From Florence Coates to Amy Lowell: A Glance at Modernity

From Florence Coates to Amy Lowell: A Glance at Modernity  (1916) 
by Oscar W. Firkins

The Nation (3 May 1917) V. 104 No. 2705 pp. 522-24.

From Florence Coates to Amy Lowell: A Glance at Modernity

Poems. By Florence Earle Coates. Collected edition, in two volumes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. The set $2.50 net.

A Lark Went Singing and Other Poems. By Ruth Guthrie Harding. Minneapolis: Edmund D. Brooks.

The Cycle's Rim. By Olive Tilford Dargan. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. $1.

Life and Living. By Amelia Josephine Burr. New York: George H. Doran Company. $1 net.

Men, Women and Ghosts. By Amy Lowell. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.25.

THE five women I review to-day are ascending rungs in a ladder of modernity, and this fact has governed the order and here and there shaped the contents of this paper.

In Mrs. Florence Earle Coates the tradition of the mid-nineteenth century is still sovereign. Certain subjects, like Henry James and the Bernhardtesque Hamlet, clamp the work mechanically to our period, but the two volumes that house the accumulations of Mrs. Coates contain hardly a sentiment that would have seemed premature in 1850. The writer loves no other goddess like Persephone, and she will forgive me if I describe her refined and graceful verse as the "pale primroses" and "violets dim" which the poetry of our forefathers let fall at the moment of its abstraction to the under-world. Mrs. Coates might reply that Persephone was fated to return, and I should be the last to seek to deprive her of the solace of that cheerful augury. But, for the time being, a period—if I may venture a half-pun—reaches its cadence in her verse.

That Mrs. Coates's best is genuinely good three stanzas from "Adieu" will show.

I weep not, nor shall futile sighs
Hold you longer,
The pity in your loveless eyes
Makes me stronger ...

I listen while your lips protest,
For by your wishes unexpressed—
We are parted.

I listen, and hope's fickle glow
Fades away.
Why mock my grief? If you can go—
Wherefore stay?

More usual in Mrs. Coates than this strength and pathos are sweetness of versification and amiable sentiments which rise and taper as they rise. She has skill in the carriage and pilotage of a musical phrase. What Chaucer said laughingly of his Prioress, I would repeat seriously of Mrs. Coates: "Wel coude she carie a morsel and wel kepe." The morsels undoubtedly vary in succulence.

In her emphasis on pure feeling and pure melody, Mrs. Harding is as close to the tradition as Mrs. Coates; but a single trait—the precision of her motives—defines and establishes her modernity. The sparing touch is likewise modern, but the kinships of "A Lark Went Singing" are mostly heirships in the innocent and worthy sense, and the long, shapely lines globe themselves into a kind of parallelism with the more spreading and orbicular rhythms of Tennyson and Matthew Arnold. The heart dilates with the voice, and an emotion, powerful but tractable, informs the line of its steadfast, liberal, pervasive presence. I find mass and sobriety in this emotion rather than that "psychic tremble" noted by Richard Burton in his interesting and sympathetic preface. A stanza from "Grotesque" may introduce my readers to a poet of true promise, who has music enough to enable her to forego noise.

With the first light on the skyline came the rapping of the sickles
And the brown arms of the reapers bent to toil another morn;
Close beside me in the glimmer, in the golden sweep and shimmer,
Knelt a reaper strange among us crooning through the ragged corn:
"Born of sorrow,
Gone to-morrow—
Gone to lie in yonder valley where their fathers long have lain;
Men who know not ship nor sabre,
Each but drudges by his neighbor,
And the fields wherein they labor are a heritage of pain!"

Mrs. Dargan's poetry is curiously and richly composite: the form, the texture, is Elizabethan; the conflux of love with landscape and piety is mid-nineteenth century; the collective or social motive, less audible here than in other poems, affiliates her with still later times. The volume consists of fifty-one sonnets, cogently grouped, stringently condensed, and scrupulously elaborated; and the exertion demanded of the reader is proportionate, though not equal to the author's thoroughness and resolution. The sonnets are dedicated "To One Drowned at Sea," and the threnody is resonant and impassioned. This sorrow is Tyrian; its note is sumptuosity; it is that "gorgeous Tragedy" whose "sceptred pall" evoked the homage of Milton in his "Il Penseroso." In this matter I suspect an excess. I would not lay an orchid on a bier, though I do not forget that in Mrs. Dargan's parterres orchids grow almost as spontaneously as violets. I concede that there is solace in magnificence. The first sonnet will suggest the sombre exultation, the mournful triumph, by which bereavement is at once enriched and tempered.

Deep lies thy body, jewel of the sea,
Locked down with wave on wave. Pearl-drift among
The coral towers, and yet not thee, not thee!
So lightly didst thou mount, blue rung o'er rung.
The lustred ladder rippling from that land
Of strangely boughed and wooing wildernesses.
Province of dream unwaning, dream yet banned
From sleepers in the sun; but thou, as presses
The lark that feels his song, sped to thy sky.
O unrepressed! If thou wouldst choose be gone,
What sea-charm then could stay thee, bid thee lie
Too deep for cock-crow earth or heaven's dawn?
Yet must I chant these broken, mortal staves,
And lay my leaf of laurel on the waves.

I have already praised Miss Burr's "Ulysses in Ithaca" for its rare secret of being generous to nature without being illiberal to humanity. It is in this matter of equipoise between ancestral law and contemporary impulse that Miss Burr is—not rankly modern—but quasi-modern or bicenturial. She has not renounced the safety of the castle, but her favorite walk is the parapet overlooking the unploughed heath and the brigand-haunted forest.

"Life and Living" hardly crowns the hopes aroused by "In Deep Places." Two or three of the war poems are calm and high processionals fit to arm—or disarm—a people in its hour of peril and probation; "Kitchener's March" has a vigor unfamiliar to state elegies; there are buoyant, undulant rhythms in which the mastery of Miss Burr is incontestable. Intention is authoritative in these poems, usually to the profit of the art, sometimes to the detriment of the impulse. Emotion is not scant; indeed, it is conscientiously provided by a commissariat whose vigilance is unrelaxing. But rations somehow do not quicken appetite.

Miss Burr writes monologues in which piety and sex combine or alternate, and the religious and the sexual impulses seem amicable, almost sisterly. In these points every nature has its own decorum; there is no evil in the poems, but an apple is mushy at the same stage of plasticity at which a pear is only mellow, and Miss Burr's affinities are with the hardier fruit. The following poem, which I quote entire, shows the vigor of Miss Burr at her sanest and truest:

While we have waited what each day might bring
To all this wild tormented world of ours,
There never was a more ecstatic spring,
Nor sweeter jubilance of summer flowers.

Never amid the waking forest gleamed
The dogwood's pure exuberance more white,
Never the honeysuckle hedges dreamed
In richer fragrance through the quiet night.

Goldenrod foams in seas of sunny spray;
Glad liquid twitterings hail the dark withdrawn.
What flower do Belgium's children pluck to-day?
Where do the birds of Poland greet the dawn?

Miss Lowell's aptitude for titles has not forsaken her in "Men, Women and Ghosts." The poems in the volume, which are executed with an odd combination of levity and nicety, negligence and punctilio, fall readily into three classes. The least normal class is the group in which Miss Lowell does not so much narrate a story as unroll so many yards of rich brocade or lengths of shimmering wall-paper. "The dramatis personæ," in her own words, "are air, clouds, trees, house, streets." The reigning principle is detachment. Detach the sight or the sound from the object to which it normally serves as aspect and property, detach the eye or the ear from the organism to which its action is habitually and properly subject, and you approximate to the conception of Miss Lowell. She has herself provided me with an apt comparison. In one of her odder and wilder monologues a woman finds under a lilac bush a white and jewelled hand divided from the complemental body. I have no doubt that the hand was curious and original in the surprise of this extraordinary detachment; and the same may be said of Miss Lowell's literary abscissions, but the finder, with a sense which I would modestly commend to the imitation of her creator, perceived the futility of a hand so circumstanced, found a spade, and buried it under an apple tree behind the barn. What Miss Lowell fails to grasp is that man is first human, and secondly ocular and auricular; to her the body is an eye-stalk.

In the second class of poems the descriptive matter is still prominent, but is nominally subordinated to the conduct of a story in which the theme is criminal or tragic. I have always found it hard to understand why in those mixtures of arts in which literature is the adjunct, such as grand opera or spectacles of the Sumurûn type, its note should he exceptionally clamorous. The same anomaly appears in these narratives and monologues in which story is subordinated to picture. It is as if a man professed to drink strong waters merely for the sake of the sparkle in the glass and then insisted that the true sparkle was obtainable only from the fieriest liquors.

There is, however, one narrative in this group before which censure must bow and hush itself in reverent acknowledgment of its clear-cut beauty. That narrative is "The Fruit Shop." Its success is not inexplicable. Miss Lowell's dubious habit of stressing the adjunct, of playing with the tassels of a subject, has become, in this instance, by its conversion into irony, the ideal resource for the enhancement and enforcement of the dramatic and vital motives in the theme. This little masterpiece absolves the volume.

There is still a third group of poems in which Miss Lowell, by a curious reaction, paints strange events in humble lives in homely dialect. "Reaping" is strong; I grant its ugliness, but the ugliness of nature and truth has value. One welcomes Miss Lowell in this mood as one welcomes Nora Helmer when she has taken off her masquerade dress. A high artist was lost to the world when Miss Lowell made it her aim in life to dance the tarantella.

Lastly, as to modernism. On the question of morals the attitude of Miss Lowell is tacit or neutral. She neither praises nor blames that adultery to which her debt for themes is so considerable. I cannot but imagine—on grounds far short of demonstration—that the conflict between right and wrong is classed in Miss Lowell's mind with the feuds of the Neri and Bianchi in mediæval Florence or the contentions of the Blues and Greens in the hippodrome of Constantinople. Be this as it may, she is modern to excess in her free verse and her polyphony, in her fearlessness in theme and diction, and in the curious theory and practice which reduces the world to a set of pigments and makes the passions and interests of mankind a footnote or postscript to the silvering of a cloud or the curve of an eyelash. Will she gain finally by the boldness of this stand? Novelty is libertine, and libertine not least in its habit of leaving in permanent distress the object of its transitory favors. Have Miss Lowell's methods inherent force enough to survive the defection of this treacherous ally?

O. W. Firkins

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1932, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 90 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.