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The Life and Poetry of William Stanley Braithwaite

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

THE foremost of the poets of the race at present is William Stanley Braithwaite, of Boston. Mr. Braithwaite is not only the possessor of unusual talent, but for years he has worked most conscientiously at his art and taken the time and the pains to master the fundamentals that others all too often deem unimportant. In 1904 he published a small book of poems entitled "Lyrics of Life and Love." This was followed four years later by "The House of Falling Leaves." Within recent years he has given less and less time to his own verse, becoming more and more distinguished as a critic in the special field of American poetry. For several years he has been a regular and valued contributor of literary criticism to the Boston Evening Transcript; he has had verse or critical essays in the Forum, the CenturyScribner's, the Atlantic[57]etc.; and in 1916 became editor of the new Poetry Review of Cambridge. He has collected and edited (publishing chiefly through Brentano's) "The Book of Elizabethan Verse," "The Book of Georgian Verse," and "The Book of Restoration Verse"; and he has also published the "Anthology of Magazine Verse" for each year since 1913. He is the general editor of "The Contemporary American Poets Series," which is projected by the Poetry Review Company, and which will be issued in twelve little books, each giving a sympathetic study of a poet of the day; he himself is writing the volume on Edwin Arlington Robinson; and before long it is expected that a novel will appear from his pen. Very recently (1917) Mr. Braithwaite has brought together in a volume, "The Poetic Year," the series of articles which he contributed to the Transcript in 1916-17. The aim was in the form of conversations between a small group of friends to discuss the poetry of 1916. Says he: "There were four of us in the little group, and our common love for the art of poetry suggested a weekly meeting in the grove to discuss the books we had all agreed upon reading....[58] I made up my mind to record these discussions, and the setting as well, with all those other touches of human character and mood which never fail to enliven and give color to the serious business of art and life.... I gave fanciful names to my companions, Greek names which I am persuaded symbolized the spirit of each. There was nothing Psyche touched but made its soul apparent. Her wood-lore was beautiful and thorough; the very spirit of flowers, birds and trees was evoked when she went among them. Our other companion of her sex was Cassandra, and we gave her this name not because her forebodings were gloomy, but merely for her prophesying disposition, which was always building air-castles. The other member besides myself of our little group was Jason, of the heroic dreams and adventuresome spirit. He was restless in the bonds of a tranquillity that chafed the hidden spirit of his being." From the introduction we get something of the critic's own aims and ideals: "The conversational scheme of the book may, or may not, interest some readers. Poetry is a human thing, and it is time for the world—and especially our part of the world—to re[59]gard it as belonging to the people. It sprang from the folk, and passed, when culture began to flourish, into the possession of a class. Now culture is passing from a class to the folk, and with it poetry is returning to its original possessors. It is in the spirit of these words that we discuss the poetry of the year." Emphasis is here given to this work because it is the sturdiest achievement of Mr. Braithwaite in the field in which he has recently become most distinguished, and even the brief quotations cited are sufficient to give some idea of his graceful, suggestive prose.

In a review of this writer's poetry we have to consider especially the two collections, "Lyrics of Life and Love," and "The House of Falling Leaves," and the poems that have more recently appeared in the AtlanticScribner's, and other magazines. It is to be hoped that before very long he will publish a new edition of his poems. The earlier volumes are out of print, and a new book could contain the best of them, as well as what has appeared more recently. "Lyrics of Life and Love" embodied the best of the poet's early work. The little book contains eighty pages, and no one of the[60] lyrics takes up more than two pages, twenty in fact being exactly eight lines in length. This appearance of fragility, however, is a little deceptive. While Keats and Shelley are constantly evident as the models in technique, the yearning of more than one lyric reflects the deeper romantic temper. The bravado and the tenderness of the old poets are evident again in the two Christmas pieces, "Holly Berry and Mistletoe," and "Yule-Song: A Memory":

The trees are bare, wild flies the snow,Hearths are glowing, hearts are merry—High in the air is the Mistletoe,Over the door is the Holly Berry.

Never have care how the winds may blow,Never confess the revel grows weary—Yule is the time of the Mistletoe,Yule is the time of the Holly Berry.

* * * * *

December comes, snows come,Comes the wintry weather;Faces from away come—Hearts must be together.Down the stair-steps of the hoursYule leaps the hills and towers—Fill the bowl and hang the holly,Let the times be jolly.[61]

"The Watchers" is in the spirit of Kingsley's "The Three Fishers":

Two women on the lone wet strand—(The wind's out with a will to roam)The waves wage war on rocks and sand,(And a ship is long due home.)

The sea sprays in the women's eyes—(Hearts can writhe like the sea's wild foam)Lower descend the tempestuous skies,(For the wind's out with a will to roam.)

"O daughter, thine eyes be better than mine,"(The waves ascend high on yonder dome)"North or South is there never a sign?"(And a ship is long due home.)

They watched there all the long night through—(The wind's out with a will to roam)Wind and rain and sorrow for two—(And heaven on the long reach home.)

The second volume marked a decided advance in technique. When we remember also the Pre-Raphaelite spirit, with its love of rhythm and imagery, we are not surprised to find here an appreciation "To Dante Gabriel Rossetti." Especially has the poet made progress in the handling of the sonnet, as may be seen in the following:[62]

My thoughts go marching like an armèd hostOut of the city of silence, guns and cars;Troop after troop across my dreams they postTo the invasion of the wind and stars.O brave array of youth's untamed desire!With thy bold, dauntless captain Hope to leadHis raw recruits to Fate's opposing fire,And up the walls of Circumstance to bleed.How fares the expedition in the end?When this my heart shall have old age for kingAnd to the wars no further troop can send,What final message will the arm'stice bring?The host gone forth in youth the world to meet,In age returns—in victory or defeat?

Then there is the epilogue with its heart-cry:

Lord of the mystic star-blown gleamsWhose sweet compassion lifts my dreams;Lord of life in the lips of the roseThat kiss desire; whence Beauty grows;Lord of the power inviolateThat keeps immune thy seas from fate,

* * * * *

Lord, Very God of these works of thine,Hear me, I beseech thee, most divine!

Within very recent years Mr. Braithwaite has attracted unusual attention among the discerning by a new note of mysticism that has crept into his verse. This was first ob[63]served in "Sandy Star," that appeared in the Atlantic (July, 1909):

No more from out the sunset,No more across the foam,No more across the windy hillsWill Sandy Star come home.

He went away to search it,With a curse upon his tongue,And in his hands the staff of lifeMade music as it swung.

I wonder if he found it,And knows the mystery now:Our Sandy Star who went awayWith the secret on his brow.

The same note is in "The Mystery" (or "The Way," as the poet prefers to call it) that appeared in Scribner's (October, 1915):

He could not tell the way he cameBecause his chart was lost:Yet all his way was paved with flameFrom the bourne he crossed.

He did not know the way to go,Because he had no map:He followed where the winds blow,—And the April sap.[64]

He never knew upon his browThe secret that he bore—And laughs away the mystery nowThe dark's at his door.

Mr. Braithwaite has done well. He is to-day the foremost man of the race in pure literature. But above any partial or limited consideration, after years of hard work he now has recognition not only as a poet of standing, but as the chief sponsor for current American poetry. No comment on his work could be better than that of the Transcript, November 30, 1915: "He has helped poetry to readers as well as to poets. One is guilty of no extravagance in saying that the poets we have—and they may take their place with their peers in any country—and the gathering deference we pay them, are created largely out of the stubborn, self-effacing enthusiasm of this one man. In a sense their distinction is his own. In a sense he has himself written their poetry. Very much by his toil they may write and be read. Not one of them will ever write a finer poem than Braithwaite himself has lived already."