Florence Earle Coates (Ring)
Some Phases of Her Life and Poetry
Elizabeth Clendenning Ring
It might well have been the poets of the world, crying aloud, up and down life's highways, their "medley of dreams," to whom the Prophet spake in the jewelled pages of the Koran:—
"God hath spread the earth for you like a carpet,
That ye may walk therein along spacious paths."
No one among the moderns who seeks, through the medium of verse, to interpret "the veiled heart of things," has more truly walked along "spacious paths" to find the mystic Gleam than Florence Earle Coates. Few among them have illumined, as she has done, in the two volumes recently issued, with so broad a vision and an insight so keenly penetrative, the secret places of the spirit.
One realizes, as one reads, with deepening admiration, how far afield she has traveled, spiritually and intellectually, since the appearance of her earliest verse in the newspapers and magazines current some twenty years ago. The torch of inspiration burns now with a steadier, more ardent flame; the sympathy with which she touches the sonorous chords, that echo sombrely in the vast, sorrowing heart of humanity, has a tenderer, subtler note than of old; the lyric forms have risen to nobler heights that, at times, approach the shadowed border of pure ecstasy; the always felicitous diction of those probative days is enriched now with a wealth of imagery, classic in its elegance, and with a ripeness and spontaneity of phrasing, that would satisfy the rigid canons of one who was himself an austere purist—her valued friend and master, Matthew Arnold.
Delightful memories, indeed, did Arnold garner, in those early days, at "Willing Terrace," the former home of Mr. and Mrs. Coates in Germantown, that flung wide its smilingly hospitable doors to receive him, when he came from England, some years ago, to deliver his notable lectures in America's commanding literary centres.
Basking before the cheery warmth of the open fire, in the grey-toned drawing-room, with its paintings, curios, medallions, and photographs, entailing names inscribed large on the pages of art and literature, he was given an opportunity to meet some of Philadelphia's choicest spirits, who, in those tranquil days, discovered in the gentle philosopher and poet, a model for their academic reverence, "a living ray of intellectual Fire."
A charming company he, in turn, found these scholars of edler day, Attic in thought as himself, and of that equable and courtly bearing in vogue before "reverie" became archaic, and "leisure" a haunting tradition.
He and other members of his kin, richly relished the savoir vivre, the urbanity, the brilliancy of the coterie about the scintillant board at "Willing Terrace," whose motto was "a man's worth is warrant of his welcome."
In more recent days; that splendent luminary in the Arnold family, Mrs. Humphry Ward, learned with joyous appreciation, through the hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. Coates, what a delectable place Philadelphia is in which to foregather with those of the elect that have "empires in their brains."
Mrs. Coates's poetic gift "folded, yet faintly showing in the bud," that Arnold so quickly recognized, and those inward visions to which he so judiciously, yet so kindly, urged her to give voice, broadened rapidly with the years, until for her, as for Lafcadio Hearn, there arose "everywhere from winds, seas, forests, as well as from the cities of men, sounds which blend into one great sound, which is the music of life."
Like her "Singer" who, "from regions where enchantments dwell," came with his dreams to sell, she offers the golden melody of her verse, mined from the depths of richly varied experiences. Her catholicity of vision has been enhanced by the mellowing influence of extensive travel and wide reading, and inspirited by genial friendships, whose lofty ideals, like her own, were fledged far toward the top of the "great world's altar stairs."
Well-beloved in this circle was that bravest of sweet spirits, Edmund Clarence Stedman, who rejoiced in the singing quality of her verse, and in that haunting group of songs and lyrics, affluent in such lines as
"Maiden of the laughing eyes,
Primrose-kirtled, wingèd, free,
Virgin daughter of the skies—
Joy!—whom gods and mortals prize,
Share thy smiles with me!"
That whimsically gentle critic, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and that serenely-exalted scholar, Dr. Horace Howard Furness, were of those intimates who loved to hear the sonorous cadences of their favorite poems from her pen, recited as she alone can interpret them.
None of these does she render more exquisitely than the closing stanza of her "Burial of Robert Louis Stevenson at Samoa":
"They thought of a love that life redeems,
Of a heart the home of perfect dreams,
And they left him there, where the worlds aspire
In the sunrise glow and the sunset fire!"
It was of the last two lines that her friend, John Luther Long, once said to the writer, "they are enough to make her immortal."
Indeed, most of her elegiac verse, in memory of those dear to her personally, or because of their work, are of notable beauty, written in the plaintive minor key befitting those who have
. . . ."passed beyond the evening angelus
And Mennon's morning song,"
yet sounding always, clarion-clear, a final triumphant chord of eternal promise,—
"The future waits, it calls—I must not stay!
The night is over,—look! the dawn of Day!"
A goodly number of our favorite American poets have been compelled, perforce, to content themselves with merely local fame. But English editors have proffered their readers as wide a selection from the six volumes Mrs. Coates has already published, as our own brilliant John Mills Alden, or the lamented Richard Watson Gilder, and English critics, on the whole, have been more pronounced in their praise, than the stern arbiters of what shall constitute poetic rank, of high degree, on our own side of the Atlantic.
Not least among these English admirers and friends, who have fully appreciated the exalted standard Mrs. Coates has set for her art, are Thomas Hardy, Lady Gregory, John Masefield, Alice Meynell and William Butler Yeats.
Yearlong friends in another realm of art, John , William Chase, Maxfield Parrish, Violet Oakley, Cecilia Beaux and many another of those among the world's elect, who have distilled life's potion to us, out of "lustrous cups of many metals," have felt the thrill of a personal message in her inspiring,— Hamilton
"Dream the Great Dream! though you should dream—you, only,
And friendless follow in the lofty quest."
Mrs. Coates was educated partly in New England, at the school of the worthy Theodore D. , and later at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Paris, with a finishing course under some of the noted instructors then in vogue in Brussels.
Her tuition, while abroad, included in its scope, a study of music under the best masters, which explains the ardent interest the poet takes in the musical life of Philadelphia and New York.
These educational opportunities and the strain of English and French blood, that joins the pure American current, have given amplitude to her vision in matters international; and, in the present world crisis, of special interest are her views on war, voiced in the poems scattered throughout her work, particularly those in the still more recent "Pro Patria," that burn with a passionate fervor of patriotism, as stirring as the roll of drums at dawn.
The writer vividly recalls an early August morning, in 1914, when she watched company after company of soldiers go marching along the quays of Marseilles, from a nearby barracks, to entrain for northern France.
With rhythmic beat, each man marked time with monotonous precision, as he pushed steadily ahead, with set, grave face, and eyes that glowed with strange fires, while the pulsating chords of the Marseillaise came tumbling down the breeze and fairly fell upon him, listening, half-dazed, as he tramped, to its savage, delirious appeal.
But something quivered about the tightly-compressed lips of those marching men, something lurked about the corners of their drawn mouths, that gave one the impression they longed to give utterance to the stark, tormenting things that tore at their heart strings.
By iridescent word, by winged phrase, or poignant line, Mrs. Coates strives to voice the dumb questionings that struggled in the souls of those marching thousands in Marseilles, the dark splendor of the Fate upon which the world's youth is so gayly, so gallantly, so bravely plunging, the shapeless horrors that dart out of the red murk, the shining idealism and the baleful realism of war,
"With the serpent horror writhing in her hair,
And crowning cruel brows bent o'er the ground,
War! with her petrifying eyes astare—"
When one of the members of the House of Representatives desired, recently, to stir the hearts of his co-workers with greater zeal for the passage of a proposed war measure, he electrified his audience by reciting, verbatim, one of Mrs. Coates's recent poems, "Under the Flag," thereby lifting that practical body quite out of its everyday groove, so very far removed from the realm of poetry.
Mrs. Coates was abroad in the turbulent days that marked the outbreak of the amazing war and in a poem, sensitively vivid, describes the scene in the Place de la Concorde, August 14th, 1914, when a breathless multitude watched the speaker the day tear from the statue of Alsace,
. . . . . "fold on fold,
The mournful crape, gray-worn and old,
Her, proudly to disclose,
And with the touch of tender care
That fond emotion speaks,
'Mid tears that none could quite command.
Placed the Tricolour in her hand,
And kissed her on both cheeks!"
Of eminent interest, in the present struggle for air supremacy among the belligerents, is the poem entitled "The Unconquered Air." Praised by London critics, largely copied at home and abroad, given a distinguished place in a year book of magazine verse, in its list of notable poems of the twelve months' issue, it marks an inspiring niche in the range of Mrs. Coates's poetic output:
"Others endure Man's rule; he, therefore, deems
I shall endure it—I, the unconquered air!
Imagines this triumphant strength may bear
His paltry sway! yea, ignorantly dreams,
Because proud Rhea now his vassal seems,
And Neptune him obeys in billowy lair,
That he a more sublime assault may dare
Where, blown by tempest wild the vulture screams!"
Fruitless seems this boast in the light of the bewildering feats of courage performed by the modern kings of the air, so thrilling that Death himself seems to stand mocked and flaunted, as the pilots hurl, from their aerial ships, belching flames and fury that belittle the thunderbolts of the high gods.
And yet—in spite of deeds of dreadful valor, in spite of cloud-defying combats, where prowl the mist—enshrouded Furies, above many a lonely, sea-washed grave, with voice like the wail of rending winds, the imperial god of "heights supernal" still goes chanting,—
"Presumptuous he mounts: I toss his bones
Back from the height supernal he has braved;
Ay, as his vessel nears my perilous zones,
I blow the cockle-shell away like chaff,
And give him to the Sea he has enslaved,
He founders in its depths; and then I laugh!"
Some years ago Mr. and Mrs. Coates selected a bluff, high above the sparkling crests of the Upper St. Regis, in the Adirondacks, on which to build their summer home.
Camp Elsinore consists of several buildings, cunningly located to reveal the darkling twists and turns of the changeful lake, black under the shadowy wings of the storm, or dimpling under the soft glance of the moon, trailing languorously her star-embroidered robe, or aflame in the wake of the Sun God, hurling his chariot of crimson and gold through the far-flung gates of Night.
"When the houseless wind has gone to rest," the forest whispers her fragrant secrets to the dreamless sleepers in the white tents that loom, phantom-like, out of the dark, among the trees of "Paradise Alley."
Elfs and fays, from their haunts in the mountains, whistle their eerie ballads above the gray roof of "Dove Cottage," and dance their ghostly jigs on the huge hearthstone, among whose blazing logs the Fire God paints his immortal canvases, with colorings splendid beyond the dream of man.
Whispering pines and silver-shrouded birches creep close to the hospitable porch and gossipy eaves of "Eaton Hall" (Eating Hall), under whose smiling, sun-splashed windows stretch broad, cozy seats that Otis Skinner and his gifted wife have found most enticingly comfortable; whose far-reaching views have delighted the beauty-loving eyes of Violet Oakley; whose crackling logs have flung, skyward, scarlet tongues of flame, in unison with the passionate beauty of Lizette Woodworth Reese's verse (have not critics pronounced her "Tears" one of the loveliest sonnets in the English language?)—whose bountiful board has creaked with laughter at one of Henry Mills Alden's jokes, or at one of Agnes Repplier's deliciously caustic sallies, or at one of Edward Coates's yarns, inimitably told, as only he could tell it; no wit, or belle, or beaux, or gentle guest, who has dined in "Eaton Hall" but has carried away blithe memories of the summer holiday within the gates of "Elsinore."
The rustic walls and weathered shingles of the lovely "Maypole Inn," the happy title of the commodious music room, echo with the strains of rare harmonies, that are within the gift of such Musicians as Aurelio Giorni, or to Mrs. Coates's exquisite rendition of those among her poems that Mrs. Beach, Letitia Radcliffe Miller and Wassili Leps have set to music—poems that go whispering and laughing and sorrowing along the quiet ways of one's heart, until one stops to listen, as one does to the thrilling vesper notes of the hermit thrush, singing at eve, among the swaying tree-tops that hide his lonely nest.
Mrs. Coates has developed, in the long, still days at "Elsinore," a sensitive response to color, a clarified vision, that differentiates, in the great out-door canvas, every changing hue and phase, until her nature poems have something of the lustrous harmony of the Gobelin tapestries, whose weavers boast, 'tis said, of twenty-eight thousand tints in their woven dreams.
Nature's eternal youth and deathless beauty she finds in the dancing shadows on the mountains, in the mad laughter of the storm King, in the rosy flush of "sleep-drunken-Dawn, pale daughter of the never-quenched Light!" in "the cherry blooms, all lightly blown," in the hidden singing of forest pools, in the tender little tune of the white-throated Sparrow,
"Poet of the brooding pine,
And the feathery larches,
Dawn-lit summits seem to shine
Lucent in each throbbing line,
Under azure arches."
That most exquisite poem, in this notable group of outdoor songs and lyrics, "Indian Pipe," was inspired while tramping along the lonely trails of the great North Woods, in the wake of the guides, bearing, from a yoke on their shoulders, the boats in which to cross the whispering waterways, where
"In the heart of the forest arising,
Slim, ghostly and fair,
Ethereal offspring of moisture,
Of earth and of air;
With slender stems anchored together
Where first they uncurl,
Each tipped with its exquisite lily
Of mother of pearl;
'Mid the pine-needles, closely enwoven
Its roots to embale,—
The Indian-pipe of the woodland,
Thrice lovely and frail!"
Early Greek is her adoring love of beauty, that flashes through her verse like the shimmer of silvery waterfalls, leaping out into the noonday sun from the Azores's emerald heights. Greek too is her worship of youth, joyous youth, pure as yet, as the fragrant essences flung by Roman vestals, amid the flickering tapers of ancient altars, youth quivering with star-lit broodings of strange castles, wondrous fair.
"Wherein my love doth dwell:
Its turrets waver into air
From fields where asphodel
And poppy keep not watch, but sleep
'Neath an enchanters' spell."
Mrs. Coates takes her place among the lofty thinkers who believe life's kingliest adventure is man's search for the ideal. In the dark places of the human soul she patiently seeks the smouldering flame of deathless youth, immortal beauty, fadeless perfection, gleaming out of the dusk, like the single tallow candle that darts from the gloom of the interiors, in the genre canvases of the old Dutch Masters:
"Something I may not win attracts me ever,
Something elusive yet supremely fair.
Thrills me with gladness, but contents me never,
Fills me with sadness, yet forbids despair.
It blossoms just beyond the paths I follow,
It shines beyond the farthest stars I see,
It echoes faint from ocean caverns hollow,
And, from the land of dreams, it beckons me."
In these lawless days of the vers libre with their too urgent realism and their too strident calls for sex freedom, Love's aureole has been shorn of much of the celestial sheen, that blazed above his youthful brow, long before Vishnu first sat enthroned amid the creeping shadows of age-old Hindu temples.
But in that small group of masters of modern classicism in poetry, in which Mrs. Coates is pre-eminent, Love's pinions are still flame-shot, his starry eyes still burn with unearthly fires, his voice still thrills with the music of tumbling waters.
Ever knightly he is, a dreamer, eager
"To yield the sovereign gifts of earth,
The victor sword, the laurelled brow,
For visioned things of little worth."
Amid the discordant voices of those who cry aloud the arrogant dogmas of the new gods, the gentle melody of Mrs. Coates's creed of Love chimes undismayed, undefiled, across the world, like the clangor of Sabbath bells, beyond twilit meadows at eventide.
Humanity is hungry, amid plenty, for such poetry. A path toward solution it offers, to the plodding questioner after Truth. In its balm for the sorrowing, its hope for the lonely, its aspiration for the dreamer, its promise for the faithful, its courage for the baffled, its music sings its way across the murky clouds of mockery and doubt that taint our sky.
"The soul has need of prophet and redeemer:
Her outstretched wings against her prisoning bars,
She waits for truth; and truth is with the dreamer,—
Persisent as the myriad light of stars!"
- The Collected Poems of Florence Earle Coates. 2 volumes. Houghton, Mifflin Company.