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Excerpts from Amy Lowell's Tendencies in Modern American Poetry

from Amy Lowell, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry

(New York: Macmillan Company, 1917) v-xi.

IT is impossible for any one writing to-day not to be affected by the war. It has overwhelmed us like a tidal wave. It is the equinoctial storm which bounds a period. So I make no apology for beginning a book of poetical essays with a reference to the war. In fact, the war and the subject of this volume are not so far apart as might at first appear.

The so-called "new movement" in American poetry is evidence of the rise of a native school. The welding together of the whole country which the war has brought about, the mobilizing of our whole population into a single, strenuous endeavour, has produced a more poignant sense of nationality than has recently been the case in this country of enormous spaces and heterogeneous population. Hyphens are submerged in the solid overprinting of the word "America." We are no more colonies of this or that other land, but ourselves, different from all other peoples whatsoever.

It is this realization of ourselves that has drawn us into an understanding sympathy with our allies hardly to be conceived of before. And let us make no mistake; such a result cannot be reached through a devotion to the teachings of materialism. The real truth is that at a time when most people were bewailing the growth of materialism, already, beneath the surface, the seething of a new idealism was in process.

Long before the shadow of battle flung itself over the world, the travail of this idealism began. Slowly, painfully, it took on a shape, hidden away in the dreams and desires of unknown men.

Literature is rooted to life, and although a work of art is great only because of its aesthetic importance, still its very aestheticism is conditioned by its sincerity and by the strength of its roots. Posterity cares nothing for the views which urged a man to write; to it, the poetry, its beauty as a work of art, is the only thing which matters. But that beauty could not exist without the soil from which it draws its sustenance, and it is a fact that those works of art which are superficial or meretricious do certainly perish remarkably soon. This is why time alone can determine a man's fate. Tinsel can be made to look extraordinarily like gold; it is only wear which rubs off the plating.

To a certain extent, the change which marks American poetry has been going on in the literature of other countries also. But not quite in the same way. Each country approaches an evolutionary step from its own racial angle, and they move alternately, first one leads and then another, but all together, if we look back a century or so, move the world forward into a new path. At the moment of writing, it is America who has taken the last, most advanced step. It is not my intention, here, to combat the opinions of the conservatives. Conservatives are always with us, they have been opposing change ever since the days of the cave-men. But, fortunately for mankind, they agitate in vain. Already the more open minded see that the change going on in the arts is not a mere frivolous interest in experiment. Already the reasons for difference begin to stand out clearly. We who watch realize something of the grandeur of conception toward which this evolution is working.

The modern poets are less concerned with dogma and more with truth. They see in the universe a huge symbol, and so absolute has this symbol become to them that they have no need to dwell constantly upon its symbolic meaning. For this reason, the symbol has taken on a new intensity, and is given much prominence. What appear to be pure nature poems are of course so, but in a different way from most nature poems of the older writers; for nature is not now something separate -from man, man and nature are recognized as a part of a whole, man being a part of nature, and all falling into a place in a vast plan, the key to which is natural science.

In some modern American poets this attitude is more conscious than in others, but all have been affected by it; it has modified poetry, as it is more slowly modifying the whole of our social fabric.

What sets the poets of to-day apart from those of the Victorian era is an entire difference of outlook. Ideas believed to be fundamental have disappeared and given place to others. And as poetry is the expression of the heart of man, so it reflects this change to its smallest particle.

It has been my endeavour in these essays to follow this evolution, in the movement as a whole, and also in the work of the particular poets who compose it. I have tried to show what has led each of these men to adopt the habit Of mind which now characterizes him, why he has been forced out of one order into another; how his ideas have gradually taken form in his mind, and in what way he expresses this form in his work. I have pointed out his ancestry, physical as well as mental, and have noted where atavism has held him back, where pushed him forward.

I wish I had space to consider all the men and women whose work has aided to make this movement vigorous and important. But that must be left to future literary historians. Still, it is with regret that I pass by the work of Mr. Louis Untermeyer and Mr. James Oppenheim, of Mr. Ezra Pound and Mr. Vachel Lindsay, of Mr. William Rose Benet and Mrs. Eunice Tietjens, and others as well, but the main tendencies of which they are a part have been considered under other names. It is true that at a first glance Mr. Lindsay does not seem to fall very readily into any of these groups, but I think a closer attention Will find him to be, rather popularizing the second stage of the movement than heading a completely new tendency of his own.

As to those poets who still cling to an older order, of course, in such a volume as this, their work can find no place however excellent it may be in itself.

How shall one write a book of literary criticism? What weight shall one lay on biography; what on aesthetics? I quite agree with that brilliant disciple of Signor Benedetto Croce, Mr. J. E. Spingarn, that the criticism of art should be first, foremost, and all the time, aesthetic. As I have already said, its aesthetic value is, in the final summing up, the only value of a work of art, as such. But life, too, has a right to its criticism, and to the lover of poetry the life which conditioned the poems also has its charm. Therefore I have considered these poets as men and artists.

It is my good fortune to know all these poets, but I have tried not to let friendship interfere with opinion. Still it is possible that personal intercourse may have led to a closer understanding of aims and motives than I realize. That it has enabled me to round out the brief biographies submitted to me by the poets themselves, I am well aware. The facts of a man's life tell very little, unless one also knows the man; and a couple of pages of dates and occupations alone would certainly not have enabled me to write as I have done, had not the memory of many conversations come to my aid.

My thanks, therefore, are chiefly due to the poets themselves, who have helped me with all the information they had to give and with outlines of the events of their lives. The photographs here reproduced I owe to their kindness. I am also indebted to the courtesy of various publishers for permission to reprint the poems which appear in the text. To The Macmillian Company for extracts from Mr. Robinson's volumes, "Captain Craig," "The Man Against the Sky," and " Merlin," and from Mr. Masters' volumes, " The Spoon River Anthology, " " Songs and Satires," and "The Great Valley"; to Messrs. Henry Holt and Company for poems reprinted from Mr. Frost's books, "A Boy's Will," "North of Boston," and "Mountain Interval." and from Mr. Sandburg's volume, "Chicago Poems"; to Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin and Company for the quotations from "H. D."'s "Sea Garden," and Mr. Fletcher's "Irradiations—Sand and Spray" and "Goblins and Pagodas"; to Messrs. Charles Scribner's Sons for the poems, "The Children of the Night, "John Evereldown, " " Richard Cory, " and " Cliff Klingenhagen," from Mr. Robinson's "The Children of the Night," and "The Master," "Doctor of Billiards," and "How Annandale Went Out," from the same author's "The Town Down the River"; to The New Republic Company for Mr. Fletcher's "Clipper-Ships;" and to The Four Seas Company for the same author's Japanese poems. I should also add that certain parts of these essays have appeared in "The New Republic," "The Poetry Journal," and "The Poetry Review," and that the nucleus of the volume was a course of lectures delivered at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in January, 1917.

It is impossible for the judgment of any one critic to be final. In fact, no contemporary criticism can make any such pretence. Hitherto, American students have felt this so strongly that practically no serious consideration of contemporary work has been attempted. Other countries, however, are not so modest. France, particularly, delights in analyzing the art of the time. The French realize that a contemporary can often reveal facets in an author's work which may be hidden from posterity, that certain nuances can only be apprehended by a person living under the same conditions. This must be my excuse for attempting a study of living authors. Also, that they are poets. For, recently, in England and America, a movement has started which has taken form in various little booklets, monographs of this and that novelist for the most part. Poetry has not been touched upon; and this is strange, for poetry, far more than fiction, reveals the soul of humanity. Poets are always the advance guard of literature; the advance guard of life. It is for this reason that their recognition comes so slowly.

On Edwin Arlington Robinson
from Amy Lowell, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry

(New York: Macmillan Company, 1917).

In reading Mr. Robinson, it is always necessary to note the almost unapproachable technique with which his poems are wrought. He employs the most complete reticence, he permits himself no lapses from straightforward speech to force a glittering effect. But the effect is never commonplace, never even unpoetic. It is indeed art concealing art. So admirable is his technique, that not only do we get the essence of poetry in these astringent poems [cf. "Richard Cory"], we get drama. In four words, "one calm summer night," is set a background for the tragedy which brings the bullet shot crashing across our ear-drums with the shock of an earthquake ["Went home and put a bullet through his head"]. They appear simple, these poems; and they are really so immensely difficult. Mr. Robinson has carefully studies that primary condition of all poetry: brevity; and his best effects are those gained with the utmost economy of means. (pp. 31-32)


I have spoken of Mr. Robinson’s "unconscious cynicism." It is unconscious because he never dwells upon it as such, never delights in it, nor wraps it comfortably about him. It is hardly more than the reverse of the shield of pain, and in his later work, it gives place to a great, pitying tenderness. Even in this first book [cf. "Cliff Klingenhagen"], there is a hint of the "something more"….

"Success through failure," that is the motto on the other side of his banner of "Courage." It is true that he carries the doctrine almost too far. So far that it nearly lapses into Nirvana. But one must never forget that to him it is a symbol of a protest against brutal, unfeeling materialism.

The stark sincerity and simplicity of this book must have had the effect of a galvanic shock upon the small company of readers who stumbled upon it. But the times were not yet ripe for such poetry, and it was to be years yet before Mr. Robinson received his due.

Meanwhile he struggled along in New York, a poet writing twenty years too soon. Poetry is not a paying pursuit at any time, and Mr. Robinson did many things to keep the life going which was to make the poetry. History has a number of stories which tell of genius struggling against poverty and lack of recognition in the midst of a busy, callous city. Mr. Robinson's early life is the same twice-told tale, but though he seemed to fail, he abundantly succeeded. For he was writing all the time, and we who have the poems can measure the outcome.

So five years passed before the next volume of poems was issued, "Captain Craig," published in 1902. The re-issue, bearing the date 1915, has on the title-page the legend, "Revised Edition, with Additional Poems," but we shall deal with this revised edition here, as the main content of the book is undoubtedly of the earlier date.

It is quite evident, in examining this book, that the five years of silence had not been without fruit. Already, there is a surer touch and a deeper-probing psychology. The excessive subjectivity of "The Children of the Night " is making way for an interest in the world outside of the poet. Although the first book contained many sketches of character, we feel that the interpretation of these characters is very much tinged by the author's personality. To the end, Mr. Robinson never succeeds in completely omitting the writer from the thing written, even in intentionally objective and dramatic pieces, but each volume of poems is an advance in this respect.

Here, again, I must deflect misunderstanding by hastening to add that of course no work of art can be (or should be) purely objective. An author's personality determines even his choice of subject, to say nothing of its manner of presentation, but there is a great difference between reflection and shadows cast by a personality, and that personality thrust, a solid body, in front of a window, A man reveals himself by every sentence he utters in conservation; but he does more than reveal himself, he obscures everything else, when his conversation revolves around the pronoun "I." (pp. 33-36)


Whatever Mr. Robinson's accomplishment in his preceding books, there can be no doubt of the high position he holds in American poetry when we examine "The Man Against the Sky," published in 1916. It would seem as though his previous books were merely working up to this achievement, so far beyond them is this volume. A little book of one hundred and forty-nine pages, and yet, in reading it, one experiences a sensation akin to that of the man who opens a jar of compressed air. It is a profound wonder that so much -can have been forced into so small a space. For "The Man Against the Sky" is dynamic with experience and knowledge of life.

In the twenty years which have elapsed since the publication of "The Children of the Night," we have seen Mr. Robinson's entire production to consist of four volumes of verse and two plays. Each volume is slim and reticent, and yet small as is the bulk of the work to make up the quota of the best years of a man's life, in it the poet has achieved the result of putting before us a personality of original thought, of original expression, and quietly and unobtrusively making that personality a force in present-day literature.

If we take the poetic currents in evidence in America today we shall find certain distinct streams which, although commingling, keep on the whole very much to themselves. The strange thing about Mr. Robinson's work is that it seems to belong to none of these streams. And yet no one reading these poems would feel justified in calling him not modern. The truth is that they are modern because they are are modern; were the poet writing in the fifteenth century, these accessories would differ, but the content would be as modern in one age as another, because the essential quality of humanity does not change; men clothe their philosophy in different terms, the philosophies even may vary, but human nature does not vary, and Mr. Robinson deals with something which may fitly be called raw human nature-not crude human nature, but human nature simple, direct, and as it is.

Those last three words contain the gist of the matter. In them lies Mr. Robinson's gift to the "new poetry": Simple, direct, and as it is. Mr. Robinson's modernity is unconcerned with forms, he has been tempted by no metrical experiments. It is in keeping with his serious outlook upon life that he is content to forge his stern poems universal. The scenes, the conversations, out of existing material. Writing at a time when mellifluous verse was the fashion, he made no compromise with popular taste. He was a pioneer of hard, clear sincerity. He dislikes inversions as much as do the Imagists, and to him is due one of the earliest returns to the sequence of the spoken phrase. (pp. 51-53)

On Robert Frost
from Amy Lowell, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry
(New York: Macmillan Company, 1917).

It is the fashion to-day to speak as though New England mattered very little in the life and thought of these United States of America. New England is small geographically, but concentrated psychically, and thought is one of the things in which concentration counts for more than bulk. Poetry is the most concentrated form of literature; it is the most emotionalized and powerful way in which thought can be presented, and it is an interesting commentary on the easy scorn with which many non-New Englanders regard New England, that two of the six poets of whom I have to speak in this book should be of the very bone and sinew of New England.

In Mr. Robinson, we saw a highly developed, highly sensitized and intellectual, product of the old plain-living and high-thinking generations, throwing off the shackles of a superstition and an environment grown too narrow. We saw the poet realizing his century and its changed point of view through a long process of self-analysis. We saw him becoming the first spokesman of the New Order in this country through his following of truth in his observation of the world and of himself. Mr. Robinson represents New England, Mr. Robert Frost is New England. Mr. Robinson is one of the most intellectual poets writing in America to-day; Mr. Frost is one of the most intuitive. But it must never be forgotten that both these men are poets. So when I say, "intellectual", I would not be construed as meaning "devoid of passion," for Mr. Robinson is a passionate poet, even though the passion be carefully restrained; and when I say, "intuitive," I do not intend the inference, that Mr. Frost is deficient in thought, for every line he writes is most carefully considered. I would point out, simply, the different manner in which these two men approach life and their own work. Mr. Robinson speculates about the world, wonders about it, almost agonizes over some of its phases; Mr. Frost, plastic and passive, permits the world to make upon him what imprint it will. Mr. Robinson is concerned that his work tally with the thing Observed; Mr. Frost is anxious to trace accurately the markings burnt into the sensitive plate of his mind. Both poets are conscious of the I actual work, as every artist must be, but Mr. Robinson is conscious of the substance out of which the work grows, while, with Mr. Frost, this process goes on in the subconscious stratum of his brain. Again, with Mr. Robinson, New England is a thing remembered, compounded of childhood memories and race atavism; with Mr. Frost, New England is daily environment. Mr. Robinson's characteristics are a composite of the New England of three centuries; while Mr. Frost typifies the New England of to-day in its entirety -a remark which should perhaps be qualified by adding the words, "in the country districts." Mr. Robinson is more universal; Mr. Frost is more particular.

The strand which Mr. Frost exemplifies in the woven cord of modem poetry is -poetic realism. I might also add that his is the only true bucolic poetry being written in America to-day, and these are no mock bucolics, they are true pastorals of the hill country in which he spends his life. (pp. 79-81)


Speech like that is of the essence of New England. Picturesque words, quaintly turned to half conceal, half reveal, a solemn truth. For the New Englander's comedy borders upon tragedy; and his tragedy is expressed with a whimsicality from which the tears are never far away. Vivid, paradoxical, constantly interesting, such is New England talk, and yet Mr. Frost has ignored it absolutely. He feels the people, but he has no ear for their peculiar tongue.

It speaks marvellously for the vividness of the poet's work in other ways that it is still personal and particular with this element of local speech left out. What would J. M. Synge's plays be without the Irish idiom he employs? But in this matter, Synge's was the easier task, for Irish can be written acceptably without changing ordinary spelling, and Yankee dialect cannot. It is commonly said that an author adds many decades to his literary life, and widens his appeal at the time of writing, if he does not use dialect. I would amend that dictum by suggesting that it depends upon the author. Scott's novels are very little read, it is true, but that is less because so many of them are in dialect, as that they are all so largely mere fustian, a sort of material which is apt to become moth-eaten with time. Burns's dialect poems, on the other hand, are still much read and cherished. As it is, Mr. Frost has succeeded admirably in portraying the New England that he sees. What he does not portray is simply what he does not see.

He sees much, however, both into the hearts of persons, and into the qualities of scenes. How deftly he draws a background. Take this picture:

We chanced in passing by that afternoon
To catch it in a sort of mental picture
Among tar-banded ancient cherry trees,
Set well back from the road in rank lodged grass,
The little cottage we are speaking of.
A front with just a door between two windows,
Fresh painted by the shower a velvet-black.

or this, of blueberries:

It must be on charcoal they fatten their fruit,
I taste in them sometimes the flavour of soot.
And after all really they're ebony skinned:
The blue's but a mist from the breath of the wind.
A tarnish that goes at a touch of the hand,
And less than the tan with which pickers are tanned.

"The Fear" begins with these lines, and we get not only the picture, but the accompanying noises:

A lantern light from deeper in the barn
Shone on a man and woman in the door
And threw their lurching shadows on a house
Near by, all dark in every glossy window.
A horse's hoofs pawed once the hollow floor,
And the back of the gig they stood beside
Moved in a little.

The creak and shift of the wheels is quite plain, although it is not indicated.

The secret of Mr. Frost's success in such passages as these, lies in his accurate observation, coupled with a perfect simplicity of phrase; the latter, an inheritance from a race brought up on the English Bible. He tells what he has seen exactly as he has seen it. He is never seduced into subtleties of expression which would be painfully out of place. His words are simple, straightforward, direct, manly, and there is an elemental quality in all he does which would surely be lost if he chose to pursue niceties of expression. For Mr. Frost has chosen his medium with an unerring sense of fitness. As there is no strange and explosive imaginative force playing over his subjects, so there is no exotic music pulsing through his verse.

The poems are written for the most part in blank verse, a blank verse which does not hesitate to leave out a syllable or put one in, whenever it feels like it. To the classicist, such liberties would be unendurable. But the method has its advantages. It suggests the hardness and roughness of New England granite. It is halting and maimed like the life it portrays, unyielding in substance, and broken in effect.

That Mr. Frost has justified the liberties which he has taken with an ancient and dignified metre is evident from the fact that it has hardly aroused a protest, even from the classicists. So scholarly a critic as Mr. Edward Garnett, praises Mr. Frost's style, and praises it, amusingly enough, for its very liberties. He says: "so extraordinarily close to normal everyday speech is it that I anticipate some academic person may test its metre with a metronome, and declare that the verse is often awkward in its scansion. No doubt. But so also is the blank verse of many a master hard to scan, if the academic footrule be not applied with a nice comprehension of where to give and when to take." I say "amusingly enough," because-it is always amusing when a classicist has to shift his canons to include and justify a beauty he cannot help feeling. But what would the purists of an earlier day have thought of this blank verse? What would the reviewer who reviled Keats's iambic pentameter in the "Quarterly," have made of Mr. Frost's? (pp. 126-129)


Nowhere in Mr. Frost's work is there a finer thing than that ["An Old Man’s Winter Night"], in spite of the false accent in the eighteenth line. There is sound, and sight, and suggestion, and all painting surely and reticently the tragedy of lonely old age. The poem is superb; with what it says and what it does not say. Mr. Frost is gaining in subtlety, but sometimes this subtlety ends in the blind alley of obscurity. He is never cryptic, in the way that Mr. Robinson is cryptic, but he sometimes ends a poem abruptly with a smile, as though he said, "You see the end, so I won't read you the last page." And sometimes we do not see the end, as in "The Fear," it may be one of two ends, or, perchance, there really is no end at all, only a perpetual continuation.

In looking back over the three volumes which make up Mr. Frost's poetical output at present, we ask ourselves, what place does he hold among his contemporaries? I should say that he has gained a success in his chosen field which can be equalled by no other poet in our series. But his canvas is exceedingly small, and no matter how wonderfully he paints upon it, he cannot attain to the position held by men with a wider range of vision. As Jane Austen is perfect in her way, still we cannot rank her with Shakespeare; nor can Theocritus ever be considered as great as Homer. Mr. Frost's work is undoubtedly more finished in its kind than the work of any other living American poet, but this very finish precludes growth. --In some other poets we feel potentialities, in Mr. Frost we find achievement.

Mr. Robinson represents realism; with a much broader imagination than Mr. Frost, this force is nevertheless held in check by an innate pessimism which makes the real seem important and the visions of imagination almost frivolous. Mr. Frost is realism touched to fire by idealization, but in the final count, and in spite of its great beauty, it remains realism. We have no such rare imaginative bursts from him as Mr. Masefield gives us time and again in "The Dauber"; for instance, the description of the flying fishes.

Mr. Frost writes down exactly what he sees. But, being a true poet, he sees it vividly and with a charm which translates itself into a beautiful simplicity of expression. He is an eminently sympathetic poet. He wins first by his gentle understanding, and his strong and unsentimental power of emotion; later, we are conquered by his force, and moved to admiration by his almost unapproachable technique. Still, his imagination is bounded by his life, he is confined within the limits of his experience (or at least what might have been his experience) and bent all one way like the wind-blown trees of New England hillsides. After all, art is rooted in the soil, and only the very greatest men can be both cosmopolitan and great. Mr. Frost is as New England as Burns is Scotch, Synge Irish, or Mistral Provencal, and it is perhaps not too much to say that he is the equal of these poets, and will so rank- to future generations. (pp. 134-136)

On Edgar Lee Masters
from Amy Lowell, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry
(New York: Macmillan Company, 1917).

Mr. Masters is the author of a number of books, but one has made his fame; and it seems probable that only one will outlive the destructive work of time. But this one is so remarkable that it may very well come to be considered among the great books of American literature. I refer, of course, to "The Spoon River Anthology." I think it is not too much to say that no book, in the memory of the present generation, has had such a general effect upon the reading community as has this. Every one who reads at all has read it. Its admirers are not confined to those who like poetry, people who have never cared for a poem before are enthusiastic over "Spoon River," while professed poetry lovers stand, some aghast and some delighted, but all interested and amazed. Even its enemies admit it to be extraordinary. It has been characterized as an American "Comedie Humaine," but I think Dostoevsky in vers libre would be more accurate. Mr. Masters' habit of thought is more akin to the Russian than to the French. In fact, Mr. Masters is in some ways closer to the Swede, August Strindberg, than to any other modern writer.

Of course, analogies of this kind must not be pushed too far. If Mr. Masters resembles Balzac in the fecundity he shows in inventing characters and lives to fit them, he is also like Strindberg in showing only a narrow stratum of society. If he is like Balzac in confining his mise en scene in a small compass, he is again like Strindberg in being primarily interested in one important phase of life -- that of sex. Balzac was no poet, but he realized that man is impelled by many motives; in Strindberg, the actions of the characters are all dependent upon their sex impulses. Mr. Masters is a poet, but he too sees life through the medium of sex. Perhaps no author writing in America to-day shows more clearly the breaking down of an old tradition, the effect on the Anglo-Saxon mind of much contact with the minds of other peoples.

In Mr. Robinson and Mr. Frost, we saw the breaking down of tradition, but in both poets the traditional racial characteristics remained unaltered; in Mr. Masters, tradition is not only breaking, but broken, and the racial type is quite altered.

All racial changes begin by a disappearance, a slow fading of the fundamental beliefs upon which that particular civilization was reared, but the results of these beliefs still retain their hold upon the people brought up in them. The next step finds the beliefs so much a thing of the past that they have no power to mould character, and the result, for the moment, is a sort of mental chaos, in which cynicism becomes a dominant attitude, in many cases ending in downright despair, The third stage is that in which the change is so complete that it no longer requires to be considered as such at all. The old tradition has passed into the line of history, and departure from it is the rule not the exception. Men have reared new beliefs, are living upon other planes of thought, and that being for the moment settled, they are able to turn their attention to other things, for instance: Beauty.

In the first stage, beauty is a thing remembered and haunting; in the third stage, it is re-discovered and intoxicating; but in the second, it is, crowded out by the stress of travail, by the pangs of a birth which has not yet occurred.

The truth is that America is in the making, and as poets are the articulate part of a community, we see this change very clearly in the work of the modern poets. If this is a true poetical "movement," as I believe it to be, it is so because of the basic changes going on in the poets themselves, and to a lesser degree in the large body of the people. What the American nation will eventually be, none of us living in this moment of flux can possibly foretell.

But there appear in the work of a few of our poets hints of a new beauty, a differing religious concept, which may herald the slow approach of the third stage. That third stage, that era of accomplishment which will endure until another "movement" shakes the world again and mankind takes another step on its eternal path.

I have said that Mr. Robinson and Mr. Frost represent various things in the "new movement" Realism, Direct Speech, Simplicity, and the like. They represent also the first stage of the progression I have been analyzing. Mr. Masters, who also stands for other things as well, embodies the second stage. I have put him and Mr. Sandburg together principally for that reason, although they have other points of contact besides this one. We may regard the work of these two poets as being the most revolutionary that America has yet produced. And here I want to make the distinction between "revolutionary" and "evolutionary."

Evolution is growing into, revolution is violently and consciously opposing something in order to bring about something else. In my last chapter, I shall speak of two poets who may properly be said to be entering upon the last stage of this "movement," and whose work may very well be called evolutionary.

Of course, this dividing a movement into sections has nothing to do with the merit of the individual poets, but a consideration of it as a whole helps us to understand its reasons for being, and, through it, the work of the poets who make it. (pp. 139-143)

On Carl Sandburg
from Amy Lowell, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry
(New York: Macmillan Company, 1917).

Yes, Mr. Masters is the chief poet of our middle era. Already, in the work of a man so closely allied to him as Mr. Sandburg, we see evidence of a coming change. Mr. Masters stands up rugged, solid, energetic, clearing his way by stern force of will. Much passes him by, there are notes in our national life too high or too low for him to catch. He cannot always give back those he does catch. But what he does give back is resonant with the overtones of personality, with the truth of heart, body, and mind. Whatever America is to become, "Spoon River" will always stand in her libraries, a work of genius and a record of what was. Already it vanishes, even as it is being written down. Mr. Masters himself feels this, in "Come, Republic," he exhorts his country to step forward boldly into the new time. He sees it glimmering on the horizon, but too far still for him quite to focus. Here we will leave him, with the God-speed of his own words sounding in our ears:

It is time to lift yourself, 0 Republic,
From the street corners of Spoon River.

To turn from Edgar Lee Masters to Carl Sandburg is like crossing the line of a generation. In actual years, they are not so far apart, but they represent the two sides of the barrier of change. Mr. Sandburg, although intellectually and poetically in the second stage of our "movement," belongs to the new America which I have called multi-racial.. He springs from the strong immigrant class which comes yearly in boat-loads to our shores. It is he and his ilk who are moving us away from our Anglo-Saxon inheritance. It is he and his ilk who bring us the points of view which are working so surely, if insidiously, upon the whole body of the people.

Some day, America will be a nation; some day, we shall have a national character. Now, our population is a crazy quilt of racial samples. But how strong is that Anglo-Saxon ground-work which holds them all firmly together to its shape, if no longer to its colour! (pp. 200-201)


All these war poems are very strong.

There is one unfortunate slip throughout the volume. And it is one which Mr. Sandburg shares with Mr. Masters and with many other modern American writers. It is an occasional slip in grammar. The constant use of "will" for "shall," and of "would" for "should," is a torment to the instructed ear; and the common American blunder of employing "around" quite apart from its true meaning of "surrounding," confusing it for "round"—about, hither and thither, etc.—is a constant annoyance in both these authors.

Of course, language must change; words must be added as life grows more complex and inventions increase. But to impoverish a language by forcing shades of meaning to become confused, is another matter. The picturesque quality of American slang shows us to be an imaginative people; but, on the other hand, this blurring of fine shades of expression proves that we have some distance to go before we can be considered a literary people. It is perhaps inevitable, although to be regretted, that current speech should exhibit an occasional incorrectness, but it is strange that author should permit faults of grammar to appear in his printed work. The only answer is—he does not notice them. This is, of course, unfortunate; but it is a matter which time and cultivation will eradicate. We find few such mistakes in the work of those poets in the first stage of the modern movement, who inherit the traditions of an older practice; or in the work of the poets of the third stage, who have progressed far enough along the road of evolution to have again achieved a culture, at once cosmopolitan and indubitably their own.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the stages of a movement than this fact of language; and it is perfectly understandable that at a time when life, art, is in a state of flux, those poets most conscious of changing conditions should be swept along on the waves of thought so fast that they have neither time nor inclination to concern themselves with correctness of expression. Of course, it may be objected that this is largely a matter of education, but, in a young country such as America is, 'nationality must go through the stage of lack of education in its effort to cast aside the leading strings of tutelage. It is only later that it emerges, purged and whole.

"Chicago Poems" is divided into sections of which perhaps " Handfuls" is the least impressive, but seldom does a first book contain so few unsuccessful things.

It will have been observed throughout these poems how the poet's imagination constantly colours and brightens the subject he has in hand. The last line of this little piece is a good illustration of what I would point out:


Now the stone house on the lake front is finished and the work-
    men are beginning the fence.
The palings are made of iron bars with steel points that can
    stab the life out of any man who falls on them.
As a fence, it is a masterpiece, and will shut off the rabble and all
    vagabonds and hungry men and all wandering children look-
    ing for a place to play.
Passing through the bars and over the steel points will go nothing
    except Death and the Rain and To-morrow.

There is something of Hans Christian Andersen in that poem. A touch of the Scandinavian mysticism which Mr. Sandburg comes by through right of inheritance.

Judged from the standard of pure art, it is a pity that so much of Mr. Sandburg's work concerns itself with entirely ephemeral phenomena. The problems of posterity will be other than those which claim our attention. Art, nature, humanity, are eternal. But the minimum wage will probably matter as little to the twenty-second century as it did to the thirteenth, although for different reasons.

Mr. Sandburg has not the broad outlook to achieve the epic quality of Mr. Masters' work. He is a lyric poet, but the lyrist in him has a hard time to make itself heard above the brawling of the marketplace.

It is dangerous to give a final verdict on contemporary art. All that one can safely say of Mr. Sandburg's work is that it contains touches of great and original beauty, and whatever posterity may feel about it taken merely as poetry, it cannot fail to hold its place to students of this period as a necessary link in an endless chain. (pp. 229-232)

On H.D.
from Amy Lowell, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry
(New York: Macmillan Company, 1917).

On the first appearance of these short, concentrated poems, many "smart" cirtics likened them to carved cherry-stones, and dismissed them as something to inconsiderable to be taken seriously. But since when has bulk been the touchstone of art? "Cherry-stones" was a poor simile, "exquisite cameos and intaglios," would have been a more exact definition. These poems are fragile as shells, and as transparent, but their modelling is as carefully done as that of a statue of Parian marble.

Writing in a highly and most carefully wrought vers libre, "H.D."’s poems achieve a beauty of cadence which has been surpassed by no other vers libriste. Indeed, her subtle changing rhythms are almost without an equal. Never, in her verse, do we find a prose suggestion. Hers are not, as some of her husband’s are, the piquant paradoxes of romance springing out of plain fact. Her poems are kept to a key; the key of haunted woodland, of nymph-bearing sea. Reading them, we hear pipe strains lost in the mists of forests, we hear voices calling through the wash of waves. They remind me of a story I once read by a French author, in which an ancient shell preserved within it a few moments of a siren’s song. I seem to hear in "H.D."’s work echoes of a beauty long departed.

Not that these poems, as has been so often asserted, are copies of the Greek. Often employing Greek names, still the poems have no real Hellenic prototype. Rather it is that "H.D." dwells in a world of her own longings, builded of remembered things, with that, she makes her picture; and, when finished, it resembles nothing but itself.

To this poet, beauty is a thing so sharp as to be painful, delight so poignant it can scarcely be borne. Her extreme sensitiveness turns appreciation to exquisite suffering. Yet, again and again, she flings herself bravely upon the spears of her own reactions. (pp. 256-257)

[. . . .]

To appreciate this poetry needs a certain knowledge. "H.D." is indubitable a poet for poets. It is doubtful if the great mass of poetry lovers will every fully appreciate work of such a delicate perfection, but it no less important for that. Few books better repay study than "Sea Garden," not only can any poet learn much from "H.D."’s method, the poems themselves reveal new meanings as they become more familiar.

The faults of such poetry are not in its treatment, but in its very texture. This is a narrow art, it has not scope, it neither digs deeply nor spreads widely. Not that it is superficial; it is quite the reverse. But merely that "there are no things in Heaven and Earth" than such poetry takes cognizance of. "H.D." is not a great poet, but she is a rarely perfect poet. It is true that she employs the same techniques throughout her work, and that is perhaps monotonous to those who are not concerned with its excellence. It also bears with it the seeds of over-care, of something bordering on preciosity. There is a certain thinness in the original conception, and only the lustre of its polish saves it. But this is a lustre known to no one else. The secret is "H.D."’s peculiar possession. Her poems are native, personal, to a marked degree. They show no slightest trace of those influences which until recently ruled American art. Deeply affected by classic literature, still it is only as a blush of colour that we perceive it in her work. The tricks of her manner occasionally recall the Greek, but her thoughts are perfectly her own. Here is a fresh flower, sprung out of a new graft upon old stock. Here is the frank, unartificial paganism of a new world. Neither point of view, nor in technique, does this art resemble any preceding English art, yet it is cosmopolitan in that it is a fusion of much knowledge, all melted and absorbed in the blood of a young and growing race. She takes her good where she finds it, and the perfect singleness of her aim has resulted in releasing all her forces to concentrate them upon the simple fact of beauty. There is no clipping her pattern to a traditional mode; there is no staining it for ulterior ends. It is completely personal, completely sincere. Meticulous, at times, undoubtedly, "H.D."’s faults are obvious enough, because they are also her greatest virtues; but, in the narrow compass in which she works, she has achieved a rare and finely-wrought beauty. (pp. 278-280)

On "New Poetry"
from Amy Lowell, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry
(New York: Macmillan Company, 1917).

WHEN people speak of the "New Poetry," they generally mean that poetry which is written in the newer, freer forms. But such a distinction is misleading in the extreme, for, after all, forms are merely forms, of no particular value unless they are the necessary and adequate clothing to some particular manner of thought.

There is a "New Poetry" to-day, and the new forms are a part of its attire, but the, body is more important than the clothing and existed before it. All real changes are a matter of slow growth, of evolution. The beginnings of a change are almost imperceptible, the final stages, on the other hand, being so radical that everyone remarks them, and with such astonishment that the cry of "freak," ' 'charlatan," is almost sure to be raised by ignorant readers.

A great artistic movement is as inevitable a thing as the growth of a race. But, as in races, individuals possess differing characteristics, so the various artists whose work represents a revolt may differ most widely one from another, and yet, in varying still -more widely from artists of other epochs, they create what critics call a "movement."

In this book, I have attempted no catalogue of present-day American poets. There are excellent poets whose work I am not going to touch upon. I shall only consider those few poets who seem most markedly to represent a tendency. A poetic movement may be compared to a braid of woven strands. Of the six poets of whom I 'shall speak, each is an exemplar, and I think the most typical exemplar, of a strand. But one particular tinge is peculiar to all the strands, and that particular tinge is revolt against the immediate past.

We shall see these poets revolting against stilted phrases and sentimentality; we shall see them endeavouring to express themselves, and the new race which America is producing; we shall see them stepping boldly from realism to far flights of imagination. We shall see them ceding more and more to the influence of other, alien, peoples, and fusing exotic modes of thought with their Anglo-Saxon inheritance. This is indeed the melting pot, and its fumes affect the surrounding company as well as the ingredients in the crucible.

To understand the change which is going on in American poetry, it is necessary to glance back for a moment to earlier conditions.

If we examine the state of American poetry from, let us say, 1830 until the Civil War, we shall be struck with one thing. That is, with the racial homogeneity of our poets. They are all of good English stock, in their work, I mean. It is true that two great geniuses flung themselves up out of this mass of cultivated endeavour. But that is no exception to the Anglo-Saxon rule, for no literature is richer in geniuses than is the English. But these two geniuses, Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman, were too far ahead of their times to have much effect upon their contemporaries. They are better understood, and have more followers, in the America of to-day. Wordsworth on the one hand, Byron on the other, were the main springs of American poetry.

Good poetry, if not strikingly great poetry, marked the epoch of Whittier, Bryant, Emerson, Lowell, Longfellow, and Holmes. They were English provincial poets, in the sense that America was still a literary province of the Mother Country.

But from the Civil War until almost the present day, the literary sponsors of American verse were much less worthy of disciples. The robustness of Byron gave place to the sugared sentimentality of Tennyson; the moral strength of Wordsworth made way for the frozen didacticism of Matthew Arnold. But worse was to follow, for technique usurped the place of emotion, and words, mere words, were exalted out of all due proportion. Swinburne and Rossetti are not good masters to follow, no matter with what skill they themselves wrought. Only those of our poets who kept solidly to the Shakespearean tradition achieved any measure of success. But Keats was the last great exponent of that tradition, and we all know how thin, how lacking in charm, the copies of Keats have become. No matter how beautiful a piece of music may be, we cannot hear it indefinitely without satiety, and the same piece rendered by a phonograph soon becomes unbearable. Our poets were largely phonographs to greater English poets dead and gone, as the pages of our magazines of twenty years ago will abundantly.

Art is like politics. Any theory carried too far ends in sterility, and freshness is only gained by following some other line. Faultless, flowing verses, raised about a worn-outs threadbare idea—fine moral sentiments expressed in the weak, innocuous language of the hymn-books—had no resemblance to the temper of modern American life. Publishers still printed poetry, but not with any idea of its answering a demand; editors accepted it to round out short pages, but they hardly expected to have more attention accorded it than an ornamental scroll would have received. Readers found more sustenance in Browning, and bewailed the fact that he was dead, and, alas, English! America was not a country for poets, said the wiseacres, it was given over to materialism, and materialism could never produce art.

This was tantamount to saying that art was an artificial thing, whereas making steel harrows was a natural thing. Of course, that is a ridiculous point of view. Art, true art, is the desire of a man to express himself, to record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in. Great emotion always tends to become rhythmic, and out of that tendency the forms of art have been evolved. Art becomes artificial only when the forms take precedence over the emotion.

Now here was a great country practically dumb. Here was a virile race, capable of subduing a vast continent in an incredibly short time, with no tongue to vent its emotion. How should such a race express itself by the sentiments appropriate to a highly civilized country no bigger than New York State, and of that country some fifty years earlier, to boot?

I would not be construed into saying that the larger the country, the more profound the emotions. That would be absurd. I only mean that the material conditions under which Americans lived the great unoccupied spaces, the constant warring and overcoming of nature, the fluid state of the social fabric -- all made a different speech necessary, if they were really to express the thoughts that were in them.

There was one other element in the constitution of the American people, quite as important as these I have mentioned. That element was, and is, the ingrained Puritanism which time and place do so little to eradicate. Of course, the dwellers in large cities, worked upon from their earliest childhood by modern conditions, were able to modify the Puritan sentiment, to cast out what of poison remained in it. For Puritanism, at this late day, has resolved itself into a virulent poison which saps vitality and brings on the convulsions of despair.

Puritanism was always a drastic, soul-searching, joyless religion. It was itself a revolt against a licence that had become unbearable. But no student of history can fail to be struck with the vigour and healthy-mindedness of a race which can live under such an incubus and retain its sanity. There is no more horrible page to the student than that of the early times in New England, when nervous little children were tortured with exhortations to declare their faith and escape the clutches of the devil, and senile old women were burned for witches. Moloch and his sacrifices of human victims is no more revolting. Yet, in spite of much infant mortality, and many of the weaker members of a community going insane, the people as a whole lived and throve under this threatening horror, with the vitality of a race born to endure.

Indeed, my simile of a drug is no idle comparison. For Puritanism undoubtedly did much to strengthen the fibre of the early settlers, but its prolonged effect has been to produce anaemia and atrophy, and where these do not follow, where the strength of the individual keeps him fighting for the cause of individuality against the composite thought of a race, the result is an innate cynicism, a dreadful despair which will not let him be.

The age of Bryant and Longfellow was singularly free from these negative, but powerful, results of the Puritanic poison. Didactic and moral these poets undoubtedly were, but with them the paternal tradition was diluted by nothing more violent than time. They were in sympathy with its main trend only; like fruits set in the sun, the substance itself had mellowed and sweetened. Living in a highly educated community, they modified with it, and only so far as it, too, modified. They were not at war with their times, their surroundings, or their fellow citizens.

In the case of smaller places, the result is very different. Here, Puritanism held sway quite out of time. It persisted long after it had become an anachronism to New England at large. An individual brought up in one of the small towns scattered over the country was therefore obliged to reproduce suddenly in himself the evolution of three hundred years. In so far as he was advanced mentally beyond his fellows, he suffered the pangs of growth and misunderstanding. And his evolution carried with it the farther torture of consciousness. Sudden change can never accomplish the result of a long, slow process. What large cities like Boston lived into, the clever youths of smaller towns were thrust violently upon.

We must never forget that all inherited prejudice and training pulls one way, in these unfortunate cases; the probing, active mind pulls another. The result is a profound melancholy, tinged with cynicism. Self-analysis has sapped joy, and the impossibility of constructing an ethical system in accordance both with desire and with tradition has twisted the mental vision out of all true proportion. It takes the lifetime of more than one individual to throw off a superstition, and the effort to do so is not made without sacrifice. (pp. 3-10)

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