H O M E

Colors of Life
Max Eastman
(1918)


    American Ideals of Poetry, a Preface

    Poems

  1. Coming to Port
  2. The Lonely Bather
  3. In My Room
  4. Hours
  5. Fire and Water
  6. You Make No Answer
  7. Out of a Dark Night
  8. A Morning
  9. Anniversary
  10. Autumn Light
  11. A Modern Messiah
  12. In a Red Cross Hospital
  13. A Visit
  14. To Love
  15. Car-Window
  16. Little Fishes
  17. Invocation
  18. Sometimes
  19. To Marie Sukloff an Assassin
  20. To an Actress
  21. Eyes
  22. X-Rays

    Sonnets

    A Preface About Sonnets

  23. A Praiseful Complaint
  24. Those You Dined With
  25. The Passions of a Child
  26. As the Crag Eagle
  27. To My Father
  28. To Edward S. Martin
  29. Europe 1914
  30. Isadora Duncan
  31. The Sun
  32. The Net
  33. A Dune Sonnet

    Songs

  34. Sea-Shore
  35. Rainy Song
  36. A Hymn to God
  37. Coming Spring
  38. Daisies
  39. Bobolink
  40. Diogenes

    Earlier Poems

    A Preface About Their Philosophy

  41. At the Aquarium
  42. Earth's Night
  43. The Thought of Protagoras
  44. To The Ascending Moon
  45. Leif Ericson
  46. Midnight
  47. In March
  48. The Flowers at Church
  49. To the Little Bed at Night
  50. In a Dungeon of Russia
  51. To a Tawny Thrush
  52. The Saint Gaudens Statues
  53. Summer Sunday

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Max Eastman
Colors of Life
and
Songs and Sonnets





Max Eastman

(1918)

Edited for the Web
by Steve Spanoudis
    A Preface: About American Poetry

    It is impossible for me, feeling and watching the eternal tidal currents of liberty and individual life against tyranny and the type, which are clashing and rearing up their highest crimsoned waves at this hour, to publish without some word of deprecation a book of poems so personal for the most part, and reflecting my own too easy taste of freedom rather than my sense of the world's struggle towards an age and universe of it. That struggle has always occupied my thoughts, and often my energies, and yet I have never identified myself with it or found my undivided being there. I have found that rather in individual experience, and in those moments of energetic idleness when the life of universal nature seemed to come to its bloom of realization in my consciousness. Life is older than liberty. It is greater than revolution. It burns in both camps. And life is what I love. And though I love life for all men and women, and so inevitably stand in the ranks of revolution against the cruel system of these times, I love it also for myself. And its essence--the essence of life--is variety and specific depth. It can not be found in monotonous consecration to a general principle. Therefore I have feared and avoided this consecration, which earnest friends for some reason always expect me to exemplify, and my poetry has never entered even so deeply as it might into those tempests of social change that are coloring our thoughts today.

    Poetry that has life for its subject, and democratic reality, is rather expected to manifest that irregular flow and exuberance of material over structure with which Walt Whitman challenged the world. In America at least the freedom and poignant candor of strong art is associated with the tradition that he founded, and little is granted to that other tradition which finds its original in Edgar Allan Poe. There existed in Europe, however, a succession of poets whose eyes turned back in admiration to Poe, and they were poets of reality, and those who touched the mood of democratic revolt. And for my part I think there is a modern validity in the attitudes of both these poets, a certain adjudication between them which a perfectly impersonal science might propose; and that is what I should like to discuss with those who may enter sympathetically into this little volume.

    They will all be familiar, I suppose, with Walt Whitman's ideal of an American poetry so free and strong and untrammelled of ornamentation, that it should go out of the books it was published in and stand up with the hills and forests on the earth.

    "The poetry of the future," he said, "aims at the free expression of emotion, (which means far, far more than appears at first,) and to arouse and initiate, more than to define or finish. . . .

    "In my opinion the time has arrived to essentially break down the barriers of form between prose and poetry. I say the latter is henceforth to win and maintain its character regardless of rhyme, and the measurement-rules of iambic, spondee, dactyl, &c., and that even if rhyme and those measurements continue to furnish the medium for inferior writers and themes, (especially for persiflage and the comic, as there seems henceforward, to the perfect taste, something inevitably comic in rhyme, merely in itself, and anyhow,) the truest and greatest Poetry, (while subtly and necessarily always rhythmic, and distinguishable easily enough,) can never again, in the English language, be express'd in arbitrary and rhyming metre, any more than the greatest eloquence, or the truest power and passion. While admitting that the venerable and heavenly forms of chiming versification have in their time play'd great and fitting parts--that the pensive complaint, the ballads, wars, amours, legends of Europe, &c., have, many of them, been inimitably render'd in rhyming verse--that there have been very illustrious poets whose shapes the mantle of such verse has beautifully and appropriately envelopt--and though the mantle has fallen, with perhaps added beauty, on some of our own age--it is, notwithstanding, certain to me, that the day of such conventional rhyme is ended. In America, at any rate, and as a medium of highest aesthetic practical or spiritual expression, present or future, it palpably fails, and must fail, to serve. The Muse of the Prairies, of California, Canada, Texas, and of the peaks of Colorado, dismissing the literary, as well as social etiquette of over-sea feudalism and caste, joyfully enlarging, adapting itself to comprehend the size of the whole people, with the free play, emotions, pride, passions, experiences, that belong to them, body and soul--to the general globe, and all its relations in astronomy, as the savans portray them to us--to the modern, the busy Nineteenth century, (as grandly poetic as any, only different,) with steamships, railroads, factories, electric telegraphs, cylinder presses--to the thought of the solidarity of nations, the brotherhood and sisterhood of the entire earth--to the dignity and heroism of the practical labor of farms, factories, foundries, workshops, mines, or on shipboard, or on lakes and rivers--resumes that other medium of expression, more flexible, more eligible--soars to the freer, vast, diviner heaven of prose."

    It may surprise some people to see this monumental challenge to the poets of the future confronted with the pathetic memory of Edgar Allan Poe. And yet it is natural to place these two poets in contrast, and the weight neither of genius nor of influence is altogether upon one side. They are the two American poets of unique distinction, and they are the fountains of the two strongest influences in all modern poetry of the Occident. And it is worth observing that if Walt Whitman had written as few pages of poetry as Poe did, his name would hardly be remembered, whereas Poe would have established a literary tradition if he had written but five sorrowful lyrics. His individuality was so poignant. His art was so exquisite. And not only was his art exquisite, but his philosophy of his art was as unique, assertive, and prodigious in contempt for his predecessors, as that of Walt Whitman. I have never read anything about any art more sheer and startling in its kind, than Poe's essay on "The Philosophy of Composition"; and nothing more energetically opposite to Walt Whitman could possibly be devised. To convey the flavor of the contrast, I quote these sentences--inadequate for any other purpose--from Poe's essay:

    "Most writers--poets in especial--prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy--an ecstatic intuition; and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought, at the true purposes seized only at the last moment, at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view, at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable, at the cautious selections and rejections, at the painful erasures and interpolations--in a word, at the wheels and pinions, the tackle for scene-shifting, the step-ladders and demon-traps, the cock's feathers, the red paint and the black patches. . . .

    "For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor at any time the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions; and, since the interest of an analysis, or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analyzed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select 'The Raven' as most generally known. . . .

    "Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem per se, the circumstance--or say the necessity--which in the first place gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and critical taste.

    "We commence, then, with this intention.

    "The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression; for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. . . .

    "My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that, throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which with the poetical stands not in the slightest need of demonstration--the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. . . .

    "But in subjects so handled, however skilfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness, which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required: first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, second, some amount of suggestiveness, some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term) which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal."

    The opposition of these two characters and attitudes is complete. Upon the one side a vast preoccupation with human meaning and morals, with health and the common reality and love and democracy, a grand contempt for beauty, and for the effort to attract or gratify a reader with "verbal melody," a contempt for everything that savors of deliberate technique in art. Upon the other side also contempt--contempt like a piece of cold analytical steel for every pretense that the technique of art is not deliberate, that poets are not seeking to attract and gratify, that truth or moral or meaning instead of beauty is the portent of a poem--a disposition to seek beauty in unique and even unhealthy places, a lonely aristocratic heart of pain, and a preoccupation with "verbal melody" never before or since equalled in poetry. The details of this difference are fascinating, but the generalization of it is what will illumine the modern problems about poetry. To Edgar Allan Poe a poem was an objective thing, to Walt Whitman poetry was an act of subjective expression. Poe would take sounds and melodies of words almost actually into his hands, and carve and model them until he had formed a beautiful vessel, and he would take emotions and imaginations out of his heart and weave and inlay them in that vessel, and even the crimson out of his blood, and finally for "enrichment" he would seek out in his mind the hue of some meaning or moral to pour over it until it was perfect. And these beautiful vessels he would set forth for view and purchase, standing aside from them like a creative trader, proud, but no more identified with them than as though he had made them out of the colors of shells. To Walt Whitman a poem was not a thing. His poetry was himself. His meanings, emotions, experiences, love and wonder of life, filled him and he overflowed in language--without "art," without purpose but to communicate his being. So he maintained. His poem was never an object to him, even after it had flowed full and he sought to perfect its contours. His emendations were not often objective improvements; they were private remodellings to make the language a more direct and fluent identity with what he considered himself. This was the task upon which he labored as the poet of democracy and social love.

    Now, it is not merely an accident, or a reflection upon America or upon human nature, that Walt Whitman, with all his yearnings over the average American and his offering of priesthood and poetry to the people, should remain the poet of a rather esoteric few, whereas Poe--even with the handful of poems he wrote--may be said to be acceptable to the generality of men. The Raven, or Helen, or Annabelle Lee, or some sad musical echo of the death of beauty, might be found in illuminated covers on the most " average " of American parlor tables, but never anything there of Walt Whitman--unless it be " Captain, My Captain! "the one rather weak metrical poem he deigned to write. And there is something deeply and really pathetic in this fact, and something which only an adequate science of verse can explain. For the emotions and the meanings of Walt Whitman's poetry are actually the ones that interest simple and thoughtful people who have leisure to feel. His realizations of life would be acceptable and be honored, as much at least as great art is ever honored, by the "divine average," if they had been conveyed, as Poe's were, in vessels of light, which would make them objective, and from which they might brim over with excess of subjective meaning and emotion. I do not mean to express a wish that Walt Whitman had conveyed them so, or the opinion that he could have been a more stupendous poetic and moral hero of nature by writing otherwise than he did. His propulsive determination to put forth in this facile nineteenth century culture, sweet with the decay and light with the remnant fineries of feudal grandeur, the original, vast, unfinished substance of man, was a phenomenon like the rising of a volcanic continent amid ships on the sea. No word but the words in his book can portray the magnitude of his achievement; no critic but Envy could judge it except as itself and by its own standard. But as a prophetic example of the poems of the future, and especially the poems of democracy and social love, it suffers a weakness--the weakness that Walt Whitman's character suffered. It is egocentric and a little inconsiderate of the importance of other people. Walt Whitman composed wonderful passages about universal social love, but he could not be the universal poet exactly because he was not social enough. He was not humble enough to be social. The rebel egoism of democracy was in him the lordly and compelling thing, and though his love for the world was prodigious, it was not the kind of love that gives attention instinctively to the egoism of others.

    There may be no grand passion for the idea, but there is a natural companionship with the fact of "democracy," in Poe's statement that he "kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable," and that statement more characteristically distinguishes his attitude from Walt Whitman's than the different ways they had of talking about beauty. All poets who mould their poems objectively, even though they may conceive themselves to be utterly alone with beauty, are really in social communion with humanity. For that is what the word objective means. An object, or as we say, a "thing," differs from other elements of our experience only in that it can be experienced in the same form at different times and by different persons. And for an object to be beautiful is for it to hold value in itself, so that various perceivers may come from all sides and find it there. Therefore one who moulds an object towards external perfection, however sad his solitude, enters directly into the "universal friendship" toward which Walt Whitman directed so. much of the longing of his words. One who pours out phrases direct from his emotion may experience a relief and glory that implies listeners, and he may win listeners, but they will each rebuild out of his phrases their own different poem, and they will comprise in their number only those endowed with the special power to build poems out of phrases poured out. And whatever we may wish were true of the world, it is not true that the majority are so endowed. Therefore the poetry that is highly subjective is almost inevitably the poetry of a few; and the "direct expression of emotion" achieves a less clear and general social communion than the embodiment of emotion in an object of art.

    It could be established, I believe, with mechanical precision, that the rhythmic values most cherished by the social rebels who now write so much "free verse," are values practically incommunicable to others, and absolutely incommunicable by the method usually adopted, that of printing words on a page. A little of that icy matter-of-fact realism with which Poe used to scatter the sweet foggy thoughts of the literarious, while it might not affect the art of these poets, would surely reduce the volume of what they have to say about it. For instance, here is the answer of one of them to an assertion that the line division in free-verse is "arbitrary," and that if we copied one of these long poems in solid prose, the poet himself could hardly ever divide it again as it was:

    "Free verse that is free verse is not arbitrary. Much of it is, of course--so are many canvases mere splashy imitations of Matisse. But there is free verse that resolves itself into just those lines a little more subtly than sonnets or triolets--by virtue of pauses, of heart-beats, of the quickness or slowness of your breath, and maybe of your pulse itself. ... It tries to give the rhythm value of those hesitations, those quickenings and slowings of the flow of ideas, the flutterings--it is closer to the breath, as modern music and modern dance are, or as primitive music and primitive dance were."

    It is impossible not to respond to such assertions, for we know in ourselves what these exquisite differential experiences are. Any one who has ever written love-letters--which are a kind of aboriginal free-verse--knows what they are. And yet I believe it is obvious, if not demonstrable, that most of them are too individual to be communicated even to a lover. Human nature is too various for it to be true that the same hesitations, the same quickenings and slowings of the flow of ideas, flutterings of the breath or pulse, will reproduce themselves in another upon the perception of the same visible symbols. And while this fact may make the art of composition seem a little monotonous, it is better that art should be monotonous than that the world should. And it would be a monotonous world in which different people were so much alike, or we ourselves so much alike at different moments, that these minute filigrees of feeling should be altogether durable and capable of being served round in paper and ink.

    There are values of verbal rhythm in a flow of thought and feeling which exist for one individual alone, and for him once only. There are other values less delicate which he can reproduce in himself at will, but can not altogether communicate to other minds whose thoughts and feelings are too much their own. There are other values, still less delicate, which he might communicate by vocal utterance and rhythmic gesture, taking possession as it were of the very pulse and respiration of others. But poetry which is composed for publication ought to occupy itself with those rhythmic values which may be communicated to other rhythmic minds through the printing of words on a page. It ought to do this, at least, if it pretends to an attitude that is even in the most minute degree social.

    This statement is borne out by Mr. William Morrison Patterson's account of the records of Amy Lowell's reading of her poems in his laboratory. It constitutes the preface of the second edition of his book, "The Rhythm of Prose" a book which, upon the true basis of experimentation, analyzes and defines convincingly for the first time the nature of rhythmical experience, and the manner in which itis derived by the reader both from prose and metrical poetry. Until it is amplified or improved by further investigation, this book will surely be the basis of every scientific discussion of the questions involved here.

    A mature science of rhythm might be imagined to stride into the room where these poets are discussing the musical values of their verse, seize two or three of the most "free" and subtle among them, lock them into separate sound-proof chambers, and allow them to read one of their favorite passages into the ear of an instrument designed to record in spatial outline the pulsations of vocal accent. It is safe to assert that there would be less identity in the actual pulsations recorded than if the same two were reading a passage of highly wrought English prose. 1 And the reason for this is that free verse imports into English prose a form of punctuation that is exceedingly gross and yet absolutely inconsequential. Its line division has neither a metrical nor a logical significance that exists objectively. It can mean at any time anything that is desirable to the whims, or needful to the difficulties, of the reader or the writer. It is a very sign and instrument of subjectivity. To incorporate in a passage of printed symbols an indeterminate element so marked and so frequent as that, is to say to the reader--"Take the passage and organize it into whatever rhythmical pattern may please yourself." And that is what the reader of free verse usually does, knowing that if he comes into any great difficulty, he can make a full stop at the end of some line, and shift the gears of his rhythm altogether. And since it is possible for one who is rhythmically gifted to organize any indeterminate series of impressions whatever into an acceptable rhythm, he frequently produces a very enjoyable piece of music, which he attributes to the author and, having made it himself, is not unable to admire. Thus a good many poets who could hardly beat a going march on a base drum, are enabled by the gullibility and talent of their readers to come forward in this kind of writing as musicians of special and elaborate skill. The "freedom" that it gives them is not a freedom to build rhythms that are impossible in prose, but a freedom from the necessity to build actual and continuous rhythms. Free verse avails itself of the rhythmic appearance of poetry, and it avoids the extreme rhythmic difficulties of prose, and so it will certainly live as a supremely convenient way to write, among those not too strongly appealed to by the greater convenience of not writing. But as an object of the effort of ambitious artists I can not believe it will widely survive the knowledge that it is merely a convenience, a form of mumble and indetermination in their art.

    Walt Whitman, however he may have been deceived about the social and democratic character of his form, was not deceived, as the modern eulogists of free verse are, about its subtlety. He thought that he had gained in volume and directness of communion, but he knew that he was discarding subtlety, discarding in advance all those beautiful and decadent wonders of microscopic and morbid audacity that developed in France among the admirers of Poe. The modern disciples of his form, however, are materially of Poe's persuasion, and like to believe that they have in free verse an instrument expressly fitted for the communication of those wonders, and of the most delicate modulations of that "verbal melody" that Whitman scorned. In this, from the true standpoint of criticism, Whitman has a commanding advantage over them, and what can be said of free-verse in general can not be said of his poems. He did achieve the predominant thing that he aimed to achieve--he made his poetry rough and artless in spite of his fineness and art. He made it like the universe and like the presence of a man. In that triumph it will stand. In that character it will mould and influence the literature of democracy, because it will mould and influence all literature in all lands.

    "Who touches this book touches a man."

    There is, however, another ideal of poetry that Walt Whitman confused with this one, and that he no more exemplified in his form than he exemplified democratic and social communion. And this ideal is predominant too in the minds of his modern followers. It is the ideal of being natural, of being primitive, dismissing "refinements" and the tricks of literary sophistication. He wanted his poetry to sound with nature and the untutored heart of humanity. It was in the radiance of this desire that he spoke of rhythmical prose as a "vast diviner heaven," toward which poetry would move in its future development in America. Prose seemed diviner to him because it seemed more simple, more large with candor and directness. But here again a cool and clear science will show that his nature led him in a contrary direction from its ideal. The music of prose is only dissimilar to that of poetry in its complexity, its subtle and refined dissimulation of the fundamental monotonous meter that exists, either expressed or implied, in the heart of all rhythmical experience. Persons who can read the rhythm of prose can do so because they have in their own breast, or intellect, a subdued or tacit perpetual standard pulse-beat, around which by various instinctive-mathematical tricks of substitution and syncopation they so arrange the accents of the uttered syllables that they fall in with its measure, and become one with it, increasing its momentum and its effect of entrancement upon the nerves and body. There is no rhythm without this metrical basis, no value in rhythm comparable to the trance that its thrilling monotony engenders. Its undulations are akin to the intrinsic character of neural motion, and that is why, almost as though it were a chemical thing--a stimulant and narcotic--it takes possession of our state-of-being and controls it.

    Poetry only naïvely acknowledges this ecstatic monotony that lives in the heart of all rhythm, brings it out into the light, and there openly weaves upon it the patterns of melodic sound. Poetry is thus the more natural, and both historically and psychologically, the more primitive of the two arts. It is the more simple. Meter, and even rhyme, which is but a colored, light drum-beat, accentuating the meter, are not "ornaments" or "refinements" of something else which may be called "rhythmical speech." They are the heart of rhythmical speech expressed and exposed with a perfectly childlike and candid grandeur. Prose is the refinement. Prose is the sophisticated and studio accomplishment--a thing that vast numbers of people have not the fineness of endowment or cultivation either to write or read. Prose is a civilized sublimation of poetry, in which the original healthy intoxicant note of the tom-tom is so laid over with fine traceries of related sound, that it can no longer be identified at all except by the analytical eye of science.

    Walt Whitman was not really playful and child-like enough to go back to nature. His poetry was less primitive and savage, than it was superhuman and sublime. His emotions were as though they came to him through a celestial telescope. There is something more properly savage--something at least truly barbarous--in a poem like Poe's "Bells." And in Poe's insistence upon "beauty" as the sole legitimate province of the poem--beauty, which he defines as a special and dispassionate "excitement of the soul"--he is nearer to the mood of the snake dance. Poetry was to him a deliberate perpetration of ecstasy. And one can see in reading his verses how he was attuned to sway and quiver to the mere syllabic singing of a kettledrum, until his naked visions grew more intense and lovely than the passions and real mean- ings of his life. It is actually primitive, as well as childlike, to play with poetry in this intense and yet unsanctimonious way that Poe did, and Baudelaire too, and Swinburne. Play is nearer to the heart of nature than aspiration. It is healthier perhaps too, and more to the taste of the future, than priesthood. I think the essence of what we call classical in an artist's attitude is his quite frank acknowledgment that--whatever great things may come of it--he is at play. The art of the Athenians was objective and overt about being what it is, because the Athenians were educated, as all free men should be, for play. They were making things, and the eagerness of their hearts flowed freely out like a child's through their eyes upon the things that they made. That pearl of adult degeneration, the self, was very little cultivated in Athens; the "artistic temperament" was unborn; and sin, and the perpetual yearning beyond of Christians, had not been thought of. A little group of isolated and exclusive miracles had not reduced all the true and current glories of life to a status of ignobility, so that every great thing must contain in itself intimations of otherness. The Athenians were radiantly willing, without any cosmical preparation or blare of moral resolve, to let the constellations stay where they are. It was their custom to "loaf and invite their souls," to be "satisfied--see, dance, laugh, sing." They were so maturely nai've that they would hardly understand what Walt Whitman, with his declarations of animal independence, was trying to recover from. And so it is by way of their happy and sun-loved city that we can most surely go back to nature.

    And when we have arrived at a mood that is really and childly natural--a mood that will play, even with aspiration, and will spontaneously make out of interesting materials "things" to play with, and when in that mood we give our interest to the materials of reality in our own time, then perhaps we shall find that we have arrived also at a poetry that belongs to the people. For people are, in the depths of them and on the average as they are born, still natural, still savage. And there is no doubt that nature never fashioned them to work harder, or be more serious, or filled with self-conscious purports, than was necessary. She meant them to live and flow out upon the world with the bright colors of their interest. And it will seem rather a fever in the light of universal history, this hot subjective meaningfulness of everything we modern occidentals value. The poets and the poet-painters of ancient China knew that all life and nature was so sacred with the miracle of being that only the lucid line and color was needed to command an immortal reverence. They loved perfection devoutly, as it will rarely be loved, but they too, with their gift of delicate freedom in kinship with nature, were at play. And in Japan even today--surviving from that time--there is a form of poetry that is objective and childlike, a making of toys, or of exquisite metrical gems of imaginative realization, and this is the only poetry in the world that is truly popular, and is loved and cultivated by a whole nation.

    If with this pagan and oriental love for the created thing--the same love that kept a light in Poe's sombre heart--we enter somewhat irreverently into Walt Whitman's volume, seeking our own treasure and not hesitating to remove it from its bed of immortal slag, we do find poems in new forms of exquisite and wonderful definition. Sometimes for the length of one or two or three lines, and occasionally for a stanza, and once for the whole poem--"When I heard at the close of the day"--Walt Whitman seems to love and achieve the carved concentration of image and emotion, the definite and thrilling chime of syllables along a chain that begins and ends and has a native way of uttering itself to all minds that are in tune. He seems, without losing that large grace of freedom from the pose and elegance of words in a book, which was his most original gift to the world, to possess himself of the mood that is truly primitive, and social, and intelligible to the hearts of simple people--the mood that loves with a curious wonder the poised and perfect existence of a thing.

    Hush'd be the Camps

    Hush'd be the camps today;
    And, soldiers, let us drape our war-worn weapons;
    And each with musing soul retire, to celebrate,
    Our dear commander's death.
    No more for him life's stormy conflicts;
    Nor victory, nor defeat--no more time's dark events,
    Charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky.

    Reconciliation

    Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
    Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
    That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world. . . .

    These sculptural sentences, with their rhythmic and still clarity of form, if they had been the end and essence of his art, and not only a by-accident of inevitable genius, might have led the way, not perhaps to a great national poetry for America, but beyond that into something international and belonging to the universe of man. The step forward from them would not have been towards a greater sprawling and subjectifying of rhythmic and poetic character, but towards an increasing objective perfection which should still cling to the new and breathless thing, the presence of one who lives and speaks his heart naturally. I chose them, not only because they are among the most musical and imaginative lines that Walt Whitman wrote, but also because in bringing a mood that is calm and a lulling of wind in the world's agonies of hate, they show themselves to be deep. And so it will not be thought that when I say the poet of democracy will be a child who is at play with the making of things, I desire to narrow the range and poignancy of the things he will make. He will be free, and he will move with a knowing and profound mind among all the experiences and the dreams of men. But to whatever heights of rhapsody, or moral aspiration, or now unimaginable truth, he may come, he will come as a child, whose clear eyes and deliberate creative purposes are always appropriate and never to be apologized for, because they are the purposes of nature.

    A Preface About Sonnets

    Although so complex and difficult to construct, the sonnet has always seemed to me a natural and almost inevitable form. Whether the reason lies in its intrinsic nature, or in the tradition that surrounds it, is not easy to tell. A sonnet is almost exactly square, and yet it has a division sufficiently off the centre to make its squareness admirable instead of tiresome; and perhaps this simple trait, together with its closely woven structure of rhyme, is what gives it the quiet assurance it has the tranquil Tightness of a thing of nature or natural convenience. I feel towards an excellent sonnet as I imagine an eager horse may feel towards a good measure tightly filled up with golden grain.

    This feeling is due partly to a kind of honesty of which the squareness of a sonnet is symbolic. It is a form in which poets can express themselves when they are not rhapsodically excited. And very often they are not so excited, and at such times if they write rapid lyrics they have to whip themselves up with an emotion that they get out of the writing rather than out of the facts. And this makes much lyric poetry seem a little histrionic, whereas in order to create a sonnet at all, a concentration and sustainment of feeling is required that is inevitably equal to its more temperate pretensions.

    The quality of being inevitably and honestly square may become a dreadful thing, however. And it makes this form inappropriate for persons who have not at least a certain degree of lyrical taste. In the hands of such persons a sonnet is not a poem, but an enterprise. They get inside that square with a whole lot of materials, colors and sounds and old clothes of ideas, and they push them round, and if they can not make them fill in properly and come up to the edges, they climb out and get some more. And the result is so palpably spreadout an object, always with lumps of imagery here and there, that it can not even be received in the linear sequence that is natural to the eye and ear.

    This fault can be avoided by having strongly in mind while composing a sonnet, the virtues not specifically its own the clarity, the running and pouring in single stream, that are the qualities of song. And to these qualities the strict convention of its rhymes and the traditional relation of the sonnet's parts, ought to give way when there is a conflict between them, for if a poem has not rhapsody, it is the more important that it should have grace. At least that is my opinion, and I offer this preface, in expiatory rather than boastful vein, to those high priests of perfection who guard the sonnet as a kind of lonely reliquary of their god.

    Earlier Poems: A Preface About Their Philosophy

    Most of the friends who read the volume from which these poems are selected, wanted to ask me what I meant by one of the titles, "The Thought of Protagoras." And I meant so much--I meant to convey in that phrase the hue of the philosophic background upon which the colors of my life are drawn--that since I failed, I venture to enlarge its meaning here with a word of confession.

    An attitude that might be called affirmative scepticism is native to my mind, and underlies every impulse that I have to portray the universal character of life and truth. We seek among all our experiences for some absolute and steadfast value by which, or toward which, we may guide ourselves, but there is no absolute value except life itself, the having of experiences. And among all our opinions we seek for an objective and eternal truth, but nothing is eternally true except the variety of opinions. Intermittently throughout the whole history of western, and I suppose of eastern thought, this mood has arisen. It was the mood of Protagoras, and of that Protagorean vein in Plato which is the height of ancient wisdom. It arose again, after a period of bright-minded investigation and formulation of "isms," in Sextus Empiricus and the little group of Alexandrian scientists-the last light to go out in the darkness of the reign of saints and theologies. Again, after those ages of sombre and oppressive faith under the roof of the cathedral, it appeared in the great Montaigne. The writings of Montaigne arrive in history with a bold and tranquil flavor of delight in free meditation, as though the too Sunday-serious world had at last made up its mind to escape from church and go fishing. It is a reverent Sabbath holiday in human thought. Almost immediately, however, the insane passion of belief recurs. Descartes' attempt at a surgery of doubt is only the pathetic opening of space for new and enormous growths of the old substance. Spinoza follows him, the God-intoxicated man, and Leibnitz and other monumental believers. And then David Hume quietly prepares, and once more offers to mankind, in his clear, humble and noble enquiry about Human Understanding, the sceptic wisdom, the moral equilibrium, that would save its health and reason. But Kant and Hegel and those mountainous Germans, the giants of soul-vapor, overwhelming again with their rationalizations of primitive egotism, send all the world to the mad-house of metaphysical conviction. And from this we are now again issuing awakened--for the fifth time. And today the awakener is no individual. The awakener is science--empirical science turning its brave eyes upon man, its maker, to reveal the origin and destroy the excessive pretensions of his thoughts. And so once again the sanity of the world has been saved--or so at least it seems to one whose intellectual home is in these ages of sacred doubt.

    Thoughts that are abstract logically, are, psychologically, concrete things. General ideas are specific occurrences. They are occurrences in an individual mind, reflecting perhaps a material disturbance in a brain. And these things and occurrences can, in the conception of science, be explained as the result of antecedent causes. They, which are the sovereign instruments of explanation, can themselves become the subject of explanation, and therein lose their impersonality and their universality which was their truth. Such, I think, is the modern counterpart of the thought of Protagoras, summarized for the ancients in his famous saying that "man is the measure of all things."

    This thought used to come to my mind strongly in a seminar at Columbia University, where in a shadowy corner of the great library at sunset we gathered to read and study the writingf of Spinoza. Our teacher was a scholar of philosophy w r ith the rarest gift of sinking himself emotionally, as well as with intellect, into the metaphysical system of the philosopher he studied. He is not the one I have portrayed in my poem--that is a product of my imagination. But he seemed always so ingenuous to me, in his acceptance of the existence of realities corresponding to the vast abstractions of that philosopher of eternity, that I could not but see continually in my fancy demons of time and the concrete conspiring against him among the alleys of the book-shelves; and there came the thought of death walking straight into that chamber to annihilate the event of the individual idea--the only actual thing denoted for me by his words of portentous and childish-universal import. In my poem I tried to make such a death portray and prove to the imagination the thought of Protagoras.

    In another poem, Leif Ericson, I made the same reflection a theme of joy and a kind of pagan sermon of life. The voyage of that wonderful sailor out over the challenging blue, without knowledge and without sanction of ends, is a symbol of the adventure of individual being. It is an example to our hearts, so fond of faith and prudence, so little filled by nature with moral courage and abandon.

    Max Eastman, March, 1912



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