Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Richard Hovey-My Friend*


 

I first met Richard Hovey in the spring of 1887, in Cambridge, while I was doing some post-graduate work at Harvard, and he had been studying at the Newton Theological Seminary, after his graduation at Dartmouth. His handsome dark head and youthful figure made him noticeable then, though I think that as he matured he became even more distinguished in appearance. There was about him at all times an Indian silence that puzzled and often embarrassed strangers. I remember that I found him at first a little difficult. There was a good deal of that awkward sense of taciturnity we have with some people: the ice seemed very hard to break. And in the first two or three visits we paid each other, I believe I even tried to "make conversation." It was a dismal failure. Richard only looked grave, and helped me not one syllable. Then it occurred to me that I might meet him in his own quiet reserve. So I gave up trying to be agreeable, and we were brothers from that on.

Do not let me be misunderstood. It was no lack of graciousness on Hovey's part, much less any shadow of affectation, that made him silent. It was rather his great simplicity, which made it impossible for him to be other than himself, even for the first few minutes of a new acquaintanceship. Some men are silent all the time; others are voluble when you first meet them, and afterwards lapse into their own selfish moods; still others are reserved at first and grow communicative afterwards. I never could see that time or place made any difference to Richard Hovey in this respect. He was talkative or still, as the case demanded, capable of hours of companionable silence, and yet at need an able, interesting, luminous talker.

There were two traits chiefly that made his conversation a pleasure; his great mental equipment and his fair spirit. In talking with him one always felt (at least, I always felt) the superior reach and breadth of his mind. He impressed one as having thought seriously on any subject that might come up, and, indeed, this was nearly always the case. He has left no contemporary artist equally well equipped in scholarly attainments. He had the student's insatiable thirst for knowledge, the scholar's habit. And yet with all his fulness of reading he wore his knowledge lightly, and was the sworn enemy of the academic and the commonplace. You could always depend on him for an original point of view. Whatever subject might arise the chances were he would be ready with some definite, accurate, well-remembered knowledge about it, and would at once give you some illuminating thought to bring the mooted topic into the largest and truest relations. He would roll a cigarette, walk up and down, and talk in his wonderfully modulated voice, illustrating, convincing, definite, sure. At times he seemed dogmatic, and you might have guessed that he was wanting in plasticity; but this was only in questions of scientific fact where he was at home. For behind the monumental personality, there was the most sensitive and unegotistic person. I recall once his saying how utterly impossible and absurd it was for any man to be confident of his own thought in the face of the stupendous universe. He was too wise to be egocentric for an instant, though his brilliant, ponderable intelligence might make him seem so to lesser bodies about him. What one of his friends characterized as his "gentle grandeur," was perhaps his most distinguishing characteristic.

It was this gentle grandeur of character, coupled with great sweetness of nature and great idealism of spirit, that made him so indifferent to circumstance, so superior to fortune. Few men have ever devoted themselves to an aim more singly than he. He was well aware that poetry is a sufficiently strenuous calling to enlist the whole energy of any man, and to it he gave an almost undivided life. And when common demands and necessities pressed on him from this side and that, as such things will, he took them as a matter of course; it never occurred to him to make any compromise with Mammon. Reverses or successes he bore with an equal mind, never unduly elated and never dismayed.

In his methods of work Richard Hovey was spasmodic, like most artists. You would have called him extremely indolent in habit: he had the deliberate temper of the student; he may have hurried in his life, but I doubt it; he disliked physical exertion, and this apparent aversion was deceptive, for he certainly had not an idle mind; in thought, I fancy, he was always busy. His work was done in periods of immense pressure. If he were asked to write an ode for his college fraternity, he would come home to Washington a week before the poem had to be delivered, shut himself in, and work almost continuously until the task was finished. Only last summer he sailed for London to read a new play to an English actress. Only one act was completed when he left New York, but the drama was finished when the steamer reached Liverpool.

As a lecturer, Hovey's career was only beginning. For a year and half he had been one of the lecturers at Barnard College, giving two courses in Shakespeare and in nineteenth-century English. But his success was very marked. He had the utterly fearless originality of mind which characterizes the artist, and which is so foreign to the average academic. And yet he was free from wilfulness and vagary; all his opinions rested on the substantial knowledge of copious reading, great memory, and searching thought. I had the pleasure of hearing him give a series of half a dozen informal talks on Symbolism last winter in a private house in New York. I have never heard literary topics treated with such ease and mastery. For myself, I must say that one sentence of Richard's would do more to illumine a topic than a score of current magazine articles.

He wrote sparingly in prose, but he wrote from a full mind. Among the things he will never finish was a monumental work on English versification. One summer in camp in Nova Scotia, he worked a deal on this subject, and we talked of it together. Anyone who has looked into the matter will know how utterly unscientific and false most investigation in that line has been. Hovey's discoveries and elucidations, could they have been recorded, would have marked an epoch in poetical criticism.

Not in his own field of work only was he original: Richard Hovey had thought on many subjects. The single-tax theory, for instance, had no more firm adherent than he. And while he had all the uncompromising logic of a reformer, he had none of the bitterness of the zealot. He saw there are tremendous wrongs to be set right; he saw that it is our business to set our hand to the undertaking. But he saw also how slow progress is, and how sweet life is, and how good love is. I fancy that doubt of the ultimate benignity of nature never entered Richard Hovey's mind. Perhaps it was this that made him such a fortress for his friends-this and his gentle quietude of nature.

With all the work he has left to the world, he has left none to his friends. The public has lost a brilliant man of letters; but Richard Hovey's friends feel that he was much more than any of his accomplished works, that his was a personality that must have come to impress itself upon the world; and they cannot help wishing that their estimate and knowledge of him should somehow be perpetuated.

That is a idle wish. No one can represent an artist. Only his own beautiful work can speak for him. And when he leaves it unfinished, there is nothing more to say.


"Richard Hovey-My Friend," Criterion [back]