By Harriet Monroe
MAX EASTMAN speaks up again for exact metrics and against the freer forms which he once called "lazy verse." This time his argument—American Ideals of Poetry he calls it—forms the preface to his new book of delicately wrought "poems and songs and sonnets," entitled Colots of Life (Alfred A. Knopf). In this thirty-page article he sums up his case, the case of a man whose lingering conservatism, chased out of other departments of his mind, finds a last refuge in art.
Why not admit that Max Eastman is one of the most vivid and exuberant of human souls—an ardent creature who works, as he lives, with passion, convinced that he would not cringe before the white light of truth ? The truth—he finds it in the old pagan clarity, uniting, across the Christian centuries, with the pitiless searching breath of modern science to bear away speculative fogs and aristocratic snobberies and humilities of faith. Like Rupert Brooke, he gives his ardor, to a cause, and would die for it in glamorous ecstasy if need were. And, again like Brooke, he sees the figure of Beauty not quite lithe and nude, as Blake saw it, or—let us venture to say—as H. D. sees it today, but decorously draped in the sheerest and most softly colored of veils—silken chiffons that fall, almost with but effort, into rhythmic folds, into wistful modern reminders of the austere Greek line.
But, in presenting the fine brief sonnets and other lyrics which are the result of his prayerful communings with Beauty, he is not sure enough of them to offer them without preliminary theory, without a plea. His plea takes the form of a contrast between Whitman and Poe, and an indictment of free verse as necessarily unrespectful of the line and therefore unstructural and formless! He quotes from Whitman's proud invitation to the poets of the future—that assertion that "there is something inevitably comic in rhyme," and that "the truest and greatest poetry, while subtly and necessarily always rhythmic and distinguishable easily enough, can never again, in the English language, be expressed in arbitrary and rhyming metre;" and over against this he sets certain "icy" admonitions from Poe's Philosophy of Composition which he thinks assert that poet's "preoccupation with 'verbal melody' " and his point that "beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem." And Mr. Eastman adds: "The details of this difference are fascinating, but the generalization of it is what will illumine the modern problems about poetry."
Well, in Mr. Eastman's generalization one gets indeed his point of view, the clever argument of a special pleader, but not much illumination. He says, "The opposition of these two characters and attitudes is complete;" when, in fact, however the personal characters of Poe and Whitman may be in contrast, their aesthetic principles are far from irreconcilable. Does Mr. Eastman seriously ascribe to Whitman "a grand contempt for beauty?" or think that Poe, in asserting, "beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem," means by beauty merely "verbal melody"—indeed, a metrically restricted verbal melody at that—and does not include spiritual motive? Does Mr. Eastman mean to imply that iambic metrics, rhyme, the pentameter line, or any other familiar instruments of English poetry, are anything but tools and aids, are in themselves structure? Does he find more "form" (much abused word!), more sheerly structural modelling, in The Raven than in that glorious elegy When lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed, even though the former poem is in the school, let us say, of Houdon and the latter in that of Rodin?
To come down to our own immediate moment, does Mr. Eastman find more form—a more severely modelled classic shape—in Witter Bynner's fine Celia lyrics, or his own purely carved love sonnets in this volume, than in Carl Sandburg's Lost or The Great Hunt, H. D.'s Oread or The Shrine, Aldington's Choricos, Amy Lowell's Venus Tran- siens, or Ezra Pound's Dance Figure and certain other lyrics? Mr. Eastman may prefer strictly measured iambics to free verse—no one will deny him a right to his preference; but when he tries to ascribe to these all the architectonics of the poetic art he is treading on shoals and quicksands.
Mr. Eastman complains that the line-divisions of free verse are arbitrary, that if they were once scrambled together in any poem even the author could hardly unscramble them. But may one ask him what that alleged fact has to do with the case? If this scrambling makes prose of any piece, then it was always prose—as indeed much verse is, both bond and free. Would Hamlet's soliloquy or Antony's death-speech be any the less poetry if written out as prose, or if scrambled into irregular lines ? Is Lincoln's Gettysburg speech any the less essentially poetry, in rhythm, structure, and spiritual motive, because it happens to be printed without line- divisions ?
If the eye-test shatters Mr. Eastman's arguments, the ear- test is similarly destructive. He says: if "two or three of the most free and subtle" of the vers-librists were "to read one of their favorite passages into the ear of an instrument, it is safe to assert that there would be less identity in the actual pulsations recorded than if the same two or three were reading a passage of highly wrought English prose." Possibly; but if these same two or three were to read Paradise Lost or the Ode to the West Wind, or any other poem of subtle or sweeping cadences, there would be still less identity. Such investigations as Dr. Patterson's (sensibly approved by Mr. Eastman and thoughtlessly disapproved, in a recent Dial, by John Gould Fletcher) will turn the pitiless light of science upon the empiricism of prosody, and upon the unrhythmic misinterpretations of poetry which most readers are guilty of. A life-time of theatre-going, including more Shakespeare and other poet-playwrights than may be found on the stage today, has convinced me that ninety-nine per-cent of actors deliberately hash poetic lines into prose so that even Mr. Eastman could hardly unscramble them. And few poets, whatever their rhythmic instinct, may be trusted to read their own poems.
In short, Mr. Eastman's argument will not hold water. It is a wistful effort to give the sanctity of unalterable law to merely individual theories and preferences. ( Mr. Eastman wants poetry as a refuge from life's passion and turmoil, and he uses the great name of Poe as his authority—Poe, to whom "a poem was an objective thing," Poe, who "would take sounds and melodies of words almost actually into his hands, and carve and model them until he had formed a beautiful vessel." Ah, but Poe's passion was beauty, especially beauty as it is found in poetry, whereas Mr. Eastman's passion is life, and its enhancement through social revolution. In politics and social ethics he is a radical; but shocked conservatism must take refuge in some sacred corner of one's being, and in his case the muse presides there with draped and decorous dignity. ) H. M.