The Smart Set/May, 1910
A CERTAIN English critic achieved the other day the awe inspiring feat of writing a long and learned essay on contemporary English poetry without once mentioning the contribution of Rudyard Kipling. The thing enchanted by its daring, but not, I regret to say, by its novelty, for something of the same sort had been done before by Americans, and more than once.
If you don’t believe it, examine the files of the literary monthlies for the past ten years. There you will find numerous and copious dissertations, chiefly by woman college professors and earnest young bachelors of arts, upon the gentlemenly strophes of Richard Watson Gilder, the colossal blank verse masterpieces of Cale Young Rice, the somnambulistic rhapsodies of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the passionate stanzas of Professor Woodberry, and the pompous piffle of a horde of other pundits—and seldom a word about Lizette Woodworth Reese! And yet I am firmly convinced, despite all these constituted and self-constituted authorities, that Miss Reese is of vastly more dignity and worth as a poet than any of the meistersingers mentioned, and that there is more merit in a single one of her sonnets than a diligent search will discover in the collected rhythmic writings of the whole congregation. In support of which conviction I hereby suspend my rule against quoting books long enough to print the sonnet in question. It bears the title of “Tears” and forms part of Miss Reese’s latest collection, “A Wayside Lute” (Mosher, $1.50). Here it is:
When I consider Life and its few years—
A wisp of fog betwixt us and the sun;
A calf to battle, and the battle done
Ere the last echo dies within our ears;
A rose choked in the grass; an hour of fears;
The gusts that past a darkening shore do beat;
The burst of music down an unlistening street—
I wonder at the idleness of tears.
Ye old, old dead, and ye of yesternight,
Chieftains and bards and keepers of the sheep,
By every cup of sorrow that you had,
Loose me from tears, and make me see aright
How each hath back what once he stayed to weep:
Homer his sight, David his little lad!
It is a vain thing, of course, to attempt to point out the beauties of a work of art when they must be patent to any sane observer, but in the present case I can’t resist calling attention to the fine simplicity of this exquisite son net, to the quite remarkable beauty of its phrases, to its haunting rhythms, to the noble dignity which lifts it up and certifies to its author’s possession of something rarer and more worthy than mere craftsmanship. Like most other poems from Miss Reese’s pen, it is writ ten in the severely plain and almost austere tongue of early England. A deliberate attempt to avoid the sounding Latin is evident; setting aside the two proper names, there is scarcely a word not of Anglo-Saxon origin. But the effect of barrenness, which is so apt to follow such a choice of vocabulary, is nowhere to be noted. The words, in brief, are short and common, but there is music in them and more music in their felicitous collocation.
No doubt the sciolist will find much fault with “Tears.” There is room, I suppose, for furious debates over its rhyme scheme, and excuse for objecting to its seventh line on the ground that it does not scan. May the curse of Cadmus fall upon all such pedantries! That seventh line is one of the glories of the sonnet. It is a perfect example of the broken rhythm which Sidney Lanier, with his sensitive musician’s ear, found to be the sweetest of all the sweets of English poetry. What a beautiful line it is, indeed! Change it; get rid of a syllable; make it scan—and see how much it loses! And what could be more nobly sonorous than the tenth line, or more nakedly simple than the first, eighth and ninth fines, or more eloquent than the whole of the concluding sestet? Believe me, we have here a sonnet that no other American has ever approached. To find its mates we must go to Keats’s sonnet on Chapman’s “Homer,” to Milton’s on his blindness, to Wilde’s “Easter Day.”
“Tears” is not new. I remember reading it fully ten years ago, and it is to be found in Stedman’s “Anthology,” despite the fact that the magazine Hannah Mores have yet to discover its superlative merit. I used to spend a good deal of time wondering why it appealed to me so strangely, for its beauties of phrase could not alone explain that appeal, and the idea at the bottom of it was one which my private creed rejected utterly. That is to say, I was profoundly convinced that we poor mortals would not find a place of recompense beyond the grave, where Homer was no longer blind and David no longer a father bereft; and yet, as I have said, this sonnet moved me as few other poems had ever moved me. Why? The answer tarried until I happened upon the theory that the overpowering impressiveness of certain lofty poetry depends largely, if not entirely, upon the very fact that it is incredible.
Look for this gorgeous unveracity and you will find it often. Suppose the “Odyssey,” for example, were reduced to straightforward prose; what would be the result? Simply a long string of tedious impossibilities. So, too, with the “Iliad,” the “Divine Comedy,” “Paradise Lost” and the “Psalms.” And so, too, with that greatest of poems in prose—the one delivered on the heights to “great multitudes of people from Galilee and from Decapolis and from Jerusalem and from Judea and from beyond Jordan.” In the whole of the Sermon on the Mount, indeed, there are scarcely half a dozen promises or statements of fact which admit of literal acceptance. The meek, as we all know by bitter experience, do not inherit the earth, and everyone that asketh does not receive, and it is not safe to take no thought for raiment. Thus with all the noblest work of the bards and bishops. It is overpoweringly beautiful, but it is also untrue, and its very potency and beauty lie in its bold untruth.
Here I come to the toxic theory of art preached of late by Willard Huntington Wright, a critic of whom more will be heard anon. Wright says that all art is a sort of autointoxication—a voluntary enchantment brought on by the artist to enable him to escape from the sour facts of life. An artist, in other words, is one who, with bravado and eloquence, denies Nature and all her works, and creates for himself a new cosmos, dripping with the fictions that he wishes were true. If his medium happens to be alcohol, he turns night into day, cold into warmth, hunger into satiety, drabs into goddesses; if it is music, he converts unclean German violinists, with union cards in their pockets, into choirs of angels, and the low notes of the trombone into the voice of the Lord God Himself; and finally, if it is the written or spoken word, he adds his magic to a palpable falsehood and makes of it a thing more beautiful than truth. “The Lord abideth back of me, to guide my fighting arm”—so sings Mulholland. Balderdash! But what a thrill is in it!
The prosodists and grammarians, sensing all this in their dull way, speak vaguely of hyperbole and call it a figure of speech. But hyperbole means nothing more than an extravagant accentuation in degree, while the thing I am discussing is essentially a complete transvaluation of value. Thus Robert Loveman, when he sang of Valerie that “past the telling of the tongue is the glory of her hair,” was merely enthusiastic, but Robert Browning, when he ventured the assertion that all was right with the world, was in a state of artistic self-enchantment, for the world in his time was plainly imperfect, and its very imperfection was its most insistent characteristic. Facing that disagreeable fact, he sought to make it bearable in the fashion of a true artist. That is to say, he boldly denied it, insisting that he saw only perfection and making a beautiful song upon it. The chief charm of his song, I believe, lies in its palpable untruth. Reading it, one arrives at some measure of his own agreeable toxemia, and as the poppy goes coursing through one’s veins, one sees only blue skies and leafy forest aisles and nesting birds. It is pleasant. It soothes. It makes life more bearable.
But away with all such theorizing! Miss Reese’s fine stanzas rise above it. There are sonnets in her book that are worthy to stand with “Tears,” even though they fail to equal it. And there are other verses of abounding merit, too. She has a hand for telling epithet; she knows how to draw a vivid picture with a few phrases. The poem called “Wild Geese” offers an example. It is a Whitmanish series of irregular and often disconnected lines, and yet how plainly one sees that drab sky, that ancient village, that lonely wagon track, that honking flock of gray birds! The book stands head and shoulders above the common run of verse. It is worth reading and rereading—and Mr. Mosher has printed it in a fashion that does him credit.
The lesser bards suffer by coming after one of such abounding virtues. One of those that follow is Bliss Carman, who offers a collection of eighteen poems under the title of “The Rough Rider” (Kennerley, $1.00). Mr. Carman has a fondness for the quasi-ballad form made so familiar by Kipling, and it must be admitted that he handles it with uncommon skill. A certain metallic clangor is in his verse; it gallops— it is dramatic. The present collection in itself would scarcely make a poet’s reputation, but at no place does it sink to the level of mere fustian. “The Guest at the Gate,” by Edith M. Thomas (Badger, $1.25), is less satisfactory. I find her sonnets formal, ponderous, bloodless, and her longer pieces tedious. Her best work is in her short lyrics. In “Atys,” by Blanche Shoemaker Wagstaff (Kennerley, $1.00), there is a rather remarkable mixture of good and bad. Here and there Mrs. Wagstaff seems to be daunted by the elemental problems of verse making, but in other places she achieves, with apparent ease, effects of unusual beauty. The poems have no arresting emotional content; they reveal a Greek delight in beauty for its own sake.
“The Prison Ships” (Sherman-French, $1.25) is by Thomas Walsh, a poet whose name has begun to appear with frequency in the magazines. The chief fault noticeable in Mr. Walsh’s verses is a tendency toward harsh and unmelodious lines. But that fault is by no means insistent. In certain of his poems—“Endless Spring” and “Russian Springsong,” for example—the music of the true lyric is to be found. Then comes “The Death of Maid McCrea,” a thin little book by O. C. Auringer (Badger, $1.00). The Parnassian directories are silent about Mr. Auringer, and he is apparently a bard of no great experience ; it may be said for him, however, that he writes extremely smooth and agreeable blank verse.
More blank verse is set before us in Charles Hanson Towne’s “Manhattan” (Kennerley, $1.00), a praiseworthy attempt to put into words the magnificent poetry of a great city. But it is in the occasional lyrics of his poem that Mr. Towne does his best work. Curiously enough, the very best of these lyrics, “I Saw the Tired City,” reveals the same thought that is at the bottom of Richard Le Gallienne’s “Sleep for London.” There is here no hint of imitation, but only proof that two poets, in the presence of a mass of suggestions, have responded together to one. Mr. Towne need not blush at the comparison. His lines have the strong throb of good verse in them; they are not only graceful, but also eloquent. In his blank verse there is far less merit. In places—as on Page 26, for example—it descends to the level of prose sawed into lengths.
And now come the poets whose strophes are frankly villainous. We have such poets with us always—God bless them! Who would see them hanged? Not I! I am covered with shame, in fact, whenever their earnest rhapsodies make me swear, for a poet, no matter how bad, is always a shade better than an ordinary man. That is because the impulse to write poetry is an impulse toward beauty, and the man who has it is lifted up by it. Let no one laugh at him! He is a poor knight battling valiantly against the moralizing scoundrels who would make happiness sinful and the money grubbing thieves who would make it expensive.
Therefore let us be gentle with J. D. Henderson, author of “The Oak Amongst the Pines” (Badger, $1.00); Edwin Preston Dargan, author of “Hylas” (Badger, 75 cents); William Henry Venables, author of “Floridian Sonnets” (Badger, 75 cents), and T. Carl Whitmer, author of “Symbolisms,” (Badger, 50 cents). The first three are safe and sane metricians of the Poets’ Corner type, saying obvious things in the old, old way. Mr. Henderson tells us in his preface that the composition of his stanzas gave him “inspiration to a nobler and happier life”; Mr. Venable prints a portrait of himself, showing him in the throes of literary endeavor; Mr. Dargan puts his dedication into a dashing French quatrain. Harmless fellows! May their tribe increase! May they go on hunting rhymes for ten thousand years! Even Mr. Whitmer, perhaps, deserves a slap on the back, though his flights are so wild that I haven’t the slightest idea what he is talking about.
I rescue “School Room Echoes,” by Mary C. Burke (Badger, $1. 00), from the hell box to give immortality to one incomparable stanza, to wit:
Once there was a little boy.
Whose name was U. S. Grant;
His father was a poor man,
Who hides to leather tanned.
The book, it would seem, is planned for school use, and there is a hint that other volumes are to follow. May some kindly epidemic come to the help of the poor kids condemned to memorize its strophes! And may a jug of applejack be handy when the first copy reaches Hades, and the shade of poor J. Gordon Cooglar discovers that his “Purely Original Verses” are no longer the worst ever written by a human being!
The spring novels are apparently without number. Sweating expressmen roll them into my studio upon heavy trucks and pile them in huge pyramids. They come in all the loud, indecent colors and are of all sizes. Some are mere short stories, stuffed for the book trade like Strassburg geese, while others are almost endless. I employ a couple of intelligent young colored men to go through them, boil them down, and when necessary, translate them into English, and as a result I am able to make fair headway with them. The astonishing thing about them is not that they are so bad, but that they are so good. A really tiresome story is rare among them; in the very worst of them you will commonly find enough vivacity and ingenuity to keep you awake. As a rule, of course, you will find nothing else, but that is not to be wondered at, for first class, full length novels are not written every day. (Our American output, during the past ten years, has been about one and a half a year.) But in the writing of entertaining trifles, designed frankly for the department store book counters, many Americans excel. We have, I should say, fully a hundred such authors, which is far more than any other country can show, and they have no need individually to fear their foreign rivals. Has England or France or Germany a match for Robert W. Chambers or George Barr McCutcheon or Mary Roberts Rinehart or Rex Beach or F. Hopkinson Smith or Ellen Glasgow or Booth Tarkington or Weir Mitchell? I doubt it. A hundred years from now, of course, all these assiduous and diverting manufacturers of best sellers will be forgotten as utterly as the canons of Sir John Phelyppes, but while they live they entertain us agreeably and harmlessly and well deserve every dollar they get for their labor.
An excellent example of this inoffensive form of American fiction is “The Crossways,” by Helen R. Martin (Century Co., $1.50). Here we have the story of a refined Southern girl who in a moment of weakness marries a Pennsylvania Dutch physician and goes to live with him in the pfannehase belt among his unspeakable relatives. The tale is of conventional cut, and there is no discernible idea at the bottom of it, but the Pennsylvania Dutch characters are presented with considerable skill and the dialect is full of realistic touches. Altogether, it is a book that kills time very pleasantly without making the slightest demand upon either the emotions or the intelligence.
“The Snare of Circumstance,” by Edith E. Buckley (Little-Brown, $1.50), approaches the customary type even more closely, for it is a tale of mystery, with the inevitable ghosts of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson at their inevitable magic, and the inevitable touch of young love at the close. It fills nearly four hundred closely printed pages and is well worth the money asked for it.
In “The Kingdom of Slender Swords,” by Hallie Erminie Rives (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50), we visit Japan and behold great doings among the diplomats and other high flying Caucasians resident there. Miss Rives has a fine hand for word painting, and so some of her descriptions fairly blind the eye. A multitude of Japanese words and phrases—Konichi-wa, ninjim, torii, amah, semi, Yamato-Damashii and other such rare birds—give a muddled sort of color to the narrative, and there is all the usual table d’hote French of the woman novelists. A rapid and electric story, differing in many important details from the cut and dried Japanese yarns of the Cook’s tour authors.
“Kings in Exile” (Macmillan, $1.50) is a collection of Charles G. D. Roberts’s animal stories, reprinted from the Youth’s Companion, the Ladies’ Home Journal and other excellent periodicals. It may be said of them that they are of middling merit, standing halfway between the incomparable “Jungle Tales” and the tedious chronicles of the fireside nature fakirs. Much the same sort of genial mediocrity marks “The Up Grade, “ by Wilder Goodwin (Little-Brown, $1.50). Here we encounter our old friend, the gentleman who has gone to the dogs, and here we see once more how he is lifted up by his honest passion for a pure young girl. In “ Miss Marshall’s Boys,” by Edward C. Bass (Badger, $1.00), a still older friend smiles upon us. He is “Little Joe,” the Sunday school boy. Joe’s father is a slave of the wine cup, and his step mother, I rather suspect, smokes cigars. At any rate, Joe himself is turned into the streets and becomes a bad boy. Then enters Miss Elizabeth Marshall, the earnest young Sunday school worker, and Joe’s days of carefree nonage are over. He becomes a patient student of Holy Writ; he washes behind the ears; he sends money to the heathens; he acquires an almost pathological thirst for virtue. When we part with him he is an opulent and pious old man. The very pattern of an old time Sunday school story. God help the poor youngster who is forced to read it!
“Sally Bishop,” by E. Temple Thurston (Kennerley, $1.50), is an English importation by an author who plainly takes himself very seriously. He is afraid that his story is a bit over the heads of the plain people, and he says so in his dedication to Gerald Du Maurier. The “delicate mind,” he “anticipates” will shrink from Chapter VI of Book II. But he doesn’t care. It is simply impossible for him to write ordinary, antiseptic fiction. He must get in his poisonous touches. So much for Mr. Thurston himself. As for his book, it is the somewhat dull history of a young woman who shares a man’s apartments without obtaining any dower right in his property. In the last chapter he leaves her—and she commits suicide. Mr. Thurston, for all I know, may be a grandfather, but none the less, I venture the remark that he is still exceedingly jejune and ingenuous.
Another tedious English novel is “Trial by Marriage,” by W. S. Jackson (Lane, $1.50). The hero of this tale is an Englishman who in early youth permits a bedizened lady to marry him. When she finds to her horror that he has no money, she quietly departs for America, and he is led to believe—though why any sane man should believe it, I fail to see—that she is dead. Then he marries a fair young cousin and settles down to life in the country. This marriage brings him opulence, and everyone expects him to make a stir in the world, but he slouches along year after year in an aimless, useless sort of way. One day the bedizened lady bobs up again and essays to blackmail him. Terrified and disgusted with himself, he quietly slips off to South America, and his wife is led to believe—though why she should believe it, I fail to see—that he is dead. More years pass, and she is just about to marry another man, when the exile returns. The story then stops—for which the saints be praised! It is a muddled and incredible narrative and its occasional merits do not balance its defects.
Coming to “The Market for Souls,” by Elizabeth Goodnow (Kennerley, $1.25), we return to America and the white lights of New York. Miss Goodnow appears to be a settlement worker who has labored among the women of the streets, and it may be said for her that her studies of them are of quite remarkable vividness. So far as know, indeed, she is the first respect able woman in the history of the world to show any honest human sympathy for the contaminated of her sex or any understanding of their emotions and motives. It is almost always assumed by professional moralists—by which term I mean preachers, sociologists, reformers, nice old ladies and other persons of no experience whatever—that the Magdalen is either the vile slave of her insatiate passions or the helpless victim of some horrid male. The former theory is responsible for much useless missionary effort, and the latter is to blame for all the present pother about the so-called white slave trade, an industry which has scarcely any existence in fact. Miss Goodnow knows better. She knows that few women of that sort are actually vicious, and she knows, too, that few of them are slaves. In these slight sketches she lets them account for themselves in their own way, and as a result we get a very accurate presentation of their philosophy. It is not a book to give to your pastor, for its veracity will outrage both his prudery and his theories of sin, but as a serious contribution to the literature of a subject that is seldom investigated save blunderingly and by fools, it has uncommon interest and value.
“Testimony,” by Alice and Claude Askew (Lane, $1.50), rather recalls “The Crossways,” by Mrs. Martin, reviewed in a proceeding paragraph. That is to say, both books deal with a young wife’s efforts to adjust herself to the prejudices of her husband’s relatives. But in “Testimony” the principal figure is not the young wife but her mother-in-law, an austere product of the hard New England rocks. Here and there in the book the authors have yielded to the vice of overwriting, but in general it is an interesting and workmanlike performance, standing well above the ordinary novel of commerce.
From New England we journey to Quebec, where “Over the Quicksands,” by Anna Chapin Ray (Little-Brown, $1.50), introduces us to persons of the first consideration. The son of a New York millionaire, invading that quiet old town, unearths some staggering secrets of his father’s past. And forget not the novel incident of the young man who falls in love with a charming girl, only to discover that she is his sister! A book of varied and unprecedented delights, with characters cut carefully to the orthodox best seller patterns.
- Henry will not down. Here he comes again with two new books of short stories—“Strictly Business” (Doubleday-Page, $1.20), and “Options” (Harper’s, $1.50). An extraordinary and often painful vivacity marks these tales. Their intrigues are amazingly ingenious; they are full of staggering surprises; their humor is laid on with a shovel. But for all that ingenuity and comicality, they suffer vastly from sameness. You are always well aware when you begin a story that its ending will be, of all possible endings, the most incredible. And you grow weary after a while of the highly artificial O. Henry slang. All the characters of these tales speak it. Now and then the author makes palpable efforts to differentiate his creations, but as a rule he quickly gives it up as hopeless.
“The Beauty,” by Mrs. Wilson Woodrow (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50), is a best seller dealing with a wife whose yearning for self-expression draws her away from her millionaire husband. It need not detain us. “A Fool There Was,” by Porter Emerson Browne (Fly, $1 .50) , is a “novelization,” screaming with punctuation marks, of the author’s “drammer” of the same name. “Crag Nest,” by T. C. DeLeon (Dillingham, $1.50), is a novel by a Southern author—which is all the description that the astute reader needs. In the present case, it must be confessed, the tale is less polemical than usual, but Mr. De Leon makes up for that singularity by an introductory essay upon Sheridan’s ride in the most learned style of the sub-Potomac cabalists. When will the Southern authors come to the end of their Talmud of the Civil War? When will they finish their scotching of Yankee libels, I wonder?
by M. Dunton Sparrow.
An amateur’s well meant effort to write a moral tale.
The Soul of Man Under Socialism —
by Oscar Wilde.
(Luce, 75 cents)
A convenient reprint of Wilde’s famous essay.
The White Flame —
by Luke North.
(Golden Press, $1.00)
An uncommonly tedious lot of theosophical balderdash, chopped into quarters and called a four-act play.
The Philosophy of Happiness —
by R. Waite Joslyn.
(Normalist Pub. Co., $1.00)
Two hundred pages of ponderous platitude.
The Cook-ed-up Peary-odd-ical Dictionary —
by Paul R. Dash.
(Luce, 75 cents) Rather labored humor.
The Life of William Shakespeare, Expurgated.
by W. L. Stoddard.
Another vain attempt to prove that William Shakespeare, of Stratford, was not the William Shakespeare who wrote “Hamlet.” Let me advise Mr. Stoddard to give earnest study to Chapter VI of “The Elements of Inductive Logic,” by Thomas Fowler.
Love Letters of Famous Royalties and Commanders —
Compiled by Lionel Strachey.
A gaudy and seductive volume. The dignitaries whose soft nothings are reprinted range from Napoleon I to Von Moltke, and from Marlborough to Sophie Dorothea of Hanover. The same diverting folly marks all the episties.
The Art of the Metropolitan Museum—
by David C. Preyer.
Mr. Preyer attempts no exhaustive catalogue, but rambles here and there, pointing out the things worth seeing, and stopping now and then to read the moral of the things not worth seeing. An interesting and valuable book.
The Faith Healer—
by William Vaughn Moody.
The acting version of Mr. Moody’s play. The changes made in the original, which was published last year, are chiefly in the direction of condensation.
by Ernest Hutcheson.
An admirable study of Richard Strauss’s opera, with a critical analysis of the score, motive by motive.
by A. C. Whitney.
A prose and blank verse drama of the sort that all cultured American gentlemen used to write. It tells the story of Chief Pontiac’s last stand against the builders of Michigan.
by Langdon Smith.
(Luce, $1.00) A pretentious reprint of Langdon Smith’s famous verses, with a commentary made up of selections from the writings of various pundits and rhetoricians, a biographical introduction, and an interesting afterword on the history of the doctrine of evolution.
The Indissolubility of Marriage —
by S. L. Tyson.
(University Press, 75 cents)
A clear and convincing demonstration, out of the New Testament, that remarriage after divorce is absolutely forbidden by the Christian religion.
The Sacrifice —
by Amarita B. Campbell.
Extremely bad poetry upon biblical themes.
Reuben: His Book—
by Morton H. Pemberton.
(Broadway Pub. Co., $1.00)
The heavy stuff which passes for humor in the medicated lingerie belt.
Mary’s Adventures in the Moon —
by A. Stowell Worth.
(Badger, 75 cents)
An entertaining romance for the kids, with plenty of good pictures.
The Spirit of the South—
by Will Wallace Harney.
Prose fancies and verses upon life in Dixie, with not a few smears of sound merit.
Breezes From the Southland—
by Josie S. Mayes.
(Broadway Pub. Co., 75 cents)
Harmless “compositions” in the high school manner.
Socialism for Students —
by Joseph E. Cohen.
(Kerr, 50 cents)
A brief but enthusiastic exposition of the Socialist philosophy, comprehensible to the meanest understanding.
Why Not Now?—
by Charles Gilbert Davis, M.D.
Tedious religious exhortations by a bore. He points out what he regards as the errors of Haeckel and Nietzsche, spelling their names “Hoeckel” and “Nitsche.”
The World of Suckers—
by Lionel Josaphare.
(Danner, $1.00) A refreshing novelty from California. Mr. Josaphare’s suckerarianism is ten times as entertaining as the pragmatism of Professor James, and a hundred times as sound.
(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076426152;view=1up;seq=172)