Zola

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/August, 1912

EMILE ZOLA was a famous man so long ago as 1877 and for a quarter of a century thereafter there were few to dispute his primacy, among living novelists, in influence if not in actual achievement, and yet at this late day, ten years after his death, a number of his best books remain un-Englished, save in corrupt and maddening form, and many of his short stories are not to be had in English at all. The recent appearance of three of them in a thin but extremely xanthous volume only points eloquently to the field unworked. Alison M. Lederer, the translator of this trio, which issues under the collective title of “For a Night” (Brown), says that his (or is it her?) versions are the first in the vulgate, and all the bibliographies at hand seem to agree. Certainly we lag behind rather absurdly in such matters. All three stories, along with dozens of others and the full canon of the Zola novels, have been procurable in German for years, not to say in Danish, Russian, Polish, Dutch, Italian, Swedish and tongues even less dispersed.

Not one of the three shows Zola at his best, or, for that matter, at his second best, but in every one we get a glimpse of him in process of development—a snapshot, as it were, of the nascent genius of later days—and so they must be of great interest to the serious student of letters, whatever their lack of charm for the idle reader and their high capacity for outraging the virtuoso of virtue. The first of them, “Pour Une Nuit d’Amour,” here called “For a Night,” with the love left out, was written in the late seventies, at the height of the memorable controversy over “L’Assommoir,” and in consequence there is no surprise in the fact that it reveals Zola in a defiant, uncompromising mood. Here, indeed, he touches the ultimate outposts of the disagreeable. His heroine, in the short space of ninety-four pages, kills one lover and drives another to suicide, and these pleasantries, I may tell you at once, are quite the least indecent of her doings. Mr. (Miss? Mrs.?) Lederer says that Zola got the story from Casanova, and Ernest A. Vizetelly, in his critical biography, says that “Poe might almost have written it,” but I half suspect that much of its detail, if not its actual plot, came from Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis de Sade, whose “Juliette,” “Justine” and “La Philosophie dans de Boudoir” have echoes in more than one of Zola’s later books, notably “Nana.” It is, in brief, an abominably unpleasant story, and not at all for sucklings, and yet, as Mr. Vizetelly points out, there is a certain fantastic poetry in every paragraph of it. The divine afflatus still buoyed the Zola of ’79. He was already, true enough, the Bayard of the Naturalist movement, but he could not quite forget his late sweating over alexandrines and his siege of the Academie des Jeux Floraux.

The other two stories, “La Vierge au Cirage” (The Maid of the Dauber, i.e., the blacking brush) and “Les Repoussoirs” (Complements), are in his earliest and liveliest manner. They were written in 1865, a few months after he published his first book, the “Contes a Ninon.” He was then in his twenty-fifth year and had but recently emerged from the slums. He got his living in part by writing advertisements and keeping books for Hachette, the Paris publisher, and in part by doing hack work for the newspapers. Every evening, after ten hours of hard work in Hachette’s office, he would go to his room in the rue de Vaugirard, overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens, and there manufacture articles for the Petit Journal and a paper at Lyons. That done, he would proceed to the real business of his life: the writing of stories, novels and plays. Thus, during the winter of 1864-65, he not only saw the “Contes a Ninon” through the press, but also wrote “La Confession de Claude” and a one-act play (rejected by the Odeon), and contributed a number of short stories, including “La Vierge au Cirage,” to La Vie Parisienne. That periodical was of an extremely saucy character: even Vizetelly, certainly no prude, admits that it was “somewhat demi-mondain.” What it wanted was grotesquely humorous stuff, and that is what young Zola fed to it. “La Vierge au Cirage” tells the story of a slavey raised to luxury in the half-world. One morning, while her friend, the count, enjoys his after-breakfast cigar, she slips from her eider-down couch and disappears in the direction of the kitchen. Suddenly inspired to follow her, he discovers her in the scullery, busily shining his shoes! “She has swathed her laces about her bare knees, which she holds apart. . . . Her bosom and her arms of alabaster are covered with spots, some tiny as pinheads, some as large as beans: the blacking, as it flies from the bristles, has flecked that dazzling whiteness with black stars.” Force of habit, of tradition, of caste! “She is the daughter of her father, her mother.” (Observe! The heredity motif here first given out!) “She has a passion for the dauber, as other people have a passion for flowers.” “Complements” is even slighter—the tale of a clever fellow who provides plain girls with even plainer foils. Both stories belong to Zola’s springtime. The earnest purpose of his later life is not in them.

Why doesn’t some enterprising publisher venture upon a complete and unexpurgated edition of Zola in English, or at least of his incomparable Rougon-Macquart series of novels? His later work, and particularly the series called “Les Quatre Evangiles,” is of less value. In “Fecondite,” for example, the Zola of the last phase, the pontifical, booming Zola, reduces himself and his cause to absurdity. It is impossible, indeed, to read the closing chapters of that book, with their solemn description and praise of the prolificity of the Froment family, without laughing aloud. The thing is too, too comic. But the great works of the author’s middle period, beginning with “La Fortune des Rougon,” belong to the flower of the world’s prose fiction. At least four of them, “L’Assommoir,” “Nana,” “Germinal” and “La Debacle,” are indubitable masterpieces. Allow all you please for Zola’s ardent pursuit of scientific half-truths, for his air of an anatomist dismembering a corpse, for what Nietzsche, in a bitter moment, called his “delight to stink,” and you still have an extraordinarily acute and penetrating observer of the human comedy, a creator of vivid and memorable characters, an accomplished workman in large forms, the high priest of a new cult in art. Zola, I am well aware, did not invent naturalism—and naturalism, as he defined it, is not now the fashion. But it must be obvious that his propaganda, as novelist and critic, did more than any other one thing to give naturalism direction and coherence and to break down its antithesis, the sentimental romanticism of the middle Nineteenth Century—“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “David Copperfield,” “La Dame aux Cameras”—and that his influence today, even if he has few avowed disciples, is still wide and undeniable. I pass over Moore and Hardy, and point to many lesser men: Wells and Bennett in England, Sudermann and Wedekind in Germany, Norris and Dreiser in America, Gorki and Andrieff in Russia, a whole school of writers in Scandinavia. The thing he introduced into the novel was the conception of man as a mammal—man swayed and fashioned, not by the fiats and conspiracies of a mysterious camorra of arbitrary gods, but by natural laws, by food and drink, by blood and environment. He taught his fellow craftsman to sit down in patience before a fact, to trace out its cause, to see it largely, not as something in vacuo, but as something fitting into an inevitable and unemotional process. You will find his tracks all over “A Mummer’s Wife,” and you will find them no less in “McTeague,” in “Sister Carrie,” in “Clayhanger,” in “Das Hohe Lied,” and even in “Mr. Polly.” He has colored the whole stream of current fiction. In so far as it is significant of our time, in so far as it belongs assertively to today and not to some golden yester day, it reflects the principles and practice of Emile Zola.

And yet there is no satisfactory edition of Zola in English! Is it because he is utterly without prudery? Then why do the book-agents sell de Maupassant by the gaudy set and Rabelais in scarlet volumes? Is it because his shock of novelty is gone? Then why do they sell Flaubert and Daudet, D’Annunzio and Tolstoi—and why the new Ibsen for the newly-intellectual, in thirteen stately volumes, with photogravures and deckle edges? The real truth is, I suppose, that the neglect of Zola is an accidental overlooking, like the neglect of Dostoevski. Some day an idle publisher will stumble upon the opportunity lying open, and then we shall have the sixteen volumes of the Rougon-Macquart series, properly Englished and entirely unexpurgated. Meanwhile, that student of Zola who hath no French must root in second-hand book-stores for stray volumes of the original Vizetelly edition, suppressed by the virtuous British police and since grown more and more rare. The prevailing price of “Nana,” in the 1885, octavo form, is twenty-five shillings, or say six dollars a copy—and a copy is not to be had every day. Even the novels that were reissued, after the prosecution of Vizetelly, in bowdlerized, dephlogisticated versions, are now bringing substantial premiums. The later editions, particularly those published in the United States, are so cut and perfumed that they are worthless. If we are to have Zola’s books, let us have them, by all means, as he wrote them. The expurgator is a vandal without the slightest excuse. His very willingness to undertake his task is proof enough of his unfitness for it. What American publisher, discharging him without thanks, will give us the real Zola? How much longer must we wait?

Certain other exotic authors, far less worthwhile than Zola, are clawed into English with truly staggering assiduity. For example, Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Pole. After the great success of his “With Fire and Sword,” in 1890, each succeeding volume from his pen was Englished instanter. The Jeremiah Curtain version of “Quo Vadis?”, I believe, was actually published in Boston before the original was published in Warsaw, and during the two years following two other translations were made. “Knights of the Cross,” published in Warsaw in 1900, was translated four times before the end of the year. And “The Field of Glory,” published in 1906, was translated three times, Now comes an English version of Sienkiewicz’ latest, “In Desert and Wilderness” (Little-Brown), a story for children. In it we see how young Stanislaus Tarkowski, aged fourteen, and young Nellie Rawlinson, aged eight, the former the son of a Polish engineer on the Suez Canal and the latter the daughter of an English canal director, are captured by dervishes near Cairo and taken to the Mahdi’s camp at Omdurman, there to face triumphantly a host of hair-raising adventures. They eventually escape from the Mahdi’s men and undertake a journey across Abyssinia alone, to be rescued at last in the vicinity of Mt. Kilimanjaro. A fairish juvenile, full of moral saws and physical impossibilities, but by no means a work of genius, nor even, in any true sense, a work of art. Put it beside “Huckleberry Finn” or “Robinson Crusoe” or any other boys’ story of the first rank and it quickly goes to pieces. The admirer of “Quo Vadis?” or “With Fire and Sword” or “Pan Michael” will probably find it very weak pap indeed.

Greater merit is in the posthumous Tolstoi tales which now pour from the press —“Hadji Murad,” a novel, and “The Forged Coupon,” a collection of short stories (Dodd-Mead). The former is a reminiscence of Tolstoi’s youth, for the central character is a Caucasian bravo whom he actually met in 1851. Tolstoi, a youth of twenty-three, was then serving as a subaltern in the Russian army and saw much fighting in the woods of Chechnya, along the frontier between Russia proper and the wild country of Central Asia—fighting which gave him material for “The Cossacks,” his first great novel, and for many an excellent shorter tale. The Hadji Murad of the present chronicle is a native chieftain who one day came into the Russian camp and announced that he was ready to swear fealty to the czar. The Russians hailed his surrender with delight and proceeded to make use of his knowledge of the country and of the leaders remaining in rebellion. But one of these leaders was fortunate enough to capture Hadji’s family and that fact seduced him into a second treason. In brief, he essayed a return to his old friends, to save his wives and children—and was done to death by pursuing Russians. Tolstoi’s story of the episode is sympathetic and full of color. The fantastic figure of Hadji, it is plain, left an indelible picture upon his memory. Even after the lapse of half a century—for he did not write “Hadji Murad” until 1902—that picture was clear and full of detail. But aside from the vividness of this principal sketch, the story has a good deal of interest, for its snap-shots of the Russian camps in that inhospitable wilderness are in the author’s best manner, and there is also an illuminating glimpse of the czar and his ministers at St. Petersburg. The stories in “The Forged Coupon” are rather more polemical, and in consequence, rather less entertaining. The one which gives the book its title is a study of what may be called the infectiousness of evil—a favorite theme with Tolstoi. But why, oh why did the great Leo Nicholavitch take to preaching, that trade of the safe and stupid, that conspiracy against joy and beauty, that bottomless bog of artists? Who knows what masterpieces he might have given us had he remained true to his youth? Who knows how many “Anna Kareninas” his pious windjamming cost us?

Now for an American best-seller—but not, I am glad to say, a best-seller of the standard breed, of automobiles, divorcees, stolen gems, society burglars and gynecology all compact. On the contrary, this is a quite dignified book, seriously written and on a sober subject: the ways and means, to wit, whereby the enormously complex and costly machinery of government is operated in these States. It is called “The American Government” (Lippincott) and is by Frederic J. Haskin, perhaps the most widely read of all the writers now flourishing among us. Mr. Haskin, who lives in Washington and has been everywhere, contributes a signed article six days a week to nearly a hundred American newspapers, which gives him a circle of probably three million daily readers. With such an audience before him it is no wonder that his first book has sold well, but even so a circulation of nearly four hundred thousand copies is still rather staggering. And yet that is the record the publishers of “The American Government” are already claiming for it, with only six months of selling behind it. In the face of such a success, what becomes of the supreme achievements of the Indiana genii? Any novel which runs to twenty-five thousand copies during its first half-year is a best-seller; one which runs to one hundred thousand gives its author immortality and a competence. But here is a book of frankly didactic aim, without so much as a single mention of the Seventh Commandment from end to end of it—and yet it bounds far ahead of “David Harum,” “Trilby” and “Three Weeks” and actually noses the dust of “Ben-Hur,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Science and Health.”

The volume is divided into thirty-one chapters, each of which is devoted to a single department of the national government. After completing each chapter Mr. Haskin dispatched the manuscript to the one man most competent to judge the truth and sagacity of his asseverations, and it now bears the imprimatur of that gentleman. The discourse on the organization of the army, for example, was submitted to Major General Leonard Wood, Chief of Staff, and that on the Panama Canal to Col. George W. Goethals, the engineer in charge, and that on the public health service to Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, then commander in the Pure Food fight, and to Dr. Walter Wyman, then surgeon-general of the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service. Eminence did not dazzle Mr. Haskin: he wanted to make his book absolutely authoritative and to that end he tackled the highest dignitaries. The chapter on the foreign relations of Uncle Sam went to Secretary of State Philander C. Knox and that upon the duties and prerogatives of the President—one of the most interesting, by the way, in the book—to Mr. Taft himself. Only the justices of the Supreme Court seem to have stayed the assiduity of the author. If they read and approved his account of their work the fact does not appear directly, for the signature appended to it is that of their clerk, Mr. McKenny. But I suspect that they were not utterly unaware of the matter. Whatever the truth, this chapter, like all the others, is full of sound information attractively presented. Mr. Haskin, indeed, is always far more the entertaining journalist than the laboring pundit, and he has managed to get a lot of odd and human facts into his chronicle. Who knows that the President of the United States, were he accused of murder, could be tried only by the Senate, and that even the Senate could not arrest him? Who knows that a federal district judge may be impeached if he goes to live outside his district? Who has heard how the late Chief Justice Fuller, presiding in the Supreme Court, took his little grand-daughter to sit upon his knee? Who knows the exact batting average of the government weather prophets? These and a hundred other such curious things are set forth in Mr. Haskin’s book. Add its official patronage, its clear and graceful writing and its good illustrations, and at once its startling shaming of the best sellers begins to grow comprehensible.

Hark! . . . Poets! … I gave them no less than six pages in May—meaty, hospitable stuff, with plenty of nice paragraphs in it for their scrap-books and family Bibles—but here they come again, a whole horde of them, and the music of their luting is as the song of nightingales and starlings. Keep them out, Mr. Sergeant-at-Arms, until certain more solemn authors are noticed briefly—authors hortatory and expository, descriptive and critical, persuasive and explosive. For instance, Mr. Gilbert E. Roe—a fine old legal name!—who exposes the hunkerousness, stubbornness and stupidity of the American judiciary, or at least of one wing of it, in “Our Judicial Oligarchy” (Huebsch). The newspaper reviewers seem disposed to treat Mr. Roe somewhat coolly; perhaps they suspect him, without reading him, of preaching the recall and other such deviltries. As a matter of fact, he does nothing of the sort, and his book, in general, is a very temperate composition. If he errs at all, indeed, it is on the side of toleration, for he constantly assumes that the gentlemen of the bench, whatever their defects of observation and ratiocination, are still always honest and learned in the law—an assumption scarcely borne out, I fear, by common experience. Just as Mr. Roe thus defends the thing he denounces, so , John Spargo, in “Applied Socialism” (Huebsch) sometimes denounces the thing he defends. That is to say, Mr. Spargo admits frankly that much of the Socialism preached on street corners and in kaifs is moonshine—and then proceeds to show that an intelligible and workable residuum remains. So it does. Under Spargoic Socialism, as it is here revealed to us, the individual worker would have plenty of incentive to effort. He might even grow rich, in cash and goods if not in bonds and lands. The one thing forbidden to him would be the enslavement—i. e., the employment at starvation wages—of his less alert and efficient fellows. Alas, for Mr. Spargo, but this picture does not quite harmonize with others in his gallery. He tells us, for example, that under his Socialism “marriages for fortune will not take place”—but how does he reconcile this with the wide differences in fortune among his beaux? What reason has he for believing that the fair young charmer of the Marxian State will be less alive than her sister of today to social and financial advantages? True enough, she will have to keep house for her husband, whatever his wealth, but certainly there is a vast difference between keeping house for a man with a garage full of automobiles and Rouen duck on his table and keeping house for a man who uses Shank’s mare and dines on liver. Once you admit this difference you admit that shrewd mammas, even under Socialism, will still do their foul work, and that True Romance will still suffer devastating wounds. Thus Mr. Spargo, upsetting other Utopias, shows that his own is wobbly too—but let us not push too hard here, for Utopia-making is a difficult and ticklish business, and in the main he does very well indeed.

Tomes preaching varied and arresting doctrines. In “What Tolstoy Taught,” by Bolton Hall (Huebsch), there is an elaborate but well-ordered presentation of all the great Russian’s pious piffle; in “The Fundamental Laws of Human Behavior,” by Max Meyer (Badger), there is an equally elaborate presentation of the mechanistic philosophy, with many ingenious and illuminating drawings; in “Love and Ethics” (Huebsch) Ellen Key summarizes her famous plea for the ennoblement of instinct, and in “The Super Race” (Huebsch) Scott Nearing undertakes to show how we may devise a substitute for the law of natural selection, now robbed of its teeth by civilization, and even find something better. It is a vision of human progress that also engages Edwin Bjorkman in “Is There Anything New Under the Sun?” (Kennerley). Mr. Bjorkman’s Utopia, it appears, stands midway between those of Nietzsche and the Marxians, for though it is filled with supermen, those supermen are philanthropists. Besides this venture into second sight, the book has appreciative essays upon William James, Henri Bergson, Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy and Hjalmar Soderberg, the last-named a Swedish novelist of truly appalling pessimism. Another current essayist is Michael Monahan, who deals with a great variety of men and things, from Auguste Comte to Guy de Maupassant and from old book shops to the horrors of virtue, in his “Adventures in Life and Letters” (Kennerley), a book joyfully and ingratiatingly contrived, and one leaving a flavor of agreeable personality behind it. Finally comes Holbrook Jackson, a London journalist, with “Romance and Reality” (Kennerley), a volume of commonplace essays of the type printed ad infinitum by the London weeklies.

I say finally, not because there are no more weighty disquisitions and treatises to notice—there remains, indeed, a stack fully up to my Galways—but because the poets in my antechamber refuse to wait any longer Let a few of them in, Mr. Sergeant-at-Arms—and then drop the portcullis on the rest! Ouch, what a caterwauling! Five hands caught in the jam! Nevertheless, two sturdy fellows seem to have got through, unscathed but frowning, and one of them turns out to be Samuel John Alexander, of San Francisco, author of “The Inverted Torch” (Robertson). Hear the sinister Samuel:

What God so cursed me that I took to wife —

For surely some mad Boy God aimed the jest

That laid the ancient wanton on my breast —

His cast-off concubine, that men call Life?

Five hath she borne me—Fear, Despair and Strife,

To loot my scanty stores of peace and rest;

And black-browed Hate and Scorn, to bring as guest

Pain, and the pang of his red dripping knife.

 

And then hear the other one—David M. Cory, to wit, author of “Moods” (Badger):

 

O love, O dreams! O cruel Time

That parts us from ideals sublime!

 

O good resolve at early dawn,

O broken vow when shadows yawn!

 

O ruddy cheek at sun-bright noon

 

O early love like clover sweet,

O poppy-lips and naked feet!

 

O compromise that prostitutes

Tomorrow with her rightful fruits!

 

And so on. Obviously, a bard with bile in him—and yet it must be said for him, as it must be said for Mr. Alexander, that he occasionally offers some very gracious and melodious writing. Both poets, in truth, know how to make an acceptable song, and it grows the more acceptable the further it lies from the mere making of faces. Departing with their honoraria they give place to a quartette, all four members of which are safe and sane metricians, with a healthy respect for the thing that has been said before. Thus Mr. Alexander Hynd-Lindsay, in his “Sweet June” (Broadway Pub. Co.), pipes a copious variation upon a theme already given out by Charles Kingsley:

O, I have had my day, lad,

I have had my day.

In the morning time of youth, lad,

At my feet the world lay.

My days were glad and golden

From dawn till twilight’s meet,

When every sound was melody,

And every dream was sweet.

No shadow crossed my rosy path,

I never had a care;

A boy then, ’twas joy then,

O lad, my day was fair!

 

Poor old Kingsley jammed the thing into two eight-line stanzas, but Mr. Hynd-Lindsay, by the aid of such novelties as “twilight’s meet,” manages to attenuate it to eleven of twelve lines each. The other three poets in the deputation stick pretty close to jingling doggerel. They are Will P. Lockhart, author of “Lone Star Lyrics” (Badger), Florence Emily Nicholson, author of “The Crow’s Nest” (Badger) and Gertrude Capen Whitney, author of “Roses from My Garden” (Sherman-French). Mrs. Whitney’s volume is an extremely gaudy and costly piece of book-making, with a cover in four colors, a large number of illustrations, and fancy borders, initials and tail pieces. But in the midst of all that finery one finds such stuff as this:

 

Weep, world, weep,

Your mourning vigils keep;

But soon

Your tears shall pass away

In smiles before the day,

And noon,

In all its radiance bright,

Shall grant you strength and light—

God’s boon.

 

How does that sort of rumble-bumble ever get into print—particularly into such pretentious print? 1 ask the question, but I’ll be hanged if I know the answer.

An embassy of English poets? Pass them, Mr. Sergeant-at-Arms —but don’t let them stay too long, for good Americans, our own dear camarados, have had short shrift today. Chesterton with a metrical piece in four sections, “The Ballad of the White Horse” (Lane), a hundred and more pages of lordly, clangorous verse, all about King Alfred and his feats against the invading Danes, and the noble victories of the faith in Albion. Who reads “Marion?” Who is for “The Lay of the Last Minstrel?” Then let him not miss these glowing stanzas, for something of the barbaric eloquence, the yellow battle music, the medieval spaciousness and romance of old Sir Walter is in them. They do vastly more credit to Chesterton, indeed, than any of his later prose work. His paradoxes begin to pall; we have heard all of his sophistries; in fiction he runs to detective yarns and such garbage. Can it be that a new Chesterton dawns, a Chesterton convinced at last that faith is for ballads and not for syllogisms, that the Old Testament is a poem and not a scientific tract? I wonder—and I hope so.

Even better stuff is in the volume called “The Everlasting Mercy,” by John Masefield (Macmillan), an author now in high fashion in London. Here we have two long narrative poems, both tragedies of the poor. The first tells the story of the regeneration, by sudden, blinding mercy, of the loosest ruffian that ever was—a story recalling that of “Mulholland’s Contract,” by Kipling, but one worked out with considerably greater daring and ingenuity. The other poem, called “The Widow in the Bye Street,” has for its principal tragic figure the mother of a felon hanged. How easy it would have been, with such themes, to have descended to the obvious, the mawkish, the cheaply pathetic! And how easy, with Mr. Masefield’s liberty of phrase and epithet, to have been merely shocking! But how superbly he evades both mires—how truly moving he makes his drab dramas—how magnificently he adorns them with the colors and lights of poetry! I myself have a frank prejudice against narrative verse —the prejudice of every man rowelled and exasperated by “Paradise Lost” as a schoolboy. But 1 have read this strangely beautiful book twice and I hope to read it again. In his poetry, as in his prose, Masefield strikes out into new and fantastic fields. He is utterly unlike any other poet of the day.

The remaining British bards are James Stephens, who offers “The Hill of Vision” (Macmillan), Gerald Gould, who offers “Poems” (Kennerley) and Herman Scheffauer, who offers two books, “The Masque of the Elements (Dttiton) and “Drake in California” (Fifield). I reckon Mr. Scheffauer among the Britishers despite his German name and his American birth, for he writes in England and usually publishes there. His masque has its moments, but it is certainly not first-rate poetry. The obvious is shot through it; it is such a thing as any one of forty harpers I could name might have devised. The ballads in the other volume are of far more consideration. That “Of the Battlefield” and that “Of the Fair,” indeed, are excellently done. Following them come three painstaking translations of bad poems by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Mr. Gould runs to less desperate deeds. Grace and gaucherie are mixed in his songs. Here he is at his best:

 

The clouds have wings but fly not,

The winds have strength but spare;

The quiet eve approves me

Because I hush my prayer;

I know she would deny not

Her heart’s appointed task —

I know my lady loves me,

And yet I will not ask.

 

In this neat balancing, no less in the doctrine preached, one sees proof, of course, that Mr. Gould has not neglected the gorgeous Algernon Charles, and the same influence is visible elsewhere—for example, in a resounding song to Democracy and in some of the other lyrics of amour. But Mr. Gould, let it be said, is by no means a mere echo. Mr. Stephens (like Mr. Scheffauer, only by courtesy a Briton, for he is really an Irishman) runs to the grotesque in thought and word. This, for example, is from a piece called “ What the Devil Said:”

 

It was the night time. God the Father Good,

Weary of praises, on a sudden stood

Up from His throne and leaned upon the sky,

For He had heard a sound, a little cry,

Thin as a whisper climbing up the steep.

 

He found it in a ditch outside a town,

A tattered, hungry woman crouching down

By a dead babe—so there was nought to do.

For what is done is done, and back He drew

Sad to His heaven of ivory and gold;

And as He sat, all suddenly there rolled

From where the woman wept upon the sod

Satan’s deep voice:, “O, thou unhappy God!”

 

The affairs of the Most High ever engage Mr. Stephens. He is most humorous, in his extravagant morality play fashion, in a piece describing the visit of one MacDhoul to heaven: how MacDhoul, hidden in a rose-bush, watched . . .

 

those dull angels drooping left to right

Along the towering throne, each in a scare

To hear His foot advance;

 

and how, in punishment for his ribald laughter, One displeased

 

Gripped him in half a finger,

Flipped him round and set him spinning high

Through the hot planets. . . .

Scraping old moons and twisting heels and head. . . .

 

And, on the other hand, the high point of dignity is reached in “The Lonely God,” a poem with beauty in it as well as daring. I do not know that it would be quite wise to follow some of the English reviewers and hail Mr. Stephens as a great poet. I am in some doubt, indeed, that he is a poet at all. But certainly he is a salty and original fellow. No sedulous aping here. The man is himself in every line.

 

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380458;view=1up;seq=730;size=125)