De Casseres, Anarch
The Shadow Eater. By Benjamin DeCasseres. American Library Service. $2.
NEARLY a score of years has passed since “The Shadow Eater” was first published and yet the author of these startling poems has remained practically unknown except in the journalistic milieu that he frequented. The critical scouts that should have been alert for the’ signs of new genius either ignored or were ignorant of the existence of Benjamin DeCasseres. Remy de Gourmont and James Huneker pointed the way to his door, but their voices were lost in the rumble of drums that heralded the constant arrivals on the literary scene of magnificoes of little talent. The drums are still rumbling and genius still starves for the appreciation that should attend it. Now that “The Shadow Eater” has been republished after the lapse of a number of years I, who have lately read these poems for the first time, wonder if it be possible for DeCasseres to receive his due from this generation. That a later one will hail him as a poet who spoke before his time I have -no doubt, but today he is doomed to obscurity for reasons that are patent to any one who brings an understanding sympathy to the reading of his strange poems.
Their spirit is anarchical, but of an anarchy that transcends the breaking of the tablets of man’s petty fashioning and would assault the enthroned Life Force itself. It beats savagely against the walls of its prison, not for freedom’s sake, but because it would know—and destroy—that which lies beyond them. To those who serenely await a supernal answer to the great riddle as well as to those who anoint their uneasy souls “with the unguent of philosophers or theologians the poetry of Benjamin DeCasseres will always be anathema. No larks sing their “God’s-in-His-Heaven” songs in these pages. Daffodils may nod in sun-bright rows but DeCasseres stands lost in contemplation before the gibbet that rises black and stark against the moon. The unearthly secret of life glows through these poems, but to the poet it lies hidden behind its blinding radiance. He grapples with that mystery of the spirit that pushed up cursing man from the primordial ooze and yet throughout the struggle he knows the futility of his soul-wearying efforts. But Caliban some day will stand before Prospero and of this meeting DeCasseres sings.
The weird beauty of these chants of a soul that still feels the pangs of its own birth can not he limned in other words than those which it utters in its own proud torment. Lack of space prevents me from quoting in full the significant poem, The Vision Malefic.
“My soul is a tarn as black and motionless as the night above
In which whirl forever and ever the pallid balls of light that are my sickly dreams.
I am weaving a shroud for the God whom I hate—
I have defied Him and cursed Him, and here is His winding-sheet.
I am lodged in my sins, and my soul is lean of its lusts.”
These swift-running, rhymeless lines, with their varying yet certain rhythm, like the heat of the sea on a long, curving shore, made their appearance some time before the vers libre craze swept our smaller poets beyond their depth. This fact would be more significant had not Walt Whitman broken the set forms of poetry several generations behind DeCasseres. Whitman’s influence was not lost on DeCasseres, but it betrays itself in the fashioning of some of his lines more than in their content.
The fierce individualism of DeCasseres, however, makes it impossible for him to employ very long any medium that is not shaped by his own passion. For this reason he occupies a niche that is all his own and asks space to stand from no other man. Formal criticism would demand a label for that niche by which the poet could be read into his proper place in the ranks of his contemporaries and his predecessors, but DeCasseres defies such evaluation, for he belongs to no school nor does he proselyte for any cult that is greater than his own individuality. His genius may owe much to those before him who strode in the vanguard of the rebels, yet it has come to its full flower only in himself. It is a bloom of exotic richness that time will not cause to droop and perish.
Howard Irving Young