it] 
beats anything I have ever seen. . . . He loses his eye about 
things; sometimes I think his condition is almost pathological 
and that he has a sort of erotic mania." 

f With each new book of poems, Amy Lowell's reputation in- 
creased, and if some of the better critics were silent, the furore 
she caused on lecture platforms, the vigor, the valor, and good 
sense with which she fought for the poetry of others as well as 
her own brought sustained applause from her large audiences. 
Louis Untermeyer when he met her for the first time said: "She 
waved no plumes and rattled no sabers, but she seemed to be 
advancing at the head of a victorious army." Everything around 
her seemed to be prospering, her work seemed to be gaining the 
widest possible recognition, her house seemed always to be filled 
with admiring friends. But from time to time, through the words 
or hints of friends who admired her as a person, she received a 
few doubts worded delicately, of course the intimation of some- 
thing that was not overwhelming praise. D. H. Lawrence, to 
whom she had sent a group of her Japanese lacquer-print poems, 
wrote: "Do write from your real self, Amy, don't make up things 
from the outside, it is so saddening." Thomas Hardy (who had 
always been an affectionate and admiring friend) wrote to her 
about Can Grande's Castle, saying that he had not mastered her 
argument for polyphonic prose, "or was it prosody?" he said. 

I don't suppose it is what, 40 years ago, we used to call "word-paint- 
ing." Curiously enough, at that time, prose having the rhythm of verse 

A History of American Poetry 

concealed in it, so to speak (e.g., in the novels of R. D. Blackmore and 
others) was considered a fantastic affectation. Earlier still, when used 
by Lytton, it was nicknamed "the ever and anon style" I suppose be- 
cause of the rhythm in those words. . . . 

1 am, naturally at my age, what they call old-fashioned, and having 
written rhymes and metered numbers nearly fifty years ago before you 
were born! you must forgive a pedagogic tone if you find it in me. . . . 

Though of course in divine poesy there is no such thing as old 
fashion or new. What made poetry 2000 years ago makes poetry now. 2 

Judged by these standards set down for poetry, what can we 
say survives of Amy Lowell? First the memory of a superb fighter, 
who, as Van Wyck Brooks has said, made the republic of poets 
rise "from the status of Haiti and become an imperial republic 
of the calibre of France." This remark, alas, is more prophetic 
than even Van Wyck Brooks thought or knew, for at the be- 
ginning of the 1940*8 the status of poetry appeared almost in 
the same sad state that it was before Amy Lowell and Harriet 
Monroe started their effective campaigning for the art! 

Amy Lowell's imagination was vivid, often exact and always 
clear, and she could describe a flower, the effect of beech and of 
pine trees as they appeared to her sight through a heavy sunlight 
or an object of art with memorable vividness. Like many writers 
of the 1920'$, like Hergesheimer, like Carl Van Vechten, like 
Elinor Wylie of The Venetian Glass Nephew (1925), Amy Lowell 
was, among other things, a poet of virtu, celebrating her favor- 
ite bric-a-brac, her memories of brightly costumed periods in 
history, and of fine furniture. Of the school to which this style 
of writing belongs, Amy Lowell's "Patterns" will remain as good 
an example as any. The poem still retains its traces of color 
and movement, yet one feels always that it is a portrait of an 
eighteenth-century scene re-created by a writer whose feet are 
too firmly planted in the nineteenth or twentieth century. De- 
spite, or perhaps because of, the theatrical note which enters it, 
"Patterns" will remain the most representative of all Amy Low- 
ell's more ambitious poems. 

"The Sisters," a study of Elizabeth Browning and Emily Dick- 
inson, also contains Amy Lowell's characteristic conversational 

2 From Amy Lowell by S. Foster Damon, used by permission of Houghtori 
Mifflin Company. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 191 

manner and lively interest in her subject. But a lesser-known 
poem, "On Looking at a Copy of Alice Meynell's Poems Given 
to Me Years Ago by a Friend," 3 has a distinction and a delicacy 

she rarely attained: 


Silent the sea, the earth, the sky, 
And in my heart a silent weeping. 
Who has not sown can know no reaping! 
Bitter conclusion and no lie. 

How strange that tumult, looking back, 
The ink is pale, the letters fade, 
The verses seem to be well made, 
But I have lived the almanac. 

And you are dead these drifted years, 
How many I forget. And she 
Who wrote the book, her tragedy 
Long since dried up its scalding tears. 


I've recollected both of you, 
But I shall recollect no more. 
Between us I must shut the door 
The living have so much to do. 

In this poem, saddened by human experience and loss and 
the passage of time, it is interesting to note that here in one of 
her last poems, Amy Lowell went back to the traditional metrics 
of her first book. This poem, which was ostensibly a poem oc- 
casioned by the rereading of Alice Meynell's poetry, is, after all, 
a poem about life's keenest and most painful disillusionments. 
It might well be entitled "On Rereading a Volume of Poetry by 
the Late Amy Lowell," and one can say that the spirit, the sound 
of the voice, the great feeling for life still remain and we find 
ourselves praising her for the remarkable something that speaks 
best between rather than in the lines of this poem and all her 

a From Ballads for Sale, by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. 


If literature, as T. S. Eliot has said, must be judged by lan- 
guage and not by place, the poetry of H. D. has an individual, 
almost exotic note in our literature. She has created a world, or 
rather an island, that is like no one else's, an island where Hel- 
lenic temples rise, where rarefied Greek figures move in frenetic 
heat. Yet her early poems have worn well with the years and 
one can place her among the few poets who have given us 
a timeless vision of the beauty that all long for and that is 
particularly keen and strong in youth. She belongs by tempera- 
ment to those who have no formal philosophy, no message that 
will solve the material ills of humanity, no satire on the follies 
of the external world; her island is a country of her own spirit 
and imagination. 

The Greek temples of H. D. shine with a brilliant, a supernal 
light, their inhabitants move in a hemisphere almost too deli- 
cately sensuous, and they themselves are too modern in sensi- 
bility, too nervous in their intensity to be conventionally Attic. 
Theirs is not the marmoreal repose and harmony that one usually 
associates with figures in bas-relief on a Greek urn, for H. D.'s 
islands are inhabited by spirits who are possessed by that ro- 
mantic neurosis, the longing for the imagined perfection of 
Greek attitudes and the eternal solace of the Hellenic dream 
that haunts the western world, and has often been the source of 
its finest thinking, action, and poetry. The diction, the sensi- 
bility of H. D.'s poetry are strictly modern in external tone and 
feeling and the poems are clean and straight. "It's straight talk, 
straight as the Greek!" wrote Ezra Pound to Harriet Monroe in 
1912 when he first sent her H. D.'s verses. 

Of all the heroines and heroes of the Imagist Movement, it is 
she who was, as Ford Madox Ford once said, "our gracious Muse, 


The "Poetic Renaissance" 193 

our cynosure, and the peak of our achievement," and she is one 
of the few who have survived. 

It is not extraordinary that since 1911 H. D. has lived in 
Europe. She has been and still is the most natural of expatriates, 
since her work belongs to all worlds and to none. She was born 
in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1886 and passed most of her 
childhood in Philadelphia where her father was a director of the 
Flower Observatory. During the years that she attended Bryn 
Mawr College (she did not graduate), she met Ezra Pound, 
William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore, poets whose 
work and friendships were among the best influences upon 
younger writers of that time. The young girl who was already 
scribbling verse that she described as "lyrical in a small way," 
found herself when she visited France, Italy, and England in 
1911 in a congenial environment. Her acquaintance with Ezra 
Pound was revived in London. He took her in hand as a prom- 
ising disciple and saw her frequently, bringing armfuls of books 
and excellent critical advice. Among the books he brought her 
were volumes of the pre-Renaissance Latin poets of which H. D. 
said later, "I was happy with those because the Latin was easy, 
yet held the authentic (though diluted) flavor of the overworked 
and sometimes slavishly copied Latin and Greek originals." 
Under the guidance of Ezra Pound's teaching and the impetus 
of the prescribed reading, H. D. began to write the poems that 
gave her name distinction, and among these were the "Hermes" 
and the now more than classic "Spare Us from Loveliness." 
Richard Aldington, who became H. D.'s husband and who was 
among the youngest and first to join Ezra Pound's circle of 
"Imagistes," has an amusing account of those now far-off days 
in his autobiography. It was at tea that Ezra Pound informed 
H. D. and Richard Aldington that they were "Imagistes," and 
Ezra Pound also suggested that all three of the present company 
write and publish a book together; ". . . it seemed the sort of 
thing the three musketeers would have done. But Ezra soon 
changed his mind. He gravely pointed out to us that he was 
internationally famous, while we were miserable unknowns and 
that consequently the whole attention of the world's press would 
go to his poems and ours would not even be noticed." 

194 d History of American Poetry 

But with the publication of her first volume of poems, Sea 
Garden (1916), H. D. established her name and her own par- 
ticular islanded glimpse of beauty. In the thirty years that have 
elapsed between that day and this, the poems still retain their 
freshness to the reader who is susceptible to the special values 
of H. D.'s imagination: 

Flame passes under us 
and sparks that unknot the flesh, 
sorrow, splitting bone from bone, 
splendour athwart our eyes 
and rifts in the splendour, 
sparks and scattered light. 1 


Sleepless nights, 

I remember the initiates, 

their gesture, their calm glance. 

I have heard how in rapt thought, 

in vision, they speak 

with another race, 

more beautiful, more intense than this. 2 

Nor could any amount of anthologizing mar the beauty and 
technical brilliance of H. D.'s "Sea Gods": 3 

But we bring violets, 
great masses single, sweet, 
wood-violets, stream-violets, 
violets from a wet marsh. 

Violets in clumps from hills, 
tufts with earth at the roots, 
violets tugged from rocks, 
blue violets, moss, cliff, river-violets. 

Yellow violets' gold, 
burnt with a rare tint- 
violets like red ash 
among tufts of grass. 

1 "She Watches Over the Sea" from Collected Poems of H. D., by permis- 
sion of Liveright Publishing Corp. 

2 "The Gift" from Collected Poems of H. D., by permission of Liveright 
Publishing Corp. 

3 From Collected Poems of H. D., by permission of Liveright Publishing 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 195 

We bring deep-purple 
bird-foot violets. 

We bring the hyacinth-violet, 
sweet, bare, chill to the touch 
and violets whiter than the in-rush 
of your own white surf. 

The Collected Poems of H. D. were first published in 1925, 
and it is interesting to note that though H. D. is not one of the 
most publicized of contemporary poets, nor among those most* 
talked about in contemporary reviews, this volume of her col- 
lected verse has gone into five or six editions and has continued 
to be read and admired by a public that has learned to appre- 
ciate the intensity and precision of H. D.'s style. 

Her gifts seemed always to be drawn from the same pure 
source and one cannot find a time when they were ever awk- 
ward, impure, or strained. 

It was not chastity that made me wild, but fear 
that my weapon, tempered in different heat, 
was over-matched by yours, and your hand 
skilled to yield death-blows, might break 

With the slightest turn no ill will meant 
my own lesser, yet still somewhat fine-wrought, 
fiery-tempered, delicate, over-passionate steel.* 

H. D. has lived in London through the First and Second 
World Wars and all their dangers, and she has written of how 
one evening (during the First World War) she arrived home, 
exhausted and half-asphyxiated, after many hours in an under- 
ground air-raid shelter, to find a letter from Harriet Monroe 
telling her to get into the rhythm of our time, in touch with 
current events to leave her Ivory Tower. "I don't know what 
else she said," wrote H. D., "I was laughing too much." But the 
Ivory Tower charge is one that every poet of her genre must 
learn to face from critics who read poetry in the light of literal 
interpretation. What she calls her "Unexpected isle in the far 
seas" remains the center of her poetic vision, and in a note on 

* "Toward the Piraeus" from Collected Poems of H. D., by permission of 
Liveright Publishing Corp. 

196 A History of American Poetry 

poetry in The. Oxford Anthology of American Literature she 

"What are the islands to me?" They are, I suppose, an inner region 
of defence. . . . And of memory suppressed memory, maybe. (And 
what about the mother of the Muses? Mnemoscne, if I remember?) 
Actual memory, repressed memory, desire to escape, desire to create 
(music), intellectual curiosity, a wish to make real to myself what is 
most real. . . . Times, places, dates don't seem so much to matter. 5 

In one of her later books of poems, Red Roses for Bronze 
(1931) such poems as "Triplex" and "Let Zeus Record" are in 
her best vein; and if other poems in this volume seem answer- 
able to the charge of thinness, it is a poetry always unique and 
beautiful in form and spirit. We find a song in "Let Zeus 
Record, IV" 6 which is as fine as any written in our time. 

Stars wheel in purple, yours is riot so rare 

as Hesperus, nor yet so great a star 

as bright Aldebaran or Sirius, 

nor yet the stained and brilliant one of War; 

stars turn in purple, glorious to the sight; 
yours is not gracious as the Pleiads' are 
nor as Orion's sapphires luminous; 

yet disenchanted, cold, imperious face, 
when all the others blighted, reel and fall, 
your star, steel-set, keeps lone and frigid tryst 
to freighted ships, baffled in wind and blast. 

In April of 1943 at the Aeolian Hall in Second World Wai- 
London, a poetry reading of an unusual character (since mem- 
bers of the royal family and the Queen herself were in the 
audience) included readings by the Poet Laureate, John Mase- 
field, Arthur Waley, Edith and Osbert Sitwell, Walter de la 
Mare (who read "The Listener" by request), and two American 
poets, H. D. and T. S. Eliot. As Robert Herring wrote in Life 
and Letters Today those "in England, 'the country which cares 

s "A Note on Poetry" from The Oxford Anthology of American Literature, 
ed. by Bent and Pearson, by permission of The Oxford University Press. 

6 From Red Roses for Bronze, by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company, 
publisher in the United States. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 197 

nothing for art/ were allowed to state their faith, one spring 
afternoon, at a reading to which the presence of Her Majesty, 
the Queen, gave the last graciousness of a May revel." But of 
more importance to us was the presence of two Americans, for 
it showed how distinctly the literary climate of London had 
changed since that day in 1920 when Ezra Pound left London 
for Paris. 

In 1944 H. D. published a book, The Walls Do Not Fall, of 
forty-three poems that had been written since the beginning of 
the Second World War. Those signs of increased intensity which 
arc characteristic of the recent verse written by Edith Sitwell and 
T. S. Eliot are readily discerned in H. D.'s new poems, and they 
indicate how well she has achieved (despite the actual contact of 
war, or because of it) the further reaches of her poetic maturity: 

Ra, Osiris, Amen appeared 

in a spacious, bare meeting-house; 

he is the world-father, 
father of past aeons, 

present and future equally; 
beardless, not at all like Jehovah, 

he was upright, slender. 

impressive as the Memnon monolith, 

yet he was not out of place 
but perfectly at home 

in that eighteenth-century 
simplicity and grace; 

then I woke with a start 
of wonder and asked myself, 

but whose eyes are those eyes? 
for the eyes (in the cold, 

I marvel to remember) 
were all one texture, 

as if without pupil 
or all pupil, dark 

198 A History of American Poetry 

yet very clear with amber 
shining . . . 7 

If the music of the book tends to become monotonous, the 
reader is rewarded by a second or third hearing of the poem 
separately; and he is also rewarded by the visual creations of a 
"timeless" atmosphere which is also discerned in certain passages 
of Thomas Mann's Joseph in Egypt; and it is in that atmosphere 
that H. D.'s lines are memorable: 

We have seen how the most amiable, 
under physical stress, 

become wolves, jackals, 
mongrel curs; 

we know further that hunger 
may make hyenas of the best of us; 

let us, therefore (though we do not forget 
Love, the Creator, 

her chariot and white doves), 
entreat Hest, 

Aset, Isis, the great enchantress, 
in her attribute of Serqet, 

the original great-mother, 
who drove 

harnessed scorpions 
before her. 8 

There can be no doubt that a number of H. D.'s lyrics are 
among the fine poetic achievements of our time; she has won 
her audience within groups where the discriminating reader of 
poetry will always rediscover her particular values, selecting 
shorter passages from her work to be read singly and held as 
one might retain a single image or a single melodic strain in 
hearing a concerto. What H. D. can mean to a fellow poet is 

7 "Poem XVI" from The Walls Do Not Fall, by permission of The Oxford 
University Press and the author. 

s "Poem XXXIV" from The Walls Do Not Fall, by permission of The 
Oxford University Press and the author. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 199 

best described by one well qualified to understand and appre- 
ciate her work, John Gould Fletcher: 

H. D. is an inhabitant of the fabulous Golden Age, a seeker after the 
vanished Golden Fleece. I think of her as half-asleep in Greece while the 
swallows skim through the clear golden air and the silver flute on which 
she set her lips makes so many a song lie silent, slipping through her 
fingers. Her Jason is lost, and has long since fled afar. Mirror on mirror 
broken by ripples, the still lake reflects the distant trees? Romantic? 
Classical? or American? that nostalgia for a past that lies in clear light, 
for an earth unencumbered with cyclotrons and skyscrapers, where all is 
tall and very straight. It is H. D.'s note and we have forgotten it. We 
are the poorer for having forgotten. 

But a quotation from H. D/s recent book of devotional poems, 
Tribute to the Angels (1945), is the best expression of the 
maturity that her poetry has achieved, and of the singular rich- 
ness she had discovered on her "islands." Her tribute to Our 
Lady, "Poem XXIX," 9 is one of the purest expressions of reli- 
gious emotion in twentieth-century poetry: 

We have seen her 
the world over, 

Our Lady of the Goldfinch, 
Our Lady of the Candelabra, 

Our Lady of the Pomegranate, 
Our Lady of the Chair; 

we have seen her, an empress, 
magnificent in pomp and grace, 

and we have seen her 
with a single flower 

or a cluster of garden-pinks 
in a glass beside her; 

we have seen her snood 
drawn over her hair, 

or her face set in profile 
with the blue hood and stars; 

*> By permission of Oxford University Press, London. 

200 A History of American Poetry 

we have seen her head bowed down 
with the weight of a domed crown, 

or we have seen her, a wisp of a girl 
trapped in a golden halo; 

we have seen her with arrow, with doves 
and a heart like a valentine; 

we have seen her in fine silks imported 
from all over the Levant, 

and hung with pearls brought 
from the city of Constantine; 

we have seen her sleeve 
of every imaginable shade 

of damask and figured brocade; 
it is true, 

the painters did very well by her; 
it is true, they missed never a line 

of the suave turn of the head 
or subtle shade of lowered eye-lid 

or eye-lids half-raised; you find 
her everywhere (or did find), 

in cathedral, museum, cloister, 
at the turn of the palace stair. 


No poet has enjoyed a more dignified obscurity than John 
Gould Fletcher or a more subterranean and erratic reputation. 
The Pulitzer Prize in 1939 bestowed on his Selected Poems 
(1938) brought to public attention what had always seemed to 
elude it: that Fletcher was considerably more than a picturesque 
figure from the Imagist past, that he was continuing his work, 
and that the work itself was changing and still growing. John 
Gould Fletcher had one of die keenest intellects of the poets 
jvhom Amy Lowell gathered around her in 1917 when she was 
looking for disciples for her particular brand of Imagism. As 
widely read and as widely traveled as his fellow expatriate, Ezra 
Pound, his work has always lacked the lightness, the delicate, 
quick touch of Exultations and Personae. At his worst Fletcher 
has been guilty of a powerful dullness and the dignity and 
depth of his emotion is often marred by a surface of awk- 
wardness and lack of finish in poetic phrasing yet his entire 
work and his influence upon the literature of his time contain 
the rewards of seriousness and independence. 

Although Fletcher has been one of the earliest and, with the 
exception of Ernest Hemingway, the most widely traveled of 
American expatriates and had met everyone worth meeting in 
prewar literary Europe he has always remained an American at 
heart; and in rereading the collections of his verse, one is tempted 
to remark that he was never more intensely American than when 
in Europe a trait he held in common with Amy Lowell. 

Fletcher was bom in 1886, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, 
and in his autobiography, Life Is My Song (1937), he gave an 
account of his family heritage which was to color his early writ- 
ing and to which he has returned with greater intensity in recent 
years. He came from a family of wealth and of Anglo-Southern 


2O2 A History of American Poetry 

culture, and during the Civil War, his father joined the Con- 
federate Army. 

From my father's side [wrote Fletcher], I inherited a physical frame 
and constitution that has been adequate to the demands put upon it 
by more than fifty years of living under riot always easy conditions; a 
love for simple, honest, country folk, and for simple ways of living that 
has persisted despite all my sophistications; a certain streak of dour 
obstinacy that will not permit itself to be easily turned aside from any 
course once embarked upon; a love of travel and roving that is, un- 
questionably, the heritage of the pioneer; and a frankness in speaking 
out my mind that is also a marked pioneer trait. My heritage from my 
mother was quite different. It is from her that I trace all those aesthetic 
hankerings which have made me into a poet. 1 

The boy who had said of himself in youth, "I disliked Democ- 
racy," was educated at fashionable Eastern schools: at Phillips 
(Andover) Academy and at Harvard. Inheriting an independent 
income in his senior year at Harvard, he left college and took a 
trip to the Southwest, to Puye and Mesa Verde with an expedi- 
tion from the Peabody Museum. But it was Europe that called 
him, as it did so many cultivated (and well-to-do) young men of 
his generation. In the summer of 1908, he sailed for Italy. The 
contrast between "the lean, spare, austere, American Southwest" 
and the Italian cities, "dead shells of a once magnificent heri- 
tage," baffled him in a way in which Henry James or T. S. Eliot 
would never have been baffled. In his slow, questioning way he 
asked himself over and over: 

How did it happen that so much culture, so much more than Amer- 
ica had ever known, had once lived here and now lived here no longer? 
How had it come about that the Italians, once supreme in the arts, had 
ceased to be an art-creating people? How did it happen that the history 
of nineteenth-century Europe was the history of a few great, lonely 
individuals, from whom the mass, the mob, fell so sharply and abso- 
lutely away? I could find no answer to all these questions, or to many 
others. 2 

Because of this state of mind, one knows that John Gould 
Fletcher, despite his sensibilities and esthetic impulses, was never 

1 From Life Is My Song, 1937, used by permission of Farrar and Rinehart, 

2 Ibid. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 203 

to become the true "exile" from his native soil; the subtler values 
of Europe were closed to him because his heart was not with 
them and because his emotional strength lay elsewhere. In 
this he anticipated (and to some degree his work shows kinship 
with) the kinds of curiosity and temperament shown by Sherwood 
Anderson and Edgar Lee Masters and it also explains his af- 
finity with Amy Lowell. 

For a while Fletcher felt himself to be more at home in Eng- 
land than in other places he had visited, and like Ezra Pound's, 
his arrival in London in 1909 was at a moment that seemed 
fortunate and promising. A. R. Orage had begun to edit The New 
Age, the Fabians had become a fashionable literary influence, and 
the Independent Labour Party was beginning to make itself felt: 
the air was alive with excitement, prophecies, hopes, forebodings. 
Through a friend (who happened to be a Fabian) John Gould 
Fletcher made the acquaintance of the dazzling Orage, who "con- 
'founded [him] with his conversational facility," and who in- 
spired Fletcher to write poetry by asking him if he had read 
Walt Whitman. The young American who had been prejudiced 
against Whitman began to read him carefully: 

I was so carried away by Whitman's robust realism, by his masterly 
grasp of details . . . that I immediately broke all my former allegiances 
to Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Shelley and Poe and began feverishly to 
describe the life of London in terms strongly reminiscent of his [Whit- 
man's] own. 

This experience was quickly followed by another fortunate 
incident a meeting and a talk with Ezra Pound. The discussion 
shifted to the subject of vers libre, and rapidly became a mono- 
logue conducted by Pound with interruptions of die speaker's 
voice by "gesticulations and by a slight cough that came between 
every other word." Fletcher kept silent through bewilderment 
and awe and Ezra Pound, feeling that he had found another 
disciple, took him under his wing. When Pound learned that 
his fellow American in exile had published (and at his own 
expense) five volumes of verse in one year and was planning a 
sixth book, "embodying a new revolutionary theory of verbal 
orchestration," the elder poet must have been certain that he 

2(>4 A History of American Poetry 

had discovered a man after his own heart. He at once promised 
to review Fletcher's work in Harriet Monroe's magazine, Poetry, 
and was as good as his word and another poet was now launched 
upon a career that was to make literary history. Not that Pound 
and Fletcher were ever to become close friends; their tempera- 
mental differences were too great, and both had delicately nursed, 
well-cultivated egos. Of Ezra Pound's poetry Fletcher remarked 
that it was often deliberately archaic so much so, that it re- 
pelled him; and moreover, Ezra Pound seemed a forerunner of 
Gertrude Stein's "Lost Generation," of whom Fletcher wrote 
keenly that they had learned nothing much from Europe or 
from America, but largely discovered their own neurotic selves. 
But the brief friendship stimulated both poets; they shared the 
feeling that both were pioneers, discoverers, educators, that some 
of the same impulses had brought them to Europe, and though 
neither would admit it, both shared the feeling of loneliness, of 
being away from home, and therefore welcomed a fellow Ameri- 
can with similar tastes. Fletcher never believed that Ezra Pound 
seriously admired his early work. Ezra Pound's three chief aver- 
sions were superfluity of adjectives, poetic inversions, and 
rhetoric all of which was summed up in Pound's hatred of the 
character and poetry of John Milton and since it is to be feared 
that Fletcher's verse has not been entirely free of these qualities, 
it is not extraordinary that he felt uneasy whenever he heard 
Pound elaborate his theories. 

When Ezra Pound left the ranks of the Imagists, and delivered 
the American leadership of the group over to Amy Lowell, John 
Gould Fletcher joined Miss Lowell's faction, and through her 
enthusiasm his name became known to the American public. For 
a long time, Fletcher's verse was praised only in the reflected 
light of his "Color Symphonies," which were long-drawn-out and 
sometimes vague attempts to capture the feeling, the mood, the 
spirit of postimpressionism in music and in painting. These 
early poems still have their admirers, but it is in "The Ghosts 
of an Old House," a group of poems, published among his 
Goblins and Pagodas (1916), which brought to mind the set- 
ting and atmosphere of a Southern mansion in Arkansas, that 
Fletcher found his true metier, and with it the themes of his 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 205 

latest poetry and his most enduring work. In these early and 
fragmentary re-creations of a lost childhood a dark corner of a 
room where he is suddenly confronted with a forgotten portrait, 
or a cabinet filled with dusty toys the loose and abstract impro- 
visations of the "Color Symphonies" vanish; here all is simple, 
direct, and human, as if the poet had released himself from the 
confusions of too much theorizing, of too much speculation in 
esthetics, of too much mere talk about what poetry should be, 
and had begun to find himself. Thirteen years later, in a new 
preface written for his Preludes and Symphonies (1930), Fletcher 
gave further hint of the circuitous course his development had 
begun to take and he explained not only what he had tried to 
do as a poet, but the ideal of poetry that had slowly formed 
itself within his mind: 

The value of this book resides rather in its display of lyric tempera- 
ment than in any ideas it may contain. It does not belong to that 
main branch that is pure folk song where are Homer and Chaucer, 
the authors of the Nibelungenlied and the Song of Roland. . . . 
Neither can it be classed with the kind of poetry that presupposes a 
steadily held philosophic background. . . . But perhaps there is still a 
third category of poetry that has nothing to justify it except its own 
eagerness for beauty. . . . To that kind this book belongs. 8 

All this was written at a great distance from the impulses that 
produced the "Color Symphonies" and the theories which sur- 
rounded them. His "Cycle of Liguria" in The Black Rock (1928) 
had already marked the change which made his XXIV Elegies 
(1935) so difficult for critics to classify. An entire generation of 
poetry reviewers had known Fletcher only as a member of Amy 
Lowell's Imagist group of poets, as a dim figure resident in 
London and increasingly remote; meanwhile, he had actually 
returned to the United States and to his native Southwest. At 
home his impressionism had acquired a third dimension, an his- 
torical perspective, and not a little moral force and dignity. All 
these mutations in Fletcher's verse were scarcely noticed, for 
there is nothing more exasperating for the average critic than 
to have had an author or an artist carefully pigeonholed, tucked 
away in a neat drawer, and then find that one must reshuffle 

3 Preludes and Symphonies, Macmillan, used by permission of the Author. 

so6 A History of American Poetry 

one's notes and readjust one's happily conceived opinions! If one 
test of the true artist lies in his power not to stop growing, to 
keep his independence, and to discover new channels for his 
expression, surely Fletcher has turned many of his threatened 
failures into successful poems. His "Elegy in a Civil War Ceme- 
tery" should make Allen Tate and other survivors of the literary 
Confederacy look to their laurels and his "Elegy on an Empty 
Skyscraper" 4 contains within its closing lines one of the fine 
examples of modern diction in American poetry: 

There is wide space between 

Man's topmast and his keel, and in it death 

Comes without sign or sound or stir of breath. 

No one shall fill that room, or take his place 

In it, as stowaway or come-aboard; 

Nor shall the meagre window-blind be lowered, 

Nor shall the dark be levelled by a face. 

In his latest book, South Star (1941), Fletcher proves himself 
to be the most earnest and at times (when he does not allow his 
tendencies toward discursiveness to blur the page) he is one of 
the most intense of regional writers in this country. Among the 
shorter poems in this volume, "My Father's Watch," a poem 
foreshadowed by "The Ghosts of an Old House," is a memorable 
example of Fletcher's rediscovery of traditional metrics in the 
writing of poetry, and his maturity of feeling and subtlety in the 
uses of traditional forms finds its best expression in ''The 
Scythe": e 

. . . Now scythe and well 
And hard brown hands are gone. No one at all 
Goes there on still hot days to draw aloft 
The dripping bucket on its rattling chain, 
Or lift a dipper cloudless to the brim: 
And yesterday I saw, within the house, 
Surrounded by old faces I once knew, 
How the keen scythe with its hard-whetted edge 
Had mown away the flower of lives, like grass. 

4 From Twenty -four Elegies. Copyright by John Gould Fletcher, 1935, and 
used by permission of the Author. 

5 From South Star, Macmillan, used by permission of the Author. 


". . . all art is necessarily objective. It doesn't declaim or explain; it 

William Carlos Williams, A Note on Poetry (1937) 1 

Of the many poets who were supposed to owe their existence 
to the arrival^ of Eyra pound's "Les Imaffisfe^" p"^ Arn y Lowell's 
army of 'free" versifiers, William Carlos Williams was the last 
to gain public recognition. His first book, Poems (1909), ap- 
peared before the "poetic renaissance" had officially begun and 
some three years before the mysterious term, "Les Imagistes," 
had been invented. The book was also published a year before 
Williams began his medical practice, which he has maintained 
ever since, in Rutherford, New Jersey, the town in which he was 
born on September 17, 1883. In a brief sketch of his early life 
and its background that Williams wrote for The Oxford Anthol- 
ogy of American Literature he remarked: 

. . . my forebears seem to have been restless souls, never long in the 
same place. My father was born in Birmingham, England, and my 
mother in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. I went to the public schools here 
in Rutherford, New Jersey, until I was about twelve years old, then to 
a New York City high school [Horace Mann], finally to the University 
of Pennsylvania for my degree in Medicine. Among these years was one 
when, with my brother, I attended a school in Switzerland [Chateau de 
Lancy in Geneva], living also in Paris for six months at that time. 
Later I studied Medicine at the University of Leipzig and took my 
interneship in two hospitals in New York. Writing has been my con- 
stant companion during these years. 2 

i From Oxford Anthology of American Literature, Oxford Press, 1937. 
Used by permission of the Author. 
-' Ibid. 


208 A History of American Poetry 

To his stay at the University of Pennsylvania as well as the 
character of his poetry, we must credit his long association with 
Ezra Pound whom he met at the University, Wallace Stevens 
who was a native of Pennsylvania whom he met in New York, 
and H. D. whose father was director of the Flower Astronomical 
Observatory at the University. The associations of regional local- 
ity (since some are accidental and others are of short duration) 
may be taken for what they are worth; but some degree of sig- 
nificance may be attached to the fact that none of these four 
poets is a regionalist in the usual sense of the term and some 
future claim may yet be made that all four represented in vary- 
ing degrees a "Pennsylvania school." All four were subject to 
"European influences," and of the four, Williams appears to be 
the most firmly and determinedly rooted in an American locality, 
Rutherford, New Jersey, a suburb of New York. 

For the most part, so completely in fact that one must search 
out the rare exceptions, Williams' verse has been unrhymed; in 
temper it has been at the furthest remove from "professional" 
verse; it has been protestant, yet formal, and the virtues of even 
his slightest pieces have been those of presenting definite objects 
and scenes before the eye of the reader. The details of a suburban 
pastoral are to be found in his lines to "The Young Housewife" 
from Al Que Quiere 5 (1917): 

At ten A.M. the young housewife 
moves about in negligee behind 
the wooden walls of her husband's house. 
I pass solitary in my car. 

Then again she comes to the curb 
to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands 
shy, uncorseted, tucking in 
stray ends of hair . . . 

The little portrait has the cleanliness, the freshness, the so- 
called "naivete'" of an American "primitive," and the same quali- 

s From Complete Collected Poems, 1^06-1^8, used by permission of New 
Directions and the Author. 

The "Poetic Renaissance' 209 

ties of neatness are seen in a poem that was published twelve 
years later, in 1929, "Nantucket": 4 

Flowers through the window 
lavender and yellow 

changed by white curtains- 
Smell of cleanliness- 
Sunshine of late afternoon 
On the glass tray 

a glass pitcher, the tumbler 
turned down, by which 

a key is lying And the 
immaculate white bed. 

This is a latter-day New England recorded by the eye and 
hand of a singularly alert observer; each notation has been, 
scrupulously selected, and the entire, brilliant, almost antiseptic 
scene has attained the formal virtues of restraint and a thor- 
oughly unpretentious dignity; it is simply no more or less than 
what it pretends to be, and one is not invited to read deeper 
meanings in the poem than the first sight of its words convey. 
Many of Williams' shorter poems have rested upon the same 
premise; the selection, however lightly its choices may seem toi 
have been made, is firm; Williams has always been very much 
his own man, and one might almost say "his own poet." Ezra 
Pound in one of his Polite Essays observed the slow growth of 
Williams' poetic maturity, but the slow growth, which is so 
visibly reflected through the three-hundred-odd pages of The 
Complete Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams (1938) 
(which, by the way, was not "complete"), was turned to Williams' 
own advantage. Despite the fluidity of many poems and their 
thin if not transparent lines the impression that one gains is of 
a poet who has wisely accepted the laws of the pace at which ha 
has lived, and among them "The Botticellian Trees," "Young 
Sycamore," "The Sea Elephant," and "The Jungle" all arrived 

* From Complete Collected Poems, 1906-1938, used by permission of New 
Directions and the Author. 

210 A History of American Poetry 

at the near perfection of an art that had earlier seemed a tenta- 
tive "experiment" in vers libre. An analogy, if it is not thrust 
too far, exists between Williams' love lyric, "Rain," and the less 
clouded moments of Verlaine's impressionism, and though the 
"mood" that Williams has created places him at a great distance 
from the French Symbolist poet, the same power to suggest emo- 
tion, the same delicate control over language rather than "ideas' 
which so clearly distinguished the verse of Verlaine from that 
written by his contemporaries, may be found in the following 
passage from Williams' "Rain": 5 

The trees 
are become 
beasts fresh risen 

the sea- 


from the crevices of 

their hides 

So my life is spent 

to keep out love 
with which 
she rains upon 

the world 
of spring 

And such an art, which in its tentative stages seems more 
"arty" than truly expressive, reaches its finality in Williams' 
characteristic little poem, "The Jungle": 6 

It is not the still weight 

of the trees, the 

breathless interior of the wood, 

tangled with wrist-thick 

vines, the flies, reptiles, 
the forever fearful monkeys 

5 From Complete Collected Poems, 1906-1938, used by permission of New 
Directions and the Author. 

6 Ibid. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 2 1 1 

screaming and running 
in the branches 


a girl waiting 
shy, brown, soft-eyed 
to guide you 

Upstairs, sir. 

In his introduction to Williams' Collected Poems, 1921-1931, 
published in 1934, 7 Wallace Stevens found an occasion to speak 
illuminatingly of Williams, of the romantic poet in general, and 
of the "anti-poetic" element in so-called "modern" poetry, 
Stevens wrote: 

. . . and generally speaking one might run through these pages and 
point out how often the essential poetry is the result of the conjunction 
of the unreal and the real, the sentimental and the anti-poetic, the 
Constant interaction of two opposites. This seems to define Williams 
and his poetry. ... So defined, Williams looks a bit like that grand 
old plaster cast, Lessing's Laocoon: the realist struggling to escape from 
the serpents of the unreal. 

He is commonly identified by externals. He includes here specimens 
of abortive rhythms, words on several levels, ideas without logic, and 
similar minor matters, which, when all is said, are merely the diversions 
of the prophet between morning and evening song. It will be found 
that he has made some veritable additions to the corpus of poetry, 
which is certainly no more sacred to anyone than to him. His special 
use of the anti-poetic is an example of this. The ambiguity produced 
by bareness is another. The implied image, as in YOUNG SYCAMORE, the 
serpent that leaps up in one's imagination at his prompting, is an 
addition to imagism, a phase of realism which Williams has always 
found congenial. . . . But these things may merely be mentioned. 
Williams himself, a kind of Diogenes of contemporary poetry, is a much 
more vital matter. The truth is that, if one had not chanced to regard 
him as Laocoon, one could have done very well by him as Diogenes. 

In respect to the poetry of William Carlos Williams, Wallace 
Stevens' last observation is by no means as casual as Stevens may 
have wished his statement to appear. Williams' search for "an 
honest man," as well as an instruction to others "to stand out of 
my sunlight," are the kinds of truth that Williams sought in 
verse. The search may at times seem wantonly naive, and at 

7 Objectivist Press. Used by permission of the Author. 

212 A History of American Poetry 

times it has resulted in incomplete and "experimental" poems, 
but we may be certain that Williams has never falsified his lan- 
guage; and he has made an ethical distinction between the uses 
of artifice and of art. Craftsmanship, not artifice, has been his 
concern, and perhaps no writer of the twentieth century has 
yielded so little to the temptations that mere artifice places 
within his path. That is why a number of Williams' poems con- 
tain a substance that is "unliterary" in the best uses of that term; 
some poems may be "sentimental" in Stevens' sharp and well- 
mannered use of the word, but whether or not the poem achieves 
its end, the "truth" of the poem remains unimpaired. In the 
image of Stevens' "Laocoon" Williams has written one of his 
masterpieces and one of the finest poems of his generation. It 
has greater density than the majority of his poems, and it illus- 
trates what Stevens meant when he spoke of Williams' "addition 
to imagism," an "addition," by the way, toward which Williams 
leaned before "Les Imagistes" arrived: 


Contend in a sea which the land partly encloses 

shielding them from the too heavy blows 

of an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses 

tortures the biggest hulls, the best man knows 

to pit against its beatings, and sinks them pitilessly. 

Mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute 

brilliance of cloudless days, with broad bellying sails 

they glide to the wind tossing green water 

from their sharp prows while over them the crew crawls 

ant like, solicitously grooming them, releasing, 
making fast as they turn, lean far over and having 
caught the wind again, side by side, head for the mark. 

In a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by 
lesser and greater craft which, sycophant, lumbering 
and flittering follow them, they appear youthful, rare 

as the light of a happy eye, live with the grace 

of all that in the mind is feckless, free and 

naturally to be desired. Now the sea which holds them 

s From Complete Collected Poems, 1906-1938, used by permission of New 
Directions and the Author. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 213 

is moody, lapping their glossy sides, as if feeling 

for some slightest flaw but fails completely. 

Today no race. Then the wind comes again. The yachts 

move, jockeying for a start, the signal is set and they 
are off. Now the waves strike at them but they are too 
well made, they slip through, though they take in canvas. 

Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows. 
Bodies thrown recklessly in the way are cut aside. 
It is a sea of faces about them in agony, in despair 

until the horror of the race dawns staggering the mind, 
the whole sea become an entanglement of watery bodies 
lost to the world bearing what they cannot hold. Broken, 

beaten, desolate, reaching from the dead to be taken up 
they cry out, failing, failing! their cries rising 
in waves still as the skillful yachts pass over. 

The form of the poem is, of course, adapted from Dante's 
famous terza rima of The Divine Comedy, but for us it is im- 
portant that Williams has made it completely his own. No so- 
called "traditional" poet of his time has accomplished the adap- 
tation of a traditional form with more assurance than Williams 
has employed in "The Yachts," and if Archibald MacLeish in 
Conquistador has endowed the terza rima with brighter colors 
and the speed of a lively narrative, the emotions that Williams 
reawakens in the reader are of a deeper origin; and in the 
progress of the poem and its control of the "real" and "unreal/' 
Wallace Stevens' "Laocoon" becomes the master of his style. 

The later poems of Williams, including the "Elegy in Memory 
of D. H. Lawrence," define the ranges of his poetic maturity; 
two quotations from his latest book, The Wedge (1944), illus- 
trate the sureness with which he practiced his art: 


Their time past, pulled down 
cracked and flung to the fire 
go up in a roar 

o From The Wedge, used by permission of The Cumraington Press and 
the Author. 

214 d History of American Poetry 

All recognition lost, burnt clean 
clean in the flame, the green 
dispersed, a living red, 
flame red, red as blood wakes 
on the ash 

and ebbs to a steady burning 
the rekindled bed becomes 
a landscape of flame 

At the winter's midnight 

we went to the trees, the coarse 

holly, the balsam and 

the hemlock for their green 

At the thick of the dark 
the moment of the cold's 
deepest plunge we bought branches 
cut from the green trees 

to fill our need, and over 
doorways, about paper Christmas 
bells covered with tinfoil 
and fastened by red ribbons 

we stuck the green prongs 

in the windows hung 

woven wreaths and above pictures 

the living green. On the 

mantle we built a green forest 
and among those hemlock 
sprays put a herd of small 
white deer as if they 

were walking there. All this! 
and it seemed gentle and good 
to us. Their time past, 
relief! The room bare. We 

stuffed the dead grate 
with them upon the half burntout 
log's smoldering eye, opening 
red and closing under them 

and we stood there looking down. 
Green is a solace, 

The "Poetic Renaissance'' 215 

a promise of peace, a fort 
against the cold (though we 

did not say so) a challenge 
above the snow's 
hard shell. Green (we might 
have said) that, where 

small birds hide and dodge 
and lift their plaintive 
rallying cries, blocks for them 
and knocks down 

the unseeing bullets of 
the storm. Green spruce boughs 
pulled down by a weight of 
snow Transformed! 

Violence leaped and appeared. 
Recreant! roared to life 
as the flame rose through and 
our eyes recoiled from it. 

In the jagged flames green 
to red, instant and alive. Green! 
those sure abutments . . Gone! 
lost to mind 

and quick in the contracting 
tunnel of the grate 
appeared a world! Black 
mountains, black and red as 

yet uncolored arid ash white, 
an infant landscape of shimmering 
ash and flame and we, in 
that instant, lost, 

breathless to be witnesses, 
as if we stood 
ourselves refreshed among 
the shining fauna of that fire. 

And in "The Cure" 10 still another aspect of Williams' plainly 
spoken and formal austerity in unrhymed verse is heard: 

10 From The Wedge, used by permission of The Cummington Press and 
the Author. 

2i6 A History of American Poetry 

Sometimes I envy others, fear them 
a little too, if they write well. 
For when I cannot write I'm a sick man 
and want to die. The cause is plain. 

But they have no access to my sources. 
Let them write then as they may and 
perfect it as they can they will never 
come to the secret of that form 

interknit with the unfathomable ground 
where we walk daily and from which 
among the rest you have sprung 
and opened flower-like to my hand. 

Since 1921, Williams has written several works in prose and 
these include a book of essays, In the American Grain, two vol- 
umes of belles lettres, three novels, a translation of Philippe 
Soupault's Last Nights of Paris, and two books of short stories. 
Of these the book of essays deserves a place in the history of 
American prose by the side of Gertrude Stein's Three Lives and 
Djuna Barnes's Nightwood; the novels and short stories may be 
considered as "works in progress" toward the control in prose 
over which Williams has accomplished such excellent mastery in 
his later poetry. Like Stevens, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, 
E. E. Cummings, H. D., and Ezra Pound, Williams has never 
modified the quality of his gifts to meet the temporary demands 
of commercial publication; and unlike them, his poetic maturity 
has been of an almost stubborn and yet hardy growth. His 
example to those poets who shall come after him is unfailingly 
salutary and a sign of good health in what Wallace Stevens has 
so deftly called the "corrjus" of American poetry. 


In Conrad Aiken's early volume of critical essays, Scepticisms, 
published in 1919, one is struck by the introductory sentence of 
his essay on John Gould Fletcher, a poet to whom he admits a 
temperamental affinity. More than twenty years have passed since 
the essay was written, much water has run under many critical 
bridges, many once dazzling names are not only dim but nearly 
obliterated and if that striking first sentence and paragraph 
arrest our attention today it is because it is a brilliant summing 
up, not of John Gould Fletcher's labors, but of Conrad Aiken's 
own peculiar position: 

Mr. Fletcher is his own implacable enemy. He has not yet published 
a book in which his excellent qualities are single, candid, and un- 
divided: a great many dead leaves are always to be turned. 1 

Not that Conrad Aiken has kept silent, or has failed to labor, 
or to use a more characteristic word has failed to be "creative." 
He has been the "creative writer" par excellence; he has rolled 
up his shirt sleeves and produced some twenty volumes of poetry, 
five novels, and three volumes of short stories, all containing his 
individual virtues and his highly individual vices, glossed over 
with the ease of someone who has learned to write without a 
second glance at the sheets as they fall to the floor, and quite as 
though the action had been performed by an automatic hand. 
The failures and the never-quite-attained successes are as per- 
ceptible in his early books as in his latest the melodious vague- 
ness, the emphasis upon the theme of sexual adventure, reiterated 
in terms of the slightly soiled, amateur discussions of Freud dur- 
ing the 1920*8, the special "artiness" of that same period which 
never failed to include its heritage of the 1890*5 from the pages 

i Scepticisms, Aiken. 


218 A History of American Poetry 

of Henry Harland's The Yellow Book. How well, how easily the 
thoroughly precocious Conrad Aiken of 1914 would have found 
a place between the covers of Harland's magazine that had come 
to grief (and unjustly) during the Oscar Wilde trial of 1895: 

Dead Cleopatra lies in a crystal casket, 

Wrapped and spiced by the cunningest of hands. 2 

In America the 1890*5 had lingered far beyond the day their 
time was spent in London and in Paris; and an entire wing of 
the "poetic renaissance," of which Conrad Aiken emerged as the 
most ambitious figure, vehemently revived them. Never had there 
appeared in American poetry so many languors and lilies and 
paper roses, so many "esthetic" dances and such self-conscious 
swaying before a tall, gilt mirror, a mirror, by the way, that 
might well have been designed by Aubrey Beardsley. In that 
dance before the mirror one recalls Aiken's Punch: The Im- 
mortal Liar (1921) which remarked on "how we danced and how 
we sang." 

Time has not dealt kindly with the manner of dancing that 
Conrad Aiken at the age of thirty- two offered us in Punch; its 
so-called "decadence" is more amusing than frightening, and the 
youthful vigor with which it was pursued in jingling rhymes has 
lost much of its original taint of evil. In a study of Aiken's life 
and work in The Melody of Chaos by Houston Peterson (1931), 
there were many generalizations made that denned the period of 
the "poetic renaissance" as well as Aiken's place within it. The 
book itself has become a "period piece" and the unconscious 
revelations of its author's mind have an enduring curiosity value 
in literary history; today that innocent volume is a fascinating 
record of the pseudo-psychoanalytic literary criticism of the day 
when James Branch Cabell's Jurgen and Carl Van Vechten's 
Peter Whiffle were greeted with less discreet than fashionable 

In the simultaneous discovery of large terms like "epistemol- 
ogy" and "psychiatry," in the enjoyment of hearing names that 
brought to mind French Symbolism, the poetic uses of the word 

2 "Discordance III," from Selected Poems, 1930, used by permission of 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 219 

"Beauty" became involved. To this movement Aiken's verse had 
already contributed certain valuable qualities of sensitivity and 
a rippling stream of lyricism: 

Music I heard with you was more than music . . , 3 

Aiken became one of the many spokesmen in a reawakened 
search for Beauty, and in his Scepticisms he chose to enter its 
ranks with Amy Lowell, Alfred Krcymborg, and Maxwell Boden- 
heim. "It is the poet's office," he wrote, "not merely to entertain, 
but also, on a higher plane, to delight with beauty and to amaze 
with understanding." Almost of necessity the newly awakened 
desire for Beauty was a trifle vague, and what it meant can only 
be guessed at. Strong men and tender women cried for it with 
histrionic fervor and Sara Teasdale with simple artlessness had 
summed it up as well as any: 

O beauty are you not enough? 
Why am I crying after love . . .* 

Why indeed, when it probably meant the same thing? But it 
also meant orange curtains and black-painted floors in New York's 
Greenwich Village, and these were details that could be readily 
associated with the facile diabolism of Aiken's volumes of verse, 
The Jig of Forslin (1916), Punch, and Priapus and the Pool 
(1922). It meant freely roving discussions of Freud, Havelock 
Ellis, and Krafft-Ebing in the same manner that Marx became a 
topic of conversation ten years later and the conclusions of 
many hours of such talk, laughter, and speculation were stated 
with an air of well-considered, if not dignified, finality in Hous- 
ton Peterson's The Melody of Chaos: "Disillusioned and fasci- 
nated by turns, we see 'sublime' passions hidden under ridicu- 
lous and revolting habits." And with these speculations, the 
search for Beauty also included the extramarital diversions of 
Iris March in Michael Arlen's popular novel, The Green Hat 
"gallant was the word for Iris" and perhaps, at its best, it meant 
a reaffirmation of faith in poetry. But it is sad to recall that the 

a "Bread and Music" from Selected Poems, 1930, used by permission of 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 

4 "Spring Night" from Collected Poems. By permission of The Macmillan 

22O A History of American Poetry 

search for Beauty sometimes took form in an "artiness" which 
resembled the dancing of Isadora Duncan in her most robust and 
uninhibited period. Of that glamorous figure, H. L. Mencken, 
who had always been a George Babbitt at heart, but certainly 
not one who had ever accused himself of prudery, once said that 
he had no objection to the lady prancing half-naked and wildly 
around the stage in what had been one woman's conception of 
"classical art." "But why," concluded the editor of The American 
Mercury, "does she have to do it in the names of Nietzsche and 

With this side glance at the associations that Aiken's poetry 
brings to mind, some attention should be given to the external 
facts of his life and his literary activity. Our quotations are from 
a biographical sketch which precedes a selection of his poems in 
Gerald DeWitt Sanders and John Herbert Nelson's Chief Mod- 
ern Poets of England and America (third edition, 1943): 5 

Conrad Potter Aiken, eldest of the three sons of William Ford Aiken 
and Anna Potter Aiken, was born at Savannah, Georgia, on August 5th, 
1889. Both his parents were descended from old and prominent New 
England families. His father, a graduate of the Harvard Medical School, 
established a practice in Savannah, where he enjoyed a high reputation 
as physician and surgeon. 

Aiken secured his early education in the Savannah public schools. 
From the first he evinced an interest in poetry and at nine began to 
write verse. In his eleventh year, his father, while temporarily de- 
ranged, killed his wife and himself. As a result of this tragedy Aiken 
went to live with a great aunt in New Bedford, Massachusetts. For the 
next seven years he attended the Middlesex School. In 1907 he entered 
Harvard. While an undergraduate he wrote verse and prose for the 
Harvard Monthly and the Harvard Advocate and was President of the 
Advocate and class poet. In his senior year he ranked high enough in 
scholarship to enjoy the privilege of irregular class attendance, but 
when he absented himself from classes for ten days to write a poem, 
the authorities thought he was using his privilege too freely and placed 
him on probation. Considering this treatment unjust, he left college 
and went abroad for six months, but returned the following autumn 
and finished with the class of 1912. . . . He made frequent trips to 
Europe . . . and in 1923 settled at Winchelsea, on the Sussex coast. 
Some months later he bought a house at Rye, within a block or two of 

5 "Conrad Aiken," by permission of The Macmillan Company. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 221 

Henry James's old home, and until the outbreak of the Second World 
War had lived there except for two short visits to the United States 
in 1925 and 1933 and a lengthier one from 1927 to 1930. During the 
latter stay, he taught for a year, 1927-28, at Harvard. . . . From 1917 
to 1919 he was an editor of The Dial, for which he wrote many critical 
articles. . . . He has edited several collections of poetry and a selection 
of the poems of Emily Dickinson, and is a frequent contributor to such 
magazines as The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Atlantic Monthly. 

Conrad Aiken associated, wrote Houston Peterson, "with psy- 
chiatrists and medical men" and no one, it is agreed, should be 
so narrow-minded as to disclaim friendship with men of honor 
in any profession. Aiken read widely, but mainly with a con- 
scious eye on the needs of his particular temperament, which 
was, of course, an admirable practice, but if one judges it from 
the character of his writing, one would say that it tended to 
increase his disposition toward a lax, wandering, ruminating, 
partly cultivated, and perhaps self-encouraged "lazy" manner of 
writing verse. He had an eye for glittering metaphors in poetry, 
and what is so commonly called "an ear for music," but the final 
qualities that his gifts needed, which were those of self-discipline 
and self-forgetfulness, never entered his work. Throughout the 
vague reiterations of an all too consciously "poetic" speech in 
many books of prose and verse, one becomes aware that his was 
among the most luxuriant of fine lyrical talents ever to be 
squandered in America. 

One of Aiken's tolerant and friendly critics, Louis Untermeyer, 
has expertly remarked upon the character and waste of lyrical 
talent in the long half narrative, half epistemological poems that 
Aiken included in his many volumes of verse: 

Often Aiken loses himself in this watery welter of language. In trying 
to create a closer liaison between poetry and music, he places so much 
importance on the rise and fall of syllables that his very excess of 
melody defeats his purpose. His verse, thus, gains greatly on the sen- 
suous side, but loses, in its murmuring indefiniteness, that vitality of 
speech which is the very blood of poetry. It is a subaqueous music, 
strangely like the magic of Debussy. 6 

From Modern American Poetry, ed. by Louis Untermeyer, used by per- 
mission of Harcourt, Brace and Company. 

222 A History of American Poetry 


Of the longer poems, "Senlin: A Biography" (1918) 7 has the 
most enduring interest, and the first stanza of the second section 
of Book II anticipated, at a measurable distance, the overtones 
of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land: 

It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning 

When the light drips through the shutters like the dew, 

I arise, I face the sunrise, 

And do the things my fathers learned to do. 

Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops 

Pale in a saffron mist and seem to die, 

And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet 

Stand before a glass and tie my tie. 

But one is not surprised to find the character of Senlin so 
amorphous, so shadowy, so completely abstracted by his rumina- 
tions that it falls far short of any resemblance to human form. 
One of the reasons why Senlin failed and his failure is repeated 
in all of Aiken's heroes may be observed in T. S. Eliot's brief 
essay on "That Poetry Is Made with Words" in The New English 
Weekly for April 27, 1939: 

Character composed according to Freudian formulae has all the de- 
fects of the synthetic substitute; its actions are tediously predictable; it 
is always unconvincing and usually false. The great characters of drama 
and prose fiction may themselves provide material for study to psycholo- 
gists; but out of the psychologists' abstractions no character can be put 

From the "Morning Song of Senlin" we turn to another happy 
moment in Aiken's many Preludes for Memnon (1931) which 
overflowed one volume into another, Time in the Rock (1936). 
It can be said that the more Aiken tried to resemble Rimbaud, 
the more he resembled Verlaine, and the rare and best moments 
of his verse are distinguished by a fine turn of phrase and a 
graceful "dying fall" of the line. His attempts at seeming "vig- 
orous" are always forced and histrionic; but these merits and 
flaws are well illustrated (and the merits have been justly ad- 
mired) in his "Prelude LVI": 8 

7 From Selected Poems, 1930, used by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons. 
s From Preludes for Memnon, used by permission of Charles Scribner's 

The "Poetic Renaissance' 9 223 

Rimbaud and Verlaine, precious pair of poets, 
Genius in both (but what is genius) playing 
Chess on a marble table at an inn 
With chestnut blossom falling in blond beer 
And on their hair and between knight and bishop- 
Sunlight squared between them on the chess-board 
Cirrus in heaven, and a squeal of music 
Blown from the leathern door of Sainte Sulpice 

Discussing, between moves, iamb and spondee 

Anacoluthon and the open vowel 

God the great peacock with his angel peacocks 

And his dependent peacocks the bright stars: 

Disputing too of fate as Plato loved it, 

Or Sophocles, who hated and admired, 

Or Socrates, who loved and was amused: 

Verlaine puts down his pawn upon a leaf 
And closes his long eyes, which are dishonest, 
And says 'Rimbaud, there is one thing to do: 
We must take rhetoric, and wring its neck! . . / 
Rimbaud considers gravely, moves his Queen; 
And then removes himself to Timbuctoo. 

And Verlaine dead, with all his jades and mauves; 
And Rimbaud dead in Marseilles with a vision, 
His leg cut off, as once before his heart; 
And all reported by a later lackey, 
Whose virtue is his tardiness in time. 

Let us describe the evening as it is: 
The stars disposed in heaven as they are: 
Verlaine and Shakespere rotting, where they rot, 
Rimbaud remembered, and too soon forgot; 

Order in all things, logic in the dark; 
Arrangement in the atom and the spark; 
Time in the heart and sequence in the brain- 
Such as destroyed Rimbaud and fooled Verlaine 
And let us then take godhead by the neck 

And strangle it, and with it, rhetoric. 

There is a characteristic sight of felicity and facility in a 
'prelude" from Time in the Rock: 

224 A History of American Poetry 

She walks 

as naturally as a young tree might walk: 
with no pretence: picks up her roots and goes 
out of your world, and into the secret darkness, 
as a lady with lifted train will leave a ballroom, 
and who knows why. 

Wherefor do you love her, gentlemen? 
Because, like the spring earth, she is fruitfulness? 
and you are seed? you need no other reason? 
and she no other than her perpetual season. 9 

The austerities of E. A. Robinson, or the happily poised re- 
straint of Robert Frost, or the wit with which both poets were 
endowed are absent here. Yet Aiken's poetic gifts arc to be found, 
scattered and abandoned, through many pages of dull verse; his 
dissipation of talent was as marked as the earlier dissipation of 
the finer art and more intelligently inspired gifts of Ezra Pound. 
A hidden warning of Aiken's weakness and the distractions on 
which it fed may be discovered in the Introduction to his Scepti- 
cisms. He had spoken of the position of the poet in respect to his 

It is cut-throat competition, a survival of the fittest. We lose no 
opportunity to praise our own sort of work, or to condemn that sort 
which we consider dangerous. 

This may well be a youthful and honest criterion for criticism, 
but it is not likely to sustain the gifts, or to lead the way toward 
the esthetic discrimination, of a mature poet. The answer to it 
may be found in Thomas Mann's essay on "Richard Wagner and 
the Ring of the Nibelungen" in Decision, January-February, 
1942, in which he said: 

Indeed, it is probable that objective recognition of the claims of 
another's art is hardly characteristic of the artist's active and struggling 
years. "Beautiful," says Kant, "is that which gives us disinterested 
pleasure." And very likely no performance of another can give quite 
disinterested pleasure to him upon whom it is laid to achieve the 
height of beauty himself. At least not until he has quite reached his 

"Prelude LXXXV" from Time in the Rock, used by permission of 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 225 

goal. For only then is his praise free from the need to flatter himself, 
to defend and strengthen his own position. 

There is no evidence of that kind of wisdom in anything that 
Conrad Aiken has written, either in verse or prose. Certainly, a 
recent sonnet sequence, And in the Human Heart (1940), shows 
none of the poetic maturity that we may have hoped for in 1921; 
the familiar sights of "chaos" and the "void" remained quite as 
they seemed to him in earlier days, and if anything, the language 
of the sonnets was more abstracted, more relaxed, more sonorous 
than the shapeless and "watery" speech of his scmipsychiatric, 
semiepistemological ruminations in verse: 

If the void sunders downward, let us fall, 
nethermost whistling Nothing there to find 
these but our nightmares, our own dragons, all, 
who through the chaos but extend the mind. 10 

"Death among violins and paper roses" still played a leitmotiv 
through Conrad Aiken's verse; nor have the awards that he has 
won, the Shelley Memorial Award, 1929, the Pulitzer Prize for 
his Selected Poems in 1930 (and these were given more deservedly 
to him than to many recipients of similar honors), served to 
endow him with the assurance and strength to build beyond 
the moment when Aldous Huxley wrote in The Nation and 
Athenaeum (London, 1920): 

Mr. Aiken possesses many poetical merits. He has a flow of language 
that is refreshing in this age of meagrely trickling springs. . . . But he 
has the defects of his qualities. His facility is his undoing. . . . He runs 
along like Wordsworth's hare in 'The Leech-Gatherer,' in a rainbow 
mist of his own making. . . . But a mist, however iridescent, is always 
a mist; and after running* along at Mr. Aiken's side for a hundred pages 
or so one begins to long for clarity and firmness, for a glimpse of some- 
thing definite outside this golden haze. ... If Mr. Aiken is to be more 
than an agreeable maker of coloured mists he will have to find some 
new intellectual formula into which to concentrate the shapelessness of 
his vague emotions. 

10 Sonnet sequence from And in the Human Heart, used by permission of 
Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Inc. 



When on March i, 1914, William Butler Yeats spoke in 
Chicago of a poetic style "like speech, as simple as the simplest 
prose, like a cry of the heart," his audience was half prepared 
to recognize that style and to believe that they had made a like 
discovery of the "new" poetry. If regionalism in Ireland had 
anticipated by a few short years a similar movement in the 
American Middle West, the moment of its birth in the Abbey 
Theatre was no less exciting than the almost simultaneous ar- 
rival of three Middle Western poets, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel 
Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg. The Chicago audience and their 
three poets would have heartily accepted a definition of poetry 
set down as early as 1908 by Yeats's fellow countryman, J. M. 

In these days poetry is usually a flower of evil or good; but it is the 
timber of poetry that wears most surely, and there is no timber that 
has not strong roots among the clay and worms. 

Even if we grant that exalted poetry can be kept successful by itself, 
the strong things of life are needed in poetry also, to show that what 
is exalted and tender is not made by feeble blood. It may almost be 
said that before verse can be human again it must learn to be brutal. 1 

The eldest of the three poets and none of the three was under 
thirty at the moment when Chicago and Poetry magazine an- 
nounced their arrival on the scene was Edgar Lee Masters. In 
the controversy that greeted Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River 
Anthology (1915) readers of poetry in the United States were 
delighted to find short, dramatic verses that were "like speech, as 

i Preface to "Poems" from Works of John M. Synge, Vol. II, used by per- 
mission of Random House, Inc. 


The ''Poetic Renaissance'' 227 

simple as the simplest prose," and that the entire book could be 
read with the facility that they enjoyed in reading a popular 
novel. The verses were monologues spoken from the tombstones 
of a small Middle Western town, and they recited the brief joys, 
the gossip, the frustrated ambitions, the griefs, the ironies of a 
community that had once thrived, but had been left in a con- 
dition of Protestant unrest, and had been cheated in its hopes of 
nineteenth-century "progress." 

While Amy Lowell lectured to women's clubs on the virtues 
of vers libre, a larger public had made its own discovery of "free 
verse" in the unrhymed monologues of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon 
River Anthology and the discovery seemed to be one of greater 
relevance to a national literature because abstract theories and 
manifestoes of writing verse had acquired a local habitation and 
the familiar sound of American family names. The half-ironic 
f warnings that "man is mortal" which emanated from the shadows 
of Masters' Spoon River churchyard were spoken in terms of a 
direct antithesis to the happy countrymen and children of James 
Whitcomb Riley's Hoosier lyrics; it was as though thousands of 
restless, defeated, anonymous souls had suddenly found their 
voices, and an equal number of "Aunt Marys," "Orphan Annies," 
"Raggedy" men, and "Uncle Sidneys" had lost their innocent 
smiles and tears. 

What the "dead souls" of Spoon River had to say implied the 
same experiences, the same beliefs, the same bewildered sense of 
loss that defined the causes of material success and failure in the 
novels of Theodore Dreiser. By a turn of good fortune Masters' 
Anthology appeared at the very moment when the voices of his 
Spoon River Valley were most likely to be heard. 

Edgar Lee Masters was born in Garnett, Kansas, on August 23, 
1869, and readers of his autobiography, Across Spoon River 
(1936), will not fail to recognize in him an archetype of the 
zealously independent, slowly maturing, Middle Western Ameri- 
can of his generation. With his fellows he shared the same gen- 
eral, hard-earned pragmatic beliefs and disillusionments. His 
early readings included the poetry of Bryant, Keats, Shelley, and 
Byron and the prose of Herbert Spencer's First Principles. To 

228 A History of American Poetry 

these foundations of a semiliterary culture, the speeches of 
Robert Ingersoll and of William Jennings Bryan were added; 
and today one can hardly overestimate the evangelical power 
that Ingersoll and Bryan exerted within the imaginations of 
young men who looked for their salvation beyond the horizons 
of the Congregational and Baptist Church suppers, the public 
high school, and the small-town, Middle Western college. For 
those who did not leave the Middle West for study in an Eastern 
university, the difficult and cross-grained virtues of self-education 
retained their hold, and with them came the well-grounded 
strengths and weaknesses of "making one's own way," and as 
if to counterbalance the weight of a material or "scientific" 
philosophy, came the adventurous, and often vicarious, yearning 
for distant places, a youthful "nostalgia" for "the glory that was 
Greece, the grandeur that was Rome." Rather more than a hint 
of these fluid and yet persistent speculations and desires is to be 
found in the pages of Masters' autobiography: 

If I needed anything I needed wise eyes to see what I was and to 
guide me. . . .Did Keats have more time than I had? I suspect that 
he did not. But he had far more inspiring friends, and far richer cul- 
tural influences about him than I had. . . . What I wrote reflected my 
prison, my unhappiness. . . . These words are in no sense an apologia. 
I am merely setting down my circumstances, and without sparing my- 
self. I was the chief influence in my own career. Americans do not come 
to a possession of their gifts as early as English writers do, and I was 
an American, and circumstanced with the most characteristic conditions 
of American life. 2 

These reflections were revived by Masters' memory of the year 
1906, when he was a man of thirty-seven, and his imagination 
had been inspired by the idea of writing his Spoon River An- 
thology in the form of an extended work in prose, a long novel, 
that was to embrace the interwoven lives of people whose mis- 
adventures were circumscribed by the larger destiny of a small 
town in Illinois. Fortunately, the work in prose was never writ- 
ten, but the idea came to life again eight years later when at the 
prompting of his friend, William Marion Reedy, Masters agreed 

2 From Across Spoon River, copyright, 1936, by Edgar Lee Masters, ind 
reprinted by permission of Farrar & Rinehart, Inc. 

The "Poetic Renaissance' 229 

to write his book in verse and to contribute his Spoon River 
monologues to the pages of Reedy's Mirror. 

The candid, awkward recital of his life in Across Spoon River 
provides an environment for the writing of Masters' Anthology: 
his family, as it moved from Kansas to Illinois, shared the memo- 
ries of a generation that knew the conflicts of the Civil War, the 
fables and legends which had accumulated around the name and 
figure of Abraham Lincoln, and the fair prospects as well as the 
disillusionments of an American postwar economy. Most of 
Masters' boyhood was spent in Lewistown, Illinois, and the 
variety of his early experiences included work in a printing 
office, writing verse for Chicago newspapers, a brief attendance 
at Knox College, a clerkship in his father's law office, and an 
ill-paid job of collecting bills for the Edison Company in Chi- 
cago. Between 1898 and 1914 he had published three books of 
yerse and had written a half-dozen plays, all of which were 
notably unsuccessful and generally ignored but by the time he 
had consented to write his Spoon River Anthology for the pages 
of Reedy's Mirror, he was well known and respected as an able 
and prosperous Chicago lawyer. As he turned to the writing of 
his Anthology, all the self-acquired learning, the suppressed 
energies and observations, all the subconscious processes of his 
imagination that had slept within him for many years seem to 
have been released; the writing of the book seems to have pro- 
duced in him the same trancelike state that W. B. Yeats has 
described in his own autobiographies, and it is not surprising 
to learn that soon after the manuscript of the Spoon River 
Anthology had been sent to the publishers, its author collapsed 
and was dangerously ill. Harriet Monroe, of Poetry, read and 
corrected the final proofs of the book, and after its publication 
the book's notoriety destroyed Masters' law practice in Chicago 
for who would trust a lawyer who had written an eminently 
notorious book of poems in "free verse"? 

The phenomenon was one that could not be repeated, as the 
many volumes of verse and prose, that followed Spoon River 
testify; Masters' poetic gifts had expended their energies and 
their perceptions in the eloquent lines of "The Hill," in the fre- 

230 A History of American Poetry 

quently quoted "Anne Rutledge," and the lesser-known "Thomas 
Trevelyan": 8 

Reading in Ovid the sorrowful story of Itys, 
Son of the love of Tereus and Procne, slain 
For the guilty passion of Tereus for Philomela, 
The flesh of him served to Tereus by Procne, 
And the wrath of Tereus, the murderess pursuing 
Till the gods made Philomela a nightingale, 
Lute of the rising moon, and Procne a swallow! 
Oh livers and artists of Hellas centuries gone, 
Sealing in little thuribles dreams and wisdom, 
Incense beyond all price, forever fragrant, 
A breath whereof makes clear the eyes of the soul! 
How I inhaled its sweetness here in Spoon River! 
The thurible opening when I had lived and learned 
How all of us kill the children of love, and all of us, 
Knowing not what we do, devour their flesh; 
And all of us change to singers, although it be 
But once in our lives, or change alas! to swallows, 
To twitter amid cold winds and falling leaves! 

In "Petit the Poet" and in "The Village Atheist" the historical 
veracity of the portrait is of greater interest than the verse itself; 
but since Masters' "Atheist" is far more perceptive than any simi- 
lar attempts to present the same character in American fiction, 
Masters needs no defense and certainly no apology for having 
written the following lines: 

Ye young debaters over the doctrine 

Of the soul's immortality, 

I who lie here was the village atheist, 

Talkative, contentious, versed in the arguments 

Of the infidels. 

But through a long sickness 

Coughing myself to death 

I read the Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus. 

And they lighted a torch of hope and intuition 

And desire which the Shadow, 

Leading me swiftly through the caverns of darkness, 

Could not extinguish. 

3 From Spoon River Anthology, The Macmillan Company. By permission 
of the Author. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 231 

Listen to me, ye who live in the senses 
And think through the senses only: 
Immortality is not a gift, 
Immortality is an achievement; 
And only those who strive mightily 
Shall possess it. 4 

A second volume of Spoon River monologues, The New Spoon 
River, appeared in 1924; and as if to prove that both volumes 
of Spoon River had a justifiable precedent in, as well as the 
influence of, a wide reading that included translations of Greek 
literature, to say nothing of Dante's La Divina Commedia, 
Masters wrote an essay, "The Genesis of Spoon River," for the 
readers of H. L. Mencken's magazine, The American Mercury. 5 
A quotation from the essay illustrates the broad scope of its 
author's intentions in writing the work that had changed his pro- 
fession and had brought him fame. 

There are two hundred and forty-four characters in the book, not 

counting those who figure in the Spooniad and the Epilogue. There are 
nineteen stories developed by interrelated portraits. Practically every 
ordinary human occupation is covered, except those of the barber, the 
miller, the cobbler, the tailor and the garage man . . . and all these 
were depicted later in the New Spoon River. What critics overlook 
when they call the Anthology Zolaesque, and by doing so mean to 
degrade it, is the fact that when the book was put together in its 
definitive order, . . . the fools, the drunkards, and the failures came 
first, the people of one-birth minds got second place, and the heroes 
and the enlightened spirits came last, a sort of Divine Comedy, which 
some critics were acute enough to point out at once. 

The names I drew from both the Spoon river and the Sangamon 
river neighborhoods, combining first names here with surnames there, 
and taking some also from the constitutions and State papers of Illinois. 

Within the past quarter of a century Masters has written at 
least fifteen books of verse, seven novels, five biographies, in- 
cluding a life of Vachel Lindsay and a history of Chicago; 
throughout all his writing, no matter how uneven its quality 
may be, the merits of sincerity and of courage are always to be 
found. Of his narrative poems, The Domesday Book (1920) and 

*"The Village Atheist" from Spoon River Anthology, The Macmillan 
Company. By permission of the Author. 

s January, 1933, used by permission of the Author. 

232 A History of American Poetry 

its sequel, The Fate of the Jury (1929), are the best-known, if 
somewhat disheartening, examples of his later style. Both books 
were "novels in verse," rather than poems, and in fairness to 
Masters' intentions and actual accomplishments, it should be 
observed that the heroine of his two novels in verse, a young 
woman of the First World War generation, anticipated and 
paralleled the misadventures of Eugene O'Neill's heroines on the 
stage whose choice of many love affairs and of lovers showed less 
discrimination than their experiences warranted. 

Today, and largely because of the position he attained through 
the success of the Spoon River Anthology, Masters justly com- 
mands the respect of those who admire the semibelligerent and 
independent attitude with which he faced the world, and not 
unlike his contemporary, Theodore Dreiser, his merits have the 
sturdy, if often graceless exterior, of what is sometimes referred 
to as "American Gothic." 

In an interview written by Robert van Gelder in the New 
York Times, February 15, 1942, one hears the forthright, opin- 
ionated convictions of a man whose contribution to the regional 
literature of the Middle West has survived the controversies and 
distractions of the "poetic renaissance": 

As for other modern poets, Mr. Masters continued, they are worth- 
less and he cannot make anything of them at all. "They have no prin- 
ciples, no individuality, no moral code and no roots. . . ." 

"What are your roots?" [van Gelder asked]. 

"The America of Jefferson of Jeffersonian democracy. I date back 
a long time. I believe in an America that is not imitative, that stands 
alone, that is strong." . . . Bitterly opposed to the "Lincoln myth," 
and arguing that Lincoln was hypocritical, slow-witted, vindictive and 
cold, Mr. Masters is convinced . . . that "Americans are provincial." 
On the other hand, "I am a Hellenist. . . . The great marvel of the 
world is Greek civilization. They thought in universals, as did the 
Elizabethans. We are provincial in our thoughts. . . . 

"Some one should write an article on America's Cinderella complex 
and the many men it has destroyed. The man in the country dreaming 
of being the guest of honor at a city banquet. The Cinderella com- 
plexthe destroyer of virility, of sound workmanship and honest 
thought. William Dean Howells do many people think of him now?" 

"Probably not very often, he had that Cinderella complex." 6 

6 By permission of Robert van Gelder. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 233 


The most highly gifted poet of Harriet Monroe's "Middle 
Western School" was Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, who was born 
November 10, 1879, in Springfield, Illinois, and died by his own 
hand "harassed by debts and the sense of defeat" in the house 
where he spent his boyhood in Springfield, December 5, 1931. 
Like Masters' Spoon River Anthology, his poetry had the artless 
character of seeming phenomenal, but it remains a phenomenon 
of unusual purity, and perhaps of enduring life. And it is en- 
tirely probable that future readers will regard it with something 
of the awe which they reserve for the handful of lyrics that Edgar 
Allan Poe had left behind him and something of the delight with 
which the nonsense ve'rses of Edward Lear are perennially re- 
vived. To reread the large volume of his Collected Poems (1925) 
is a cheerless task, for Lindsay was certainly no critic of his own 
gifts; his verse, schooled as it was in the rhythms and brasses of 
the Moody and Sankey hymnals, often ran into a maudlin, self- 
hypnotic repetition of identical words and phrases, and Lindsay, 
possessed by the cult of child-worship, was never able to discern 
that invisible line where his fancies ended and the true work of 
his imagination began. One concludes that he was as fragmentary 
a poet as Hart Crane became in a later generation, and if any- 
thing his gifts were more directly inspired and less contaminated 
by the incongruities of the environment which surrounded them. 
Lindsay's "I Heard Immanuel Singing" 7 is one of the most ex- 
traordinary of American "spirituals" and it deserves a place, on 
its poetic merits alone, in the near company of Christopher 
Smart's "Song to David": 

I heard Immanuel singing 
Within his own good lands; 
I saw him bend above his harp. 
I watched his wandering hands 
Lost amid the harp-strings; 
Sweet, sweet I heard him play. 

7 From Collected Poems of Vachel Lindsay. By permission of The Mac- 
millan Company. 

234 <A History of American Poetry 

His wounds were altogether healed. 
Old things had passed away. 

All things were new, but music. 
The blood of David ran 
Within the Son of David, 
Our God, the Son of Man. 
He was ruddy like a shepherd. 
His bold young face, how fair. 
Apollo of the silver bow 
Had not such flowing hair. 

I saw Immanuel singing 

On a tree-girdled hill. 

The glad remembering branches 

Dimly echoed still 

The grand new song proclaiming 

The Lamb that had been slain. 

New-built, the Holy City 

Gleamed in the murmuring plain. 

The crowning hours were over. 
The pageants all were past. 
Within the many mansions 
The hosts, grown still at last, 
In homes of holy mystery 
Slept long by crooning springs 
Or waked to peaceful glory, 
A universe of Kings. 

He left his people happy. 
He wandered free to sigh 
Alone in lowly friendship 
With the green grass and the sky. 
He murmured ancient music 
His red heart burned to sing 
Because his perfect conquest 
Had grown a weary thing. 

No chant of gilded triumph 
His lonely song was made 
Of Art's deliberate freedom; 
Of minor chords arrayed 
In soft and shadowy colors 
That once were radiant flowers: 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 235 

The Rose of Sharon, bleeding 
In Olive-shadowed bowers: 

And all the other roses 

In the songs of East and West 

Of love and war and worshipping, 

And every shield and crest 

Of thistle or of lotus 

Or sacred lily wrought 

In creeds and psalms and palaces 

And temples of white thought: 

All these he sang, half-smiling 
And weeping as he smiled, 
Laughing, talking to his harp 
As to a new-born child: 
As though the arts forgotten 
But bloomed to prophesy 
These careless, fearless harp-strings, 
New-crying in the sky. 
"When this his hour of sorrow 
For flowers and Arts of men 
Has passed in ghostly music," 
I asked my wild heart then 
What will he sing to-morrow, 
What wonder, all his own 
Alone, set free, rejoicing 
With a green hill for his throne? 
What will he sing to-morrow, 
What wonder all his own 
Alone, set free, rejoicing, 
With a green hill for his throne? 

The poet who wrote these lines (and they were completed in 
1909) had an unworldly temperament not unlike Smart's who 
sank to his knees and prayed aloud in the streets of eighteenth- 
century London; the good people of London thought Smart was 
mad, and citizens of Springfield, Illinois, believed that Lindsay 
was at least "half cracked"; and in defining the character of 
Lindsay's devotion to poetry, which carried him, a tall, sandy- 
haired man, in a store-bought, ill-fitting, blue serge suit, singing 
and shouting, onto the platforms of American lecture halls, it is 
well to remember Samuel Johnson's remarks on Smart's "mad- 


236 A History of American Poetry 

Madness frequently discovers itself merely by unnecessary deviation 
from the usual modes of the world. My poor friend Smart showed the 
disturbance of his mind by falling upon his knees, and saying his 
prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now, although, 
rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all than to 
pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, 
that their understanding is not called in question. 

And later, Johnson continued with: 

His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people 
praying with him; [quite as Lindsay tried to draw his audiences into 
chanting with him the refrains of his poems] and I'd as lief pray with 
Kit Smart as any one else. 8 

The citizens of Springfield or, for that matter, the people of 
the United States were no more accustomed to reading or hear- 
ing poetry read in the terms in which Lindsay wrote and recited 
it than eighteenth-century Londoners were accustomed to pray- 
ing in Christopher Smart's fashion. Lindsay's platform appear- 
ances were not conceived as devices in showmanship; they were 
grave and noisy, and once their novelty had become shopworn, 
and Lindsay himself seemed like a ruddy-faced farmer's boy who 
had become middle-aged, the performance became embarrassing 
in its artlessness, and not in the least conducive to the placid 
or half-patronizing enjoyment that is required for the successful 
tour of the poet before the audiences of American poetry societies 
and their affiliated women's clubs. Lindsay could not be tolerated 
as an attractive celebrity from overseas: he was not the Irish 
poet, "." (George Russell), or even W. B. Yeats, or the hand- 
some, brown-skinned, full-bearded East Indian, Rabindranath 
Tagore; he was neither picturesque, nor conventionally exotic, 
and in his latter years, his figure was, if anything, a shade too 
familiar, and far too much like someone who had lived all his 
life on Main Street in a small town, and had now, somehow, 
"gone wrong." 

Although Lindsay's boyhood was far more strictly dominated 
by his mother's concern for "art" than Edgar Lee Masters', it 
was shaped by many of the same elements at work in a Middle 

s From Boswell's Life of Johnson, Vol. I, used by permission of Charles 
Scribner's Sons. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 237 

Western environment. He was the son of Dr. Vachel T. Lindsay, 
a practicing physician of Springfield, and the plans for his edu- 
cation, though earnestly pursued, were made up of several false 
starts and changes. After his academic failure at Hiram College, 
Mrs. Lindsay, a Campbellite, had convinced herself that her son 
was not a poet; she was all too sure that he had not been born 
a writer, and in her mind, poets were not made but born, and 
she decided that he was destined to become "an artist," "a 
Christian cartoonist," "a warrior of God," "a soul in search of 
beauty." In Lindsay's preface to the 1925 edition of his Collected 
Poems there is ample, and perhaps disastrous, proof that he half 
believed her; and in his efforts to explain the meaning, the 
earnest, if not always serious, content of his poetry, he wrote 
vaguely of Swedenborg and of the "Mystic" city of Springfield, 
Illinois, a "Springfield of Visions" which, in a fanciful display 
of scrolls and flourishes in pen and ink, he called his "Map of 
the Universe." The drawing was reproduced as the frontispiece 
to his Collected Poems as well as an illustration for his rhapsodic 
work in prose, The Golden Book of Springfield (1920). He had 
visited Europe in the company of his parents, he had studied 
painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, and at the Chase School 
in New York; he had read fervently in the poetry of Poe and of 
Swinburne and Rossetti; and he had spent several years "trad- 
ing" his rhymes for bread and lodging across the United States 
from New York to San Francisco. In January, 1913, Harriet 
Monroe published his poem "General William Booth Enters 
into Heaven" in Poetry, and during the same year, his first book 
of verse was published with "General William Booth" as the 
title poem. Since 1905, he had been printing individual poems 
on cards and broadsides, and a few had been issued as pamphlets, 
but it was not until he had received encouragement from Harriet 
Monroe, and his book the imprint of a New York publisher, 
that he came into a notoriety which so closely resembled fame. 
The success of "General William Booth" inspired the aging 
William Dean Howells to speak of it as a "fine, brave poem . . . 
that makes the heart leap," while the highly respectable and 
cautious Review of Reviews said tersely, "It is perhaps the most 

2 $8 A History of American Poetry 

remarkable poem of a decade." With this recognition, Lindsay 
delivered himself over to the American lecture-hall public of the 
hour, and from its applause he gained the confidence and the 
renewals of nervous energy to write "The Congo," "The Santa 
Fe Trail," "The Chinese Nightingale," "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, 
Bryan," and "John L. Sullivan," which were readily accepted as 
his masterpieces. In the company of his mother he made an 
equally triumphant tour of England, and the British public wel- 
comed him with the same delight and curiosity that it had be- 
stowed on the earlier tours of Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, 
Artemus Ward, and Mark Twain but this source of inspiration 
had within it all the evils of a pleasant dream that shifts with- 
out warning into a prolonged nightmare; the lecture hall also 
became his means of livelihood, and when, after his marriage in 
1925, and he had assumed the responsibilities of raising a family, 
he found that his earlier stimulus for writing verse had failed 
him, he was faced with dwindling audiences and the prospects 
of actual starvation. 

The gifts which Lindsay possessed were not of a kind that 
gathered strength as he attempted to mature, nor could he trans- 
form those realities which he saw with the clear and direct ga/e 
of a child into the symbols and portents of adult life; from his 
mother he had acquired a fantastic, almost fanatical loyalty to 
the Anti-Saloon League, and he wrote verses of great charm to 
celebrate his devotion to that cause: 

There's a snake on the western wave 

And his crest is red. 

He is long as a city street, 

And he eats the dead. 

There's a hole in the bottom of the sea 

Where the snake goes down. 

And he waits in the bottom of the sea 

For the men that drown. 

This is the voice of the sand 
(The sailors understand) 
"There is far more sea than sand, 
There is far more sea than land. 
Yo . . . ho, yo . . . ho." 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 239 

He waits by the door of his cave 

While die ages moan. 

He cracks the ribs of the ships 

With his teeth of stone. 

In his gizzard deep and long 

Much treasure lies. 

Oh, the pearls and the Spanish gold . . . . 

And the idols' eyes .... 

Oh, the totem poles . . . the skulls . . . 

The altars cold . . . 

The wedding rings, the dice . . . 

The buoy bells old. 9 

And for himself he held to his long admiration for "The Boy 
Orator/' William Jennings Bryan but he also held in confused 
reverence, and with a characteristic lack of discrimination, the 
names of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee, 
Abraham Lincoln, Whitman, Emerson, Altgeld, Johnny Apple- 
seed, and Mary Pickford. In his fancy many of these figures had 
the archaic charm of cigar-store Indians, but whenever his imagi- 
nation actually touched them, they suddenly sprang to life within 
a world that was singularly unliterary and appropriate for their 
being, and within it we find his "Flower-Fed Buffaloes": 10 

The flower-fed buffaloes of the spring 

In the days of long ago, 

Ranged where the locomotives sing 

And the prairie flowers lie low: 

The tossing, blooming, perfumed grass 

Is swept away by the wheat, 

Wheels and wheels and wheels spin by 

In the spring that still is sweet. 

But the flower-fed buffaloes of the spring 

Left us, long ago. 

They gore no more, they bellow no more, 

They trundle around the hills no more: 

With the Blackfeet, lying low, 

With the Pawnees, lying low, 

Lying low. 

*> "The Sea Serpent Chantey" from Collected Poems of Vachel Lindsay. By 
permission of The Macmillan Company, 

iu From Going to the Sun, used by permission of D. Appleton-Century 

240 A History of American Poetry 

For ten years Lindsay continued his strenuous tours of the 
country, which crossed the same territory that James Whitcomb 
Riley traveled twenty years before him, and the shouting of 
"The Congo" and the recitation of "Factory Windows Are 
Always Broken" n left his audiences less reassured of their se- 
curity, if not, on occasion, less amused: 

Factory windows are always broken. 
Somebody's always throwing bricks, 
Somebody's always heaving cinders, 
Playing ugly Yahoo tricks. 

Factory windows are always broken. 
Other windows are let alone. 
No one throws through the chapel-window 
The bitter, snarling, derisive stone. 

Factory windows are always broken. 
Something or other is going wrong. 
Something is rotten, I think, in Denmark. 

End of the factory-window song. 

As Jean Cocteau once remarked, the true poet wishes less to 
be admired than to be believed, and it was Lindsay's misfortune 
never to inspire confidence and ultimate conviction among audi- 
ences who had at first cheered him and then grew weary of the 
middle-aged, strained, half-serious child's play that he enacted 
before their eyes. 

Among Lindsay's erratic gifts was a felicity of epithet and with 
it his remarkable "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan" 12 attains a 
memorable quality that transcends its half-forgotten names; the 
theme of the poem was, of course, as old as Francois Villon's 
ancient question, "Where are the snows of yesteryear?" 

Where is McKinley, Mark Hanna's McKinley, 

His slave, his echo, his suit of clothes? 

Gone to join the shadows, with the pomps of that time, 

And the flame of that summer's prairie rose. 

11 From Collected Poems of Vachel Lindsay. By permission of The Mac- 
millan Company. 

12 Ibid. 

The "Poetic Renaissance' 241 

Where is Roosevelt, the young dude cowboy, 
Who hated Bryan, then aped his way? 
Gone to join the shadows with mighty Cromwell 
And tall King Saul, till the Judgment day. 

Where is that boy, that Heaven-born Bryan, 
That Homer Bryan, who sang from the West? 
Gone to join the shadows with Altgeld the Eagle, 
Where the kings and the slaves and the troubadours rest. 

And from this he turned to the glorified light verse of his 
'Simon Legree A Negro Sermon," 13 which was by far the best 
:hing of its kind in English since Richard Harris Barham under 
:he pseudonym of "Thomas Ingoldsby, Esquire" presented The 
r ngoldsby Legends: 

He beat poor Uncle Tom to death 

Who prayed for Legree with his last breath. 

Then Uncle Tom to Eva flew, 

To the high sanctoriums bright and new; 

And Simon Legree stared up beneath, 

And cracked his heels, and ground his teeth: 

And went down to the Devil. 

He crossed the yard in the storm and gloom; 
He went into his grand front room. 
He said, "I killed him, and I don't care." 
He kicked a hound, he gave a swear; 
He tightened his belt, he took a lamp, 
Went down cellar to the webs and damp. 
There in the middle of the moldy floor 
He heaved up a slab; he found a door 
And went down to the Devil. 

And the Devil said to Simon Legree: 

"I like your style, so wicked and free. 
Come sit and share my throne with me, 
And let us bark and revel." 

And there they sit and gnash their teeth, 
And each one wears a hop-vine wreath. 

*3 From Collected Poems of Vachel Lindsay. By permission of The Mac- 
nillan Company. 

242 A History of American Poetry 

They are matching pennies and shooting craps, 
They are playing poker and taking naps. 
And old Legree is fat and fine: 
He eats the fire, he drinks the wine- 
Blood and burning turpentine 
Down, down with the Devil; 
Down, down with the Devil; 
Down, down with the Devil. 

Lindsay wrote several books in prose, all of which are curi- 
osities of literature: his study, The Art of the Moving Picture 
(1916), paralleled in one of its chapters Ezra Pound's interest in 
the Chinese written character, and while Pound went for instruc- 
tion to the Fenollosa manuscripts, Lindsay in his painstaking 
fashion studied the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and speculated 
on the hieroglyphic of Osiris. His instructions in A Handy Guide 
for Beggars (1916) 14 were characteristic of the standard of living 
he held in mind and of his unworldliness: 

(3) Have nothing to do with money and carry no baggage; 

(4) Ask for dinner about quarter after eleven; 

(5) Ask for supper, lodging and breakfast about quarter of five; 

(6) Travel alone; 

(7) Be neat, deliberate, chaste and civil; 

(8) Preach the Gospel of Beauty. 

The purity of Lindsay's devotion to his cause of writing verse 
and to his "Mystic" Springfield, as well as the misfortune that 
resulted in his suicide, reminds one of the calm, reflective words 
that Samuel Taylor Coleridge once addressed to his friend, 
Charles Lamb: "I look upon you as a man called by sorrow and 
anguish and a strange desolation of hopes into quietness, and a 
soul set apart and made peculiar to God." It is in those words, 
and not in the language of the flamboyant elegy that Lindsay 
once wrote in memory of John P. Altgeld, that Lindsay's own 
epitaph deserves to be written. 


Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems were published in 1916, and 
perhaps the best description of the time and place which re- 

i* By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

The "Poetic Renaissance' 243 

ceived them with so much enthusiasm and applause is contained 
in Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs (1942); 15 as he recollected his 
adventures in Chicago, Anderson wrote: 

Lucian Gary came to Margy's house. I went with her and Ben Hecht 
to a town down state where Ben, then a star reporter on the Daily 
News, was covering a murder trial and a hanging. . . . 

It was during that summer that I met Carl Sandburg. I was intro- 
duced to him by Ben Hecht and we went for a long afternoon's walk 
through the factory district on Chicago's West Side. . . . Ernestine 
Evans . . . was there. . . . She brought Robert Lovett to her rooms. 
Llewellyn Jones came. Through Ben Hecht I also met Henry Justin 
Smith of the News, Burton Rascoe, then doing books for the Tribune, 
and Lewis Galantiere, who was to become a lifelong friend. We were 
all from the Middle West. We were all full of hope. 

It was the time in which something blossomed in Chicago and the 
Middle West. Dreiser from Terre Haute in Indiana had written and 
published Sister Carrie and Norris who already had written McTeague 
was fighting for Dreiser as Dreiser later was to fight for me, and had 
been joined in his fight by Francis Hackett, Floyd Dell, Henry Mencken 
and others. Edgar Lee Masters had written his Spoon River Anthology; 
down the state Vachel Lindsay was shouting forth his stirring verses; 
Sandburg was writing his magical Chicago Poems; and Margaret Ander- 
son, still working as editor on some church paper, was soon to break 
loose and start her Little Review. . . . 

All over the country indeed there was an outbreak of new poets. 
Something which had been very hard in American life was beginning 
to crack, and in our group we often spoke of it hopefully. And how 
exciting it was. Something seemingly new and fresh was in the very 
air we breathed So there I was, a little under the wing of Margy, who 
knew so well all of these to me so wonderful people. She was untiring, 
working all day as a reporter and ready every evening for any kind of 
adventure with the rest of us. She would run out to arrange for gin 
and sandwiches and then seat herself on a low bed at the side of the 
room. She would put flowers in her h^ir and we others would gather 
about, Mike Carmichael of the flowing red beard serving the drinks, 
some woman of the party, Eunice Tietjens or Mrs. Lucian Gary, seeing 
that we were supplied with sandwiches, the rest of us and we were 
often as many as twenty sitting about on the floor. 

What ho! for the new world. 

And it was indeed a "new world" that welcomed an easy, half 
Bohemian, half journalistic fraternity; the ease of the "home- 
is Harcourt, Brace. Copyright 1942 by Eleanor Anderson. Reprinted by 
permission of Eleanor Anderson. 

244 ^ History of American Poetry 

spun" social manner was almost an affectation; and within an 
hour everyone felt extremely democratic and American, cele- 
brating the warmth of sentiment so facilcly aroused by address- 
ing one another by the first name. 

Part of the "new world" was significantly expressed in Carl 
Sandburg's poem, "Chicago": 16 

Hog Butcher for the World, 

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, 

Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler; 

Stormy, husky, brawling, 

City of the Big Shoulders: 

They tell me you are wicked, and I believe them; for I have seen your 

painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys. 
And they tell me you are crooked, and I answer: Yes, it is true I have 

seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again. 
And they tell me you are brutal, and my reply is: On the faces of 

women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger. 
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this 

my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them: 
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to 

be alive and coarse and strong and cunning. 

In these lines, J. M. Synge's remarks, quoted by Yeats, have a 
literal application: "It may almost be said that before verse can 
be human again it must learn to be brutal"; and Sandburg's con- 
tribution to a regional literature was not unlike the contribution 
made by Synge when he wrote The Playboy of the Western 
World. Everything that Sandburg has to say can be understood 
quickly and at a first reading, and a testimony of the ease with 
which his verse has been read is found in the fact that an entire 
generation of high-school children have had their introduction 
to the poetry of the "poetic renaissance" through the flowing 
rhetoric and rhythms of his unrhymed verses. In the mid-twen- 
tieth century, Sandburg was perhaps the last valiant exponent of 
the kind of "free verse" that had been rediscovered with so much 
excitement among those who listened to Amy Lowell's lectures 
on vers libre. In the preface to a single-volume new edition of 

ia From Chicago Poems, used by permission of Henry Holt and Company, 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 245 

his Smoke and Steel, Slabs of the Sunburnt West, Good Morn- 
ing, America 17 (1942), Sandburg wrote: 

Recently a poet [the poet was Robert Frost] was quoted as saying he 
would as soon play tennis without a net as to write free verse. This 
is almost as though a zebra should say to a leopard, "I would rather 
have stripes than spots," or as though a leopard should inform a zebra, 
"I prefer spots to stripes. . . ." 

With this bit of zoological fancy and characteristically shrewd 
humor, Sandburg continued: 

The arguments against free verse are old. They are not, however, as 
old as free verse itself. When primitive and prehistoric man first spoke 
with cadence or color, making either musical meaning or melodic non- 
sense worth keeping and repeating for its definite and intrinsic values, 
then free verse was born, ages before the sonnet, the ballad, the verse 
forms wherein the writer or singer must be acutely conscious, even ex- 
quisitely aware, of how many syllables are to be arithmetically num- 
bered per line. 

The matter should not be argued. Those who make poems and hope 
their poems are not bad may find readers or listeners and again they 
may not. The affair should rest there. 

And as one rereads Sandburg's verse, which has an easy rhythm 
of speech that he had made his own, all talk of "literary" in- 
fluence and of protracted "literary" argument does seem irrele- 
vant. What his verse reflects is first of all the life and movement 
of a large Middle Western city that has been observed by a 
skilled reporter, and the larger world outside the city flows 
through the verses with the same urgency, the same vivid rhetoric, 
and often with the same speed with which the teletype communi- 
cates its news to the city desk of a metropolitan newspaper. Often 
enough, the verses were brief editorials, and others were abbre- 
viated "human-interest stories," which were told with an expertly 
placed touch of pathos, or derisive and sometimes heavily 
pointed criticism of social evils. In a half fanciful, half hortatory 
mood Sandburg instructed the spring grass to rise: 

Spring grass, diere is a dance to be danced for you. 
Come up, spring grass, if only for young feet. 
Come up, spring grass, young feet ask you. 

17 From preface, 1941, used by permission of Harcourt, Brace. 

246 A History of American Poetry 

Smell of the young spring grass, 

You're a mascot riding on the wind horses. 

You came to my nose and spiffed me. This is your lucky year. 

Young spring grass just after the winter, 
Shoots of the big green whisper of the year, 
Come up, if only for young feet. 
Come up, young feet ask you. 18 

We do not know, of course, if the grass responded to such 
encouragement, but we can assume that it did, and that even in 
a city park, the seasonal shoots of green made their appearance. 
In Sandburg's verse the corn laughs, the cities brood, and when 
Sandburg visited New Hampshire, he came away with "a little 
handkerchief bundle of remembers" all of which was, of course, 
on the far side of whimsy. Of the many American poets who 
have attempted to be whimsical with dubious results, or have 
written books for children, Sandburg was among the few who 
had been commercially successful; the best of his children's books 
are Abe Lincoln Grows Up, a selection made from his Abraham 
Lincoln: The Prairie Years, in 1928, and a selection from his 
verse, Early Moon, which was published in 1930. 

A sympathetic and brief commentary on Carl Sandburg and 
his verse has been written into a preface to his Selected Poems 
(1926) 19 by the British liberal journalist, Rebecca West: 

He was born of Swedish parentage in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1878. At 
the age of thirteen he left school and began driving a milk wagon. 
He subsequently became a bricklayer and a farm labourer on the 
wheat-growing plains of Kansas ... he became an hotel servant in 
Denver, a coal-heaver in Omaha . . . 

And to these biographical facts Fred B. Millet in Contempo- 
rary American Authors 20 has added: 

In 1898, when he was a house painter's apprentice in Galesburg, he 
entered the Spanish-American War and served for eight months in 
Porto Rico with the Sixth Illinois Infantry. In the army a friend from 
Lombard College in Galesburg interested him in improving his neces- 

i g "Spring Grass" from Good Morning, America, used by permission of 
Harcourt, Brace. 
jo. 20 By permission of Harcourt, Brace. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 247 

sarily limited educational background; and when he returned from war 
he entered the college. He earned his way by work as tutor, bell ringer, 
and janitor, and was captain of the basket-ball team. . . . 

After college and a period of business experience he entered politics 
and journalism in Milwaukee, where he was an organizer for the 
Social-Democratic party and from 1910 to 1912 was secretary to the 
mayor. Moving to Chicago, he became associate editor of the System 
Magazine (1913) and helped N. D. Cochran with an experimental 
tabloid, the Daybook. ... It ceased publication in 1917, and Sandburg 
joined the staff of the Daily News. 

Rebecca West continued with: 

He can describe the inner life of the eager little girls who leave small 
towns and come to Chicago. . . . He can describe the inner life of the 
strong young men who wander about the vast land, proud and yet 
perplexed; proud because they are lending their strength to the pur- 
poses of a new civilization, perplexed because they do not know what 
it is all about. 21 

She went on to describe Sandburg's interest in singing songs 
and how skillfully he had mastered the art of accompanying 
them on the banjo and the guitar; and Sandburg's official biog- 
rapher, Karl Detzer, in his book, Carl Sandburg: A Study in Per- 
sonality and Background (1941), also wrote of his ability to be a 
"wandering minstrel with a frayed shirt collar and an old guitar, 
this one-time movie reviewer, dishwasher, door-to-door salesman, 
harvest hand, bootblack, hobo" but one still concludes that in 
actuality Sandburg was never the "hobo" that he appeared to be. 
His performances with a guitar were far more artful than the 
strenuous entertainment with which Lindsay strove to attract his 
audiences; obviously Sandburg enjoyed the singing of the Ameri- 
can folk songs he had collected, and the atmosphere of relaxation 
that he created was conveyed to those who heard him sing. This 
was an accomplishment that he turned to advantage when he 
published his own selection of American songs in The American 
Songbag (1927) and the book was received with the same enjoy- 
ment that he probably had in editing it. 

Well-poised and experienced, Sandburg succeeded in creating 
a unified literary personality with which he provided an atmos- 
phere for his verses; the verses themselves may often contradict 

21 Preface from Selected Poems, used by permission of Harcourt, Brace. 

248 A History of American Poetry 

one another, and even much of the slang that can be found 
within them had the misfortune of falling rapidly "out of date," 
but the rhythmical unity of his verse (which is not far unlike 
the unified cadence of Sherwood Anderson's prose) holds together 
the many disparate fragments of Americana, which were pro- 
duced almost as a tour de force between the covers of his The 
People, yes (1936). Old jokes, tall stories, Pullman-car confi- 
dences and views, editorial comments on the rich and the poor, 
proverbs, and the kind of knowledge that can be gained by 
reference to the files of The World Almanac were thrown and 
heaped together half humorously, half gravely. Sandburg himself 
was not to be trapped by any solemn or unguarded statement; 
the reply was always "The people, yes," "Ai! ai! the sleepers 
wake!" and "The people will live on," all of which were oracular 
and certainly indisputable pronouncements. 

But the more serious concern of Sandburg's imagination has 
always been related to the glimpses of historical episodes in his 
verse and a monumental biography of Abraham Lincoln. Two 
volumes of Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years appeared in 
1926; and four other large volumes, The War Years, appeared 
in 1939, nnd the latter received the Pulitzer Prize for biography. 
It is in the great wealth of mythology and fact surrounding the 
name of Lincoln that Sandburg seemed most genuinely "at 
home" and at least four poems, "Cool Tombs," "Shenandoah," 
"Grass," and "Old Timers," show Sandburg's true affinity with 
his subject and his abiding interest in the importance of the 
Civil War; his happiest moments are in the following lines: 

When Abraham Lincoln was shoveled into the tombs, 
he forgot the copperheads and the assassin . . . 
in the dust, in the cool tombs 22 
and in 

And I drove a wagon and team, and I had my arm shot off 
At Spotsylvania Court House. 

I am an ancient reluctant conscript. 23 

22 "Cool Tombs" from Cornhuskers, used by permission of Henry Holt and 
Company, Inc. 

23 "Old Timers" from Cornhuskers, used by permission of Henry Holt and 
Company, Inc. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 249 

and in "Grass": 24 

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. 
Shovel them under and let me work 

I am the grass; I cover all. 

And pile them high at Gettysburg 
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. 
Shovel them under and let me work. 
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the con- 

What place is this? 

Where are we now? 

I am the grass. 
Let me work. 

In these lines Sandburg's hortatory manner had an air of his- 
torical authority and his familiarity with the subject seems 
entirely justified and appropriate. It was also justified by his 
own experience in two wars, the first as a soldier in the Spanish- 
American War, the second as a war correspondent in the First 
World War, or rather as a special-feature writer stationed at 
Stockholm in which he saw, according to his biographer, Karl 
Detzer, the beginnings of "the Communist experiment" across 
the Baltic and he had a particular interest in Sweden, not only 
as the birthplace of his parents, "but because it was the home of 
the European co-operative movement." 

In Carl Sandburg the "poetic renaissance/* as Chicago knew 
it, had rounded to a full circle. Sandburg was one of the two 
poets the other was Vachel Lindsay in whom Harriet Monroe 
of Poetry felt the deepest confidence and pride of discovery, and 
today it seems that the gifts and temperaments of the two men 
complemented one another. If Sandburg entered the peripheries 
of Chicago's Bohemia and arrived at its center whenever he felt 
the need of relaxation, his more serious activities and the re- 
sponsibilities of bringing up a family imposed a discipline upon 
his life that is not to be confused with the work or lack of work 
done by lesser members of the group. If Lindsay was unworldly 
in his conduct, and often childlike in the perceptions of his 

24 From Cornhuskers, used by permission of Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 

250 A History of American Poetry 

poetry, Sandburg's observations were schooled in the experiences 
of political organization, of easy contact with the world around 
him, of maintaining his independence while apparently moving 
with the crowd. Like Robert Frost, his only pretension has been 
the seeming lack of all pretensions whatsoever; and under the 
loose, wandering, apparently half-bewildered exteriors of his 
verse, a shrewd and a not too tolerant strain of a Protestant 
attitude exists. In English literature it is the heritage of John 
Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and in Sandburg the strain is more 
probably in the direct line of his Swedish heritage, and the best 
description of it is in his own words: 

I can take off my shirt and tear it, 
and so make a ripping raz/ly noise, 
and the people will say, 
"Look at him tear his shirt." 

I can keep my shirt on. 

I can stick around and sing like a little bird 
and look 'em all in the eye and never be fazed. 
I can keep my shirt on.- 5 

Much has been written of Whitman's influence on Sandburg's 
verse, but as one rereads the best of Sandburg's poetry, its 
rhythms owe a greater debt to the cadences of Lincoln's "Gettys- 
burg Address" than to any other source in literature, and it is 
highly probable that a "Sandburg" would have arrived even if 
Whitman had never existed. If Sandburg's realistic observations 
in verse have their true precedents in the journalistic exercise of 
his talent, their influence upon the work of other poets and of 
American novelists should not be underestimated: traces of Sand- 
burg's skill in observing realistic detail are discoverable in Archi- 
bald MacLeish's Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City, in John Dos 
Passes' historical interludes which separate the narrative passages 
of his trilogy, U.S.A., and in the so-called "newsrecls" of the same 
work, which stress in the selection of fragmentary quotations 
from newspaper headlines and catchwords, the particular mo- 
ments in time through which the narrative takes its course. Sand- 
burg's long and sustained interest in the Lincoln legend also 

25 "Shirt" from Smoke and Steel, used by permission of Harcourt, Brace. 

The "Poetic Renaissance" 251 

anticipated in its devotion to historical background and verisi- 
militude the writing of Stephen Vincent Benet's long narrative 
in verse of the Civil War, John Brown's Body, and it can be said 
that in all these, and in his own fashion, Sandburg prepared the 
American public to accept the work of a younger generation. 

In 1928 he was Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard, and he has 
received honorary degrees from Lombard College, Knox College, 
and Northwestern University. After a period of six years' retire- 
ment during which he completed his Abraham Lincoln: The 
War Years in 1939, he resumed his journalistic career as a 
columnist for a Chicago tabloid, and a collection of his later 
sketches in verse and prose appeared in a volume, Home Front 
Memo (1943)- 


THE 1920'S 


There is a morbid pleasure in store for the literary historian 
when in reading among faded volumes of verse and forgotten 
names, he comes upon a name and a book that even in failure, 
even in oblivion, still has some signs of life. It is like finding 
what seemed to be a corpse still faintly breathing among the 
unburied dead, and the pathos and surprise are deepened when 
one sees in the almost extinguished features a face and an ex- 
pression however fleeting that arc unmistakably familiar: for 
Donald Evans' (1885-1921) work and name now serve to remind 
us only of others that came after, and are now famous and 
honored. Little if any of Donald Evans' poetry was read a decade 
after his early death; today his books are difficult to obtain and 
are out of print, and in his lifetime they were published by an 
obscure publisher and bookseller, Nicholas Brown, of Philadel- 
phia and New York. In rereading these thin, almost privately 
printed books of verse, one is struck by a peculiar fact: for if 
Evans may be listed among the failures (and he thought of him- 
self as a failure throughout his short career), it is not among the 
dull, the heavy, indistinguishable dead that he belongs. 

Donald Evans' life held small triumphs and large frustrations, 
and when in 1921 he died (reputedly by his own hand) it ap- 
peared a fitting end to a career that seemed so ineffectual, tor- 
tured, so maladjusted to the world it faced and could not hope 
to conquer. He was born and educated in Philadelphia and was 
well known in New York's Greenwich Village (this was before 
Edna St. Vincent Millay and Floyd Dell and a flood of Middle 
Western emigres were to give it full publicity) as the leader of a 
band of "esthetes" among whom were Wallace Stevens, Walter 
Conrad Arensberg (the author of two or three fine poems), Witter 
Bynner, Carl Van Vechten, Muriel Draper, Kenneth MacGowan, 
Pitts Sanborn, Gilbert Seldes, and others, some of whose names 


256 A History of American Poetry 

are now shadowy memories but were once well known in theatri- 
cal and literary circles. Among his acquaintances and friends were 
also Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein and to the former, he 
wrote two of his best "Sonnets from the Patagonian" and it is 
now remembered to his credit that he was the "Claire Marie" 
who published Miss Stein's Tender Buttons at "Three, East 
Fourteenth Street," New York, in 1914. 

With all his love of elegance (and one story was told of how 
he rented a high-ceilinged front parlor and placed, with curtains 
drawn, a stone sundial in it, under a glaring Mazda lamp) and 
of opulent gestures, borrowed from the 1890*5, he seems to have 
lived a life of dull jobs, requiring long hours of hard, uncon- 
genial labor. At one time he had been music critic of the New 
York Globe, but his later years were spent in grinding out edi- 
torials for a garment-trade journal. In 1918 he wrote, making 
wistful advances to Amy Lowell: 

Because I have always been an honest citizen making a decent living 
in straight-forward newspaper work, 10-12 hrs. daily for thirteen years, 
I have perhaps in my poetry been a little too conscious of the poet, 
and in an imagined need provided him with a shield of artificiality 
which he never requires. When among intelligent people I think I pass 
for being simple, unaffected, modest, but there are so many pretentious 
bores and big-wigs one must meet and live with . . . that to keep alive 
it has sometimes seemed necessary to be a shock-distributor. 1 

It was as a distributor of shocks, as a champion against the 
commercialized dullness of a hypocritical morality and in revolt 
against the flabby sentiments of popular magazine verse as well 
as the shoddiness of its techniques that Donald Evans' early 
poetry was written. Belated hints and fragments of twentieth- 
century European culture began to appear as names and titles of 
books in Greenwich Village, and if it reached New York by way 
of such doubtful documents as the latter Russians wrote, in works 
of ambiguous merit such as Sanine, or Andreyev's The Seven That 
Were Hanged, or the last dregs of Arthur Symons' coterie in 
Paris and London or at its very worst in the influences emanat- 
ing from the naive naughtiness and bad taste of Edgar Saltus, as 

1 Amy Lowell by S. Foster Damon, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin 

The 1920's 257 

well as the now forgotten verse of Benjamin de Casseres and 
George Sylvester Viereck with its unconsciously amusing Satan- 
ismat its best the moment produced the critical writing of 
James Gibbons Huneker, whose syndicated articles on painting, 
music and belles lettres were read in Sunday supplements of 
newspapers throughout the country. 

Donald Evans' first book, Discords (1912), aroused an interest 
among some few reviewers because of its sexual references which 
were intended to shock its readers and evidently did but on re- 
reading them today the poems seem to glow with a spiritual 
rather than physical fervor. His Two Deaths in the Bronx (1916) 
received the same fate of faint praise and blame, and though it 
is a book of many brilliant promises and innovations, the ma- 
jority of its poems must be counted as failures. In poems such as 
"For the Haunting of Mauna," "Dinner at the Hotel de la 
Tigresse Verte," "Mary Douglas Bruiting the Beauty of the 
Hands of Monsieur Y.," "Rouge for Virgins" (the titles best 
describe the poems) we see traces of the manner which was after- 
ward to take form and to become distinguished in a poet like 
Wallace Stevens; and in another poem (this time unfortunately 
titled "Frail Phrases" 2 ) Evans drew a portrait of a "chatoyant 
Mrs. Ashleigh Norwood" (who seems not unlike a re-creation of 
an early, none too good, and unwritten poem by T. S. Eliot): 

She gave him greeting out of her suave prides, 
Her inviolate charm and her renewing beauty, 
And he forgot the profaning of the phrases 
Under the assonances of her invictive personality. 
"Will you ride with me?" she asked, and he, 
Pointing to the other hansom abreast hers, parleyed: 
"With you, or in that?" 

"Oh, with me," sloped her answer, 

"The other hansom conveys my emotions 

I carry with me only my powder puff." 

Flushed he hung on her pause, and held 

The silence, tasting her valorous words; 

Then he bade the driver make on, bowing low 

As she was drawn out of sight. 

2 From Two Deaths in the Bronx, published by Frank-Maurice. 

258 A History of American Poetry 

"Perishable women! Frail phrases!" 

Then as he let drop his chin upon his breast 

He thought of the long-entombed praise of the printer 

When he looked for the first time 

On Mrs. Norwood's portrait: 

"And she might have killed an Emperor of France." 

If a few of Donald Evans' poems exhibit true sensibility, an 
instinct for an accurate use of words, and a sharp wit, one often 
feels, as in this poem, that too frequently (to quote another 
poem) he is one 

. . . who lusts uncomforted 

To kiss the naked phrase quite unaware. 3 

Perhaps the years of drudgery in journalism had enervated his 
poetry and blunted the promise that he once held in achieving 
a fine style; in any case, his Ironica (1919) shows a loss of bril- 
liance, and though a few poems in the volume hint of interesting 
subject matter, as well as further innovations, diffusion and a 
slovenliness of phrasing as well as a pointless scattering of his 
wit seem to have overwhelmed the brightest of his intentions. 

Sonnets from the Patagonian (1918) was his best known book, 
and in some respects it still remains the best of his five books. It 
brought him a modicum of fame and a greater critical notice 
than he has received before or since. In six weeks' time every 
poem in the book had been quoted in reviews, and had been 
praised or blamed. To a generation of younger reviewers Sonnets 
from the Patagonian seemed to represent all that was European 
and elegant, the more so, because it contained precisely the same 
exotic, slightly erotic flavor that was to find expression in the 
first imitation-leather-bound selection of books chosen for Albert 
Boni's and Horace Liveright's "Modern Library," that "Modern 
Library" (still being selected and published for another genera- 
tion and its tastes) which first helped to spread widely in America 
the fame of George Moore's Confessions of a Young Man, Flau- 
bert's Madame Bovary, Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin, and 
similar, if less excellent, volumes, which combined the graces of 

3 "En Monocle" from Sonnets from the Patagonian, published by Frank- 

The 1920's 259 

style with something dimly approaching pornography. Of Donald 
Evans, The Nation (London) commented: 

Mr. Evans, we suspect, is accounted a desperate fellow in America. 
It is the fatality of that fresh and ingenious land to be pricked, shocked, 
and stimulated by the sensations which do not arouse so much as a 
wink from us jaded Europeans. There is something childlike, radiant 
and captivating about a country which still shudders for instance at the 
invasion of Futuristic buccaneers. . . . He [Donald Evans] is the hap- 
piest blend of the free verse . . . glass of green water (colored by the 
absinthe school) and the Yellow Book, the whole sauced by a sardonic 
treatment of life, sordidly and entrancingly vicious. 

It must be admitted that Donald Evans' premonitions of evil 
seem to spring from shallower sources than those discovered and 
realized by poets of deeper sensibility, yet the premonitions are 
genuine enough and seem to foretell the disaster which brought 
his life and career to an early end. Whatever sense of evil existed 
in Sonnets from the Patagonian, one finds it more deliberately 
sought after than in the work of the far greater Baudelaire of 
whose Fleiirs du mal it might be said that in this country it was 
frequently interpreted by those who clutched the flowers and 
only half understood the evil and it is also clear that Donald 
Evans, however tortured, however fatally possessed, could never 
have been another Baudelaire or Poe. 

It can be well imagined that future historians of American 
poetry will reread the Sonnets from the Patagonian for their 
documentary interest, for their minute, sharp sketches of New 
York's intellectual, artistic, and social life in the period before 
and during the First World War. If the same can be said of Ezra 
Pound and of Conrad Aiken, it is also true that Evans was a 
figure in a large, inchoate movement, the exiles-at-heart, who 
whether they were at home, or in London, or on the European 
continent, expressed their emotions in the same tone of voice and 
with the same gestures of loss and restlessness. Donald Evans' 
sonnet, "In die Vices," 4 reminds one of a half-dozen "exiled" 
poets of the period, and with them of a brighter, flashier, less 
sophisticated E. A. Robinson: 

* From Sonnets from the Patagonian, published by Frank-Maurice. 

260 A History of American Poetry 

Gay and audacious crime glints in his eyes; 
And his mad talk, raping the commonplace, 
Gleefully runs a devil-praising race, 
And none can ever follow where he flies. 
He streaks himself with vices tenderly; 
He cradles sin, and with a figleaf fan 
Taps his green cat, watching a bored sun span 
The wasted minutes to eternity. 

Once I took up his trail along the dark, 
Wishful to track him to the witches' flame, 
To see the bubbling of the sneer and snare. 
The way led through a fragrant starlit park 
And soon upon a harlot's house I came 
Within I found him playing at solitaire! 

The sonnets also remind one of the tone that was to become 
fashionable in the 1920*5, particularly in the magazine Vanity 
Fair, many of whose attitudes are still sustained (and brought up 
to date) in the pages of Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and The New 
Yorker. The "Two Portraits of Mabel Dodge" seem filled with 
minor touches of charm and wit and recall with extraordinary 
vividness the moment of their composition: 

Her pampered knees fell under her keen eye 
And it came to her she would not go mad. 
The gaucheries were turning the last screw, 
But there was still the island in the sea, 
The harridan chorus of eternity 

She tried to rouge her heart, yet quite in vain. 
The crucifix danced in, beribboned, gay, 
And lisped to her a wish for the next waltz. 6 

And one finds a felicitous turn of phrasing in a group of 
sonnets under the title, "Portrait of Carl Van Vechten," 6 and 
dedicated to Gertrude Stein in which Evans wrote the following 


He had bowed his head in sorrow at his birth, 

For he had said long ere he came to earth 
That it was no place for a gentleman. 


5 "The Last Dance at Dawn" from Sonnets from the Patagonian, pub- 
lished by Frank-Maurice. 

From Sonnets from the Patagonian, published by Frank-Maurice, 

The 1920 's 261 

And when they called him cad he found release- 
He felt he had used the finest snub of all. 

There is a rare and curious pamphlet in the New York Public 
Library called The Art of Donald Evans, written shortly before 
his death, in which a "Cornwall Hollis" describes Evans as "a 
tall, dark slender man about thirty-five. ... In his private life 
his correctness is almost a vice, self-conscious to an absurd degree. 
He asks no special privileges from society because he is an artist. 
He would deny indignantly that he is 'artistic.' " And he is 
further described as appearing at first glance more like "a sur- 
geon with a passion for experimentation" than a poet. He is 
quoted as saying: "I fear I am too much of a male to find my 
interests in the men's smoking room." This entire attitude has 
grown familiar to us through the anti-Bohemian revolt that 
began in the late igao's and continued with the social realists of 
the thirties who almost felt it their duty to apologize for being 
known as "artists" at all. 

Perhaps the best and certainly most enduring expression of the 
attitude toward which Evans groped even to the statement of an 
esthetic and the realization of a literary personality may be 
found in Wallace Stevens's "Le Monocle de mon Oncle." The 
process can only be described as groping or dimly feeling his way 
through the pages of his last book, Ironica; and in reading his 
sonnet "Failure at Forty," there is good reason to believe that 
the poem reflected his personal sense of loss and that he felt his 
own limitations keenly and not without despair. Even then his 
small literary reputation had begun to fade. In a letter to Arthur 
Davison Ficke, who had sent her a volume of Evans* poems, Amy 
Lowell wrote tersely: "They are merely 1890 gone mad." And 
when Evans was in training at Camp Crane, Allentown, New 
Jersey, in the spring of 1918, someone had sent him a few 
volumes of Amy Lowell's verse out of loneliness and out of that 
eclectic taste that inclined him to be sympathetic to anything 
that seemed "modern" at the moment, Evans wrote to Amy 
Lowell an enthusiastic appreciation of her work. The corre- 
spondence was both pathetic and amusing and for us today, it 
is instructive of what were two hopelessly divergent tendencies 

262 A History of American Poetry 

of that hour. Amy Lowell was naturally suspicious: "It is most 
satisfactory," she wrote, "to know that after living exclusively 
with my work, you still find it interesting." And again she wrote 
with characteristic bluntness: "You see, I am such an elderly 
person that I lived during the go's. My twenty years saw the 
annual reappearance of The Yellow Book and those 'mauve joys' 
and 'purple sins' were the very 'latest thing,' so I must be par- 
doned for finding their manner very dusty." Miss Lowell then 
went on to admit that Evans' object and manner was in part a 
"search for Beauty," but she continued in her inimitable and 
most charming Lowellese to say that she too hunts for Beauty 
yet "... I do not seem to have to hunt for it down back alleys." 
And again she gave vent to what may well have been a justified 
suspicion that Evans had little genuine liking for her poetry: 
"Sometimes I wonder why you like my work? . . . You remind 
me a little of a man who has stuck a monocle in his eye for effect 
and afterwards is afraid to take it out because of a kind of 
mauvaise lionte, a dread lest the change be commented upon. 
Courage mon enfant! En avantl Break the monocle and go 

This was, of course, the voice of unusually clear-headed sanity, 
of that common sense that is reasonable to the point of madness. 
Amy Lowell's intellect was not of the finest in foreseeing all 
aspects of future tendencies in poetry, but she knew and was 
often the voice of the sensible opinion of the moment. 

In the writing of poetry Evans had failed and knew it, but as 
a literary figure, however dim and shadowed it may be, his image 
has lasted longer than Amy Lowell believed it would. It is not 
beyond the range of possibility that Wallace Stevens * has built 
a successful esthetic on what Evans had attempted and failed to 
realize; and it was all too clear that Evans in the particular limi- 
tations of his gifts lacked taste and knowledge. In another direc- 
tion a certain aspect of Evans' literary mannerisms and inten- 

* Although the first edition of Wallace Stevens' Harmonium did not ap- 
pear until 1923, Stevens' verse was published in Poetry (Chicago) as early 
as 1914. There seems to be evidence of "cross-influences" at work between 
the early poems of Wallace Stevens and the less well-poised, less gifted 
writings of Donald Evans; at the very least, there seems to be a strong 
temperamental affinity between them. 

The 1920's 263 

tions were only too well expressed in the pastiche novels of 
Elinor Wylie, in the expensive-lingerie and old-furniture school of 
Joseph Hergesheimer's most florid period and most conclusively 
in the once fashionable novels of Carl Van Vechten. In America 
Evans' verse very nearly anticipated and almost brought to light 
a rediscovery of wit and sensibility, but through want of poetic 
intelligence, taste, and character, his auguries of promise re- 
mained fragmentary and unfulfilled. 

It will be observed in the following pages of our history that 
the order is by no means strictly chronological, but we wish to 
reassure our readers that our presentation of individual figures 
within each chapter is not purely arbitrary. In literature, and 
particularly as one reads poetry, divisions of time, of sex, of race, 
and of geographical regions are, more often than not, of super- 
ficial and transitory value. But as history becomes foreshortened 
to a mere quarter of a century, schools and groups of poets 
move more conspicuously into view. Their chronological order 
cannot be determined by dates of birth alone, but rather by the 
historical precedence in which their poetry, their literary per- 
sonalities, and the publication of their books, as well as the 
arrival of their particular school or movement, gained public 

The "poetic renaissance" did not reach its end abruptly in the 
early 1920'$, and although its principal figures and "inventors" 
were well established by that date, its criteria, including a fading 
heritage of the 1890*5 in the Bohemian activities of American 
writers, lingered on and were transformed into the excesses of 
what F. Scott Fitzgerald so fondly called "the Jazz Age." It was 
not until 1922 when T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land appeared in 
the pages of The Dial that a slight change in climate and poetic 
temperament could be discerned. But naturally enough, what- 
ever changes in poetic speech and manner were taking place, 
their actual presence was not generally known. At the very mo- 
ment when The Waste Land created a spectacular controversy 
among critics and reviewers of poetry, the literary personality of 

264 A History of American Poetry 

Edna St. Vincent Millay almost completely filled the scene. And 
it was not until the end of the decade and the period was re- 
markably prolific in the writing and publication of verse that 
the importance of Eliot's contribution to contemporary literature 
was acknowledged and recognized. This explains the order we 
have chosen in the following section, which places Edna St. Vin- 
cent Millay first and Eliot last, and between them a similar order 
of precedence may be observed. 

Today many critics who have advanced to middle age review 
the 1920*5 with an almost nostalgic air, with something, let us 
say, that recalls the note of yearning expressed so memorably by 
Longfellow when he wrote: 

My heart goes back to wander there, 
And among the dreams of the days that were, 
I find my lost youth again. 7 

But these values are, of course, quite as deceptive as an unripe 
enthusiasm for the present tense and an overripe concern for 
those platitudes of literary discourse which as E. E. Cummings so 
cheerfully reminds us, "arc not to be resharpened." Almost none 
of the figures in the following chapters is unfamiliar to the reader 
of contemporary American poetry; and each, we hope, has been 
presented in the light of a renewed and welcome introduction. 

7 "My Lost Youth" from Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, used by 
permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. 




As if he had anticipated (and certainly this was not among his 
intentions) the arrival of Edna St. Vincent Millay in the New 
York that was captured by her charms in 1920, Henry James sat 
down in 1897 to write an extended review of the letters of George 
Sand. The task was a formidable one, but he was more than 
equal to it, and it became so congenial to his insights and specu- 
lations that he resumed it with evident pleasure in 1899 and 
1914. The long essay was among the best of James's critical 
studies for he had found (as he had discovered earlier in The 
Tragic Muse) a phenomenon and a heroine much to his liking. 
Today the reader of both Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry and 
James's essay can revive for his own pleasure something of the 
original impact and "impact" is scarcely a strong enough word 
to describe it that had been felt by her earliest admirers. As one 
reads James's essay, few substitutions are necessary: since Miss 
Millay's gifts in verse were frequently histrionic, the word "ac- 
tress" should be substituted for "journalist," but it should also 
be remembered that not even the arts of journalism were outside 
Millay's province: 

It was not in the tower of art that George Sand ever shut herself up; 
but I come back to a point already made in saying that it is in the 
citadel of style that, notwithstanding rash sorties, she continues to hold 
out. . . . George Sand is too inveterately moral, too preoccupied with 
that need to do good which is in art often the enemy of doing well. 
. . . She had in spite of herself an imagination almost of the first order, 
which overflowed and irrigated, turning by its mere swift current, with- 
out effort, almost without direction, every mill it encountered. . . . For 
the case was definitely a bold and direct experiment, not at all in "art," 
not at all in literature, but conspicuously and repeatedly in the business 
of living; so that our profit of it is before anything else that it was 


266 A History of American Poetry 

conscious, articulate, vivid recorded, reflected, imaged. The subject of 
the experiment became also at first hand a journalist much of her 
work being simply splendid journalism commissioned to bring it up to 
date. She interviewed nobody else, but she admirably interviewed her- 
self, and this is exactly our good fortune. . . . Her masterpiece, by a 
perversity of fate, is the thing she least sat down to. It consists since 
she is a case in the mere notations of her symptoms, in help given to 
the study of them. 1 

And with a lighter touch James noted a similar phenomenon 
in the description of Miriam, his heroine of The Tragic Muse; 2 
the love of the theater, which was shared alike by Miss Millay 
and her admirers, makes James's description of Miriam, who 
was an actress, singularly appropriate: 

But the great thing, to his mind and, these first days, the irresistible 
seduction of the theatre, was that she was a rare incarnation of beauty. 
Beauty was the principle of everything she did and of the way, un- 
erringly, she did it an exquisite harmony of line and motion and atti- 
tude and tone, what was the most general and most characteristic in 
her performance. Accidents and instincts played together to this end 
and constituted something which was independent of her talent or of 
her merit . . . which in its influence . . . was far superior to any merit 
and to any talent. 

In these two descriptions James brought to light the essential 
qualities which are so difficult to define in the poetry of Miss 
Millay and in its meaning to the members of her generation; 
and in those terms, and to the average reader of poetry, to the 
teacher of poetry in secondary schools and in colleges, to the 
reviewer on every newspaper or weekly periodical that carried 
popular weight, the name of Edna St. Vincent Millay was a 
definition of poetry itself. To recite: 

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, 
I have forgotten . . . 3 

1 "George Sand" from Notes on Novelists by Henry James, used by per- 
mission of Charles Scribner's Sons. 

2 Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. 

3 "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" from The Harp-Weaver and Other 
Poems, published by Harper & Brothers. Copyright, 1920, by Edna St. Vin- 
cent Millay. 

The 1920's 267 


Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare . . . 4 

My candle burns at both ends; 
It will not last the night; 5 


O world, I cannot hold thee close enough! 6 

was sufficient to prove that one was not tone deaf to the per- 
sonality, the charms, the aspirations, the candor, the siren utter- 
ances of poetry written after 1900. To those who read Renascence 
(1917), Second April (1921), A Few Figs from Thistles (1922), 
The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems (1923) here was verse that 
rhymed and held familiar cadences; but more important than 
the facile rhyming, with its overtones that have been heard in 
American poetry since Thomas Moore sang his Irish Melodies, 
was the creation of a literary personality that was as vivid as 
the wayward and mythical "Dark Lady of the Sonnets" who in 
the person of Katharine Cornell flashed across the Broadway 
stage in Clemence Dane's extremely blank-versed and noisy play, 
Will Shakespeare. But Miss Millay's creation also combined the 
image of what Carol Kennicott in Sinclair Lewis' Main Street 
wished to be with the heroines of F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side 
of Paradise and Floyd Dell's Mooncalf. The performance was, to 
say the least, theatrical; and Miss Millay's verses intoned the full 
expression of what the emancipated young woman of 1920 had 
to say: every attitude of her social and sexual revolt against the 
proprieties of an earlier generation was caught and crystallized; 
her freedom with lovers, real or imaginary; her reaches toward 
"beauty" in the names of Euclid, Sappho, Catullus, Vergil, Shake- 

4 "Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare" from The Harp-Weaver and 
Other Poems, published by Harper & Brothers. Copyright, 1920, by Edna St. 
Vincent Millay. 

& "First Fig" from A Few Figs from Thistles, published by Harper & Broth- 
ers. Copyright, 1918, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

"God's World" from Renascence and Other Poems, published by Harper 
& Brothers. Copyright, 1917, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

268 A History of American Poetry 

speare, Beethoven, Pan, Bluebeard, or God Himself; her inter- 
pretations of social wrongs and pities; her love of "dressing up" 
for grand occasions; her childishness and her sudden, precocious 
gestures of being no mere girl at all, but a woman who had 
already grown weary of sin. 7 And it must be" confessed that no 
American novelist of the period has portrayed the young woman 
whose archetype was George Sand and who lived in the New 
York of 1920 half as well as Miss Millay presented her little 

But Miss Millay 's creation did not spring in the year of 1920 
like the patroness of urban arts, Athena, full-grown at twenty- 
eight, from the head of Zeus. While a student at Vassar College, 
from which she graduated in 1917, she won an intercollegiate 
poetry contest, and had been the center of a literary controversy 
in 1912 because her poem, "Renascence," did not win an award 
offered by The Lyric Year, an anthology edited by Ferdinand 
Earle and in which the poem, "Renascence," appeared among 
poems written by Orrick' Johns (the unlucky winner of that con- 
test), Richard Le Gallienne, Bliss Carman, George Edward Wood- 
berry, Vachel Lindsay, Louis Untermeyer, William Rose Bent, 
Joyce Kilmer, and John Hall Wheelock. The impressive list of 
names of elder poets insured the maximum publicity for the con- 
troversy that followed the publication of the anthology and the 
introduction of a new personality in the image of a pretty and 
young woman completely disarmed the critics and reviewers. 

It would be tedious to dwell at length on the fact that the 
sonnets written by Edna St. Vincent Millay's heroine more closely 
resembled the love sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning than 
those of Shakespeare, or that the metrics, rhymes, and exhorta- 
tions of "Renascence" itself seemed to parallel the evangelical 
fervor of John Masefield's The Everlasting Mercy, which had 
been received with so much enthusiasm in 1911, or to insist, with 

7 Mr. Carl Van Doren in his Three Worlds (1936) says: "The early 
poems of Edna Millay are the essence of the Younger Generation. Ask the 
romantic Younger Generation what it demanded and it answered: to be free. 
Ask it free for what, and it did not answer, but drove faster, drank more, 
made love oftener. When it came to the sterner time after 1929 it had to give 
up its habits or else seem like an elderly beau amusing to the youngsters. 
The youngsters now condescend to the 1920*5 as to an age of amateurs." 

The 1920's 269 

ill-natured dogmatism, that the verses written by the attractive 
heroine who had made her theatrical debut on the stage of the 
Province town Players in Greenwich Village in New York, and 
who acted in early productions of the Theatre Guild, seemed, 
more often than not and after a reading of Rupert Brooke's 
verses to be a literary exercise in the release of feminine emo- 
tion. Without that release, the heroine would never have existed; 
without her confessions of faithlessness, without her assurance 
that she drank and lived "what has destroyed some men," with- 
out her conviction that "Love has gone and left me and I don't 
know what to do," without such lapses in taste as "the soft spit- 
ting snow," without her admission that "I drew my hate from 
out my breast/And thrust it in the ground," obviously the young 
woman would not have been the phenomenon she was emanci- 
pated surely, but her virtues demanded the presence of youth, 
and her faults needed the hopeful tolerance that is so often 
claimed and exacted by attractive young women from bewildered 
and broad-minded parents. Even in these details, Miss Millay's 
heroine delighted her elder critics and young admirers and a 
dimmed and equally fictional reflection of the type of young 
woman she was appeared in Edmund Wilson's novel, / Thought 
of Daisy (1929). 

Unfortunately, but no less humanly, Miss Millay's creation 
had her darker moments, which resembled, more than all else, 
the scene in Nathaniel Hawthorne's fable, Mrs. Bullfrog, 9 de- 
scribing the sudden transformation of the lovely Mrs. Bullfrog: 

I had scrambled out of the coach and was instinctively settling my 
cravat, when somebody brushed roughly by me, and I heard a smart 
thwack upon the coachman's ear. 

"Take that, you villain!" cried a strange, hoarse voice. "You have 
ruined me, you blackguard! I shall never be the woman I have been!" 

And then came a second thwack, aimed at the driver's other ear; but 
which missed it, and hit him on the nose, causing a terrible effusion of 
blood. Now, who or what fearful apparition was inflicting this punish- 
ment on the poor fellow remained an impenetrable mystery to me. . . . 

s In the character of Rita Cavanagh. 

s Modern Library Giant edition, Random House, edited by Norman 
Holmes Pearson. 

270 A History of American Poetry 

Who could the phantom be? The most awful circumstance of the affair 
is yet to be told: for this ogre, or whatever it was, had a riding habit 
like Mrs. Bullfrog's, and also a green silk calash dangling down her 
back by the strings. 

An indication that a noisy heroine expressed an ideal of con- 
duct made an early appearance in "Renascence": 

The sky, I said, must somewhere stop . . . 
And sure enough! I sec the top! 
The sky, I thought, is not so grand; 
I 'most could touch it with my handl 
And reaching up my hand to try, 
I screamed, to feel it touch the sky. 

I screamed, and lo! Infinity 
Came down and settled over me; 
Forced back my scream into my chest; 
Bent back my arm upon my breast . . . 10 

And as time progressed it produced such commands as 
Detestable race, continue to expunge yourself, die out. 

Convert again into putrescent matter drawing flies 
The hopeful bodies of the young . . . ll 

and such observations as 

A stuffless ghost above his struggling land, 
Retching in vain to render up the groan 12 


From the wound of my enemy that thrust me through 

in the dark wood 

I arose; with sweat on my lip and the wild woodgrasses 
in my spur 13 

10 "Renascence" from Renascence and Other Poems, published by Harper 
& Brothers. Copyright, 1917, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

11 "Apostrophe to Man" from Wine from These Grapes, published by 
Harper & Brothers. Copyright, 1934, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

12 "Two Sonnets in Memory of Sacco and Vanzetti, Sonnet II" from Wine 
from These Grapes, published by Harper & Brothers. Copyright, 1934, by 
Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

is "Aubade" from Wine from These Grapes, published by Harper & 
Brothers. Copyright, 1934, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

The 1920' s 271 


And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! 
Oh, God! i* 


Never when worked upon by cynics like chiropractors having grunted 
or clicked a vertebra to the discredit of these loves. 15 

And the phenomenon became even less convincing and less 
attractive when it addressed the following remarks to "The 
Fledgling": 16 

So, art thou feathered, art thou flown, 
Thou naked thing? . . . 

Shall I no more with anxious note 
Advise thee through the happy day, 
Thrusting the worm into thy throat, 
Bearing thine excrement away? 

The transformation was, to say the least, an unlovely one; and 
the talent which in A Few Figs from Thistles inspired most of 
the arch cynicism of Dorothy Parker's light verse and Samuel 
Hoffenstein's Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing spoke grace- 
lessly and flatly in Conversation at Midnight 17 (1937): 

When they had left the room 

Merton said, "Awfully nice fellow, Anselmo, I think." 
"Swell guy," said Pygmalion. 

John said, "Don't you think we all ought to go home?" 
"Hell, no," said Pygmalion. "Where's my drink?" 

Certainly these lines were what Henry James would have called 
mildly and appropriately enough "rash sorties" that had been 

i* "Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies" from Wine from 
These Grapes, published by Harper & Brothers. Copyright, 1934, by Edna St. 
Vincent Millay. 

is "Modern Declaration" from Huntsman, What Quarry? published by 
Harper & Brothers. Copyright, 1933, 1934, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, by Edna 
St. Vincent Millay. 

16 From Wine from These Grapes, published by Harper & Brothers. Copy- 
right, 1934, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

17 Published by Harper & Brothers. Copyright, 1937, by Edna St. Vincent 

272 A History of American Poetry 

made at some distance outside "the tower of art"; but in the 
meantime, the personality that they represented had in 1925 
written on commission from the Metropolitan Opera Associa- 
tion, a lyric drama, The King's Henchman, with music by Deems 
Taylor, and it received in 1923 the Pulitzer Prize for The Harp- 
Weaver and Other Poems. 

By 1937 Millay's phenomenal young woman, who like James's 
George Sand had so "admirably interviewed herself," was no 
longer favored by her critics, and with the exception of Edmund 
Wilson in the pages of The New Republic, whose taste in verse 
had been formed during the period when A Few Figs from 
Thistles had become a touchstone of poetic excellence in Amer- 
ica, the young woman began to receive unlaudatory press notices. 
Louis Untermeyer who had consistently made the best selections 
of her verse in his anthologies wrote of her Conversation at Mid- 

. . . she can create neither real controversy nor actual character . . . 
she falls back upon cliches of thought as well as stereotypes of expres- 
sion. . . . She has written more uneven books, but, in all fourteen 
volumes, she has never been so insistently discursive and so consistently 
dull. 18 

Today it requires patience and industry to unearth felicitous 
passages from her many volumes of what seemed to be spon- 
taneously written verse; her sonnets were not of the quality in 
which, as Genevieve Taggard once wrote, "immortality is here 
denned, served and achieved," and a serious, illuminating, if 
somewhat painful, analysis of what was wrong with Miss Mil- 
lay's sonnets in general may be found in a discussion of "Euclid 
Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare" by Elizabeth Drew and 
John L. Sweeney in their Directions in Modern Poetry (1940). 
In a "Memorial to D. C." 19 the impression of ease and artlessness 
which delighted Edna St. Vincent Millay's early critics still re- 
tains its freshness and charm: 

18 From Modern American Poetry, used by permission of Harcourt, Brace. 

19 From Second April, published by Harper & Brothers. Copyright, 1918, 
1920, 1921, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

The 1920's 273 

Cherished by the faithful sun, 

On and on eternally 

Shall your altered fluid run, 

Bud and bloom and go to seed: 

But your singing days are done; 

But the music of your talk 

Never shall the chemistry 

Of the secret earth restore. 

All your lovely words are spoken. 

Once the ivory box is broken, 

Beats the golden bird no more. 

And the same felicity in clear, firm outline may be found in 
the fortunately titled lines, "The Cameo' 


Forever over now, forever, forever gone 
That day. Clear and diminished like a scene 
Carven in cameo, the lighthouse, and the cove between 
The sandy cliffs, and the boat drawn up on the beach; 
And the long skirt of a lady innocent and young, 
Her hand resting on her bosom, her head hung; 
And the figure of a man in earnest speech. 

Clear and diminished like a scene cut in cameo 

The lighthouse, and the boat on the beach, and the two shapes 

Of the woman and the man; lost like the lost day 

Are the words that passed, and the pain, discarded, cut away 

From the stone, as from the memory the heat of the tears escapes. 

O troubled forms, O early love unfortunate and hard, 

Time has estranged you into a jewel cold and pure; 

From the action of the waves and from the action of sorrow forever 

White against a ruddy cliff you stand, chalcedony on sard. 

The musical talent that guided these lines was something that 
could be called "a Celtic ear," and between the lines, one almost 
hears the wail of the Irish bagpipe. To the New England land- 
scape (for Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, February 22, 
1892) she seems to have written the following poem, but even 
here, "Earth" bears a likeness to the young woman of 1920 who 
so easily dominated the wills and passions of her admirers. 

20 From Buck in the Snow, published by Harper & Brothers. Copyright, 
1928, by Eclna St. Vincent Millay. 

274 -A History of American Poetry 


Earth does not understand her child, 
Who from the loud gregarious town 

Returns, depleted and denied, 
To the still woods, to fling him down. 

Earth can not count the sons she bore: 
The wounded lynx, the wounded man 

Come trailing blood unto her door; 
She shelters both as best she can. 

But she is early up and out, 

To trim the year or strip its bones; 

She has no time to stand about 
Talking of him in undertones 

Who has no aim but to forget, 
Be left in peace, be lying thus 

For days, for years, for centuries yet, 
Unshaven and anonymous; 

Who, marked for failure, dulled by grief, 
Has traded in his wife and friend 

For this warm ledge, this alder leaf; 
Comfort that does not comprehend. 

It was not surprising that the phenomenal success of Edna St. 
Vincent Millay's heroine encouraged and inspired imitators, most 
of whom showed a tendency to emulate the hortatory gestures of 
her lines beginning with "Down, you mongrel, Death!" in verses 
called "The Poet and His Book." This peculiar mannerism was 
adopted by young poets of both sexes, and as newly acquired 
political convictions entered the language of verse, the manner- 
ism became more pronounced, and if anything, a shade more 
hysterical in proclaiming its beliefs, whether to the right or left 
or to no political associations at all. 

The example set by Millay in following fashionable opinion 

21 From Wine from These Grapes, published by Harper & Brothers. Copy- 
right, 1934, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

The 1920's 275 

as it was expressed in the pages of Vanity Fair or the liberal 
weeklies or the Masses held a not unnatural attraction for 
young women; a veritable maiden choir arose in the wake of 
Millay's rapid progress, caught the public ear, and in most cases 
dwindled into the feeble strains of an undistinguished matu- 

Among the best known of the women who shared a lesser 
measure of Edna St. Vincent Millay's favor with the public and 
whose sensibilities somewhat approached Miss Millay's own was 
Genevieve Taggard. Her first book, For Eager Lovers (1922), 
showed an authentic, slight, but fragile lyric gift, which was 
never as fully disciplined as it was once thought, but altogether 
charming. Since then and through the titles of many succeeding 
volumes, including Words for the Chisel (1926), Traveling Stand- 
ing Still (1928), Calling Western Union (1936), she has, and not 
without genuine fervor, traveled through many styles, and has 
been cheerfully willing to embrace causes for the betterment of 
mankind. Her effects in verse have been more often experi- 
mental than fortunate; from the dreamy candor of her "The 
Enamel Girl," 22 one of her earliest and most admired pieces, 
she turned in 1933 to a less happy venture of addressing an 
American workman dying of starvation. Brief quotations from 
the two poems will serve to illustrate the experimental char- 
acter of her verse: 

Fearful of beauty, I always went 
Timidly indifferent; 

Dainty, hesitant, taking in 
Just what was tiniest and thin; 

Fond of arts and trinkets, if, 
Imperishable and stiff 

With one caress, with one kiss 
Break most fragile ecstasies . . . 

22 From Traveling Standing Still, reprinted by permission of Alfred A. 
Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1922 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

276 A History of American Poetry 

Now terror touches me when I 
Dream I am touching a butterfly. 

In her later, more vigorous, less formal verses, she intoned an 
artificial or, rather, an unconvincing cheeriness in advancing the 
causes of social revolt: 

Swell guy, you got to die. 

Did you have fun? 
I guess we know you worked. 

I guess we saw you. 
It got you just the same. 23 

If these lines fill us with more embarrassment than pity and 
seem strangely reminiscent of Miss Millay's less happy moments 
in Conversation at Midnight, it is because the language, the 
technique, the poet herself were not by temper and discipline 
within clear range of their grim subject matter. In justice to 
Genevieve Taggard it should be said that many poets of the 
period also felt it their duty to write poems for and about the 
proletariat in a manner which they fondly imagined was the 
very language of the workers. 

Genevieve Taggard was also the author of an interpretation of 
The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson (1930); the book had its 
moments of insight and it was well received, but since then it has 
been superseded by George F. Whicher's more sober, and per- 
haps definitive, study (1941) of the New England poet's life and 
work. In her verse Miss Taggard's work was always at its best 
when the theme was personal and her talents for simple verbal 
melodies were frequently employed. It was as a writer of wide 
sympathies and warm feelings that her verses carried their great- 
est claim to the attention of her readers. 

The virtues of esthetic and emotional maturity came uneasily, 
sadly, almost unwillingly to Miss Millay and the members of her 
school. This weakness became obvious long before the early en- 
thusiasms of her vogue began to fail, and it was betrayed by an 
overindulgence of commands in verse which echoed: 

23 "To an American Worker Dying of Starvation" from Calling Western 
Union, used by permission of Harper & Brothers. 

The 1920's 277 

Sexton, ply your trade! 
In a shower of gravel 
Stamp upon your spade! 24 

It was apparent even in the poetry of Louise Bogan who has 
written more about the virtues of craftsmanship than any other 
member of the group (for she wrote bright and terse reviews of 
poetry in The New Yorker), and who was more literary, if not 
less personal, in her references. Miss Bogan published her first 
book, Body of This Death, in 1923, which was at the height 
of a popular rediscovery of Emily Dickinson and the merits of 
the seventeenth-century "metaphysical" poets. Among many les- 
ser poets of the 1920*8, the avowed practice of "chiseling" verse, 
of pruning and perfecting English metrics, took on the air of 
being a manifesto, and perhaps its goal dimly paralleled the 
French Parnassians of the middle nineteenth century, who also 
revolted against the unbridled romanticism of their predeces- 
sors. In this country "words for the chisel" (the literal title of 
one of Genevieve Taggard's books) became a substitute for 
Gautier's Emaux et Camees and his famous lines: 

Oui, 1'oeuvre sort plus belle 
D'une forme au travail 


Vers, marbre, onyx, e"mail. 25 

Less adventurous than Miss Taggard, Louise Bogan held far 
more closely (shall we say?) to the fixed ideal of the hammer 
and the chisel, and less to the looser phrasing of Miss Millay. 
A fierce, almost frightening, rhetoric and an unguarded love of 
passionate pagan sentiment seemed to overwhelm her verse, 
especially in its later phases. As one rereads Louise Bogan's The 
Sleeping Fury (1937) one is impressed by a tone of voice which 
more closely resembles that of a lady "Commando" than of 

Face them. They sneer. Do not be brave. 26 

s* "The Poet and His Book" from Second April, published by Harper & 
Brothers. Copyright, 1918, 1920, 1921, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

25 "L'Art" from Emaux et Camees, Editions Nilsson, Paris. 

2fi "Exhortation" from The Sleeping Fury, 1937, used by permission of 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 

278 A History of American Poetry 

Now, you great stanza, you heroic mould, 
Bend to my will, for I must give you love: 27 

Drink Wexford ale and quaff down Wexford water 
But never love. 28 

It is yourself you seek 
In a long rage. 29 

And the echo of Millay's voice is heard in the following two lines 
from the same poem: 

Strangers lie in your arms 
As I lie now. 29 


But you, fierce delicate tender touch, 
Betrayed and hurt me overmuch, 

For whom I lagged with what a crew 
O far too long, and poisoned through! 30 

Not unlike Genevieve Taggard, Louise Bogan was at her best 
whenever her speech became less strained and violent, and in 
"M., Singing/' 31 she had probably written her least pretentious 


Now, innocent, within the deep 
Night of all things you turn the key, 
Unloosing what we know in sleep. 
In your fresh voice they cry aloud 
Those beings without heart or name. 

27 "Single Sonnet" from The Sleeping Fury, 1937, used by permission of 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 

28 "Hypocrite Swift" from The Sleeping Fury, 1937, used by permission of 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 

2y "Maii Alone" from The Sleeping Fury, 1937, used by permission of 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 

^ "Spirit's Song" from The Sleeping Fury, 1937, use( l by permission of 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 

31 From The Sleeping Fury, 1937, used by permission of Charles Scribner's 

The 1920's 279 

Those creatures both corrupt and proud, 

Upon the melancholy words 

And in the music's subtlety, 

Leave the long harvest which they reap 

In the sunk land of dust and flame 

And move to space beneath our sky. 

Perhaps the most distinguished and certainly her gifts were 
more individual of the poets who inherited the flaws and merits 
of the example placed before them by Miss Millay, was Hilde- 
garde Planner. To the general public her name was less well 
known than either Louise Bogan's or Genevieve Taggard's, but 
among discriminating readers of poetry it held a secure and 
highly respected position. The reasons for her particular emi- 
nence as well as her lack of general recognition are not difficult 
to define: her language was less spectacular than that spoken by 
her immediate contemporaries, less "commanding" in tone, and 
her fourth volume, Time's Profile (1929), a book of 156 pages, 
unhappily diffused, rather than intensified, those qualities that 
had given her verse distinction. It was then fashionable to list 
all love lyrics and all verse inspired by all varieties of religious 
emotion under the heading of "metaphysical" verse, and Plan- 
ner's collection of poems was not enhanced by the fashionable 
claims and catchwords of the day. But in that collection seven 
"Sonnets in Quaker Language" 32 retain their charm and grace 
and deserve to be better known: 

Thee is obscured, beloved, as though I 
Beheld thy body through a ghost between. 
What death of other lovers, and what cry 
Of other deaths and loves here intervene? 
Is it thee carries, like old ambergris, 
The sweet, tenacious presence of the dead, 
That, like a wind about us, memory 
Disturbs the dust thee once thought buried? 
Or is it I who veil a wakeful ghost 
Within the haunted distance of my eyes, 
And am forever the unearthly host 
Unto a thing long dead that never dies? 

82 From Time's Profile, Macmillan, by permission of the Author. 

280 A History of American Poetry 

Thee kiss me through a ghost! and so inter 
All past loves in a radiant sepulchre. 


I know not where thee sleeps to-night, my love. 

"Far up into the mountain," so thee said. 

I only know some purple height above 

Is the moon's camping-ground and thy cool bed. 

Elate upon dark altitude thee lies 

With the abundant sky spread over thee. 

The stars are multiplied within thy eyes, 

The sum of night reduced to filigree. 

My heart has followed thee and should thee hear 

A little step ascend the wilderness 

It is perhaps the light boot of the deer, 

Or should it stumble thee can surely guess. 

May thee be folded from all mountain harm 

And dream of waking upon love's quiet arm. 

A later group of Hildegarde Planner's poems, // There Is 
Time, which was published in 1942, had less poise than her 
Quaker sonnets, and in the overtly conscious line 

The ugly female laughter of a hawk. 

one hears the familiar speech of mistaken candor and false vigor 
with which Miss Millay "screamed," and Mrs. Bullfrog became 
an "apparition" that was unlovely to the sight of her distracted 
husband, and Miss Bogan went out of her way to court the 
dubious charms of a sleeping fury.* 

As we may have said before, "imitation is the severest criti- 
cism" of any poet's work; and yet poets can scarcely be blamed 
for the ineptitudes of those who follow them. Among her ad- 
mirers and imitators Edna St. Vincent Millay's creation of the 
emancipated young woman still dominates the early years of the 
1920*5 in American poetry, and we know her faults perhaps too 

* This may be described in D. G. Rossetti's phrase when he spoke of 
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her imitators as those who assumed a 
"falsetto masculinity." 

The 1920' s 281 

well. How clearly her gifts excelled the talents of her followers 
is shown in one of the best poems in The Buck in the Snow 
(1928) which will probably take its place as the most distin- 
guished of her many volumes: 


Now let forever the phlox and the rose be tended 
Here where the rain has darkened and the sun has dried 
So many times the terrace, yet is love unended, 
Love has not died. 

Let here no seed of a season, that the winter 
But once assails, take root and for a time endure; 
But only such as harbour at the frozen centre 
The germ secure. 

Set here the phlox and the iris, and establish 
Pink and valerian, and the great and lesser bells; 
But suffer not the sisters of the year, to publish 
That frost prevails. 

How far from home in a world of mortal burdens 
Is Love, that may not die, and is forever young! 
Set roses here: surround her only with such maidens 
As speak her tongue. 

Her virtues were those of an effortless, seemingly artless charm 
of youth, and of lightly touched and quickly dispelled sorrow; 
to many readers Miss Millay's verse will probably hold the same 
enjoyment that Elizabeth Barrett Browning's verses held for 
nearly a half century, and because of its youthful insights and 
improvisions, it will probably introduce other generations of 
girls and young women to the phenomena of an adolescent self- 
discovery in terms of poetry. 

33 From The Buck in the Snow, published by Harper & Brothers. Copy- 
right 1928 by Edna St. Vincent Millay. 



Elinor Wylie, who was born September 7, 1885, and died in 
New York December 16, 1928, was not a precocious poet, and 
her publications, like the brilliant, public events of her career, 
were timed with art; she appeared before her readers as the 
finished artist, correct and polished. Her second book, Nets to 
Catch the Wind, 1921, was published when Mrs. Wylie was in 
her thirties and its appearance quickly established her reputa- 
tion. (In 1912 her first book of poems, Incidental Numbers, a 
private edition of sixty copies with the author's name withheld 
from the title page, was printed in London.) Unlike Edna St. 
Vincent Millay, Mrs. Wylie did not choose to conduct her edu- 
cation in public: refinement and fastidiousness were among the 
chief characteristics of the legend built around her name and 
among her chief literary influences were Lionel Johnson, Walter 
Savage Landor, and Thomas Love Peacock, all writers who 
combined the imaginative warmth of the Romantic Movement 
with the decorum, the restraint, the rhetorical elegance of the 
eighteenth century. It has been said that she had been influenced 
by the poetry of W. B. Yeats, but if this is true, her work 
reflected Yeats's poetry whenever it seemed to be most notably 
influenced by his early friend and contemporary, Lionel Johnson. 
From John Donne, she, like many young writers of the 1920*5, 

i Some of the best women prose writers may be placed in this category. 
Certainly in modern times Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy 
Richardson, Elizabeth Bowen, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter may 
be said to form, what may be called (and not in their dispraise) a school of 
feminine sensibility which approaches the delicate, sometimes minor but 
far from insignificant poetry written by some women who have adopted 
poetry as their medium. A similar preoccupation with style can be noted. 


The 1920's 283 

acquired subject matter and "metaphysical" attitudes, rather 
than the qualities of his vigorous intellect, the depth of his 
insight, and his masculinity. From Shelley (whom she roman- 
ticized all her life and seemed to have loved for the wrong 
reasons, always loving rather than understanding him) the chief 
influence came through his letters with their boyish mixture of 
eighteenth-century diction and Romantic sensibility. In fact it 
might be said of her lifelong passion for Shelley that, unlike 
Amy Lowell's patient, humble, almost maternal devotion to 
Keats's memory, hers was a passion of self-identity. She re-created 
Shelley in her own image, and with this vision before her as 
she sat down to write, she half convinced herself that she was 
Shelley, writing the poems that he would have written if he 
had been a beautiful woman and a poet, living as she lived, and 
writing in the iggo's. She also wrote as if to please the minds 
of Walter Savage Landor and Thomas Love Peacock and if 
Landor's personal relationship to Shelley may be reduced to a 
bowing acquaintance on the streets of Pisa, and if Peacock's 
memoirs revealed the young poet in the light of half cynical, 
half affectionate regard, these men were the most fastidious and 
(in an intellectual and esthetic sense) the most respectable of 
Shelley's friends and contemporaries. 

No woman (especially in the igso's-and Edna St. Vincent 
Millay shows only too well the dangers of that period) could 
have chosen finer models than Peacock and Landor, for both 
were men of the world, men of wit and intellect, and what is 
even more important, both were fastidious and brilliant writers. 
There is considerable evidence that Elinor Wylie took their vir- 
tues to heart and in so doing avoided the pitfalls and tempta- 
tions of many women writers. As early as 1854, a Mr. George 
Bethune, who edited a popular anthology containing the best 
selections he could find of all the Englishwomen writing poetry, 
from the Duchess of Newcastle to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 
and who had made a wide study of his subject, wrote sadly: 

The prominent fault of female poetical writers is an unwillingness to 
use the pruning knife and the pumice-stone. They write from impulse 
and as rapidly as they think. The strange faculty, which women have, 
of reaching conclusions (and, in the main, safe conclusions) without the 

284 A History of American Poetry 

slow process of reasoning through which men have to pass; the strong 
moral instincts with which their nature is endowed, far above that of 
the other sex; their keen and discerning sensibility to the tender, the 
beautiful and luxuriant render them adverse to critical restraint. 

If one puts aside the comments on the strong moral instincts of 
women (since in the 1920*8 many who had them were careful 
to disguise them or to call them something else), Elinor Wylie 
was almost completely free of these particular defects in Mr. 
Bethune's female Muse. Because it lacked these flaws, her work 
was a memorable example to her immediate contemporaries; it 
set a standard and a taste whose influence should not be under- 
estimated, and even today, one rediscovers the imprint of its 
mark upon the verse written by her followers. Such an influence 
(for she, like Miss Millay, became headmistress of a literary 
school) is often the direct result of a powerful or attractive 
personality and the personality with which Elinor Wylie faced 
the world was so passionately self-obsessed, sharp, and self-pene- 
trating that it took on (like all transfigurations of true love) an 
almost impersonal air. It was as though she had seen her face 
in the mirror and found it so compelling and beautiful that 
the self-image was reflected everywhere. Even in her portrait of 
a painter (and it would be Velasquez!) there is a double image 
of a beautiful and arrogant woman, disguised as a painter lean- 
ing from his studio window, and a Castilian gentleman walking 
down the street. The emotion in the scene is completely self- 
absorbed and completely feminine: 

He burnt the rags in the fireplace 
And leaned from the window high; 
He said, "I like that gentleman's face 
Who wears his cap awry." 

This is the gentleman, there he stands, 
Castilian, sombre-caped, 
With arrogant eyes, and narrow hands 
Miraculously shaped. 2 

If Elinor Wylie's self-absorption may be denned in terms of 
what the eighteenth century called a "ruling passion," like all 

2 "Castilian" from Collected Poems, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, 
Inc. Copyright, 1932, by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

The 1920' s 285 

overwhelming and consuming emotions it carried with it the 
conviction of having an importance beyond the mere reflection 
in a glass; and she conveyed her "passion" with all the art her 
skill could master. To this day we have unconsciously amusing 
parodies of her style, poems that speak of proud boys running 
in the wind, poems of equally proud, fastidious, well-dressed, 
good-looking women who yearn to possess the "hard heart of a 
child," to own things that contain the qualities of quicksilver 
and of crystal but it is the attitude and not the essence that 
her imitators have caught and she, like many a good artist 
before her, cannot be held responsible for all the inept vanities 
and empty gestures of the school which followed her. Carl Van 
Doren defined one of her more valuable characteristics when 
he said, "She respected the passions and she respected mind and 
manners," and this form of respect in her case, self-respect- 
was as rare twenty-five years ago as it is today, and those who 
have it are seldom shoddy craftsmen. 

Her novels were, as H. Liideke, a Dutch commentator, wrote, 
limited to "a dream world, a dream-perfume distilled from lit- 
erature," a world which was perhaps best achieved and created 
in the early poetry of Edith Sitwell. Too many literary fancies 
and vanities employed Elinor Wylie's moments as she composed 
her prose romances. But where was the form into which the 
essence of her personality could find hope of an endurance be- 
yond the moment of creation? what form could contain the per- 
ishable mood, the willful mannerism? what air could keep the 
grass green in that artful, seemingly artificial, world, could keep 
the strange, metallic, blown-glass flowers blooming? The answer 
may be found in her poetry. 

Her posthumously published Collected Poems containing her 
four books of poems between the covers of a single volume 
appeared in 1932. The book was edited by her husband, William 
Rose Benet, and his preface, unlike most pieces written on such 
occasions (one has only to remember the ghoulish figure of J. 
Middleton Murry over the remains of Katherine Mansfield) is 
an excellent tribute to Mrs. Wylie's memory, informal, light in 
texture, and yet sustained by dignity. The span of Elinor Wylie's 
professional writing lasted for the comparatively short space of 

286 A History of American Poetry 

seven or eight years and in fashion or out, her poems have 
retained all that a brief moment in prose letters had to say. 

The external world that Elinor Wylie's poetry reflected in the 
public mind was of Washington, D. C., and New York society 
in which Mrs. Wylie had been a conspicuous figure, and prob- 
ably the most innocent betrayal of the milieu was in a story of 
her life written by her sister, Nancy Hoyt, The Portrait of an 
Unknown Lady (1935). There, the buying of an expensive pair 
of silver slippers, or a gown to be worn at a literary soiree, or the 
acquisition of a Shelley autograph were placed on the same level 
as the writing of a fine poem or the last scene of an unhappy 
love affair. The poet herself cannot be blamed for the revelations 
contained in a biography, but if one reads another record of the 
period by one of the most intelligent members of a group that 
moved in the same literary orbit, one is again struck by Nancy 
Hoyt's artless accuracy: for Edmund Wilson's / Thought of Daisy 
re-creates the same moral climate and confusion of values and 
will no doubt cause a future historian of our time, of our literary 
life and its morals and manners, the same amusement and 

Elinor Wylie (unlike many of her friends and imitators) was 
born into a scene of social activity that Henry James or Edith 
Wharton or Amy Lowell of Sevenells would have understood, 
and here, one may truly add, "that she lived as she wrote and 
wrote as she lived." Rarely in literary history have a personality 
and the actual details of living been so completely unified. 
"Elinor was accustomed to reading the best books, wearing the 
nicest tea-gowns, and living the most quiet of quiet lives" wrote 
Nancy Hoyt, but again one must add that the "quiet life" had 
almost come to an end the moment Elinor Wylie became a lit- 
erary figure of some consequence. She displayed her aloofness 
to large and admiring groups of what were then known quaintly 
as "sophisticates" in New York literary society, and her beauty, 
her temperament, her romantic domestic history had already 
preceded her. She appeared at Poetry Society dinners attired 
with a chic until then unknown to literary ladies, or walked into 
poetry recitals of the MacDowell Colony Club reading badly in 
a shrill voice that was said to have resembled Shellev's but 

The 1920's 287 

dressed to perfection, looking, as Carl Van Doren remarked, 
"like the white queen of a white country," and she entertained 
at her apartment in New York's gth Street in an exquisitely 
furnished room, "dominated by its memorable silver mirror." 
Her poems, as each slim volume appeared, furthered the atmos- 
phere of glamour surrounding her name to an increasing public, 
and her novels, which made solid sums of money and were pub- 
lished in an amazingly rapid progression, sustained the legend 
of the hand that wrote: 

O, she is neither good nor bad, 
But innocent and wild! 8 


Five-petalled flame, be cold: 
Be firm, dissolving star: 
Accept the stricter mould 
That makes you singular. 4 

Among those with whom she had lived before her marriage 
to William Rose Benct in 1923, her devotion to poetry was 
singular enough, but the sense of doom that was so memorably 
expressed in the concluding sonnet of her posthumously pub- 
lished Angels and Earthly Creatures (1929) had its analogy to 
one of the closing scenes in Edith Wharton's masterpiece, The 
House of Mirth, that novel of fashionable New York society 
whose heroine, Lily Bart, lived within the same moral and 
social environment that Mrs. Wylie had inhabited. And though 
Mrs. Wylie's character and temperament were as clearly self- 
realized as Lily Bart's were vague and immature, their sensi- 
bilities were of like depth and quality; and Elinor Wylie was 
as fine an artist in the writing of her sonnets as Edith Wharton 
was a true mistress of her art in writing prose. The analogy is 
one in which premonitions of disaster are also of like depth 
and quality; and the very details of dress, their emotional im- 

3 "Beauty" from Collected Poems, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 
Copyright, 1932, by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

* "Address to My Soul" from Collected Poems, by permission of Alfred A. 
Knopf, Inc. Copyright, 1932, by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

288 A History of American Poetry 

portance to Lily Bart, created an atmosphere which was far bet- 
ter suited to express the sense of loss that was conveyed in the 
sonnets of Angels and Earthly Creatures than any recital of 
biographical facts and their relationship to Elinor Wylie's 

The remaining dresses, though they had lost their freshness, still kept 
the long unerring lines, the sweep and amplitude of the great artist's 
stroke, and as she spread them out on the bed the scenes in which they 
had been worn rose vividly before her. An association lurked in every 
fold: each fall of lace and gleam of embroidery was like a letter in the 
record of her past. She was startled to find how the atmosphere of her 
old life enveloped her. But, after all, it was the life she had been made 
for: every dawning tendency in her had been carefully directed toward 
it, all her interests and activities had been taught to centre around it. 
She was like some rare flower grown for exhibition, a flower from which 
ev ry bud had been nipped except the crowning blossom of her beauty. 

Last of all, she drew forth from the bottom of her trunk a heap of 
white drapery which fell shapelessly across her arm. It was the Reynolds 
dress she had worn in the Bry tableaux. It had been impossible for her 
to give it away, but she had never seen it since that night, and the long 
flexible folds, as she shook them out, gave forth an odour of violets 
which came to her like a breath from the flower-edged fountain where 
she had stood. . . . She put back the dresses one by one, laying away 
with each some gleam of light, some note of laughter, some stray waft 
from the rosy shores of pleasure. She was still in a state of highly- 
wrought impressionability, and every hint of the past sent a lingering 
tremor along her nerves. 5 

The note that Edith Wharton touched so clearly was elegiac, 
and in the concluding paragraphs of her novel, the appropriately 
brief scene after Lily Bart's death, one has a glimpse of the same 
moment that Elinor Wylie felt so surely before her own untimely 
death. Lily Bart's lover had come to her rooms. 

It was this moment of love, this fleeting victory over themselves, 
which had kept them from atrophy and extinction; which, in her, had 
reached out to him in every struggle against the influence of her sur- 
roundings, and in him, had kept alive the faith that now drew him 
penitent and reconciled to her side. 

He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment 

r > From The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, used by permission of 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 

The 1920 's 289 

to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word 
which made all clear. 6 

And this last scene was re-enacted in the last eight lines of her 
last sonnet, a sonnet of sixteen lines, for which she had a prece- 
dent in Meredith's sixteen-line sonnets in his sequence, Modern 

And let us creep into the smallest room 

That any hunted exile has desired 

For him and for his love when he was tired; 

And sleep oblivious of any doom 

Which is beyond our reason to conceive; 

And so forget to weep, forget to grieve, 

And wake, and touch each other's hands, and turn 

Upon a bed of juniper and fern. 7 

Throughout her later work there is a quality not common to 
lyric poetry that moves as easily as hers and that quality is best 
described in terms of poetic intelligence and wit. Her intelli- 
gence was of a sort that implied the uses of self-conscious art: 
hers was the expression of a larger movement toward conscious 
artistry in poetry, a movement which at its best includes such 
diverse figures as Conrad Aiken and T. S. Eliot and the later 
William Butler Yeats. And since formality was among the laws 
by which she lived, the sonnet became the means by which her 
world of bright objects, chamber music, and self-identified emo- 
tions took fire, and in her last sonnet sequence discovered its 
most fortunate and enduring form. 

Nor after one has praised her sonnets, should one fail to men- 
tion once again her gifts for re-creating verbal music, her sharp 
and clearly discerning ear. Many of Elinor Wylie's shorter lyrics 
bear testimony to this feeling for music and it is one of the 
reasons why her poems were often reread and are still read with 
pleasure. One of the most subtle and technically adroit of her 
later poems which contains her characteristic music at its best 
and which illustrates her art in reiterating her major theme is 

From The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, used by permission of 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 

7 "Angels and Earthly Creatures" from Collected Poems, by permission of 
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright, 1932, by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

290 A History of American Poetry 

"Chimaera Sleeping." 8 Since the poem is rarely quoted in an- 
thologies, it deserves complete quotation here: 

Ah, lovely thing, I saw you lie 
Within a beam of the sun's eye, 
Where falling light and flying shade 
Were bound together in a braid 
Made of sky and earth colour: 
Leaves blew over the forest floor: 
The shadows were their noonday least. 
I knew you neither man nor beast, 
Nor god, nor rebel angel lost, 
But that foreknown and holy ghost, 
Beauty's pure pathetic shape; 
The trap I never shall escape; 
The heavenly bait; the honey breath 
Issuing from the jaws of death. 
So I approached, bereft of power, 
And saw the pattern of a flower 
Which moved in light and clearly shone 
Under the arch of your breast-bone: 
I saw a flower of white and green 
Growing where your heart had been, 
And grass obscured and dimly lit 
As though a stream flowed over it: 
Yea, through your body pale as glass 
I saw the petals of the grass 
Wave in the wind and softly stir 
As seaweed under seawater. 
You lay forlorn, hollow and thin 
As a serpent's winter skin 
From which his life of fiery gold 
Has crawled away and left it cold: 
And through your cold transparent flesh 
The grass grew delicate and fresh; 
I saw its blades, exact and plain 
Through the blank crystal of your brain: 
And nothing remained of fear and grief 
Save the clear air and the green leaf; 
And these the wind hath power to move; 
And nothing there remained of love. 
Then sorrow and joy dissolved my clay 
To see you thus, and far away; 

s From Collected Poems, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 
1932, by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

The 1920 's 

Your body laid upon the lawn; 

Your spirit fled like a fox or fawn; 

Your body consumed to silver ash 

Whence passed the soul of the lightning flash; 

Whence passed the lightning's living blood: 

And I pursued you from the wood, 

And, as I followed on, I wept 

To leave the thicket where you slept. 

To all who wrote in her genre during the first half of the 
IQSO'S in America (and the list would include those novelists 
whose accomplishments brought to transitory life the dreams 
and aspirations of the forgotten Donald Evans), Elinor Wylie's 
poetry became the very personification of their art; their inten- 
tions were endowed with a brittle, and yet unmistakable, dis- 
tinction, and their desires were cast into a form that is most 
likely to endure. 


When Leonie Adams' two books of poetry appeared, Those 
Not Elect (1925) and High Falcon (1929), critics and reviewers 
turned with relief from the poetry of feminine self-identity to 
welcome a poet of personal reticence whose verses held great 
charm. As at this particular moment critics were much pre- 
occupied with discussing the merits of twentieth-century neo- 
metaphysical poetry, Leonie Adams' verse was put into the com- 
pany of Vaughan's and Herbert's poetry; and she was spoken 
of as being both a "metaphysical" poet and a "mystic." For the 
purpose of clarifying an obscure discussion, the present authors 
ask the indulgence of their readers as they set aside the charms 
of Leonie Adams' verses to present a brief history of the term 
"metaphysical" and its meaning to those who reviewed or criti- 
cized poetry during the 1920*5. 

In the 1920*5 it was obvious that the word "metaphysical" had 
undergone a transformation from the day that Samuel Johnson 
used it as a term of unfavorable criticism in his "Life of Abra- 
ham Cowley." Although Johnson's remarks have been famous 
for almost two hundred years, it is best in matters of this kind 
to move slowly and to remind ourselves of what Johnson actually 

292 A History of American Poetry 

The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show learning 
was their whole endeavour; but, unluckily resolving to show it in 
rhyme, instead of writing poetry they only wrote verses, and very often 
such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for 
the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be 
verses by counting the syllables. 9 

In other words, Johnson belonged to the "new order" of 
critics who acknowledged Dryden as their master; and he was 
careful to show that he had rejected the "singularities" of seven- 
teenth-century poetry, its irregular laws of spelling and of syntax 
as well as the conflicts of its diction and its imagery, and while 
he confessed that Donne had "wit," it was clear that Donne's 
poetry, as Johnson read it, did not possess the smoothness, the 
formal grace and dignity of Pope's "numbers." Now, we must 
not forget that Johnson, with his characteristic sanity and good 
sense, was primarily a critic of moralities, and that his standards 
for humane values in literature were those which conformed 
to the theology of the Anglican church and here a few words 
from T. S. Eliot in his For Lancelot Andrewes (1928) are par- 
ticularly helpful. Eliot wrote, "Devotional poetry is religious 
poetry which falls within an exact faith and has precise objects 
for contemplation"; and whatever else may be said of Johnson's 
point of view in criticism, it was consistently devotional, and it 
mistrusted all variations of manner and of content from the then 
well-established order of Anglican faith. Even Donne's "Holy 
Sonnets" 10 with their lines 

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you 

As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend 

presupposed too violently an element of doubt within its state- 
ment of conversion to the Faith; and, if not overtly heretical, 
it was certainly unserene. We can then well understand why 
Johnson's "metaphysical" became an emphatic term of disap- 
All the reasons why the word "metaphysical" acquired attrac- 

9 From The Life of Abraham Cowley by Samuel Johnson, Vol. I, of Lives 
of the English Poets, Everyman Edition, E. P. Button. 

10 "Holy Sonnet XIV," from Poetry of John Donne, Oxford University- 

The 1920's 293 

live qualities in American poetry of the twentieth century need 
not be too obscure; and at least two of them may be advanced 
in general observation. In the contribution of a brief essay, 
"Donne in Our Time," to A Garland for John Donne, edited 
by Theodore Spencer (1931), T. S. Eliot fixed the dates of his 
own "experience within the terms of this paper" as "roughly 
1906-1931," and his estimate coincided with the slow but seem- 
ingly rapid rise to eminence of Donne's name during the 1920*5, 
and which was later to reach its widest popular distribution 
when Ernest Hemingway quoted a phrase from one of Donne's 
sermons as the title of his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, in 
1940, a work which even by the widest stretches of human 
imagination, could scarcely be called "metaphysical." We must 
first agree with T. S. Eliot that Professor Briggs at Harvard read 
Donne aloud with "great persuasiveness and charm," and to this 
we should add that Professor R. E. N. Dodge, that excellent 
authority on Edmund Spenser, continued Professor Briggs's ser- 
vices to Donne with perspicacity and wit at the University of 
Wisconsin. In 1912 Herbert J. C. Grierson, Chalmers Professor 
of English Literature in the University of Aberdeen, published 
his definitive edition of The Poems of John Donne, and from 
these observations we have evidence of a widely spread revival 
of interest in Donne's poetry (which was later to include the 
poetry of all the "metaphysicals") within the colleges and uni- 

Another reason for a renewed appreciation of John Donne is 
less clearly dependent upon the excellence of Grierson's timely 
edition of his poems, and in stating it we must allow ourselves 
a limited, and yet not too closely restricted, area for speculation. 
If we assume that Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" anticipated, 
however tentatively, however unconsciously, an era of religious 
doubt which gave the closing years of the nineteenth century an 
overtone of elegiac sensibility, we arrive at a renewed awareness 
to the elegiac notes which were sounded throughout the span of 
seventeenth-century poetry. The seventeenth century in England 
included significantly Cromwell's rebellion, Hobbes's material- 
ism, the founding of the Royal Society, the downfall of Arch- 
bishop Laud, and the re-establishment of the Anglican church, 

294 A. History of American Poetry 

and these circumstances have an analogy to the active contradic- 
tions of renewed discoveries in science and disillusionments in 
both science and religion which took place in America during 
the first quarter of the twentieth century. What had seemed 
"abounding" in "conceits," "medicinal," "far-fetched" to John- 
son's eye seemed appropriate to the temper and the very texture 
and speech of twentieth-century poetry. The coming of the First 
World War, its progress, and its continuation into the present 
decade restored the presence of death that had its image in the 
engraving of John Donne's figure in a shroud. 

It can be assumed that during this quarter of a century the 
names of Johnson's metaphysical poets became well known, but 
we are not prepared to say how profoundly their poetry was read 
and understood. We know that T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, and 
Herbert J. C. Grierson and several of his associates in England 
and John Crowe Ransom and Cleanth Brooks in this country 
wrote with nice discrimination of seventeenth-century values in 
poetry, and in respect to it maintained an excellent level of 
scholarship. Meanwhile in the middle 1920*5 the word "meta- 
physical" was given to poets and their poetry as a word of en- 
couragement and praise, and this was done with the same cheer- 
ful and benign air of generosity with which Ezra Pound a few 
years earlier bestowed the title of "Les Imagistes" upon his 
friends. In 1929 an anthology of "metaphysical" verse appeared 
which included selections from the poetry of Le"onie Adams, 
E. E. Cummings, Elinor Wylie, Louise Bogan, Carl Sandburg, 
T. S. Eliot, Rupert Brooke, Hart Crane, Mark Van Doren, Allen 
Tate, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, 
and Marianne Moorel What had once been "mystical" or "pan- 
theistic" or "transcendental" had suddenly become "metaphysi- 
cal" in the minds of critics, and it seemed as though all the world 
were metaphysical to those who had presumably read John Donne 
and Andrew Marvell. The contemporary poets who had been 
advanced under this revived classification were not to be blamed, 
for obviously the fashionable word, "metaphysical," had been in- 
flated to the bursting point. And though the rough analogy of 
twentieth-century poetry to the lyricism of the seventeenth cen- 
tury remained what it had been in 1920, "metaphysical" poetry 

The 1920's 295 

as an esoteric claim to praise collapsed; by 1936 "public speech" 
and "social poetry" held the center of attraction, and to be 
"metaphysical" became again a quality that was not above 

Actually the neometaphysical poets of the twentieth century 
were writers of a distinctly different temper from their seven- 
teenth-century predecessors with the exception of T. S. Eliot, 
they were not deeply concerned with the emotional conflicts 
and the problems of religious doubt and conversion and they 
were of course at a greater distance in time and feeling from 
the strains of court music that had been heard in the "airs" of 
Thomas Campion. The lesser poets of the 1920*5 in America 
quickly reduced what had been called a "metaphysical" vocabu- 
lary to what now seems to have been no more than "the blood, 
the bone, and the brain school," for the frequent reiteration of 
"bone, blood, and brain" in lines of verse was their only legiti- 
mate claim to having once read the poetry of Emily Dickinson 
and John Donne. 

As one rereads the poetry of Leonie Adams it is more seemly 
to agree, and certainly more pertinent, that at her best she was 
more unworldly than metaphysical. Seventeenth-century philos- 
ophy, learning, irony, and religious "enthusiasm" as well as the 
conflicts of scientific observation and theological wit are singu- 
larly absent from her work, nor do her lines revive the strains 
of seventeenth-century music. Her "keepings" (as Gerard Manley 
Hopkins would have called them) were of Hopkins, Walter de 
la Mare, and John Crowe Ransom and in her poem, "The 
Mount," her cadences and metrics resemble, if anything, a varia- 
tion in lyrical verse that had acquired distinction in the poetry 
of W. B. Yeats's middle years. All this is said not to dispraise 
the charm of Ldonie Adams' gifts, but to define their character 
with greater accuracy than her earlier critics have done. 

John Crowe Ransom's "Antique Harvesters," the most sensi- 
tive of his finer poems which appeared in his Two Gentlemen 
in Bonds xl (1927) contained the following lines: 

11 By permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright, 1927, by Alfred A. 
Knopf, Inc. 

296 A History of American Poetry 

We pluck the spindling ears and gather the corn. 
One spot has special yield? "On this spot stood 
Heroes and drenched it with their only blood." 
And talk meets talk, as echoes from the horn 
Of the hunterechoes are the old men's arts, 
Ample are the chambers of their hearts. 

Here come the hunters, keepers of a rite. 

The horn, the hounds, the lank mares coursing by 

Straddled with archetypes of chivalry; 

And the fox, lovely ritualist, in flight 

Offering his earthly ghost to quarry . . . 

And from Leonie Adams' High Falcon we have two parallels 
to Ransom's "Antique Harvesters," one from "The Moon and 
Spectator," and the second from "Ghostly Tree," and from 
these it is not unreasonable to assume that Ransom shared with 
Hopkins and de la Mare her highest esteem and the position 
of a master: 

The moon, that chill frame, I saw enact 

Her rite commemorative of a bound ghost, 

And thought of a night wildly born, outliving storm, 

And its tears lost. 12 

O beech, unbind your yellow leaf, for deep 

The honeyed time lies sleeping, and lead shade 

Seals up the eyelids of its golden sleep. 

Long are your flutes, chimes, little bells, at rest, 

And here is only the cold scream of the fox, 

Only the hunter following on the hound; 

While your quaint-plumaged, 

The bird that your green summer boughs lapped round, 

Bends south its soft bright breast. 13 

And again it was as though the closing stanzas of "Antique 
Harvesters," with their mention of death and "the Proud Lady," 
had brought to Leonie Adams' mind the title of one of her best- 
known poems, "Death and the Lady"; the theme and charms of 
her poem recalled Matthias Claudius' Der Tod und das Mddchen, 

12 "The Moon and Spectator" from High Falcon, by permission of The 
John Day Company. 

'-"Ghostly Tree" from High Falcon, by permission of The John Day 

The 1920's 297 

a lyric which in its haunting echoes and refrains found an ap- 
propriate parallel in the music written for it by Franz Schubert; 
certainly, Llonie Adams' re-creation of her world had a closer 
kinship to the revivals of a Gothic imagination in the poetry of 
the early and late nineteenth century than it had to metaphysical 
poetry in the sense in which Samuel Johnson denned the term. 

Their bargain told again 

Death to the Lady said, 

While she to dancing-measure still 

Would move, while beauties on her lay, 

Simply as dews the buds do fill, 

Death said: "Stay! 

Tell me, Lady, 

If in your breast the lively breath 

May flicker for a little space, 

What ransom will you give to Death, 

Lady?" he said. 

"Oh not one joy, Oh not one grace, 

And what is your will to my will? 

I can outwit parched fancies still," 

To Death said the Lady. 

Death to that Lady said, 

When blood went numb and wearily, 

"In innocency dear breath you drew, 

And marrow and bloom you rendered me," 

She said, "True." 

"How now, Lady?" 

"My heart sucked up its sweet at will, 

Whose scent, when substance' sweet is past, 

Is lovely still, is lovely still, 

Death," she said. 

"For bones' reprieve the dreams go last. 

Soon, soon your flowery show did part, 

But preciously I cull the heart." 

Death said to the Lady. 

Death to that Lady said, 
"Is then not all our bargain done? 
Or why do you beckon me so fast, 
To chaffer for a skeleton 

14 From Those Not Elect, by permission of The John Day Company. 

298 A History of American Poetry 

Flesh must cast, 

Ghostly Lady?"' 

"For, Death, that I would have you drain 

From my dead heart the blood that stands 

So chilly in the withered vein, 

And, Death," she said, 

"Give my due bones into your hands." 

"Beauties I claim at morning-prime, 

But the lack-luster in good time," 

Death said to the Lady. 

The frequent use of the word "sweet," the "so sweet pain," 
and the adjective "cold," even the sound of her "airy shell" spoke 
of her mingled debt to and careful, attentive readings in the 
poetry of de la Mare and Gerard Manley Hopkins. And Leonie 
Adams' "Kennst Du Das Land" 15 revived for readers of poetry 
in 1929, less profoundly of course, but with unmistakable grace 
and charm, the Gothic world of imagination that Poe had 
discovered an hundred years before Miss Adams' High Falcon 
had its proofs corrected and sent to the printer: 

No, I have borne in mind this hill, 

For once before I came its way 

In hours when summer held her breath 

Above her innocents at play; 

Knew the leaves deepening the green ground 

With their green shadows, there as still 

And perfect as leaves stand in air; 

The bird who takes delight in sound 

Giving his young and watery call, 

That is each time as if a fall 

Flashed silver and were no more there, 

And knew at last, when day was through, 

That sky in which the boughs were dipped 

More thick with stars than fields with dew; 

And in December brought to mind 

The laughing child to whom they gave 

Among these slopes, upon this grass, 

The summer-hearted name of love. 

Still can you follow with your eyes, 

Where on the green arid golden ground 

The dancers will not break the round, 

is From High Falcon, by permission of The John Day Company. 

The 1920's 299 

The beechtrees carved of moonlight rise; 
Still at their roots the violets burn, 
Lamps whose flame is soft as breath. 
But turn not so, again, again, 
They clap me in their wintry chain; 
I know the land whereto you turn, 
And know it for a land of death. 

It was not without misgiving and a sense of disquiet that 
sympathetic readers of Leonie Adams' versesand this after a 
silence since 1929 which had been broken only by a poem, This 
Measure, published in a limited edition in 1933, and rare ap- 
pearances in Poetry and The New Republic discovered the fol- 
lowing statement by her in Fred B. Milieu's Contemporary 
American Authors 16 (1940): 

I sometimes feel that poetry at present like other things is about to 
undergo the kind of variation that amounts to the leap to a new genus. 
I was first preoccupied with sound patterns that took me to the seven- 
teenth century then I recognized the necessity for the more modern 
preoccupation with images which should not be gathered along the 
way of discourse or meditation, but assumed before starting out, like 
apparel, or entered into as a world. I have been silent a long time 
because I am now grappling with the limitations of the lyric. 

The statement was certainly ill advised, and in respect to the 
writing of poetry, naive. Lyric forms are limited only by the 
resources and talents of the poet who employs them; a lyric is 
either written or it remains undone, and during the past fifteen 
years, traditional lyric forms have been employed with individual 
variation and distinction by a large number of poets, including 
E. E. Cummings, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, W. H. 
Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Henry Treece and there was, of 
course, no evidence of their "grappling with" the form itself, its 
limitations, its subject matter, or the very language with which 
their poems had been written. 

From this statement one returns (as her critics turned in 1925 
and 1929) to the rediscovery of the small, Gothic, yet distinct 
and delightful world of Miss Adams' imagination; and it is more 
than likely that some five or six of her lyrics will continue to 
be enjoyed by the readers of popular anthologies of verse. 

16 By permission of Harcourt, Brace. 





In this chapter the poets who are included under the title of 
one of Allen Tate's poems can scarcely be called a school or a 
movement, nor is it certain that Tate's poem itself refers to them. 
But the title does serve as a happy means of giving their poetry 
and verse a place within this volume, and Leonard's and Unter- 
meyer's verses move as far left of center as Hillyer's and Van 
Doren's move to the right. The area represented by "romantic 
traditionists" has been a large one in American poetry; and it 
could be stretched to include the poetry of William Rose Bent, 
but in his case it seems more fitting that it be considered in the 
same chapter that treats of his brother's work, the poetry of 
Stephen Vincent Benet; both brothers shared an historical imagi- 
nation and both were consciously "American" in the sense that 
the figures in the present chapter were not, and we need not 
remind our readers that all classifications tend to break down 
beyond certain established limits. And for our immediate pur- 
pose "romantic traditionists" implies an academic quality as well 
as certain romantic tendencies, which were largely those of lan- 
guage, and which define the poetry of the four poets in this 


William Ellery Leonard was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, 
January 25, 1876; and he died in 1944 at Madison, Wisconsin, 
where since 1906 he had been a member of the English depart- 
ment, first as an instructor and latterly as a professor, in the 
University of Wisconsin. He was of New England heritage and 
the son of a clergyman and journalist; he attended Boston Uni- 


The 1920's 301 

versity on a scholarship, and after he graduated from that institu- 
tion in 1898, he went to Harvard where he received his master's 
degree in 1 899. Not unlike his immediate contemporaries, George 
Cabot Lodge and Trumbull Stickney, Leonard was a brilliant 
linguist, and his talent for acquiring languages guided him to 
Europe where he furthered his studies at Gottingen and at Bonn, 
traveled extensively in Germany and in Italy, and returned to 
this country to complete his graduate work and to receive his 
doctor's degree in New York at Columbia. But quite unlike 
Lodge or Stickney, his early years were marked by the necessity 
of earning a living; his graduate studies were interrupted by 
teaching in secondary schools, and after he left Columbia, he 
took a position in Philadelphia as an editor of a dictionary 
which remained incompleted and was never published. His auto- 
biography, The Locomotive-God (1927), which was a painful and 
not too trustworthy effort at self-psychoanalysis, and his selected 
poems, A Son of Earth (1928), which were so arranged that they 
attempted to provide the reader with an autobiography in verse, 
were in effect a new Childe Harold's pilgrimage for those who 
had read his Two Lives (1922 and 1925). Two Lives had been 
written in 1913, had been privately printed nine years later, and 
in 1925 it was received as a sonnet sequence which rivaled in its 
candor and its dramatic revelations of domestic misfortunes (for 
Leonard's first wife had lost her mind and then committed sui- 
cide) George Meredith's Modern Love. Both critics and educa- 
tors, including Bliss Perry, Van Wyck Brooks, H. L. Mencken, 
and J. E. Spingarn, highly praised the merits of Two Lives, and 
indeed the notoriety of that work overshadowed the more lasting 
values of Leonard's translations of Lucretius' On the Nature of 
Things (1916), Beowulf (1923), and fragments of Sappho which 
were included under the title "An ^Egyptian Papyrus," among 
his selected poems in 1928. 

The publication of Leonard's novel in sonnets coincided with 
the publication of Sherwood Anderson's Many Marriages (1922) 
and both its enthusiastic reception and its brief notoriety are 
partially explained in Harlan Hatcher's Creating the Modern 
American Novel (1935); Anderson and Leonard were exactly the 
same age; both men had known relative poverty and obscurity 

302 A History of American Poetry 

in youth; both made a late arrival into public recognition, and 
at the time of their arrival on a scene that welcomed a candid 
discussion of sex and its misfortunes in the loose jargon of what 
was believed to be "Freudian psychology," both men had very 
nearly exhausted their energy in "finding themselves" which is 
the fate of so many writers who in youth had found the world 
a difficult place in which to earn a living, and whose tempera- 
ments remained ill adjusted to the shocks of worldly disillusion- 
ment. Hatcher wrote: 

Both Sherwood Anderson and America grew more sex-conscious as 
the third decade of the century unfolded. The frontiersman's fear of 
sex, his naive madonna- worship of the pure and inviolate female, and 
the tragi-comic effects of these attitudes upon his conduct, were present 
in Sherwood Anderson's Poor White (1920). In Many Marriages these 
elements overshadow every other. The novel appeared in 1922 when 
the sex theme was nearing the height of its popularity, and no doubt 
that fact is partially responsible for the overemphasis and the resulting 
failure of Many Marriages* 

Two Lives, with its story of the bewildered and scholarly poet, 
who faced the terrors of living with an afflicted wife, shared the 
same sensational appeal and the same failure that met Anderson's 
Many Marriages; and today the book seems less tragic than 
pathetic or naive. 

At the University of Wisconsin, Leonard's presence, his tall, 
gray-clad figure with its shock of white hair, and his loosely 
knotted "Windsor" bow tie, whose Bohemian, almost Byronic, 
negligence was an attractive contrast to the formal, if decidedly 
unpedantic, manner of his speech and appearance, created an 
"atmosphere" to all undergraduates who were interested in 
poetry. It is doubtful if any university lecturer of his day and 
it must be remembered that Barrett Wendell and Irving Babbitt 
were his contemporaries excelled him in the teaching of com- 
parative literatures. Those students who survived the severe dis- 
cipline of his seemingly innocent course in Anglo-Saxon, which 
included comparative studies of Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Latin, 
and Icelandic literatures as well as the literature which gave a 

i "Sherwood Anderson" from Creating the Modern American Novel by 
Harlan Hatcher, used by permission of Farrar & Rinehart, Inc. 

The 1920 's 303 

title to the course, emerged with a renewed respect for the power 
of language and its relationship to poetry. Few students escaped 
the influence of his Germanic training in philology, or the 
severity of manner which he probably inherited from Kittredge 
at Harvard, under whom he studied for his master's degree. The 
course was ill attended, for it demanded from its students an 
almost selfless devotion to poetry and a Puritan toughness of 
fiber to withstand Leonard's oral examinations. 

In his own translation of Lucretius, Leonard's standards were 
no less exacting; the translation into English verse was at times 
crabbed and turgid, and at other times overweighted by the 
force of Anglo-Saxon periods and cadences; yet the entire work 
remains firm and solid, and few translations of equal length into 
English verse are of equally high quality and cumulative power. 
It was as though the anonymous author of Piers Plowman had 
undertaken the task of translating the darkened, smoky specu- 
lations of the great Roman poet into his own language, and 
Leonard had modified that speech into passages of blank verse 
which could be read and understood by the twentieth-century 

Something of the translation's strange, if overly weighted, 
felicity is in the lines of the sonnet that Leonard inscribed to 
Lucretius in the summer of 1912 at Madison, Wisconsin: 

... if to have caught 

Thy splendour, and thy pathos, and thy song 
(Thy hand upon my shoulder, Master, long 
From room to aery room) avail me aught, 

Then not without some scope of thy old truth, 
Then not without some ring of thy old worth, 
My sturdy voice of still unconquered youth 
Hath in an unknown tongue reported dice 
Unto a Continent of thy dear Earth . . . 
To thee unknown, beyond an unknown sea. 2 

Like Trumbull Stickney, Leonard caught and held in frag- 
ments of his best poetry the elegiac note in twentieth-century 

2 On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, trans, by W. E. Leonard, from 
Everyman's Library, used by permission of E. P. Button & Co., Inc. 

304 A History of American Poetry 

verse; and among his new versions of well-known Sapphic frag- 
ments, the following lines were written: 

Death shall be death forever unto thee, 
Lady, with no remembrance of thy name 
Then or thereafter; for thou gatherest not 
The roses of Pieria, loving gold 
Above the Muses. Even in Hades' House 
Wander thou shall unmarked, flitting forlorn 
Among the shadowy, averted dead. 8 

Leonard's ventures into light verse, Aesop and Hyssop (1912), 
and his political verses, The Lynching Bee (1920), were far less 
happy, and at their best the verses to Tom Mooney, "A War 
Movie," and "The Lynching Bee" itself echoed the strains of 
Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo." In academic circles, Leonard's 
name will probably survive because of his two studies in prose: 
his Socrates (1915) and his La Metrica del Cid (1931). Leonard's 
rhetoric was of a latter-day romantic order, but whenever it 
became inspired by a subject less overtly and consciously per- 
sonal than his autobiographies in verse and prose, a happier 
expression of that rhetoric paid its debt to Rome. To the Middle 
West, Leonard brought his associations of a New England 
heritage, which included a Protestant-Abolitionist spirit that 
had turned against itself in violent self-criticism of its despised 
"Puritanism" and prudery and in Leonard's case it achieved 
serenity only as it recalled images of Rome, or had been sub- 
jected to the austerities of scholarship. To a colleague who had 
died in Rome, Leonard wrote "The Latin Scholar," 4 and though 
the overtones of a nineteenth-century rhetoric are still heard, the 
deeper and pervading spirit of Leonard's identity with New Eng- 
land's classical heritage also finds its voice: 

Friends whose own griefs had borne the heaviest stroke 
Best saw into his eyes, but never spoke . . . 
Lover of children, pictures, books, and flowers, 
Art was for him man's life, man's life an art, 

3 "An ^Egyptian Papyrus some fragments of Sappho of Lesbos, 600 B.C." 
from A Son of Earth. Copyright, 1928, by The Viking Press, Inc. 

4 From A Son of Earth. Copyright, 1928, by The Viking Press, Inc. 

The 1920's 305 

Gracious of step and voice in hall or home . , 
He once brought Vergil to these lakes of ours, 
But Vergil, kinsman of his gentle heart, 
Took him forever from us back to Rome. 

In 1919 Louis Untermeyer issued the first of his now famous 
anthologies of Modern American Poetry, of which Allen Tate 
in compiling a selected list of recent American poetry and poetic 
criticism to be sent to Soviet Russia "as a sign of good will from 
the U. S. State Department from the Library of Congress" (1943) 
remarked, "Still the best omnibus anthology of contemporary 
American poetry." The anthologies were then in their sixth re- 
vised edition, and indeed no one since Stedman had shown a 
more disinterested knowledge of the subject, or greater skill in 
keeping what might well have dropped into a mere repetition 
of academic choices a source of lively interest and well-modu- 
lated authority. Among the critics and reviewers of American 
poetry in the 1920*5 Untermeyer was the first to recognize the 
importance of the anthology in voicing a critical survey of his 
chosen field. Of his method in revising new editions Robert 
Hillyer wrote in his A Letter to Robert Frost (1937): e 

Taste changes. Candid Louis Untermeyer 
Consigns his past editions to the fire; 
His new anthology, refined and thrifty, 
Builds up some poets and dismisses fifty. 
And every poet spared, as is but human, 
Remarks upon his critical acumen. 

If Untermeyer's anthologies have survived the moments of 
their original compilation it is because they have provided the 
public with an appreciation of modern poetry without the usual 
interference of literary warfare and clique discriminations. Like 
Harriet Monroe's when she edited Poetry, Untermeyer's value as 
an editor was to represent all schools of verse, and never to 
permit a poem or his own commentary on it to appear dull or 

s By permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright, 1936, by Robert 

306 A History of American Poetry 

witless; and in this respect it is difficult to overestimate his 
wisdom (with time passing between successive editions of his 
anthologies) in dropping certain poets and reinforcing earlier 

The popularity of his anthologies quickly and unjustly over- 
shadowed Untermeyer's true gift in the writing of light verse. 
In his parodies and satires he maintained the highest standards 
of a tradition that stemmed from his readings in Heine, Horace, 
and W. S. Gilbert, and in exercising that gift, he raised the 
standards of what the early nineteenth century knew as "the 
school of New York wits." In New York and during the 1920*8, 
a revival of light verse took its impetus from the successes of 
Edna St. Vincent Millay's A Few Figs from Thistles, Dorothy 
Parker's Enough Rope (1926), Franklin P. Adams' So Much 
Velvet (1924), and the revival continued in Christopher Morley's 
Translations from the Chinese (1933) and in Free Wheeling 
(1931) by Ogden Nash. Of the entire group, Nash was the most 
topical and fluent, but it is doubtful if his urban uses of slang 
and breakneck rhymes would have existed without the examples 
set before him in E. E. Cummings' lighter verses. At first reading 
Nash's verse was both clear and gay, but on second reading its 
devices become a shade too obvious and a third reading com- 
pletely removes the element of surprise. 

Untermeyer's wit in verse was of a more enduring order; and 
as he wrote a mock love song 6 (with a volume of Heine) none 
of his contemporaries could administer a coup de grace in a final 
stanza with half the ease and polish that he employed: 

Prayers are not what you want. I see 

That, when all other beauty fails, 
You will not alter, you will be 

As fair and young and hard as nails. 

It was indeed his identity with Heine that gave so many of his 
parodies an air of being written not for the moment alone but 
from a point outside and above the literary quarrels and adven- 

6 "So Rein Und Shon" (With a volume of Heine) from Selected Poems and 
Parodies of Louis Untermeyer, by permission of Harcourt, Brace. 

The 1920's 307 

tures of the day; and Other Poets (1917) and Including Horace 
(1919) seem to have combined the felicities of a W. S. Gilbert 
with a hardy and well-sharpened edge of twentieth-century urban 
wit. His lines adapting Horace's Book I: Ode 23 to an exercise 
in hidden rhyme illustrated his gift in presenting a parody with- 
out an immediate and contemporary poet in view. It was done, 
one suspects, for the joy of writing it, and the reader is given 
another clue as to why the best of Untermeyer's satires in verse 
were purged of the so-called "personalities" and lapses in taste 
which so frequently marred the work of lesser satirists. The first 
stanza of the parody shows the Gilbertian lightness of Unter- 
meyer's gift: 

Though all your charms in a sweet disarray, 
Chloe, have won me, you shun me as though 

I were a tiger that searches for prey, 
I would not hurt you, your virtue is so 

Glowing that passion is melted away. 7 

Not all of Untermeyer's parodies are of equal quality, and 
many of them (which is a reason why they are not better known) 
demand a greater knowledge of the verse that Untermeyer has 
satirized than the general reader of contemporary poetry can 
supply, but it is likely that the parodies on A. E. Housman, on 
Edgar A. Guest, the newspaper poet, and on the terza rima that 
Archibald MacLeish used so effectively in his Conquistador will 
remain the best of their kind in American poetry, and in the 
parody of Conquistador, Untermeyer retold a story from the 
nursery rhymes of Mother Goose: 

And this little pig had none not for love nor the paying- 
Dust in his corded throat: and the knife above it: 
And the quick slit under the jaw: and he took it bravely . . . 8 

Untermeyer's adaptations of Heinrich Heine's poems (1917, 
1923, 1937) into English will probably remain the most impres- 

7 "To Chloe" from The Selected Poems and Parodies of Louis Untermeyer, 
by permission of Harcourt, Brace. 

s "Archibald MacLeish" from The Selected Poems and Parodies of Louis 
Untermeyer, by permission of Harcourt, Brace. 

308 A History of American Poetry 

sive tribute to Heine's memory that the present century will 
yield in English and certainly Untermeyer's wit has rescued some 
five hundred of Heine's shorter poems from the curse of dullness 
which obscured even the best intentions of his earlier translators. 
Louis Untermeyer was born in New York October i, 1885, and 
as he has written of himself in a note in* the sixth edition of his 
Modern American Poetry 9 (1942): 

He attended the De Witt Clinton High School, but his failure to 
comprehend the essentials of geometry prevented him from graduating. 
In his youth his one ambition was to be a composer. ... In 1923 he 
retired from business and, after two years of study abroad, returned to 
America to devote himself entirely to literature. . . . He became "poet 
in residence" at various universities. His lectures brought him into 
every state of the Union except South Dakota. 

He was the author of nine books of verse, the best of which 
was The Selected Poems and Parodies of Louis Untermeyer 
(1935), and in that volume the quality of the poems written in 
lighter measures hold a position (though they do not pretend 
to do so) of more originality than those that were apparently 
conceived at graver moments. His only flaw as a self-critic has 
been an inability to take his seemingly unserious verse with the 
seriousness that it deserved. He has been the editor of at least 
a dozen anthologies of verse, and the author of five books in 
prose on American poetry, and to these he has added his auto- 
biography, From Another World (1939). In Fred B. Milieu's 
Contemporary American Authors 10 he wrote: 

My general attitude seems to be "centrist." While I appreciate the 
value of tradition, I applaud the validity of experiment. ... If I had 
to choose either a choice which, thank God, has not yet been forced 
upon me I would go over unhesitatingly to the radicals and experi- 
menters, even though I am by nature a son of Libra, and hence a hesi- 
tating Liberal. 

The note of candor and the half-ironic pun on Libra were 
characteristic of his manner; and those who wish to rediscover 
his true poise and value will return to some of the critical com- 

9 From fifth edition, by permission of Harcourt, Brace. 

10 By permission of Harcourt, Brace. 

The 1920's 309 

mentaries in his anthologies, his translations of Heine, and his 
own light verse, which is inimitable. 

For the past twenty years it has been an easy matter to under- 
estimate the poetic gifts of Robert Hillyer but this does not 
mean that his work has lacked recognition (for his Collected 
Verse received the Pulitzer Prize in 1934 and his position as 
Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard since 
1937 cannot be described as one that has been obscure). Yet as 
one rereads his seventh book of verse, The Seventh Hill, whicli 
was published in 1928, there is the renewed delight that re- 
sembles the finding of unknown verses written by a familiar 
name. The majority of Hillyer's verses bore a relationship, and 
not always a happy one, to the latter-day British "Georgian'* 
poets, Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon, whose writings 
in both prose and verse have been fluent, bland, aware of tech- 
nical devices, careless in diction, and on rare occasions, mem- 
orable. It might be said that this general relationship describes 
the external qualities of Hillyer's verse those moments at which 
it substituted personal candor for the more difficult virtues of 
seeking truth and allowed the sonnet to flow through its fourteen 
lines, observing as it did so, the usual pleasantries or discomforts 
of seasonal change in language that repeats anticipated phrases 
and the usual rhymes. But this does not describe two singular 
merits of Hillyer's verse; one is its true affinity at its best with 
the shorter poems of Robert Bridges, and the other the inde- 
pendent, characteristic play of wit that is to be found in his A 
Letter to Robert Frost and Others (1937). As far as sensitive 
readers of lyric poetry are concerned, the first merit was the 
more important, for its quality has been a rare one in twentieth- 
century American poetry, and it is why Hillyer's slender volume, 
The Seventh Hill, becomes the object of a rediscovery. The gift 
that Hillyer possessed was an extremely sensitive ear for verbal 
music, a gift that, however "literary" its speech may be, never 
fails to delight the reader, for among the best of Hillyer's lyrics 

310 A History of American Poetry 

the clear strains of sixteenth-century music were revived and 
were sounded with the mastery that conceals its art: 

Let the nightingale in vain 
Lift his amorous refrain, 
Let the dying reedy swan 
Cease her prothalamion. 
They are sunk in such a bliss 
Deep as old Atlantic is. 
End our song and come away 

(come away) 
Music hath no more to say. 11 

This was "chamber music" in the same sense that James Joyce's 
shorter lyrics were Chamber Music and Pomes Pennyeach. And 
another lyric from the same volume, The Seventh Hill, was still 
another "pastoral": 

So ghostly then the girl came in 
I never saw the turnstile twist 
Down where the orchard trees begin 
Lost in a reverie of mist. 

And in the windless hour between 
The last of daylight and the night, 
When fields give up their ebbing green 
And two bats interweave their flight, 

I saw the turnstile glimmer pale 
Just where the orchard trees begin, 
But watching was of no avail, 
Invisibly the girl came in. 

I took one deep breath of the air 
And lifted up my heavy heart; 
It was not I who trembled there 
But my immortal counterpart. 12 

In rereading all of Robert Hillyer's verse one has the impres- 
sion of a fine poetic sensibility and wit that, not unlike Conrad 

11 "Pastoral II" from Collected Poems, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, 
Inc. Copyright, 1933, by Robert Hillyer. 

12 "Pastoral VII" from Collected Poems, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, 
Inc. Copyright, 1933, by Robert Hillyer. 

The 1920 's 311 

Aiken's more spectacular display of talent, have been wasted or 
diffused and squandered. The wit of Robert Hillyer's heroic 
couplets in his A Letter to Robert Frost is of rare accomplish- 
mentand its critical candor reminds one of James Russell 
Lowell's A Fable for Critics, and much of it seems to have been 
written in the same high-spirited vein. Granting Hillyer's inten- 
tions to emulate the Horace that Pope adapted in his famous 
"Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," Hillyer's conclusions lacked classical 
firmness and poise; and the same weaknesses are to be discovered 
among his less fortunate lyrics in which stanzas could be arbi- 
trarily transposed or final stanzas omitted without loss or as he 

Like Johnson's friend, I woo philosophy, 
But cheerfulness creeps in in spite of me. 13 

Robert Hillyer was born June 3, 1895, in East Orange, New 
Jersey, and during the 1920*5 he was among the most precociously 
gifted literary figures in America. His first book of verse, Sonnets 
and Other Lyrics, was published in 1917, the year he graduated 
from Harvard. From 1920 to 1921 and through a fellowship 
awarded by the American-Scandinavian Foundation, he studied 
at the University of Copenhagen. In 1932 he published a novel, 
Riverhead, which became a "best seller" and received critical 
praise for the imaginative insights and sensitivity of its prose; 
and his introduction to a volume which contained the collected 
poems of both John Donne and William Blake was distinguished 
by its critical ease and scholarly excellence. 

Mark Van Doren's verses have long been associated with sev- 
eral divergent schools in twentieth-century American literature, 
but it is more than likely that the best of his work will come to 
rest slightly "right of center" which was the position that he held 
on the editorial staff of the liberal weekly, The Nation, from 
1924 to 1928. These were the years that he published his first 
two books of verse, Spring Thunder (1924) and Now the Sky 

13 From A Letter to Robert Frost, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 
Copyright, 1936, by Robert Hillyer. 

gi2 A History of American Pdetry 

(1928), and most critics have agreed that much of his inspira- 
tion in writing verse stemmed from an influence, then widely 
felt, of the poetry of Robert Frost. His own poetic character was 
less easy to define, but Van Doren was by very temperament and 
disposition a relaxed and facile writer of both prose and verse; 
and indeed his large and generous labors as an editor and re- 
viewer, as a novelist and lecturer and critic, and writer of books 
for children create an analogy to that nearly forgotten man of 
letters in early nineteenth-century England, Robert Sou they, 
who became poet laureate, was Wordsworth's sympathetic friend, 
and who was also a true friend of Walter Savage Landor. 

Van Doren's narrative romances in verse, Jonathan Gentry 
(1931) and The May field Deer (1941), bear a resemblance to 
Southey's The Curse of Kehama and Roderick it one can con- 
ceive of Southey being born as Mark Van Doren was in Illinois, 
June 13, 1894, and subject to the same environment and educa- 
tion of a twentieth-century American writer. Neither The. Curse 
of Kehama nor Jonathan Gentry were fortunate experiments in 
the writing of narrative verse, but both seem to have been 
earnest and sincere in their effort to supply the public with the 
kind of verse it cared to read; and Jonathan Gentry suffered from 
lapses in taste and infirm writing: 

Click, click, clickety click, clickety clickety click, click. 
He listened, and it told him of a bullet singing true. 
Click, click, click, click, clickety clickety click, 
Click, and one was coming home instead of two, of two. 14 

Verses such as these went on for seven stanzas in the narrative. 
And the narrative, which embraced a family chronicle and refer- 
ences to the American Civil War, also contained snatches of 

Tom, Tom, the son of a gun, 

Stole my gal and away he run. 

I'm Tom, too. 

Stranger, do you chew? 15 

1* "Jonathan Gentry" from Collected Poems, by permission of Henry Holt 
and Company, Inc. 

i Ibid. 

The 1920's 313 

Jonathan Gentry came to a close with the following com- 
mentary in verse: 

Over the mountains, boys, 
And down the river middle, 
Won't learn nothin' new, 
Hey diddle diddle. 

Adam and Eve, 

They dig and spin 

Till the Lord he's tired 

And turns 'em in. 16 

A far more successful venture in the writing of verse at length 
was Van Doren's A Winter Diary 17 (1935) and the literary per- 
sonality that it conveyed to the reader had a slightly awkward, 
domesticated, boyish charm; quite as Robert Southey, a century 
before him, celebrated the joys of eating gooseberry tarts, so Van 
Doren in New England wrote of 

Dark, horny Hubbards that will slice in half 
And come with pools of butter as we laugh, 


Firm corn, and tapering carrots, and the blood 
Of beets complete the tally of saved food; 
Yet over in a corner, white and square, 
Is the big bin with our potato-share. 
Then seven barrels of apples standing by. 

The Baldwins to be eaten, and the Spies; 
But Greenings are for betty and for pies. 

And suddenly we smell a breakfast waiting: 
Bacon and yellow eggs; or, alternating, 
Buckwheat cakes with butter for anointing . . . 

This was not distinguished verse, but it was hearty in the 
naming of food that growing children enjoy. And the same 
boyish heartiness and vigor entered a lyric that took its images 
from the so-called "metaphysical" school: 

" "Jonathan Gentry" from Collected Poems, by permission of Henry Holt 
and Company, Inc. 

IT From Collected Poems, by permission of Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 

314 A History of American Poetry 

Strike then the rusted strings. 
Pound, pound the sluggard voice. 
And bid deposed kings 
With our poor selves rejoice. 

Pour liquor that will widen 
The skull's already smile. 
The darkness we have died in, 
Let it be red awhile. 

Ha! and now we gather. 
Ho! and now we part. 
Let every bone be lather, 
Next to the fiery heart. 18 

Perhaps the best of Van Doren's verses in a similar vein was 
"Spectral Boy": 

I told you I would come, he said, 
I told you with these very eyes. 
Be not ashamed. The grave is deep, 
And terror in it dies. 

If in these circles that you see 
There is the old, the child's alarm, 
It does not live to startle you, 
Or work the pulse's harm. 

It was not gathered underground, 
It was not freed upon a day, 
Except that something might come home 
Of the whipped soul, and stay. 

Except the fever, all is here. 
My deathless part, my fear, returns. 
Be not ashamed. The grave is cold. 
Nothing in it burns. 

I have not suffered since I died, 
Though I have lain with eyes as round 
As when you fixed them; but enlarged, 
Some days, from lack of sound. 

!8 "Strike the Rusted Springs" from Collected Poems, by permission of 
Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 
is From Collected Poems, by permission of Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 

The 1920 's 315 

And so there fell to me an hour 
Of utter quiet; then I rose, 
And am revisiting old Time, 
Before his close. 

Was I not washed and buried well? 
Why this desire, why this research 
For time and wrath? Be still, I beg! 
What now? This twitch and lurch 

You 1 would escape me, but I swear 
I was not sent to punish you. 
I came alone, that fear might form 
Once more on me like dew. 

No longer groan and hide your hands. 
This thing I seek is chill and sweet. 
Be not ashamed. The grave is pure. 
No horror now. No heat. 

These lines were decidedly more fortunate than the instruc- 
tion to "Pound, pound the sluggard voice," for the voice is 
always difficult to "pound," and it is still more awkward for the 
human voice to make a noise that resembles "pounding." But in 
rereading Van Doren's verse, one must accept it or reject it with- 
out demanding precision of language, or of music, or of mean- 
ing. Van Doren's verse was always happiest when one asked 
least of it; and in a homely and domesticated rephrasing of 
Robert Herrick's "The Argument of his Book," Van Doren 

I sing of ghosts and people under ground, 
Or if they live, absented from green sound. 

I am in love with joy, but find it wrapped 
In a queer earth, at languages unapt; 

I sing of men and shadows, and the light 

That none the less shines under them by night. 

Then lest I be dog enemy of day, 

I add old women talking by the way; 

And not to grow insensible to noise, 

Add gossip girls and western-throated boys. 20 

20 "The End" from Collected Poems, by permission of Henry Holt and 
Company, Inc. 

6 A History of American Poetry 

In 1940 Van Doren's Collected Poems, 1922-1938 received the 
Pulitzer Prize, and since the middle of the igao's Van Doren has 
been a popular teacher at Columbia University and lecturer at 
the New School for Social Research in New York. He has been 
the editor of several anthologies, of which An Anthology of 
World Poetry (1928) and American Poets, 1630-1930 (1932) were 
the best known. Of the many books in prose and verse that Van 
Doren has written his most distinguished and mature volume 
was his admirable collection of brief essays on Shakespeare. 
In presenting his Shakespeare (1939) he persuasively reminded 
the American public that Shakespeare was, above all things, a 


In re-creating the hour that produced the early poems of 
Marianne Moore, it is well to recall the existence of a magazine 
that she edited from 1925 to 1929. In those days The Dial was 
far more than a monthly publication of highly sustained literary 
values; it was an institution, which, not unlike a college or a 
university, became a school for younger writers, and its position 
overshadowed the hitherto undisputed eminence of The Atlan- 
tic Monthly. Its circulation was small, and in some respects its 
editorial policy emulated the character of Ezra Pound's and 
Wyndham Lewis's Blast and Margaret Anderson's The Little 
Review. To the general public it maintained an almost frighten- 
ing "esoteric" front, which was modified by its conservative 
exterior, for like W. E. Henley's periodicals of late nineteenth- 
century England, The Dial of New York's 1920*5 paid its respects 
to tradition through the austere and formal excellence of its 
taste in typography. For a further description of The Dial, the 
appearance of its offices, and its historical value, we quote 
Marianne Moore's memoirs of The Dial, including an appro- 
priate editorial foreword, as they were published in the Decem- 
ber, 1940, issue of Life and Letters To-Day (London): 

[The Dial, founded in 1840 with Margaret Fuller as editor, Emerson 
as next editor, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hawthorne, and others as 
contributors, was discontinued after four years. In 1880 it was re-estab- 
lished by Francis F. Browne, of Chicago, but in 1917 there was a change 
in editorial policy; the publication offices were moved to New York and 
as a fortnightly with socially analytical and humanitarian emphasis, it 
was varyingly edited, first by George Bernard Donlin, then by Robert 
Morss Lovett; with Thorstein Veblen, Helen Marot, Randolph Bourne, 
Van Wyck Brooks, Harold Stearns and others as contributing editors. 
In 1920 it was refashioned and brought out as a non-political monthly 
of "art and letters" by Scofield Thayer, Editor, and J. 5. Watson, Presi- 


318 A History of American Poetry 

dent; with Lincoln MacVeagh as Treasurer, and was entitled The Dial, 
The Dial Publishing Company Inc. being the full title, as it had been 
of the fortnightly Dial. The Dial Press, it might be noted, was not 
synonymous with it, but a separate organization. Then with Stewart 
Mitchell as Managing Editor, followed bythough not always with the 
same title Gilbert Seldes, Alyse Gregory, Kenneth Burke, and Marianne 
Moore it was discontinued with the July issue, 1929.] 

As growth-rings in the cross section of a tree present a contrastingly 
differentiated record of experience, successive editorial modifications of 
a magazine adjoin rather than merge; but the later Dial shared, or 
thought it shared, certain objectives of its predecessors. It is that Dial 
which I know best, and when I think of it recollections spring up of 
manuscripts, of letters, of people. 

I think of the compacted pleasantness of those days at 152 West igth 
Street, and the three-storey brick building with carpeted stairs, fireplace 
and white mantelpiece rooms, business office in the first storey front 
parlour, and of plain gold-leaf block letters, The Dial, on the windows 
to the right of the brown stone steps leading to the front door. . . . 

I recall the condensed but explicit anatomy of duties with which the 
office was provided; and despite occasional athletically protesting edi- 
torial reciprocities, the inviolateness to us of our "contributing editor- 
critics," Gilbert Seldes (The Theatre), Henry McBride (Modern Art); 
Paul Rosenfeld and then Kenneth Burke (Music). Almost recklessly 
against the false good, they surely did represent The Dial in "en- 
couraging a tolerance for fresh experiments and opening the way for 
a fresh understanding of them." 

However "esoteric" its front may have been to the general 
public, The Dial continued the services of The Little Review 
with greater and more nicely balanced authority; its pages con- 
tained chapters of W. B. Yeats's autobiographies, letters on lit- 
erary events in Germany that had been written by Thomas 
Mann, one of George Moore's later novels, Heloise and Abelard, 
ran its serial length between its covers, and T. S. Eliot contrib- 
uted a London letter. In respect to poetry, The Dial's awards of 
two thousand dollars each were presented with rare discernment 
for true merit, and rarer still, the awards were given to poets, 
who at the moment of receiving them were in actual need of 
money and further encouragement for the progress of their work. 
In 1922, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land received The Dial award; 
in 1924 Marianne Moore's second book of poems, Observations, 
received it; in 1925 it was given to E. E. Cummings; in 1926 to 

The 1920's 319 

William Carlos Williams; and in 1927 to Ezra Pound. In all 
these instances, the award reflected honors on the magazine it- 
self; and like Poetry's Helen Haire Levinson Prize, such awards 
came to the poet with the honors of having received practical 
recognition from a source that had true standards to maintain. 
The Dial, which from its revival in 1920 had been a gener- 
ously subsidized magazine, came to the end of its career in 1929; 
and among the contributors to its last issue was Joseph Ferdi- 
nand Gould, a New England wit from Boston, who at Harvard 
had been the contemporary of Walter Lippmann, Conrad Aiken, 
and John Reed, who was the friend of E. E. Cummings, and 
who during the 1920'$ brilliantly disguised himself as a Green- 
wich Village Bohemian in New York without loss to his Boston 
heritage or the quality of his sturdily provincial New England 
wit. As the offices of The Dial closed, and the "plain gold-leaf 
block letters" of its name faded from the brownstone house in 
West igth Street, Gould wrote: 

Who killed The Dial? 
"I," said Joe Gould, 
"With my inimitable style, 
I killed The Dial." 

But of course Gould's claims could have been made by any or 
all of The Dial's contributors during the ten years of its revival, 
and the magazine had performed its services to American litera- 
ture with a longer lease of life than most of the "little maga- 
zines" which during the preceding decade had bravely "died to 
make verse free." The plain fact of the- matter was that The 
Dial's handsome subsidy had been withdrawn. A new decade 
was at the threshold, and The Dial had honorably discharged 
its responsibilities. 



I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all 
this fiddle. 

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one dis- 
covers in 

it after all, a place for the genuine. 

i From Selected Poems, 1935. By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

A History of American Poetry 

Hands that can grasp, eyes 
that can dilate, hair that can rise 
if it must, these things are important not because a 

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because 

they are 

useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible 
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we 
do not admire what 
we cannot understand . . . 

wrote Marianne Moore. Since then her commentary on poetry 
has become justly famous, for the poem on poetry spoke her 
mind, and her mind released as fine a discrimination in the arts 
of literary wit as any critic has shown in twentieth-century litera- 
ture. The poem also illustrated by example the nature of Miss 
Moore's gift, which was a gift of employing prose cadences with 
the aid of rhyme. In his introduction to Marianne Moore's 
Selected Poems 2 (1935) T. S. Eliot wrote: 

Miss Modre's poetry, or most of it, might be classified as "descriptive" 
rather than "lyrical" or "dramatic." Descriptive poetry is supposed to 
be dated to a period, and to be condemned thereby; but it is really 
one of the permanent modes of expression. In the eighteenth century 
or say a period which includes Cooper's Hill, Windsor Forest, and 
Gray's Elegy the scene described is a point of departure for medita- 
tions on one thing or another. 

Eliot's mention of Pope's "Windsor Forest" brought an appro- 
priate eighteenth-century association to the qualities of Miss 
Moore's wit. To observe and then to comment briefly, as though 
she had added a footnote to her discovery, were among the com- 
pletely disarming qualities of Marianne Moore's style and the 
footnote was usually credited to the New York Times, or the 
Illustrated London News, or Strange Animals I Have Known, or 
Tolstoy's Diary, or stray paragraphs from the casual reading that 
the world so thoughtlessly absorbs over coffee and toast at the 
breakfast table. This was wit of a unique and highly polished 
order, and Marianne Moore's candor in setting her footnotes be- 
tween quotation marks and listing their sources in an appendix 
to her books gave still another turn to an ingeniousness which 
dispels mystery and doubt. 

2 By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

The 1920' s 321 

But above and beyond Marianne Moore's method of writing 
verse, which she had explained arid presented with far more 
clarity and precision than many of her critics, was the air of 
courtesy and good breeding with which she offered her particular 
observations to the world and these were offered at a time when 
poets and critics alike feared to admit the existence of some- 
thing that they contemptuously called "good manners'* in civi- 
lized and adult society. The rule was then to fear "gentility" in 
American poetry and to cultivate a familiar "we boys" manner 
of address that was supposed to represent the spirit of American 
democracy. It was forgotten that American democracy also im- 
plied respect for individual distinction, and a habit grew in 
which even figures from the classic American past were referred 
to by their Christian names. Two figures of irreproachable dig- 
nity and reticence in their private lives received rather more 
than their share of posthumous familiarity: Longfellow became 
"Henry" and Emily Dickinson "Emily," and at a moment of still 
greater intimacy and freedom, she became that "little tippler 
in the sun." Of course, little harm had been done to poetry it- 
self; and in the case of Marianne Moore's poetry, it was both 
refreshing and clear that she offered her readers the implied com- 
pliment of being civilized, self-respecting, and adult human be- 
ings, and the tone in which she addressed them was not unlike 
the same compliment that Samuel Johnson bestowed upon his 
"common reader." 

Of the physical objects discovered among Marianne Moore's 
observations, which were a great number of small animals and 
fish (and the jerboa might well be taken as her heraldic beast), 
one cannot improve on T. S. Eliot's description of the way she 
has brought them to the reader's eye: 

So, in her amused and affectionate attention to animals from the 
domestic cat, or "to popularize the mule," to the most exotic strangers 
from the tropics, she succeeds at once in startling us into an unusual 
awareness of visual patterns, with something like the fascination of a 
high-powered microscope. 3 

3 From T. S. Eliot's Introduction to Selected Poems, 1935. By permission of 
The Macmillan Company. 

322 A History of American Poetry 

That "fascination" accurately describes the enjoyment that the 
reader always shares as he turns the pages of her volumes, in- 
cluding What Are Years? (1941) but naturally Marianne Moore 
did not pretend to give us everything that the word "poetry" 
implied. The fine prose cadences that she employed, which seem 
to have stemmed from a sensitive reading of Anthony Trollope's 
novels and Henry James's prose of his "middle period," the 
period in which he wrote The Tragic Muse, those cadences 
which were accented by what Eliot called Marianne Moore's 
"light rhyme" do not always succeed in enclosing the minutiae 
of her observation in a long poem. The minutiae do not, as 
Eliot feared, irritate the eye of Marianne Moore's reader, but 
they do tend to create smaller unities within a longer poem 
that overcome or break through the larger unit of the poem 
itself, and the poem becomes one in which the sum of its parts 
is greater than the whole. And this defect raises its multiple 
tentacles in "An Octopus," in "Marriage," and in "The Plumet 
Basilisk," and among Marianne Moore's later poems, "The 
Pangolin." In these instances the sensitive commentary that 
Marianne Moore offered her readers tended to drift in the 
direction of becoming an editorial; and an editorial, however 
engaging, however intelligent it may be, remains, as Wallace 
Stevens might well have phrased it, on an "anti-poetic" level 
in poetry. In these the various themes that Marianne Moore 
may have had in mind were either lost or placed within the 
editorial portions of the poem. Even Eliot confessed his diffi- 
culty in finding the "subject matter" of "The Jerboa," and 
then concluded with 'a fine sense of judgment that whatever 
subject matter allows us the most powerful and most secret 
release is a personal affair. 

All this is, perhaps, another way of saying that the formal 
elegance that Marianne Moore achieved in her choice of lan- 
guage was not always achieved in the completion of an entire 
poem; and when she was at her second best we must be content 
to enjoy fragments of her world as they seem to have been ob- 
served through the eye of a microscope. Marianne Moore was 
always happiest in her shorter poems, poems in which her light 
rhymes were clearly heard, and therefore supplied in themselves 

The 1920's 323 

the metrical unity that is always required in the completion of 
a poem for its own sake, and among these "No Swan So Fine" 
is a beautiful example: 


4 No water so still as the 

dead fountains of Versailles/ No swan, 
with swart blind look askance 
and gondoliering legs, so fine 

as the chintz china one with fawn- 
brown eyes and toothed gold 
collar on to show whose bird it was. 

Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth 

candelabrum-tree of cockscomb- 
tinted buttons, dahlias, 
sea-urchins, and everlastings, 

it perches on the branching foam 
of polished sculptured 
flowers at ease and tall. The king is dead. 

and "What Are Years" is still another: 


What is our innocence, 
what is our guilt? All are 

naked, none is safe. And whence 
is courage: the unanswered question, 
the resolute doubt, 
dumbly calling, deafly listening that 
in misfortune, even death, 

encourages others 

and in its defeat, stirs 

the soul to be strong? He 
sees deep and is glad, who 

accedes to mortality 
and in his imprisonment, rises 
upon himself as 

the sea in a chasm, struggling to be 
free and unable to be, 

in its surrendering 

finds its continuing. 

-* From Selected Poems, 1935. By permission of The Macmillan Company. 
s From What Are Years? By permission of The Macmillan Company. 

324 d History of American Poetry 

So he who strongly feels, 
behaves. The very bird, 

grown taller as he sings, steels 
his form straight up. Though he is captive, 
his mighty singing 
says, satisfaction is a lowly 
thing, how pure a thing is joy. 

This is mortality, 

this is eternity. 

And the unities of theme, imagery, and metric were memorably 
intensified and sustained in Miss Moore's "Sun!" 


Hope and Fear those internecine fighters accost him. 

"No man may him hyde 
From Deth holow-eyed;" 

This, for us mortal truth, for us shall not suffice. 
You are not male or female, but a plan 
Deep-set within the heart of man. 

Splendid with splendor hid you come, from your Arab abode, 
A fiery topaz smothered in the hand of a great prince who rode 
Before you, Sun whom you outran. 
Piercing his caravan. 

O Sun, you shall stay 
With us. Holiday 

And day of wrath shall be as one, wound in a device 
Of Moorish gorgeousness, round glasses spun 
To flame as hemispheres of one 

Great hourglass dwindling to a stem. Consume hostility; 
Employ your weapon in this meeting-place of surging enmity! 
Insurgent feet shall not outrun 
Multiplied flames, O Sun. 

"Sun!" was not characteristic of Marianne Moore's later man- 
ner; but like her poetry at its best, its formal graces extended 
throughout the area of the poem; we are certain that the poem 
is self-contained and complete, and that its life is independent 
of its author's mannerisms and critical commentaries. An 

From Poems, published by The Egoist Press, London. By permission of 
the Author. 

The 1920's 325 

example of Marianne Moore's courtesy and poise may be found 
in "Silence" and in it her wit paid its respect to her readers 
with salutary advice. 


Since the present chapter opened with a passage of Marianne 
Moore's prose, and since the qualities of her prose at its best are 
second only to the charms of her poetry, it is a pleasure to quote 
her notes on a group of photographs of Anna Pavlova which 
appeared in Dance Index; and it could be said that Marianne 
Moore described the character of her own esthetic in the fol- 
lowing paragraph: 

"The stage is like a magnifying glass. Everything tends toward exag- 
geration," and as in music, sensibility avoids use of the pedal, so with 
Pavlova, humor, esprit, a sense of style and also a moral quality- 
made it impossible for her to show off, to be hard, to be dull; the same 
thing that in life made her self-controlled so that she was not a prison 
to what she prized; so that her punishment for what she deplored, was 
apartness from it. "Her dancing," says Mr. Beaumont, quoting a French 
writer, "was 'la danse de toujours, danse comme jamais, ' the dance 
of everyday as it was never danced before"; and speaking of the 
"Gavotte" danced to "The Glowworm" music by Paul Lincke, nothing 
could be more ordinary from the viewpoint of both choreography 
and music, yet she made it into a delicious miniature of the Merveil- 
leuse period. 7 

Marianne Moore was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on Novem- 
ber 15, 1887, an d sne received her bachelor's degree at Bryn 
Mawr in 1909. For four years (1911 to 1915) she taught stenog- 
raphy in the government Indian school at Carlisle, and in 1921, 
her friends, H. D. and "Bryher," Mrs. Winifred Macpherson, 
published her first book of poems. Her rules of living had been 
those of quiet austerity and reticence, and of her it should be 
said, as Samuel Johnson once wrote of Sir John Denham, she was 
"one of the writers that improved our taste, advanced our lan- 
guage, and whom we ought therefore to read with gratitude." 

7 From "Notes on the Accompanying Pavlova Photographs," Vol. Ill, No. 
3, March, 1944, by permission of Dance Index. 


And although my mind perceives the force behind the moment, 
The mind is smaller than the eye. 

"A Fish-Scale Sunrise," from Ideas of Order (1936) 

Since the publication of his first edition of Harmonium in 
1923, Wallace Stevens has been the James McNeill Whistler of 
twentieth-century American poetry. It could be said that Whistler 
had been Stevens' true predecessor; and the analogy applies not 
to their biographies but to the qualities of their art. Whistler 
was as fine a rhetorician in his painting (that is, if painting can 
be said to have a rhetoric) as Stevens was a poet, and the analogy 
can be extended even further. The true subject matter of 
Whistler's painting was a formal elegance that had combined its 
graces with those of plastic brilliance; and that was why even the 
fashionable canvases of his fellow American and fellow expatriate 
in London, John Singer Sargent, if placed alongside of Whistler's 
portraits seem comparatively "commercial," a trifle shoddy, and 
certainly meretricious. There was a coarse strain in Sargent that 
had been suppressed and yet could not be fully glossed; and this 
coarsened strain, or taint, or fiber gave him an almost muscular 
contact with the successful, newly rich, fashionable members of 
society who sat before him to have their portraits "taken." 
Whistler did not possess the same coarse strain, and he remained, 
despite his notoriety, a "painters' painter" in much the same 
fashion that Stevens, in a latter day, remained a "poets' poet." 
The painter who successfully controverted John Ruskin in a 
court of law and who wrote The Gentle Art of Making Enemies 
was a man of wit with an eye and an ear for legal logic, and so 
was Wallace Stevens. And both men had their "chromos" (which 
was, of course, one of the penalties of fame). During the very 
years that "Whistler's Mother" became an engraving on a United 


The 1920's 327 

States postage stamp, Wallace Stevens' "Peter Quince at the 

Clavier" became a "best-loved" choice among anthologists of 
twentieth-century American poetry. 

Before we speak of Wallace Stevens' poetry directly, a word 
should be said of its high reputation among critics of its day. 
For the past fifteen years his poetry has been the occasion for a 
great quantity of excellent talk in critical reviews, and it is to 
Stevens' credit that he stimulated his critics to exercise their 
brains in searching out the superlatives of praise. His poetry 
drove them into many curious fields of speculation, and then, 
once they were well on their way, it leaped ahead, leading them 
in small and closely herded droves into the bogs of metaphysical 
discussion. As a tribute to Stevens' gifts and their accomplish- 
ments, and in particular, his wit, which had been exemplified in 
his "The Comedian as the Letter C," all this has been a gratify- 
ing spectacle, and one may suppose that Wallace Stevens, in his 
quiet fashion, has enjoyed it. Since the earliest publication of 
his work in Harriet Monroe's Poetry in 1914, Stevens successfully 
created an atmosphere of high and brilliantly serious comedy 
wherever his poems have appeared, and if since 1931 his poetry 
at its second best has shown a tendency to grow more diffuse with 
the passage of time, its sensibility remained untarnished, and its 
rhetoric continued to refresh the eye and ear. 

The strange question that has been so often raised concerning 
Wallace Stevens' verse is one concerning its philosophy. Can we 
hook ladders, as it were, to Stevens' Prester John's balloon, float 
among the stars, which are now named by the striking titles of 
Stevens' poems, such as "The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring 
Voyage," "Lions in Sweden," "Anglais Mort a Florence," "The 
Woman that Had More Babies than That" and then expect to 
land on a terrain peopled by Zeno, Plotinus, Socrates, William 
James, and Professor Whitehead? The sensible answer would be 
"No!"; and it should be an unhesitating one and final. If one 
makes allowances for a difference of some two thousand years, 
one becomes convinced that Wallace Stevens was one of those 

328 A History of American Poetry 

who were kept in mind when Plato excluded poets from his ideal 
republic. In saying this We do not mean that Stevens' poetry has 
lacked intelligence, or has been without the evidence of a finely 
tempered and inquiring mind beneath the surface of its skeptical 
appraisal of the world but in reading Stevens' verse a distinction 
should be made between a so-called "intellectual poetry" and the 
kind of poetry that employs to the utmost the resources of poetic 
intelligence and wit. This distinction is one of particular rele- 
vance to the majority of Stevens' verses, because a number of 
them made use of terms that had their origin in the language 
of philosophic discourse; and one might almost say that Stevens 
has always permitted himself to ruminate at large on the lack 
of order in the world that remained outside his range of vision. 
His true wisdom, his Tightness, his precision were always related 
to objects that were close at hand. In Ideas of Order (1936) he 
identified the future harmonies of the world with skepticism: 

Too many waltzes The epic of disbelief 
Blares oftener and soon, will soon be constant. 
Some harmonious skeptic soon in a skeptical music 

Will unite these figures of men and their shapes 
Will glisten again with motion, the music 
Will be motion and full of shadows. 1 

But Stevens' skepticisms should not be advanced as his prime 
excuse for being; they should be accepted only in so far as they 
exist within the poem for the poem's sake; we may admire the 
wit and the sensibility that gave them poetic meaning and we 
may even add them to our own store of critical observations on 
the world around us but to regard them as the expression of a 
"philosophy," or as a means of living in the sense that creates 
or furthers a philosophic system that is another matter. And if 
we subjected Stevens' poetry to that test, it would be less firm 
than Alexander Pope's magnificent patchwork of theology, 
aphorisms, and ideas which came to the surface of his memorable 
poem, An Essay on Man. 

It is to be hoped that these remarks do not retard an enjoy- 

1 "Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz" from Ideas of Order, by permission of 
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1935, 1936, by Wallace Stevens. 

The 1920 's 329 

ment of Wallace Stevens' poetry. The fact that Wallace Stevens' 
poetry contained critical observations of the thoroughly Ameri- 
can, pragmatic world which surrounded it should not have oc- 
casioned much surprise; but a thinking poet (and for this we may 
be grateful) does not necessarily become transformed into a 
philosopher. When Wallace Stevens' verse speaks charmingly of 
angels and of rabbins and "the flat historic scale," it does so in 
a manner that does not anticipate a supplementary volume to 
Professor Whitehead's study of Process and Reality. One should 
be happy to read the half-dozen volumes of his verse as though 
their author were a poet of heightened sensibility who possessed 
an appreciation of the comedy whicl) existed and still exists in 
a civilized milieu. 

In "The Pleasures of Merely Circulating" 2 one assumes Stevens 
was not above enjoying one of his own jokes, and in its final 
stanza we hear the strains of an imperfectly tuned hurdy-gurdy: 

Mrs. Anderson's Swedish baby 
Might well have been German or Spanish, 
Yet that things go round and again go round 
Has rather a classical sound. 

In his lighter verses, and in an order of descending values, one 
would like to find fewer of Wallace Stevens' "Hurroos" and "da 
da doos" which are harmless expletives, but they create an atmos- 
phere that is a shade too consciously chi-chi and they cross the 
invisible border line between seeming "smart" and fashionably 
attired into an area of minor verse which has a knowing air and 
yet is coy. But these lapses in taste do not seriously distract the 
reader's attention from the more enduring qualities of Wallace 
Stevens' wit. 

In his six books of verse, the two Harmoniums (1923 and 
1931), Ideas of Order (1936), The Man with the Blue Guitar 
OQS?)' Parts of a World (1942) and Notes Toward a Supreme 
Fiction (1942), there are many fine pieces and at least a dozen 

2 From Ideas of Order, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 
1935, 1936 by Wallace Stevens. 

330 A History of American Poetry 

excellent poems. If they have not been appreciated by the gen- 
eral public, it is because a number of them were "studio pieces," 
which is not to say that they were composed within an "Ivory 
Tower," but that their speech, as in The Man with the Blue 
Guitar, approximated studio "shop talk," the speech of poets 
who are concerned with problems of verbal expression, of its 
relationship to subjective being or fantasy, and its larger rela- 
tionship to the world outsidewhich does not care whether the 
guitar is blue or green or red, and if the public hears its music 
it is either pleased or dissatisfied. But beyond these ruminations, 
what is that element of delight that reawakens the eye and ear in 
the best of Wallace Stevens' poetry, that rewards even the most 
indifferent reader of verse who happens to glance through or 
down the table of contents that lists the titles of his poems? One 
source of freshness and of delight is that Stevens' wit has been 
derived from what seems to be a careful and highly selective 
reading of French poetry from Baudelaire to Laforgue and 
Corbiere. The oriental images which appear so tastefully pre- 
sented in Stevens' verses belong to a French origin rather than 
one that can be traced directly to the King James Version of the 
Bible, and one associates the texture of their fabric with the 
imagery of Flaubert's Salammbo. If, as Marianne Moore has re- 
marked in her suggestion that a relationship exists between T. S. 
Eliot and Stevens, that we had "better say each has influenced 
the other," certainly Stevens has drawn more from his readings 
among the Symbolists than Eliot has. And indeed Stevens seems 
to have adapted the poetry of his French masters into English 
with something of the same felicity, the same independence, the 
same ease with which British poets of the early seventeenth cen- 
tury, including Robert Herrick, adapted the love elegies of Ovid 
to their own means of expression. That was why Stevens' Peter 
Quince saw his Susanna in the reflected light of a mirror whose 
frame might well have been designed by Aubrey Beardsley, 
rather than a figure whose beauty stood against a darkened back- 
ground of a seventeenth-century text (and a moral one) of the 
Old Testament: 

Anon, their lamps' uplifted flame 
Revealed Susanna and her shame. 

The 1920' s 331 

And then, the simpering Byzantines 
Fled, with a noise like tambourines. 8 

How closely Stevens followed his French masters and then 
re-created them with a distinction quite his own is illustrated 
in his: 


Out of the tomb, we bring Badroulbadour, 
Within our bellies, we her chariot. 
Here is an eye. And here are, one by one, 
The lashes of that eye and its white lid. 
Here is the cheek on which that lid declined, 
And, finger after finger, here, the hand, 
The genius of that cheek. Here are the lips, 
The bundle of the body and the feet. 

Out of the tomb we bring Badroulbadour. 

There had been nothing quite like this in American poetry 
of the nineteenth century that stemmed from a British heritage; 
but it would have been familiar enough to any cultivated resi- 
dent of Paris who had read his Baudelaire and his Rimbaud and 
his Laforgue, and who was calmly awaiting the turn of the old 
century into the twentieth. 

The linear grace of "Last Looks at the Lilacs" B is not unlike 
the grace that Whistler learned in his observation of Japanese 
prints; and the drawing under the impressionistic strokes of the 
brush is quite as firm: 

And say how it comes that you see 

Nothing but trash and that you no longer feel 

Her body quivering in the Flordal 

Toward the cool night and its fantastic star, 
Prime paramour and belted paragon, 
Well-booted, rugged, arrogantly male, 
Patron and imager of the gold Don John, 
Who will embrace her before summer comes. 

a "Peter Quince at the Clavier," from Harmonium, by permission of 
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 1923 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

4 From Harmonium, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright 
1923, 1931 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

332 A History of American Poetry 

Two examples, as well as two aspects, of Stevens' characteristic 
style may be found in the next to the last section, "A Thought 
Revolved," in The Man with the Blue Guitar; the first illustrates 
Stevens' wit as it reburnishes the ancient surfaces of Plato's world 
of ideas, and it is perhaps the best brief example of Stevens' 
tendency to ramble at large among generalities; the second is a 
far better poem its rhetoric is magnificently sustained, its images 
are directly presented, yet none takes precedence above the other, 
the poem is self-contained, and one feels that all praise of it 
becomes gratuitous: 


The poet striding among the cigar stores, 

Ryan's lunch, hatters, insurance and medicines, 

Denies that abstraction is a vice except 

To the fatuous. These are his infernal walls, 

A space of stone, of inexplicable base 

And peaks outsoaring possible adjectives. 

One man, the idea of man, that is the space, 

The true abstract in which he promenades. 

The era of the idea of man, the cloak 

And speech of Virgil dropped, that's where he walks, 

That's where his hymns come crowding, hero-hymns, 

Chorals for mountain voices and the moral chant, 

Happy rather than holy but happy-high, 

Day hymns instead of constellated rhymes, 

Hymns of the struggle of the idea of god 

And the idea of man, the mystic garden and 

The middling beast, the garden of paradise 

And he that created the garden and peopled it. 

For the most part, this is fine studio conversation; it is adroit, 
and in American poetry it is refreshingly singular; and it recalls 
something of the atmosphere that Mallarm created on those 
evenings when he allowed younger writers to sit at his feet in 
deference to what he had to say but it remains a conversation 
to be understood by the aspiring artist or the young literary 

From The Man with the Blue Guitar, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, 
Inc. Copyright 1935, 1936 by Wallace Stevens. 

The 1920's 333 

In the following poem the speech is no less characteristic but 
the studio seems happily forgotten: 


He sought an earthly leader who could stand 
Without panache, without cockade, 
Son only of man and sun of men, 
The outer captain, the inner saint, 

The pine, the pillar and the priest, 
The voice, the book, the hidden well, 
The faster's feast and heavy-fruited star, 
The father, the beater of the rigid drums, 

He that at midnight touches the guitar, 
The solitude, the barrier, the Pole 
In Paris, celui qui chante et pleure, 
Winter devising summer in its breast, 

Summer assaulted, thundering, illumed, 
Shelter yet thrower of the summer spear. 
With all his attributes no god but man 
Of men whose heaven is in themselves, 

Or else whose hell, foamed with their blood 

And the long echo of their dying cry, 

A fate intoned, a death before they die, 

The race that sings and weeps and knows not why. 

It should be said that "celui qui chante et pleure" the one 
who sings and weeps was at once a more direct statement and 
one of broader human relevance than Stevens' "poet . . . among 
cigar stores," and the same fortunate phrasing was to be found 
in his "To the One of Fictive Music," which has been so fre- 
quently quoted by anthologists. A word should be said concern- 
ing two versions of Stevens' "Sunday Morning" the first of which 
appeared in Poetry in 1915 and the second in his Harmonium of 
1923; the second is a poem of eight stanzas, the first is one of 
five and the rearrangement of the order in which the stanzas 
followed one another produced two totally different aspects of 

7 From The Man with the Blue Guitar, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, 
Inc. Copyright 1935, 1936 by Wallace Stevens. 

334 A History of American Poetry 

the scene. Even today the first version seems to end on a more 
decisive note, and its last four lines seem to enclose the entire 

They shall know well the heavenly fellowship 

Of men that perish and of summer morn. 

And whence they came and whither they shall go 

The dew upon their feet shall manifest. 8 

In many of Stevens' poems there was a tendency to place the 
poem itself within a frame of editorial commentary, which was 
advanced, so one believes, for the sake of logical clarity but one 
also feels that Stevens' effort toward logical consistency is oftener 
than not an afterthought, that he has not been content to let 
the poem stand for its own sake, and that after writing it he has 
tried to make it serve a general theme that may or may not have 
been related to the poem. In his Notes Toward a Supreme Fic- 
tion (1942) Stevens continued the speculations that began with 
"To the One of Fictive Music" and extended through The Man 
with the Blue Guitar and Parts of a World. In this volume and 
not unlike MacLeish and William Carlos Williams, Stevens paid 
his respects to the terza rima; and in one poem if one drops the 
opening and closing stanzas which seem to surround it almost 
fortuitously with what he himself would call an "anti-poetic" 
apology for its being, a poem of singular beauty and richness 
comes to light. 

I am the spouse. She took her necklace off 

And laid it in the sand. As I am, I am 

The spouse. She opened her stone-studded belt. 

I am the spouse, divested of bright gold, 
The spouse beyond emerald or amethyst, 
Beyond the burning body that I bear. 

I am the woman stripped more nakedly 
Than nakedness, standing before an inflexible 
Order, saying I am the contemplated spouse. 

Speak to me that, whkh spoken, will array me 
In its own only precious ornament. 
Set on me the spirit's diamond coronal. 

8 "Sunday Morning," by permission of Poetry Magazine, Vol. VII, 1915. 

The 1920's 335 

Clothe me entire in the final filament, 
So that I tremble with such love so known 
And myself am precious for your perfecting. 9 

It was gratuitous for Stevens to repeat (as he has done) that 
irt is analogous to life and on occasion, "life [as Oscar Wilde 
phrased it] is an imitation of art." Stevens' best poems have fully 
demonstrated both aspects of that now somewhat elderly and 
bearded paradox. 

Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1879; 
ie was educated at Harvard and the New York Law School, and 
>ince 1934 he has been vice-president of the Hartford Accident 
and Indemnity Company. Like Marianne Moore's, his relation- 
>hip to "public life" is one of admirable reticence and dignity. 
FT is poetry received the Helen Haire Levinson Prize from Poetry 
in 1920, and in 1936 The Nation's poetry award, and in Decem- 
[)er, 1940, The Harvard Advocate devoted an entire issue to a 
discussion of Stevens' verse. If in pre-First World War London 
Ezra Pound visibly emulated Whistler's mannerisms, Stevens in 
i later decade continued, and perhaps has endowed with greater 
endurance in literary forms, those qualities of elegance and wit 
tvhich have been discerned in Whistler's canvases, and as one 
pays the tribute of appreciation to Whistler's painting and 
Stevens' poetry, it is true that the 

. . . mind perceives the force behind the moment, 
The mind is smaller than the eye. 10 

"It Must Be Abstract" from Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, by per- 
mission of the Cummington Press and Wallace Stevens. 

10 "A Fish-Scale Sunrise" from Ideas of Order. By permission of Alfred A. 
K.nopf, Inc. Copyright 1935, 1936 by Wallace Stevens. 



When in 1923 E. E. Cummings' first book of poems, Tulips 
and Chimneys, appeared, it gained almost overnight an "eso- 
teric" reputation. Its typographical innovations, its lower-case 
"i's," its uses of parentheses, its "thys" and "thous" created 
an atmosphere that critics viewed as seeming to be "revolu- 
tionary," subjective or merely willful, "private," and very gay. 
It was also clear that the poems were written by the same 
hand and by the same poetic intelligence that gave life and 
energy and wit to a short, autobiographical narrative of the 
First World War, The Enormous Room (1922). However far 
E. E. Cummings traveled (which was substantiated by a second 
autobiographical narrative of a trip to Soviet Russia, Eimi, 
published in 1933), and he has lived in New York for nearly 
twenty years, it was certain that everything he wrote retained 
its "Harvard accent." And not unlike Amy Lowell's verse and 
prose, Cummings' poetry carried Cambridge, Massachusetts, with 
it wherever it went: 

my uncle Ed 


dead from the neck 

up is led all over 

Brattle Street by a castrated pup. 1 

For E. E. Cummings, the son of Edward Cummings (who had 
taught English at Harvard and who was minister of the Old 
South Church in Boston), was born in Cambridge in 1894. 

1 #140 from Collected Poems, published by Hai court, Brace and Company. 
Copyright, 1923, 1925, 1931, 1935, 1938, by E. E. Cummings. 


The 1920's 337 

To some readers, Cummings' lighter verses may have seemed 
to be a virtual deflowering of New England; actually they ex- 
tended the life of an area that had its precincts marked by the 
proximity of Boston's State House, Harvard University, the 
Charles River, the Field of Lexington and Concord's bridge. 
Even Cummings' typographical devices (with their grammatical 
and private jokes) could have existed only within a world in 
which academic rules and standards of personal conduct were 
thoroughly established. No American poet of the twentieth cen- 
tury has ever shown so much implied respect for the conventions 
of his milieu through conscious blasphemy as E. E. Cummings. 
If Cummings' verse seemed "revolutionary" and radical (which 
it was in the sense that its wit was concerned with the roots of 
syntax and grammar) it was because its life was and still is so 
completely surrounded by conventions: 

the first president to be loved by his 
bitterest enemies" is dead 

the only man woman or child who wrote 

a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical 

errors "is dead" 

beautiful Warren Gamaliel Harding 

"is" dead 



if he wouldn't have eaten them Yapanese Craps 

somebody might hardly never not have been unsorry, perhaps 2 

If one does not take for granted the existence of ritual and 
the establishment of laws, which may be theological or legal or 
grammatical, all blasphemy, and all breaking of the law, be- 
comes a meaningless exercise. This is a truism (and a conven- 
tion) that has been clearly recognized and advanced in the 
majority of E. E. Cummings' lighter verses; and in his blasphemy 
Cummings created a world through which a perennially young, 
handsome, "alive," "becoming" poet moved. The personal con- 
vention that Cummings established within a larger area had 

2 #200 from Collected Poems, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. 
Copyright, 1923, 1925, 1931, 1935, 1938, by E. E. Cummings. 

338 ^ History of American Poetry 

certain well-cut boundaries not unlike those that are indicated 
by the colors of blue, pink, and green on a schoolroom map. 
One was that of the Harvard graduate who kept alive the 
friendly rivalry with Yale: 

one thought alone: to do or die 
for God for country and for Yale 8 

Another was a candid distrust of elderly people and of "for- 
eigners." The dislike of the elderly extended from "the Cam- 
bridge ladies who live in furnished souls," the bearded figures 
of nineteenth-century American poets, including "William Cul- 
len Longfellow," and "Henry Wadsworth Bryant" to the entire 
line of Presidents of the United States from "Wouldwoe Wash- 
ington" to "Clever Rusefelt." Of "foreigners" the dislike was 
even more frankly expressed; the French were not praised in 
The Enormous Room, and the Russians were not approved of 
in Eimi, and the "bretish" were also banned from Cummings' 
young man's (if not Plato's) republic. The positive aspect of 
the convention was the inviolability of the relationship of 
one young man to one young woman, "Girlboys may nothing 
more than boygirls need," and as this relationship took place, 
all other "girls" and all other "boys," no matter what their 
names were, or what their pretensions were, or what their 
worldly positions may have been, dropped to the level of inani- 
mate life they became "dolls" or mere nouns graced with un- 
flattering, and often enough, unprintable adjectives. In other 
words, Cummings wrote excellent love lyrics, lyrics which con- 
tained all the compliments that a young woman would like to 
hear, and such compliments also enhanced the figure of a peren- 
nially youthful lover who would go to war against any and all 
of the conventions that were outside of or that threatened to 
impede or to divert the course of courtly love. 

What Cummings' verse presented at its center was a revitalized 
image of the "romantic traditionist" of whom we have spoken 
in an earlier chapter; and theoretically his verse was not far 
removed from the kind of verse his predecessors wrote. In prac- 

3 #149 from Collected Poems, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. 
Copyright, 1923, 1925, 1931, 1935, 1938, by E. E. Cummings. 

The 1920's 339 

tice, however, his poetry was far more unified than theirs; its 
speech was fresher and was addressed directly to a generation 
that had shared the diversions and excitements of F. Scott Fitz- 
gerald's "Jazz Age." It was a generation that held great, and 
largely sentimental, regard for the kind of youthful experience 
it had enjoyed in Paris, and which accepted as its "true confes- 
sion" Ernest Hemingway's novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926). The 
girls and young women in Cummings' second book of poems, <&* 
(1925), are drawn from the same models who sat for Heming- 
way's The Sun Also Rises and John Dos Passes' 

my girl's tall with hard long eyes 
as she stands, with her long hard hands keeping 
silence on her dress, good for sleeping 
is her long hard body filled with surprise 
like a white shocking wire, when she smiles 
a hard long smile it sometimes makes 
gaily go clean through me tickling aches, 
and the weak noise of her eyes easily files 
my impatience to an edge my girl's tall 
and taut, with thin legs just like a vine 
that's spent all of its life on a garden-wall, 
and is going to die. When we grimly go to bed 
with these legs she begins to heave and twine 
about me, and to kiss my face and head. 4 

The poem was, properly enough, a sonnet, freshly written and 
with full respect paid to traditional form. And though it is by 
no means the best of Cummings' many sonnets it illustrates his 
command of formal excellence within an established tradition 
of lyric verse as well as his ability to portray the kind of girl, 
and indeed the heroine, who engaged the attention of his con- 
temporaries. One might go on to say that the young women of 
Hemingway's early stories and of Dos Passes' novels were mind- 
less, and were articulate only when they were performing their 
ultimate and primary functions within the embraces or their 
lovers. Not without self-conscious and if must be admitted boy- 
ish crueUy, but with greater wit, Cummings presented a Hem- 
ingway heroine in Effie: 

* #66 from Collected Poems, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. 
Copyright, 1923, 1925, 1931, 1935, 1938, by E. E. Cummings. 

340 A History of American Poetry 

cross the threshold have no dread 

lift the sheet back in this way. 

here is little Effie's head 

whose brains are made of gingerbread 5 

But if Cummings' verse could show discourtesy to more than 
several young women of its day, its recurrent theme remained 
that of courtly love: 

All in green went my love riding 
on a great horse of gold 
into the silver dawn. 

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling 
the merry deer ran before. 

Fleeter be they than dappled dreams 
the swift sweet deer 
the red rare deer. 

Four red roebuck at a white water 
the cruel bugle sang before. 

Horn at hip went my love riding 
riding the echo down 
into the silver dawn. 

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling 
the level meadows ran before. 

Softer be they than slippered sleep 
the lean lithe deer 
the fleet flown deer. 

Four fleet does at a gold valley 
the famished arrow sang before. 

Bow at belt went my love riding 
riding the mountain down 
into the silver dawn. 

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling 
the sheer peaks ran before. 

5 #58 from Collected Poems, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. 
Copyright, 1923, 1925, 1931, 1935, 1938, by E. E. Cummings. 

The 1920's 341 

Paler be they than daunting death 
the sleek slim deer 
the tall tense deer. 

Four tall stags at a green mountain 
the lucky hunter sang before. 

All in green went my love riding 
on a great horse of gold 
into the silver dawn. 

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling 
my heart fell dead before. 6 

The lyrical accomplishment here is such that one can compare 
it only with Ezra Pound's fine and memorable adaptations from 
the Provencal poets and from Cavalcanti. And there has always 
been a more abiding temperamental affinity between Pound's 
lyricism and that of Cummings than there .has ever been be- 
tween the Cantos of Ezra Pound and the later poetry of T. S. 

The theme was crossed by still another sonnet that was a fare- 
well to Paris of the igso's and it has an alcoholic, barrel-organ 
note that echoes through its lines: 

goodby Betty, don't remember me 

pencil your eyes dear and have a good time 

with the tall tight boys at Tabari' 

s,keep your teeth snowy, stick to beer and lime, 

wear dark, and where your meeting breasts are round 

have roses darling, it's all i ask of you 

but that when light fails and this sweet profound 

Paris moves with lovers, two and two 

bound for themselves, when passionately dusk 

brings softly down the perfume of the world . . . r 

The poem says very nearly everything that many American 
novelists of the period had to say, and it has the advantage of 
saying it with greater art and in fewer words. It is avowedly and 

o #6 from Collected Poems, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. 
Copyright, 1923, 1925, 1931, 1935, 1938, by E. E. Cummings. 

7 #35 from Collected Poems, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. 
Copyright, 1923, 1925, 1931, 1935, 1938, by E. E. Cummings. 

342 A History of American Poetry 

shamelessly sentimental, but one is certain that the character 
who speaks it is the uninhibited and gifted brother of one who 

one thought alone: to do or die 
for God for country and for Yale 

above ^iis blond determined head 
the sacred flag of truth unfurled, 
in the bright heyday of his youth 
the upper class American 

unsullied stands, before the world: 8 
In another poem the theme of courtly love continued with 

you shall above all things be glad and young. 
For if you're young, whatever life you wear 

it will become you; and if you are glad 
whatever's living will yourself become. 
Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need: 
i can entirely her only love 

whose any mystery makes every man's 

flesh put space on; and his mind take off time 

that you should ever think, may god forbid 
and (in his mercy) your true lover spare: 
for that way knowledge lies, the foetal grave 
called progress, and negation's dead undoom. 

I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing 

than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance 9 

Any attempt to translate this poem into prose or into words 
that are other than its own soon approaches the danger of be- 
coming ridiculous; but among the more important things that 
the poem had to say was its implied compliment to a lady whose 
physical attraction and beauty were in her lover's eyes so great 
that they transcended all thought of thinking and the compli- 
ment was paid in the manner of a sixteenth-century lyricist. The 

8 #149 from Collected Poems, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. 
Copyright, 1923, 1925, 1931, 1935, 1938, by E. E. Cummings. 

#315 from Collected Poems, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. 
Copyright, 1923, 1925, 1931, 1935, 1938, by E. E. Cuinniings. 

The 1920's 343 

poem is not particularly subtle, but it is properly witty, and if 
not overly complex (for any girl can feel its implications), it is 
also properly and, in a courtly sense, elaborate. A lighter phras- 
ing of the same compliment may be found in 

mr youse needn't be so spry 
concernin questions arty 

each has his tastes but as for i 
i likes a certain party 

gimme the he-man's solid bliss 
for youse ideas i'll match youse 

a pretty girl who naked is 
is worth a million statues 10 

The speech of the poem has its proper Harvard twang as it 
imitates in broad burlesque the speech of the American "comic 
strip"; the words are to be recited in a would-be "tough-boy" 
manner from the left side of the mouth, and the compliment is 
paid with all the appropriate gestures and the charm of a well- 
bred undergraduate. 

In still another poem Cummings wrote: 

my sweet old etcetera 
aunt lucy during the recent 

war could and what 
is more did tell you just 
what everybody was fighting 



self etcetera lay quietly 


cetera, of 
Your smile 
eyes knees and of your Etcetera) n 

10 #133 from Collected Poems, published by Harcourt, Brace and Com- 
pany. Copyright, 1923, 1925, 1931, 1935, 1938, by E. E. Cummings. 

11 #148 from Collected Poems, published by Harcourt, Brace and Com- 
pany. Copyright, 1923, 1925, 1931, 1935, 1938, by E. E. Cummings. 

344 ^ History of American Poetry 

Which seemed to be a brilliant adaptation into Harvard Eng- 
lish of John Wilmot's "Et Cetera": 

Yet hugg'd me close, and, with a Sigh, did say, 
Once more, my Dear, once more, Et Catera. 12 

In this vein Cummings' poetry has never found a happier 
expression than in his / X J ( J 944); an d such lyricism is always 
rare in any period: 

"sweet spring is your 
time is my time is our 
time for springtime is lovetime 
and viva sweet love" 

(all the merry little birds are 
flying in the floating in the 
very spirit singing in 
are winging in the blossoming) 

lovers go and lovers come 
awandering awondering 
but any two are perfectly 
alone there's nobody else alive 

(such a sky and such a sun 
i never knew and neither did you 
and everybody never breathed 
quite so many kinds of yes) 

not a tree can count his leaves 
each herself by opening 
but shining who by thousands mean 
only one amazing thing 

(secretly adoring shyly 
tiny winging darting floating 
merry in the blossoming 
always joyful selves are singing) 

"sweet spring is your 

time is my time is our 

time for springtime is lovetime 

and viva sweet love" 13 

12 "Et Caetera, A Song" from The Poetical Works of John Wilmot, Earl of 
Rochester, ed. by Quilter Johns, Haworth Press, London. 

is From / x * published by Henry Holt & Company. Copyright, 1944, by 
E. E. Cummings. 

The 1920's 345 

All these were written (so it seems) in the same spirit that 
graced the songs and speeches of the commedia dell' arte, which 
traveled up from Italy in the sixteenth century to entertain the 
peoples of the rest of Europe. And it has been said that the 
commedia dell' arte (and in this respect its relationship to Cum- 
mings' poetry is pertinent) was an ancestor of the American stock- 
company burlesque show. The characters who speak or are re- 
ferred to in Cummings' verses might well have been reciting the 
traditional roles that the commedia dell' arte provided four cen- 
turies ago; and the devices that the verses themselves employ, the 
almost manual skill of transposed words, phrases, and of rhymes, 
have the same quality that we enjoy when we witness a per- 
formance of Charles Chaplin in his early films or one given by 
Robert Edward (Bobby) Clark in a musical revue. And Cum- 
mings has always been careful never to permit the central figure 
of his young lover to slip into the unwitting fatuousness of 
middle age. 


When John Donne wrote 

For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love 14 

he expressed that feeling of impatience that Cummings betrayed 
so often against the world (which included highly advertised 
products, advertising slogans, politics, and wars) and which 
existed outside the being of a youthful lover and his lady. It was 
from this center that the great majority of his critical remarks 
were addressed. The terms that Cummings used were obviously 
those of burlesque rather than satire, for satire has a moral aspect 
that seldom entered Cummings' verse, and for a definition of it 
we need go no further than a statement that James Laver made 
in a new edition of Charles Churchill's Poems 1C (1933): 

... as the nineteenth century advanced the satirical element in Eng- 
lish poetry grew smaller and smaller. It has not yet recovered its place 
therein, for the satirist needs both irreverence and strong moral con- 

14 "The Canonization" from The Poems of John Donne, published by 
Oxford University Press. 

is Edited by John Laver, published by Viking Press. 

346 A History of American Poetry 

viction, and the Victorian age had the second without the first, while the 
modern period has the first without the second. 

The world of Cummings' conventions is too small to admit the 
presence of a complete moral order, but it has within it the clear 
(and one almost says courageous) recognition that a Christian 
faith exists in twentieth-century America. The best expression 
of that truth may be found in Cummings' elegy 16 written in 
memory of his father, and in scattered references in several of 
his poems but Cummings' irreverence always had a wider appli- 
cation than his blasphemy. 

As in the reading of Wallace Stevens' poetry, so in reading 
E. E. Cummings' lighter verses, a distinction should be made 
between the two words, "intellect" and "intelligence"; Cum- 
mings' verse has invention and poetic intelligence and wit, but 
the central figure within it, or its hero, who seems to speak the 
lines of Cummings' love songs, is always presented as a violent 
anti-intellectual: "Hearts being sick, Minds nothing can," it 
says and there, as far as the verse is concerned, the matter ends. 
Some few of Cummings' critics, and in particular R. P. Black- 
mur in his book, The Double Agent (1935), were evidently in 
no mood to enjoy a revival of the commedia dell' arte at a stone's 
throw from Boston Common, and it should be admitted that 
there are moments when Cummings' verses are all too coy and 

In the same spirit in which Cummings wrote his poetry and 
with the same themes presented within it and with much of the 
same art he wrote a play, Him (1927), which was successfully 
produced at the Provincetown Theatre in New York in the late 
1920*5. This was followed by a beautifully composed ballet (a 
burlesque of Uncle Tom's Cabin), Tom, in 1935. 

The entire question of Cummings' maturity in the writing of 
his poetry has been and still remains a private matter. In the 
light of Cummings' accomplishments and in the recognition of 
the boundaries or limits that they have circumscribed, it is very 
nearly an impertinence for anyone to tell him to "grow up," 
for one must not forget that he is one of the finest lyric poets 

18 #34 5 Poems by E. E. Cummings, Duell, Sloan and Pearce. 

The 1920's 347 

of all time. Some eight years after its publication in 1938, Cum- 
mings' Collected Poems has a popularity that could almost be 
described in terms of being a subterranean "best-seller" its ap- 
peal to younger readers of poetry (as well as to those who "stay 
young") is of a kind that looks as though it would endure for 
many years to come; its lyrical graces and its inventive turns 
of wit are of an order that transcend its moments of boyish 
cruelty and juvenile preoccupations. 

In American poetry of a latter-day New England and in a 
Boston that Amy Lowell and E. E. Cummings knew, no picture 
of the time and place can be made complete without reading the 
strictly occasional poetry of John Brooks Wheelwright. Wheel- 
wright was born in Milton, Massachusetts, in 1897, the son of 
Edmund Wheelwright, an architect, and was a descendant of the 
Reverend John Wheelwright, who was one of the founders of 
Wells, Maine, and of Exeter, New Hampshire. He was educated 
at the Fay School at Southboro and at St. George's School, New- 
port, Rhode Island, and at Harvard College from which he re- 
ceived his bachelor's degree in 1920. He followed his father's 
interest in architecture, and after he left Harvard he spent a year 
and a half in Florence, Italy, and then returned to Boston to 
further his study in architectural design at the Massachusetts 
Institute of Technology. Poetry, politics of a radical left per- 
suasion, architecture, and the Episcopalian Church were at the 
centers of his faith and life and his respects were paid to all 
four, which he seemed to regard as "activities" in much the same 
sense that Amy Lowell discovered her avocations in the writing 
of vers libre and accepting engagements to lecture on it from 
public platforms. Like Amy Lowell, Wheelwright also possessed 
a "flair" for showmanship and the ability to create a personal 
legend. It was rumored that he mounted a soapbox one evening 
in a dinner jacket with a red carnation in the buttonhole of its 
lapel to lecture on socialism in Boston Common. And during the 
early 1930*8 it was also said that he walked down Beacon Street 

348 A History of American Poetry 

in Boston with signboards slung across his shoulders, which bore 
the legend in large letters, front and back: FREE TROTSKY. 

But behind the legend which he so devotedly inspired was a 
slender figure in ill-fitting "American business suits" of clothes, 
who had a fine head with a nearly "hawklike" nose, thin lips, 
and slightly slanted, narrowed eyes and those who saw him re- 
gretted that an accident of time (a disparity of over an hundred 
years) precluded his sitting for a portrait by Charles Willson 
Peale. For John Wheelwright in appearance and manner was a 
pre-Revolutionary Bostonian of radical convictions; and the 
quality of his wit in conversation as well as in letters that he 
wrote to friends was of an eighteenth-century order. His concern 
for the "class struggle" of which there was so much talk among 
younger writers of the 1930*5 was seriously motivated, but it also 
had much of the same ardor and temper that James Boswell re- 
vealed in his concern for the affairs of Corsica; in mind and 
heart its motives were disinterested, and not without prophetic 
insight, yet all its "dialectical materialism" remained untouched 
by matters of human or physical reality. 

Perhaps his more immediate ancestors can be found in the 
remains that have been left us of George Cabot Lodge's poetry 
and of Trumbull Stickney's, and the precedent is not one of kind 
(for Wheelwright's verse had totally different sources and inten- 
tions) but in the diversions of its energy to ideas and to distinctly 
"extrapoetic" activities. As Stickney's energies had been diverted 
to scholarship, and Lodge's to an eager reading of Schopenhauer, 
in like manner Wheelwright's energies were divided between 
reading Trotsky's Literature and Revolution and the writing of 
a Critical History of Architecture in the United States, a work 
that was left unfinished at the time of his death. His three books 
of verse, Rock and Shell (1933), Mirrors of Venus (1938), and 
Political Self-Portrait (1940), were not the products of a so-called 
"minor" poetic intelligence and imagination, but they were 
deeply fractured by divergent impulses and the wonder was that 
Wheelwright found the time to write poetry at all. Very nearly 
all of Wheelwright's verses lacked the presence and the unforced 
control of a "melodic ear," and unlike Marianne Moore, he had 

The 1920's 349 

yet to find a "light rhyme" or its equivalent with which to define 
his particular art of writing verse. Some of his effects were "ex- 
perimental" and inventive, others seem to have been studiously 
premeditated, still others had an air of seeming accidental, and 
the great majority were dominated by a prose rhythm that had 
yet to achieve its maturity. But at the center of the verse where 
a number of Wheelwright's epigrams remained half-formed and 
half-concealed, a personality that had created its own speech 
emerged: the speech was often critical and it welcomed contro- 
versy, and it was persistent in its effort to write poetry with ideas 
and not with words: 

Marble lyres mark 

Where minor singers slumber, 
And glistering night weeps 
On willows above their graves; 
But a wordless wind sweeps 

Over the solid dark 
As over Sappho's waves 

Of keen thinkers without number. 
The weakling who has known 

A small grief has his meekness. 
They who can teach and show 

Know words he never names 
Who sweeps the sobbing bow, 

Whom Pity quickly claims. 
Pity the strong alone 

Who seldom show their weakness, 
Whose hearts break with no sign 

But withered lips and tresses, 
Who know, if sounding cord 

To all their thought were given, 
If they trod out the wine 

Longed for, from memory's presses, 
The dissonances, poured 

Would sour their own heaven. 17 

These lines might well be read as Wheelwright's antistrophe 
to E. E. Cummings' love songs which so strenuously and with so 
lyrical an art denied the uses of the intellect. But like Cum- 

17 "Mossy Marbles" from Rock and Shell, by permission of Bruce Hum- 
phries, Inc. Copyright, 1933, by John Wheelwright. 

350 A History of American Poetry 

mings, Wheelwright was highly skilled in the writing of prepara- 
tory-school and Boston slang: 

I remember how I said to Pa 

how it was my belief how, someday, there would be: 

no thundering El, nor rumbling Sub; no chu-chus; up-chuck alleys 18 

and as Wheelwright wrote it, it was scarcely poetry at all, and 
one is fairly certain that Wheelwright did not intend it to be. 
His remarks on the ghost of Amy Lowell were of the same nature, 
but they had the advantage of seeming to be a colloquy between 
two urban New Englanders who viewed one another with not 
unkindly but neighborly distrust: 

Our road forked; and she took one tine; and I took the other; and 
waste-lot Delta ragweed (fenced by granite posts and hickory rails 
set diamond-wise) widened its wedge between. 

But I turned for "Good-bye" to Amy Lowell, Biggest Traveling One- 
Man Show since Buffalo Bill caught the Midnight Flyer to contact 
Mark Twain: 

"One would be inclined, at moments, to doubt the entire death!" I 

Grinning from ear to ear, she shouted back: "Mr. Brooks, you are per- 
fectly right; one would be." 19 

And it was once said of Wheelwright that he interrupted one 
of Amy Lowell's public lectures which attempted to explain the 
technique of writing vers libre with the question: "Miss Lowell, 
how do you write poetry if you haven't got anything to say?" It 
was also said that Amy Lowell could not supply a ready answer. 

It was in this vein, when he was talking to the ghost of Amy 
Lowell or to his distantly removed friends, that Wheelwright's 
Bostonian accent took on the air of authority. His best poems, 
however, were "Ave Eva" and "Train Ride," and of the first 
poem he wrote: "In 'Ave Eva* Yesod appears as the character of 
Mother Eve and Malkuth as the character of Satan, whose flesh 
is clothed in four colors of the Veil of the Temple . . . azure 

18 "A Small Prig in a Big Square" from Selected Poems f 1941 (Poet of the 
Month), by permission of New Directions. 

i "Dinner Call" from Selected Poems, 1941 (Poet of the Month), by per- 
mission of New Directions. 

The 1920 's 351 

for Air; purple for Water; flaxen for Earth; and scarlet for Fire, 
together with the gooseberries, strawberries, and roses from the 
1629 Journal of Pastor Higginson . . ." 

Wild strawberries, gooseberries, trampled; 

sweet single roots torn; I hoofed to a ground 

where a woman sat, weeping over a wounded bird. 

"O silent woman, weeping without tears; 

"O weeping woman, silent on this ground 

"more withered than the barren; may I not help you heal 

"the suffering of this wounded bird?" I said. 

"But let your hand first mend the axle of this wheel, 
"O scarlet-handed, azure-eyed," she answered. 
"Let your eyes find the balance of these scales 
"fashioned from two of my sons' brain-pans." 

"Woman with scale and wheel and wounded bird 

"more disconsolate than a child with broken toys; 

"first, I beseech you, uncripple this wounded bird 

"whose sufferings give to the mute universe 

"measure of its own pain." With no reply 

the frightened woman, more frightened, for an answer 

dropped her frightened eyes to the unanswering 

eyes of a third skull between her feet. Then I commanded: 

"Get up. There are more skulls hid than the three 
"skulls seen. Get going on your business!" 

"You flaxen-faced and purple-lipped!" she cried, 
"My business is to gather up my strength; 
"my purpose is to mend the axle and the hub; 
"and my intent, to find the balance of the scale." 

"And . . . were the balance trued, were Adam's 

"dust, which was your dearest flesh and blood, 

"sifted over Abel's hunger-murdered eyes, 

"should the scale tip; my apposite pan 

"I would then load with the bones of the warring hordes 

"of goodly Abel's brothers, Cain and Seth . . . 

"Leave your gray ground, Eve, go along with me." 

"Satan," she said, "when my car moves I move. 
"And the bird will fly. Its flight will heal its wing. 
"I, and my best sons, Cain and Seth, require 
"them who wish the bird healed mend my car. 

352 A History of American Poetry 

"The bird cannot be healed except by flight. 

"And when I move and my car mows the roses, 

"let dust and bone and mold slowly close 

"Abel's insatiate, imanswering eyes, 

"you azure-eyed, you flaxen-faced, purple-lipped and scarlet-handedl 

"The bird will fly. Its flight will heal its wing." 

Then I departed as I came, tearing roses 

and trampling the gooseberries and strawberries. 20 

The rhetoric of this poem and its imaginative insight are of a 
quality that owe their strength to the heritage that produced a 
Reverend John Wheelwright as well as a John Brooks Wheel- 
wright of a latter-day Boston. The colloquy between Satan and 
Eve was written in terms of that heritage, and it was a conversa- 
tion that, if Hawthorne could have overheard it, he would have 
understood. In every respect this poem was immeasurably better 
than any of the so-called "socially conscious" poems that Wheel- 
wright wrote. And in Wheelwright's "Train Ride" there is a 
particularly felicitous passage in the last nine lines. The line in 
italics was "a slogan," so Wheelwright wrote, "of the elder Lieb- 
knecht," but the lines also deserve to be read for their felicity 
of diction and for their ability to create the presence of an his- 
torical imagination at work within them: 

All Poetry to this not-to-be-looked-upon sun 
of Passion is the moon's cupped light; all 
Politics to this moon, a moon's reflected 
cupped light, like the moon of Rome, after 
the deep wells of Grecian light sank low; 
always the enemy is the foe at home. 

But these three are friends whose arms twine 
without words; as, in a still air, 
the great grove leans to wind, past and to come. 21 

All of Wheelwright's books (with the exception of his post- 
humously issued Selected Poems in a booklet in 1941) were pub- 
lished at his own expense by a small Boston publishing house, 
and not unlike Vachel Lindsay in an earlier generation, Wheel- 
so "Ave Eva" from Selected Poems, 1941 (Poet of the Month), by permission 
of New Directions. 

21 "Train Ride" from Selected Poems, 1941 (Poet of the Month), by per- 
mission of New Directions. 

The 1920's 353 

wright distributed pamphlets of Masque with Clowns, "poems 
for a dime," and read his verse aloud before variegated groups 
of people: "working-class" groups and at the Boston Adult Edu- 
cation Center, Harvard and Tufts Colleges, and at meetings of 
the New England Poetry Society. 

On Monday, September 16, 1940, the New York Times con- 
tained the following notice of Wheelwright's death: 


BOSTON, Sept. i5.-John B. Wheel- 
wright, 43, a poet of this city, was fatally 
injured early today by an automobile in 
the Back Bay. He died on the way to a 

The driver, John A. Lewis, 36, of 
Bristol, R. I., was arrested later on a 
charge of drunkenness. 

Wheelwright's mature life as a poet had just begun and his 
death seemed to have been caused by an unusually stupid and 
certainly unforeseen accident. In verse (and there were others) 
the best tribute to Wheelwright's memory was Robert Fitzgerald's 
"Portrait" in his volume of poems A Wreath for the Sea 22 (1943): 

To place the precisely slippered toes 
With meditation on each stair; 
To hold his lurking counterpose 
Of anger, smiling to play fair; 

To balance with his glittering sea- 
Eyes the fragility of bone, 
Slender and gaunt as a winter tree- 
Studied all grace, and so his own. 

To be cat-eyed, slit-eyed, to catch 
Astringent nets of namby creatures, 
That with articulate despatch 
He skewered with their pamby teachers; 

To note in the cold Boston bay 

The flouncing light on the clean arches; 

To know with exact hate the way 

A faking builder stuffs and starches; 

22 Arrow Editions, by permission of New Directions. 

354 A History of American Poetry 

To stand amid his Where and Whence 
With verse in never-ending bout, 
To figure some unworldly sense 
And keep the melodic nonsense out; 

To write a sterner myth than Tate's 
Or that of Cummings or of Crane- 
Owned and disowned the Concord gates 
And Cousin Brooks' sweet terrain. 

But saw the heads of death that rode 
Within each scoundrel's limousine, 
Grinning at hunger on the road 
To incorporate the class machine; 

And saw the tower of the poor, 
Lonely, ignoble, noisy, blind, 
With that great Cross upon the tower. 
Fantasy drove him out of mind. 

Yet upward in LaFarge's flame 
His saviour twisted, and does still; 
The true line comes as once it came 
To masculine Homer's steady will; 

Control and Charity of the just, 
And their wild laughter flung at night, 
Commemorate his death, his dust, 
His gaiety. John Wheelwright. 

A near contemporary of Wheelwright at Harvard, who was six 
years younger than he and a native of Boston, who as a boy had 
been taught to be quick and learned in both Latin and Greek, 
was Dudley Fitts. The poet in Fitts was more often than not 
concealed behind his adaptations into English from the Greek 
and Latin, which he seemed to carry before him as a shield to 
protect, perhaps, and to keep alive the sensibility and wit which 
never failed to delight the sensitive reader of poetry. Fitts's sensi- 
bility in poetry was not one of possessing a "melodic ear" but 
rather one of tonal propriety and grace; his verse, whether it was 
written in imitation of the ancients as in his One Hundred Poems 

The 1920 's 355 

from the Palatine Anthology (1938) or in a collection of forty- 
nine More Poems from the Palatine Anthology (1941), or in a 
selection of his own Poems 1929-1936 (1937) moved with .formal 
elegance within the traditions that inspired it. Like Wheel- 
wright's and Cummings', Fitts's language was Boston English; 
some few of its external mannerisms had, let us say, acquired 
certain "influences" from the Ezra Pound of Hugh Selwyn 
Mauberley and Homage to Sextus Propertius as well as T. S. 
Eliot's The Waste Land but these were superficial accretions 
and they are not to be confused with the true and distinct quali- 
ties of wit that Fitts possessed. Fitts's imitation of Lucilius with 
its new title, "A Valentine for a Lady," illustrates how much 
advice Fitts may have taken in reading Pound and how dis- 
tinctly he remained his own master, as it were, on New England 

Darling, at the Beautician's you buy 

Your [a] hair 

[b] complexion 

[c] lips 

[d] dimples, 8c 

[e] teeth. 

For a like amount you could just as well buy a face. 23 

The classical joke was brilliantly refreshed; and the economy 
of classical phrasing was retained. In a Commentary at the end 
of his One Hundred Poems from the Palatine Anthology 24 he 
remarked (and his position was counter to that of "the Romantic 
Traditionists" whom we have discussed in an earlier chapter): 

I must confess that I have never been able to understand the praise 
generally awarded William Johnson Cory's version o Kallimachos' 
famous elegy: 

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead. 

Indeed, this particular jingle seems to me to illustrate admirably what 
so often happens to a translator when he undertakes one of the epi- 
grams. Possibly it is the fault of the elegiac couplet itself: the dactylic 
rhythm is deceptive and beguiling, and the form's extreme concentra- 

23 "A Valentine for a Lady" from One Hundred Poems from the Palatine 
Anthology, by permission of New Directions and the Author. 
2* By permission of New Directions and the Author. 

356 A History of American Poetry 

tion, suggesting immediately a pair of dainty quatrains or, worse, the 
neo-Swinburnian canter, very easily results in triviality. Whatever the 
reason, too many of the English translations are little more than com- 
petent vers de societe: the plangent cadences of the Greek have gone 
over into something ludicrously reminiscent of a Savoy Opera patter- 
song. It is significant, too, that this same reductio ad pistrinam impairs, 
though less seriously, the ordinary translations of Horace. 

On these remarks only one further observation may be made, 
and that is that the authors of the "Savoy Operas" W. S. Gilbert 
and Sir Arthur Sullivan probably held the example of Aris- 
tophanes in mind, and that in doing so, they effected a double 
parody, one of reference to their own day and one that amounted 
to a conscious burlesque of a classical tradition in comic dramatic 
verse. But Fitts's sensibility and wit were as distinctly of a twen- 
tieth-century order as Gilbert's and Sullivan's had been Victorian. 

The lightness of Fitts's "Valentine for a Lady" was balanced by 
his version of Leonidas of Tarentum's "Epitaph for a Sailor": 25 

These were my end: a fierce down-squall from the east, 
And night, and the waves of Orion's stormy setting: 
And I, Kallaischros, yielded up my life 
Far on the waste of the lonely Libyan sea. 

And now I roll with the drifting currents, the prey 
Of fishes: 

and this gravestone lies 
If it says that it marks the place of my burial. 

The clean diction, the sense of classical restraint, the finely 
balanced periods and rhythms place Fitts's adaptations of the 
Greek anthology in a world far removed from the far more 
clumsy, thickly worded, unrhymed verses of Edgar Lee Masters' 
Spoon River Anthology. But of course Fitts retained his prox- 
imity to the classical example, while Masters did not and Fitts 
had the advantage, which was probably not consciously em- 
ployed, of being like Cummings in the shadow of what once had 
been the "little Athens of America," Boston itself. Fitts's verse 
was well placed, if at times too sparely, within that heritage; in 

25 From One Hundred Poems from the Palatine Anthology, by permission 
of New Directions and the Author. 

The 1920's 357 

his own poems Fitts's sensibility to an elegiac spirit and its form 
is shown in the last lines of his "Retreat": 26 

(Shiloh, Malvern Hill: you, 
long after drum and rain, you, shored 
from winter in sleepy death, you, lover 
of Purcell and the warm strings, 

you beautiful and old.) 

Few poets of Fitts's generation have invoked the memories of 
the Civil War with greater art, and none with finer delicacy of 
feeling and emotional restraint. The same qualities are to be 
found in his sonnet, ''Fifth Anniversary": '- 7 

Now I can not even remember you, 
here at your hearth, drowsing in your chair, 
dreaming you out of silence (old winds renew 
old riddles: wet boughs in the wind). 

Out there, 

lonely out there, you too tell me, is your door 
so subtly locked? are your new windows barred? 
is it so cold in your house? is your 
bed, like mine, so loveless now, so hard? 

The worlds revolve. Sir in that aftercold 
wandering, drawn by dark wind and star-motion, 
could any love of mine touch you, then old 
dreams were more than dream or dreaming-passion 
to me, frail five-years-dead! 

who stare away 
(poor Ghost!) the long night and the longer day. 

In a lighter vein (one in which it was singularly appropriate 
for Fitts to edit An Anthology of Latin American Poetry in 1942) 
Fitts wrote his "Homage to Rafael Alberti": 28 

Rafael, in your Cadiz, white against blue quadrate, 

In your District of Angels, Cadiz, 

If there is cadence of wind or sun, bells 

Toll it, record it; and you 

Translate the liquid characters as they run. 

26 From Poems 1929-19^6, by permission of New Directions and the Author. 
" Ibid. 

358 A History of American Poetry 

The shudder of rain on the roofs is rain only, 
Rain, rain only; but within the rain your Angels- 
Informing rain and roofs and the stippled entries, 
The wine-shop cats crouched in the sweet dust of wine, 
Shell, wire, langosta, razorblade, musty files- 
Move hugely, quiet; and your stricken eyes 
Mark the santoral-sinew pulsing there, 

Angel-rain, Angel-world, meaning-of-Angels, 
Ladder of Cadiz, hallo w-of- Angels-latent, 
The delicate armies, inward fire white, 
Alleluyas of glass and bell, for ever bright. 

And Fitts's "Priam" 29 has the same finely textured rhetoric 
in still another vein: 

The stars marched down with lightning to the sea 

And all my lances gathered in the night. 

Three angular horns: I have heard them sound the fall 

Of venerable kings. 

Three tapers wavering: and the distant 

Cry of my name threefold on a dark shore. 

It was in this directly classical vein that Fitts in collaboration 
with Robert Fitzgerald wrote English versions of The Alcestis 
of Euripides (1936) and The Antigone of Sophocles (1939) and 
these two volumes were soon recognized as being among the best 
of twentieth-century adaptations of classical drama into English 
verse. The merits of Dudley Fitts's own verse have been over- 
shadowed by the more generally accepted merits of the verse 
that he has offered "as a translation"; actually the true merits 
of both are of the same quality; but it may be counted a mis- 
fortune that he did not permit more of his own wit and sensi- 
bility to be more clearly associated with his name. His verse as 
it appeared in a single volume, Poems 1929-1936, seemed less 
complete than it should have been, but if it is viewed in the 
same light in which one reads his English versions of the Palatine 
Anthology, a sense of balance is created, and even today it is 
to be hoped that a single volume which contains selected trans- 
lations as well as additional poems will one day be issued to 
represent the measure of Dudley Fitts's contribution to contem- 

29 From Poems 1929-1936, by permission of New Directions and the Author. 

The 1920's 359 

porary American poetry. Since 1926, Dudley Fitts has been an 
instructor of English at Choate and latterly at Andover Acad- 


In respect to poetry and during the first half of the twentieth 
century the brevity (and perhaps the hint of a renewed twilight) 
of New England's "Indian Summer" now seems to have been a 
less fortunate, and certainly less accurate, description of Boston's 
climate than it may have seemed in 1920, or even as recently as 
in 1940, when Van Wyck Brooks found New England: Indian 
Summer a happy title for his genial sketches in historical criti- 
cism. In a sense Cummings, Wheelwright, and Fitts were salutary 
"regional" poets; each retained in a healthy and characteristically 
Bostonian fashion his own independence, and obviously the in- 
dependence was such that the presence of one did not unduly 
influence or compromise the other. Of the three Wheelwright 
was the most "experimental," but the poetry of all three owed 
a profound debt to Boston's heritage, to its conventions, to the 
proximity of Harvard, to the traditional aspects of English 
poetry, and to the language which is still spoken in the neigh- 
borhood of Brattle Street. 



"O Trade! O Trade! would them wert dead! 
The Time needs heart 'tis tired of head: 
We're all for love," the violins said. 

Sidney Lanier, "The Symphony" (1875) * 

"Love sows, and lovers reap anon and he * 
Is blind, and scatters baleful seed that bring 
Such fruitage as blind Love lacks eyes to see!" 

James Branch Cabell, Chivalry (1909) ~ 

For the historian of American poetry it is sometimes difficult 
to place in orderly perspective the work of certain poets who 
have freely indulged themselves in "group activities." And in no 
case is that difficulty more distracting than in an evaluation of 
the poetry written by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and 
Robert Penn Warren. What these poets have actually written 
has been clouded by a smoke screen of several ventures, the first 
a little magazine called The Fugitive, edited in Nashville, 
Tennessee, from 1922 to 1925, which was followed by a move- 
ment called "agrarianism" and a generously subsidized literary 
quarterly, The Southern Review, edited at Baton Rouge, 
Louisiana, by Charles Pipkin, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn 
Warren, from 1935 to 1942, and latterly, the Kenyan Review, 
another literary quarterly, founded and edited at Kenyon Col- 
lege, Gambler, Ohio, by John Crowe Ransom in 1939, in which 
the principles of "agrarianism" seem to have been displaced by 
something that could properly be called "neoscholasticism." In 

1 From Poems of Sidney Lanier, by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons. 

2 "The Sestina" from Chivalry, by permission of Robert McBride & Com- 
pany and the Author. 


The 1920's 361 

method of critical procedure and in group organization the 
various publications and "movements" in which the same writers 
appeared and assumed an almost military leadership (for a 
favored word in their critical articles on poetry was "strategy") 
a great debt was owed to the earlier activities of Ezra Pound and 
T. E. Hulme in London. The wonder was that time was found 
for writing poetry at all; and in consideration of the poetic gifts 
that were and still are possessed by Ransom and Tate, the 
example set by their "group activities" (which has been a diver- 
sion of notable historical interest) is one that Veblen would have 
described as another aspect of the American phenomenon of 
"conspicuous waste." In this case the "waste" was one of poetic 
intelligence and wit that had been diverted to the secondary 
excitements of editing magazines, of marshaling critical forces 
in unnecessary self-defense, of undue speculations in esthetic 
problems all of which served to dissipate and to distract the 
excellent temper of the poetry that had made its presence felt 
in John Crowe Ransom's Chills and Fever (1924), Two Gentle- 
men in Bonds (1927), and in Allen Tate's Selected Poems (1937). 
It is only fair to say that the self-consciously "reactionary" 
poets of the South (for Ransom was born in Pulaski, Tennessee, 
in 1888, Tate in Winchester, Kentucky, in 1899, and Warren in 
Guthrie, Kentucky, in 1905) were no more military and consid- 
erably more mature in their fondness for critical "strategy" than 
their contemporaries of liberal and left persuasion. Even as re- 
cently as September 11, 1944, Malcolm Cowley in the pages of 
The New Republic wistfully, unguardedly, and naively wrote of 
Robert Frost: 

He is being praised too often and with too great vehemence by 
people who don't like poetry. And the result is that his honors shed 
very little of their luster on other poets, who in turn feel none of the 
pride in his achievements that a battalion feels, for example, when 
one of its officers is cited for outstanding services. 

The image of poets writing in "battalions," and probably 
chanting their verses to the sound of feet in lockstep, was indeed 
an unfortunate picture and one that did not leave much hope 
for individual distinction in poetry. The image was probably a 

362 A History of American Poetry 

slip of the pen or the unconscious reflex of ten fingers striking 
the keys of a typewriter, but the device of thinking of poetry 
being written in the same way as military commands are to be 
followed is clear enough. The truth is that actual poetry has 
never been written in that fashion; and one cannot conceive of 
even so public-spirited a poet as John Milton shouting out as he 
composed them the stanzas of Lycidas in unison with some two 
hundred of his comrades. One would also like to ask how Milton's 
Samson Agonistes could have shed "luster" on Marvell's "Hora- 
tian Ode," since they were totally different poems and each dis- 
tinguished in its own right, or how Marvell's "To his Coy Mis- 
tress" cast its reflected glory on Milton's sonnet on his deceased 

It is better for the historical critic to disentangle the merits 
of the Southern poets from their more immediate affiliations and 
to treat them as individually gifted writers who responded to and 
frequently against (and in that sense, they were truly "reaction- 
ary") the limitations, the depth, and the richness of a Southern, 
and almost strictly regional, heritage. 

Since John Crowe Ransom was the most mature, and perhaps, 
even now, the most gifted of the three, his poetry deserves the 
first consideration. The facts of his biography, which need not 
be given too much consideration here, have some slight relevance 
to his poetry. His father was a minister and his granduncle had 
been active in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1909 he 
graduated from Vanderbilt University, and continued his educa- 
tion (since he had been sent as a Rhodes Scholar) at Christ 
Church, Oxford, where he received in 1913 a bachelor's degree 
in the classics and in mathematics. The memory of this latter 
experience may be noted (for whatever it may be worth) in 
the last four stanzas of his "Philomela," the concluding poem 
of his volume, Chills and Fever: 8 

8 Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright, 1924, by 
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

The 1920's 363 

I went out to Bagley Wood, I climbed the hill; 
Even as the moon had slanted off in a twinkling, 
I heard the sepulchral owl and a few bells tinkling, 
There was no more villainous day to unfulfil, 
The diuturnity was still. 

Up from the darkest wood where Philomela sat, 
Her fairy numbers issued. What then ailed me? 
My ears are called capacious but they failed me, 
Her classics registered a little flat! 
I rose, and venomously spat. 

Philomela, Philomela, lover of song, 
I am in despair if we may make us worthy, 
A bantering breed sophistical and swarthy; 
Unto more beautiful, persistently more young 
Thy fabulous provinces belong. 

The wit in the poem transcends its biographical interest; more 
than all else it is a refreshingly ironic colloquy with the famous 
nightingale; and the respects to her fame and her longevity were 
paid in a fashion that is not unlike a chivalrous compliment 
spoken to a beautiful woman. But the observation can be made 
that the lines also denote the presence of a disenchanted speaker, 
one who has heard Philomela with his own "capacious" ears, and 
has registered his disappointment and perhaps the difference of 
his own "bantering breed" from those who heard her earlier and 
who were "persistently more young." The general character of 
the disenchanted speaker was not unlike that of an elder South- 
ern writer, James Branch Cabell, of Virginia, who wrote his 
volumes of short stories that were interspersed with verses, Gal- 
lantry in 1907 and Chivalry in 1909. Ransom's sonnet "The Tall 
Girl" with its play of forces between the "Queens of Hell" and 
the "Queen of Heaven," "a fine motherly woman," had within 
it much of the same spirit of irony that Cabell practiced with so 
much skill in his facile, Swinburnian verses and in his gracefully 
phrased and somewhat overtly polished prose: 

The cornerstone of Chivalry [so Cabell wrote] I take to be the idea 
of vicarship: for the chivalrous person is, in his own eyes at least, the 
child of God, and goes about this world as his Father's representative 
in an alien country. . . . Questionless, however, the Chivalrous atti- 

364 A History of American Poetry 

tude does not very happily fit in with modern conditions, whereby 
the self-elected obligations of the knight-errant toward repressing evil 
are (in theory at all events) more efficaciously discharged by an organ- 
ized police and a jury system. 4 

Ransom had the same distrust of what he called "moralism" 
in poetry in his volume, The New Criticism (1941), and one 
gains the impression that the novelist, Cabell, and the poet, 
Ransom, have inhabited the same world, a world in which the 
elder figure of disenchantment haunts the younger who would 
hastily disclaim the gifts of smoothness in prose and verse with 
their hint of sophistry that the elder Southerner possessed. 
Cabell's facility was, of course, his own undoing, and in that 
respect he remained a horrid, if not completely terrifying, 
example to younger writers who lived within the same cultural 
tradition, who avoided (as Cabell did not) a too assiduous de- 
votion to the novels of Anatole France and the poetry of Swin- 
burne, and yet faced the same problems of Southern chivalry 
a heritage which in itself presented the ironic conflicts of neo- 
classicism and romantic behavior. Cabell's The Rivet in Grand- 
father's Neck, A Comedy of Limitations (1915), a realistic novel, 
which was fortunately remote from his fanciful land of "Poic- 
tesme," still remains among the best of ironic commentaries in 
prose on the so-called "modern" South. The presence of a neo- 
classical architecture (a beauty which carried with it a neofeudal 
plantation economy and its evocative memories of a Civil War 
and the "Reconstruction"), a love of Latin learning, which in 
its modern aspect became French or Italian, are all parts of what 
might be called a Southern "complex" and are in its literature. 
For the gifted poet the "complex" has an appropriate "density 
and richness of texture that cannot be ignored it is too rich, too 
lush, almost too overwhelming in its accretions of meaningful 

Whatever the so-called "content" of Southern poetry may have 
been, the center of its concern seems to spin within a vortex of 
the classical-romantic contradictions, and in Ransom's poetry in 

4 "The Demi-Urge" from Beyond Life, by permission of Robert McBride & 
Company and the Author. 

The 1920's 365 

particular, scientific observation (which was probably spurred by 
his interest in mathematics at Christ Church) and a deeply 
realized, if skeptical, attitude toward religious values were added 
to the other contradictions which in their raw state existed 
within the very nature of his environment. Two other bio- 
graphical circumstances may have contributed toward a reason 
why the best of Ransom's poems were never entirely submerged 
by Southern provincialism. One was his experience as a first 
lieutenant in the field artillery in the 1914-18 World War, the 
other was the fact that some few of his early verses were pub- 
lished by Christopher Morley (who had been a Rhodes Scholar 
from Maryland at New College, Oxford, at the time Ransom 
was at Christ Church); and Morley introduced Ransom's verse 
to the readers of the two popular columns which he edited, the 
"Chafing Dish" in the Philadelphia Public Ledger and the 
"Bowling Green" of the New York Evening Post. Such circum- 
stances cannot fully explain the reason why a worldly temper, or 
something that Mark Van Doren described as "peppering his 
diction with fresh, realistic words," had entered Ransom's poetry, 
but it was clear that however strongly Ransom's poetry held to 
its associations of the South, it could not accept without question 
a Southern "credo" and a Southern faith. The conflict created 
something that resembled, or at least had an affinity to, the 
"metaphysical" character of seventeenth-century verse. "Realistic 
words" and thoroughly skeptical, "scientific" observations were 
placed in opposition to the usual expressions of emotion: 

Better to walk forth in the murderous air 
And wash my wound in the snows; that would be healing; 
Because my heart would throb less painful there, 
Being caked with cold, and past the smart of feeling. 5 

And in "Armageddon" (which was described in the language 
and imagery of a tournament with much of the same ironic 
spirit with which Cabell wrote his Chivalry) Christ and Anti- 
christ were at war; it was a poem in which "the Wolf said 
Brother to the Lamb" and in which 

s "Winter Remembered" from Chills and Fever. Reprinted by permission 
of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright, 1924, by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

366 A History of American Poetry 

Antichrist and the armies of malfeasance 
Made songs of innocence and no bloodshed. 6 

But however sharply the contrasts and likenesses of faith and 
antifaith were defined, Ransom's poetry remained at some dis- 
tance from the religious temper of Donne's verse in his "Holy 
Sonnets"; Ransom's verse was "metaphysical" only in the sense 
that its so-called scientific observations were genuinely (and ironi- 
cally) at war with an elder poetic convention of accepting Keats's 
nightingale and all the values of romantic poetry. "Blackberry 
Winter," 7 which is among the finest of Ransom's lyrics, illus- 
trates the nature of a poetry that conveyed the graces of a half 
Cavalier, half romantic music and yet said farewell to them: 

If the lady hath any loveliness, let it die. 

For being drunken with the steam of Cuban cigars, 

I find no pungence in the odour of stars, 

And all of my music goes out of me on a sigh. 

But still would I sing to my maidenly apple-tree, 
Before she had borne me a single apple of red; 
The pictures of silver and apples of gold are dead; 
But one more apple ripeneth yet maybe. 

The garnished house of the Daughter of Heaven is cold. 
I have seen her often, she stood all night on the hill, 
Fiercely the pale youth clambered to her, till- 
Hoarsely the rooster awakened him, footing the mould. 

The breath of a girl is music fall and swell 1 
The trumpets convolve in the warrior's chambered ear, 
But I have listened, there is no one breathing here, 
And all of the wars have dwindled since Troy fell. 

But still I will haunt beneath my apple-tree, 
Heedful again to star-looks and wind-words, 
Anxious for the flash of whether eyes or swords, 
And hoping a little, a little, that either may be. 

Ransom's lyrical gifts were far beyond those of any Southern 
poet of his day; the weakness of the Fugitives in general was a 

"Armageddon" from Chills and Fever. Reprinted by permission of Alfred 
A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright, 1924, by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

7 From Chills and Fever. Reprinted by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright, 
1924, by Alfred A. Knopf. Inc. 

The 1920's 367 

lack of sensibility to verbal music, but this weakness was not 
shared by the best of Ransom's poetry. Truly enough he "re- 
acted" against those extremes of Swinburnian facility that had 
been revived by James Branch Cabell as well as the unfortunate 
preoccupation with music for its own sake (and with small re- 
spect for verbal meaning and intelligence) which had vitiated 
so much of the poetry written by Sidney Lanier. Lanier, who 
was perhaps the most important of Ransom's literary "ancestors" 
in the South, whose sentiments were certainly "agrarian," who 
was, if anything, more "regional" than the most "regional" of 
the Fugitives, had a bad eye and ear for diction. In respect to 
poetry written south of the Mason-Dixon line, this latter flaw 
stood for correction and was absent from John Crowe Ransom's 
verse and it is not improbable that the very existence of Ran- 
som's two volumes of poetry, Chills and Fever and Two Gentle- 
men in Bonds, set a high standard and approved a respect for 
poetic diction that had long been lacking in verse that owed its 
debt to a Southern heritage. 

Such poems as "Blue Girls," "Piazza Piece," and "Here Lies 
a Lady" (from a line of which Chills and Fever took its title) 
were widely and deservedly quoted by anthologists. The virtues 
of these particular lyrics were close to those of the highest stand- 
ards set for light verse in English; and it was impossible to read 
them without admiring their metrical brilliance and the quality 
of their ironic wit but the most successfully ambitious of nearly 
two hundred short poems that John Crowe Ransom has per- 
mitted himself to print is "Antique Harvesters." The poem is 
Ransom's masterpiece; and no poem written in the twentieth 
century by one who self-consciously paid homage to a Southern 
culture and environment equals its power to yield fresh mean- 
ings after numerous rereadings. After its appearance in Two 
Gentlemen in Bonds in 1927, the poem went through mutations 
which made (one would say) another poem of it in the 1936 and 
1942 editions of Louis Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry. 
An entire stanza was added to the poem at its close; and the third 
line of its fourth stanza contained a verbal change with the ad- 
dition of the word "quaint." One cannot, of course, paraphrase 

368 A History of American Poetry 

either version of the poem, but one can quote its stage direction: 
"Scene: Of the Mississippi the bank sinister, and of the Ohio 
the bank sinister," and then remark that the latter version is 
superior to the earlier. And it is also safe to assume that "our 
Lady" of the poem has her origins in the ancient fables and 
myths of harvesting the earth, and that Ransom has succeeded 
in giving her a habitation and a name. 

It is of further interest to observe that beneath the lyrical 
overtones of Ransom's verse a coarse and heavily fibered strain 
exists; his ironic "Survey of Literature" 8 uncovers it: 

And for precious John Keats, 
Dripping blood of pickled beets. 

And it is also present in "Amphibious Crocodile," in "Dog," 
and in "Fresco"; a harsh, ironic note enters their nearly doggerel 
metrics; the effects seem to be well deliberated, but the objects 
of his ridicule are momentarily crushed rather than dispelled 
by wit. One can defend these verses by saying that Ransom 
stood against artificial smoothness in writing and a false ur- 
banity; but the fact remains that the results were unconvincing 
and unsuccessful and that their very jokes betray concerns of 
private and provincial interest, which are understood and per- 
^laps enjoyed by a few friends, but are of little consequence to 
general readers of poetry. If the public has neglected the ironic 
situations that Ransom presented in his sequence of twenty son- 
nets, "Two Gentlemen in Bonds," which gave a title to his second 
volume of verse, it was because its range of reference had been 
too strictly limited within the larger world of James Branch 
Cabell's novel, The Rivet in Grandfather's Neck. There is better 
writing in some few lines of the sonnets than can be found in all 
of Cabell's prose, but these must be sought out by the patient 
reader, and his rewards are those of fragmentary value. If in 
America the majority of those who read poetry were men, 
it is likely that the coarser strain in Ransom's verses as well 
as his ironic wit that turns its edge against courtly love and the 

8 From Chills and Fever. Reprinted by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright, 
1924, by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

The 1920's 369 

arts of chivalry would find a larger number of readers to appre- 
ciate them. But as Henry Adams noted in 1911, the number of 
men who read, or care to listen to poetry read, is small; and this 
phenomenon, combined as it is with Ransom's intractable temper 
in his verse, has served to make him the leader of an extremely 
small group of admirers. Because he has devoted so much of his 
time since 1927 to the writing of three books of criticism, God 
without. Thunder (1930), The World's Body (1938), The New 
Criticism (1941), something very like a dissipation of his poetic 
gifts seems to have taken place. Unlike the articles written by 
his followers, the quality of his prose in criticism has not suf- 
fered all the disasters which have trapped the devotees of a neo- 
scholastic school of criticism and one might almost say that 
Ransom has been too fine a poet to allow his prose to echo the 
jargon of a neoscholastic, neophilosophic school. If he has failed 
to take T. S. Eliot's warning to the poet, which was called "A 
Commentary: That Poetry Is Made with Words" in the pages of 
The New English Weekly for April 27, 1939: 

The two most dangerous subjects of study for the poet I think, the 
only subjects that are always dangerous for him are esthetics and 
psychology. Whether a poet can afford to interest himself in other 
abstract and philosophical studies is an individual matter: there are 
conspicuous instances of the good use of such an aliment. But abstract 
studies which turn upon the practice of his own art are a very different 
matter. The danger of esthetics is that it may make us conscious of 
what operates better unconsciously . . . 

he has also kept his prose and the quality of his intelligence at 
a measurable distance from that of another writer who wrote in 
his attempt to discuss the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Garcia Lorca 
in The American Bookman for Winter, 1944, of "the objective 
correlative." The following statement appears to be a single 

In any case, association will not explain the process of choice, since 
the poet is not really choosing one image as against another because 
the former happens to correspond to a pre-existing feeling; what he is 
doing is creating imagery and conceiving novel situations, and asso- 
ciation cannot explain the pat congruity that exists from the very first 
moment of conception between our symbol and the feelings or emo- 

370 d History of American Poetry 

tions which, outside of their symbolic embodiment, the artist neither 
understood nor could define. 9 

One does not doubt the seriousness of the writer's intention, 
but the result is a jargon that tends to discourage the intelligent 
reading and understanding of poetry, however excellent it may 
be. Another quotation, equally serious in its intentions, and more 
scholastic in its language than philosophic, may be found in the 
Summer, 1944, issue of the Kenyan Review. The effort here was 
to deal with technical matters in writing verse, but the results, as 
they .attempted to illuminate the character of Gerard Manley 
Hopkins' poetry and its sprung rhythms were, to say the least, 

That its identity with the age-old dipodic measures of English poetry 
has not been widely understood is due partly to the poet's own contra- 
dictory utterances, partly to the somewhat primitive state of metrical 
knowledge in his own time, partly to his inherent conservatism ol 
linear and stanzaic forms, and partly to his free, uncadenced, and un- 
balanced handling of the rhythm itself. His inability to recognize the 
time-marking role of secondary stress inevitably confused and thwarted 
all attempts at explanation. 10 

One is certain only that the author of such prose was re- 
grettably tone deaf; and that however industrious he may have 
been in the naming of "alexandrine," "dipodic trimeters," 
"tetrameters," and "the normal length of the English dipodic 
long line," his total understanding of a poem in reading it aloud 
was likely to be faulty. 

It is certainly not too much to say that these excursions into 
what has been fondly regarded as an "analysis of poetry" are 
dangerous ventures for any poet. Ransom's proximity to the 
scene of such labors increases the miracle of his survival as well 
as the endurance of the verse that he has allowed himself to pub- 
lish at infrequent intervals. The tone of his "Address to the 
Scholars of New England" (which was the Harvard Phi Beta 
Kappa Poem of June 23, 1939) was harsh and dry; the poem 

Eliseo Vivas, "The Objective Correlative of T. S. Eliot," by permission of 
The American Bookman, Winter, 1944. 

10 Harold Whitehall, "Gerard Manley Hopkins," by permission of the 
Kenyan Review, Summer, 1944. 

The 1920's 371 

possessed formal distinction and its critical attitude toward New 
England and "the youngling bachelors of Harvard" was salu- 
taryand one was reassured that the poet who wrote its lines 
held to an austerity of speech that was both mature and ad- 
mirable. But the poem as poem lacked the wit and contact with 
the world that made Robert Frost's "The Lesson for Today" 
(which was read on a like occasion at Harvard in 1941) mem- 
orable. The elder poet was by no means as strict in the terms 
of his semiphilosophic discourse as Ransom seemed to be and 
in contrast to Ransom's "Address," his speech in verse seemed 
positively rakish. But Frost's knowledge of the world was car- 
ried with it and he did not forget (as indeed he could not, 
being the kind of poet he was) that his speech was above all 
things a dramatic poem, a thing of art in which all outward 
signs of effort should be happily concealed. And in contrast to 
Frost's poem, Ransom's "Address" was very nearly tongue-tied 
by an historical and an overtly scholastic authority. 

One must return to other aspects of Ransom's verse to find its 
true felicity, to his "Spectral Lovers" in his volume Chills and 
Fever, and to the last two lines of a later poem, "Painting: A 
Head": " 

To spread the hyacin thine hair and rear 
The olive garden for the nightingales. 

Although Ransom in his "Address to the Scholars of New Eng- 
land" spoke of a "metaphysic" that makes Earth and Heaven one, 
and though some of his verse has justified its affinity with certain 
poets of the "metaphysical" school of the seventeenth century, 
Ransom's poetry seems to have developed an even stronger af- 
finity with the strains of John Dryden's odes and satires. Ran- 
som's verse lacks the weight and polish of Dryden's masterpieces, 
nor has it the advantage of Dryden's rich production, which in- 
cluded the sustained art of writing All for Love but in the light 
of Ransom's influence upon his followers and in his effort to 
create and to impose an orderly system of criticism upon them, 

11 From Selected Poems. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 
Copyright, 1924, 1927, 1934, 1945, by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

372 A History of American Poetry 

it is not unfortunate to think of him as the John Dryden of con- 
temporary Southern literature. 

Do not the scene rehearse! 
The perfect eyes enjoin 
A contemptuous verse; 
We speak the crabbed line. 

Allen Tate, "To the Romantic 
Tradition ists" 12 (1934) 

As one turns from the poetry of John Crowe Ransom to Allen 
Tate's Selected Poems, another beginning to this chapter should 
be made. As one reads Tate's "crabbed" lines one thinks more of 
Poe and of Lanier than of James Branch Cabell, for Poe and 
Lanier seem to represent the centers toward which Tate's poetry 
has moved and then violently rejected, quite as though it had 
been informed of a strong polar attraction and had strained its 
effort in an opposite direction. 

On August 7, 1875, Sidney Lanier wrote a letter of gratitude 
to Bayard Taylor, who had been one of the few men of letters 
of that day to take an interest in Lanier 's extraordinary, and 
perhaps misguided and thwarted, talent. 

I could never describe to you what a mere drought and famine my 
life has been, as regards that multitude of matters which I fancy one 
absorbs when one is in an atmosphere of art, or when one is in con- 
versational relation with men of letters, with travel, with persons who 
have either seen or written or done large things. Perhaps you know 
that with us of the younger generation in the South since the war 
pretty much of the whole of life has been merely not dying. 13 

"Merely not dying" was a complaint that many a Southerner 
could have made for several decades after Lanier's death. Before 
the Civil War and with the exception of Poe, and though it had 
a literary magazine or two, the South did not seem as lively in its 
appreciation of the arts as the more industrial and less con- 

12 From Selected Poems, by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons, 
is Preface from Poems of Sidney Lanier, by permission of Charles Scribner's 

The 1920's 373 

sciously aristocratic North. When New England with Boston and 
Harvard at its center became absorbed in German literature and 
philosophy, the South in its oratory and its literary tastes seemed 
to reflect the more florid aspects of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley 
Novels and the romances of Bulwer-Lytton and in poetry, the 
all too obviously sweet lyricism of Tom Moore. Henry Timrod 
and Paul Hamilton Hayne were figures among the lesser South- 
ern poets, and after Lanier's death, the arrival of a poet such as 
Madison Cawein was anything but a heartening example. 

Much, if not all, of the "reactionary" spirit in Tate's poetry 
and in his Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (1936) seems 
to have sprung from a recoil against the "merely-not-dying" 
attitude in Southern literature as well as its lushly sentimental- 
ized romanticism; the reaction was in itself very nearly a romantic 
gesture, but it gave spirit and verve to his participation in edit- 
ing The Fugitive and it provided a surplus of the restless energy 
that aimed at perfection in the ten years, 1926 to 1936, in writing 
and rewriting his "Ode to the Confederate Dead." He had been 
educated at Georgetown University and the University of Vir- 
ginia and he received his bachelor's degree, magna cum laude, 
in 1922 at Vanderbilt University, and six years later, his first 
book of poems, Mr. Pope and Other Poems, appeared. With the 
exception of his two biographies, Stonewall Jackson (1928) and 
Jefferson Davis (1929), and a novel, The Fathers (1938), it seemed 
impossible for Tate's writing to be dull; in verse and in criticism 
it could be both inept and awkward, but it remained untouched 
by the slightest taint of mediocrity, and it wisely avoided the 
pitfalls of neoscholasticism. What Tate's verse lacked was the 
presence of a "melodic ear," but this lack was balanced, or rather 
compensated, by the evidence of a concentrated energy within 
its lines, and the nature of the craftsmanship he practiced is illus- 
trated by four lines from his verses on "The Subway": 14 

Harshly articulate, musical steel shell 
Of angry worship, hurled religiously 
Upon your business of humility 
Into the iron forestries of hell. 

i* From Selected Poems, by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons. 

374 A History of American Poetry 

And another aspect of Tate's disquieting and yet salutary art 
may be found in the first two stanzas of "Idiot' 


The idiot greens the meadows \vith his eyes, 
The meadow creeps implacable and still; 
A dog barks, the hammock swings, he lies. 
One two three the cows bulge on the hill. 

Motion that is not time erects snowdrifts 
While sister's hand sieves waterfalls of lace. 
With a palm fan closer than death he lifts 
The Ozarks and tilted seas across his face. 

The metrics of the two stanzas seem strained and forced, but 
concentration of what is seen, and the placing of objects before 
the eye in quickening succession generate their own excitement. 
The lines are by no means graceful, but they compel attention, 
and are memorable in the sense that they retain their hold upon 
the reader's imagination. 

The concentration of imagery that Tate achieved in "The 
Idiot" had its parallel in Hart Crane's "Black Tambourine": 1G 

, driven to pondering, found 
Heaven with the tortoise and the hare; 
Fox brush and sow ear top his grave 
And mingling incantations on the air. 

This particular affinity was, of course, still another "reaction" 
against the South, for Tate in the early igso's came east to New 
York. As Philip Horton in his Life of an American Poet, Hart 
Crane 17 wrote: 

From Nashville, Tennessee, came Allen Tate in full flight from the 
provincial isolation of the South, very much as Crane had fled from 
Cleveland. After two years of stimulating correspondence which accord- 
ing to Tate in his essay in Poetry, July 1932, on Hart Crane and the 
American Mind, had begun in 1922 the two were at last able to ex- 
change ideas and criticisms of each other's work directly. 

Briefly, both exchanged "influences" upon one another's verse, 
and probably through Ezra Pound's and T. S. Eliot's professed 

is From Selected Poems, by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons. 
IB From Collected Poems of Hart Crane, by permission of Liveright Pub- 
lishing Corporation. 
17 By permission of W. W. Norton & Company. 

The 1920's 375 

interest in Laforgue and Corbiere (an intelligence which had 
been distributed in New York through the pages of Margaret 
Anderson's The Little Review, The Dial, and T. S. Eliot's newly 
founded magazine, The Criterion, edited in London) Tate and 
Crane also exdianged their readings in French Symbolism. 

In the early 1920*5 the South still lacked its "atmosphere of 
art" and its "conversational relation with men of letters" that 
Lanier had observed in 1875. Its arts, as Donald Davidson wrote 
in Poetry, in May, 1932, "in times past took another direction 
than poetry: They were the eighteenth century arts of dress, con- 
versation, manners: or, I might add, of architecture, handicraft, 
oratory, anecdote." 

And it was clear that Tate in New York, and later on in 
France, from 1928 to 1930, did not wish to share the provincial- 
ism that had been forced upon Lanier. There are qualities of 
a "fierce latinity" and a restlessness in Tate's poetry that dis- 
tinguished it from the kind of verse that had been written by his 
Southern predecessors and his contemporaries. His rhetorical ges- 
tures in his "Ode to the Confederate Dead" were Roman, overly 
weighted perhaps, and certainly didactic. The lines of the poem 
conveyed the impression of a full-dress military uniform being 
worn, and not naively, but with a sense of half-romantic ardor 
and with a half-ironic splendor. Few poets have been less highly 
conscious of "making" poetry than Tate, and in his writing of 
his "Ode to the Confederate Dead," he confessed in a preface to 
his Selected Poems: "I have repeatedly asked other poets to help 
me with this poem, which I felt was beyond my powers. In 1931 
Mr. Robert Penn Warren contributed one line, in my opinion 
its best" which was admirable in giving credit where credit was 
due, but the original lines that give life to Tate's effort at per- 
fection are: 

In the ribboned coats of grim felicity 18 

The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush. 18 

is "Ode to the Confederate Dead" from Selected Poems, by permission of 
Charles Scribner's Sons. 

376 A History of American Poetry 

And one is disturbed and not reassured by Tate's concern in 
building hugely upon a poem much of which the writer feels 
must be sustained by abstract argument. The poem presumed 
to carry too much weight and too many things at once: the 
memory of the Civil War, of philosophy and metaphysics, of 
autumn's season of the year, of the "furious murmur" of "chiv- 
alry" all of which was interesting enough but unevenly com- 

The truth was that Tate was a notoriously uneven poet, and 
if one of his friends remarked that his "Sonnets of the Blood" 
were "among the worst sonnets in the English language" one can 
understand, but not entirely concur with, the friend's mood of 
genuine despair. There are worse sonnets in the English lan- 
guageand they are the totally mediocre sonnets that have been 
written by thousands of versifiers. The majority of Tate's sonnets 
think aloud and often awkwardly; they have the speech of critical 
abstraction and little music except the homage paid to an oblig- 
atory rhyme but they reward the reader with an occasional ob- 
servation, and a hard-won and brilliant image of seasonal change 
or of classical reference, "Call it the house of Atreus where we 
live," or a phrase that seems to express a withheld and controlled 
rhetoric of dignity and anger. 

Tate's virtues were scarcely those of lyrical persuasion and 
grace of movement, but were those of masculine force and diffi- 
cult poetic achievement; in reading many of his poems one gains 
the impression of verbal honesty and a poetic insight that had 
been too often distracted by the proximity of critical ideas, and 
such distraction was not unhappily conveyed in the last stanza 
of his tribute to Alexander Pope: 

What requisitions of a verity 

Prompted the wit and rage between his teeth 

One cannot say: around a crooked tree 

A moral climbs whose name should be a wreath. 19 

The poem was as Hart-Crane-like in its phrasing as "Idiot," 
but it had an air of critical decision that was Tate's own, an 

^"Mr. Pope" from Selected Poems, by permission of Charles Scribner's 

The 1920' s 377 

air of knowing its own mind and its intentions. Tate's self- 
imposed manner of writing produced many fine and memorable 
passages of verse, but few, a very few, fully rounded and com- 
pleted poems and at their best they were of an elegiac strain in 
twentieth-century poetry. His elegy to Jefferson Davis was among 
them, and so was his "Aeneas at Washington," and not the least 
of these was "The Mediterranean," which has been frequently 
quoted in anthologies. It has been among Tate's virtues as a poet 
never to rest too long upon his laurels; and despite the wide, 
just, and devoted recognition that his verse has received in this 
country and in England, he has not been content to repeat him- 
self or, like other well-established poets of his generation, to 
write unconscious parodies of his earlier successes. In 1943 he 
published a characteristic and not wholly fortunate adaptation 
of the Pervigilium Veneris into English verse. Tate's "fierce latin- 
ity" of which he wrote so well in his "Ignis Fatuus" was re- 
illuminated, and the character of his translation (which was not 
happily suited to celebrating the Eve of St. Venus and the joys 
of love and spring) is more truly represented by two stanzas of 
his "Ignis Fatuus" 20 itself: 

In the twilight of my audacity 
I saw you flee the world, the burnt highways 
Of summer gave up their light: I 
Followed you with the uncommon span 
Of fear-supported and disbursed eyes. 

High in the hills, by what illuminations 
Are you intelligible? Your fierce latinity 
Beyond the nubian bulwark of the sea 
Sustains the immaculate sight. 

Few American poets of the twentieth century and certainly no 
poet of the South has been in such complete command of a 
semineoclassic vocabulary, which was of a kind that bore a rela- 
tionship to the eighteenth-century British poet, William Collins, 
to whom Tate paid tribute when he wrote a variation on Collins' 
"Ode to Fear." The first stanza of Tate's "Ode to Fear" 21 had 

20 From Selected Poems, by permission of Charles Scrlbner's Sons. 

21 Ibid. 

378 A History of American Poetry 

an excellence that was not sustained by the rest of the poem, and 
it deserves quotation with the best of Tale's poetry: 

Let the day glare: O memory, your tread 
Beats to the pulse of suffocating night 
Night peering from his dark but fire-lit head 
Burns on the day his tense and secret light. 

It was as though Tate had written the entire poem in the first 
four lines, and the following five stanzas seem to arrive as a 
stilted anticlimax to the powerful rhetoric of the first four lines. 
Among the best of Tate's longer poems was his four "Seasons of 
the Soul" which appeared in John Crowe Ransom's the Kenyan 
Review for Winter, 1944. The poem had its infirm lines, its crude 
and floundering phrases, such as "combustible juice," and "Jack- 
and-Jilling seas," but the poem was proof of Tate's poetic ma- 
turity as well as renewed evidence of Tate's salutary influence 
upon American poetry of the 1920*5, for Tate upheld the stand- 
ards of a classical tradition in poetry as it opposed the witless 
and irresponsible extremes of "experimentation" for its own sake. 
The last three stanzas of the last and fourth section of the poem, 
of which the subject is fire, contain a sustained felicity that is far 
beyond anything Tate has written: 

It burns us each alone 
Whose burning arrogance 
Burns up the rolling stone, 
This earth Platonic cave 
Of vertiginous chance! 
Come, tired Sisyphus, 
Cover the cave's egress 
Where light reveals the slave, 
Who rests when sleeps with us 
The mother of silences. 

Come, old woman, save 
Your sons who have gone down 
Into the burning cave: 
Come, mother, and lean 
At the window with your son 
And gaze through its light frame 
These fifteen centuries 
Upon the shirking scene 

The 1920' s 379 

Where men, blind, go lame; 
Then, mother of silences, 

Speak, that we may hear; 
Listen, while we confess 
That we conceal our fear; 
Regard us, while the eye 
Discerns by sight or guess 
Whether, as sheep foregather 
Upon their crooked knees, 
We have begun to die; 
Whether your kindness, mother, 
Is mother of silences. 22 

In John Crowe Ransom's Chills and Fever there was a poem, 
"A Plea in Mitigation," 23 which tells us something of the char- 
acter and the aims and ambitions of the little magazine of South- 
ern verse that was called The Fugitive. In his manly fashion, 
Ransom spoke for himself, but through his lines one gains a 
perspective on the entire group: 

Anatomy, that doled my dubious features, 
Had housed within me, close to my breastbone, 
My daemon, always clamouring, Up, Begone, 
Pursue your gods faster than most of creatures! 

And if an alien, hideously at feud 
With those my generation, I have reason 
To think to salve the fester of my treason: 
A seven of friends exceeds much multitude. 

From the foreword of the anthology, Fugitives?* we may con- 
clude that "a seven of friends" were those mentioned in the 
following paragraph: 

Originally there were seven friends Donald Davidson, James 
Marshall Frank, Sidney Mittron-Hirsch, Stanley Johnson, John Crowe 

22 "Seasons of the Soul" from The Winter Sea. By permission of the Author 
and the Cummington Press. 

23 Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright, 1924, by 
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

24 From Fugitives: An Anthology of Verse, copyright 1928 by Harcourt, 

380 A History of American Poetry 

Ransom, Alec B. Stevenson, and Allen Tate. These men, or most of 
them, had been meeting often for some years at the home of James 
Marshall Frank and Sidney Mittron-Hirsch, where they talked about 
poetry and philosophy. In the autumn of 1921 they became interested 
in the writing of poetry, and after a while their poems and the criticism 
of them became the chief object of their meetings which were now held 
regularly. Manuscripts piled up so rapidly that upon the suggestion of 
Sidney Mittron-Hirsch, which everybody else naturally fell in with, the 
group decided to start a poetry magazine as a cooperative undertaking. 
The first issue came out in April, 1922. There was no editor. Poems 
were chosen by ballot. The authors hid themselves under pen-names. 

The atmosphere in the drawing room of a house in Nashville, 
Tennessee, must have held the youthful charm of a room in a 
Greek-letter supper club at an American university; and as 
Ransom's poem seems to bear witness, the same oaths of loyalty 
were sworn, and the same communal spirit prevailed within a 
small circle, which had the attraction of a secret society that had 
decided to make its talents known to the wide and busy, and 
perhaps unfriendly, world. The anthology itself contained selec- 
tions from the verse of Donald Davidson, William Yandell 
Elliot, James Marshall Frank, Stanley Johnson, Merrill Moore 
(who afterwards became notorious through publishing a thou- 
sand sonnets in a single volume), John Crowe Ransom, Laura 
Riding, Alec Brook Stevenson, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, 
and Jesse Wills. With the exception of Ransom, Tate, and 
Warren, the group produced no poets who developed beyond 
the usual display of a youthful interest in literature and an 
equally youthful desire to write verse but in Laura Riding, an 
often entertaining and, at times, a colorful writer of prose 
emerged. And from her writings in prose one gathers that she 
was a vivid and aggressive literary personality. 

Laura Riding (who was born in New York in 1901) was among 
the American "expatriates" who went to Europe to live in the 
middle of the 1920*8, and she left for Europe from Nashville, 
Tennessee. In Philip Horton's life of Hart Crane, one reads of 
her befriending Crane in London, and from her collaborations 
with Robert Graves, one assumes that she admired Graves's verse, 
and formed a union between Ransom's and Tate's group in 
Tennessee with slightly insurgent, but otherwise thoroughly re- 

, The 1920's 381 

spectable groups of writers in London and in Paris. Quite as 
Oscar Wilde in an earlier generation became an ambassador of 
the British Pre-Raphaelites on his lecture tours in America, so 
Laura Riding became an unofficial and unacknowledged emis- 
sary of the Nashville Fugitives in postwar Europe. She had the 
ability to create a lively personal legend, and it was rumored 
that in her house in Deya, Majorca, where she lived until tht 
Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, the following inscription 
was written in large gold letters on her bedroom wall: "God is 
a Woman." 

In 1938 Laura Riding published her Collected Poems, a volume 
of 477 pages of experimental verse, and which contained the in- 
dustrious product of some twelve years of setting down on paper 
whatever she had in mind. Her preface to the reader was an 
eloquent personal document in which she quoted W. H. Auden 
as saying that she was "the only living philosophical poet." The 
verse itself was far less rewarding than her instructions to the 
reader; and despite the number of attractive titles, such as "The 
Vain Life of Voltaire," 25 it was all too obvious that her verses 
lacked imagination, verbal discipline, and the presence of an ear 
that could guide the rhythmical progress of a poem: 

Voltaire in haste sought the Devil, 
Who refused him in haste 
As too haunted, too equal. 

Epilogue is epigram 
For any man whose anagram 
Meant too much. For all such 
Should be one crutch 
Held under the nose 
Instead of rose. 

Which, no matter how carefully one rereads the lines, remains 
the work of an industrious, earnest, and ungifted amateur. John 
Brooks Wheelwright in a review of Laura Riding's verse for 
Poetry, August, 1932, 26 said all that could justly be said of her 
experiments in writing: 

25 From Collected Poems, by permission of Random House, Inc. 
2 Reprinted by permission of Poetry, 

382 /] History of American Poetry 

The labor of un-thinking and un-writing which Gertrude Stein and 
E. E. Cummings have done for poetry is by no means completely done. 
But even their energy flickers at times, and in their followers the pur- 
pose seems to have given way to the means. . . . Laura Riding rests 
along a line of literary development. The development has always been 
too literary. Among Miss Riding's happiest works are those wherein she 
contrives to give the sensation which we get from reading Sapphic 
fragments, but this is an evasive technical device, like that of building 
ruins or sculping shattered statues . . . she has, as she says, a whole 
dictionary of un-words; but it is the syntax which she has not mastered. 
Most of her poems are too long, and while most of them are not clear 
enough, many, like The Nightmare with its unnecessary signposts, are 
too clear. It is conscious thought that she has not thought about. 

But the lack of discipline as well as the lack of a gift for 
writing verse did not prevent Laura Riding (in collaboration 
with Robert Graves) from writing a thoroughly entertaining, 
informative and shrewd little book of criticism, A Pamphlet 
against Anthologies, which found a small audience among those 
writers who were young in 1928. The little book created the 
atmosphere of a literary holiday; it was a counterblast against 
established reputations and editors; it misread and misinter- 
preted the poetry of W. B. Yeats but its air of irreverence 
toward most of the poets named within its pages was gay and 
salutary. The book set to one side the platitudes of nineteenth- 
century criticism of poetry, and in its closing chapter, it men- 
tioned with respect the Georgian Poetry anthologies (which had 
included the early verse of Robert Graves) and Fugitives (which 
numbered among its contributors Miss Riding). 

Even as recently as 1943, the original loyalties of the Fugitives 
group remained unbroken. When Allen Tate served his appoint- 
ment to the Chair of Poetry in the Library of Congress at Wash- 
ington, D. C., with characteristic chivalry and tact, he remem- 
bered Laura Riding. In a selected list of recent American poetry 
and poetic criticism, which the State Department asked to be 
compiled for the purpose of sending books, "a token of cultural 
good will," to Soviet Russia, Tate wrote the following comment 
on Laura Riding's Collected Poems: 

Great creative energy and inventiveness in language have made Miss 
Riding one of the most individual poets of our age. 

The 1920's 383 

And not since Poe spoke in great praise of the verses written 
by Mrs. Welby and Miss Mary A. S. Aldrich has the South 
witnessed a more courteous appraisal of a woman writer by a 
gifted poet. 


Robert Penn Warren was the youngest, and in some respects 
the most promising, of those who gave distinction to the Fugi- 
tives anthology of 1928. He graduated from Vanderbilt Univer- 
sity in 1925, and he continued his postgraduate studies at the 
University of California, at Yale, and as a Rhodes Scholar at 
Oxford, where he received a degree of bachelor of letters in 
1930. In an academic sense, his career was remarkably precocious, 
and he showed an equal brilliance and facility in his editorial 
labors, for he served as one of the editors of The Southern Review 
and as an advisory editor of the Kenyan Review; in 1929 he pub- 
lished a biography of John Brown and edited during the follow- 
ing decade two in collaboration with Cleanth Brooks several 
text-books on verse and prose. To these he added the writing of 
two novels, Night Rider (1939) and At Heaven's Gate (1943), 
both of which were highly praised by reviewers of fiction. He 
contributed critical articles to the magazines, and if his critical 
prose showed little depth of insight, his judgments were uni- 
formly reasonable and discreet. Not since Mark Van Doren edited 
the literary section of The Nation in the middle 1920*8 had there 
been a young writer who with like ease seemed so decisive, sen- 
sible, and careful to praise other writers, who at the moment 
were rising in critical esteem. 

By 1942 Warren was well established as one of the most dis- 
tinguished poets of his generation in America as well as in the 
South, and reviewers in the liberal weeklies as well as those who 
wrote for the literary quarterlies combined to praise a pamphlet 
of Eleven Poems on the Same Theme and the memory of his 
Thirty-six Poems (1935). In 1944 he published his Selected Poems 
1923-1943, which gave readers of his verse an opportunity to 
evaluate its merits and its flaws. In this book, as in Tate's 
Selected Poems, an "Ode to Fear" made its arrival, with its re- 
frain taken from the "Lament for the Makaris" of William 

384 A History of American Poetry 

Dunbar, that all too little known and lively Scots poet of the 
late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and the Latin refrain 
was a happy choice. Unfortunately, the poem itself reflected more 
of the extraverted energies of Louis MacNeice, a young British 
poet of the 1930*8, than the wit and sensibility of Dunbar, and 
one feels that it had been done merely as a freehand exercise in 
writing verse. Something of the same insensitivity attended the 
impression left by the long poem which opened the volume of 
Selected Poems, "The Ballad of Billie Potts," a poem which made 
a dubious use of Kentucky dialect with interludes of verse that 
had been written as though they were stilted and unconscious 
parodies of T. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton." And one felt strongly 
that an effort had been made to combine the effects of Eliot's 
Four Quartets with the popular successes of Jesse Stuart's novels 
and the stage version of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road. The 
experiment was not a happy one. 

At its best the promise of Robert Penn Warren's talent for 
writing verse remained what it was in the Fugitives anthology 
and it was reinforced by the inclusion of a poem, "Bearded 
Oaks," in his Selected Poems. Warren's true gifts seem to be 
those of writing half meditative, half descriptive verses, which 
incidentally recall the physical atmosphere and the psychological 
environment of the South, and for that reason "Bearded Oaks" 
is a far more successful poem than his pretentious and overtly 
conscious literary exercises. Warren, like many others of the 
Fugitives anthology, lacked Ransom's excellently tuned and 
"capacious" ear, which detected the flaws in the song that 
Philomela sang. 

From Warren we must for the present rest content with his 
"Bearded Oaks": 27 

The oaks, how subtle and marine, 
Bearded, and all the layered light 
Above them swims; and thus the scene, 
Recessed, awaits the positive night. 

So, waiting, we in the grass now lie 
Beneath the languorous tread of light: 

27 From Selected Poems, by permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company. 

The 1920' s 385 

The grasses, kelp-like, satisfy 
The nameless motions of the air. 

Upon the floor of light, and time, 
Unmurmuring, of polyp made, 
We rest; we are, as light withdraws, 
Twin atolls on a shelf of shade. 

Ages to our construction went, 
Dim architecture, hour by hour: 
And violence, forgot now, lent 
The present stillness all its power. 

The storm of noon above us rolled, 
Of light the fury, furious gold, 
The long drag troubling us, the depth: 
Dark is unrocking, unrippling, still. 

Passion and slaughter, ruth, decay 
Descend, minutely whispering down, 
Silted down swaying streams, to lay 
Foundation for our voicelessness. 

All our debate is voiceless here, 
As all our rage, the rage of stone; 
If hope is hopeless, then fearless fear, 
And history is thus undone. 

Our feet once wrought the hollow street 
With echo when the lamps were dead 
At windows, once our headlight glare 
Disturbed the doe that, leaping, fled. 

I do not love you less that now 
The caged heart makes the iron stroke, 
Or less that all that light once gave 
The graduate dark should now revoke. 

We live in time so little time 
And we learn all so painfully, 
That we may spare this hour's term 
To practice for eternity. 

This was obviously far better than the lines from "Billie 
Potts," 28 which paralleled equally unfortunate lines in Mark 
Van Doren's "Jonathan Gentry": 

28 From Selected Poems, by permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company. 

386 A History of American Poetry 

"But not too early fer hit's my aim 
To git me some fun 'fore they know my name, 
And tease 'em and fun 'em, fer you never guessed 
I was Little Billie what went out West." 

Which was verse that, however amused the author may have 
been in writing it, fails to convey enjoyment to the reader, and 
soon wearies both the eye and ear. 

Warren, at the time of publishing his Selected Poems, had yet 
to write a poem that holds the attention of the reader as well 
as Ransom's "Antique Harvesters," and he had yet to master 
his talents for writing verse of a quality that produced Tate's 
"The Mediterranean," "Aeneas at Washington," and "Seasons 
of the Soul." But it should be said that the small group of poets 
who contributed to the pages of the Fugitives anthology offered 
good health and a corrective to a cultural climate that in the 
generation before them gave popularity to such poets as Madison 
Cawein, led James Branch Cabell to an ironic and misguided 
journey in the direction of his "Poictesme," and in the "nameless 
motions of the air," ignored the causes of Lanier's failure and 
sentimentalized the presence of his genius. 


Of all national and distinctly racial groups of people who 
came to America, the Negro is among the eldest, and it is there- 
fore not surprising that the literature which bears his name is 
less "primitive," less "childish," and less "nai've" than it has 
been commonly supposed. In John Lomax' compilation of folk 
songs and in Carl Sandburg's American Songbag he has been 
rightfully regarded as a master of folk art; and disguised by 
anonymity he has enjoyed a freedom and an inventiveness of 
expression that has not been shared by the Negro poet whose 
name appears on the title page of a new book. The moment his 
name appears he begins to share a number of complex, contra- 
dictory, and distracting responsibilities; and for nearly a hun- 
dred years every political party in America, and one should be 
careful to say, in the North and South alike, has taken advantage 
of his situation. Pathos and self-pity have been his shield and 
his internal weakness, and only among such able Negro leaders 
as James Weldori Johnson do we find a clear-minded and just 
appraisal of the Negro's contribution to American poetry. John- 
son's anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), 
contained a selection from the work of some thirty Negro poets 
and Countee Cullen's selection from the work of thirty-eight 
Negro poets five years later served as an introduction to the 
nature and scope of a poetic literature written by the North 
American Negro during the twentieth century. 

Both anthologies opened (and not without reason) with selec- 
tions from the verses of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was born 
in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872, and died in the city of his birth in 
1906. Of all twentieth-century American Negro poets Dunbar 
was perhaps the best known, and in the sense that James Whit- 
comb Riley was heard, read, and applauded, the most popular. 


388 A History of American Poetry 

Of his verse in dialect (which like Riley's seemed to stem from a 
reading of James Russell Lowell's Biglow Papers) William 
Dean Howells wrote: 

In nothing is his essentially refined and delicate art so well shown 
as in these pieces, which, as I ventured to say, described the range 
between appetite and emotion, with certain lifts far beyond and above 
it, which is the range of the race. He reveals in these a finely ironical 
perception of the Negro's limitations, with a tenderness for them which 
I think so very rare as to be almost quite new. I should say, perhaps, 
that it was this humorous quality which Mr. Dunbar had added to our 
literature, and it would be this which would most distinguish him, 
now and hereafter. 1 

It was plain that Howells wrote with the warmest of good in- 
tentions, and these remarks along with others were published as 
an introduction to Dunbar's Lyrics of Lowly Life in 1896. But 
aside from the observation that Dunbar's art was "essentially 
refined and delicate" Howells' introduction had far less reality 
and perception than James Weldon Johnson's critical commen- 
taries on and reminiscences of Paul Laurence Dunbar and his 

When I first met him he had published a thin volume, "Oak and 
Ivy," which was being sold chiefly through his own efforts. "Oak and 
Ivy" showed no distinctive Negro influence, but rather the influence 
of James Whitcomb Riley. . . . He talked to me a great deal about 
his hopes and ambitions. In these talks he revealed that he had 
reached a realization of the possibilities of poetry in the dialect, to- 
gether with a recognition of the fact that it offered the surest way by 
which he could get a hearing. Often he said to me: "I've got to write 
dialect poetry; it's the only way I can get them to listen to me." I was 
with Dunbar at the beginning of what proved to be his last illness. He 
said to me then: "I have not grown. I am writing the same things I 
wrote ten years ago, and am writing them no better." His self-accusa- 
tion was not fully true; he had grown, and he had gained a surer 
control of his art, but he had not accomplished the greater things of 
which he was constantly dreaming; the public had held him to the 
things for which it had accorded him recognition. ... As a man, 
Dunbar was kind and tender. In conversation he was brilliant and 
polished. His voice was his chief charm, and was a great element in his 
success as a reader of his own works. In his actions he was as impulsive 

i Introduction to Lyrics of Lowly Life by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Re- 
printed by permission of Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc. 

The 1920's 389 

as a child, sometimes even erratic; indeed, his intimate friends almost 
looked upon him as a spoiled boy. He was always delicate in health. 
Temperamentally, he belonged to that class of poets who Taine says 
are vessels too weak to contain the spirit of poetry, the poets whom 
poetry kills . . . 2 

It can be said of Dunbar that where Riley grew complacent, 
and accepted his fame as a just reward for his talents, the Negro 
poet grew more disquieted; he probably saw his own position in 
relationship to writing poetry with a keener sense of reality and 
less cynicism than those with which the "Hoosier Poet" perceived 
his place in respect to writing "dialect" poetry. In Dunbar's 
humility and pathos, there is a note of something that is almost 
frightening. Most of his verse was admittedly "magazine verse" 
of the period, and certainly it was of a kind that editors were 
glad to accept and to publish. Obviously, Dunbar had read 
Robert Burns as well as Riley and he had also read the minor 
British poets of the day, including Austin Dobson and Andrew 
Lang, who had found great favor with editors of American peri- 
odicals. His facility in writing verse carried what might have 
been no more than a harmless imitation of "popular favorites" 
into an accelerated decadence of all the minor verse that filled 
the empty spaces between nonfiction articles and the short stories 
in widely circulated magazines: 

I cast my bread upon the waves 

And fancied then to await it; 
It had not floated far away 

When a fish came up and ate it. 8 

And for a moment the cliche was dispelled by a minute flash 
of wit and the presence of reality; and there was no compromise 
with the expression of pathos, humility, and even terror, which 
seemed to flow between rather than in the following lines: 

Let me close the eyes of my soul 

That I may not see 
What stands between thee and me. 

2 From The Book of American Negro Poetry, ed. by James Weldon John- 
son, by permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company. 

3 "After Many Days" from Complete Poems. Reprinted by permission of 
Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc. 

390 A History of American Poetry 

Let me shut the ears of my heart 

That I may not hear 
A voice that drowns yours, my dear. 

Let me cut the cords of my life, 

Of my desolate being, 
Since cursed is my hearing and seeing. 4 

And as if to prove that his poems in a so-called "humorous 
Negro dialect" were false, with equal facility he wrote verses in 
an "Irish brogue": 

Tim Murphy's gon' walkin' wid Maggie O'Neill, 
O chone! 6 

To get a hearing was his purpose, and one remembers that his 
remarks to James Weldon Johnson were not lightly said: "I've 
got to write dialect poetry; it's the only way I can get them to 
listen to me." 

Another Negro poet who was born in Ohio was James Edwin 
Campbell. His life was devoted to journalism in Chicago; he was 
by no means as widely known as Dunbar, and Johnson in his 
biographical index of authors in The Book of American Negro 
Poetry was uncertain as to the dates of Campbell's birth and 
death. In the few verses of Campbell's writing that Johnson 
quoted, the lines in dialect reveal a more genuine and deeper 
reach into the imaginative life of the North American continent 
than any of the many verses that crowd the double columns of 
The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Today Camp- 
bell's verses have almost the same anonymity that gave life to the 
Negro work songs and spirituals: 

Salvation's light comes pourin' down- 
Hit fill de chu'ch an' all de town- 
Why, angels' robes go rustlin' 'roun', 
An' hebben on de Yurf am foun', 
When ol' Sis' Judy pray. 6 

* "Despair" from Complete Poems. Reprinted by permission of Dodd, Mead 
& Company, Inc. 

5 "Circumstances Alter Cases" from Complete Poems. Reprinted by per- 
mission of Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc. 

"When 01' Sis' Judy Prays" from The Book of American Negro Poetry, 
ed. by James Weldon Johnson, by permission of Harcourt, Brace and Com- 

The 1920' s 391 

And the same quality enters Campbell's "De Cunjah Man," T 
which despite its artificial devices of writing in dialect has its 
moment of imaginative validity, and one feels that the poem in 
its own right has greater importance than its author: 

Me see him stan' de yudder night 
Right een de road een white moon-light; 
Him toss him arms, him whirl him 'roun', 
Him stomp him foot urpon de groun'; 
De snaiks come crawlin', one by one, 
Me hyuh um hiss, me break an' run 

De Cunjah man, de Cunjah man, 

O chillen, run, de Cunjah man! 

Within his limitations Campbell achieved a rare objectivity 
in writing verse, and his comparative lack of fame was probably 
an advantage that he held" over the readily patronized talents of 

William Stanley Braithwaite was born in Boston, Massachu- 
setts, in 1878. As an editor of the literary section of the Boston 
Evening Transcript, he refused to allow questions of racial 
discrimination to modify his opinions; his anthologies of English 
verse, which were published in a series that extended from Eliza- 
bethan times through the reign of George IV, were models of 
informative, unpretentious, scholarly, and decorous compilation. 
And perhaps no man of letters in America during the period 
between 1900 and 1912 was better informed in a general knowl- 
edge of English verse than he. As James Weldon Johnson wrote 
of him in 1922, 

. . . he stands unique among all the Aframerican writers the United 
States has yet produced. He has gained his place, taking as the stand- 
ard and measure for his work the identical standard and measure 
applied to American writers and American literature. He has asked 
for no allowances or rewards, either directly or indirectly, on account 
of his race. 8 

7 From The Book of American Negro Poetry, ed. by James Weldon John- 
son, by permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company. 

8 Ibid. 

392 A History of American Poetry 

In this respect one must not underestimate his strength of 
moral character and courage, and Johnson's appreciation of his 
merits was one that reflected honor upon both writers. Johnson 
went on to say: 

Mr. Braithwaite is the author of two volumes of verses, lyrics of 
delicate and tenuous beauty. . . . But his place in American literature 
is due more to his work as a critic and anthologist than to his work 
as a poet. There was still another role he has played, that of friend 
of poetry and poets. It is a recognized fact that in the work which 
preceded the present revival of poetry in the United States, no one 
rendered more unremitting and valuable service than Mr. Braithwaite. 9 

Of Dunbar's and Braithwaite's immediate contemporaries, 
James Weldon Johnson himself, who was born in Jacksonville, 
Florida, in 1871, was the most distinguished figure, and the only 
American Negro poet of the twentieth century who achieved 
poetic maturity. He had the good fortune not to be a precocious 
writer, and while he remained self-conscious and aware of his 
responsibilities to his race, he was also aware of those less ob- 
vious responsibilities which came to him in maintaining his 
dignity as a writer. His The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored 
Man (1912) is a prose document of a kind that deserves to be 
placed on the same shelf that should be reserved for the British 
poet W. H. Davies' The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp 
(1906). Of the two books, Johnson's is perhaps the more sophisti- 
cated, and unlike most literature of its kind, the quality of its 
prose merits respect. After Johnson graduated from Atlanta Uni- 
versity in 1894, he furthered his education by the study of law 
and was admitted to the bar in Florida in 1897. Meanwhile he 
had been principal of the Stanton Central Grammar School for 
Negroes in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1901 he moved to New York, 
and in collaboration with his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, a 
singer, wrote songs that achieved celebrity on the Broadway 
stage. After taking a master's degree and attending Columbia 
University for three years, Johnson was appointed United States 
Consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in 1906, and he continued 

From The Book of American Negro Poetry, ed. by James Weldon John- 
son, by permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company. 

The 1920's 393 

his services as a United States consul by accepting another ap- 
pointment to Corinto, Nicaragua, in 1909. 

His first book of poems, Fifty Years, and Other Poems, ap- 
peared in 1917, and though the quality of verse was often marred 
by occasional cliches in phrasing, such individual poems as "The 
White Witch" (which has been frequently quoted in anthologies 
of American verse) shows the presence of a gifted poetic imagi- 
nation. And no single book of poems written by a Negro in 
America equaled the dignity and restraint of his seven sermons 
in verse, God's Trombones 10 (1927). Of these the first sermon, 
"The Creation," in unrhymed verse, was the most successful. The 
six poems which followed it were less so because their closing 
lines seemed to lack the required note of finality that was so 
distinctly heard in the last lines of the first poem: 

Then into it He blew the breath of life, 
And man became a living soul. 
Amen. Amen. 

In his latter years, Johnson became a widely known publicist 
and was a Visiting Professor of Creative Literature at New York 
University. In 1933 he was awarded the W. E. B. Du Bois Prize 
for Negro Literature and he was a member of the Academy of 
Political Science and the Ethical Society. On June 26, 1938, he 
was killed in an automobile accident, near Wiscasset, Maine, and 
among the honorary pallbearers at his funeral were Colonel 
Theodore Roosevelt, Deems Taylor, and Carl Van Vechten, 
whose presence signified a national tribute to the most distin- 
guished Negro writer of his day in America. 

In the younger generation of Negro poets who came into 
prominence after Johnson had established his reputation as a 
publicist and the author of a first book of poems, none had 
greater promise than Claude McKay, who was born in Jamaica, 
West Indies, in 1890. In 1922, his third book of poems, Harlem 
Shadows, with an introduction by Max Eastman, appeared. At 
that time McKay belonged to a group of younger American 
writers whose political ideas were semi-Marxian and whose con- 

10 By permission of The Viking Press. Copyright, 1927, by The Viking 
Press, Inc. 

394 ^ History of American Poetry 

duct, so admirably described by Mabel Dodge in her Movers and 
Shakers (1936), was wholly Bohemian. The group included Edna 
St. Vincent Millay, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Floyd Dell, 
and it contributed verses and prose to The Liberator (of which 
Eastman was an editor). All felt the influence of Rupert Brooke's 
"The Great Lover," n and beneath the surfaces of political ex- 
citement, the following lines from Brooke's poem were remem- 
bered and emulated: 

O dear my loves, O faithless, once again 

This one last gift I give: that after men 

Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed, 

Praise you, "All these were lovely"; say, "He loved." 

No poet in America more clearly reflected the immediate ef- 
fects of Brooke's widely distributed influence than McKay; and 
in McKay's verses, Brooke's diction and imagery (and without 
the loss of personal charm) acquired tropical heat and coloring. 
McKay's talents, even in their earliest expression, were overripe, 
and his facility in writing verse probably exhausted his resources 
before he could find a mature and memorable expression of 
them. McKay's lyrical gifts were genuine, and were perhaps of 
a higher quality than he realized; and it is to be regretted that 
his later ventures in writing were devoted to semiautobiographi- 
cal romances in prose. 

A less spectacular gift than McKay's but one of greater purity 
in language and emotion was possessed by Jessie Redmon Fauset, 
who was educated in the public schools of Philadelphia and at 
Cornell University, and who traveled extensively in Europe. For 
several years, Miss Fauset was literary editor of The Crisis, and 
though she insisted that all her life she had "wanted to write 
novels and have had one published," her contributions in verse 
were of a character that reminds one of a less mature Sara Teas- 
dale. Although her accomplishments in verse were slight and 
unpretentious, it is not unlikely that a few of her occasional 
verses will in more fortunate times anticipate the sensitive and, 

" From Collected Poems. Reprinted by permission of Dodd, Mead & Com- 
pany, Inc. 

The 1920's 395 

it is to be hoped, thoroughly unpatronized qualities of Negro 

Langs ton Hughes's first book of verse appeared in 1926 with an 
introduction by Carl Van Vechten. Of Hughes, Van Vechten 

Born on February i, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri, he had lived, before 
his twelfth year, in the City of Mexico, Topeka, Kansas, Colorado 
Springs, Charlestown, Indiana, Kansas City, and Buffalo. He attended 
Central High School, from which he graduated, at Cleveland, Ohio, 
while in the summer, there and in Chicago, he worked us delivery- and 
dummy-boy in hat stores. In his senior year he was elected class poet 
and editor of the Year Book. 12 

Van Vechten continued his introduction with a further list of 
Langston Hughes's travels, which included journeys to Europe 
and Africa, and the character of Hughes's adventurous, restless, 
wandering life was reflected in his novel, Not Without Laughter 
(1930), his short stories, and his autobiography. Hughes's talents 
for writing verse were discovered by Vachel Lindsay, who, on one 
of his lecture tours through the United States, met the young 
Negro poet who was then a busboy in a Washington hotel. Lind- 
say's encouragement, as well as Jessie Fauset's acceptance of 
Hughes's early verses for the pages of The Crisis, led to the pub- 
lication of his first book, The Weary Blues. The verse of Lind- 
say and of Carl Sandburg left its impress upon the external ap- 
pearance of Hughes's lively and extraverted portraits of Harlem 
cafe life. In The Weary Blues, in Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), 
and in Shakespeare in Harlem (1942) Hughes caught and pro- 
jected scenes of urban Negro life that were as melodramatic and 
as vivid as Erskine Caldwell's scenes of misadventure in the lives 
of the "poor Whites" that were enacted upon the Broadway stage 
for seven years in Tobacco Road. The Weary Blues and Fine 
Clothes to the Jew held the attention of the public in much the 
same fashion and, it is to be feared, for some of the same reasons 
for which Tobacco Road enjoyed its long run in the vicinity of 
Times Square. Hughes's sketches in verse with their undertones 

12 Introduction by Carl Van Vechten to The Weary Blues by Langston 
Hughes. By permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright, 1927, by Alfred 
A. Knopf, Inc. 

396 A History of American Poetry 

of bitterness, humor, and pathos were of a kind that awakened 
the sensibilities of the well-meaning social worker rather than 
the serious reader of poetry. Like Dunbar, who had been en- 
couraged to write "in dialect," Hughes's verses seem to have been 
written in a latter-day formula of night-club songs and social 
protest, which were almost certain to attract fashionable curi- 
osity and patronage, but did not leave a deep or lasting impres- 
sion upon their readers. Hughes's readers had been entertained, 
and sometimes shocked, by scenes of a brutalized and amoral 
life in Harlem, but Hughes's characters lacked the dignity and 
poise that were implied in James Weldon Johnson's Negro ser- 
mons, and that loss vitiates Hughes's avowedly light verses in 
Shakespeare in Harlem. 

Far more studiously and gravely inclined were Countee 
Cullen's verses in Color (1925). Cullen was born in New York 
in igog, 13 and was the adopted son of a minister of the Salem 
Methodist Episcopal Church which he had founded in 1902. 
Cullen attended New York University and he received his master's 
degree in English Literature at Harvard in 1926. In sensitivity 
and in his devotion to literature, Cullen followed in the footsteps 
of William Stanley Braithwaite, and if his own verse was not al- 
ways successfully written, like Jessie Fauset he upheld a standard 
for Negro verse that was not modified by racial distinctions and 
which showed maturity of taste and of judgment in an anthology 
of Negro verse, Caroling Dusk (1927). Another poet whose edu- 
cation and general background has made a definite, and at pres- 
ent immeasurable, contribution to Negro literature was Sterling 
A. Brown. Brown was born in Washington, D. C., in 1901, and 
received his master of arts degree at Harvard in 1923. If it can 
be said that Cullen continued his writings in the direction of 
Braithwaite's verse, it can also be said that Brown extended the 
work that had been so well begun by James Weldon Johnson, 
Quite as Johnson gave new life to the Negro "spirituals" in his 
God's Trombones, Brown turned his attention to a revival of 
the Negro work song in his Southern Road (1932). He has yet 
to achieve the dignity in verse that Johnson accomplished, but 

is Cullen died in New York January, 1946. 

The 1920's 397 

his gifts, like Johnson's, seem to be those of a late maturity, and 
from 1923 onward the seriousness as well as the depth of his 
intentions has remained unquestioned. 

In 1942 the Yale Series. of Younger Poets, edited by Stephen 
Vincent Benet, published a first book, For My People, by Mar- 
garet Walker, which received high praise and wide recognition. 
Margaret Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1915, 
and was educated at Northwestern University and at the Uni- 
versity of Iowa from which she received her master's degree in 
1940. Like Brown's her interests have been academic and they 
have led to her accepting a professorship in English at Living- 
stone College, Salisbury, North Carolina. As in an earlier decade 
Langston Hughes's verse carried its debt to Carl Sandburg's 
Chicago Poems, so in For My People Margaret Walker's verses 
held an external relationship to Archibald MacLeish's Public 
Speech (1936). Many of the verses were written as though they 
were spoken in public and from a raised platform in a large 
amphitheater-^and they seemed to express the racial and politi- 
cal temper of the 1930*8 in American verse. Probably the most 
enduring promise of the volume can be found in its unrhymed 
sonnets, for these have been less urgently affected by the demands 
of a moment in which many lesser poets of the decade felt that 
"public speech" should be their sole concern in writing poetry. 

It was not without wisdom that the elder generation of 
Dunbar, Johnson, and Braithwaite saw the figure of the Russian 
poet, Alexander Pushkin, as a distant end in view for their 
accomplishment. Pushkin was known to have had Negro blood 
in his veins, but that accident of birth had not adversely modi- 
fied the quality of his poetry. The American Negro has no facile 
means of solving the problem that a gift for writing poetry 
places before him; yet Pushkin's example is not to be lost sight 
of. And the obvious fact that the Negro writer in the United 
States is, above all other considerations, the product of a North 
American environment should not be forgotten. 


In 1925, when his fourth book, Roan Stallion, Tamar, and 
Other Poems, appeared with the imprint of a commercial pub- 
lisher's name on its title page, the American public discovered 
Robinson Jeffers as its major poet of the Pacific Coast. Subcon- 
sciously, and also in a superficial sense, the public had been well 
prepared to receive him. At that moment no dinner conversation 
was complete without mention of Freud or Gertrude Atherton's 
novel, Black Oxen (1923), with its theme of sexual rejuvenation 
through glandular surgery, and Eugene O'Neill's new play, De- 
sire Under the Elms (1925). Jeffers' fable in unrtymed verse of 
the woman whose name was California and of the roan stallion, 
was the latest arrival among those who enjoyed a further excuse 
for using a newly learned Freudian vocabulary. If this latter en- 
joyment in reading Robinson Jeffers' narrative poems was less 
profound than serious critics of poetry wished it to be, it had 
the charm of being provocative and the very mention of Robin- 
son Jeffers' name carried with it the aura of a phenomenal popu- 
lar success and notoriety. 

In the eyes of the public (many of whom seldom read poetry) 
good fortune had attended Roan Stallion, for the book was 
greeted with trie same "shock of recognition" that had been re- 
served for Sherwood Anderson's Dark Laughter (1925), Joseph 
Hergesheimer's Cytherea (1922), D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow 
(1915), and James Branch Cabell's Jurgen (1919). If Jeffers' in- 
tentions were often misunderstood (as indeed they were), Roan 
Stallion and subsequent volumes of verse, The Women at Point 
Sur (1927), Caw dor (1928), and Dear Judas (1928), received suf- 
ficient attention to make his name well known. No poet of Jeffers' 
generation in America enjoyed a more widely spread and quickly 
acknowledged fame. 


The 1920's 399 

However fortunately Jeffers' fourth book reached a public that 
seemed rather more than willing to accept its violence and to 
speculate upon its relevance to Freudian psychology, the prepara- 
tion for its arrival in America was of an earlier origin than the 
vogue of what was then called "sexual realism in the novel." 
That preparation had begun when George Cabot Lodge, "Bay" 
Lodge, had reviewed in 1896 his pursuit of philosophic specula- 
tion in Berlin. Henry Adams' "Young Savage" had turned to the 
teachings of Schopenhauer at their sburce, and however dimly he 
may have perceived it, he had had his vision of a "Gotterdam- 
merung." Even as recently as 1934, his presence was recalled in 
Edith Wharton's memoirs, A Backward Glance? and his shadowy 
stature had lost none of its significance. Mrs. Wharton wrote: 

Bay Lodge . . . was one of the most brilliant and versatile youths I 
have ever known. In what direction he would eventually have devel- 
oped I have never been sure; his sudden death at the age of thirty-six 
cut short such conjectures. He believed himself to be meant for poetry 
and letters. ... I felt as did most of his friends . . . that if poetry 
was to be his ultimate form he must pass beyond the imitative stage 
into fuller self-expression. But he had a naturally scholarly mind, and 
might have turned in the end to history and archaeology. . . . 

Her comments on "Bay" Lodge remind us of the early Rob- 
inson Jeffers, the son of Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers. His 
father had been the last of a line of Scotch-Irish Calvinists, who 
had been a professor of Greek and of Latin and at the time of 
his son's birth, January 10, 1887, was a distinguished theologian 
at the Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. Robinson 
Jeffers' early education, through the influence of his father, had 
been at boarding schools in Europe in schools at Geneva, Lau- 
sanne, Zurich, and Leipzig, and in those years, the closing years 
of the nineteenth century, Robinson Jeffers came into impres- 
sionable contact with the very scenes that "Bay" Lodge knew. 
Jeffers had read his Greek (taught to him by his father), and at 
fifteen his imagination had been stirred by a reading of Friedrich 
Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 
poems; and it was said by Jeffers' biographer, Lawrence Clark 

i By permission of D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc. 

400 A History of American Poetry 

Powell, that the boy at fifteen "was able to think in Italian, 
French and German." And if there was less of Schopenhauer in 
the boy's mind than had been retained by "Bay" Lodge on his 
return to the United States in 1897, there was a measurable in- 
fluence of Schopenhauer's great disciple, Nietzsche, upon his 

Jeffers' early books, his Flagons and Apples (1912) and his 
Californians (1916), were of that "imitative stage" of writing 
that Mrs. Wharton remarked upon as she recalled the verses that 
"Bay" Lodge had written. Flagons and Apples, with its title 
taken from the fifth verse of the second chapter of The Song of 
Solomon, betrayed what Mrs. Wharton had called "a naturally 
scholarly mind," and the young poet had a taste for reading 
poetry which had been formed by its discoveries of Rossetti 
and Swinburne. Jeffers was to succeed where Lodge had failed, 
but it is only because we have read Roan Stallion and the vol- 
umes which followed it, that we can recognize Jeffers' second 
volume, Californians, as "transitional" poetry. The book con- 
tained what Jeffers in his foreword to his Selected Poetry (1938) 
described as "preparatory exercises" in the writing of traditional 
verse forms, which included the sonnet, blank verse, the terza 
rima, and the Spenserian stanza. From his biographer we know 
that Jeffers' university career was of a mixed and "scientific" 
order, and that after he received his A.B. at Occidental College 
in 1905, his studies at various universities, including the Uni- 
versity of Zurich, and a course in medicine at the University of 
Southern California, took on the character of being as experi- 
mental as his early verses. His Californians was neither better 
nor worse than what might be expected from the writing of a 
diversely educated man who had probably read the poetry of 
Wordsworth and of E. A. Robinson with studious enthusiasm. 
The poems were "Californian" in detail, and one might con- 
clude from a number of them that the countryside in that Far 
Western climate was better and larger than any other place on 
earth. In the latter half of the volume the cheerful temper of 
its lines and stanzas underwent a change to a doubting, stormy, 
and rhetorical sense of loss. It was clear that the author had 

The 1920 's 401 

begun to learn the rules of writing poetry, but he had yet to 
find a language that he could call his own. 

Between 1912 and 1923, a transformation had taken place in 
Jeffers' life as well as in his poetry; he had married Una Call 
Kuster, a fellow student at the University of Southern California, 
in 1913, he had received a legacy which made him independent 
of immediate financial worries, and he had made his home at 
Carmel, California. The legend of Jeffers at Carmel has for one 
of its anecdotes the story of his building a stone tower with his 
own hands, and perhaps the incident has a private and internal 
relationship to the character of his poetry. But many people 
have built stone towers without being poets at all, and many 
less fortunate men than Jeffers have broken rocks and mended 
roads during a term in prison and so far as literature is con- 
cerned, the results were negligible. A better index to the char- 
acter of Jeffers' poetry lies in that aspect of Jeffers' legend which 
reveals him as a cultivated and modest man who cares little or 
nothing for dinner-table conversation and is inept in the arts 
of "literary gossip" and "small talk," and this aspect of his 
legend seems consistent with his determination "not to tell lies 
in verse." On the few occasions when Jeffers found it necessary 
to publish prose, his statements have been well poised and clear. 

As for the moment which led to the fortunate reception of 
Roan Stallion in 1925, Lawrence Clark Powell's An Introduction 
to Robinson Jeffers 2 (Dijon, 1932) has a paragraph or two of 
unusual candor and of timely interest: 

In 1923 the Book Club of California was preparing an anthology of 
verse by California writers. The poets George Sterling, James Rorty 
and Genevieve Taggard were the editors. Someone, perhaps having 
heard of California, told them of Jeffers, and the Carmel poet was 
asked to contribute to the venture. His "Continent's End" gave the 
anthology its name, but it made no stir. 

The following year Jeffers again decided to undertake the printing 
of some of his verse at his own expense. Accordingly, Tamar, a long 
narrative poem which he had written in 1920 or 1921 but had never 
submitted to any publisher because of its length, was sent to a New 
York printer, Peter G. Boyle. Boyle was both enthusiastic and generous. 

2 By permission of the Author. 

402 A History of American Poetry 

Tamar and Other Poems was issued in an edition of five hundred 
copies, and its printer sent review copies over the land. They had no 
effect. The remainder of 450 copies was shipped across the continent 
to Jeffers. . . . 

Then he mailed a copy of Tamar to James Rorty because of their 
correspondence, and one to George Sterling because he had lived in 
Carmel and knew the scene of the verses. On his return to New York, 
Rorty showed the book to Mark Van Doren and Babette Deutsch; and 
led by Rorty, all three wrote enthusiastic reviews hailing "a new poet 
of genius," "a major poet," etc. 

Jeffers "wrote," so Powell tells us, "later of some of his friends 
and their poetry, thus showing his gratitude to those poets who 
discovered him, by reviewing books of theirs. These reviews of 
volumes of verse by James Rorty, Mark Van Doren, and Babette 
Deutsch, and the memories of George Sterling are examples of 
beautiful prose." 

The tone of Jeffers' prose was forthright and mature and he 
employed his occasions for writing it to advance his general 
views concerning poetry. In his review of James Rorty's The 
Children of the Sun 3 (1927) Jeffers wrote: 

"The poets lie too much." Nietzsche wrote with brief contempt; he 
knew, for himself was one. Their profession is to tell the exciting truth; 
but a lie is an easier way to excitement a reality is always so much 
more stubborn, so much harder to digest. Sometimes the lying becomes 
epidemic with them; then it is called a poetic tradition or a new move- 
ment; sometimes it becomes matter for cynical confession and a man 
writes on his title-page "mundus vult decipi" "people want to be 
fooled" Barnum's motto. 

Whatever critical commentary might be made of Jeffers' major 
poems (and these include "Roan Stallion" itself and "The Tower 
Beyond Tragedy") Nietzsche's essay, The Birth of Tragedy, 
should not be forgotten. It was a Nietzschean "reality" that 
Jeffers perceived; the external appearances of Jeffers' unrhymed 
lines were deliberately "antipoetic" in the same sense that 
Nietzsche had spoken of the poetic "lie"; and what has now 
become a familiar aspect of Jeffers' "despair" is no less profound 

3 In Advance, April i, 1927, by permission of the Author. 

The 1920's 403 

and as far removed from a literal instruction to the human race 
to commit suicide as Nietzsche's version of the story of King 
Midas. It was in The Birth of Tragedy that Nietzsche presented 
in his most eloquent vein his famous definitions of Apollonian 
and Dionysian opposites in art; and in the light with which 
Nietzsche illuminated the pages of his essay, it is significant that 
Aeschylus claimed as his source for divine inspiration the ecstasy, 
the voice of prophecy, the insight, and the violence of Dionysus. 
It was from this very source that Jeffers derived his authority to 
write his poem, "The Tower Beyond Tragedy," and the reality 
of what he had to say springs from and frequently returns to 
the story of King Midas that Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of 
Tragedy: * 

There is an ancient story that King Midas hunted in the forest a 
long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without 
capturing him. When Silenus at last fell into his hands, the king asked 
what was the best and most desirable of all things for man. Fixed and 
immovable, the demigod said not a word; till at last, urged by the king, 
he gave a shrill laugh and broke out into these words: "Oh, wretched 
ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me 
to tell you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is 
best of all is beyond your reach forever: not to be born, not to be, to 
be nothing. But the second best for you is quickly to die." 

It is from these lines that JefFers took his essential themes, 
the "subject matter" of both his classical and Wagnerian narra- 
tives; and the same subject matter finds its expression in all his 
narrative poems. Lawrence Clark Powell has spoken of the "dis- 
illusionment" that came upon Jeffers after the First World War, 
but since it is well established that Jeffers had long held 
Nietzsche's writings in high regard, this latter observation is one 
of secondary and perhaps negligible importance. Many writers of 
the period in which Jeffers found himself famous were also "dis- 
illusioned" and in 1926 F. Scott Fitzgerald published a book of 
short stories under the title All the Sad Young Men. If Jeffers 
was "disillusioned," his disillusionment was not of the same 
order as that which afflicted his younger contemporaries, and 

* From Ecce Homo and the Birth of Tragedy, Modern Library ed. By per- 
mission of Random House, Inc. 

404 A History of American Poetry 

they did not revive, as Jeffers did, an early reading of Nietzsche 
to overcome their grief. 

Since the imagery and speech of Jeffers' poetry remain well 
within the philosophic terms that are circumscribed by the writ- 
ings of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Oswald Spengler, it is not 
surprising that Jeffers' heroines resemble Wagnerian Valkyries. 
In "At the Fall of an Age," Jeffers' image of the Greek Helen 
is more than life-size; and in a red twilight on a half-darkened 
stage she is obviously less Greek than post-Wagnerian. And 
Jeffers' Orestes "who had climbed the tower beyond time, con- 
sciously, and cast humanity" and "entered the earlier fountain" 
is a Greek figure only in the sense that Dionysus and Silenus 
are of an ancient Greek heritage and in "The Tower Beyond 
Tragedy" Orestes' progress is toward a heaven that lies "beyond" 
Nietzsche's "good and evil." 

Because of Jeffers' affinity with the teachings of Nietzsche, it 
is dangerous to insist too warmly that his view of the world with 
the Pacific coast line at his back is "anti-intellectual." Jeffers' 
quarrel with the "intellectuals" has within it the nay-and-yea- 
saying paradox which Nietzsche so consistently placed before 
the readers of his Thus Spake Zarathustra. And Jeffers' conclu- 
sions (whether one accepts them entirely or not) are those of a 
learned and, in his own person, gently spoken man. The God 
whom he defines is more abstract than the majority of gods who 
inhabit the plural universe of other poets; and we should also 
remember that Jeffers speaks of his deity with an almost "intel- 
lectual" air of civilized detachment: 

Yourself, if you had not encountered and loved 

Our unkindly all but inhuman God, 

Who is very beautiful and too secure to want worshippers, 

And includes indeed the sheep with the wolves, 

You too might have been looking for a church. 5 

The argument is continued and concluded in another poem, 
"Triad": 6 

s "Intellectuals" from Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. By permission 
of Random House, Inc. 

e From Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. By permission of Random 
House, Inc. 

The 1920's 405 

The poet, who wishes not to play games with words, 

His affair being to awake dangerous images 

And call the hawks; they all feed the future, they serve God, 

Who is very beautiful, but hardly a friend of humanity. 

A distant ancestor of Jeffers' God was, of course, the sun, and 
a more recent figure of that ancient line was the Hebrew Jehovah, 
whose presence in the beginning was the "word," whose power 
was held in no visible image to his people, and whose tests of 
Job's virtues were certainly not those that had been inspired by 
friendliness or the desire to be kind. In this instance, Jeffers* 
reference seems to take its channel backward to a source by the 
way of Scotch-Irish Calvinism, and if the way seems dark to 
cheerful readers of poetry, it is no more unfamiliar than the 
darkness through which Hawthorne revealed the souls of the 
New England Puritans. 

The non-Greco-Germanic references in Jeffers' verse are either 
Californian or Celtic; and for the interested reader of Jeffers' 
Californian narratives, his biographer has provided a map of 
Monterey as well as a sketch of "Continent's End," Alaska. One 
feels that his biographer would also have gladly provided a map 
of Ireland that showed the route of Jeffers' poems in the Descent 
to the Dead (1931). Maps have their charms, and many a lec- 
turer on British poetry in American universities has entertained 
his students by tracing with a pointer in his right hand the joys 
of a bicycle trip through Wordsworth's lake country and a stop 
at a tavern not too far from Stratford-on-Avon. But the use of 
maps (lively in themselves as they may be) is scarcely a substitute 
for the reading of the poetry which happens to contain the same 
place names that have been written on a flat, two-dimensional 
surface. Nor is it possible to quote fragments of "Roan Stallion" 
so as to illustrate its descriptive felicity, for its physical details 
are (as they should be) of a kind that unify and speed the 
progress of the story. No narrative poem written by an American 
during the twentieth century is a better example of the classical 
rules of unity than Jeffers' "Roan Stallion": place, time, action, 
its characters, and its emotional temper are of one piece; and 
even its violent scenes of action fall with propriety within the 
design of the poem. If they are removed from their context, in- 

406 A History of American Poetry 

dividual episodes within the poem become ridiculous, but the 
poem itself, like a canvas filled by the seemingly harsh and "im- 
possible" colors of Delacroix, has its own life and its own 
veracity, and these are as rare in poetry as they are in painting. 
One need go no further than Jeffers' shorter poems in his Descent 
to the Dead, to show that the imagination which gave color and 
motion to "Roan Stallion" has a Celtic aspect and a reference to 
an ancient past in Ireland. It was in the sight of Irish round 
towers, of memorial shrines, of dateless rocks and stones (which 
was to W. B. Yeats a "secret discipline") that Jeffers discovered 
a transatlantic affinity to nature. The affinity was by no means 
a complacent one; and it was of cold, gray Antrim and of lona, 
the sacred island of the Hebrides, that Jeffers wrote: 

I wish not to lie here. 

There's hardly a plot of earth not blessed for burial, but here 

One might dream badly. 

Kings buried in the lee of the saint, 

Kings of fierce Norway, blood-boltered Scotland, bitterly dreaming 

Treacherous Ireland. 7 

Jeffers' lines\at Ossian's grave may be read as the "romantic" 
tribute which they are, yet the temperament and the eloquence 
in which the poem has its speech are so obviously Celtic in their 
origin that to call them "romantic" almost seems an understate- 
ment. In the "Ghosts in England" there is the traditional and 
Celtic distrust of the wealthy southern island, England, 

No pity for the great pillar of empire settling to a fall, 

the pride 
and the power slowly dissolving. 8 

The ghosts that Jeffers raised in his Descent to the Dead were 
of the same quality that gave life to his resurrection of Achilles' 
Myrmidons in the dramatic poem "At the Fall of an Age." It 
is the dead who live and exert their powers in Jeffers' Irish 
poems, and of these the story of Mary Byrnes, in "In the Hill at 

7 "lona: The Grove of Kings" from Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. By 
permission of Random House, Inc. 

s "Ghosts in England" from Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. By per- 
mission of Random House, Inc. 

The 1920's 407 

New Grange" near the River Boyne, has an insight that is com- 
parable to W. B. Yeats's "Crazy Jane" lyrics in Words for Music 
Perhaps. There is no mistaking of Mary Byrnes's origins in 
Jeffers' version of her speech to her lover: 

Drink, Shane; drink, dear: who cares if a hure is hanged? We kill 
each other in Ireland to pleasure the dead. 9 

If Nietzsche had provided a "subject matter" and a "philo- 
sophic" window through which Jeffers viewed a self-destroying 
humanity, the imagination and the very eloquence of the speech 
which expresses it owe their greatest debt to a Celtic inspiration. 


In the years between the publication of Caw dor (1928) and 
Be Angry at the Sun (1941) Jeffers' position as a poet among 
his contemporaries became one that can almost be compared 
with Victor Hugo's eminence in France of the mid-nineteenth 
century. Jeffers' prophecies of disaster in the affairs of Europe 
and America had come true; that is, it was true enough that a 
Second World War had increased the tendency toward violence 
that Jeffers had foreseen and in this connection, Amiel's re- 
marks (severe as they may seem) on Victor Hugo are not inap- 

Victor Hugo superbly ignores everything which he has not foreseen. 
He does not know that pride limits the mind, and that a limitless pride 
is a littleness of soul. . . . He is vowed to the Titanic; his gold is 
always mixed with lead, his insight with childishness, his reason with 
madness . . . like the blaze of a house on fire his light is blinding. In 
short, he astonishes, but provokes, he stirs, but annoys. His note is 
always half or two-thirds false, and that is why he perpetually makes 
us feel uncomfortable. The great poet in him cannot get clear of the 
charlatan. 10 

In Jeffers' case, it would be better to change the last sentence 
of the quotation to read, "The great poet in him cannot get 

9 "In the Hill at New Grange" from Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. 
By permission of Random House, Inc. 

10 From Essays in Criticism by Matthew Arnold, Second Series. By permis- 
sion of The Macmillan Company. 

408 A History of American Poetry 

clear of Nietzsche's philosophy." There are no signs of the 
charlatan in Jeffers; yet Jeffers at his worst has attempted to 
write poetry less with words than with ideas; in the less successful 
of his narratives, he shows greater concern for the consistency of 
his general beliefs than he does for the actual sight of human 
conduct or the structure of his poems. His advantage is a lack of 
seeming preoccupied with mere talk of "writing poetry"; and in 
this respect his work is comparable to the so-called "artless" art 
of D. H. Lawrence's prose: we can assume that Jeffers' early 
knowledge of Greek had trained his ear in the limitations and 
adaptations of the classical hexameter in English verse, and his 
skill in writing the long line of verse in English is no mere acci- 
dent. He has tuned whatever instruments he has heard or used 
in the past to the sound of a speaking voice, but it is the general 
effect, the overtone, and the central dominant rhythm or the 
dominant image at the center of the poem that seem to be his 
concern. In Jeffers' poetry, as in Lawrence's prose, the eloquence, 
the urgency of the speaking voice, are of primary consideration; 
and if, at any moment, the oracular statement shows signs of 
losing force, a colorful image is brought forward to fill the eye. 
In "At the Fall of an Age," the sight of Helen and of Achilles' 
Myrmidons, risen from their graves in Asia, carry the weight, 
and not without success, of a repetitious philosophic argument. 
We have already spoken of how well "Roan Stallion" fills the 
eye and holds the attention of the reader; its art is self-contained 
and the narrative is likely to survive the present age as a Cali- 
fornian parable, a story that has for its heritage an ancient refer- 
ence to a deity in the form of a beast, and in Jeffers' poem it 
assumes a "local habitation and a name." 

It is almost impossible to quote Jeffers' poetry successfully. For 
the most part, his verse must be taken whole, the good with the 
bad, the penetrating flashes of insight along with inflated rhetoric 
and heavily worded pronouncements and prophecies. In this re- 
spect, much of his poetry resembles the verse of Herman Melville 
and that of the later Whitman who wrote "Passage to India" 
and to this one must add the personal legend of Jeffers' fame. In 
later years, that legend has sustained the many shorter poems he 

The 1920's 409 

has written, poems in which Jeffers, a lonely figure, against a 
backdrop of the Pacific Coast, or the rocks of Antrim, or Europe 
in flames, takes the reader into his confidence. As he remarks 
upon it, the world may be doomed to self-destruction, but not 
Jeffers. The voice in which he has chosen to speak is the voice 
of one who made up his mind long ago as to what he had to 
say; and the sight of the eagle, the hawk, the falcon, or the wild 
swan may be relied upon to stir his imagination. Perhaps the 
most characteristic of his shorter poems is his sonnet, "Love the 
Wild Swan": ll 

"I hate my verses, every line, every word. 

Oh pale and brittle pencils ever to try 

One grass-blade's curve, or the throat of one bird 

That clings to twig, ruffled against white sky. 

Oh cracked and twilight mirrors ever to catch 

One color, one glinting flash, of the splendor of things. 

Unlucky hunter, Oh bullets of wax, 

The lion beauty, the wild-swan wings, the storm of the wings." 

This wild swan of a world is no hunter's game. 

Better bullets than yours would miss the white breast, 

Better mirrors than yours would crack in the flame. 

Does it matter whether you hate your . . . self? At least 

Love your eyes that can see, your mind that can 

Hear the music, the thunder of the wings. Love the wild swan. 

The art of the poem is beautifully concealed, and it was ex- 
pressed with a humility that stands in contrast to the melodrama 
of blood and fire which so often enters and seems to take com- 
mand of Jeffers' poetry. Certainly W. B. Yeats's "The Wild Swans 
at Coole" is not far distant in its imagery and feeling from the 
last three lines of Jeffers' sonnet, and in Jeffers' recent Be Angry 
at the Sun (1941) there is a perceptible relationship between the 
shorter pieces in the volume and the poetry that Yeats wrote 
after 1919. In the same volume there is a semidramatic sketch 
of Hitler, quite as Wagner would have composed a ballet with 
incidental music for a nineteenth-century production of Macbeth. 
The appropriate insights into the phenomenon of the doomed 
Leader are there, and in a Wagnerian sense they are closer than 

11 From Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. By permission of Random 
House, Inc. 

410 A History of American Poetry 

any other attempt made by an American to define what seems 
essential in Hitler's personality. But it is impossible for the 
reader to know how consciously Jeffers echoed the bombast and 
the verbal nonsense of Hitler's speeches, or whether or not the 
lines of the poem were written in parody of an ineptly translated 
Wagnerian ballet into English verse. Yet the fact remains that 
the figures of the poem, its images of Frederick the Great, and 
of the Leader himself, its female soothsayer, its masked creatures, 
leave their impression upon the imagination of the reader. One 
is reminded of Amiel's commentary on Victor Hugo, and one 
might well say that Jeffers' "gold is always mixed with lead," 
and "like the blaze of a house on fire his light is blinding," and 
"his note is always half or two-thirds false." 

Although the critics of the American Far West and its Pacific 
Coast justly regard Robinson Jeffers of Tor House in Carmcl as 
their major poet, the sensational character of the literature which 
the region produced has scarcely diminished since the day when 
Joaquin Miller was known as the "Bard of the Sierras." The 
Bohemia of George Sterling and Jack London has long since 
declined, but in the 1930*8 the tendency of California to produce 
vehement extremes in its literature was also represented in the 
person of Yvor Winters, who taught English at Stanford Univer- 
sity and was Jeffers' severest critic. Like Jeffers', Winters' birth- 
place was far removed from California itself; he was born in 
Chicago, Illinois, in 1900, and he entered the University of Chi- 
cago in 1917. Ill health interrupted his college career and he 
went to the Far West to improve it, ancl there he continued his 
studies in English literature. In 1927 he published a second book 
of poems, The Bare Hills, which owed some of its distinction to 
the clarity and visual force of its imagery, and since talk of 
"Imagism" was in the air, and literary circles still discussed the 
merits and flaws of the quarrel between Amy Lowell and Ezra 
Pound, Winters' book was promptly described as an example of 
the "new" poetry and of "Imagism." A few years later, Winters 

The 1920' s 411 

made his arrival as a moral critic, and though his moral object 
in criticism remained obscure, it was clear that he advanced a 
neoscholastic attitude in his reviews of poetry. Jeffers could well 
afford (in the light of his fame) to be modest, but Winter's could 
not, and in his attack on Jeffers' volume, Dear Judas, in Poetry, 
February, 1930, Winters wrote: "Now the mysticism of, say, San 
Juan de la Cruz offers at least the semblance of a spiritual, a 
human, discipline as a preliminary to union with Divinity; but 
for Mr. Jeffers a simple and mechanical device lies always ready; 
namely, suicide, a device to which he has not resorted." 

The violence of Winters' critical pronouncements betrayed 
earnest intentions and a naive desire to assume authority. He 
had picked up the teachings of Irving Babbitt and of Paul Elmer 
More and attempted to further them by fixing rules of a neo- 
scholastic order, but he could not free himself of a tendency to 
exaggerate whatever he felt was "wrong" or evil in contemporary 
verse. And his criticism in respect to Jeffers' poetry was like a 
small and one-sided war (since Jeffers could and did ignore it) 
between two preachers of Calvinist persuasion. Winters' temper 
was no less extreme than Jeffers'; and the titles of his books of 
criticism, Primitivism and Decadence (1937) and Maule's Curse 
(1938), indicate the zeal with which he pursued his course. His 
manner was uniformly serious, and if his verse was less forceful 
than his prose, his selected poems, The Giant Weapon (1943), 
showed honest intentions in the strains of minor verse and the 
degree of serious effort that Winters, the critic, had so often 
preached; but as Coleridge had once remarked of Donne, who 
seemed, so he said, to twist iron pokers into true-love knots, one 
feels that Winters has tried by a great exercise of will and well- 
worn platitudes to transform lovers' knots into iron pokers. 

Jeffers' poetry, whatever its flaws may be, needs no defense, 
and he has phrased his own answer to those who have taken the 
trouble to dispute his general views; in "Self-Criticism in Feb- 
ruary," 12 Jeffers wrote: 

12 From Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. By permission of Random 
House, Inc. 

412 A History of American Poetry 

But the present time is not pastoral, but founded 
On violence, pointed for more massive violence: perhaps it is not 
Perversity but need that perceives the storm-beauty. 
Well, bite on this: your poems are too full of ghosts and demons. 
And people like phantoms how often life's are 

And passion so strained that the clay mouths go praying for destruc- 
Alas, it is not unusual in life; 

To every soul at some time. But why insist on it. And now 
For the worst fault: you have never mistaken 
Demon nor passion nor idealism for the real God. 
Then what is most disliked in those verses 
Remains most true. Unfortunately. If only you could sing 
That God is love, or perhaps that social 
Justice will soon prevail. I can tell lies in prose. 

His last answer is always a return to Nietzsche. But it is prob- 
able that his "philosophy" will have less endurance than those 
gifts which enabled him to create parables of human blindness 
and suffering, to see, as if for the first and last time, the austeri- 
ties of a Pacific or Irish coast line, and to make his reader aware 
of the physical beauty that inhabits the Galifornian landscape 
and the sky above it. 


There is a story told about Delacroix that could be applied to 
the literary figure that T. S. Eliot has created in his own name, 
and the story also illustrates what has been said of Eliot for the 
past twenty years. Delacroix had been invited to the house of a 
lady who was fashionable in her love of all that was then fashion- 
able in the arts. He arrived late, and found many of his fellow 
artists arrayed in the velvet jackets, the scarlet waistcoats, the 
flowing locks of hair, in all the elaborate detail of that artful 
negligence which had been so dear to the advanced taste of the 
romantic artist of the day. Delacroix, a somber, pensive figure, 
formally, smartly dressed in a frock coat, polished boots, top hat, 
and lemon-colored gloves, made a sensational impression upon 
the gathering. As he gave his stick to the footman at the open 
door of the drawing room, several of his fellow artists hissed, and 
one guest in a loud whisper muttered, "Poseur 1 Poseur!" 

In 1922, Eliot's arrival on the literary scene (with the publi- 
cation of The Waste Land in the pages of The Dial), and in fact 
almost every subsequent phase of his career, had the same ele- 
ments of surprise, of formal correctness in external manners, of 
being fitly dressed for the occasion that had graced the genius 
of Delacroix. In the past quarter-century no poet of Eliot's gen- 
eration has been so fortunately reviled, denounced, defamed, 
buried so often, revived so often, been so enthusiastically de- 
fended, and so passionately denied (by his adverse critics) the 
merits of human contact and of sincerity. Ever since 1922, his 
antagonists have almost hourly announced the fact of his literary 
suicide. They implied (and some have used strong language in 
doing so) that if The Waste Land were not a hoax (which it 
soon proved itself not .to be), admiration of the poem was a sign 
of sterility, if not something worse. Elder critics of poetry had 


414 ^ History of American Poetry 

just been taught, and not without difficulty, that the poetry of 
Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg, and Edgar 
Lee Masters was the highest expression of the "poetic renais- 
sance," and naturally enough, many of these good men felt that 
though they may have been pushed too far, they were reluctant 
to be untaught again. The very reading of Eliot seemed to de- 
mand an entire process of "unlearning" the merits of his imme- 
diate predecessors: here was a writer whose poetry in Pru frock 
and Other Observations (1917), Poems (1920), and The Waste 
Land had an unfamiliar character and flavor. Was the poetry 
light verse? was it clever? was it slightly obscene? was it revolu- 
tionary? or did it have that something which related it to aca- 
demic discussions of "classicism"? And "classicism" was the very 
ihing that the more outspoken participants in the "poetic renais- 
sance" thought they had buried forever. 

In the early 1920'$, the more advanced young men in Ameri- 
can colleges and universities had become champions of an anti- 
academic order; they learned H. L. Mencken's Prejudices by 
heart, they rejected everything that had acquired the name of 
"Victorianism," including the poetry of Browning, Tennyson, 
and Longfellow, and to these were added the "escapist" novels 
of Henry James, as well as anything that could be called with 
equal vehemence "classicism." Van Wyck Brooks's The Pilgrim- 
age of Henry James (1925) and Vernon Louis Parrington's monu- 
mental Main Currents in American Thought (1927-30) expressed 
the critical spirit of young men who had left instructorships and 
professorships behind them to become neo-Freudian, neosocial 
critics of a "New Literature" in New York weeklies. And among 
these were young men whose enthusiasm for literature had been 
fostered by writing critical reviews of books for Chicago and 
New York newspapers. 

Of the latter company Burton Rascoe was the liveliest and 
most conspicuous figure, a Kentucky-born, Oklahoma-bred, Chi- 
cago newspaperman, who came to New York in 1921, who wrote 
a weekly column of literary gossip for the New York Tribune, 
and who became a protagonist of Eliot's early reputation in the 
United States. Eliot's poetry, from its earliest appearance in 

The 1920's 415 

Poetry in 1915, held a phenomenal attraction for widely dis- 
similar readers; in the praise and blame that it received it had 
been called names of great variety, but it could never be dis- 
missed as seeming dull. It held the same attraction that the 
writings of Jean Cocteau and the music of Stravinsky never fail 
to reawaken; even the unwilling reader of it is prompted to speak 
aloud in protest and the protest against The Dial's award to 
The Waste Land was so general among liberal and conservative 
critics alike that the enthusiastic Burton Rascoe enjoyed the role 
of being the devil's advocate. It was not a question of being 
interested in or knowing precisely what Eliot's poetry said, but 
of being certain that it aroused partisan feeling. Rascoe admired 
Eliot's gifts with the same instinctive fervor with which he ad- 
mired the poetry of Maxwell Bodenheim, E. E. Cummings, and 
Marianne Moore, as well as the prose of Ben Hecht, Thyra 
Samter Winslow, Ernest Boyd, Frank Moore Colby, John Dos 
Passos, Edmund Wilson, and Willard Huntington Wright. His 
admirations seemed at times to be inspired by a passionate love 
of reading everything, yet the reader of his A Bookman's Day- 
book (1929) will discover that he retained a few vehement dis- 
likes, which might well have cut him off from any appreciation 
of 1'. S. Eliot, and these were Dante, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer 
More, and Henry James. Rascoe did not suffer the tensions and 
fears of being "untaught" anything, and he held an advantage 
over his New York contemporaries because he had so recently 
arrived from Chicago: Harriet Monroe's Poetry, Margaret An- 
derson's The Little Review, and the stately innovations of 
Scofield Thayer's The Dial held no terrors for him. To Chi- 
cagoans of the late teens and twenties of the present century, 
stray copies of Wyndham Lewis' Blast, The Egoist (of which 
Eliot in London was an associate editor), The Little Review, and 
Gertrude Stein's Three Lives (1909) and her Tender Buttons 
(1914) were bread and wine at dinner tables. But more important 
than an education in, or at least an introduction to, the mys- 
teries of a "New Literature," which to its Chicago initiates had 
the freshness of the wind blowing the length of Michigan Boule- 
vard, was Rascoe's temperamental affinity with the early Eliot. 

41 6 A History of American Poetry 

The affinity was not a matter of literary taste and discrimination, 
it was not a matter of intense, nor of careful reading, but it was 
a matter of being far to the left or right of a liberal center; it 
was the same affinity that had attracted Ezra Pound to Eliot in 
London, and it was of a nature that baffled Amy Lowell. 

Since that day Eliot has had many admirers of a more sober 
disposition and of greater critical distinction than Burton Ras- 
coe, but none has been more fervent than Rascoe, or one whose 
word would have been (at that particular moment) heard with 
greater excitement in hostile circles. Rascoe's discovery of The 
Waste Land is one of the curious, yet seemingly inevitable facts 
in a career that was filled with curious turns and disquieting sur- 
prises. Like Eliot's poetry, Eliot's career betrayed an almost in- 
stinctive distaste of boredom, and it touched the sources of other- 
wise hidden emotions of the day. It was a gift that may be com- 
pared to the early Wordsworth's, and to the elder W. B. Yeats's, 
and its greatest victories were scored in the face of critical abuse. 

Rascoe's tribute was among the first of many that had come 
to one of the most engaging and most powerful literary per- 
sonalities in twentieth-century poetry. But long after the poetry 
of T. S. Eliot had become a "classic" in American colleges, long 
after thousands of undergraduates had gone forth into literary 
battles with his name upon their lips, long after his poetry had 
ceased to be merely a youthful source of promise and had be- 
come a generally recognized "influence," traces of the dissensions 
Eliot had aroused were voiced by Carl Sandburg at a Herald 
Tribune Forum, on October 23, 1940, in New York. It was true 
that Sandburg spoke at a moment of wartime hysteria; and it 
was also true that Eliot was no longer a citizen of the United 
States, but since 1927 had been a British subject: 

If you wish to pray, or if you wish to sit in silent meditation in a 
corner . . . you will get it from this poet [T. S. Eliot]. But if you want 
clarity on human issues, he's out he's zero. A year ago I would have 
kept silent about him. . . . Now I have to say that T. S. Eliot is anti- 
democratic and that he is a mediaevalist, and that he is a royalist and 
that he's so close to fascists that I'm off him, to use a truck driver's 
phrase; and we've got to consider truck-drivers in the present hour 
rather than the intellectuals. 

The 1920' s 417 

The very language of Sandburg, and one might almost say 
the very nature of his grief-stricken manifesto, revealed with 
unmistakable clarity two divergent tendencies in American 
poetry. One is inclined to agree with Allen Tate, who in a reply 
to Sandburg's statement in The Sewanee Review, Autumn, 1944, 
asked somewhat plaintively, "Why could Mr. Sandburg not have 
made his particular brand of violent choice a year earlier? Why 
can't we have both the truck-driver and the intellectual?" 

The split between Sandburg and Eliot has long been char- 
acteristic of American divergences in its cultural life; through 
Henry James, Eliot's American heritage is of a line that stems 
from Hawthorne to the present day, and Sandburg's acknowledg- 
ments to the past are those that carry a memory of Whitman. 
Whenever our literature tends to produce too many Whitmans, 
an Eliot arrives to counterbalance that cheerful and extraverted 
tendency. 1 

But Eliot's value to his time and to his generation in London 
has still another curiously spectacular turn that should not be 
ignored. This aspect of Eliot's career has been presented by 
Richard Aldington, the British novelist, translator, biographer, 
and poet, who always writes of Eliot with the half-malicious in- 
tensity of a pupil who had escaped (almost too late) from the 
influence of a powerful and all-absorbing schoolmaster. In his 
autobiography, Life for Life's Sake, 2 Aldington wrote of the first 
impact that Eliot's writing had made upon him: 

I believe personally that Eliot's greatest service to English literature 
at that time was his insistence that writers could not afford to throw 
over the European tradition. Just after the war in the confusion and 
reaction against everything prewar and war there was an almost unani- 
mous belief among artists and writers of the vanguard that all art of 
the past was so much dead stuff to be scrapped. ... I was delighted 

1 F. O. Matthiessen has shown in his commentaries on Whitman in his 
American Renaissance (1941) and in his Achievement of T. S. Eliot that an 
observant critic need not ignore the significant merits of either poet. Only 
the narrowest and least perceptive of critical minds would fail to recognize 
the importance of both Whitman and Eliot in discussing the character of 
twentieth-century American poetry. 

2 Copyright, 1940, 1941, by Richard Aldington. By permission of The Vik- 
ing Press, Inc. 

41 8 A History of American Poetry 

. . . when I came across a sensitive and well-written article on Mari- 
vaux in one of the small, arty periodicals which sprang up in 1919. 
Evidently here was someone who could write and who did not believe 
that illiteracy was a symbol of originality. 

The observation that Aldington had made in London also 
came as a delight to Americans who had read Eliot's London 
letters in The Dial. To Americans (and in this respect, the more 
European Eliot became, the more American he seemed to some 
few of his readers) the cultural division has always been toward 
Europe, and away from it, toward a delicacy and a finesse be- 
yond anything in European literature, to a classicism more 
classical (and certainly of a far more transcendental character) 
than had ever existed in Hellas or in Rome. Eliot's critical 
choices among the literatures of Europe had less enthusiasm 
than an almost Puritan concern for the ethical-esthetic value 
of his discoveries. His discriminations were such that they could 
be readily interpreted as the last words of one who had nothing 
further to say. No man seemed to have written so little and 
accomplished so much, but in actuality Eliot's production has 
never been as slender as it has appeared to an innocent observer; 
and the sometimes painful air with which he has presented both 
his modesties and pretensions to the readers of his prose was 
almost certain to exasperate his hostile critics. If the last words 
of an essay seemed final, the arrival of a newly written poem 
or a further essay always created the illusion of a fresh start 
a disquieting surprise was registered, and perhaps another con- 
troversyall of which was far from welcome among those who 
liked to pigeonhole and classify their literary figures. It was 
remembered by those who read poetry with less attention than 
haste, that Eliot was a member of what was then called a "lost 
generation," and it was hoped that he would obligingly stay 
"lost." That feeling was best expressed by Ernest Hemingway, 
himself, who might well have been described as the Chief of the 
Missing Persons Bureau, and if we are to believe Malcolm 
Cowley's lively preface to an anthology of Hemingway's prose 
(1944) Hemingway is reputed to have said in 1924, and in tribute 
to Joseph Conrad: 

The 1920's 419 

If I knew that by grinding Mr. Eliot into a fine dry powder and 
sprinkling that powder over Mr. Conrad's grave Mr. Conrad would 
shortly appear, looking very annoyed at the forced return, and com- 
mence writing, I would leave for London early tomorrow with a sausage 
grinder. 8 

The violence of Hemingway's remarks was not unlike that of 
Sandburg's grief in 1940; and it proved that the anger which 
Eliot had aroused had less reason in it than submerged emotion. 
It was as though both Hemingway and Sandburg had taken the 
mere existence of Eliot's literary being as a personal insult and 
by speaking in no uncertain terms, both Hemingway and Sand- 
burg have contributed to the phenomena of Eliot's fame. 

Almost from the very beginning of his career, Eliot has pos- 
sessed the touch of genius which transformed whatever he wrote 
into matters of greater importance and of more enduring in- 
terest than the facts of his biography. He was born of New Eng- 
land parentage in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1888, and was the sev- 
enth and youngest child of Henry Ware Eliot, a businessman, 
whose ancestors were of Devonshire origin, and whose identity 
with New England began when Andrew Eliot in the seventeenth 
century emigrated from East Coker (the title of the second of 
T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets [1943]) to the American colonies. The 
poet's grandfather was the Reverend William Greenleaf Eliot, 
and as F. O. Matthiessen observed (in the best book-length study 
of Eliot, The Achievement of T. S. Eliot [1935], that has yet 
appeared), Dr. Eliot wrote a sermon entitled "Suffering Consid- 
ered as Discipline." In speaking of the poet's mother, Matthies- 
sen makes another observation of great interest in stating that 
she was the author of a dramatic poem, based on the life of 
Savonarola, on which Eliot himself remarked, "This Savonarola 
is a disciple of Schleiermacher, Emerson, Channing, and Her- 
bert Spencer," and one agrees with both Matthiessen and Eliot 
that the mention of the poem properly illuminates the intellec- 
tual life, as well as the very time and place, into which the poet 

3 The Portable Hemingway. Copyright, 1944, by The Viking Press. Inc. 

420 A History of American Poetry 

was born. It is evident that Eliot's family was one of those New 
England families that entered the smaller cities of the Middle 
West, carrying with them the teachings of Emerson and the files 
of The Atlantic Monthly; and it was not at all unusual to find 
and even as recently as 1912 the literary-review section of the 
Boston Evening Transcript neatly displayed upon Middle West- 
ern library tables. Those who came from New England to the 
Middle West spread a love of learning with a missionary zeal 
that their ancestors had shown in preaching the Gospel to the 
Indians, and their influence was felt in many a public school, 
in Browning Clubs, in Unitarian Church circles, and in local 
"poetry" societies and reading clubs. 

In 1906 and after preparation for college at Smith and Milton 
academies, T. S. Eliot entered Harvard. His earliest verses ap- 
peared in The Harvard Advocate, but more important than 
these early signs of talent was that there he came under the 
combined influences of Irving Babbitt and George Santayana, 
and Eliot is in fact the single figure of great poetic talent who 
can be said to have discovered true values in the dogma of what 
was popularly called "the inner check." What has been inter- 
preted as sterility in his writing was no more or less than the 
action of a highly developed and self-critical restraint, a quality 
of self-knowledge in the Greco-neoclassic- American sense of which 
Paul Elmer More was well aware in his Shelburne Essays. And 
Eliot himself has written: 

The poet who thinks is merely the poet who can express the emo- 
tional equivalent of thought. We talk as if thought were precise and 
emotion were vague. In reality there is precise emotion and vague 
emotion. To express precise emotion requires as great intellectual power 
as to express precise thought.* 

Eliot's studies included a year (1910-11) in Paris at the Sor- 
bonne, reading French literature, and on his return to Harvard 
he extended his studies in metaphysics, logic, and psychology to 
embrace Indie philology and Sanskrit. He was awarded a travel- 
ing fellowship and was in Germany the early summer of 1914, 
and in the following winter was reading Greek philosophy at 

* From Selected Essays. By permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company. 

The 1920' s 42 1 

Merton College, Oxford. This was the beginning of his long 
repatriation, which as time goes on, tends to resemble more 
closely than any other literary parallel, the career and attach- 
ments, identities and individual growth of Henry James's long 
stay in England. 


Valuable as Eliot's literary personality has been, and salutary 
as much of his prose (The Sacred Wood in 1920, Selected Essays 
in 1932) has been in offering its correctives to mere impression- 
ism, literary gossip, and neo-Freudian extremes in twentieth- 
century criticism, valuable as his editorship of a quarterly review, 
The Criterion (1923-39) had been, these activities, though they 
supplemented and at times seemed to support it, have at no 
moment in his career equaled the quality of his verse. Eliot's 
true authority stems from his gifts in writing poetry, and in 
America, Edmund Wilson's essay on Eliot in Axel's Castle (1931) 
firmly established Eliot's poetic reputation. Wilson brought to 
the attention of his readers Eliot's debt to the literature of the 
French Symbolists, as well as to the poetry of the British seven- 
teenth century. Edmund Wilson was at his persuasive and rare 
best, and unlike the more academic and neoscholastic critics 
who followed him in the discovery of Eliot's poetry, Wilson's 
prose took fire from its subject; to this day, it is among the 
superlative essays that Wilson has written. 

What soon became clear was that judicious reading had been 
among the sources of Eliot's poetry, that Eliot's reading em- 
braced passages of prose from the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes 
as well as other obscure sources including a fragment of a letter 
of Edward Fitzgerald as it had been quoted in an excellent 
biography of Fitzgerald written by A. G. Benson. But these 
findings, however sedulously sought for they may be (and the 
task, if it could ever be completed, would employ a lifetime), 
cannot be taken as the full explanation of Eliot's poetic genius. 
Eliot's habit of borrowing lines and phrases and making them 
his own is not a new nor a shocking one; every undergraduate in 
college knows how skillfully Tennyson turned elder poets to 

422 A History of American Poetry 

account, and how surely, how wittily, Robert Herrick, the self- 
confessed "son" of Ben Jonson, reset and burnished lines from 
Horace and Ovid and in respect to Eliot, one may quote Sir 
John Denham's poem on Abraham Cowley: 5 

To him no author was unknown, 
Yet what he wrote was all his own. 

Horace his wit, 'and Virgil's state, 

He did not steal, but emulate! 

And when he would like them appear, 

Their garb, but not their clothes, did wear. 

More important than the great number of Eliot's literary 
sources was die synthesis of a poetic reality and its emotion that 
lie conveyed to his readers; he gave to those who read The Waste 
Land a profound sense of the restlessness of the time, and he had 
found for them a rhythm and a speech that seemed to voice a 
hitherto unexpressed state of the soul and its disturbances. He 
brought certain stray insights, intentions, wandering philoso- 
phies, and dormant moods to light, and gave them a personality 
and a name the direction that he led was toward the devo- 
tional resolutions of Ash-Wednesday (1930) and he had contrib- 
uted an individual rhythm that had been heard as early as the 
publication of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" 6 in 1915: 

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. 
I do not think that they will sing to me. 

The "individual talent," rhythm and melody were heard, and 
they presented variations of Eliot's gifts in "Sweeney Among the 
Nightingales," in the Jamesian "Portrait of a Lady," and in the 
delicately modulated "La Figlia che Piange." With "Gerontion," 
these poems passed into the very language of the twentieth cen- 
tury, and in emotional range they foreshadowed the character of 
Eliot's poetry. It can be said today that this small group of 
Eliot's early poems also defined (as though a line in chalk 
were being drawn around them) his limitations. What remained 

5 From Poetry of the English Renaissance edited by Rebel and Hudson. 
By permission of F. S. Crofts & Company. 

6 From Collected Poems. By permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company. 

The 1920' s 423 

to be explored was a greater depth of feeling, and the first step 
in that direction, which is neither o^ space nor of time, was The 
Waste Land. Its first readings were of its day, but as The Waste 
Land gave place to Ash-Wednesday, and Ash-Wednesday was 
followed by Burnt Norton in 1935, and at last by Four Qwirtets 
(of which Burnt Norton was rcpublished as the first poem) one 
witnesses the progress of Eliot's religious being to a full and 
rich maturity. The turning points of his later development may 
be found within his "Minor Poems": in "Eyes that last I Saw 
in Tears," in the last two lines of "Usk": 7 

Where the grey light meets the green air 
The hermit's chapel, the pilgrim's prayer. 

And in "Lines for an Old Man": s 

The tiger in the tiger-pit 
Is not more irritable than I. 
The whipping tail is not more still 
Than when I smell the enemy 
Writhing in the essential blood 
Or dangling from the friendly tree. 

And the fine modulations of "La Figlia die Piange" are en- 
dowed with a renewed intensity and strength in "Marina," whose 
theme is the recognition scene between father and daughter, and 
if the earlier poem was of the glancing sight of a vanished lady, 
the second is one of rediscovery, and the poet accomplishes for 
his reader the restoration of a lost image, and the resolution of 
a scene which has enduring significance the sight of a completed 
vision in later life, which is 

This form, this face, this life 

Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me 
Resign my life for this life, my speedi for that unspoken, 
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships. 

What seas what shores what granite islands toward my timbers 
And woodthrush calling through the fog 
My daughter. 9 

7 From Collected Poems. By permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company. 
s Ibid. 

9 "Marina" from Collected Poems. By permission of Harcourt, Brace and 

424 A History of American Poetry 

It is best of all to remember that Eliot's poetry has a true 
affinity with Joyce's three great works in prose, A Portrait of the 
Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake, in that the 
majority of Eliot's poems tend to make a single book; almost 
everything that Joyce wrote was in reality toward a single "Work 
in Progress," and a "Work in Progress" might well be the all- 
embracing, if abstract, title of Eliot's poetry, beginning with 
Prufrock, including the choruses of The Rock (1934), and his 
two plays in verse, Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The 
Family Reunion (1939), and finally, his Four Quartets. This is 
not to say that the "Work" is yet complete, but since his Four 
Quartets are a successful recapitulation of many of his earlier 
poems, including the choruses of his plays, it is reasonable tq 
assume that a large arc of Eliot's circle has come into view. J 

"Prufrock," The Waste Land, "The Hollow Men," Ash- 
Wednesday, "Triumphal Arch," "Difficulties of a Statesman," 
and Four Quartets may be read (and have been read) as poems 
which revealed the hidden sensibilities of a quarter-century in 
America and in England, and from The Waste Land onward, 
each poem has its relevance in emotional temper, rather than in 
the literal statement of events, to a world that has suffered the 
presence of two world wars. In other words, the poems are writ- 
ten in the language of their day, yet the references to the time 
in which they are written merely form the top layer of their 
meanings. The true concern of Eliot's later poetry is the sight 
of the central vision of religious being, which, if it is translated 
into different terms, is the "Epiphany," "the showing forth," of 
a timeless moment, of which Joyce was so distinctly aware from 
the time he wrote his Stephen Hero (1904-1906) to the end of his 
life. It was that "showing forth" which was the concern of the 
seventeenth-century "metaphysical" poets as well as the devo- 
tional poets who followed them, and whatever else their poetry 
conveyed, the centers of religious being and of the timeless mo- 
ment were sought and held within a single vision. The attrac- 
tion of that moment is held in the best of Eliot's poetry, and 
if, as he himself remarked, the number of excellent devotional 
poems in English is small, he has added to that small but mem- 

The 1920 's 425 

orable selection, Journey of the Magi, A Song for Simeon, Ani- 
mula, and Ash-Wednesday. 
The terrors of The Waste Land 10 were uplifted to glory in: 

"This music crept by me upon the waters" 

And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street. 

O City city, I can sometimes hear 

Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street, 

The pleasant whining of a mandoline 

And a clatter and a chatter from within 

Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls 

Of Magnus Martyr hold 

Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold. 

And in Ash-Wednesday, 11 as Eliot, like Dante, reiterates "Our 
peace is in his will," a great energy relieves the dryness of the 

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices 

In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices 

And the weak spirit quickens to rebel 

For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell 

Quickens to recover 

The cry of quail and the whirling plover 

And the blind eye creates 

The empty forms between the ivory gates 

And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth 

In "Little Gidding," the last of the Four Quartets, the release 
of energy has assumed the form of paying tribute to those gifts 
which are the last fruits of mature experience. (Several of Eliot's 
critics, including Edmund Wilson, have noted his choice of the 
"aged eagle," of elder men, of which Becket in Murder in the 
Cathedral is one of a large company, in whose words the central 
commentary of a poem or a play is spoken. In its best sense, this 
observation has several implications, and the most important of 
these is Eliot's dual respect for mature authority and poetic wit, 
which in The Waste Land was signified by the presence of the 
ancient, blinded seer, Tiresias, who "perceived the scene, and 
foretold the rest." And it should also be remembered that respect 

10 From Collected Poems. By permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company. 

11 Ibid. 

426 A History of American Poetry 

for the wisdom of age has been voiced by many an excellent poet 
before Eliot's day; and these include if one would name a few- 
Homer, Sophocles, Ovid, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Eliot's 
near contemporary, E. A. Robinson). Little Gidding itself was 
Nicholas Ferrar's "Protestant nunnery" which figured so appro- 
priately in J. H. Shorthouse's remarkable historical novel, John 
Inglesant, and the novel deserves to be reread today as a minor 
classic written in the nineteenth century. The following lines 
from the poem show the firmness of expression that Eliot has 

'Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age 
To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort. 
First, the cold friction of expiring sense 

Without enchantment, offering no promise 
But bitter tastelcssness of shadow fruit 
As body and soul begin to fall asunder. 

Second, the conscious impotence of rage 
At human folly, and the laceration 
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse. 

And last, the rending pain of re-enactment 

Of all that you have done, and been; the shame 
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness 

Of things ill done and done to others' harm 
Which once you took for exercise of virtue. 
Then fools' approval stings, and honor stains. 

From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit 
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire 
Where you must move in measure like a dancer.' 

The day was breaking. In the disfigured street 
He left me, with a kind of valediction, 
And faded on the blowing of the horn. 12 

As, in Ash-Wednesday, the dryness of the soul is released into 
the fire of the word of God, so in the last of the Four Quartets, 
suffering and doubt are consumed in the fire that streams from 
humane and heavenly love: 

The dove descending breaks the air 
With flame of incandescent terror 

12 "Little Gidding" from Four Quartets. By permission of Harcourt, Brace 
and Company. 

The 1920's 427 

Of which the tongues declare 

The one discharge from sin and error. 

The only hope, or else despair 

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre 

To be redeemed from fire by fire. 

Who then devised the torment? Love. 
Love is the unfamiliar Name 
Behind the hands that wove 
The intolerable shirt of flame 
Which human power cannot remove. 

We only live, only suspire 

Consumed by either fire or fire. 13 

Another aspect of the Four Quartets is, of course, the expres- 
sion of one who has lived through "the years of Venire deux 
guerres," and in that sense Four Quartets is of the same im- 
portance to Eliot's generation as Wordsworth's "The Prelude, 
Or Growth of a Poet's Mind" was to those who read it in 1850. 

Of Eliot's ventures as a playwright, one can only suppose that 
his activity has just begun. Although Eliot's ability to write 
dramatic verse within his major poems has long been recognized 
lor its excellence, his play, The Family Reunion, is of an "art 
theater" variety, and embarrassing moments of "artiness" marred 
its more serious religious and esthetic values. Murder in the 
Cathedral, a play so written that it bears an analogy in its 
structure to the morality plays of the pre-Renaissance English 
stage, was far more successful. Those who saw its performance 
in New York in 1936 under the direction of the Federal The- 
ater, and acted by those who spoke their parts with greater 
feeling than is usual upon the overly professional Broadway 
stage, realized the impressiveness of the event. And not the 
least element of interest in that production (which for a short 
time was well attended) was that the great majority of the audi- 
ence scarcely knew Eliot's name. Many of those who came and 
among them were the very poor, for whom the Federal Theater 
offered good productions and good plays at low prices came 
because they wished to see a religious play, and they were not 

is "Little Gidding" from Four Quartets. By permission of Harcourt, Brace 
and Company. 

428 A History of American Poetry 

In his position of one who does not fear to exercise his intelli- 
gence as well as learning, in his formality, in his ability to sur- 
prise, to shock, and at times to bewilder his critics, Eliot truly 
resembles in more ways than one that highly gifted and "intel- 
lectual" painter, Delacroix: how well, how appropriately Eliot's 
tigers and leopards would appear in company with Delacroix's 
lions and Arabs! And if this parallel seems too "romantic" in its 
associations for the completed intention of Eliot's poetry, it is 
also pertinent to quote Joyce's discussion of the classical temper 
in Stephen Hero (1944): 14 

The classical temper . . . ever mindful of its limitations, chooses . . . 
to bend upon . . . present things and so work upon them and fashion 
them that the quick intelligence may go beyond them to their meaning 
which is still unuttered. In this method the sane and joyful spirit issues 
forth and achieves imperishable perfection, nature assisting with her 
goodwill and thanks. For so long as this place in nature is given us it 
is right that art should do no violence to the gift. 

This latter statement lies close to Eliot's avowed "classicism" 
and the major aspects of his poetry; meanwhile he has intro- 
duced his readers to a new sensibility in the poetic genius of our 
time; and if his quickened intelligence seems to move behind 
and beyond his generation, to meanings which are still unuttered, 
he is also to be read as "the man of feeling," the poet whose 
lines have caught and held the essential rhythms of twentieth- 
century poetry. 

i* By permission of New Directions. 


THE 1930'S 





During the middle years of a "political decade," the 1930*5, 
the "low dishonest decade," of which W. H. Auden spoke, no 
poet in America saw the implications of that hour with greater 
clarity than Stephen Vincent Benet. He was a writer who had 
"found himself" as completely as John Dos Passos had in the 
writing of his American trilogy, U.S.A., and while other writers 
discussed the means of reaching a public in the American 
Writers' Congress of 1935, Benet's major poem, John Brown's 
Body (1928), was widely read and admired in high schools and 
colleges throughout the country. Benet's verse was irrelevant to 
the usual definitions of politics and esthetics: it reflected the 
taste and the popular feeling of the moment; it never failed to 
"tell a story" that could be understood with the ease and the 
vividness of a Currier and Ives print or of a mural painted by 
Thomas Hart Benton, and it possessed those qualities of an 
historical imagination that were felt by readers of The Saturday 
Evening Post as well as those who shaped their opinions by the 
weekly digest of news in Time magazine. It was to that contra- 
dictory and amorphous public that Benet spoke, and his gifts 
were those that caught the public ear. His disciplines were those 
of the professional writer for widely circulated magazines: his 
rules for writing either prose or verse were verbal clarity, pictorial 
vividness, a display of humor in the manner of Mark Twain, and 
a discernible rhythmic beat in a stanza or a paragraph. His five 
novels, his seven books of verse, his numerous short stories, his 
miscellaneous pieces of prose and dramatic sketches seem to have 
been written by a hand that never blotted or scratched out a line, 


432 A History of American Poetry 

and in all the various kinds of writing that Bene*t employed, 
there is never an inactive page. In a foreword written to a high- 
school text edition of his John Brown's Body in 1941 Benet 
wrote, "Poetry ... is not a highly complicated puzzle box 
which you can open only with a special set of keys. It tells its 
story in a different way from prose it uses rhyme and meter and 
the words go to a beat" and he was frankly describing the nature 
of his own verse. It must be admitted that the definition be- 
trayed a note of impatience for any further or a more profound 
consideration of poetry itself, but it was clear that to Benet 
poetry was an evocative and impressionable means of making 
a story heard. And John Brown's Body, a narrative poem of the 
American Civil War, had justified the expression of Benet's 

When John Brown's Body appeared in 1928 it enjoyed a highly 
attentive press; Stephen Benet's ballad, King David, had received 
The Nation's poetry prize in 1923, and it was generally known 
that the author of John Brown's Body had spent two years in 
Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship in writing it. Most of the 
critics and reviewers welcomed it with enthusiasm; it held much 
of the same appeal that Longfellow's Hiawatha had for an earlier 
generation: its theme was American and the poem ran to some 
350 book-size pages; its love stories could be enjoyed in the same 
spirit in which an historical novel is read and its verse forms 
had all the variety of the verse written in the preceding decade 
by Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, G. K. 
Chesterton, and others. Nothing in the poem was unfamiliar to 
the eye or ear; the poem was, as Louis Untermeyer remarked, "a 
work of assimilation," it reassembled facts and legends concern- 
ing the Civil War, and threw into high relief its scenes of action. 
If Benet took everything in verse that came readily to hand, from 
ballads that had been sung in the Kentucky mountains to the 
free-verse rhythms of Masters and Sandburg, his battle scenes had 
the excitement, the "realism," the skill of David Wark Griffith's 
The Birth of a Nation, and if Griffith's sympathies leaned a trifle 
to the South, Benet tipped the balance slightly in favor of the 
North. Allen Tate reviewed the poem briskly in The Nation: 

The 1930's 433 

John Brown's Body has merit enough; it has hair-raising defects; and 
yet it deserves to be widely read and within reason praised. The poem 
is not in any sense an epic; neither is it a philosophical vision of the 
Civil War; it is a loose episodic narrative which unfolds related themes 
in motion-picture flashes. 

Nothing could be plainer than the poem's merits: its view was 
that of a young American who had rediscovered the importance 
of the Civil War, and, in that view, historical documents, old 
portraits, songs, newspaper commentaries, yellowed photographs, 
and boyhood visits to die battlefields had come to life; its thumb- 
nail sketches of the generals on both sides of the conflict had an 
air of veracity and of restless, quick-witted, authoritative nota- 
tion. These were done with an historian's eye for effective detail 
and among the many brief scenes of action that the poem pre- 
sented to the reader few were better than the memorable and 
terse description of Lincoln's visit to Pickett's house after the 
fall of Richmond. The poem creates the impression of being 
expertly planned and directed, and once a scene moves into view 
before the reader's eye, it seems to take on the inevitable char- 
acter of any sequence of events in history. 

The "hair-raising defects" of the poem are those of a writer 
who concentrates his energies upon the immediate effect that his 
writing may have upon the eye and ear. The fictional characters 
in John Brown's Body are of the same stature, color, and life 
that are often witnessed within the pages of popular magazine 
fiction; their youth has charm and vivacity, they wear appro- 
priate clothes; they fall in love or out of it; they know the emo- 
tions that accompany physical fear and courage; they enjoy the 
embraces of friendship or of love, but they lack the passions of 
grief and of more than transitory delight, and when they dis- 
appear from the page that gave them an excuse for being, the 
reader is not likely to feel their loss. When the poem tells its 
stories of its Northern and Southern soldiers and its Southern 
heroine, one is certain that the poem is "talking down" to its 
readers; the figures of Jack Ellyat, Melora Vilas, Clay Wingate, 
Luke Breckinridge are out of the same clothes closet that once 
housed the heroes and heroines of Winston Churchill's novels, 
those romances which began with Richard Carvel (1899) and 

434 d History of American Poetry 

reached the height of their popularity with The Crossing (1904). 
It is only in their proximity to the historical figures of John 
Brown's Body and in their participation in the events of the 
Civil War that the fictional characters of the poem are endowed 
with life. 

The poem is sustained by the author's lively interest in its 
scenes and recollections of an historic past; when he wrote of the 
raid at Harper's Ferry or of boyhood memories of "the court- 
house in the square" where John Brown stood his trial, or the 
concluding stanzas of the poem itself, the entire work seems to 
justify Stephen Benet's intentions. The intention (so it seems) 
was to awaken the American schoolboy as well as the thoughtless 
American who read illustrated fiction in magazines from an in- 
difference to the events of the Civil War. And when John Brown's 
Body was selected by a book club for distribution, and when it 
received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1929, it was assured of 
reaching the public for whom it had been written. 

In the writing and the subsequent success of John Brown's 
Body, Stephen Ben6t had undergone a transformation. He had 
followed the example set by his elder brother, William Rose 
Benet, in choosing Yale for his college education. The very year 
that Stephen Benct entered Yale (which was 1915) he published 
a series of dramatic sketches in verse, Five Men and Pompey, and 
two years later at the age of nineteen, he received the Albert 
Stanburrough Cook prize at Yale for verses on Keats, "The Drug- 
Shop, or Endymion in Edmonstoun." As a boy he had won 
prizes in the columns of the St. Nicholas, and if one wishes to 
find a true "influence" upon the lighter verses written by the 
members of the Benet family, including Stephen's sister, Laura, 
the St. Nicholas, that best of all children's magazines ever pub- 
lished in English, should not be forgotten. From 1873 to 1919 the 
St. Nicholas inspired and encouraged precocious and gifted chil- 
dren who possessed literary ambitions; during its long and in- 
fluential lifetime St. Nicholas published contributions from 

The 1930's 435 

Louisa May Alcott, William Cullen Bryant, Lucretia P. Hale, 
Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, and Frances Hodgson Burnett; 
it created a standard for the writing of light verse, of which 
Oliver Herford and Carolyn Wells were the most able practi- 
tioners. At least three generations of children sent their writings 
in to St. Nicholas with the hope of seeing their contributions 
published in its back columns under the heading of "St. Nicholas 
League"; and one is certain that two of Stephen BeneYs well- 
known shorter poems, "American Names" and "The Ballad of 
William Sycamore" (as well as A Book of Americans [1933], 
which had been written in collaboration with his wife, Rosemary 
Bent), would have been welcomed by the editors of the St. 
Nicholas when the magazine was in its prime. How clearly the 
last stanza of "The Ballad of William Sycamore" * belongs to 
those readers whose memories embraced recollections of a St. 
Nicholas childhood! 

Go play with the towns you have built of blocks, 
The towns where you would have bound mel 
I sleep in my earth like a tired fox, 
And my buffalo have found me. 

In a letter to the authors of the present history of recent 
American poetry, William Rose Bent wrote of his brother in 


He read poetry from an early age ... as my father had before him. 
My father also had an amazing taste in literature. He used to say that 
he could not always explain why he knew instinctively the good things, 
but that he knew he knew. If that sounds conceited, the fact remains 
that he was usually right. Why was because from a precocious child- 
hood my father had read enormously. I used to think he had read 
everything. . . . He used to call Steve the "child of his old age," as 
Steve came twelve and fourteen years after myself and Laura. In 
reality Father was about forty when Steve was born, which now seems 
to me, at the advanced age of fifty-eight, like a mere youth! Still, Father 
gave him special attention, and used to love to talk to him, to read to 
him, and so on. Steve was the one of us nearest to my father mentally. 
Mother had a natural love of poetry, and good taste in it. But she 
inclined to devotional poets like George Herbert. Father inclined to 

iFrom Selected Works of Stephen Vincent Bene"t, published by Farrar & 
Rinehart. Copyright, 1922, by Stephen Vincent Benet. 

436 A History of American Poetry 

the romantic and dramatic and martial. Also to the wits, to parody, to 
Gilbert, Lear, Calverley, etc. That was the background at home. Steve 
was a rather delicate small boy and not very happy at school. 

His schools were in California and in Georgia, where his father was 
stationed at government arsenals ... at Yale he took his place as one 
of the outstanding albeit regarded as eccentric men of his class. He 
did this almost by an effort of will as he was very shy when he entered. 
He was an omnivorous reader like his father, reading the good, bad, 
and indifferent, but at one time quite strongly influenced by Browning, 
William Morris, and Chesterton. This was in youth. . . . He liked 
songs you could sing and ballads. 

His friends at Yale included Phelps Putnam, author of two 
highly promising books of verse, Trine (1927) and The Five 
Seasons (1931), Philip Barry, the playwright, Archibald Mac- 
Leish, and the gifted, sensitive novelist and playwright, Thornton 
Wilder. His publisher, John Farrar, who was also a friend at 
Yale, was memorably quoted by Mabel A. Bessy in her note on 
"The Author" in the textbook edition of John Brown's Body: 2 

While in Yale . . . [Stephen Bene"t] wrote plays and acted in them, 
was elected to the Editorial Board of the Yale Record and later, to the 
chairmanship of the Yale Literary Magazine. It was of his connection 
with this magazine that John Farrar remarked that Bench was the 
despair of all the other fellows who wanted to make the "Lit," for the 
editorial board could hardly reject its chairman's stuff and "the young- 
ster wrote so much and so well that there was often mighty little room 
left for any other ambitious verse-maker." 

In Stephen Bench's early novels, The Beginning of Wisdom 
(1921) and Young People's Pride (1922), the fashion of the day, 
or rather the sort of light novel that was being written by young 
men just out of college, had left its mark. If This Side of Para- 
dise (1920) expressed the ardors and desires of a young man from 
Princeton, The Beginning of Wisdom and Young People's Pride 
were the voices of urban, undergraduate Yale. All three novels 
represented a self-consciously restless generation whose stay at 
college was an introduction to the more exciting adventures of 
seeing New York, Chicago, Paris, and the Riviera soon after the 
First World War. The books were written with almost tele- 

2 Published by Farrar & Rinehart. Copyright, 1927, 1928, by Stephen Vin- 
cent Bent. 

The 1930's 437 

graphic speed, and they were models of what the ' 'younger gen- 
eration" breathed, felt, and wore, and at last communicated their 
observations to readers of books in the lending libraries. 

But being fashionable for fashion's sake was not BeneYs in- 
tention; in 1920 he took his master's degree at Yale, and con- 
tinued his academic career through a fellowship at the Sorbonne; 
nor did a position in an advertising office nor the commercial 
success of his short stories exhaust or satisfy the resources of his 
energy; he was "at home" only in the writing of John Brown's 

The shorter poems of Stephen Ben^t fall within the definitions 
that T. S. Eliot so happily conceived for Rudyard Kipling's verse; 
and it should be said that both William Rose and Stephen Bene"t 
had written of Kipling in the highest terms of admiration. The 
nationalism of Stephen Benet was of essentially the same temper 
as Kipling's devotion to the British Empire, and quite as Stephen 
Benet had grasped the importance of the Civil War in its rele- 
vance to American life, he also recognized, in the sense that few 
writers of his generation had, the obvious fact that the society 
through which he moved was Christian, and the most successful 
of his satires in verse was "Carol: New Style" 3 which began with 
the following stanza: 

If Jesus Christ should come again, 
On Christmas day, on Christmas day, 
To bother the minds of gentlemen 
On Christmas day in the morning? 

And in his "1935" 4 something of the worldly and critical gift 
that Kipling possessed enters the closing lines of a poem in which 
the ghosts of marching men were raised: 

Must you march forever from France and the last, blind war? 
"Fool! From the next!" they said. 

3 From Ballads and Poems, published by Farrar & Rinehart. Copyright, 
1925, by Stephen Vincent Bene"t. 

* From Selected Works of Stephen Vincent Benet, published by Farrar & 
Rinehart. Copyright, 1935, by Stephen Vincent Bene"t. 

438 A History of American Poetry 

In 1933 Stephen Bene*t was awarded the Roosevelt Medal for 
his contribution to American literature, and five years later, he 
was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and 
Letters; he also became a vice-president of the National Institute 
of Arts and Letters, and few writers ever stepped into a position 
of authority and influence with a greater sense of responsibility 
than he. Among his loyalties was the editorship of the "Yale 
Series of Younger Poets"; and the series, which published a book 
each year by an unknown poet, was one of the means he used 
of doing good unobtrusively, which was graced by the rare gift 
of common sense. It was through his efforts that Paul Engle, an 
earnest, sometimes bewildered, but essentially truthful poet, 
found publication; his second book, American Song (1934), car- 
ried on its dedication page its tribute to Stephen Benet, and his 
four books of poems following it are a record of his uneven and 
yet hopeful progress. Among the more promising of the younger 
poets who were introduced by Stephen Benet in the "Yale Series" 
was Muriel Rukeyser, who in 1935 was highly praised for her 
Theory of Flight , and in a foreword to her book Benet wrote: 

. . . the mind behind these poems is an urban and a modern one. 
It has fed on the quick jerk of the news-reel, the hard lights in the sky, 
the long deserted night-street, the take-off of the plane from the ground. 
It knows nature as well the look of landscape, the quietness of hills. 
But its experience has been largely an urban experience, and it is 
interesting to see the poetry of youth so based. When Miss Rukeyser 
thinks of energy, she thinks of a dynamo rather than a river, an electric 
spark rather than a trampling hoof and that is interesting too. 5 

Muriel Rukeyser's first book, published when she was twenty- 
two, sharply defined her talents. It was true, as Bene*t so happily 
suggested, that her poems seemed to feel and to think in terms 
of energy; it was the force of the dynamo that gave them life, 
and the same implied force, with varying success, entered her 
three other volumes of verse, U. S. i (1938), A Turning Wind 
> an d Beast in View (1944). Her poems seem to show the 

5 By permission of Yale University Press. 

The 1930's 439 

effort of trying to move forward on too many fronts, as though 
the poems were conceived in terms of slogans and commands. 
Although visual brilliance is in evidence throughout the many 
poems she has written, her first book is still her nearest approach 
to accomplishment. Theory of Flight contained such brilliant 
and unaffected poems as "Sand-Quarry with Moving Figures," 
and the quickening tour de force, "Ritual of Blessing." Her verse 
reflected the temper of a prewar generation of young women, 
who, like Miss Rukeyser, had left Vassar College in search of 
larger worlds to conquer, all of whom were well aware of the 
Wall Street crash of 1929, the diverse influences of Freud and 
of Marx upon contemporary literature, and who read with sym- 
pathetic appreciation the early verse of W. H. Auden and Stephen 
Spender as well as the novels of Thomas Wolfe. Miss Rukeyser's 
books of verse were supplemented by a commentary on the life 
of Willard Gibbs (1942), the distinguished American scientist. 
Not unlike Lewis Mumford's Herman Melville (1929) and The 
Brown Decades (1931) Miss Rukeyser's Willard Gibbs was an 
interpretation of nineteenth-century America reviewed in the 
light of social criticism. Quite as her book of poems, A Turning 
Wind, contained an indebtedness to the writings of Waldo 
Frank, in like measure, her Willard Gibbs shared the Messianic 
insights and diversions of the elder writer's prose; in general, 
the book had the same flaws and merits that characterized Waldo 
Frank's Virgin Spain (1926) and Dawn in Russia (1932). 

Through his encouragement of younger poets, as well as his 
own writings, Stephen Benet participated actively in a literature 
that slowly prepared the United States for entrance into a Second 
World War; in these services, his writing supplemented the prose 
and verse of Archibald MacLeish; the two poets seemed to ex- 
change "influences" upon one another's verse, and it was obvious 
that the same spirit that produced MacLeish's conviction that 

Men have forgotten how full clear and deep 

The Yellowstone moved on the gravel and grass grew 

When the land lay waiting for her westward peoplel 6 

e "Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City" from Poems 1920-1934, by permis- 
sion of Hough ton Mifflin Company. 

440 A History of American Poetry 

also entered Stephen BeneYs incompleted and posthumously 
published narrative in verse, Western Star (1943), which, like 
John Brown's Body, was distributed by a book club and received 
the Pulitzer Prize for poetry the following year. The narrative, 
which paid its tribute to the memory of the Mayflower and 
Plymouth Rock, held to the belief (as Benet phrased it) that 
"Americans are always moving on," and in this conviction he 
seemed to share the view that had been advanced in Carl Sand- 
burg's The People, Yes as well as in MacLeish's Frescoes for Mr. 
Rockefeller's City (1933). Stephen Benet's unexpected and early 
death on March 13, 1943, gave rise to an occasion for many 
younger poets whose work he had encouraged to express their 
gratitude in the pages of The Saturday Review of Literature, 
and his publisher observed that a sheet of paper placed on top 
of the manuscript of his uncompleted Western Star 7 had the 
following four lines written across it: 

Now for my country that it may still live, 
All that I have, all that I am I'll give. 
It is not much beside the gift of the brave 
And yet accept it since tis all I have. 

It was in that devoted and patriotic spirit that Benet fulfilled 
the heritage of his grandfather, Brigadier General Stephen Vin- 
cent Bene't. 

Of those who wrote in tribute to Stephen Benet's memory, 
none spoke with deeper understanding than his brother, Wil- 
liam Rose Benet, who was twelve years his senior. In his elegy, 
"S. V. B.- 1898-1 943," 8 William Rose Benet included the fol- 
lowing lines: 

The fleece that was filled with dew; 
The god in the oak. 

7 From Western Star, published by Farrar & Rinehart. Copyright, 1943, by 
Stephen Vincent Bent. 

s From The Day of Deliverance. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. 
Knopf, Inc. Copyright, 1944, by William Rose Bendt. 

The 1930 's 441 

And legend for his own folk, 
Of their toil and their mirth; 
Tang of the tongue they spoke, 
The savour of their earth; 
Till when foul darkness stirred 
To blast all singing, 
Men heard his quiet word 
Steady and ringing. 

William Rose BeneYs verse was of an elder school than that 
of his brother; it was written in the vein of the "Romantic Tradi- 
tionists" and its happiest moments were lyrical rather than in 
the dramatic scenes of action that Stephen Bent found so effec- 
tive in his John Brown's Body. As Stephen Bene"t wrote with 
thoroughly deliberated concentration upon single themes, his 
elder brother diffused his talents widely; William Rose BeneYs 
verses touched upon and sometimes passed over many subjects 
lightly, and the very conditions of his life, his many activities in 
editing magazines and anthologies of verse seemed to contribute 
toward a neglect of his own gifts in favor of his ability to en- 
courage and to appreciate the works of others. Like his younger 
brother, Stephen, he abhorred dullness as nature does a vacuum, 
and at Yale a decade earlier than Stephen, his training for a 
professional career included editorship of The Yale Record and 
The Yale Courant'dnd he was markedly of the same restless 
college "generation" at Yale that produced the novelist, Sinclair 
Lewis. The same spirit of revolt against an academic reading of 
literature which led Henry Seidel Canby from the English de- 
partment at Yale to an assistant editorship of The Yale Review, 
and finally to the chairmanship of the Book of the Month Club 
in New York, seems to have entered the generation of which 
Canby, William Rose Benet, and Sinclair Lewis were the fore- 
runners, and of which Archibald MacLeish, Thornton Wilder, 
and Stephen Benet, and latterly Selden Rodman, poet and editor, 
were the fortunate heirs. Behind all these, perhaps the example 
set by William Lyon Phelps exerted a charm that has been under- 
rated by critics of contemporary American letters. Phelps's en- 
thusiasm for current literature in the broadest terms has its 
analogy only in the adventurous spirit that possessed such Vic- 

442 A History of American Poetry 

torians as Sir Richard Burton, the translator of The Arabian 
Nights and the title of William Rose Benet's first book of 
poems, Merchants from Cathay (1913) has something of the same 
adventurous character. 

William Rose Bench's early verse delighted in fancy for its own 
sake; it glittered rather than shone, and translated quickly and 
lightly into its own speech the attractions that Swinburne, Ros- 
setti, Browning, G. K. Chesterton, and Rudyard Kipling held 
for the young Americans in a generation that saw a "poetic 
renaissance" in the United States. Like his younger brother and 
his sister Laura, the true touchstone for the verse that seemed 
to move with so much ease and skill was of a family heritage 
and it seems natural that his first editorial job should have been 
on the staff of the Century magazine which was closely asso- 
ciated (since it was then published by the same firm) with the 
St. Nicholas. 

William Rose Benet's abilities turned in the direction of light 
verse, and his ballad on "Jesse James: American Myth" showed 
the skill with which his facility in writing verse was at its best 
advantage. The poem's qualities of lightness, brilliance, and 
metrical speed place it among the best of its kind in American 
verse and one must turn to Vachel Lindsay's verses to find 
something of like temper. 

Of William Rose Benet's some fifteen books of verse, Man 
Possessed (1927) and Golden Fleece (1935) are the most repre- 
sentative volumes, and within them one clearly sees the reflec- 
tions of a volatile, gracefully mannered, and erratic talent. His 
"The Falconer of God" has been reprinted in many anthologies, 
and it has never failed to awaken admiration for its metrical 
variety and skill. But Benet's verse found its best expression in 
an elegy, his "Inscription for a Mirror in a Deserted Dwelling," 9 
which was written (it is believed) in memory of his second wife, 
Elinor Wylie, and which justly deserves to be remembered long 
after his more facile and glittering pieces are forgotten: 

From Golden Fleece. Reprinted by permission of Dodd, Mead & Com- 
pany, Inc. 

The 1930's 443 

Set silver cone to tulip flame! 

The mantel mirror floats with night 

Reflecting still green watery light. 

The sconces glimmer. If she came 

Like silence through the shadowy wall 

Where walls are wading in the moon 

The dark would tremble back to June, 

So faintly now the moonbeams fall, 

So soft this silence, that the verge 

Of speech is reached. Remote and pale 

As though some faint viridian veil 

The lovely lineaments emerge, 

The clearly amber eyes, the tint 

Of pearl and faintest rose, the hair 

To lacquered light a silken snare 

Of devious bronze, the tiny dint 

With which her maker mocked the years 

Beneath her lip imprinting praise. 

Dim flower of desecrating days, 

The old reflection, strange with tears, 

Is gazing out upon the gloom, 

Is widening eyes to find the light 

In reminiscence, in the night 

Of this forgone, forgotten room. 

And you, the watcher, with your eyes 

As wide as hers in dark distress, 

Who never knew her loveliness 

But guess through glass her shadowy guise, 

For you around the glass I trace 

This secret writing, that will burn 

Like witch-fire should her shade return 

To haunt you with that wistful face 

At least no gesturing figures pass; 

Here is no tragic immanence 

Of all the scenes of small events 

That pantomimed before the glass. 

No bliss, no passion, no despair, 

No other actor lingers now; 

The moonlight on a lifted brow 

Is all, the eyes so wide aware 

Of clouds that pass with stars, and suns, 

Of mystery that pales the cheek, 

Of all the heart could never speak, 

Of joy and pain so vivid once, 

444 A History of American Poetry 

That ceased with music and the lights, 
Dimming to darkness and repose . . . 
Lean then and kiss that ghostly rose 
That was her face, this night of nights, 
And know the vision fled indeed, 
The mirror's surface smooth and cold, 
The words unbreathed, the tale untold, 
The past unpiteous to your need! 

In this poem, BeneYs sensibility assumed its own character, 
and the poem properly distinguishes his talents from those of 
his younger brother, and indeed from those possessed by all 
other poets of his generation. His autobiography in verse, The 
Dust Which Is God (1941), showed a man who had participated 
actively in the years that spanned two world wars, and the reader 
sees reflected in its pages a busy life that enabled him to work 
with so much felicity in collaboration with Henry Seidel Canby 
and Christopher Morley in the founding and editing of The Sat- 
urday Review of Literature. The book received the Pulitzer Prize 
for poetry in 1942. In 1944, he published another book of poems, 
Day of Deliverance, whose lines expressed with great sincerity 
the national feeling of the day in the third year of the Second 
World War. 


Among William Rose Benet's many contributions to the lit- 
erature of the day (which included the editing in collaboration 
with Norman Holmes Pearson of The Oxford Anthology of 
American Literature [1938] which was both the most authoritative 
and discriminating work of its kind ever published in the United 
States) his loyal friendship to Lola Ridge should not be forgotten. 
Lola Ridge was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1871; her childhood 
was spent in Australia and New Zealand and after studying 
painting at the Academic Julienne in Sidney, in 1907 she came 
to the United States and settled in the neighborhood of New 
York's Greenwich Village. Unlike many stories of the privations 
suffered by poets during the years of the "poetic renaissance" in 
Chicago and in New York, the legend of Lola Ridge's austere 
devotion to her talents had more than the usual background of 

The 1930's 445 

literal truth to support it. Her choice of living in poverty was 
a deliberated one, for she had proved her ability to support 
herself reasonably well by contributing fiction to popular maga- 
zines. Perhaps inspired by the example set before her in Edgar 
Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, she turned her attention 
to the misery of the poor who lived in Manhattan's tenements 
on the lower East Side, and, in 1918, The New Republic pub- 
lished her observations in her famous poem, "The Ghetto," 
which appeared in book form during the same year. Lola Ridge 
was possessed of a Celtic imagination whose insights gave life 
and color to her convictions; and though much of her early verse 
now seems hastily fashioned in the rhythms of Amy Lowell's vers 
libre, the honesty of her devotion to a cause remains unques- 

Her devotion was one that can be described only in terms of 
a saintliness that Paul Vincent Carroll in his one felicitous play, 
Shadow and Substance, gave to his memorable and vision- 
haunted Irish heroine. Those who remember Lola Ridge also 
remember the large, barely furnished, wind-swept, cold-water loft 
where she lived in downtown Manhattan. The loft was very like 
some neatly, frugally kept cold-water flat in Dublin, and the un- 
worldly presence of Lola Ridge, a slender, tall, softly-speaking, 
thin-featured woman in a dark dress, heightened the illusion of 
being in a place that was not New York, but was well in sight of 
Dublin's purple hills. Even as one rereads her books one gains 
the impression that she regarded her social convictions and the 
writing of poetry in the same spirit in which an Irish girl in- 
vokes the will of God by entering a convent but Lola Ridge's 
devotion had turned to self-taught and protestant demands, and 
the task, the almost impossible task, of making social and re- 
ligious emotion a unified being was an effort that remained 
unfinished at her death. 

If her five books of verse, of which the last, Dance of Fire 
(1935), was the best, had been collected between the covers of 
a single volume, "fire" and "shadow" are the two words that 
would have accurately described them. Her self-taught art was 
at times unknowingly "arty" and her unrhymed verses were 

446 A History of American Poetry 

shadowy and thin. Her devotion to the memory of Shelley's 
poetry was in fact a complement of Elinor Wylie's devotion to 
the legend of Shelley's personality. Lola Ridge wrote as thinly 
as Shelley did when neither his poetry nor hers was at its best, 
and like Shelley, Lola Ridge endeavored to give fluid words and 
images, such as "fire" and "light," purposeful meaning in poetry. 
The political martyrdom of Sacco and Vanzetti gave occasion for 
her long poem on Christ's crucifixion, Firehead (1929), and the 
reiterated images of light within the poem, effective as they were 
upon first reading, dazzled rather than enlightened the under- 
standing of her sympathetic critics. 

In Dance of Fire Lola Ridge's poetic maturity began, and it 
was evident that in the sonnet sequence, "Via Ignis," which 
opened her last volume, Hart Crane's revival of Christopher 
Marlowe's diction left its impression upon her imagination. The 
poems were written at a time when many of those who had read 
Hart Crane's The Bridge felt the implied force of Crane's im- 
provisations in archaic diction; and indeed several of Lola 
Ridge's sonnets recalled the memory of Crane's suicide at sea: 

Balanced on high arc precariously 
He saw the fire on all lands; the flame- 
Encircled waters drew him sweetly down . . . 10 

Yet despite their dignity and perhaps because of the high, 
disinterested motives of their composition, the sonnets remained 
disembodied and curiously abstract. It was as though the poet 
had become aware of her lyrical gifts too late to find the words 
with which to express them clearly; felicitous lines and phrases 
flowed through the sequence of twenty-eight sonnets, and it is 
impossible to reread them without respect for the saintly, un- 
worldly motives that seem to have inspired the interwoven themes 
of "Via Ignis." Yet no single sonnet withstands the test of being 
read for itself alone, and a newly acquired, slightly misplaced 
archaic diction still quarrels with contemporaneous themes in the 
very poems that should have established Lola Ridge's fame. With 
the same lack of completed artistry, Lola Ridge paid her tributes 
to Robinson Jeffers, and to Sacco and Vanzetti; and she was 

! "Via Ignis" from Dance of Fire, by permission of Random House, Inc. 

The 1930's 447 

among the first of many to write of Van der Lubbe and the 
Reichstag Fire. Her moral courage and her imaginative insights 
seem to have reached beyond her strength, and if her devotion to 
poetry and the frustrations of the poor fell short of accomplish- 
ment in the writing of a wholly memorable poem, her failure was 
an honorable one. For the literary historian her verse provides a 
means of showing that the younger writers of the 1930'$ were 
not the first to rediscover the ghettos of New York in a city 
that was all too obviously ill at ease between two wars. And 
few of those who followed the direction she had taken wrote 
with the selfless idealism of Lola Ridge. On May 19, 1941, 
William Rose Bent wrote the notices of her death for New 
York newspapers; the worldly rewards she had won were few; 
but it was not without a measure of poetic if not ironic justice 
that she received the Shelley Memorial Prize for poetry in 
and in 1934. 


Scarcely less brilliant in his career than Stephen Benet, 
Archibald MacLeish in 1930 had the advantage of seeming more 
controversial than his contemporary, and more closely allied with 
the "new" techniques in writing poetry. He had been born in the 
well-to-do suburb of Chicago, Glencoe, Illinois, in 1892, and was 
of Scotch Presbyterian-New England ancestry. Although his 
career at Yale and later at the Harvard Law School was one that 
brought with it literary honors and distinction in leadership, 
particularly in his studies in law at Harvard, his poetic talents 
were less easily recognized than those of the precocious Stephen 
Benet. When the biography of Archibald MacLeish is written, 
it will not be forgotten that his academic life had been inter- 
rupted by his commission as a captain in the First World War, 
that he had served in the Field Artillery in France, that he re- 
turned to Cambridge to teach in the Harvard Law School, that 
he practiced law in the firm of Choate, Hall, and Stuart, of 
Boston, and that he gave up the successful practice of law for 
the writing of poetry. MacLeish's academic, legal, and poetic 
talents were widely diffused, and one might almost say that his 
gifts were so brilliant, so attractive, and of such great variety 
that the problem of making a choice between them demanded 
firmness and a conscious act of will. 

The highly conscious manner with which MacLeish has pre- 
sented his literary career to a growing public has often deceived 
both his admiring and adverse critics; they have taken him at 
his word, which throughout the 1930*5 has been subject to many 
revisions and contradictions; to a few younger writers he has 
been the political poet, par excellence, neatly tacking his sails 
(and he has written well of a "Yacht for Sale") to each fresh 


The 1930's 449 

wind, whether it came from the right northwest or from the left 
southeast. Heat or cold has made little difference to the central 
hardness and hardiness of MacLeish's gifts in writing verse. For 
like men (and Clarence Darrow, the famous lawyer, was among 
them) who present a loose and friendly exterior to the world, 
MacLeish's verse has a hard core. "I speak to my own time/To 
no time after" wrote MacLeish, and, in this respect, he has 
successfully kept a promise which has seemed to shift with each 
change of popular feeling in the United States. 

An illustration of how the hardiness of MacLeish's talents were 
underrated, even as late as 1929, has been preserved in A Book- 
man's Daybook * by Burton Rascoe. The scene was in Paris: 

MacLeish is a clear-eyed, deferential young man, with an extremely 
Nordic head, quiet manners, and an ungovernable passion for discuss- 
ing aesthetics aesthetics in the round, in the general, in the specific, 
in the concrete any way so long as it is aesthetics. He has not yet made 
up his mind whether to go free verse whole hog or none; and his pansy- 
like book of verse suffers from this indecision. But he is a fine lad one 
can call him a lad even if he has got a boy of seven who is a handsome 
youngster and bright as a whip; and a wife who is charming American 
"quality"; and lives in a mansion fitted out in luxurious bad taste with 
padded damask covered walls, by a Russian prince, now down on his 
luck, for a mistress who enjoyed the imported American plumbing of 
the bathroom for three months before the crash came. Yes, he is a fine 
lad and a brave one. When he was yet under thirty he had achieved as 
much success in law as that by which the most tolerable of the "How I 
Became a Success" yarns tempt the gullible wage-slave; and with 
enough money in the bank to keep him going for some years, he threw 
over the law, went to Paris, reduced his expenditures (he gets the ex- 
prince's mansion furnished and two servants for less than $150 a 
month), and started out being a poet. This accounts for his extraordi- 
nary preoccupation with aesthetics. 

The Hamlet of A. MacLeish (1928), which may have been one 
of the books to which Rascoe referred, had a clearer outline than 
critics of that moment had discerned; it had an obvious indebt- 
edness to the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, but it pre- 
sentedand not without dramatic effectiveness the figure of 
MacLeish as Hamlet. The part was extraordinarily well played 

i By permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation. 

45 A History of American Poetry 

and if the figure was indecisive in its action, Hamlet has never 
been known for his ability to make up his mind. The same 
quality of careful planning and expert composition distinguishes 
The Pot of Earth (1925) in which MacLeish presented, with a 
quotation from Sir James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, a ver- 
sion of the Adonis myth. No fault can be found with the ex- 
ternal appearance of the poem; its flaws are those of a failure to 
present a definite literary personality, but they were compen- 
sated by the three books which followed it: Streets in the Moon 
(1926), The Hamlet of A. MacLeish, and New Found Land 
(1930), and with these three volumes the success of MacLeish's 
decision to turn from law to literature was well assured, and 
from 1930 onward, almost every activity that MacLeish entered 
carried with it the atmosphere of successful accomplishment. 

Although a number of critics had praised Streets in the Moon, 
New Found Land, a book of fourteen poems, provided a true 
measure of MacLeish's gifts; the gifts were those of an almost 
Irish turn of eloquence; it was the eloquence of the John Synge 
of whom Yeats had been speaking when he said that poetry 
should be "as simple as the simplest prose, like a cry of the 
heart." And it was as though MacLeish had refined and revived 
in Paris Synge's belief that "it is the timber of poetry that wears 
most surely, and there is no timber that has not strong roots 
among the clay and worms." It was true that New Found Land 
reflected from its brilliant surfaces the teachings of Ezra Pound, 
but the elegiac atmosphere which pervaded the entire volume, 
its memories of an American heritage, with the title taken from 
John Donne's line in an elegy to his mistress, "O my America, 
my new found land," were of MacLeish's own creation. The book 
conveyed a unified impression of the American in Paris who had 
been possessed by thoughts of home, and at least three poems in 
the slender volume are now familiars of those who read modern 
poetry at all; they are "Immortal Autumn," "You, Andrew 
Marvell," and " 'Not Marble nor the Gilded Monuments/ " 
Those who had found the poetry of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and 
Hart Crane difficult to read soon discovered that MacLeish's 
variation of a "new" technique was as easy to accept as a short 

The 1930's 451 

story by Ernest Hemingway, and indeed parallels between Hem- 
ingway's prose and MacLeish's verse will probably concern the 
attention of future historians of American literature. 

When MacLeish returned to America in 1928, and followed 
his return by retracing Cortez's route in Mexico from the coast 
to the valley, he prepared himself for the writing of Conquis- 
tador, a narrative in terza rima based on Bernal Diaz's True 
History of the Conquest of New Spain. The book was published 
in 1932 and the following year it received the Pulitzer Prize. The 
generation of Americans who had traveled to postwar Paris and 
London and Madrid were beginning to rediscover Mexico, and 
MacLeish's poem anticipated the romantic search for violent 
color, action, and the vicarious sense of leisure that so many 
Americans have pursued in the countries southwest and south of 
Florida. And the general public had been prepared for Con- 
quistador by an interest that had been aroused in Mexican mural 
painting, the murals of Rivera and of Orozco, and in New York 
the associations of Mexico were linked with revolutionary politi- 
cal activity. Conquistador arrived at the right moment, and the 
impressionistic color and movement of the poem delighted its 
critics and dazzled all those who read it. 

The poem was a justly praised phenomenon, for the self-train- 
ing and discipline that MacLeish had received in writing The 
Pot of Earth and The Hamlet of A. MacLeish made Conquis- 
tador an example of craftsmanship that was beyond the skill of 
any poet of his generation. Compared to Conquistador other 
narrative poems of the period were less well sustained, were less 
expertly planned, and it was true, as Louis Untermeyer re- 
marked, that Conquistador "displays the poet's maturity." Much 
has been written of Conquistador's indebtedness to the tech- 
niques of Ezra Pound's Cantos and to T. S. Eliot's "Gerontion," 
but the actual precedent for the flaws and merits of the poem 
exists in Longfellow's Evangeline. The general reader who is un- 
concerned with matters of poetic technique does not care greatly 
whether or not Evangeline was written in an English version of 
the hexameter and Conquistador in an equally successful adap- 
tation of the terza rima. The point is that both poems were 

452 A History of American Poetry 

justified in their appeal to the eye and ear; both poems and at 
some length satisfied the expectations they aroused; both poems 
(as the American public read them) held the exotic attraction 
of places near at home, and .yet were far distant in their cultural 
tradition from the familiar, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon civilization 
of the cities and countrysides of the United States. And both 
poets had traveled extensively, Longfellow to Spain and Italy, 
MacLeish across Europe to the Middle East as far as Persia, and 
both were essentially elegiac poets, who could, on occasion, 
extend their gifts to the writing of brilliantly conceived narra- 
tives in verse. It could be said of MacLeish that the more he 
seemed to echo Ezra Pound, the more he actually resembled 
Longfellow; and like Longfellow, he had the same facility in 
adjusting the poetic innovations of his contemporaries to his 
own needs. 

With the publication of Conquistador the recognition of Mac- 
Leish's gifts had traveled far beyond the circle of those who 
edited "little" magazines in Paris and in New York, and in the 
meantime MacLeish had become a member of the staff of Henry 
Luce's organization of Time and Fortune and in this position 
he gained the admiration of younger men employed by Henry 
Luce. Quite as Arthur Brisbane, the gifted and liberally inclined 
editorial writer on Hearst's chain of newspapers, trained and in- 
spired younger men and won their devotion in the days when 
Hearst was not considered "reactionary," so MacLeish set a 
standard for journalistic excellence by writing articles for For- 
tune. Young men from Yale, Harvard, and Princeton were among 
the first to realize MacLeish's qualities for leadership in highly 
polished and luxuriously phrased "documentary" literature; and 
nothing quite like it, whether the subject was housing or Yale or 
Rivera's murals or skyscrapers or labor-saving machines, had ever 
been seen in previous ventures of American journalism. Under 
MacLeish's direction the arts of publicity and advertising took 
on an air of enriched simplicity, the kind of simplicity in dress 
and manner which can be acquired only by the very rich. With 

The 1930' s 453 

the same skill that distinguished his articles in Fortune, Mac- 
Leish wrote experimental plays in verse for radio production, 
The Fall of the City (1937) and Air Raid (1938); they were the 
best of their kind among many similar experiments, and they 
have not been equaled by any writer since. 

MacLeish's position as a publicist was enhanced by a poem, 
"Invocation to the Social Muse," which appeared in The New 
Republic, October 26, 1932. The poem was topical, and it was a 
satire so phrased as to awaken controversy in liberal publications. 
MacLeish seemed to speak for the kind of poets who were eager 
to confess 

We are 
Whores Fraulein: poets Fraulein are persons of 

Known vocation following troops: they must sleep with 
Stragglers from either prince and of both views: . . , 2 

The art of persuasion which MacLeish had served so admirably 
in his elegiac poems, particularly in his "You, Andrew Marvell," 
"L'An Trentiesme de Mon Eage," and "Immortal Autumn," had 
undergone a subtle change; the language in his verse shifted from 
the speech of the literary manifesto (which had become so popu- 
lar among American "expatriates" in Paris during the 1920*5) to 
the language which attempted "public speech," the kind of writ- 
ing in which almost every statement, no matter how casual it 
might have been, was transformed into a command. 

The history of that earlier moment has been eloquently written 
by Malcolm Cowley in his Exile's Return (1934); and today the 
book holds something of the same fascination that George 
Moore's Confessions of a Young Man once held for its readers. 
Cowley himself was a poet of considerable charm, whose verse 
was most successful when it re-created pastoral scenes in his native 
Pennsylvania, where he was born in 1898. His first book was a 
book of poems, Blue Juniata (1929), which in its notes (written 
in prose) described the wanderings of a young man who felt 
himself to be a member of a "landless, uprooted generation." He 
had gone to Harvard, he had edited the undergraduate The Har- 

2 "Invocation to the Social Muse" from Poems 1920-1934, by permission of 
Houghton Mifflin Company. 

454 d History of American Poetry 

vard Advocate; in 1917 he had served in an American ambulance 
unit in France, and he had found both Greenwich Village in New 
York and the Left Bank in Paris to be places of his discontent. 
Cowley had helped in editing "little" magazines, had joined the 
Dadaists, had made friends easily, and his book, Exile's Return, 
glowed with the warmth of his enjoyment in recollecting Mont- 
parnasse and the evening of his "significant gesture," the time 
that he was "arrested and tried for punching a cafe proprietor in 
the jaw." The cafe proprietor was probably no better and no 
worse than others of his kind, but he was disliked by Malcolm 
Cowley's friends and most of Cowley's friends mentioned with 
awe and reverence in Exile's Return were better known to Cowley 
than by the general public. He was amused to find that the inci- 
dent brought him newspaper publicity: 

I reflected that French writers rarely came to blows and that they had 
placed a high value on my unusual action ... I had committed an 
indiscretion, acted with violence and disdain for the law, performed an 
arbitrary and significant gesture, uttered a manifesto. 3 

The gayest and most high-spirited criticism of the period that 
had been described by Cowley is in Morton Dauwen Zabel's 
essay on MacLeish, "Cinema of Hamlet," 4 which was published 
in Literary Opinion in America: 

One of the oddest aberrations in our cultural history was the great 
exodus to France of 1918-1929, when literature, to be written, had to 
be written in Paris. Those were the days when American art moved 
from the Middle West to the Left Bank; when farm-hands hurried 
from Ohio and Wisconsin to get in on the Dada movement; when 
Gertrude Stein brandished the torch that lately sputtered in the grasp 
of Amy Lowell; when Kiki was the toast of Rotonde and Coupole; 
when "Ernest" proudly wheeled his well-filled go-cart among the occult 
biologic growths of the Dome of an evening to partake of a whiskey 
and parental pride; when transition the best of the "little" magazines 
in Paris edited by Eugene Jolas and Elliot Paul was young, nothing 
was sacred, and money was cheap; when whole generations got lost . . - 

And in the same surroundings, another "Ernest" than Hem' 
ingway, an Ernest Walsh, a young poet of an extremely "poetic" 

s From Exile's Return, published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 

4 From Literary Opinion in America, by permission of Harper & Brothers. 

The 1930's 455 

temperament who died too soon to fulfill his promise, also edited 
a magazine, This Quarter; E. E. Cummings was there, so was 
Hart Crane, and so were many otherswho were as exhilarated 
by their experiences as Malcolm Cowley. Cowley returned to 
New York to become literary editor of The New Republic, a 
position in which he conducted not unfriendly controversies with 
MacLeish and it was under Cowley's editorship that MacLeish's 
"Invocation to the Social Muse" appeared in The New Republic. 
The first of MacLeish's manifestoes, his "Ars Poetica," 5 ap- 
peared in Poetry in 1926; the poem was not noted for its common 
sense or its wit, and the statement that 

A poem should be wordless 
As the flight of birds 

was a fancy which recalled Keats's fine paradox: 


Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard 
Are sweeter . . . 

A poem should not mean 
But be 6 

was another instruction whose attraction was in its rhetoric 
rather than to a critical intelligence, and the difficulty was that 
it had the pretension of being both serious and critical. Of course, 
a manifesto of this kind would have to be unsaid the moment 
another occasion for a manifesto presented itself; and in Mac- 
Leish's case, a curious cycle of issuing instructions in verse had 
begun; their political overtones veered from right to left, and 
more than all else, they revealed a poet who seemed intent upon 
having his cake and eating it too. Actually the change from 
ivriting "Ars Poetica" and "Invocation to the Social Muse" to 
'America Was Promises" in 1939 was not as great as some few 
:>f MacLeish's critics have believed; it meant merely that Mac- 
Leish had turned his attention from literary "politics" to politi- 

5 From Poems, 1920-1934, by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company, 
e From "Ars Poetica," from Poems 1920-1934, by permission of Houghton 
Vfifflin Company. 

456 d History of American Poetry 

cal "politics"; the quality of the rhetoric was the same; it was 
timed to suit the moment, and it was sufficient to meet the im- 
mediate occasion* that had prompted it. As MacLeish spoke less 
of Paris and of a point of view that had once been held by 
Ezra Pound, die character of his verse was more in keeping with 
Carl Sandburg's The People, Yes and Stephen Bene*t's Western 
Star. In the writing of verse that has its source in nationalistic 
feeling and historical phenomena Sandburg's The People, Yes 
was a far more convincing document than MacLeish's Public 
Speech (1936) and Land of the Free (1938). The elder poet wrote 
with a confidence that he had gained from his researches into the 
life of Abraham Lincoln, and if he had advice to offer his 
readers, it was phrased in the speech of one who knew how to 
humor those who read him. It was not unnatural that the public 
response to The People, Yes was more widely spread and sus- 
tained for a longer period of time than the attention which had 
been devoted to Public Speech and Land of the Free. 

The coming of the Second World War created a new series of 
emergencies for Archibald MacLeish: in 1939 he received an 
honorary degree at Yale and was appointed Librarian of Con- 
gress, and the honors brought with them those responsibilities 
which are attendant upon any man who steps from private life 
into public office. Soon his activities placed him in the Office of 
Facts and Figures as well as in the Office of War Information, 
and though the first office was soon dissolved, and the second 
had undergone changes which temporarily cast a shadow across 
MacLeish's career of p'olitical advancement, MacLeish's genius 
for diplomacy was rewarded and not without the attractive 
stirring of controversy which had marked his earlier career in 
writing verse by the appointment in 1944 as public relations 
counsel in the office of the Secretary of State. In accepting these 
responsibilities and honors, MacLeish followed the footsteps of 
James Russell Lowell who served as minister to Spain in 1877 
and as Ambassador to the Court of St. James's from 1880 to 
1885, and still another precedent for MacLeish's activities may be 
found in the career of John Hay (1838-1905), the author of Pike 
County Ballads (1871). Not unlike MacLeish's, John Hay's early 

The 1930's 457 

training was in law; he was an assistant private secretary to 
Abraham Lincoln in Washington, and he closed a long and dis- 
tinguished career in diplomatic services as Secretary of State in 
Theodore Roosevelt's administration. A future historian may 
discover that John Hay's anonymously published novel, The 
Breadwinners, which appeared serially in the Century magazine 
from August, 1883, to January, 1884, was the true ancestor of 
MacLeish's political verses; Vernon Louis Parrington treated the 
novel harshly, yet MacLeish, in his satires, seems to stand for an 
"educated leadership." No one doubts the sincerity of his "social" 
conscience, nor is there any doubt that MacLeish's devotion to 
public life was less self-sacrificing, less graceful, less brilliant than 
John Hay's. 

Upon the death of Stephen Benet, MacLeish also assumed the 
responsibility of editing the "Yale Series of Younger Poets." To- 
day, MacLeish's poetic reputation rests upon his Poems, 1924- 
*933 ( 1 933) an d these include the poems of New Found Land as 
well as Conquistador. After their contradictions have been 
weighed, after their indebtedness to Pound and Eliot and Sand- 
burg have been discussed and set aside, their values rest upon a 
lyrical gift and a phrasing of rhetoric that belong to MacLeish 
and to MacLeish alone. The persuasive note within them is that 
of a melancholy music which entered English verse with the 
bagpipe sounding its strains to a border ballad. Quite as E. E. 
Cummings disguised (and legitimately disguised) his affinity with 
sixteenth-century lyric forms by the use of typographical devices, 
so MacLeish has concealed his affinities (and rightfully so) with 
an elder music. We read him because of his sensibility rather 
than for his instructions; and it may well be that the future will 
find "You, Andrew Marvell" and "Immortal Autumn" of a 
greater hardiness in their survival than the prose of Hemingway's 
The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. 


John Peale Bishop's death in the spring of 1944 (he was born 
in Charles Town, West Virginia, in 1891), which came at a 
moment when his verse was beginning to attract more notice 
than at any other stage of his career, left his friends lamenting 
that his work had been very much underestimated. Indeed, no 
poet was ever more fortunate in his friends, for they were many, 
influential, and loyal, and their esteem for him often led to 
exaggerated claims for the talents he possessed. Good fortune had 
also graced him with a distinguished and influential, family, and 
after an early education at excellent private schools, he entered 
Princeton, where he began his long friendships with Edmund 
Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald in whose This Side of Paradise 
Bishop was said to have been portrayed in the character of Tom 

During the First World War he served as a first lieutenant of 
infantry, and after the armistice he was placed in charge of a 
company guarding German prisoners. He too became, like Archi- 
bald MacLeish, one of the more fortunate and less Bohemian of 
the American "exiles" in Paris "when nothing was sacred and 
money was cheap" and he divided his time between Paris and an 
old country house dating from the day of Louis XIII. Three of 
his children were born in France, and in 1933 (as the Great 
Depression began to fade) he returned to the United States and 
settled on Cape Cod. His tastes were modest, elegant and, per- 
haps, expensive; as he is quoted in Fred B. Milieu's Contempo- 
rary American Authors, he said, "I like to eat and drink, and 
above all to talk. ... I am fond of looking at paintings, sculp- 
tures, archkecture and formal gardens. ... I prefer the ballet 
at its best to the theatre." 


The 1930's 459 

With these tastes * one can understand why it was that his 
career between the First World War and his return to France 
was so successfully conducted in the editorial offices of Vanity 
Fair, a magazine which at one time or another had as its staff- 
writers such figures as Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, 
and Clare Boothe Luce and one of its editors was Bishop's 
friend, Edmund Wilson (who, aside from his later contributions 
to American criticism, published a memorable elegy to his father 
in a book of verses, Poets, Farewell! in 1929). Vanity Fair was 
then (from 1919 to 1924) what The New Yorker or Harper's 
Bazaar became to the following decade and the present: it was 
reputed to contain and to encourage everything that was "smart" 
and fashionable. Unworldly and awkward young literary aspir- 
ants who visited Vanity Fair's office were struck by the gilt, the 
dazzle of the atmosphere. Even the office girls were more elegant 
(it was rumored that they wore real pearls!), smartly dressed, and 
formidably polite than the heroines of Bulwer-Lytton's "silver- 
fork" novels, those ladies who charmed the readers of Pelham in 
a Napoleonic postwar period. Frank Crowninshield, the editor-in- 
chief, the inspiration, the creator, the master of ceremonies of 
the once famous Vanity Fair, quoted the first of Miss Millay's 
"Distressing Dialogues" (1924) which appeared in Vanity Fair 
and the quotation recalled the atmosphere of that earlier day 
to those who read Crowninshield's memoirs in Vogue, November 
i, 1944. It was one aspect of Vanity Fair to the life, and Crownin- 
shield who was easily refreshed spoke of its "refreshing savour," 
and it had been written rejecting an imaginary proposal of 

Sir, do you take me for an idiot? For four seasons I have parried the 
advances of the talented, the titled, the handsome-as-Apollo, and the 
verminous with wealth. It was for me that Paderewski took up politics; 
for me D'Annunzio became a soldier. The Grand Duke Michael has 
begged for my photograph in three languages and Russian; Freud has 
dreamed of me; Muratore has asked me to sing Celeste Aida by the 
hour; a Communist once gave me a seat in a street-car, a Count has run 

* Mr. Bishop was also something of a classical scholar and did some few 
fine translations from the Greek. Of some of his Latin translations Dudley 
Fitts has said: "He was the best Roman of us all." 

460 A History of American Poetry 

off with my pocket-book, and a King has made a pun about me. For 
what do you think I am waiting? for you? Be reasonable! 2 

Of this slight touch of vulgarity Bishop's writing was free, and 
visitors to Vanity Fair's office described him as the most courteous 
and elegant of the courteous and elegant young men who held 
positions on its staff. At its best his verse had a professional 
manner, and some few of his lyrics had a delicately sensuous 
charm, but unfortunately the greater part of his verse suffered 
the strain of adapting itself to too many of the most fashionable 
styles of writing poetry, and his volume of Selected Poems (1941) 
could be used as a textbook illustrating changes in poetic taste 
from 1916 to 1940 and no single poem, no matter how polished 
it may have seemed upon first reading, has the distinction of an 
individually formed taste and imagination. With mirrorlike 
docility he reflected the mannerisms of Elinor Wylie, Ezra Pound, 
T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate and for a brief time, even the speech of 
MacLeish's "Social Muse" (of which phase the less said the 
better), and the latter-day, Californian, neoscholasticism of Yvor 
Winters. Lack of space prevents us from quoting the obvious 
parallels of Bishop's verse to the work of other poets, but as a 
well-known critic remarked in a private letter to the authors of 
this book, "John Peale Bishop wears the finest suit of secondhand 
clothes in American poetry." 

The phenomenon of John Peale Bishop's verse has its prece- 
dent in the line of editor-poets from Thomas Bailey Aldrich to 
Ridgely Torrence; Bishop had been a successful editor, quite as 
those who came before him were and the best of his poetry ex- 
tended the general influence that had been exerted by Ezra Pound 
and T. S. Eliot upon a between-the-wars generation of lesser 
poets. His novel, Act of Darkness (1935), was among the best of 
a school that advanced the cause of southern regionalism, and 
in his latter years, his name was more frequently associated with 
Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren than with Edna St. Vincent 
Millay, Edmund Wilson, and Elinor Wylie. On the occasion of 
F, Scott Fitzgerald's death in 1940, Bishop wrote an elegy in 

2 From Distressing Dialogues by Nancy Boyd, published by Harper & 
Brothers. Copyright, 1924, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

The 1930 's 461 

memory of Fitzgerald which appeared in the pages of The New 
Republic; the elegy recalled the memory of Fitzgerald almost 
not at all, but it did succeed in echoing the last "dying fall" of 
Malcolm Cowley's "lost generation" that had charmed the readers 
of Exile's Return. In 1942 and in collaboration with Allen Tate, 
Bishop published a popular anthology of American prose and 
verse, American Harvest f of which Howard Mumford Jones ob- 
served that it had on the whole selected contributions of a deli- 
cate but minor strain of verse in recent American literature. 


If Stephen Vincent Benet and Archibald MacLeish were con- 
sidered the "leaders" of their poetic generation in America, their 
successes did not wholly obscure the merits of other poets who 
were less skillful than they in gaining public recognition. Not 
all the poets of the "political decade" arrived at a sense of "social 
consciousness" by way of the Left Bank in Paris; some were less 
enterprising in securing fellowships abroad than their contempo- 
raries, and some were both in frail health and too poor to risk 
the chances of finding out that it was actually cheaper to live in 
Paris rather than in Chicago and in New York. Some had an 
American and half-cynical and almost Puritanical distaste for the 
Bohemia that flourished so gayly at the Rotonde and the Dome; 
they actually preferred the sights of Times and Union Squares in 
the early days of the Great Depression; and they were in semi- 
revolt against the rapidly commercialized Bohemia of New York's 
Greenwich Village. Some had read Marx and Lenin, or, at least, 
spoke their names aloud with conscious pride, and some in the 
offices of The New Masses joined the John Reed Club, which 
was later to change its name to The League of American Writers 
and to welcome such writers as Waldo Frank, Malcolm Cowley, 
MacLeish, Hemingway, Newton Arvin, Donald Ogden Stewart 
and Granville Hicks to its public meetings. 

The phenomenon created great local excitement, which 
reached its height in 1935 with the publication of Proletarian 
Literature in the United States, an anthology of verse and prose. 
In its criticism of poetry the movement made no discernible ad- 
vance beyond Upton Sinclair's Mammonart (1925) and Money 
Writes! (1927); and Upton Sinclair, no matter how naive some 
few of his judgments on literature may seem today, had the 


The 1930's 463 

virtue of convincing his readers that his mind was untainted by 
personal ambition, that his "heart was pure," that his chivalry 
was irreproachable, and that not unlike Tennyson's Sir Galahad, 
his sincerity had armed him with "the strength of ten." His 
journalistic abilities were far more skillful than those employed 
by the younger critics who had followed the direction he had 
taken; and his mind remained cheerfully undisturbed by esthetic 
problems that bewildered the latter-day Marxians. 

In 1933, We Gather Strength f a small paper-bound anthology, 
which contained an introduction by Michael Gold and poems by 
Herman Spector, Joseph Kalar, Edwin Rolfe, and S. Funaroff, 
held the promise of a left movement in poetry. Funaroff edited 
a little magazine of verse called Dynamo, and later, in 1938, pub- 
lished his own book of poems, The Spider and the Clock. Politi- 
cal activity, ill health, and the continued effort to earn a living 
seriously retarded his poetic development; his early death in 1942 
was followed by a posthumous book of verses, published in 1944. 
Because of his promise, and the record of a troubled life he left 
behind him, there was a touch of pathos in his brief career, yet 
Funaroff was more fortunate than most young writers who shared 
his promise, his political convictions, and his poverty. Loyal 
friends saw to it that his posthumous book of verse was pub- 
lished and the book received praise from Louis Untermeyer in 
the pages of The Saturday Review of Literature. 

It is with a sense of great relief that one turns to an elder and 
more prominent figure in the group, whose verse had an early 
publication in the New Masses and whose second book of poems 
was published in 1935 by Funaroff under the imprint of the 
Dynamo Press Kenneth Fearing. 

Fearing was born in 1902 in Oak Park, Illinois, which is a 
prosperous, middle-class suburb of Chicago, and is known to 
many readers of contemporary fiction as the birthplace of Ernest 
Hemingway. Fearing's father was a well-to-do lawyer, and Fearing 
was educated in Oak Park's public schools and at the University 
of Wisconsin. Like many another Middle Western boy of his 
generation, he held unattractive, manual, summer-time jobs, and 
because of his frail health, they probably fixed (at an early age) 

464 A History of American Poetry 

his determination to become a writer. By the time he arrived at 
the University of Wisconsin in the early 1920*5, his gifts and his 
interests in writing poetry were clearly marked, and because of 
his experience in journalism (he had held for a short time a job 
in Oak Park as a suburban reporter for a Chicago newspaper) his 
attitude toward writing had a touch of worldliness that distin- 
guished him from his contemporaries in the classroom and on 
the staffs of undergraduate publications. In Chicago he had made 
a friend of Vincent Starrett, and Starrett was a Chicago journal- 
ist of the "old school," a man who wrote engaging light verse 
and "mystery stones," who had a lively appreciation for the 
literature of the 1890*5, and who loved to wander through old 
bookstores in die city, rediscovering "buried Caesars" among for- 
gotten poets and prose writers. It could be said that Starrett was 
Fearing's first teacher, and that it was not extraordinary that 
Fearing won the Vilas Prize at the University of Wisconsin for 
an essay in appreciation of James Gibbons Huneker. 

At college Fearing read the poetry of Sidney Lanier with dis- 
taste, the poetry of E. A. Robinson with sustained admiration, 
and the monthly numbers of H. L. Mencken's The Smart Set 
with undisguised enjoyment. The influence of H. L. Mencken's 
critical attitudes on Fearing's mature poetry should not be under- 
rated; it is there, quite as E. A. Robinson's shorter poems with 
their portraits of urban failures created a precedent for Fearing's 
half realistic, half humorous presentations of New York gangsters 
and broken down newspaper men that filled the pages of his first 
book of poems, Angel Arms (1929). At the University of Wiscon- 
sin, undergraduate literary circles were divided between those 
who read The Dial (under Scofield Thayer's editorship) and 
those who read The Smart Set; Fearing read The Smart Set, but 
his best friends (including Margery Latimer,* a writer of vivid 
short stories who died too soon to fulfill her promise) read The 
Dial. And Fearing during his stay at Wisconsin was by no means 
unaware of E. E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens, and T. S. Eliot's 
The Waste Land. 

* Margery Latimer was the author of four books of prose of which Nellie 
Bloom (1929) and Guardian Angel (1932) are memorable contributions to the 
American short story. 

The 1930's 465 

Perhaps no poet of Fearing's generation has devoted himself so 
exclusively to the demands of "free lance" writing in New York 
as he. When he arrived in New York from Wisconsin in 1924, 
he had the youthful charm and something of the appearance of 
a latter-day Ernest Dowson; his early efforts at writing novels and 
short stories for a living were never attended by great success, but 
he never relaxed his determination to earn his living by writing 
alone. He lacked the facility to adapt his prose to the demands 
of editors, and he valued his independence too greatly to play 
more than a passive part in left political activities. But the half- 
cynical humor and critical overtones of his verse were not un- 
appreciated by critics of left persuasion Fearing's irony in verse 
was irresistible; and it had personal charm and character: 

Hey? What saith the noble poet now, 
Drawing his hand across his brow? 
Claude, is the divine afflatus upon you? 
Hey? Hey Claude? 

Here are a million taxi drivers, social prophets, 
The costume for an attitude, 
A back-stage shriek, 
The heat and speed of the earth. 1 

Angel Arms, the book from which the above quotation is made, 
was generally ignored by book reviewers and critics. Its realistic 
observation and commentary, its portraits of the servant girl, 
"Minnie and Mrs. Hoyne," its "Cultural Notes" (a poem which 
should be compared with and contrasted to E. E. Cummings' 
"Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinal"), its scenes of Broadway in 
"Saturday Night" and in "They Liked It," created an "anti- 
poetic" atmosphere that bewildered Fearing's early readers. Fear- 
ing had taken for his characters the heroes of the New York 
tabloid newspapers, and in a language that was in itself a parody 
of tabloid journalism, presented to his readers a kind of satire 
in light verse that has seldom if ever been equaled in America. 

Six years later, in 1935, when his second book, Poems, ap- 
peared, the public that had ignored Fearing suddenly discovered 
his value; when the Great Depression was at its height, it was by 

i "Lithographing" from Angel Arms, copyright, 1929, by Coward-McCann, 

466 A History of American Poetry 

no means difficult to perceive the hint of terror, the critical inten- 
tion, the implied brutality, the wit of Fearing's "Obituary": 2 

Take him away, he's as dead as they die. 

Hear that ambulance bell, his eyes are staring straight at death. 

Go through his clothes, 

take out the cigars, the money, the papers, the keys, take everything 
there is, 

And give the dollar and a half to the Standard Oil. It was his true 

blue friend. 
Give the key of his flat to the D.A.R. They were friends of his, the 

best a man ever had. 
Take out the pawnticket, wrap it, seal it, send it along to the 

People's Gas. They were life-long pals. It was more than his 

brother. They were just like twins. 

In his parody of New York journalism, Fearing created his 
own language; his rhythms were prose rhythms that were ar- 
ranged in the same typographical order in which Carl Sandburg 
had presented many of his shorter poems but Fearing's speech 
was more direct than Sandburg's. It was clear that he had ac- 
cepted Sandburg as his master, but his temperament held its true 
affinity with a younger generation than Sandburg knew when he 
wrote his Chicago Poems, a generation that was more distinctly 
urban, that was self-consciously "hard-boiled," that had shared 
the hopes and disillusionments of i4th Street in New York and 
Union Square. At its best Fearing's verse is sharp and clear; its 
wit never descends to the level of whimsy, and there is never the 
least doubt that Fearing's "artless" manner is his own. But Fear- 
ing's "artlessness" has flaws of its own making: when his poems 
are not at their best, they repeat the minor themes of the more 
successful poems at unguarded length, and the parody of "O, 
executive type, would you like to drive a floating power,/knee~ 
action, silk-upholstered six?" if read several times too often be- 
tween the covers of a book, discourages the reader in the enjoy- 
ment of an otherwise brilliant urban scene or a fortunate turn 
of social irony. 

After the widely acknowledged success of his Poems (1935), his 

2 From Poems, by permission of Random House, Inc. 

The 1930's 467 

Dead Reckoning (1938), and the Collected Poems of Kenneth 
Fearing (1940) it was clear that Fearing, like his contemporary, 
the novelist, James T. Farrell (who also came from Chicago to 
New York, and was the author of the famous "Studs Lonigan" 
trilogy), had found a medium in which to write and was content 
to repeat the earlier successes of his writings with slight varia- 
tions on a central theme. If it could be said that the poetry of 
Archibald MacLeish had a strong kinship with and a parallel to 
the prose of Ernest Hemingway, the same analogy could be made 
between the poetry of Fearing and the prose of Farrell; and in 
political terms, if Fearing veered in the direction of Stalinist 
Marxism, Farrell complemented Fearing by being an acknowl- 
edged Marxist of Trotskyite persuasion. Quite as Farrell justly 
claimed an indebtedness to Dreiser, so Fearing acknowledged a 
debt (by the appearance of his unrhymed verse) to Sandburg 
and both the poet and the novelist were descendants of a school 
of social realism in American writing. 

In 1939, Fearing received a Guggenheim Fellowship for crea- 
tive writing, and in that year he published a novel, The Hospital, 
and this was followed by the publication of two other novels, 
Dagger of the Mind, a mystery story (1941), and Clark Gifford's 
Body (1942). Fearing's prose lacked the distinction of his verse, 
but not unlike Ernest Dowson, he placed a higher value on the 
writing of it than on his poetry. In 1943, he published his fifth 
book of poems, Afternoon of a Pawnbroker, which contained 
three examples of his best work, "King Juke," "Beware," and the 
title poem. In the pages of The New Yorker, where most of 
Fearing's verse makes its first appearance, one finds that it con- 
tinues to maintain the higher standards for light verse published 
in that magazine. Like Farrell's prose,* it suffers from a repeti- 
tious manner of presenting its criticism; but it is unmistakably 
honest in its intention, and is a corrective to the merely "slick" 
and "professional" verse that so readily finds an audience among 
readers of popular magazines. 

* But here the resemblance of Fearing's verse to Farrell's prose comes to 
an end. Farrell's critical writings in A Note on Literary Criticism (1936) and 
in The League of Frightened Philistines (1945) show a seriousness of intel- 
lectual conviction that is not to be found in the poetry of Kenneth Fearing. 


No voice divine the storm allay'd, 

No light propitious shone; 
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid, 

We perish'd, each alone: 
But I beneath a rougher sea, 
And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he. 

William Cowper, "The Castaway" 

Of the poets who came into prominence during the 1930*5 in 
America, none is more likely to achieve an immortality than 
Harold Hart Crane. As George Saintsbury wrote of Shelley, 
Crane was a great poet of the second class, a list that would 
include the names of Hopkins, Beddoes, Coleridge, Poe, Crabbe, 
Ezra Pound, and William Blake. And Saintsbury continued his 
remarks on Shelley with an observation that also applies to the 
best of Crane's poetry; Saintsbury spoke of "intoxication," the 
intoxication that Crane deliberately (and at times too literally) 
sought and cherished in his own writing, "the ineffable, the 
divine intoxication which only the di majores of poetry can com- 
municate to their worshippers." It so happens that Saintsbury in 
a review of Whitman's Leaves of Grass had more to say which is 
pertinent to the character of Crane's poetry; and if what he said 
was true of Whitman, readers of The Collected Poems of Hart 
Crane (1933) will find his statement singularly appropriate in its 
application to the poet and the book held open in their hands: 

But affluent as his descriptions are, there are two subjects on which 
he is especially eloquent, which seem indeed to intoxicate and inspire 
him the moment he approaches them. These are Death and the sea 
... in his connection of the two ideas (for the one always seems to 
suggest the other to him), and in his special devotion to Death, he is 
more singular. 1 

iFrom Academy (England), October 15, 1874. 


The 1930's 469 

But in spite of the fortunate commentary that Saintsbury gives 
us in describing the nature of Crane's poetry, our quotations do 
not imply that Crane was a "second Shelley" and "another Whit- 
man." He was neither of these, and though the figure of Whit- 
man was consciously invoked, spoken to, and praised in the 
"Cape Hatteras" section of Crane's poem, The Bridge (1930), 
Crane's poetry had a closer affinity to the cadences of Melville's 
prose than to any claim of Whitman's influence upon it. Nor was 
the imagination that Crane possessed (or rather, Crane sought its 
demon to possess him) of the same brilliant, half-intellectual rap- 
tures that the boyish Shelley knew. It is only in Saintsbury's 
happy stress upon the word "intoxication" and in Crane's will- 
ingness to confess his heritage in the romantic tradition, that a 
likeness between Crane and Shelley may be discerned. If Crane 
may be said to have any temperamental kinship with a British 
poet of the early nineteenth century, that poet is Thomas Lovell 
Beddoes and it is extremely doubtful if Crane had ever heard 
of him. 

A dozen years have elapsed since the news of Crane's suicide at 
sea, three hundred miles north of Havana, and in that time, the 
story of his life told in a shrewd and tactfully written biography 
by Philip Horton (1937) has become identified with the very 
mention of his poetry. Although the book firmly established 
Crane's reputation as a figure in contemporary American litera- 
ture, and though future commentators on Crane's life and work 
will continue to look upon Horton's book as a source of informa- 
tion, it was published too soon after Crane's death (Crane leapt 
into the sea from the deck of a small passenger steamer on April 
26, 1932) for his biographer to gain a perspective on the gossip, 
the clique warfare, the literary controversies of Crane's brief 
career. Good as Horton's book was, the general public came away 
from it with a slight feeling of revulsion for its central figure and 
for the crowd of eager, ambitious, and well-intentioned young 
men who surrounded him. All this was, of course, quite the con- 
trary of the impression that Horton had wished to convey. The 
sensational facts of Crane's personal maladjustment, his homo- 
sexuality, his violent fits of depression, his presence at drinking 

47 A History of American Poetry 

parties, the occasions on which he would "weep and shout," as 
Katherine Anne Porter wrote, "shaking his fist, 'I am Baudelaire, 
I am Whitman, I am Christopher Marlowe, I am Christ,' " over- 
whelmed the serious aspects of Crane's poetry in Hor ton's "life 
of an American poet." Yet Horton was faced with another diffi- 
culty, that of presenting Crane's friends to the reader, and since 
most of them were alive and well, the task called for more adroit- 
ness than moral candor. 

Today, only the discriminating reader, and preferably one who 
is familiar with the best of Crane's poetry, will find Horton's 
book a useful supplement to the critical studies that have been 
written on the subject of Hart Crane. The present biographical 
commentary on Crane will of necessity be of the briefest order: 
Crane was born in Garrettsville, Ohio, on July 21, 1899, and was 
the son of Clarence A. and Grace Hart Crane; both branches of 
his family were of New England heritage, and Crane's father was 
a well-to-do businessman who held controlling stock in a chain 
of retail candy stores in Cleveland, Ohio. Crane was the only son, 
and the "spoiled child" of parents who were divorced when the 
poet was seventeen, and a reference to the now familiar Freudian 
term of "Oedipus Complex" probably tells us all we need to know 
of Crane's homosexuality. To the psychiatrist, there is little doubt 
that his frequent use of sea imagery in his poetry has an obvious 
meaning in sexual pathology but the more important fact is that 
Crane translated these associations into poetry. Crane's -schooling 
was both meager and erratic; in the company of his mother he 
traveled to the Isle of Pines, south of Cuba, and with her he 
shared an apartment in Gramercy Park and in East 1 1 th Street, 
New York, during the years of 1916 and 1917. His true education 
was of a sporadic order: at the age of fourteen he had begun 
writing poetry, and through a correspondence with William 
Vaughn Moody 's widow (who lived in Chicago) Crane received 
his first criticism and encouragement. He read the "little" maga- 
zines of the period with great enthusiasm; his first published 
poem appeared in Bruno's Bohemia, and from that time onward 
he read The Pagan, Others, The Seven Arts, The Little Review, 
and The Dial, and it was through some few of these magazines 

The 1930 's 471 

that Crane gained a "literary intelligence." Through correspond- 
ence, he became acquainted with their editors; he submitted 
poems to them, and asked for criticism. In effect, the editors were 
Crane's instructors, and their magazines, his university. 

All this may well seem to have been an unsound education for 
a serious poet, and, in purely academic terms, it was. Crane 
formed a habit of drawing his learning from secondary sources; 
his knowledge and awareness of French Symbolism came from 
what he had read of it in translation, and with the aid of a 
dictionary he painfully translated (in verse) three poems of 
Laforgue. But through conversation with people whom he met 
on his earlier visit to New York the Padraic Colums, husband 
and wife, Maxwell Boclenheim, the author of Minna and Myself 
(1918), Margaret Anderson of The Little Review, and Alfred 
Kreymborg of Others, he acquired a felicity in speaking of lit- 
erary movements and names of writers. If one may accept his 
later poetry as evidence, the more profound of his readings con- 
centrated upon what he had learned in the pages of The Seven 
Arts, edited by Van Wyck Brooks, James Oppenheim, and Waldo 
Frank, for it is more than likely that his intensive reading of 
Melville's Moby Dick had its natural beginnings in a magazine 
that stressed the importance of "America's coming of age" and 
in this connection, Crane's later friendship with Waldo Frank 
has particular significance. Other formative friendships were 
those sustained (largely through correspondence and through a 
mutual interest in the techniques of writing poetry) with Allen 
Tate and Yvor Winters. Crane was the most gifted and most 
unlearned figure in the group, and on his second (and prolonged) 
stay in New York in 1924, it seems that he represented to those 
who knew him their ideal of the "intoxicated," unschooled, lit- 
erally drunken, noisy poet but one who was in need of educa- 
tion through their help and advice. In respect to his poetry, Allen 
Tate (of all his friends) had the deepest insight into its character 
and its intentions. When Tate spoke of Crane's desire to achieve 
a "single vision" he revealed a true and central value in Crane's 
writing. The single and "intoxicated" vision was what Crane 
sought and, in his best work, found, and when he himself wrote 

472 A History of American Poetry 

in a letter to Gorham Muhson (an admiring friend and critic), 
"The imagination is the only thing that is worth a damn," Crane 
meant it with deeper seriousness than the youthful, pretentious, 
and at times guilt-ridden statements of his published "aims and 

Although White Buildings (1926), Crane's first book, did not 
receive the praise from its reviewers that had been lavished by 
Tate in his introduction to the volume, it established him among 
those who were willing to read poetry with balanced respect and 
enthusiasm. The volume contained eight poems out of twenty- 
nine which may be read today with the same delight of perceiv- 
ing actual poetry and rediscovering individual expression that 
they conveyed nearly twenty years ago. Of these, "Black Tam- 
bourine," "Praise for an Urn," "At Melville's Tomb," and poems 
II and VI of "Voyages" have an air of authority that we define 
as "timeless"; in these Crane caught and held his single vision, 
and his tribute to the memory of Melville, and Melville's Moby 
Dick, was one of obvious significance. Throughout these poems 
there is sustained evidence that Crane read Marlowe, Webster, 
Shakespeare, and the sixteenth-century translation of Rabelais 
as though he had held a screen that had been fashioned out 
of Melville's prose before his eyes but beyond this, one refers 
less to literary influences, or to the devices of literary art, than 
to those inadequate words that describe a poet as being a "mystic" 
or a "metaphysical." 

And what of "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" which 
appeared in the same volume and which Crane regarded as the 
true expression of his "aims and theories"? The poem rests too 
much upon his explanation in prose to be convincing. He had 
talked about the poem too avidly with his friends, and in re- 
reading the poem there is the renewed impression that his inten- 
tions and pretensions were too large and too hazy to translate 
his vision of the Greek " 'Helen' sitting in a street car," and "the 
Dionysian revels of her court," and "her seduction" on "a Metro- 
politan roof garden with a jazz orchestra" into poetry. One sus- 

The 1930's 473 

pects that he had "talked out" half his poem to his friends, and 
that neither his imagination nor his art could recall the com- 
pleted sight of a "vision" he had once held in mind. He entered 
the same pitfall and torture which on a larger and far more 
terrifying scale Beddoes had unwittingly prepared for himself 
in writing his endless dramatic poem, Death's Jest Book. Crane's 
letter of his "aims and theories" to Laura Riding betrays the 
warmth of too much midnight talk, particularly when he spoke 
a shade too grandly of "our seething, confused cosmos of today." 

Even as White Buildings found its place among the few distin- 
guished first books of poems in its decade, Crane had begun the 
preparation of his never quite completed major book, The 
Bridge. In the letter to Laura Riding, he wrote, "I found that I 
was really building a bridge between so-called classic experience 
and many divergent realities of our seething, confused cosmos of 
today." There can be no doubt that the very image of "the 
bridge" had taken possession of his imagination, and that he 
reached toward it with something of the same emotion, an emo- 
tion which was both evangelical and despairing, that William 
Cowper, the eighteenth-century British poet, expressed in the 
writing of "The Castaway." The reader of The Bridge finds in it 
sufficient evidence to show that Crane conceived the poem on 
multiple levels of meaning and experience; the poem would be 
a test of how well his single vision held a multiple scene, and as 
Crane wrote of it in 1927 to Otto Kahn, the Wall Street banker 
of Kuhn, Loeb and Company (and Crane's patron), the poem 
was to be "an epic of the modern consciousness." 

If there were more than one way to read Crane's conception of 
The Bridge, there is also more than one way to read his corre- 
spondence with Otto Kahn. From time to time, Crane held copy- 
writing jobs in large advertising offices; and during the iggo's 
the profession of writing advertising copy was considered a de- 
sirable one for inventive young novelists and poets. Perhaps 
Sherwood Anderson, by his successful example, showed the way. 
(And Anderson himself, a native of Ohio, had been the object 
of one of Crane's early literary enthusiasms.) Crane's maladjust- 
ment to whatever environment he entered, whether at home in 

474 ^ History of American Poetry 

Cleveland, Ohio, or in New York, or during his brief stay in 
Paris, was deep enough to cause recurrent cycles of being out 
of money and dependent on the hospitality of his friends. Kahn, 
a man of liberal interests in the arts, advanced Crane money, 
and Crane rewarded Kahn by sending him letters telling of the 
progress The Bridge had made. Was Crane's mention of the 
poem as "an epic of modern consciousness" a means of holding 
the banker's attention by using language that closely resembled 
the jargon of publicity and advertising? It may well have been. 
Yet throughout Crane's correspondence with Kahn one is never 
quite certain where the poet's pretensions came to an end and 
the truly felt work of his imagination had begun. Crane's inten- 
tions were less obscure than many-threaded, and he was un- 
doubtedly sincere when he said to Kahn, "Thousands of strands 
have had to be searched for," and that he wished to make his 
bridge "the Myth of America." In theory (in prose), the poem 
created the illusion of being a "project," something that was to 
be talked about, steered, and manipulated into shape: it had a 
beautiful Proem to Brooklyn Bridge (in sight of which Crane had 
lived in Brooklyn), then a soliloquy (I) by Columbus, then (II) 
Powhatan's Daughter, and so on, through eight sections of the 
poem. The Bridge was to span the river, then the ocean, then 
time and space. Crane was, if anything, too heavily deliberate in 
his plans, and too dependent upon the "intoxication" of the 
moment for their fruition. Not unlike his "Faustus and Helen,' 
The Bridge was too frequently talked about and "analyzed" in 
the very process of its composition. 

In "The River" section of The Bridge the last eight stanzas 
of Crane's tribute to the Mississippi might well and better- 
have stood alone. Few poets of twentieth-century America havt 
approached the memorable quality of "The River's" 2 last stanza: 

The River lifts itself from its long bed, 

Poised wholly on its dream, a mustard glow 
Tortured with history, its one will flowl 

- From Collected Poems of Hart Crane, by permission of Liveright Pub 
lishing Corporation. 

The 1930's 475 

The Passion spreads in wide tongues, choked and slow, 
Meeting the Gulf, hosannas silently below. 

The last line has the same authority as the last two lines of the 
poem which follows it, "The Dance": 3 

Now is the strong prayer folded in thine arms, 
The serpent with the eagle in the boughs. 

In these lines we have an accent in American poetry that may 
be traced back to Philip Freneau's stanzas in his "The House of 
Night," as well as in his better-known "The Indian Burying 
Ground." This is not to say that Crane had read Freneau, but 
that in writing the memorable passages of "The River" and "The 
Dance," his lines had the same felicity, the same presence of 
poetic imagination. The lines also remind us that for over an 
hundred years, Freneau's elegiac note with individual variation 
has been sounded in the verse of Longfellow as well as Bryant's, 
in the verse of E. A. Robinson as well as Santayana's, in the 
verse of John Crowe Ransom, the verse of Allen Tate, as well as 
in Hart Crane's. 

The Bridge made it clear that its author had not realized his 
full imaginative powers. Those powers were revealed in brief 
passages throughout the progress of the book, in "Cutty Sark," in 
the first half-dozen lines of "Cape Hatteras," the paean to Walt 
Whitman, in the passage that recalls Poe's "City in the Sea," 
in "The Tunnel," and in flickering lines throughout the closing 
stanzas of "Atlantis." Certain obvious reasons may be advanced 
as to why Crane could not sustain the quality he valued most, 
the "intoxication" of his finest lines of verse. In years and in 
emotional experience, Crane was too young to realize his in- 
tentions, and although he had "found" his own style, and could 
speak in a language that was recognized as his own, he still 
echoed with inexpert skill the poetic devices of E. E. Cummings 
in the opening passages of "The River," and in "The Tunnel" 
he experimented unsuccessfully with some few of the techniques 
that Eliot had employed in The Waste Land. To these devices 

3 From Collected Poems of Hart Crane, by permission of Liveright Pub- 
lishing Corporation. 

476 A History of American Poetry 

and techniques Crane added the high-flown rhetoric of Waldo 
Frank and the results, whenever their lack of success became 
evident, were an almost intolerable "artiness." It was all too clear 
that he had not assimilated his readings in contemporary verse 
and prose. In this connection, Philip Horton unearthed the facts 
relating to another source of Crane's unassimilated readings 
which had visibly affected his writing of "Voyages" in White 
Buildings and that source was the unpublished manuscripts of 
Samuel Greenberg, a poet who died in 1916 at the age of twenty- 
three, "uneducated . . . unknown ... in an institute for the 
destitute tubercular on Ward's Island." Readings in the Green- 
berg manuscript reveal a gift less disciplined than Crane's, and 
Crane's use of it does not involve him in the ugly and patently 
dishonest aspects of plagiarism. What it does show, rather, is 
that Crane, whenever he felt his own powers of invention flag- 
ging, whipped them to life again from external sources, and this 
means of restoring his "inspiration," more often than not, dis- 
jointed and dismembered Crane's effort to sustain the more am- 
bitious sections of The Bridge. It could be said that Crane abused 
his gifts rather than fostered them; he was impatient at the work- 
ings of his own genius, and not unlike Beddoes, his nineteenth- 
century predecessor, he had been driven toward a large effort at 
a synthesis that he could not achieve. 

It could almost be said that in the writing of The Bridge 
Crane unwisely sublimated the religious emotion that has a far 
more complete expression in "The Broken Tower," which was 
reputed to have been the last of his poems, written in Mexico a 
short time before his death. In the late 1920'$ and in the 1930*8 
to confess religious emotion in New York literary circles was far 
more damaging to whatever went by the name of "poetic pres- 
tige" than the confession of any number of sexual or moral 
irregularities. In a letter to Kahn, Crane did admit that The 
Bridge had "a rather religious motivation" but he carefully 
modified "religious" with the word "rather" and spoke of The 
Bridge in a mixed jargon of anthropological and historical terms. 
It was then highly fashionable to be "metaphysical" rather than 
anything else, just as today, in the fifth decade of the twentieth 

The 1930's 477 

century, the fashion to be both "political" and "religious" has 
gained considerable ground. In Crane's poetry an impulse toward 
the full expression of religious emotion ran its course. The un- 
successful "Lachrymae Christi" of White Buildings contained 
sentimental references to the Nazarene and to Dionysus, but in 
the Proem to The Bridge, 

And of the curveship lend a myth to God, 

the religious impulse had begun to find its proper language and 
a theme. In the progress of The Bridge from the physical sight 
of Brooklyn Bridge itself to the last section, "Atlantis," "Swift 
peal of secular light," the sight of wings carry the poem toward 
an evangelical "salvation," the desire for an immortality that 
Crane devoutly wished. If the divisions of The Bridge could be 
recognized for what they are, separate poems of unequal quality, 
Crane's last poem, "The Broken Tower," would be the last, the 
best, the completely realized expression of his poetic gifts. If a 
highly discriminating selection of Crane's poetry were made, it 
would include the five titles we have mentioned that were pub- 
lished in White Buildings, the Proem to The Bridge, and "The 
Broken Tower." The least well known of these is "The Broken 
Tower" and for that reason, as well as its own merits, we feel 
that it deserves quotation here: 


The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn 
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell 
Of a spent day to wander the cathedral lawn 
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell. 

Have you not heard, have you not seen that corps 
Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway 
Antiphonal carillons launched before 
The stars are caught and hived in the sun's ray? 

The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower; 
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave 
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score 
Of broken intervals . . . And I, their sexton slave! 

* From Collected Poems of Hart Crane, by permission of Liveright Pub- 
lishing Corporation. 

478 A History of American Poetry 

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping 
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain! 
Pagodas, campaniles with reveilles outleaping 
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain! . . . 

And so it was I entered the broken world 
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice 
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled) 
But not for long to hold each desperate choice. 

My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored 
Of that tribunal monarch of the air 
Whose thigh embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word 
In wounds pledged once to hope cleft to despair? 

The steep encroachments of my blood left me 
No answer (could blood hold such a lofty tower 
As flings the question true?) or is it she 
Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power? 

And through whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes 

My veins recall and add, revived and sure 

The angelus of wars my chest evokes: 

What I hold healed, original now, and pure . . . 

And builds, within, a tower that is not stone 
(Not stone can jacket heaven) but slip 
Of pebbles visible wings of silence sown 
In azure circles, widening as they dip 

The matrix of the heart, lift down the eye 
That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower . . . 
The commodious, tall decorum of that sky 
Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower. 

The poem was self-contained to a degree that few of Crane's 
poems are, and unlike so many of the longer poems in The 
Bridge, the movement of the entire poem seems inevitably at- 
tracted in the direction of its closing stanzas. Was this because 
Crane, on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Mexico, had fewer of his 
literary friends to humor his pretensions, to let him talk half the 
poem out of existence before it was set down on paper? This 
question cannot, of course, be answered, but to the reader of 
Philip Horton's life of Crane, the question is a reasonable one 

The 19Ws 479 

to ask. Or the poem may have been the true beginning of Crane's 
poetic maturity. Ten years earlier he had written to Gorham 
Munson, "You know I live for work, for poetry. I shall do my 
best work later on when I am about 35 or 40." At the time he 
committed suicide, he was thirty-three. 

Philip Horton's book contains many amusing anecdotes of the 
criticism that Crane's work received during the poet's lifetime, 
critical reviews, which, of course, angered Crane and gave him a 
sense of spiritual isolation (the price that a truly gifted poet 
usually pays in contemporary America) but the reviews dis- 
torted, rather than fatally injured, Crane's reputation. Edmund 
Wilson attacked contemporary poets (with Crane among them) 
for their unintelligibility (in which he echoed a foolish and ill- 
informed article written by Max Eastman in Harper's Magazine). 
And Yvor Winters who had long been Crane's friend (through 
correspondence) urged Crane to be "the complete man"; Winters 
was, then as now, well known for the pettiness of his views, his 
lack of poetic imagination and to Winters, Crane wrote: 

You need a good drubbing. . . . Wilson's article was just half-baked 
enough to make one warm around the collar. It is so damned easy for 
such as he, born into easy means, graduated from a fashionable univer- 
sity into a critical chair overlooking Washington Square, etc. to sit 
tight and hatch little squibs of advice to poets ... as though all the 
names he had just mentioned had been as suavely nourished as he 
as though 4 out of 5 of them hadn't been damned well forced the 
major part of their lives to grub at any kind of work they could manage 
by hook or crook and the fear of hell to secure 1 5 

Unlike Winters, Wilson had a residue of poetic imagination 
that had been drained off into the channels of his colorful, ener- 
getic, lightly textured prose. In respect to poetry and his criticism 
of it, his tastes were not unlike those of Conrad Aiken, but his 
warmest appreciation of contemporary verse had been limited to 
the period that produced Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the poetry 

r> From Hart Crane, The Life of an American Poet, by Philip Horton, used 
by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 

480 A History of American Poetry 

of Miss Millay has been one of the touchstones by which he 
has judged most of the poetry he has praised. 

In America Crane's poetic reputation was at its height in 1933, 
the year that The Collected Poems of Hart Crane appeared, 
edited by Waldo Frank, who also contributed an introductory 
essay to the volume. In this country the influence of his poetry 
was first acknowledged by Allen Tate, and Tate, in turn, and 
through mutual admiration, exerted an influence upon the poems 
that appeared in White Buildings. Of all Crane's critics who 
knew him personally Frank was the most officious and successful 
in attracting public recognition, and through the difficulties of 
personal contact with Crane, Munson had the most courage, the 
kindliest understanding and he was certainly as in his early 
recognition of Franz Kafka's genius, of Pound's Cantos, and of 
Wallace Stevens' first edition of Harmonium the most disinter- 
ested of men. Crane's influence quickly spread among younger 
American poets, and among these the most promising was James 
Agee, whose first book, Permit Me Voyage (the title was a quota- 
tion from the last line of the third of Crane's "Voyages"), ap- 
peared in 1934 with an introduction by Archibald MacLeish. 
Since that date his poetic talents have been overshadowed by his 
skills in journalism on the staff of Time and as motion-picture 
critic for The Nation. 

In Britain, Crane's poetry has been belatedly discovered by 
younger writers, and today its influence has taken root in the 
poetry of those who represent a necromantic school. It would 
seem that the early verse of Dylan Thomas and of Nicholas 
Moore show traces of reading Crane's The Bridge, and as a sus- 
tained and balanced appreciation of Crane's best poetry comes 
into being, it is probable that the immediate, and not always 
fortunate, effects of his influence will drop away. Among his 
contemporaries in American literature, his closest affinity in 
imaginative writing is with William Faulkner, the novelist. Some 
lew of the same flaws that Crane's poetry had are to be found in 
Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1930) and The Sound and the Fury 
(1929), the same feeling of "intoxication" is also conveyed 
through the medium of Faulkner's prose, and in the best of 

The 1930' s 481 

Faulkner's novels and short stories there is the presence of a 
"single vision." Compared with Crane, Faulkner has been the 
more self-conscious artist, and he has had the good fortune to 
live and to write into a maturity that Crane never knew. Crane's 
single advantage over Faulkner was in the highly charged con- 
centration of his gifts, an advantage which is always held by the 
poet whenever he is compared to a novelist of similar insights, 
depth, and imaginative quality. And Crane well knew 

The imaged Word, it is, that holds 
Hushed willows anchored in its glow. 
It is the unbetrayable reply 
Whose accent no farewell can know. 8 

6 "Voyage VI," from Collected Poems of Hart Crane, by permission of 
Liveright Corporation. 


It is time to realize that the revolutionary trend of the thirties did 
not profoundly transform the literary consciousness of America. 

William Phillips and Philip Rahv, in New Letters 
in America (1937) 

So wrote the two young editors of Partisan Review. Their 
reference was to the so-called "proletarian novel" which did not 
materialize in America. By 1944 the only "literary Marxian" who 
held to his original principles was the novelist, James T. Farrell, 
and Farrell, like Kenneth Fearing, had never been a member of 
the "proletariat." His family was of lower-middle-class Chicago 
Irish, and his novels more properly represent a candid, forceful, 
urban regionalism than any other claim which they may have 
to the documentary literature of the period. The same observa- 
tion holds for the poetic literature of the same decade. The naive 
young critics of the period tried to instruct writers to "write 
down" to the "workers," and the effort failed because on the 
one hand gifted writers refused to compromise their moral and 
esthetic integrity (only lesser poets fell into the trap), and on 
the other hand the American public (of all classes) had a higher 
standard for what it cared to read than what had been praised 
as the "proletarian novel." 

If the general movement to the left proved anything, it gave 
evidence of a long-recognized youthful American "vitality," 
which in this case responded acutely to the Great Depression and 
the threat of a Second World War. Its more spectacular efforts 
moved in the direction of journalism and away from the slow 
and more profound rewards of writing and reading imaginative 
literature. And it has been the curse of the phenomenon called 
"American vitality" to be praised and encouraged in terms of 
adolescent values. Aided by well-meaning but thoughtless critics, 


484 A History of American Poetry 

the "vitality" of the Saroyans, the Steinbecks, and the Heming- 
ways of American prose projected a mindless, half sadistic, half 
sentimental vision of an indefinitely prolonged boyhood across 
the many pages of their novels and short stories and, literally, 
upon the Hollywood screen. And the curse was compounded by 
the ever present hope (and sometimes the actual fact) that "easy" 
writing brought with it the rewards of easy money. With this 
readily commercialized value placed on American "vitality," it 
was little wonder that the writers of fiction during a "political 
decade" became confused, and that they did not make a notable 
advance beyond the writers of a previous decade. 

If the values of poetry (and criticism of it) fared better than 
fiction, it is because the temptations of commercial success were 
further removed; and though a poet may become self-deceived 
as to the nature of his "vitality" and his prestige, there is small 
danger that his work will be corrupted by large offers of money 
from Hollywood. On the North American continent we possess, 
so it has been often said, a vital language and in saying this, 
we drop the quotation marks with which "vitality" passes from 
its all too familiar meanings to those which have a closer asso- 
ciation with poetry. In the writings of many poets of whom we 
have spoken in the preceding pages, a vital language has been 
the medium through which their poetry has delighted and per- 
suaded us, and today it should be our concern to give that 
speech a life beyond the glib rise and fall of voices heard on the 
radio or in the lecture hall. The gay and bright rhetoric of the 
advertising agency, which twenty years ago seemed so refreshing, 
has grown shrill and thin; the speech of the political manifesto 
(which, so some have said, had been imported from Paris soon 
after the First World War) has grown heavy and pontifical; and 
as if to counteract the first two extremes of rhetorical exercise, 
a neoscholastic rhetoric of poetry as well as criticism, based, as 
someone said, upon a Henry James version of the Bible, came 
into being and all of it contained the elements of what some of 
us had too fondly called American vitality, and then had been 
forced to confess that it had small chance of surviving the pains 
of "growing up" into something that would endure. But a true 

Epilogue 485 

and adult vitality cannot be patronized in the fashion we have 
just described, and instead of applying the word without reserva- 
tion to the poetry of younger writers, let us say, rather, that first 
and second books of poetry written in this country are seldom 

Since 1940, younger American poets, superficially at least 
(although among the weaker of them, the influence became sub- 
cutaneous), keenly felt the presence of three British poets, 
W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice, across 
the waters of the Atlantic. Perhaps the most immediate in- 
fluence that was widely and quickly spread by the younger 
British poets was a renewed respect for traditional forms in 
English verse. For a brief moment it was forgotten that tradi- 
tional forms in verse had been employed by every American poet 
of more than passing distinction from 1900 to the arrival of 
Archibald MacLeish. But the point is that, with the exception 
of Stephen Spender, the British poets moved with great freedom 
and facility within the traditional forms of lyric verse, and the 
immediate results were spectacular. 

In practice the verse of Louis MacNeice was the most readily 
adaptable; he seemed to write his verse in the way that he de- 
fined, "as one enjoys swimming or swearing." In other words, his 
gift was easily assumed, often journalistic, extraverted and at its 
worst, flat, dull, and wordy. In its lighter moments, the verse was 
brisk, acrid, amusing, and at its best it emulated (in a fine adap- 
tation of one of Horace's odes) the clarity and strength of a Latin 
heritage in English verse, but in itself and in its influence upon 
younger American writers, it very nearly founded a school of 
poetic insensibility. Its metrics were tone deaf, and only the 
most obvious half-and-full rhymes and cadences were heard 
within it. And as one makes the effort to reread Poems 1925-1940 
there is indeed something that more resembles "swimming" and 
"swearing" in it than poetry. MacNeice's technique, his verse 
forms, his manner of seeming to know the world, were quickly 
adopted by two promising poets, Randall Jarrell, author of 

486 A History of American Poetry 

Blood for a Stranger (1942), and Karl Jay Shapiro, whose editor 
published two volumes of verse, Person, Place and Thing (1942) 
and V-Letter (1944). The three books received universal praise, 
but the clearest tendency that was expressed in them was a half 
sentimental, half hard-boiled effort to rewrite the "MacNeice 
manner" into acceptable magazine verse. We shall have to wait 
another five years for their maturity.* 

Stephen Spender's second volume, Poems (1933), moved in an 
opposite direction from that of Louis MacNeice's verse; and since 
the publication of Rupert Brooke's Collected Poems in 1915, no 
single book of poems by a young and unknown British poet has 
received so much praise. Its promise still holds the attention of 
its readers, nor does the promise diminish when one becomes 
aware that the majority of the poems betray a sometimes nai've 
and always sensitive reading of Rainer Maria Rilke. It is enough 
to know that the sources of Spender's early poems were freshly in- 
spired, unspoiled, unhackneyed. His Ruins and Visions (1942) 
was less reassuring. Something of Spender's fine sensibility re- 
mained between (one almost says) its lines, but one feels that the 
sensibility had become blunted and battered by a series of unfor- 
tunate encounters with psychology, history, and politics. One 
must look for felicitous single lines in the book, and not for com- 
pleted poems; the book is filled with portents, speculations, 
slogans, ruminations, which in their immature phrasing have all 

* On his return from the Pacific, Shapiro published an Essay on Rime, 
2,000 lines of verse on the "confusions" of poetry (1945), which promises to 
be a historical phenomenon and which reflected those attitudes and opinions 
that had become familiar to all readers of the Partisan Review (1935-1945). 
Meanwhile, his V-Letter had received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1944. 
Essay on Rime confirms the character of his first two books of poems; with 
remarkable showmanship and a vigorous facility, Shapiro's heavily weighted 
periods, his use of such words as "signification" and "resultantly," showed 
a greater debt to MacNeice's verse than to the "influence" of Auden's poetry 
which Shapiro claims and acknowledges. In his Essay Shapiro's remark on 
John Donne's prosody ("A prosody of thunder-clap and bullets") is more 
vigorous than brilliant or perceptive and, as Charles Poore observed, "more 
novel than convincing." Although Essay on Rime increased rather than 
diminished current "confusions" in criticism of modern American poetry, 
Shapiro's adverse critics should not underrate his gifts for showmanship and 
poetic journalism which, in their energy if not in their lack of wit and 
gaiety, curiously resemble the similar gifts of William Saroyan in prose. 

Epilogue 487 

too rapidly become cliches. The truism that poetry is written 
with words and not ideas leaves a negative impression upon a 
volume whose title described its contents with an imaginative and 
fatal accuracy. 

Of the three British poets, and though it now seems gratuitous 
to say so, W. H. Auden alone has sustained the brilliance of his 
early promise. Auden's early verse revealed, among other things, 
a literary personality, the created figure of a young British poet, 
who moved with great and brilliant ease in a fashionable intel- 
lectual and social milieu of the day. And the figure that Auden 
had created spoke the language of that day, its particular brand 
of Oxford communism, its "Americanisms," its private jokes, its 
literary quarrels, its ambitions for "leadership," with an ad- 
mirable show of poetic wit. The figure was and still remains 
the kind of "genius" that is the very spirit of its time and 
place, and it inhabited a pre-Second World War milieu that 
was presented on the screen by Alfred Hitchcock, and made its 
presence known to the readers of fiction in the novels of 
Grahame Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Eric Ambler, and Christopher 
Isherwood. The figure drew from that active scene a speech and 
a manner whose resources seemed inexhaustible; the gifts that he 
possessed relieved him of those responsibilities that fall to the lot 
of the island Englishman; and as readers of Letters from Iceland 
(1937) can testify, he assumed the role of a latter-day Lord Byron, 
the rare phenomenon of a British poet who carried at heart the 
events and ideas of Mid-Europe, as well as its north and north- 
western islands. 

Since Auden's arrival in America during the late 1930*5, his 
literary personality has been deprived of that rich source of 
immediate reference in language and events which had existed 
in an Oxford-London-Orient Express milieu; his "Americanisms" 
were less effective because they lacked the appropriate setting of 
a European context; and he had been put to the difficulty (and 
not without natural failures) of inventing another language in 
which to convey the expression of poetic wit and personal au- 
thority. For this reason the speech of The Double Man (1941) 
was less refreshing than the language of On This Island (1937) 

488 A History of American Poetry 

and Another Time (1940) and it soon became almost as "dated" 
as that eldest document of vital literature, which is always yes- 
terday morning's edition of the New York Times. In five years 
from now it is highly probable that the "ideas" and the "private 
jokes" which so genuinely delighted the readers of Auden's 
Poems (New York, 1934, London, 1930) will be as desperately 
out of fashion as D. H. Lawrence's manifestoes on sex and ob- 
scenity are today. 

Auden's poetry bears the same relationship to American poetry 
today as D. H. Lawrence's prose did to the "American scene" of 
twenty-five years ago. The presence of D. H. Lawrence in this 
country could not be otherwise than salutary; and both Auden 
and Lawrence created a literary character who happened to have 
the same name as the author of their books. As we become aware 
of that relationship, the likeness becomes all the more convinc- 
ing: both characters, though under the separate names of 
Lawrence and Auden, treated "ideas" and interest in intellectual 
affairs with the passion and intensity of one who becomes the 
leader or the devotee of a cult. 

What then seems to have the quality of endurance in the best 
of Auden's poetry? The very best which came to light in On This 
Island (1937), and that flickered with less sustained but equal 
brilliance in Another Time (1940), and in his latest book, For 
the Time Being (1944)? What true example does it offer us be- 
hind the ephemeral speech and gestures of the personality which 
seems to utter its shifting convictions, or the lack of them, with 
such facility? What is the nature of the art or spirit which has 
endowed his poetry with a measurable size, and weight, and 
depth? One answer is that his poetry exists and with appropriate 
freedom and wit within the tradition of English lyric verse. 
From that tradition it derives its true authority; and even in its 
deliberate parodies and satires* it pays its respects to a range of 
lyrical conceit in poetry that extends from Sir Philip Sidney to 
Alfred, Lord Tennyson and embraces at the close of the nine- 
teenth century the verse of Kipling and of A. E. Housman. This 
describes the nature of its "size"; and if some of the spaces within 
it are imperfectly filled, it is because the creation of a literary 
personality and its legend tends to dissipate those energies which 

Epilogue 489 

should have been concentrated upon and within certain indi- 
vidual poems. As to the "depth" and "weight" of Auden's gift, 
an analogy may be found among his literary ancestors, in the 
verse of the gifted, and today all too little known, seventeenth- 
century poet, Richard Lovelace and this is not an analogy of 
kind, but rather of true weight in which something like a bal- 
ance can be struck between the lyrical brilliance of Auden's 
poetry at its best and the songs, odes, pastorals, elegies, and 
reflective verses of Lovelace. The strain in Auden's verse which 
has always held a relationship to what has been called "meta- 
physical" poetry may be rediscovered in reading the poetry of 
Lovelace. How "Freudian," how Audenesque these few lines from 
one of Lovelace's songs now appearl 

Hark! O hark! you guilty trees, 
In whose gloomy galleries 
Was the cruel'st murder done 
That e'er yet eclips'd the sun. 

Feel no season of the year 
But what shaves off all your hair; 
Nor carve any from your wombs 
Aught but coffins and their tombs. 1 

It is perhaps unnecessary to add that such lines are very nearly 
certain to stir and to delight the reader's imagination; and it is 
superfluous to remark that as long as Auden's poetry is at its 
best it achieves the same result. It is rather more than likely that 
William Empson, that fine and able disciple of the teachings of 
I. A. Richards and the author of a distinguished volume of verse, 
The Gathering Storm (1940), would insist that the pleasure de- 
rived from the reading of Lovelace's lines came from their au- 
thor's perception of a poetic, and thoroughly legitimate, am- 
biguity. Such an accomplishment in poetry and it may also be 
found in the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Hart Crane is always 
a source of delight, and those distinctions which refer to nation- 
ality, to sex, to race, to whether or not the verse is major or 
minor, or "romantic" or "classical," become matters of secondary 

i "The Song" from Minor Poets of the Seventeenth Century, Everyman's 
Library, E. P. Dutton & Company. 

49 A History of American Poetry 

importance and tend to melt away. It is therefore natural to 
relate Auden's title, "The Double Man," to Lovelace's lines in 
his second poem to "The Snail" even the metrics of the poem 
resemble those of "The Double Man" and Lovelace had the 
advantage of writing his poem in considerably less than Auden's 
seventeen hundred lines: 

Yet the authentic do believe, 

Who keep their judgment in their sleeve, 

That he is his own double man, 

And, sick, still carries his sedan: 

Or that like dames i' th' land of Luyck, 

He wears his everlasting huke. 

But, banish'd, I admire his fate, 

Since neither ostracism of state, 

Nor a perpetual exile 

Can force this virtue change his soil: 

For wheresoever he doth go, 

He wanders with his country too. 

It is in the concealed fashion of Lovelace's snail, and not in 
the fashionable milieu through which Auden has traveled with 
so much success and such great ease, that the true virtues of his 
poetry are to be found; and Lovelace's remarks upon the snail 
are precisely those that one welcomes in the presence of Auden's 
literary legend and his poetry. 

Of those who felt the presence of Spender and of Auden with 
particular keenness, and yet with discrimination, the most gifted 
American was Frederic Prokosch, who is now better known for 
his novels than for his verse. His distinction rests, however, upon 
the rare and delicate qualities in his verse which denote the pos- 
session of a lyrical "ear." His verse has charm and it creates the 
illusion of being written with the ease of one who is in the habit 
(a habit from which Auden himself is not quite free) of playing, 
for the sake of whiling away the time, several bars of one of 
Chopin's melodies with the left hand. And the ease rewards us 
with its moments of true pleasure. The best of Prokosch 's several 
books of poems is The Carnival (1938), and readers of contempo- 
rary verse are likely to find in it passages of relief from the tone- 
deaf, small-minded, ugly-tempered, sarcastic rather than satiric 

Epilogue 49 1 

improvisations of those Americans who followed MacNeice with 
scant wisdom and thoroughly docile admiration. 

A near contemporary of Prokosch, and both poets were born 
in the American Middle West, and both had traveled extensively 
in Europe, is Richard Eberhart. During the past fifteen years, 
Eberhart has published four books of verse, of which Song and 
Idea (1940) is the most characteristic. His verse is notoriously 
uneven in its quality; it is both artful and artless, and whenever 
a good poem appears on a page of one of his books, it seems to 
arrive with the spontaneity and freshness of a fortunate accident. 
One concludes that Eberhart is a bad self-critic, that he has yet 
to find a poetic style that is completely his own, and that his 
progress has been one of leaping forward rather than of steady 
growth. At his best his poems show the presence of a true imagi- 
nation; he has written four or five fine poems of which "The 
Groundhog" is the most complete, and "In Prisons of Established 
Craze" the most indicative of his promise. His choice of language 
is less American than British, and it seems to stem from the 
period that produced the anthologies of Georgian Poetry from 
1911 to 1922. Another poet, who happens to be some ten years 
younger than Eberhart (who was born in 1904), but who is of 
the same mixed European-American heritage in his verse, and 
has the same evidence of promise, is Thomas Merton, the author 
of Thirty Poems (1944). Merton is a Trappist Monk in Our Lady 
of Gethsemani, Kentucky; little is known of him or his poetry, 
but the promise of his first book indicates, as Eberhart's best 
verse implies, a revived devotional spirit in contemporary poetry. 

The sensitive quality of Robert Fitzgerald's verse has gained 
more recognition than Richard Eberhart's. And the recognition 
has been justly given to his two volumes, Poems (1935) and A 
Wreath for the Sea (1943). Fitzgerald has depended not at all 
upon the hopes of easily won success, but like the best of those 
who wrote in the generation that preceded his, he has allowed 
time for the natural growth of his abilities. In A Wreath for the 

492 A History of American Poetry 

Sea, his verse shows a fine appreciation of those classical values 
that have existed and continue to exist in British and American 
poetry, and the following lines inspire admiration: 

The epithalamion, the hush were due, 
For I had fasted and gone blind to see 
What night might be beyond our passages; 
Those stars so chevalier in fearful heaven 
Could not but lay their steel aside and come 
With a grave glitter into my low room. 2 

The portrait-elegy for and of John Wheelwright, which we 
have quoted in the preceding pages of this book, is an elegy that 
has been written well within the best tradition of English verse, 
and it is not, as so many contemporary elegies have been, a 
strained and fortuitous use of an elegiac title to record anything 
that may have floated through the poet's mind. Among Fitz- 
gerald's "Mementoes," 3 there is an excellent tribute to Henry 
James's heroines: 

Milly and Daisy and Henrietta 
And Isabel, beauties, pray for us 
In your fresh heaven, on those lawns 
By Thames under the copper beeches, 
Behind the iron gates in ducal 
Shadow: ambassadors! At Venice 
Where the old and weary and splendid 
Spiders of the world devoured you, 
Who were not ever in anything 
Quite so correct as they. Sisters, 
Mothers later corrupted, maidens 
Living like men into bewilderment 
With a stiff upper lip: you masks 
At operas and marriages, 
Matriarchs with knobby canes, 
Goodbye, goodbye gentlewomen. 

At first reading, the associations of these lines may seem too 
"literary," and so they are, until it is remembered that James's 
heroines belong to an American past that is our common 

2 "Souls Lake" from A Wreath for the Sea, Arrow Editions, by permission 
of New Directions. 

8 From A Wreath for the Sea, Arrow Editions, by permission of New 

Epilogue 493 

heritage, and that their lives exist today as in a mirror whose 
rays reflect a light that illuminates a twentieth-century sensibility. 
In collaboration with Dudley Fitts, Fitzgerald has translated 
The Alcestis of Euripides (1936) and The Antigone of Sophocles 
(1939) which have been praised for their sensibility in reviving 
die essential qualities of Greek dramatic verse for presentation 
on the modern stage. Fitzgerald has also written an English ver- 
sion of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus (1941),* and the follow- 
ing chorus from it shows the tact and flexibility of Fitzgerald's 
lyrical gift: 

The land beloved of horsemen, fair 
Colonus takes a guest; 
He shall not seek another home, 
For this, in all the earth and air, 
Is most secure and loveliest. 

In the god's untrodden vale 
Where leaves and berries throng, 
And wine-dark ivy climbs the bough, 
The sweet, sojourning nightingale 
Murmurs all day long. 

No sun nor wind may enter there 

Nor the winter's rain; 

But through the haunted shadow goes 

Dionysus reveler, 

Immortal maenads in his train. 

Here with drops of heaven's dews 
At daybreak all the year, 
The clusters of narcissus bloom, 
Time-hallowed garlands for the brows 
Of those great goddesses we fear. 

The crocus like a little sun 
Blooms with its yellow ray; 
The river's fountains are awake, 
And his nomadic streams that run 
Unthinned forever, and never stay; 

But like perpetual lovers move 
On the maternal land. 

* By permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company. 

494 ^ History of American Poetry 

And here the choiring Muses come, 

And the divinity of love 

With the gold reins in her hand. 

Other lesser known poets of the period that followed in the 
wake of a "political decade" were John Malcolm Brinnin, Win- 
field Townley Scott, Kenneth Rexroth, and Wcldon Kees. Of 
these Brinnin was the most deeply influenced by the fashions of 
the day. His book, The Garden Is Political (1942), ran the 
chances in its very title of being a parody of what seemed to 
have happened to the "new poetry" of the 1930*5, and like 
Muriel Rukeyser's gift, Brinnin's brilliant promise seems half 
concealed in poetic activity rather than in the actual writing of 
poetry. Scott's promise is of an entirely different order; it is one 
of slow maturity. He has lived almost all his life in Providence, 
Rhode Island; and he has held serenely to a New England en- 
vironment. The Sword on the Table (1942), a long narrative 
poem of Thomas Dorr's Rebellion, proved the seriousness and 
the cross-grained honesty of Scott's speech and its intentions. The 
poem itself was pedestrian in its movement, but Scott's unvar- 
nished, intractable, blunt Rhode Island manner has its virtues. 
Scott's merits are those of the regional American poet, who is a 
New Englander, and who has found in the poetry of E. A. Rob- 
inson an example of moral and national integrity. Kenneth 
Rexroth in In What Hour (1940) published regional verse that 
reflected the charm of the Pacific Coast, and the meditative if 
somewhat belated contact of a poet with the political and 
esthetic "conversations" of his day. He had the advantage of his 
isolation, with the result that his writing retained its personal 
character. Of the same forthright and direct intention that both 
Scott and Rexroth showed, Weldon Kees in The Last Man (1943) 
pursued a course that had a keener edge and a true respect for 
formal distinction in writing poetry. His greatest debt was to 
the poetry of Allen Tate, and Kees's promise seems to be in 
achieving a balance between direct prose cadences and those of 
verse. All of these poets haye contributed either to James Laugh- 
lin's "poets of the month" series or to his annual, New Direc- 

Epilogue 495 

tions; and they represent divergent tendencies in American 

Of the same general group (and die list of contributors to 
eight successive issues of New Directions is a long one) Delmore 
Schwartz and Kenneth Patchen attracted wide attention. Both 
poets were of an esthetic heritage that had been marked by the 
publication of an earlier annual, The American Caravan, edited 
by Van Wyck Brooks, Lewis Mumford, Paul Rosenfeld, and 
Alfred Kreymborg. Although both Schwartz and Patchen have 
published several books of verse, of which In Dreams Begin Re- 
sponsibilities in 1938 was the best of Schwartz and First Will and 
Testament in 1939 was the best of Patchen, their promise was 
more in evidence than their achievement, and both carry with 
them some few of the flaws and merits of the generation which 
preceded them. In his later prose and verse Patchen has emu- 
lated the example set before him by Henry Miller, and in his 
criticism and verse Schwartz has followed a style that has been 
acceptable to the editors of The Southern Review. 

It is scarcely necessary to say that if we think of poetic vitality 
in terms of great variety, of expectations awakened each year by 
the introduction of several unknown poets, the prospect becomes 
too broad, too varicolored in its depths and shallows, to endow 
the sight of life and its activity with anything more than vague 
shadows of protean movement. What American poetry needs 
most is the courage (since there are many diversions and easily 
won rewards not to do so) to mature. But it is also an imperti- 
nence on the part of any critic for him to insist too strenuously 
that individual poets suddenly "grow up." The "growth" of an 
individual poet is a private matter, and as Keats wrote in one of 
his memorable letters, 

I have written independently without judgment. I may write inde- 
pendently, and with judgment, hereafter. The Genius of Poetry must 
work out its own salvation in a man. It cannot be matured by law and 
precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself. That which is 
creative must create itself. In Endymion I leaped headlong into the 

496 A History of American Poetry 

sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the soundings, 
the quicksands, and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green 
shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea and comfortable advice. 5 

And as for the twentieth century in American poetry, examples 
may be found of a mature vitality in the poetry of E. A. Robin- 
son, of Robert Frost, of T. S. Eliot and across the Atlantic, 
where Eliot has become a British subject, the example is 
furthered in the later poetry of Thomas Hardy, of W. B. Yeats, 
and of Edith Sitwell. American vitality as a youthful attribute, 
with its admitted strength and charms, cannot be substituted, 
year after year, for the more enduring values of individual ma- 
turity and distinction, and as we view the human process of 
"growing up," questions of morality, religious and social being, 
and esthetic responsibility continue to play an increasingly larger 
part in the evaluation of twentieth-century American poetry. 

5 The Life and Letters of John Keats by Lord Houghton, by permission of 
E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., publishers in the United States. 


A literary history, however inclusive its scope may be, must respect 
the limitations of its narrative. Certain titles of books of poems have 
been omitted; but for the sake of furthering information, we have 
supplemented our narrative with the following list of titles: 

Ideal Passion (1917) by George Edward Woodberry (1855-1930) who 
was a characteristic minor poet of Stedman's "twilight interval. 1 ' He 
believed in "not turning aside to the eccentric, the sensational, the 
abnormal, the brutal, the base," and that "life-experience spiritualized 
is the formula of all great literature/' His sonnets in Ideal Passion 
were of the same "classicism" that guided the hand of William Wet- 
more Story (1819-95) in his sculpture; Woodberry wrote: 

in a flying marble fold 
Of Hellas once I saw eternity 
Flutter about her forms; all nature she 

Inspirits, but round her being there is rolled 

The inextinguishable beauty old 
Of the far shining mountains and the sea. 

Rose of the Wind (1910) by Anna Hempstead Branch (1875-1937), 
a lyric poet who was greatly admired by Conrad Aiken and whose best- 
known poem was "The Monk in the Kitchen"; the sentiments of her 
verse were divided between the exalted and the trivial, and at her 
best, her lyricism resembled the quality of Ridgely Torrence's verse. 
Miss Branch was a descendant of a highly respected New England 
family; in Boston and New York literary circles she had many friends; 
the latter part of her life was almost exclusively devoted to settlement- 
work on New York's East Side at the Chris tadora House. 

Bluestone (1920) by Marguerite Wilkinson (1883-1928), a lyricist 
whose devotional poems were less well known but touched deeper 
springs of emotion than were revealed in Miss Branc