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London: Poetry Bookshop, 1917. Pp. 63. 1

The Egoist, 4 (Sept 1917) 118-19

One of the ways by which contemporary verse has tried to escape the rhetorical, the abstract, the moralizing, to recover (for that is its purpose) the accents of direct speech, is to concentrate its attention upon trivial or accidental or commonplace objects. This tendency is common to a very great variety of poets; what is less noticed is the divergence of form which it takes. To be concrete, if perhaps facile in generalization, I may divide the tendency into its English and its American currents. With the American the effect is more usually an arrest at the object in view; the American poet is fearful of betraying any reaction beyond that revealed in the choice and arrangement; the effect is of an ingenious if sometimes perverse visual imagination in complete detachment from any other faculty. The Russian influence may here count for something; the Russian novel, with its curious trick of fastening upon accidental properties of a critical situation, and letting these in turn fasten upon the attention to such an extent as to replace the emotion which gave them their importance.

This is the preoccupation of the accidental; the English tendency is rather to be preoccupied with the trivial. In this difference the American shows his too quick susceptibility to foreign influence; the Englishman his imperviousness. For contemporary English verse has borrowed little from foreign sources; it is almost politically English; the Georgian poets insist upon the English countryside, and are even positively patriotic. When, therefore, they turn to the common object, to the animal or flower or hearthrug, it is in the mood, not of Dostoevski but of Wordsworth. Because of this Wordsworthian strain I have called their attention trivial (not invidiously) rather than accidental. Both methods or manners, the Wordsworth and the Dostoevski, may be distinguished from another which is more universal: it is universally human to attach the strongest emotions to definite tokens. Only, while with the Russian the emotion dissolves in a mass of sensational detail, and while with Wordsworth the emotion is of the object and not of human life, with certain poets the emotion is definitely human, merely seizing the object in order to express itself. When Donne says:

Whoever comes to shroud me, do not harm,      Nor question much, That subtle wreath of hair, which crowns my arm;

or when he uses the same idea again, perhaps more effectively:

When my grave is broke up again . . .      And he that digs it, spies A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,

the feeling and the material symbol preserve exactly their proper proportions. 2 A poet of morbidly keen sensibilities but weak will might become absorbed in the hair to the exclusion of the original association which made it significant; a poet of imaginative or reflective power more than emotional power would endow the hair with ghostly or moralistic meaning. Donne sees the thing as it is.

When Wordsworth, however, fixes his attention upon: the meanest flower that blows 3 his attitude is utterly different. His daffodil emphasizes the importance of the flower for its own sake, not because of association with passions specifically human.

In the Georgian poets we observe the same attitude. 4 The emotion is derived from the object, and such emotions must either be vague (as in Wordsworth) or, if more definite, pleasing. Thus, it is not unworthy of notice how often the word little occurs; and how this word is used, not merely as a necessary piece of information, but with a caress, a conscious delight:

Just now the lilac is in bloom All before my little room. . . . And under that Almighty Fin The littlest fish may enter in. . . . Making everything afraid, Wrinkling up his little face . . . (i.e. the hare).

The little black cat with bright green eyes...

Published By:   Johns Hopkins University Press