Bards in Battle Royal

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/May, 1912

SPRING and the poets—ah, well-a-day! For two months or more they have been waiting in my antechamber, tuning their lutes and psalteries, piping their vocalizzi, raiding my Scotch and my cigars. A confused and discordant burbling, mercifully damped by the thickness of my oaken portals and the discreet “Sh-h-h-h” of my commissionaries and catchpolls. Anon the deep bellow of some maker of epics, all in the bass clef, thunderous, almost seismic. Anon a golden love song for tenor—corrupted, perhaps, by adenoids, but yet full of joy. Anon a lullaby, a drinking song, a Christmas carol, a hymn to Columbia or Pan, a ballad in the ancient mode, a madrigal, a barcarolle, the fragment of a mass—polyphony to wring the withers of a Richard Strauss. And to every baritone an alto matched, to every deep-down-diving and mud-up-bringing bass a dust-from-the-stars-brushing soprano. A mixed company, of a truth, raiding my bonbons and chewing gum as well as my panatelas and hard liquor. High notes, shrill roulades, B flat, B natural, C—even C sharp; Ossa piled upon Pelion!

Who comes first, when the door is opened ever so little? Walther von der Vogelweide, whiskered to the eyes? Wolfram von Eschenbach ? Hans Sachs? John J. Jones? Not one of these —but Miss Clara Mai Howe Fuqua ! And thus Miss Clara Mai Howe Fuqua (or is it Mrs.?):


I love you when you’re good,

I love you when you’re bad;

I love you when you’re gay,

I love you when you’re sad.


I love you when you’re good,

And your goodness makes me glad;

I love you when you’re bad,

But your badness makes me sad.


Well, well, stay your snickers! Not great poetry, perhaps. Maybe not poetry at all. But still honest and harmless stuff. Say what you will against it, you must at least admit that it conveys an intelligible idea intelligibly. No Clara Mai Howe Fuqua Club will have to be organized in the future to debate and determine the meaning of these strains. They are in the good old key of C major—a key avoided and despised by too many of our current minnesingers. What the latter strive for is the baffling quarter-tone, the note that lurks between D sharp and E flat, the unearthly harmonic. And in matter as in manner they lean toward the impalpable, the slippery. One often wonders whether they are up to their armpits in the subconscious or knee deep in stars. Not so Miss (Mrs.?) Clara Mai Howe Fuqua. She deals with things as familiar as calf love or sciatica, and she refers to them by their common or stable names. And now and then, as this modest quatrain shows, she comes close enough to grace to be within half a mile of beauty:


Oh, bid my soul stand still each day,

To hear Thy loving voice

Tell how to help the weak grow strong,

The saddened to rejoice.


Hail and farewell! “Two Dozen” is the name of Miss (Mrs.?) Fuqua’s book, and the hospitable Badger, of 194 Boylston Street, Boston, Mass., friend to all bards however lowly, is its publisher. Badger is sponsor, too, for Miss Grace L. Slocum, who begins a sonnet thus;


I did but dream that thou didst love me, dear;

I am not worthy such.


Which is not the worst, I lament to report, of Miss Slocum’s doings, for on one page of her “On the Face of the Waters” she tackles the enterprise, so beloved of poetasters, of rewriting “the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s,” with this banal result:


O let me hear thy voice, my love,

Thy voice is sweet to me;

Thou hast eyes like a brooding dove,

None can compare with thee.


Thy lips are like a scarlet thread,

With tiny pearls between,

Thy soft cheek like pomegranates red,

Beneath thy hair’s dark sheen.


Turn now to your Old Testament and see what Solomon himself had to say. I quote some of the strophes which obviously suggested Miss Slocum’s doggerel:


Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes within thy locks; thy hair is as a flock of goats that appear from Mount Gilead. . . .

Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely; thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks. . . .

Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies. . . .

Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.


Imagine the state of mind of a person who turns such luscious, lovely stuff into prim quatrains—quatrains dripping bohea and bichloride! And yet the thing is done constantly. The whole lyric portion of the Old Testament has been reduced time and again to bad verse. There must be at least fifty so-called metrical versions of the Twenty-third Psalm—as if the thing itself, as it stands in our English Bible, were not an absolutely flawless piece of rhythm! And there have been fully as many assaults upon the eight canticles of David’s son. I turn from Miss Slocum’s book to “The Heart’s Choice,” by Henry A. Lavely (Sherman-French), and find this preposterous effort to embellish the fifth:


I sleep, but at the least alarm

My heart is all awake,

To catch the faintest sounds of harm

That through its chambers break.


So the pious Lavely. Now the ancient bard:


I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved, that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled; for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.


And now another dose of Lavely:


But still my heart is not at rest —

A sense of danger near

Lurks like a ghostly spectre round,

And will not disappear.


What a profanation of beauty! What a mutilation of the greatest love song in all the world! And yet there must be an eager market for such things, for, as I have said, they are produced in large quantity. Solomon himself, piping his lays of amour to his wives and wenches, is too male a figure to be admitted to austere corrugated iron suburban chapels, and so he is bowdlerized and denaturized and his honest heat turned into pale phosphorescence. In this particular case the lady he sings is one who waits impatiently for her lover—and is so badly disappointed when he fails to come to her that she goes down the road calling his name, and is arrested by the “watchmen” and “keepers of the walls” for disturbing the peace. (Cant. V, 6, 7.). But in the Lavely version she becomes an old maid haunted by spooks! A metamorphosis, indeed!

Yet another Sunday school rhapsodist, this time Miss Emily A. Dinwiddie, author of “Songs in the Evening” (Sherman-French). Here is her Revised Version of Psalm xci, 4:


As the bird with drooping wing,

Weary with its wandering,

Flies homeward to its nest,

Weary with the toil of day,

And the troubles of the way,

I fly to thee for rest.


And here is how David wrote it:


He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.


As for me, give me David—and Solomon. The only thing that can be said for these long range collaborations is that they are measurably better than the purely original balderdash of the Baraca Class collaborators. Here, for example, is how the saintly Lavely goes it alone :


So you are nine years old today,

My own old-fashioned Sue—

I note the fact—and only say,

Be good and brave and true.


But enough of such rumble-bumblers. Their offense is that of the vandal who turned “Ein Feste Burg” into a polka and scored it for two cornets, an A clarinet and a snare drum. Closely allied to them are the pious poets of what may be called the God-Help-Us School—poets who see the world as a place of sin and sorrow and look forward to death as to a glad release. For instance, Mrs. Cordie Webb Ingram, author of “Southern Symphonies” (Broadway Pub. Co.), who prints her portrait as frontispiece to her book and subscribes herself “yours for the enrichment of Southern literature.” Thus Mrs. Ingram proceeds to that enrichment :


A vulture is tearing my heart. Prometheus himself never knew

The pangs that are rending the vitals of peace, and piercing my soul through and through.


And thus, in parable:


A fresh-faced girl with a blithesome heart

Laughed gaily for a reply,

When the solemn voice of the man of God

Read the text, “Ye shall surely die.”


But ere many weeks since those solemn words,

On a bed of affliction and pain,

She recalled the warning so gently given

And she sighed that she might remain;


That she might atone for her frivolous life,

And make some amends for the past,

And a sigh of regret passed her pale lips,

For she knew that that hour was her last.


More dolorous still is Charles Coke Woods, author of “A Harp of the Heart” (Broadway Pub. Co.). Life is frankly a curse to dear old Charlie. He describes himself as “unclothed mid wilds of woe,” and as having “lacerated feet that tread on pain,” and says that:


From chalices of languid life

I drain the bitter lees,

And all the music left to me

Sobs out from broken keys.


Out, out, O Charles, with your lacerated feet and wilds of woe! Get thee to “The Mikado” or “Huckleberry Finn,” and make room for less lugubrious warblers! In particular for Leyland Huckfield, Joyce Kilmer, Margret Holmes Bates and Sara Teasdale. Pass them in, Mr. Sergeant-at-Arms, and hand them the plate of lettuce sandwiches. Not one of them is a new Keats or Shelley. Not one, perhaps, is even a new Hood or Henley. And yet in the work of each there is an honest striving for beauty, and what is more, a very close approach to it. We have here, in brief, if not soul stirring poetry, then at least a body of sound and graceful verse. Mr. Huckfield goes to the trouble of marking certain of his compositions with a red lead pencil, that I may not overlook them, but the one I like best is not so marked. It is entitled “In Memoriam—E. H.,” and is the poet’s tribute to his dead mother—an earnest and sonorous piece of writing, with true emotion in every line of it. It is, indeed, so well done that the other things in his “Legend of the Rose” (Privately printed) suffer by comparison with it, and yet I am inclined to agree with Mr. Huckfield’s red pencil that some of these things are far from bad. So, too, with the verses of Mrs. Bates— many of them so modest as to be commonplace, but with here and there an arresting thought, a saving turn of phrase. For instance, these stanzas from a short poem entitled “Heredity:”


Over the placid waters,

Leaning, we only trace

A dead man’s wavering shadow,

A smile on a dead man’s face.


Lo, where Ambition beckons,

Showing his shining track,

Gladly we’d follow upward,

But dead hands hold us back.


Vainly we bid them slumber

Where the worm with the grave rat delves;

We struggle, but can’t escape them,

For we are the dead ourselves!


The “Summer of Love” (Baker-Taylor) of Mr. Kilmer bears the imprimatur of Richard Le Gallienne, who thinks very well of “The Ballade of My Lady’s Beauty.” A thing full of “old music,” as Mr. Le Gallienne says, but certainly no more melodious than other pieces in this little book. Two such are ballades—one of the butterflies and the other (borrowed from Jean Richepin) of the beggars’ king. And two others are ballads without the Gallic “e”—“The Morning Meditations of Frere Hyacinthus” and “Chevely Cross,” both too long to quote, but both showing that galloping tempo and that dramatic structure which make the good ballad. The vice of Mr. Kilmer is an inclination toward mere prettiness; too often his songs are of the courtier more than of the lover. Such things as the following, for example, miss sincerity altogether:


So all the world kneels down to you,

And all things are your own;

Now let a humble rhymer sue

Before your crystal throne.

Fair Queen, at your rose petal feet

Bid me to live and die!

Not all your world of lovers, Sweet,

Can love so much as I.


Which brings us to Miss Teasdale, perhaps the most accomplished singer of the quartette. The key here is often minor—it is unrequited love that gives substance to a full half of the poet’s songs—and the form is commonly that of groups of quatrains, sedately trochaic or iambic; but despite this essential austerity, Miss Teasdale manages to get a good deal of color into her lines. More than once, indeed, she strikes fire with a truly beautiful image or phrase. For example, “silken silence.” What could better describe the soft, grateful stillness of the night? And such things as this:


Her voice is like clear water

That drips upon a stone.


But mere efflorescence is not in Miss Teasdale’s verses. She gets her best effects by simple means; following Lizette Woodworth Reese, she leans toward the Anglo-Saxon word, and particularly toward the stark Anglo-Saxon monosyllable. A typical stanza:


There is no sign of leaf or bud;

A hush is over everything—

Silent as women wait for love,

The world is waiting for the spring.


And a typical song:


I hoped that he would love me,

And he has kissed my mouth,

But I am like a stricken bird

That cannot reach the south.


For tho’ I know he loves me,

Tonight my heart is sad;

His kiss was not so wonderful

As all the dreams I had.


Poetry reduced to its elementals— and yet who will miss the genuine feeling in it, and the genuine beauty? It is the very simplicity of the thing, indeed, that gives it its charm. Florid ornament would have broken the back of the song. It had to be written in one certain fragile way, and Miss Teasdale found that way. And so here:


Pierrot stands in the garden

Beneath a waning moon,

And on his lute he fashions

A little silver tune.


Pierrot plays in the garden,

He thinks he plays for me,

But I am quite forgotten

Under the cherry tree.


Pierrot plays in the garden,

And all the roses know

That Pierrot loves his music,

But I love Pierrot.


A slender thing, to be sure. Mere flute music. A pretty phrase or two—and then an end. But in lyric poetry nothing more is necessary to beauty. Song, of course, is hospitable, elastic. It has room for the high, astounding term, the leaping, heart wringing emotion. But it is most itself, I think, when its content is slighter and its mood gentler. Some of the great songs of the world are mere rose petals fluttering in the wind. What else is “Du Bist Wie Eine Blume”? What else is “Hark, Hark, the Lark!”? “Under the Greenwood Tree”? What else are Ariel’s songs? Let it not be supposed that I here compare Miss Teasdale’s modest verses to these things of supreme loveliness. That would be unfair and silly. A disconcerting ineptness crops up in more than one of her stanzas. Pushing simplicity too far, she occasionally attains to the commonplace, even to the banal. She has a long way to go before she will ever come to William Watson’s “April,” or to Robert Loveman’s rose song, or to any of the exquisite words for music of Arthur Symons, Katharine Tynan, Richard Le Gallienne, Eva Gore Booth and Arthur Stringer, to mention only a few singers, and none of the blood royal. But nevertheless she shows in this little book of hers—“Helen of Troy and Other Poems” (Putnam)—the authentic lyric touch. She is, in brief, a song maker of genuine promise, and so it is well to welcome her with more than bare politeness.

Now a trio of more familiar bards— John Vance Cheney, Charles Hanson Towne and Clinton Scollard—and all, I regret to say, somewhat disappointing. The trouble with Mr. Scollard is that he yields too easily to the lure of apt alliteration. A legitimate embellishment, true enough, and not despised by the masters, but still one to be kept at its distance. Here, in “The Lips of the Sea” (Browning), we have it unceasingly: “dipping deck,” “flailed and flayed,” “plunging prows,” “gray gulls,” “golden gates,” “spectral sails,” “weird and white,” “cove and cape,” “death’s darksome deep,” “bluff and bay,” “moiling in multitudinous marts,” “in glorious grapple after gold.” Worse still, we have hissing processions of sibilants: “shifting sand and shingle,” “spectral sail or ghostly spar,” “sudden subtle swirl,” “saw the slanting spar,” “Saint Sepulchre’s beside the sea,” “surge of the waters sever,” “turquoise sweep of sky.” In the last two examples sibilants actually come together—a sure means of making music hideous. And even discounting this defect, it cannot be said that Mr. Scollard has here made any appreciable contribution to the balladry of the sea. He tells us that the sea is trackless, that it is wrathful, that it is mysterious, that it is lovely; but he does not put those ancient facts into new phrases, nor does he accompany them with fresh discoveries and interpretations. In brief, he is always close to the obvious. Workmanlike and agree able his songs may be, but they miss emotion and they miss romance.

As for Mr. Towne, he makes a gallant attempt in “Youth” (Kennerley) to lift a sentimental tale to poetic heights. A gallant attempt, but one, I fear, that fails of success. The blank verse is sometimes suave and melodious; it has its dramatic climaxes and its sonorous lines; there is even, now and then, the good surprise of a gipsy phrase—but the fact persists that Mr. and Mrs. Donald Kent are too close to the asphalt and the subway to serve a poet’s lay. One thinks of Deirdre and Naisi, of Paolo and Francesca, of Tristan and Isolde—and the dream vanishes. Thus the lovers in their studio apartment garden:


“I knew it,” she would say; “success will come

To you, my Donald —it is coming fast,

And O, how happy I am for your sake!”

Then always he would kiss her, and their eyes

Would meet in comprehension, in that bliss

That only lovers know. Then he would say,

“Tonight, to celebrate, a taxicab

Shall take a certain princess for a ride!”


“Now, Donald,” always Lucy’s sense of thrift

Began protesting, “why do this tonight?

Such wild extravagance—such—”

“Never mind,


Dear little hermit of this city cave,

You know how futile your New England qualms

Will ever be with me! So come along;

The steedless coach is waiting at the gate,

And though we are the poorest of the poor,

I mean to give my wife a glorious time!”


Such is the worst. But even the best in this very bad poem is not worthy of Mr. Towne’s past achievements. In the lyrics following he is more at his ease and vastly more convincing. For instance, in this excellent song:


A dead girl stirred beneath the grass,

And lo, a blossom blew;

And we who watched the spring’s old joy

A double wonder knew. . . .

Flowers are the voices of the dead,

Calling to me and you.


O living language, fragrant still,

Though winter hushed your sound,

How magical your old words seem

As the glad years wheel round!

If from our lips such perfume flows,

Who fears the quiet ground?


Mr. Cheney’s book is called “At the Silver Gate” (Stokes) and is devoted to verses, serious and otherwise, inspired by the romantic traditions and more romantic beauty of Southern California. They are the verses of an accomplished journeyman ; you will find no cacophony in them and no cheap sentimentality. And yet they leave me cold. Well, well, what would you? Sometimes it is the reader that nods and not the poet.

Next cometh Folger McKinsey, a newspaper poet whose annual output must come close to 35,000 lines. And yet, for all that staggering emission of parts of speech, Mr. McKinsey still manages, like Frank L. Stanton, to get freshness and beauty into occasional lyrics. “Songs of the Daily Life” (William-Wilkins) is the second volume he has published, but it does him no more justice than its predecessor, “A Rose of the Old Regime.” In both books concessions are made to the popular taste, and light things that have chanced to please the poet’s newspaper readers crowd out his better work. But even so, you will find enough glowing, colorful verse among these “Songs of the Daily Life” to redeem a far bulkier volume. For example, this liveliest and most Aprilesque of spring songs:


Oh, Miss Springtime, flirting with me

In the catkin bud on the willow tree;

Winking, blinking, blithe and spry,

With a breast full of bloom and a cheek full of sky!


Oh, Miss Springtime, give me your hand,

For a romp in the dell and a race o’er the land,

A breath of the bloom and a cup of the blue,

And a kiss from the lips that are burning for you!


The procession of the seasons is of constant interest to the poet; some of his best songs are in the manner of that just quoted. Two stanzas from another such:


You will remember the day, and so will I, will I,

When a ladder of snow white roses leaned down from a soft blue sky,

And there on the violet rungs, with wings of the featherbloom,

She came tiptoe to our wintry world with a breath of the May’s perfume.


You will remember the day, and so will I, will I,

When earth looked up from her wintry sleep to the blue of an April sky;

When out of the cloud and gleam a ladder of roses swung,

And down she came to the barren lanes, violet rung by rung!


In the vast mass of Mr. McKinsey’s published verses there are scores of such blithe and beautiful things. He deserves a publisher discriminating enough to select his best. Once that service is done for him, he will attain, I believe, wide and instant recognition. He has a deft hand for the lyric; some of his little songs, wandering about from newspaper to newspaper, come near to perfection in melody and grace.

Only mediocrity is to be found in “The Story of America” (Sherman-French), by Henry Frank, a gentleman chiefly known in the past for his quasi-scientific writings. Here Mr. Frank seeks to tell the whole story of our fair republic, from the landing of the Vikings to the Battle of Santiago, in a series of sonnets. Having read all of these sonnets, 111 in number, I have to report regretfully that they are all bad. Nearly 150 pages of “historical notes” follow them, thus giving the volume a very impressive fatness. Which brings us at last to the frankly comic poets—Franklin P. Adams and William F. Kirk. All of the verses in Mr. Kirk’s “Right Off the Bat” (Dillingham) deal with baseball. They do not throb with inspiration, but if you follow the national game you will get amusement out of them. Of a decidedly higher type are the things in Mr. Adams’s “Tobogganing on Parnassus” (Doubleday-Page), one of the best collections of humorous verse printed in this country for a long, long time. Mr. Adams is a master of the mechanics of verse making; his rhymes and meters show unflagging fluency and ingenuity. And there is true humor in even the least of his burlesques and pasquinades. For instance, in these lines upon Olga Nethersole:


I like little Olga,

Her plays are so warm;

And if I don’t see ’em,

They’ll do me no harm.


And in this attempt at a concert program translation of a famous song of Heine’s:


Thou art like to a Flower,

So pure and clean thou art;

I view thee and much Sadness

Steals to me in the Heart.


To me it seems my Hands I

Should now impose on your

Head, praying God to keep you

So fine and clean and pure.


All sorts of things are in this slim volume—ballades, triolets, burlesque popular songs, imitations of Horace, parodies of Kipling and Marlowe, epigrams, rondeaux, even a pantoum. In every one of them you will find proofs of shrewd observation and genuine humor. An amusing and excellent little book.