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XII

MRS. STODDARD'S POEMS[1]

IN this highly characteristic book of Mrs. Stoddard's verse we have the poetic harvest of a woman's lifetime. Such a volume, coming from one whose other work long since made its impression, has a significance which sets it apart from the books of verse issued at successive intervals by even a justly favorite poet. If not a disclosure, it is at least a confirmation, of the author's personality. Readers of Mrs. Stoddard's novels and shorter tales have been aware of the tense individuality which marks them. Her poetry is the more direct expression of the same woman, speaking with her own voice, and face to face, instead of behind the masks of her personages. If, like a holographic will, it were incumbent to prove it entirely the writing of the devisor's hand, it would stand the test. Here is plainly the author of Two Men, The Morgesons, and Temple House. But to read her verse is to get a new key to her prose. The often evasive thought and circumstance of her fiction become interpreted, like the Old World inscriptions read by the aid of some bilingual tablet.

All in all, these are the poems of a reticent but most original novelist, who at times has found prose inadequate for that self-expression which—in spite of theories as to the common ground of art—appears more essential, certainly more noble and welcome, in the case of a strong woman than in that of a strong man. Poems like "The Problem" and "In Memoriam" show us that thought, of itself, is often so subtle as to make speech rhythmical. But the rhythm of verse, if useful to thought, is almost indispensable to the more elevated states of feeling. Hence it is the glory and the charm of woman's verse that it is subjective, while a man's self-expression often drops into the weakness and effeminacy of the betrayed egotist.

Doubtless it is because in poetic language alone the most dynamic thought and feeling command a voice that the world cherishes many poets and tolerates yet more of them. The artistic unreality of verse enables the most reserved nature to reveal itself without being abashed. Among the writings of modern female poets, the eccentric half-formed lyrics of Emily Dickinson—a kind of intellectual diamond chips—were of interest chiefly for their quaint expression of unexpected thought. But as much as feeling is deeper than all thought, the verse of Mrs. Stoddard is truer poetry, not to speak of its saner intellectuality and purpose; to which elements the touch of art is added—of an art very decided in so various and pathetic a lyric as "Christmas Comes Again," but quite exceptional in the highest of metrical forms, that of her monodies in blank verse.

Mrs. Stoddard's sixty or seventy pieces, apparently the selected verse of many years, are arranged so as to show very well the modes and moods of work that is the more effective for its compression within a limited range. The earlier division conveys its writer's memories, and is imbued with that "pathetic fallacy" which relates nature and even the decaying structures of man to one's own feeling and experience. A melancholy bred of the passing away of kindred, and of early associations, informs them. Their passion for nature is strong and true; and this is quite in keeping with the secret of "The House of Youth" and "The House by the Sea." In these, and throughout Mrs. Stoddard's verse, a thought is sometimes directly, but not didactically, stated, and stays with the reader, through an instinctive felicity of word or phrase. In "The House of Youth" she says:

The wind beats at the door,
But never gets an answer back again,
The silence is so proud;

and again,

Man lives not in the past;
None but a woman ever comes again
Back to the "House of Youth."

Of November, she says:

The naked, silent trees have taught me this—
The loss of beauty is not always loss!

The last line has its corollary in a later reference to autumn:

While watching in thy atmosphere, I see
The form of beauty changes, not its soul.

In the poem hereafter given, she speaks of nameless plants, "perfect in their hues,"

Perfect in root and branch their plan of life,
As if the intention of a soul were there.

There are a few objective, and even dramatic, lyrics in the middle of the volume—of which are "On the Campagna," and the little pieces, full of sensuous melody and color, "A Midsummer Night" and "Mercedes." These three, and "The Queen Deposed," have rightly been culled by the anthologists, and show that Mrs. Stoddard's lyrical quality, much less dominant than her husband's—who was a lyrist from his youth—is at times spontaneous and compulsive "On the Campagna," the lines on the tomb of Cecilia Metella, is the most imaginative of the group—wrought in an unrhymed measure, with a stately inscriptional effect, and as an objective study displaying the skill and simple power that Matthew Arnold strove for and twice or thrice attained. As to lighter strains, in a vein affected by Owen Meredith, such as "A Few Idle Words" and "Vers de Société," it cannot be said that Mrs. Stoddard is fortunate. Her temperament is too grave and deep, too genuinely moved, for the work of a kind that market writers turn off deftly.

Where her power lies is, first, as has been intimated, in her fusion of the spirit of nature—her familiar wherever she has walked—with her own strength of feeling; and, secondly, in the meditations of her blank verse, a measure which seems more adapted to her genius than that of any other woman of our time. Her handling of it is, in fact, unmistakable; it is but just to say that she is at her best in the stateliest, simplest and most difficult form of English verse. With its varied pauses, intervals and majestic cadence, it can be sustained only by the uplifting power of coefficient thought and diction. The slightest weakness at once betrays an incompetency. Nearly a score of these poems in blank verse, occupying a third of the volume, are of an even standard. The style is Mrs. Stoddard's own, differing from that of her husband—himself a master of the unrhymed pentameter—in the caesural method, and through its simpler limits of diction. The mental tone is fraught with the recognition of the mystery and transitoriness of things, but rises to content with a law that must be just and beneficent, because it is universal. A single poem of the series will show the pathos and beauty of her more impassioned utterance, and the discipline through which her genius has been matured.


UNRETURNING

Now all the flowers that ornament the grass,
Wherever meadows are and placid brooks,
Must fall—the "glory of the grass" must fall,
Year after year I see them sprout and spread—
The golden, glossy, tossing buttercups,
The tall, straight daisies and red clover globes,
The swinging bellwort and the blue-eyed bent,
With nameless plants as perfect in their hues—
Perfect in root and branch their plan of life,
As if the intention of a soul were there;
I see them flourish as I see them fall!

But he, who once was growing with the grass,
And blooming with the flowers, my little son,
Fell, withered—dead, nor has revived again!
Perfect and lovely, needful to my sight,
Why comes he not to ornament my days?
The barren fields forget that barrenness.

The soulless earth mates with these soulless things,
Why should I not obtain my recompense?
The budding spring should bring, or summer's prime,
At least a vision of the vanished child,
And let his heart commune with mine again,
Though in a dream—his life was but a dream;
Then might I wait with patient cheerfulness—
That cheerfulness which keeps one's tears unshed,
And blinds the eyes with pain—the passage slow
Of other seasons, and be still and cold
As the earth is when shrouded in the snow,
Or passive, like it, when the boughs are stripped
In autumn, and the leaves roll everywhere.

And he should go again; for winter's snows,
And autumn's melancholy voice, in winds,
In waters, and in woods, belong to me,
To me—a faded soul; for, as I said,
The sense of all his beauty, sweetness, comes
When blossoms are the sweetest; when the sea,
Sparkling and blue, cries to the sun in joy,
Or, silent, pale and misty waits the night,
Till the moon, pushing through the veiling cloud,
Hangs naked in its heaving solitude;
When feathery pines wave up and down the shore,
And the vast deep above holds gentle stars,
And the vast world beneath hides him from me!

"A Seaside Idyl," "The Chimney-Swallow's Idyl" and "The Visitings of Truth" display Mrs. Stoddard's command of nature's themes. Her shorter blank-verse poems have a quality kindred to that of Emerson's "Days" and "The Snowstorm"; and of her lyrics, the lines entitled "Why" might almost be ascribed to the Concord sage. Two other poems, unrhymed—"As One" and "No Answer"—with idyllic refrains, are successful in the isometric fashion of the Syracusan eclogues, practised also by Tennyson in the unrhymed songs of "The Princess" and the "Idyls of the King."

The issue of this volume calls to mind the years in which its author and her husband have lived and worked together, wedded poets, whose respective utterances, far removed from interlikeness, are yet in touching and absolute accord. Mrs. Stoddard's art, to conclude, is that of one who, if she did not "lisp in numbers," found the need of them in the joy and sorrow of her womanhood, and has kept silent except when moved by that stress of feeling which contents itself with no petty or ignoble strain.

  1. New York Daily Tribune, 1895.