« ElőzőTovább »
magnanimous heroes besieging the squalid ferryman. One abatement, it seems, there may be to be made from the trustworthiness of the historical camera, and that by reason of the personality of the operator, as a native of the “Eastern Shore” and inheritor of its prejudices against the Virginian politicians of the young century. But this does not affect the vividness of the presentation, as in this sketch of “Monroe, the Last Virginia Chief": "He was a politician's flower, raised from a common weed, Fit for no enterprise in life but following to lead; To watch the great and imitate, to listen and succeed.
"His Western States he never loved marched o'er his mountain's bar, On roads he vetoed, to his forts made for defensive war: Free millions flout o'er Africa the faint Monrovian star."
The unquestioning belief in the future of one's country which does not tend to cultivate political scrupulosity, no more tends to cultivate appreciation, or even tolerance, of political criticism or of political critics. Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and whoever prophesies evil or points out dangers might better be engaged in helping on "the movement." In “Palos" our poet sings, not very poetically:
"It is the Public Spirit's token
To wish all things constructive well." And is not that an expression of the general American spirit, and especially of the spirit of the West, which the poet takes to be specifically the American spirit? In the poem on Burr, already cited, he makes Irving prophesy:
"Yon golden West will govern, in its prime,
Ripped from the civil wars and Bible-cracked." But the most elaborate and the most striking expression of this phase of the American spirit is the poem which ought to be called "Bohemian and Sadducee.”
“The Editor and Writer met in Twilight's lonely lane,
" 'My self-esteem, my spotless work, my influence austere!
“ 'One drop,' the old Bohemian said, 'within its channel strong, I mingle in the mighty tide and with it move along. I have no other creed than this, no power of my own: Flow, beauteous river! Not in thee have ever I thrown a stone!' "From Twilight lane they parted last, the years were growing dark; Neither upon the century left more than finger-mark. 'Silentium!' was the epitaph upon the scolding man, But all the bands of music play past the Bohemian."
If this be immensely characteristic of the poet, is it not as characteristic of the people whose spokesman he aspires to be? The belief, unquestioning and impatient of question, in the United States of America, which rises to the level and so often takes the place of a religious faith, is in the blood of all of us. I know no more eloquent expression than Townsend at his best has given to it, and none so concrete and popular. Nor is his optimism attained by blinking unpleasant facts. Like all the rest of us, he glories in the career of Lincoln as the most typically American thing we have yet done. Everybody remembers Lowell's eulogy in the Harvard Ode. But that sculptural figure was not Lincoln “in his habit as he lived." In "Wild Cat Junction," one of the poems I most miss from this latest volume, Townsend has shown that the ideal Lincoln can be kept in spite of the most unshrinking realism. No Western novelist has given so awful a picture of the crudity and squalor of the prairie environment in which Lincoln was reared. The realism is so unshrinking that I shrink from reproducing it, but I must give the last and not the toughest verse of it to show over what it is that his idealism has triumphed: "Corn-dodgers dipped in maple Juice he ate with thankfulness; An ox-steak when the preacher came the family to bless; Rye coffee, with molasses sweet (he never used a fork, But with his knife, ten months a year, poked down the salted pork).
"Still, like old Bunyan's vision, seen o'er Bedford Prison's gate,
"Husks Ailled his belly, but he saw his father's house atar.
It seems to me that this portrait is worthier of the national Pantheon than any ideal figure that has been made, or that is likely to be made. And years later, the artist, in a poem, "Commander Lincoln,” read before the Society of the Army of the Potomac, took up the theme again, and in a more oratorical strain pointed the moral for Lincoln's country of Lincoln's career: "Deep the wells of humble childhood, cool the springs beside the hut, Millions more as poor as Lincoln see the door he has not shut. Not till wealth has made its canker every poor white's cabin through Shall the Great Republic wither, or the infidel subdue!
"Stand around your great commander, lay aside your little fears! Every Lincoln carries freedom's car along a hundred years. And when next the call for soldiers rolls along the golden belt, Look to see a mightier column rise and march, prevail and melt!" Is not that what the American people "wish to say"? Has any one else said it for them more impressively or more memorably? Is not the author of these lines as near to being a national spokesman in verse as any in this generation of his countrymen ? Whether or not the reader agrees that this thesis is made out by the citations that have been given, I do not see how the attentive and considerate reader can fail to agree that Townsend's verse deserves more attention and consideration than it has received; and to diffuse that belief as widely as possible is the object of these citations and remarks. I can quite imagine such a reader demurring that the adjective of my title has been better made out than the substantive, the Americanism of the poet than his specifically poetical power, and even adding, if he be of a sarcastic turn, that fine lines do not make fine poems, and that the most eloquent stump speeches in verse do not make a great poet. The epithet is not mine, and in any case is not of a scientific exactness. What I claim for Mr. Townsend is that he is an interesting and remarkable poet. But it is also true that he has shown the capacity to deal with themes more deeply and broadly human than those of politics or even of patriotism, and to give them artistic expression. Not to speak of earlier work, "Her First Glasses" and "In Rama," in the present volume, seem to me sufficiently to show it. The former is almost too intimate to be quoted here. It will recall Cowper's "My Mary" to reading readers, but it seems to me of an even more poignant pathos, which even the quaint and homely adverbial use of "some" does not seem to blunt, seems al
most to sharpen. "In Rama” is a threnody which gives a personal expression to a sentiment as general as humanity:
"A little face there was,
When all her pains were done,
They said it was a son.
Who never was a man;
A boy, as I began.” Our poet's best work, most feeling and most artistic, in that description suffused with sentiment which is the staple of the poetry of the English language in the nineteenth century, is doubtless that which he has done in the poems descriptive and reminiscent of the region of his birth and boyhood, the "Eastern Shore." I wish he had retained the pretty "Chester River":
"Wise is the wild duck winging straight to thee,
The sweet, salt pastures of the far Chesapeake."
"Is it Snow Hill that greets me back
Spread on the level river shore,
And speckled trunks of sycamore,
Are these old men who gravely bow,
Ah, well! in simpler days than now-
"When we have raged our little part,
Oh! could we bring to these still shores
And rest upon our echoing oars,
Then might yon stars shine down on me,
Who walked these tranquil streets I see
And thought God's love nowhere so free,
The poem on “Old St. Mary's,” the colonial capital of Maryland, is in the same strain of tender reminiscence. But I must be allowed to quote a passage from it, because it seems to me, as a matter of artistic workmanship, in its musical expression of melancholy, quite the summit of its author's attainment:
“Lo! all composed, the soft horizons lie
Afloat upon the blueness of their coves,
Seem to continue the dependent groves,
And draw in the canoe that careless roves
Far off the larger sails go down the world,
The ancient windmills all their sails have furled,
And they, the Lords, have passed to their repose;
Except thy hidden bell, Saint Inigo's." But if this elegiac, this idyllic strain, is heard too rarely here, the elegies and the idylls are themselves but episodes in this hurly-burly of “Men and Events." Tyrtæus sometimes chose the Dorian mood,
"The Dorian mood,
Or flutes and soft recorders;" but the Dorian mood is not Tyrtæan. Our journalistic "doyen" is also a journalistic Tyrtæus. The avid curiosity, the vivid glances of insight, the ready, so often too ready, phrase that attests the curiosity and reproduces the vision seen by flashlight, the invincible optimism, the "youthful, vehement, exultant and progressive nationality," these are the dominant strains in this pell-mell of poetic work. Our "doyen," by rights and precedents a melancholy and discouraged "sage," appears in these pages as the bugler boy at the head of the column. The twinkling guidon is sometimes hidden in the whiffs of dust. The bugle notes are often jangled in the jolting of the trot, but audible above the “drums and tramplings" of the procession, always giving out, in blithe and cheery tones, the marching orders of the day. Doubtless it is "journalistic,” but I think it is fine, and I am sure it is American