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American Poetry at the Turn of the 20th Century

by J. Middleton Murry

We are not yet immune from the weakness of looking into the back pages to see what the other men have said; and on this occasion we received a salutary shock from the critic of the Detroit News, who informs us that Mr Aiken, 'despite the fact that he is one of the youngest and the newest, having made his debut less than four years ago, … demonstrates … that he is eminently capable of taking a solo part with Edgar Lee Masters, Amy Lowell, James Oppenheim, Vachel Lindsay, and Edwin Arlington Robinson.' The shock is two-fold. In a single sentence we are in danger of being convicted of ignorance, and, where we can claim a little knowledge, we plead guilty; we know nothing of either Mr Oppenheim or Mr Robinson. This very ignorance makes us cautious where we have a little knowledge We know something of Mr Lindsay, something of Mr Masters, and a good deal of Miss Lowell, who has long been a familiar figure in our anthologies of revolt; and we cannot understand on what principle they are assembled together. Miss Lowell is, we are persuaded, a negligible poet, with a tenuous and commonplace impulse to write which she teases out into stupid 'originalities.' Of the other two gentlemen we have seen nothing which convinces us that they are poets, but also nothing which convinces us that they may not be.

Moreover, we can understand how Mr Aiken might be classed with them. All three have in common what we may call creative energy. They are all facile, all obviously eager to say something, though it is not at all obvious what they desire to say, all with an instinctive conviction that whatever it is it cannot be said in the old ways. Not one of them produces the certainty that this conviction is really justified or that he has tested it; not one has written lines which have the doom 'thus and not otherwise' engraved upon their substance; not one has proved that he is capable of addressing himself to the central problem of poetry, no matter what technique be employed—how to achieve a concentrated unity of æsthetic impression. They are all diffuse; they seem to be content to lead a hundred indecisive attacks upon reality at once rather than to persevere and carry a single one to a final issue; they are all multiple, careless, and slipshod—and they are all interesting.

They are extremely interesting. For one thing, they have all achieved what is, from whatever angle one looks at it, a very remarkable success. Very few people, initiate or profane, can have opened Mr Lindsay's 'Congo' or Mr Masters's 'Spoon River Anthology' or Mr Aiken's 'Jig of Forslin' without being impelled to read on to the end. That does not very often happen with readers of a book which professes to be poetry save in the case of the thronging admirers of Miss Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and their similars. There is, however, another case more exactly in point, namely, that of Mr Kipling. With Mr Kipling our three American poets have much in common, though the community must not be unduly pressed. Their most obvious similarity is the prominence into which they throw the novel interest in their verse. They are, or at moments they seem to be, primarily tellers of stories. We will not dogmatise and say that the attempt is illegitimate; we prefer to insist that to tell a story in poetry and keep it poetry is a herculean task. It would indeed be doubly rash to dogmatise, for our three poets desire to tell very different stories, and we are by no means sure that the emotional subtleties which Mr Aiken in particular aims at capturing are capable of being exactly expressed in prose.

Since Mr Aiken is the corpus vile before us we will henceforward confine ourselves to him, though we premise that in spite of his very sufficient originality he is characteristic of what is most worth attention in modern American poetry. Proceeding then, we find another point of contact between him and Mr Kipling, more important perhaps than the former, and certainly more dangerous. Both find it apparently impossible to stem the uprush of rhetoric. Perhaps they do not try to; but we will be charitable—after all, there is enough good in either of them to justify charity—and assume that the willingness of the spirit gives way to the weakness of the flesh. Of course we all know about Mr Kipling's rhetoric; it is a kind of emanation of the spatial immensities with which he deals—Empires, the Seven Seas, from Dublin to Diarbekir. Mr Aiken has taken quite another province for his own; he is an introspective psychologist. But like Mr Kipling he prefers big business. His inward eye roves over immensities at least as vast as Mr Kipling's outward. In 'The Charnel Rose and Other Poems' this appetite for the illimitable inane of introspection seems to have gained upon him. There is much writing of this kind:—

  'Dusk, withdrawing to a single lamplight
  At the end of an infinite street—
  He saw his ghost walk down that street for ever,
  And heard the eternal rhythm of his feet.
  And if he should reach at last that final gutter,
  To-day, or to-morrow,
  Or, maybe, after the death of himself and time;
  And stand at the ultimate curbstone by the stars,
  Above dead matches, and smears of paper, and slime;
  Would the secret of his desire
  Blossom out of the dark with a burst of fire?
  Or would he hear the eternal arc-lamps sputter,
  Only that; and see old shadows crawl;
  And find the stars were street lamps after all?

  Music, quivering to a point of silence,
  Drew his heart down over the edge of the world….'

It is dangerous for a poet to conjure up infinities unless he has made adequate preparation for keeping them in control when they appear. We are afraid that Mr Aiken is almost a slave of the spirits he has evoked. Dostoevsky's devil wore a shabby frock-coat, and was probably managing-clerk to a solicitor at twenty-five shillings a week. Mr Aiken's incubus is, unfortunately, devoid of definition; he is protean and unsatisfactory.

  'I am confused in webs and knots of scarlet
  Spun from the darkness;
  Or shuttled from the mouths of thirsty spiders.

  Madness for red! I devour the leaves of autumn.
  I tire of the green of the world.
  I am myself a mouth for blood….'

Perhaps we do wrong to ask ourselves whether this and similar things mean, exactly, anything? Mr Aiken warns us that his intention has been to use the idea—'the impulse which sends us from one dream or ideal to another, always disillusioned, always creating for adoration some new and subtler fiction'—'as a theme upon which one might wilfully build a kind of absolute music.' But having given us so much instruction, he should have given more; he should have told us in what province of music he has been working. Are we to look for a music of verbal melody, or for a musical elaboration of an intellectual theme? We infer, partly from the assurance that 'the analogy to a musical symphony is close,' more from the absence of verbal melody, that we are to expect the elaboration of a theme. In that case the fact that we have a more definite grasp of the theme in the programme-introduction than anywhere in the poem itself points to failure. In the poem 'stars rush up and whirl and set,' 'skeletons whizz before and whistle behind,' 'sands bubble and roses shoot soft fire,' and we wonder what all the commotion is about. When there is a lull in the pandemonium we have a glimpse, not of eternity, but precisely of 1890:—

  'And he saw red roses drop apart,
  Each to disclose a charnel heart….

We are far from saying that Mr Aiken's poetry is merely a chemical compound of the 'nineties, Freud and introspective Imperialism; but we do think it is liable to resolve at the most inopportune moments into those elements, and that such moments occur with distressing frequency in the poem called 'The Charnel Rose.' 'Senlin' resists disruption longer. But the same elements are there. They are better but not sufficiently fused. The rhetoric forbids, for there is no cohesion in rhetoric. We have the sense that Mr Aiken felt himself inadequate to his own idea, and that he tried to drown the voice of his own doubt by a violent clashing of the cymbals where a quiet recitative was what the theme demanded and his art could not ensure.

  'Death himself in the rain … death himself …
  Death in the savage sunlight … skeletal death …
  I hear the clack of his feet,
  Clearly on stones, softly in dust,
  Speeding among the trees with whistling breath,
  Whirling the leaves, tossing his hands from waves …
  Listen! the immortal footsteps beat and beat!…'

We are persuaded that Mr Aiken did not mean to say that; he wanted to say something much subtler. But to find exactly what he wanted might have taken him many months. He could not wait. Up rushed the rhetoric; bang went the cymbals: another page, another book. And we, who have seen great promise in his gifts, are left to collect some inadequate fragments where his original design is not wholly lost amid the poor expedients of the moment. For Mr Aiken never pauses to discriminate. He feels that he needs rhyme; but any rhyme will do:—

  'Has no one, in a great autumnal forest,
  When the wind bares the trees with mournful tone,
  Heard the sad horn of Senlin slowly blown?'

So he descends to a poetaster's padding. He does not stop to consider whether his rhyme interferes with the necessary rhythm of his verse; or, if he does, he is in too much of a hurry to care, for the interference occurs again and again. And these disturbances and deviations, rhetoric and the sacrifice of rhythm to shoddy rhyme, appear more often than the thematic outline itself emerges.

In short, Mr Aiken is, at present, a poet whom we have to take on trust. We never feel that he meant exactly what he puts before us, and, on the whole, the evidence that he meant something better, finer, more irrevocably itself, is pretty strong. We catch in his hurried verses at the swiftly passing premonition of a frisson hitherto unknown to us in poetry, and as we recognise it, we recognise also the great distance he has to travel along the road of art, and the great labour that he must perform before he becomes something more than a brilliant feuilletonist in verse. It is hardly for us to prophesy whether he will devote the labour. His fluency tells us of his energy, but tells us nothing of its quality. We can only express our hope that he will, and our conviction that if he were to do so his great pains, and our lesser ones would be well requited.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things