The Burbling of the Bards

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/April, 1913

Call off the dogs and let in the poets! Some of them have been waiting in the antechamber since ’way last spring—all through the long, sticky days of summer, sitting there in their shirtsleeves, tinkling their dulcimers, chasing flies; all through the tawny days of autumn, while falling acorns called them to the woods in vain; all through the scowling days of this past unearthly winter, damning the weather, chattering prosody, scraping the sad, sad violin. It has cost me forty dollars a week for their victualing and medical attendance, and they have drunk three hundred carboys of my malt liquor and smoked two tons of my tobacco. Twice they have fought with harps, fiddle bows and chair legs. Thrice some ancient among them has gasped his last dactyl and ceased to trouble, again to my cost and inconvenience. Four times I have had to send in a preacher to unite some bachelor bard to a blushing poetess, and my waiter to pass around the chicken salad and harlequin blocks. . . . Time flies. These unions may have their blessings and usufructs. I am no trained nurse, no pediatrician, no connoisseur of colic. I open the door and have done with them before it is too late. . . .

But one at a time! One at a time! Don’t crowd, ladies and gentlemen! And kindly observe the signs upon the wall: “No Smoking” and “Silentium!” Here is a young man who launches at once into his lay, passionately, pathetically—and I haven’t even heard his name:

Ah, the poor working girl,

May God defend her!

Her heart is so pure and so tender —

Alas, do you wonder at crime?

Back he goes, head over heels, and then down the long, long chute. Who comes second? A poet with a thick scroll entitled “Truth Will Out” (Broadway Pub. Co.). I get his name as Prof. Seymour Supercern. Way for Prof. Supercern! Oyez, oyez! And so he begins:

 

Terrestrial gravitation is an action brought about

By the self-same molecules imbruing earth, within and without,

As well as things upon the earth, endued with attracting force,

Matter attracting matter, as Earth wends its skyey course.

But why, thou queryest, since Earth has centrifugality,

A phase of axial motion, should not things be hurled forth free?

 

Because, kind sir, the attracting force of earth ’pon objects, things,

Upon its surface is too strong for objects to take wings.

The higher from the earth you go, the less th’ attractive force,

But thou canst not escape—

 

Don’t delude yourself, dear Seymour. Escape is easier than you fancy. A nod, the yanking of a lever—and you follow along after the anonymous weeper of working girls.

Before you have passed Block Signal No. 1, Prof. Robert Boggs is introduced, and the librarian is signing a receipt for his slim tome, “The Idyll of Lucinda Pearl” (Broadway Pub. Co.). Thus Robert, once he has cleared his throat:

 

Ah, she was beautiful standing there,

Twisting and twining her beautiful hair;

Twisting and twining it,

Twisting and twining it,

Making a web of it,

A web to ensnare

The hearts of men,

To fill with despair

The souls of men.

 

Ah, such eyes, such wonderful eyes,

That looking on man would make him unwise.

 

Good-bye, Robert! Take keer o’ yourself! Don’t yell—it won’t hurt you! Besides, here is Prof. William B. Arvine trying to make himself heard—Prof. Arvine with his “Hang-Up Philosophy” (Poet Lore Co.), all about Euphrosyne, Pergolese, Stradella, Spinoza, Ignota and Dolorosa. But when he sings, it is a very simple song, to wit:

 

A night like this

Breathes naught but bliss

For loving souls on sea and land;

Dost feel the pressure of my hand?

Oh, answer with a kiss!

 

Soft, luscious stuff! Caressing, agreeable bosh! More soothing, and by far, than the lines of the lady poet, Miss Cumorah Smith Burns, whose metrical romance, “A Child of Love” (Sherman-French), seems to deal chiefly with a surgical operation. Thus the patient’s anticipatory fears:

 

The dawn passed away with the rise of the sun,

And then in the hallway a whistle blew one;

A nurse all in white quickly rushed past the door,

And then back again where she had been before.

This whistle—what could its weird meaning have meant?

A shudder of terror o’er her heart was sent;

She turned, gave a cough in relief to her fear,

And just in an instant the kind nurse stood near.

 

Alas, I cannot tell you what the meaning of the whistle could have meant, nor can I tell you what Prof. Hervey White, of Woodstock, N. Y., means by “flaking fiocculence” and “resounding sound.” Can a thing be flocculent, and yet not flake? Or resounding, and be no sound? I doubt it. I also doubt that Hervey, if he had it to do over again, would rhyme “coffee” with “trophy,” as he does in “A Ship op Souls” (Maverick Press), or “friends” with “citizens,” or “have ’em” with “Heaven,” or “law” with “papa.” Again, is it fair, is it decent, is it manly to rhyme “water” with “potter,” “married” with “buried”? For shame, good Hervey! And yet, for all that, his singing is the best we have heard so far this day, and now and then he gets genuine lyre music into it. Hear him:

 

My rose tree bloomed, my garden was fair,

(Heart, heart, hast thou no ken that other hearts are weeping?)

I walked out in the balmy perfumed air.

(Be still, my heart, thankful that thou art dead.)

 

Swift winds drave by my tortured garden tree,

(Heart, heart, hast thou no ken that other winds are blowing?)

There was no longer any flower for me.

(Be still, my heart, thankful that thou art dead.)

 

And so on and so on. There is sadness here. The poet sees life as a boundless ocean and man as a storm-tossed barque. He has tears to shed. He sheds them. But even so, he is more comforting than the maudlin optimists who fill the magazines with variations upon Browning’s pious piffle:

 

God’s in His heaven,

All’s well with the world!

 

And more comforting, by far, than Mrs. Lillian Bayard Taylor Kiliani’s bad translations, in “A Sheaf of Poems” (Badger). For example, this rendering of Heine’s “The Grenadiers”:

 

Two grenadiers, captured in Russian Campaign,

Toward France were plodding aweary;

And when they in Germany quarter had ta’en,

Their spirits were saddened and dreary.

 

Here, indeed, we have unconscious burlesque, which is the saddest thing under the sun. If we must have burlesque, let it be of the conscious sort. More especially, of the sort manufactured with such humor by Prof. Franklin P. Adams, who now enters with a seltzer siphon under one arm and his new book, “In Other Words” (Doubleday-Page) , under the other. First Prof. Adams lines out the German original, beginning thus:

 

Hör ich das Liedcken klingen,

Das einst die Liebste sang—

 

And then he proceeds to his extravagant, super-kilianish “translation”:

 

Hear I the songlet singing

That once the dearest sang,

From out my breast upspringing

There comes wild painful pang.

 

Impels me one dark languish

That high wood to attain.

Dissolves in teardrops’ anguish

My extraordinary pain.

 

Three more such bits of fooling, and then a series of apt and racy variations upon themes by Horace, Martial, Propertius, Catullus, Milton, Southey, Tennyson, Villon and John Howard Payne, all intoned in a rich New Yorkese, so that Q. H. Flaccus’s “Jupiter urget” becomes “Jupiter oiget” and the Tibernia sung by Sex. Aurelius Propertius is changed to Tiboinia. But despite his faults of elocution, this F. Potassium Adamus gives a bully show, believe me. Among all the newspaper minnesingers of our fair land, he is one who stands out head and shoulders above the rest—a rhymester of superlative cleverness, a master of complex and ludicrous meters, a genuinely funny fellow. He has a Gilbertian skill at bending words to fit his measures; he has all of Praed’s fluency and grace; he gets into his slightest nonsense that highly sophisticated humor which was the flavor of Eugene Field.

I wish we could sit and listen to him for half an hour—particularly to his slangy renderings of Horace, his excellent ballades and triolets, his experiments in fantastic rhyming, his penetrating imitations of the magnificoes of song. But the impatient Neo-Celts and Poets of Passion out in the antechamber are clubbing one another with their viols da gamba, and so he must be on his way. A strophe in parting from his “Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” as the late Al Swinburne would have written it:

 

Thou hast bared thy breast to the boreal breezes,

Sibilant, stark, as the soul of sin,

Chill and cheap as a Cheshire cheese is,

Gloriously glad as an elinorglyn!

Winds that whisper and winds that whistle,

Faster far than the phantom of fear.

O Dolores, the toe of mistle!

Christmas comes—and but once a year!

 

So long, F. P. A. ! We’d weep for you even more if it were not that the next comer is Robert Loveman, up for the day from Dalton, Ga., to read us some of his lyrics. If you don’t know Loveman’s “April Rain,” you don’t know one of the loveliest songs done in English in our time. Maybe, if we ask him politely, he will recite it. Yes? Then silentium!

 

It isn’t raining rain to me,

It’s raining daffodils;

In every dimpled drop I see

Wild flowers on the hills;

The clouds of gray engulf the day

And overwhelm the town;

It isn’t raining rain to me,

 

It’s raining roses down.

 

It isn’t raining rain to me,

But fields of clover bloom,

Where every buccaneering bee

May find a bed and room;

A health unto the happy!

A fig for him who frets! —

It isn’t raining rain to me,

It’s raining violets.

 

How simple! And yet what lush and magic beauty in that very simplicity! Analyze it, break it to pieces, examine its structure and method, and you will be performing an autopsy upon a butter fly—with a crowbar. Such exquisite things do not bear the prodding and vivisecting of criticism. They are the ultimate corpuscles of music, unicellular organisms, embodying all there is of song in next to nothing. This one has been a favorite of mine since I first found it in a stray newspaper, eight or ten years ago. It floats around in my mind along with half a dozen other such fragments of sheer delight—Eva Gore-Booth’s “The Roads of Cloonagh,” William Watson’s “April,” Miss Reese’s “Tears,” Kipling’s “Dirge of Dead Sisters,” broken reminiscences of Henley, Kingsley and Christina Rossetti. I do not try to explain and defend these things intellectually; I merely tell you that they caress and enchant me emotionally. You, yourself, I dare say, have other favorites. But if, by any chance, no Loveman song is among them, then Iadvise you to go recruiting in his six slim volumes. Attend him:

 

Night is a deep black rose,

Steep’d in sweets to the lees,

Full of the loves and woes

Of swarming starry bees.

 

Lo, now, upon the air,

Forth from her dusk cocoon,

Fragile, and faint, and fair.

Flutters the white moth moon.

 

Attend:

 

Take these timid violets.

Weeping with the dew;

Shy as tricksy triolets,

All for you, for you.

 

To your bosom hold them,

Whispering my cares;

In your heart enfold them,

Heed their purple prayers.

 

And yet again:

 

What for the fagot’s flame?

What for the hate and wrong?

Lord God, I bless Thy name,

I, suffering, am strong.

 

But, Father, in Thy grace,

Keep from woe’s wild unrest,

The woman and the baby face,

Soft pillowed on her breast.

 

Little things, inconsidered trifles, mere wisps of song. And yet I know of no American poet, save it be Miss Reese, who can get so much of the perfume of true poesy into such tiny blossoms. Read the charming octaves in “The Gates of Silence” and “Songs from a Georgia Garden,” forgetting all the current critical gabble about “sustained efforts.” Some of them, I have no doubt, will not please you—Loveman’s worst is made almost scandalous by his best—but upon others you will fall as upon heart-warming discoveries. Most of the things in his latest book, “On the Way to Willowdale” (Showalter), I myself do not like. They are too often careless, bad in form. But they take nothing from the perfect singing that has gone before, and that is still, I hope and believe, to come after.

A posse of lady bards! Pass the macaroons and Bohea, Herr Oberkellner, and tell George Nathan to take his feet off the bookcase. First up is Miss Alice Harper, who begins with a quotation from Aristophanes’s Cockney Greek and proceeds to read various graceful stanzas with Latin and Italian names— “Via Lucis,” “L’Ammalato,” “Stabat Mater Gloriosa,” “Umilta del Grand’ Amor.” Graceful and correct, but I cannot say more. Miss Harper’s inspiration, indeed, is far from a divine frenzy, revolving the lambent eye. It does not flash and roar; it merely glows. And so it produces only bookish and familiar things: “the inner beauty of the mind,” “the arching sky,” “the high resolve,” “fortune’s fond caress,” “the hallowed mound,” “the surging sea.” Undistinguished, too, are most of the “Wayside Blossoms” of Mrs. Mary Matthews Bray (Badger). Here the roving orb alights upon “cherished land marks,” “sandy shore,” “sounding sea,” “fresheningbreezes,” “hurryingthrong,” “solemn stillness” and many other such old, old friends. But a song that comes close to genuine lyrical beauty redeems these hopeless commonplaces. Let us hear three strophes:

 

If I could know, beyond all vain surmising,

Beyond all doubt and fear,

That thou hast found some place of high endeavor,

Some world of hope and cheer;

 

Some homelike shelter, where with force unhindered,

Thy nature may unfold,

And its bright promise yield a richer fruitage,

Than our sealed eyes behold;

I might let fall the burden of this grieving.

This weight that lays me low;

And go with patience, onward to the ending,

Content no more to know.

 

Most of the other lady bards, I regret to say, climb little higher the Parnassian slope. The quatrains in Miss Leila Peabody’s “Little Book of Verse” (Sherman-French) are safe, sane and obvious. So:

 

I chased that shy bird, Happiness,

Nor paused for food or rest;

Then, when at last I gave her up.

She nestled in my breast!

 

And of the same neutral quality are the songs and fragments in “The Gold,” by Miss Bessie Russell (Sherman-French), and the New Thought dithyrambs in “A Child’s Glimpse of God,” by Dr. Ethel Blackwell Robinson (Sherman-French), and the sound magazine verse in “Horizon Songs,” by Miss Grace Duffield Goodwin (Sherman-French). The air is laden with more interesting lays when the arras parts to admit Mesdames Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Amelia Josephine Burr and Beatrice Irwin, for the first, in “The Call of Brotherhood” (Scribner), offers a number of workmanlike sonnets; the second, in “The Roadside Fire” (Doran), shows some clever tricks with new rhyme schemes; and the third, in “The Pagan Trinity” (Lane), is full of exotic fancies, chiefly Arabic and Japanese. Hear Miss Irwin’s “Oria”:

 

Zu-zu-zu-ali,

Atcha-atcha-atcha !

 

Half of the rainbow I see in the sky,

But the other half I hide in my heart.

 

Zu-zu-zu-ali,

Atcha-atcha-atcha!

 

Could I but catch those fleeting, fleeting clouds!

They are my songs—my sisters far away!

 

Et cetera, et cetera, with many repetitions of “zu-zu-zu”and “atcha-atcha-atcha.” I do not say that the color Miss Irwin gets into these fantastic songs is genuinely Arabic or Japanese, but I bear cheerful testimony to the gorgeousness of that color, whatever its origin. She keeps far off the conventional paths: she conjures up some measure of the Oriental glamour and mystery which gave a fleeting fame, a few years back, to the passionate stanzas of Laurence Hope.

But the best of all the fair poets in the present party, and by long, long odds, is Mrs. May Byron, an Englishwoman, who makes even Nathan freeze to attention by reciting a sonorous and splendid paean to Father Thames, a thing with rhythm in it, and stately images, and the high dignity of sincerity. I wish I could report this “Ballad of London River” in full, and “The Pageant of Seamen” with it, and “The Ballad of Foulweather Jack,” but too many other poets wait. No new song of the sea can fail to recall Kipling’s lordly ballads: these things of Mrs. Byron do so, of course. And yet they are far from imitations. A touch of woman’s tenderness is in them; they have a quality all their own. And from such chants of empire there is a swift change to gipsy songs, love songs, songs of eerie atmosphere. A few stanzas from one of the last named:

 

The leaves were blowing red and brown

Beneath the beech trees bare,

When the Dark Maid came to our town

With gold pins in her hair.

 

The leaves were blowing yellow and gray

In the waning of the moon,

When the Dark Maid came along the way

With silver-buckled shoon.

 

Her mantle fell like folds of mist,

That rift and shift and change;

Was never wandering lutanist

That played a tune so strange.

 

And one beheld her whence she came,

Or knew the way she went,

Our hearts being stirred to smoldering flame

Of tenderest discontent.

 

The leaves were blowing ash and dun

Athwart the edge of night,

When the Dark Maid toward the setting sun

Sang herself out of sight.

 

And every man, from marvel roused,

Took up his toil again;

How should that fairy joy be housed

In homes of mortal men?

 

But still against a singing wind

In dreams we follow her—

The Dark Maid never looks behind,

That plays the dulcimer.

 

A mere experiment in tone color, but one justified, I believe, by abundant success. This Mrs. Byron, indeed, has the authentic gift. She will be heard from later on. Put beside her “Ballad of London River” and “Pageant of Seamen,” the marine music of Prof. J. E. Patterson, in “The Lure of the Sea” (Doran), loses all salt and savor. The trouble with J. E. is that he is constantly descending to the trite and commonplace. Let him start a song however sonorously, he is sure to spoil it, in half a minute, with some banal thought, some clumsy line. In brief, he is far more the rhymester than the poet, and so it is sweet sorrow to bid him farewell, for all the flattering press notices that he shows. Press notices mean little: the worst stuff gets the best. Of Prof. Louis How, who now comes in with “The Youth Replies” (Sherman-French), I can give you an account but little more favorable. The verses he reads are vastly more workmanlike than Prof. Patterson’s, but this is the only piece that I order inscribed upon the minutes:

 

The sea is singing on the beach,

Where it has sung a million years;

Softer than even yours its speech,

Its waves are salter than your tears.

 

How many million years to come

Shall tides make yellow shingles wet,

After your voice at last is dumb,

And after even I forget!

 

Here is grace, indeed, but I get more joy out of the grace of Louis Untermeyer, who warbles sweetly of “First Love” (Sherman-French), to the accompaniment of a seven-stringed viola d’amore. I suspect that Louis has given deep and profitable study to the Cavalier poets, and particularly to Waller, Lovelace and Sir John Suckling. The fruits of this study are visible, not only in the external form and method of his lyrics, but also in their content. They show, in brief, passion tempered by self-consciousness. One feels that the poet is keeping his head, even in the midst of his most extravagant avowals and remonstrances—that he is quite as much determined to make a pretty song as to praise his lady. For example:

 

My soul is sick of roses.

Of lilies proud and pale—

In scented garden closes

The old-time beauties fail.

And though the spell reposes

On every flower that grows,

My soul is sick of roses

Since she has scorned the rose.

 

Again :

 

Mount up my songs, mount up to her

Upon your winged phrases;

Each lyric be a chorister

That only chants her praises.

 

Or steal into her thoughts and sing

The strains that used to win her,

Until you have revived the Spring

And found the heart within her.

 

Nearly fourscore such songs are engrossed upon Untermeyer’s scroll—flowing, melodious things, almost perfect words for music. And if they do not grip the heart, they at least give an agree able fillip to the fancy. He writes dulcetly and well; he knows what he is about. But I like him best at the end, for there he comes nearest, I think, to putting his deepest feelings into his verse:

 

So end the lyrics of my earliest passion —

First love, with all its fever and its fears —

So wakes the new love in a nobler fashion,

So die the little griefs and shallow tears.

 

But Joy will live and Spring can never perish —

Youth in my heart will burn until I die;

And all the beauties that my soul may cherish

Will fill a richer earth and vaster sky.

 

For now Love comes with all the early fire,

The exultation and the leaping joy

Blended with something homelier and higher—

Peace and a faith the years cannot destroy.

 

More poets yet! Prof. William Ellery Leonard, of Madison, Wis., with a thick book, “The Vaunt of Men” (Huebsch), into which he has pitched all sorts of things, from commonplace pieces of occasion to very fair lyrics. Samuel Ellsworth Kiser, of Chicago, Ill., with “The Land of Little Care” (Volland), an excellent collection of newspaper verses, usually beginning romantically and ending upon the note of burlesque. Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, of London, Eng., with “Fires” (Macmillan), a book of ballads of lowly life, grim, prosaic, earnest, haunting. Robert V. Carr, of Los Angeles, Cal., with a tome of “Cowboy Lyrics” (Small- Maynard). Tom McInnes, of Ottawa, Can., with his “Rhymes of a Rounder” (Broadway Pub. Co.), a book of ballades, villanelles and mirelles. Ezra Pound, of Boston, Mass., with a volume of translations from the sonnets and ballads of Guido Cavalcanti, who lived and made his songs in the Tuscany of the thirteenth century (Small- Maynard).

Of these books, let me recommend especially those of MM. Carr, McInnes and Pound. The first is notable for its verisimilitude: one finds no difficulty in believing that such crude jingles are the improvisations of genuine cowboys. And there are songs, too, of the ranch as well as of the range—songs full of brooding and loneliness, for all the homeliness of their form. As for Mr. McInnes, he first entertains with an excellent discourse upon the ballade, arguing especially for the relaxation of its rhyme scheme, and then he shows what he can do with it, and with the villanelle, the mirelle and the cantel. He has got into his ballades, not merely a correct structure, but also the right spirit. They are cynical, jocose and devil-may-care: three-fourths of them might be paraphrases of Francois Villon. I wish I could let the poet recite some of them— say the ballades of Sleep, of Faith, of the Picaroon and of Waiting, and the mirelles of the Lady of Ventures and the Good Bed with them—but the afternoon goes glimmering and there is no time for it. Nor for the mystical, medieval sonnets that Mr. Pound has brought into English from good Guido. Next time we meet, by the way, I hope that Mr. Pound will be on hand with some of his own compositions. He is an excellent translator, but a far better poet. Certainly you have not so soon forgotten his ballads of the Gibbet and of the Goodly Fere!

So out go the six and in come three more: the Hon. Herbert Ferguson, with his “Rhymes of Eld” (Sherman-French), a book of ballads, sometimes humorous; James Newton Matthews, with “The Lute of Life” (Horton); and Thomas G. Devine, with “Madawaska” (Badger). A few strophes from the last named:

 

Came the nimble Weasel creeping;

Came the Squirrel leaping, keeping

To the treetops; came the ‘Munk;

Came the Rabbit and the Skunk,

Friskingly and whiskingly;

 

Came the flat-tailed Beaver stealing;

Came the sly Mink squealing, wheeling;

Came the Otter sleek and fat;

Came the Marten and the Rat, Airily and warily;

 

Came the Eagle soaring, sailing;

Came the wild Goose railing, wailing;

Came the Loon, the Duck and Hen

From the dank grass of the fen,

Flappingly and clappingly;

 

Came the Partridge whirring, drumming;

Came the Pigeon trumming, humming;

Came the Crow with measured wing;

Came each lesser feathered thing,

Chattering and clattering.

 

And so on and so on. One by one the wild things answer the call of Opeongo, mother to Madawaska, the Hidden Water. Trouble has fallen upon the forest: a Stranger has bobbed up, “strange of limb and feature”:

 

Like the Black Bear angered, standing;

Crafty as the Fox and wary;

Like the hungry Wolf pack, banding;

Neither feathered, neither hairy.

 

I leave you to guess the name of the Stranger. Meanwhile the Hon. Mr. Devine deserves a round of polite applause—if not for his execution, then at least for his plan. Among rhymesters who devote themselves chiefly to imitating one another, so that the fire of inspiration pales at last to a mere phosphorescence, he is one who strikes out into new paths and unburdens his soul in a fashion all his own. One considerable poet remains—Prof. John G. Neihardt, to wit—and to me, at least, he seems the best of them all. Prof. Neihardt was with us last year, reading stately and beautiful things from his “Man-Song.” Now he comes with a new book, “The Stranger at the Gate” (Kennerley), sixty-seven pages of verse so full of music that it falls upon my ear like the sound of harps and fiddles, and so earnest and dignified that I rise involuntarily as the poet intones it. Not, indeed, that I agree with all the doctrines he preaches. Far from it ! I grieve to hear him blaspheming money, that one true heart among all my friends; I lament to hear him singing, even so majestically, of Red Winds, Justice, the System and other such Socialistic fauna. But when he forgets his politics and carols only of beautiful things, then I am for him enthusiastically and reverently. Thus his hymn to the young poet, jeered at by shop man and clown:

 

You lip the awful flagons of old time,

And mystic apples lure you to the bite!

Blown down the dizzy winds of woven rhyme,

Dead women come and woo you in the night!

 

You tread the myrtle woods past time and place.

Where shadows flit and splendid echoes croon;

And through the boughs some fatal storied face

Breathes muted music like a summer moon!

 

I know the secret altars where you kneel;

I know what lips fling fever in your kiss.

That sorry little drab to whom you steal

Is Queen Semiramis!

 

Twelve such resonant and splendid stanzas. A poem so near perfection that its dismemberment, even in the service of praise, is a crime. Get the book and read it all. And read, too, that companion piece, “The Poet’s Town”— a superb variation upon the same theme:

 

Sipper of ancient flagons,

Often the lonesome boy

Saw in the farmers’ wagons

The chariots hurled at Troy.

 

And once when the rich man’s daughter,

Smiled at the boy at play,

Sword-storms, giddy with slaughter,

Swept back the ancient day!

 

War steeds shrieked in the quiet,

Far and hoarse were the cries;

And oh, through the din and the riot,

The music of Helen’s eyes!

 

Rich with the dreamer’s pillage,

An idle and worthless lad,

Least in a prosy village,

But prince in Allahabad;

 

Lover of golden apples,

Munching a daily crust;

Haunter of dream-built chapels,

Worshiping in the dust;

 

Dull to the worldly duty,

Less to the town he grew.

And more to the God of Beauty

Than ever the grocer knew!

 

Corn for the buyers, and cattle—

But what could the dreamer sell?

Echoes of cloudy battle?

Music from heaven and hell?

 

Spices and bales of plunder,

Argosied over the sea?

Tapestry woven of wonder,

And myrrh from Araby?

 

None of your dream stuffs, Fellow,

Looter of Samercand!

Gold is heavy and yellow.

And value is weighed in the hand!

 

Once in a cycle the comet

Doubles its lonesome track;

Enriched with the tears of a thousand years,

Aeschylus wanders back.

 

Ever inweaving, returning,

The near grows out of the far;

And Homer shall sing once more in a swing

Of the austere Polar Star.

 

Then what of the lonesome dreamer

With the lean blue flame in his breast?

And who was your clown for a day, O Town,

The strange, unbidden guest?

 

But enough of quotation! You must read Neihardt for yourself. He and Loveman are the indubitable poets of this present boiling—the one with his psalms and psaltery, the other with his shepherd’s reeds. Neither is represented in “The Lyric Year” (Kennerley), a collection already debated ad nauseam in the newspapers. I do not add to your distress by going over the ground again. All I want to do, before space runs out, is to record my belief that the prize poem, “Second Avenue,” by Orrick Johns, is one of the best of the hundred. So far as I know, this is the first time that such a prize has gone to a poem of genuine merit. The custom is to award it to some vague and pifflish masterpiece by a poet who is never heard of again. But here we see the money going to one who really has something to say, and who says it with reasonable grace and clarity. The sole thing I lament is that the judges were so cold to the makers of lyrics. There are several excellent songs in the book. For example, Sara Teasdale’s “I Shall Not Care.” For example, Shaemus O’Sheel’s “He Whom a Dream Hath Possessed.” For example, Fannie Stearns Davis’s “Comrades.” I also like Louis Untermeyer’s “Caliban in the Coal Mines” and Harry Kemp’s “I Sing the Battle.” But here mere whim is speaking—and prejudice against the yard stick. “Second Avenue” calls for no apology from the judges. . . .

So the last poet bows himself out, and I am left with the cigarette butts and the empty beer bottles. No more of song for a year!

But take time during the coming year to read thoroughly “Poetry and Dreams,” by F. C. Prescott (Badger), an extremely sagacious and interesting discourse upon the whole subject of lyric beauty. Why is Kipling’s “Mandalay” so moving? What is the essential charm of Loveman’s “April Rain”? How are we to track down the loveliness of Watson’s “Oh, Like a Queen,” and Waller’s “Go, Lovely Rose,” and Lunder’s “The Four Winds”? What is there in common between Whitman’s “My Captain” and Browning’s “The Last Ride Together,” a rondeau by Austin Dobson and a sonnet by John Keats? Here you will find an attempt to answer these questions—and to me, at least, it seems an attempt which comes very close to success.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380433;view=1up;seq=710)