The following essay by Steven T. Byington was published in Benjamin R. Tucker’s Liberty (1881), Vol. XVI-No.3 SEPTEMBER, 1907 Whole Number 399.
It is a familiar dispute whether we should value a poem in proportion to its positive merits and shut our eyes to its defects, or whether uniform general excellence should be rated higher than a mixture of transcendent greatness with all possible faults. For myself, I want a poem to do for me the utmost that a poem can, and I do not find even glints of perfection so common that I can afford to be over-particular about the company they keep; if a poem is in part better than the accepted standard of perfection, it satisfies me better, notwithstanding that in other parts it may fall notably below that standard. This I doubtless the reason why I put a specially high value on the work of William Walstein Gordak, one of the faultiest of poets, great or small, but one who has certain peculiar powers to stir me.
The main trouble with Gordak was that he was no critic. This is a common enough complaint among poets, but I think they seldom have it so badly as he. In the first place, he seems, through most of his life, not to have realized the value of his own work. It may be that some of the poems in the volume “Here’s Luck to Lora,” which lies before me, were written when he was at the age at which poets generally produce their best work; but I hardly suppose that he began, at a comparatively late age, to write it for Liberty. At that time he spoke of himself, in a letter to me, as writing occasionally nonsense-verses for the children, and he sent me a sample which was certainly no competitor for a high prize. Afterward, when he began to find that his verses were valued, they went to the press — broadcast. Any paper with which Gordak felt any sympathy could have his verses, — usually good, sometimes very good. If anybody ever tries to collect Gordak’s complete poetical works, he will have to search Anarchist papers, radical papers, local papers, sometimes ephemeral, almost always obscure: and it will be no easy task to get them together. But Gordak seems himself to have had the feeling that he was past his poetical prime when he began to write: for he says (it is not in “Here’s Luck to Lora”):
- Oh, had I but the poet’s soul I lost
- Amid the fray a many years ago —
- Ah, who can tell the pain and shame it cost
- To face the struggle in a world of woe —
- When the dull clowns their malice spewed on me
- Who had not injured them, and little thought,
- Child that I was, they held my liberty
- And would coerce me to their cant and rot.
- If I but had the poet’s soul I lost,
- With fire and fury I would meet them now;
- In dust and ashes they would pay the cost,
- Astounded at receiving blow for blow.
- For when I see the earth unpopulated,
- The barren fields, the joyless lives of men,
- I am fulfilled of that eternal hate
- That shall revivify the world again.
- Weak as I am, I yet can prophesy;
- Like John the Baptist, I can tell of him
- Who comes — a hero of this century —
- The blossom of the ages old and dim,
- fruit of all time, greater far than all,
- Logician, orator, and child of song,
- Apollo of the Arrows, at whose call
- The mass shall rally to redress the wrong.
Now, if Gordak really had once much greater poetical powers than he showed in the time of his productivity, — and this is what we have to assume from the analogy of other poets, who, especially if they be of the Gordak type, generally do their best work while young, — what has the world lost by his silence in those years? A very great poet certainly.
As to the edition of his complete works of which I just now spoke, the world can hardly hope to see it. The sixty-two-page volume goes but a little way toward it. Not only is its selection limited in extent, but it does not represent what is it to me the strongest side of Gordak’s poetry. The verses I have just cited tell his ideal of what a poet should be. To be sure, he had another ideal, at least of what he himself in certain moods would be; and this other is put into the book, as being altogether appropriate to it:
- They tell us we must leave the wood,
- The mead, the stream, the hazel glen,
- And stir the broth of bad and good
- Among the muddy hearts of men;
- To be august, superior,
- Must sing the song of love and hate,
- And pipe the praise of men of war,
- And sound the depths of human fate.
- Ah, well-a-day! But not for me
- The soul-anatomist’s great part;
- I’d rather watch the bumble bee
- Suck honey from the clover’s heart.
. . . . . .
- Let others strum pathetic tunes
- Upon the heart-strings of the race,
- But I will sing the languid noons
- Of summer in a shady place.
- The earth is older than the man,
- And better loved; the stream is old,
- So let me muse the pome’s plan
- Beside its water deep and cold.
And yet we have elsewhere — if we have files of obscure papers, or a well-selected scrap-book — his testimony that this latter ideal, even in its limitation to his personal poetic life, was constantly failing to satisfy and hold him; and in particular we have “The Minor Poets,” in a tone which cannot be taken as not meaning what it says:
- Those little shivering poets — where are they?
- Behind the battlements of caste and gain;
- No deep and thrilling chords they dare to play,
- For fear they might be called on to explain.
- Melodious are they and touched with fire,
- But earnest, honest ardor for thing great
- Pervades them not; they only work for hire,
- Like layers or the servants of the State.
- They’ll get just what they ask for and no more —
- A little transient praise and dainty fare;
- But ne’er will gain a foothold on the Shore
- Of Honorable Mention anywhere.
- Why twenty lines of Shelley will outlive
- A hundred thousand volumes of their rhyme;
- Though might’st as well hold water in a sieve
- As pledge them Fame for any length of time.
We need not just now discuss the soundness of this judgment, or point out that Gordak’s description of the worthless “minor poet” fits conspicuously to Shakspere and Homer; we have to face a more pertinent and more puzzling question. Why was it that Gordak, when this was his mind, and when he had printed poems belonging to the class of poetry that he rated highest, chose to exclude this class from his collection of poems to be printed for permanence? How comes it that “Here’s Luck to Lora” contains the praises of Keats and Morris, and contains Gordak’s poems having the quality of Keats and Morris, but does not contain this poem with its praise of Shelley, and does not contain the poems that have the Shelley quality, thought it was to the Shelley quality alone that Gordak in his soberest mood would promise immortality.
It may be that his self-criticism was more unsparing in that which he rated higher; he may have felt that he had done fairly well in the minor sphere, but fell too conspicuously short of what was wanted in the greater poetry. Or it may be that he had heard that legitimate poetry should aim merely at beauty, and not be didactic; and he may have felt that, when he was compiling a volume for publication, and not giving free poetic expression to his own instinct, he should conform to what he supposed to be an accepted canon of taste. Or it may be that he thought his book would be rejected by publishers, if it contained Anarchistic matter; possibly he hoped that this less offensive volume might be the entering wedge for a different one which he might live to publish.
But it was not in this minor sphere that he did best. I have said that this volume contains matter having the quality of Keats and Morris; and I would have this understood in its most laudatory sense. There is matter here that is fully worthy of Keats. It a poem like “The Thunderstorm” challenges direct comparison with James Russell Lowell’s “Summer Storm,” it bears the ordeal perfectly. Take a bit out of the coming on of Gordak’s shower:
- And they that love the glory of the storm
- Turned with rapt faces to the deepening sky,
- Where far-off thunder rumbled low and long;
- While rumpled corn, and grass, and woodland nigh,
- Thrilled by expectant change, a moment swayed,
- Then, hushed in calm, a deeper stillness made.
- Now were the westward hills and forests drowned
- In rainy mists, and dim to mortal eyes
- Grew the white-shining stream and sunlit ground;
- But grandeur filled the everlasting skies —
- A strange and shuddering beauty — as the broad
- Black belt bore up that archangelic horde.
- The sun went out; low moaned the frightened sea,
- And flurried birds skimmed close upon the sand,
- And screaming gulls across the foam did flee,
- While wildest tumult struck the darkened land;
- A mighty wind bore down the sapling oak,
- And crackling through the thick-set forest broke
Both Lowell and Gordak have given us genuine typical New England Thundershowers, yet each shower is as individual as it is typical. In each one we recognize the weather of an actual day. And if one must choose between them, I believe that Gordak’s poem will stand the test of persistent re-reading, and comparison with its fellow, better than Lowell’s will. But the faults of Gordak’s work are most strongly felt in this poetry that aims purely at beauty. I, for my part, am willing to pass lightly over his disposition to coin new words and new syntaxes on slight provocation or to treat foreign languages in such fashion as rhyming “Parisiens” with “lens” (which is in this book), or exclaiming “Festina lente, thoughtless rulers all” (which is elsewhere); but I should warn Gordak, if he were still within reach of the warning, that such things will in general more readily find pardon in poetry “with a purpose.” And, what is more, Gordak’s work in this book has almost nothing beyond the equivalent of Keats or Morris, or some other predecessor — oftenest, perhaps, these two. If we look in these poems for something that nobody but Gordak could have written, we must rake with a fine-tooth comb; and we find a scrap like
- Nor know where ignorance is bliss
- ‘Tis folly to be fools,
— which is far too slight to be Gordak’s best, but it is pure Gordak — or this:
- yet I knew
- The source of pleasure, dreamed it oft,
- Star-gazing at the depths night-blue,
- Or when the rain beat on the loft.
- Hail to the common things that be!
- The sound of rain upon the roof,
- The rose, the wild anemone,
- The rhythm of the horse’s hoof,
- The scent of piny forests, glow
- Of autumn’s tinted foliage,
- The smooth and slumberous fields of snow,
- Familiar things — man’s heritage.
But here, when we begin to find things that no one but Gordak could have written (and a poet cannot long survive except by his work that is unique: what poet does the world honor for the excellence with which he wrote things that the greatest of his predecessors might have written?), we find ourselves getting into what I have called the Shelley quality, which Gordak has in general ruled out of this collection.
The quality in Shelley to which Gordak obviously refers in the lines I quoted, and which equally characterizes Gordak’s poetry outside of the book “Here’s Luck to Lora,” is didacticism in a two-fold aspect: it is the use of poetry as a mouthpiece for a philosophic formula of life and as a tool for moving the world to right social wrongs. Shelley’s formula of life was determinism. This word did not then exist in English, so Shelley called it by the less definite name Necessity. It was difficult for even Shelley to get much poetry out of that. Gordak’s formula is the origin of pleasure from racial familiarity: whatever has from of old been familiar to the race is a pleasure to the member of the race. This makes better poetry than determinism. Aside from the passage above, take this from outside the book:
- And when the thunder shakes the stead
- (Down drives the pelting rain),
- It fills me with a joyous dread
- Forever and again.
- And thou, O dark-blue night of stars,
- The loveliness that never was
- Until we knew it! Joy hath come
- Upon us with the years;
Or this — has any poet ever come nearer to presenting a basis on which Egoist and Altruist could meet? (I do not say that either of them will acknowledge himself willing to meeting, of course.)
- What! Fleece the gaping peasant of his all
- With words of soporiferous chicane?
- To thrust the yeoman forward to his fall,
- The half-freed slave to lure and bind again?
- To rob the children of their joy and health,
- Ingenuous women of their happiness,
- That I may lolk in soft indulgent wealth?
- Nay! But no other reason can I guess
- Save this — the only answer I can find:
- It has not been the custom of my kind.
- Superior in virtue, — say it not:
- And, if I were, I did not make myself.
- Though wrought and riven by the common lot,
- I have not covered anothers’ pelf.
- But why? Some instinct vague and curious,
- Some fault or fortune of my winged strain,
- Too dense to solve, too weighty to discuss,
- Involves my being: and I say again
- To those who wish me otherwise inclined:
- It has not been the custom of my kind.
But it is in his practical didacticism that Gordak has most power over me. It is when he is most in earnest that he means most, and it is when he means most that he says most in a few words. Take this series of samples from a single poem in Liberty:
- No man can see the light and fail
- To follow: none can look afar,
- Beholding were the heavens grow pale
- The glimmer of the Blazing Star,
- Save in his heart begins to burn
- Some reflex of that heavenly fire;
- He cannot waver, flinch, or turn;
- He must advance, he must desire.
. . . . .
- The vision of the surely sane:
- The fact of happiness — the life
- Of health, of temperance, and peace —
- The normal desuetude of strife
- And servitude — content, release.
. . . . .
- With hearts by custom long grown cold
- To what they deem men cannot do,
. . . . .
- who look beyond the bounds
- Of habit, and discern the light
- Of our ideal.
Is there another poet known who could have written these lines IF so, what has his name been? — And yet, in selecting his poems to be put in permanent form, the man left this one out!
If Gordak fell a prey to some critic telling him that the didactic was not to be included among poetry proper, I can only rail against the whole tribe of pedants who try to fence art in by formulas. If that essay of Macaulay’s in which he lays down the principle that poetry is that poetry does, and that, when a man says “This poem is more pleasing than the other, but it is less correct,” he ought to say “The principle by which I have been judging correctness of poetic structure is an incorrect principle,” could be made a required part of the high-school course, we would be rid of much evil. The Greeks new better. Every Greek poet of the classic age whose reputation was so high that any considerable part of his work survives knew that the highest purpose of his art was to teach; he wrote from that standpoint and it did his work good. Lyric, tragic, comic, elegiac, they are all of them preaching. The result is that their works are recognized by the civilized world as the supreme model of poetic taste.
Now we see people — plenty of them — propounding a rule of taste which condemns the Greeks. So long as this rule is merely offered as a guide in the formation of taste, and the preservation of works is left to be determined by survival of the fittest, little harm is done; for the survival of the fittest has an admirable way of riding rough-shod over false rules. But, if such a rule is to determine what works shall be put into a material form capable of surviving, then rage is justified.
I have a strong suspicion, however, that Gordak’s selection was actually determined by the thought of what publishers in general might be supposed willing to print. I am the more confirmed in this suspicion when I find that in “Venus” he has left off the last two verses:
- The crown of all incarnate bliss!
- I saw, as she reclining lay,
- The lovesome lips red-ripe to kiss,
- Her laughing, lovelit eyes of gray,
- The graceful arms, the Grecian head,
- Her sculptured body white and sweet,
- The marble mounts where love hath fed,
- Her rounded calves and dimpled feet.
- And as I gazed upon this scene,
- I thought of all the million years
- That go to make the woman queen
- Of Love and of our smiles and tears;
- Of by what slow gradation came
- This madding beauty, till to-day
- Not to desire seems like shame,
- And not to love means life’s decay.
Gordak certainly did not cut this out because it was contrary to his taste as poetry, for it wasn’t. He may have cut it out for the sake of getting greater unity, to be sure. But it looks very possible that he may have cut it out for fear of offending a publisher, and that the more earnest of his other poems may have been omitted for a like reason. Now, if it be so, see how the whirligig of time brought in its revenges. The book is issued by a publisher who would have been glad to have it contain such matter as he is glad to publish in Liberty: and Gordak is dead, and cannot take advantage of any possible success to compile a second volume; and nobody now alive knows where to find the scattered poems that might belong in the second volume, unless Gordak has kept a set of them and left it in good hands. From this let men learn how foolish it is to aim at something less than the best, on the ground that the something less is more practicable.
Therefore, I end as I began, that Gordak was no judge of his own work. But his work was very good, and any collection of it is welcome.
STEVEN T. BYINGTON.